12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend

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12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend
12SSHJinsig.svg
Unit insignia of 12. SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend. The symbol was the result of a competition.
Active 1943–45
Country  Germany
Allegiance Adolf Hitler
Branch Flag Schutzstaffel.svg Waffen-SS
Type Panzer
Role Armoured warfare
Size Division
Part of I SS Panzer Corps
Commanders
Notable
commanders
Fritz Witt
Kurt Meyer
Hugo Kraas

The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend ("Hitler Youth") was a German Waffen-SS armoured division during World War II. The majority of its junior enlisted men were drawn from members of the Hitler Youth, while the senior NCOs and officers were from other Waffen-SS divisions.

The division committed several war crimes while en route to and during the early battles in Normandy, including Ascq and Ardenne Abbey massacres. It first saw action on 7 June 1944 as part of the German defense of Caen.

In December 1944, the division was committed against the US Army in the Ardennes offensive. After the offensive's failure, which became known as the Battle of the Bulge, the division was sent east to participate in the defence of Budapest. The 12th SS eventually withdrew into Austria; on 8 May 1945 the division surrendered to the 7th US Army near the town of Enns.

After the war's end, several prominent members of the division, including Kurt Meyer, were put on trial by the Allies and convicted for war crimes.

Formation and training[edit]

Panzergrenadiers on a Panzer IV during training 1943.

The idea of a Waffen-SS division composed of Hitlerjugend members was first proposed by SS-Gruppenführer Gottlob Berger to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in January 1943. The plan for a combat division made up of all Hitlerjugend members born in 1926 was passed on to Adolf Hitler for his approval. Hitler concurred, and on 13 February 1943, the official order for the creation of a Hitlerjugend division was issued.[1] SS-Oberführer Fritz Witt of 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) was appointed divisional commander.

Personnel from the 1st SS Panzer Division LSSAH provided the regimental, battalion and most of the company commanders for the division.[2] The SS could not provide all the officers required and 50 army officers were assigned.[3]

About 2000 personnel were transferred from the LSSAH and had an enormous influence on the character of the division. The following statement, taken from the surreptitious recording of POWs' conversations by the Allies, illustrates the type of officers that were commanding the new recruits. SS Untersturmfuhrer originally from LSSAH recounted the following from his time on the Eastern Front near the city of Orel in Russia:[4]

An MG 42 was set up in the main aisle of a church, [...] and the Russian men, women and children were taken into the church, without knowing at all what was happening. Then they were shot immediately with the MG 42 and petrol was poured on them and the whole place was set on fire.

In September 1943, Hitlerjugend had over 16,000 recruits on its roster, undergoing training in Beverloo Camp, Belgium. The indoctrination was often brutal. While in Allied captivity, an SS-man from the division recalled: "In the Waffen-SS you couldn't do anything if an Unterfuhrer hit you during the training. The purpose of the training is to make you just as they are; it's pure sadism." (The comments have also been taken from similar transcripts).[5]

Hitler Youth visit the 12th SS Panzer Division, 21 March 1944 in Belgium

In October 1943 the division received its designation as 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.[6] In March 1944 the 12th SS was attached to the I SS Panzer Corps and transferred to Caen in Normandy.[7] At the beginning of June, the division's tank strength was 66 Panther and 90+ Panzer IV tanks. It was also equipped with Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, three prototype Wirbelwind flakpanzer vehicles, along with a number of 20 mm, 37 mm and 88 mm flak guns, Hummel, Wespe and sIG 33 self-propelled guns and towed artillery.

Ascq massacre[edit]

Main article: Ascq massacre

The division committed its first massacre while en route to Normandy. The division executed 86 French men on 1 April 1944 in Ascq, France, in a reprisal against the civilian population after the railway they were traveling on was sabotaged. The commander of the convoy, SS-Obersturmführer Walter Hauck, ordered troops to search and arrest all male members of the houses on both sides of the track. Altogether 70 men were shot beside the railway line and another 16 killed in the village itself. In 1949, Hauck was put on trial in Lille, France and was sentenced to death. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He was freed in 1957 after a further sentence reduction.

Ardenne Abbey massacre[edit]

Further massacres was committed by the division on its second day of operations during Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of France. During the evening of 7 June, 11 Canadian prisoners of war, soldiers from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment), were shot in the back of the head.

Following a year of investigations from August 1944 to August 1945, the Canadian War Crimes Commission (CWCC) strove to discover the details of the murders. As commander of the regiment, Kurt Meyer was the prime suspect. At Meyer’s war crimes trial in December 1945, he was found guilty of inciting his troops to commit murder and of being responsible as a commander for the killings at the Abbey. He was sentenced to death on 28 December 1945; however, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1946. He was released in 1954.

Normandy campaign[edit]

An SS-Panzergrenadier in Normandy, 21 June 1944

On 6 June 1944, the 12th SS Panzer Division, along with the 21st Panzer Division, were the closest Panzer divisions to the landing beaches, but they were unable to move until they got authorization from Hitler. The 12th SS ordered to the front at 1430 hours on 6 June, over twelve hours after the first reports of the landings. Prior to this Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt had ordered over half of the division to deal with a parachute landing on the coast near Lisieux which were found to be dummies from Operation Titanic.[8]

The division's advance to the areas near the British/Canadian landing beaches of Sword and Juno Beaches proceeded slowly due to the Allied air attacks. The first units of the 12th SS finally reached their assembly area near Evrecy at 2200 hours on 6 June.

At 1000 hours on 7 June, Kurt Meyer's 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, along with 50 Panzer IV tanks of the 2nd Battalion of Max Wünsche's 12th SS Panzer Regiment, arrived and moved into position north west of Caen.[9] Supported by a battalion of artillery (3rd Battalion, 12th SS Panzer Regiment), this battle group was ordered to stop the advancing Canadian infantry and tanks and drive through to the coast, a few kilometres away.[10]

Meyer had three panzergrenadier battalions and two companies of tanks on each flank with artillery in support. While planning to start his attack at 1600 hours, Meyer's hand was forced at about 1400 hours by a battlegroup of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and tanks of the 27th Tank Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers) who were advancing to Carpiquet. Via a surprise attack, Meyer's unit captured Authie and Franqueville.[11]

British POWs captured by the Hitlerjugend, 21 June 1944 (possibly 46th Commando)
British POWs captured by the Hitlerjugend, 21 June 1944 (also possibly 46th Commando)

However, they failed to break through the Canadians around Buron, a kilometer to the north. Meyer, however, countermanded the divisional commander's order on his own initiative, feeling that objective unrealistic, and hoped to merely stop the flow of Canadian units inland until the situation could be stabilized.[12]

The attack by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was supposed to have been supported by the 21st Panzer Division but they could not disengage from fighting the British 3rd Infantry Division and were still at Couvre.[13] Casualties of the 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment amounted to about 300 men. 15 Tanks from the 12th SS Panzer Regiment were also destroyed.[14]

Late on 7 June, the 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment under command of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke arrived on the battlefield. Meyer's attack had pushed back one part of the Canadian advance but to the west of Meyer, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade had occupied a group of small villages three kilometres into the German line. The 26th Panzergrenadier Regiment crossed behind Meyer's regiment and took up positions to their west. The 1st Battalion launched an attack towards Norrey-en-Bessin, defended by the Regina Rifles of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 3rd Canadian Division. Their orders were to overrun the Canadians and force a deep wedge between them and the British division to the west. No reconnaissance of the Canadian positions was done and the infantry met intense defensive fire from firmly established positions.[15]

The attack, launched at 0330 hours, 8 June had little initial success. The various companies in the attacking Battalion failed to coordinate their moves towards the Canadians and, despite high casualties, Canadian artillery and supporting heavy machine guns of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa took a heavy toll on each attacking company of SS troops. The Regina Rifles held their ground and the 1st Battalion fell back. The division was criticized for performing inadequately in the opening days of the Normandy campaign.[10] and Canadian Brigadier Harry Foster later noted that:

No use was made of the fact that the Reginas' flanks were exposed; instead, 'the enemy flung himself straight against the strongest points and utterly failed to exploit the undoubted weakness of his opponent's position.[16]

On the Canadian right the 2nd Battalion attacked the Royal Winnipeg Rifles defending the village of Putot-en-Bessin at 0630 hours. The Battalion managed to break into the village and surround several companies, effectively pushing the Winnipeg Rifles out of the village by 1300 hours and inflicting 256 casualties – of which 175 were taken prisoner.[17] A counter-attack launched at 2030 hours by the Canadian Scottish, however, regained Putot-en-Bessin, and the II Battalion withdrew and dug-in south of the village.[18]

The Division ultimately failed to fulfill its orders to throw the attacking allies back into the sea. British troops had moved up on either side of the positions now firmly held by the troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and had also established a firm line from which they could develop future operations.

What followed were a series of local attacks by both sides. The 12th SS headquarters, positioned in Venoix some 2 kilometers southwest of Caen, came under naval gunfire on 14 June, killing the commander, Fritz Witt, and several other senior officers. Kurt Meyer was appointed the new commander of the division. The 12th SS was then deployed in detachments north and west of Caen. To the north of Caen, some of its Panzers supported units such as the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and to the west, a flak battery and 15 tanks, together with the 1st Battalion, 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, held the Carpiquet airfield.[18]

The 3rd Canadian Division ceased major combat operations until July, with only one day of major operations, on 11 June, at Le Mesnil-Patry. This saw the 12th SS inflict major casualties to the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and the 1st Hussars (6th Armoured Regiment) which lost 51 Sherman tanks during the attack.[19]

Also on 11 June the 46th Royal Marine Commando assaulted Rots. The official historian of Le Régiment de la Chaudière, described the scene the following day:[20]

They fought like lions on both sides, so that the dead lay corpse by corpse. We searched every house, every courtyard to avoid ambush. And here is the confirmation of how ferocious last night's battle must have been. The Commandos lie dead in rows beside the dead SS. Grenades are scattered all over the road and in the porches of houses. Here we see a Commando and an SS man, literally dead in each others arms, having slaughtered each other. There, a German and a Canadian tank have engaged each other to destruction, and are still smoldering, and from each blackened turret hangs the charred corpse of a machine gunner. Over here are a group who ran towards a wall for shelter and were shot down before they got there. And then near the church, as the advance guard of C Company and the carriers turn the corner, there are three Germans. Only three. But one of them instantly draws his pistol and hits one of our men. A Bren gunner kills two of the three SS men, but the survivor gets away. Now we understand with what kind of fanatic we have to deal.

The following two weeks until the end of the month, was a period of relative quiet, as both sides were exhausted. What did not stop was the constant Allied artillery, naval bombardment and air attacks.[20] Major operations for both sides began again in July, including Operation Windsor and Operation Charnwood.

Dead German SS soldier; Normandy 19 June 1944
A Panzer IV of the 12th SS Panzer Division, 21 June 1944 at Rouen

The division was driven from its positions in Buron and nearby villages of Gruchy and Cussy, and the divisional command post in the Ardenne Abbey, which had been occupied since before D-Day, was also lost.[21]

For the next four days, the 12th SS held out against attacks by the British I Corps. Finally 2,600 tons of bombs were dropped on Caen by the Royal Air Force. The bombing destroyed much of the city and caused problems for the German supply line. The British were able to penetrate into the city, forcing the Germans to prepare to withdraw from Caen. On 8 July, Meyer ordered the evacuation of the city and the remnants of the Division withdrew to the south of Caen.[18]

Operation Jupiter began on 10 July, while some elements of the 12th SS still held part of the line between Eterville and the Orne River. The following day, the division was sent to Potigny, some 30 kilometers north of Falaise, for a rest and refit. On 19 July, however, it was again under attack by Anglo-Canadian forces Operation Goodwood. Following this the division was pulled out of the line and used to form the mobile reserve for I SS Panzer Corps. Goodwood was followed by Operation Cobra on 25 July, during which the German line finally broke, leading to the breakout of the Americans to the west.[18]

August 1944[edit]

On 8 August the Canadian First Army launched Operation Totalize, a night attack without a preliminary artillery barrage. The point of the attack was directed at the 12th SS. The attack started well and once they reached their objectives, the infantry started to clear out the defenders. The 12th SS Panzerjager Battalion held up the Canadians after an advance of five kilometres, with two member of the Battalion being awarded the Knight's Cross: SS-Oberscharführer Rudolf Roy and his gunner Fritz Eckstein. Over the next two days, the 12th SS was reduced to little more than a large Kampfgruppe.[18]

9 August 1944 A captured Panzergrenadier of the Hitlerjugend, with Canadian escorts.

The Allies launched Operation Tractable aimed at breaking through the German lines. The Division, now reduced to 15 tanks, was called upon to defend Hill 159 northwest of Falaise between 14 and 16 August. The 12th SS were forced to withdraw when the 2nd Canadian Division broke through on their western flank. The 12th SS was then ordered to help hold open the northern side of the Falaise gap, so what was left of the German 7th Army could escape. When the withdrawal had been completed, the Division crossed the Dives River. After crossing the Dives Army Group B reported on 22 August that the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend now consisted of only 10 tanks and no artillery.[18]

During their retreat from France, members of the LSSAH and Hitlerjugend division murdered 34 French civilians in the towns of Tavaux and Plomion.[22]

The units in the Division that were not fit for combat were ordered to pull back to Germany on 8 September, leaving behind a small Kampfgruppe attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. It was formed around the 2nd Battalion, 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment with a mixed artillery battalion.[23]

The Division losses during the fighting in Normandy, in the three months from June to September, included 55 officers, 229 NCOs and 1,548 troops killed. A further 128 officers, 613 NCOs and 3,684 had been wounded with 58 officers, 182 NCOs and 2,012 reported missing. This was a combined total of 241 officers, 1,024 NCOs and 7,244 men.[24]

In all, the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend suffered a total of 8,569 casualties out of a strength of 20,540 men; a casualty rate of 42%. It had also lost 94% of its armour and almost all of its artillery.

Withdrawal – Ardennes Offensive[edit]

The Hitlerjugend was given a short period of rest, but received no reinforcements or equipment. The division was soon returned to the front and took part in the fighting withdrawal to the Franco-Belgian border. On 6 September, Kurt Meyer was captured by Belgian partisans. SS-Obersturmbannführer Hubert Meyer was placed in command of the division.[25]

In November 1944, the division was sent to Nienburg in Germany, where it was to be reformed. The majority of reinforcements were transferred from Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel. Hubert Meyer was replaced by SS-Obersturmbannführer Hugo Kraas, and the division was attached to SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army, which was forming up for Operation Wacht am Rhein (the Second Battle of the Ardennes, popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge), a large-scale offensive to recapture Antwerp and halt the Allied advance.

The operation opened on 16 December 1944, with Kampfgruppe Peiper from the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler breaking through the American lines with some difficulty. After the 12th SS reached the front, it was met with heavy resistance from American troops stationed on the Elsenborn Ridge. Despite repeated efforts, the division could not budge the American defenders. As a result, the division was ordered to swing left and follow the advance line of the remainder of the 1st SS Panzer Division. American troops prevented the division from reaching its objective, and after the destruction of Kampfgruppe Peiper from the LSSAH, the advance of Dietrich's forces were altogether stopped. On 8 January Hitler gave the authorization to withdraw. The attack was ultimately a failure. The 12th SS had been severely mauled, with only 26 tanks and assault guns and an average of 120 men remaining in each battalion.[26] In total during the offensive the division had lost 9,870 men which included 328 officers and 1,698 NCO's.[27] By 28 January 1945, the 12th SS, along with all the German forces, had been pushed back to its starting positions.

Hungary – Austria[edit]

On 14 January 1945, Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army was ordered east to Hungary where it was to take part in an offensive to recapture the Hungarian oilfields and open the way to Budapest,[27] where 45,000 men of the IX SS Mountain Corps had been encircled. While the division was in transit, the IV SS Panzer Corps launched several unsuccessful relief operations. The 12th SS, alongside the LSSAH as a part of I SS Panzer Corps arrived in Hungary in early February 1945, a few days before the city fell. The division next took part in Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening), the operation to retake the Hungarian oilfields. The attack got underway on 6 March 1945; after initial local successes, the offensive was aborted after a Soviet counterattack threatened to encircle the German forces.

In mid-March, a Soviet attack near Stuhlweissenberg split Army Group Balck in half and resulted in a general withdrawal towards Vienna. The 12th SS fell back from Vienna on 13 April. Withdrawing through Odenburg and Hirtenberg, the division reached Linz, Austria near the American lines. On 8 May 1945, 10,000 personnel of the division surrendered near the town of Enns to the troops of the 65th Infantry Division commanded by Major General Stanley Eric Reinhart.

Order of Battle June 1944[edit]

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ Meyer, Hubert (2005). The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division. Stackpole Books. p. 2. 
  2. ^ Reynolds, Michael (2008). Steel Inferno. Spellmount Publishing. pp. 10–11. 
  3. ^ Meyer, Hubert (2005). The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division. Stackpole Books. p. 15. 
  4. ^ Neitzel & Welzer 2012, p. 309.
  5. ^ Neitzel & Welzer 2012, p. 313.
  6. ^ Meyer, Hubert (2005). The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division. Stackpole Books. p. 6. 
  7. ^ Reynolds, Michael (2008). Steel Inferno. Spellmount Publishing. p. 16. 
  8. ^ Barbier, p.113
  9. ^ Meyer, Kurt (2001). Grenadiers. JJ Fedorowicz Publishing LTD. p. 225. 
  10. ^ a b Stacey, op. cit., p. 137 and Haller, Oliver: "The Defeat of the 12th SS 7–10 June 1944", in Canadian Military History Quarterly, Volume 3, Issue 1 Available online. Accessed 6 April 2009. Archived 30 April 2009.
  11. ^ Meyer, Kurt (2001). Grenadiers. JJ Fedorowicz Publishing LTD. p. 226. 
  12. ^ Stacey, ibid. Stacey notes that Meyer's own notes were not explicit on this point.
  13. ^ Haller, The defeat of the 12th SS from 7–10 June 1944 (From: Canadian Military History, Spring 1996)
  14. ^ Copp, Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy, p67
  15. ^ Stacey, C.P. The Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War Volume 3: The Victory Campaign
  16. ^ Stacey, C. P. (1959). Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War Volume III. Queen's Printer. p. 279. 
  17. ^ Zuehlke, Mark (2005). Holding Juno. [Douglas&McIntyre]. ISBN 1-55365-102-2. 
  18. ^ a b c d e f Latimer, Jon (2001). "World War II: 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division Fought in Normandy". World War II (July). Retrieved 16 February 2009. 
  19. ^ Martin, Charles Cromwell Battle Diary See also Stacey, op. cit.
  20. ^ a b Battle of Caen: The Stalingrad of the Hitler Youth by Gerhard Rempel
  21. ^ Stacey, Charles Perry (1960). Vol. III - The Victory Campaign (PDF). Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War. Ottawa: The Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery. p. 161. 
  22. ^ Beevor, Antony (2010). D-Day: The Battle for Normandy. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-311818-3.
  23. ^ Meyer, Hubert (2005). The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division Volume 2. Stackpole Books. p. 171. 
  24. ^ Meyer, Hubert (2005). The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division Volume 2. Stackpole Books. p. 173. 
  25. ^ Meyer, Kurt (2001). Grenadiers. JJ Fedorowicz Publishing LTD. p. 237. 
  26. ^ Mitchum, Samuel (2006). Panzers in Winter; Hitlers Army and the Battle of the Bulge. Greenwood Publishing group. p. 158. 
  27. ^ a b Mitchum, Samuel (2006). Panzers in Winter; Hitler's Army and the Battle of the Bulge. Greenwood Publishing group. p. 160. 
  28. ^ "pegasus.archive". 

References[edit]

  • Barbier, Mary (2007). D-day Deception: Operation Fortitude and the Normandy Invasion. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 0-275-99479-1. 
  • Meyer Kurt, Grenadiers, JJ Fedorowicz Publishing ltd, 2001, ISBN 0-921991-59-2
  • Meyer Hubert, The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division, Stackpole Books, 2005, ISBN 0-8117-3198-7
  • Meyer Hubert, The 12th SS Volume Two: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division, Stackpole Books, 2005, ISBN 0-8117-3199-5
  • Mitcham Samuel W, Panzers in Winter: Hitler's Army and the Battle of the Bulge, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006, ISBN 0-275-97115-5
  • Neitzel, Sönke; Welzer, Harald (2012). Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-84983-949-5. 
  • Reynolds Michael, Steel Inferno, Spellmount Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-1-86227-410-5