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26 February 1894|
|Died||19 April 1979
|Allegiance|| German Empire
|Years of service||1914–45|
|Rank||Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS|
|Battles/wars||World War I
World War II
|Awards||Ritterkreuz des Eisernes Kreuz mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern|
Wilhelm Bittrich (26 February 1894 – 19 April 1979) was an SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General during World War II. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (German: Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern).[a] The Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves and Swords was awarded to recognise extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership.
Born in Wernigerode in the Harz mountains of Germany, Bittrich served as an army officer and fighter pilot during World War I and was also a member of the Freikorps. He joined the SS-Verfügungstruppe in 1934 and the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler in 1939. He was in command of the Deutschland Regiment during the fighting in Poland (1939) and France (1940).
Later he assumed command over the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and the II. SS-Panzerkorps (Hohenstaufen & Frundsberg Divisions). He is perhaps now best remembered for his contribution to the defeat of the failed allied airborne offensive Operation Market Garden which took place in the Netherlands in September 1944. Bittrich also commanded a corps in the German defense against the Vienna Offensive from 2 April to 13 April 1945. However, he also led the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer, involved in war crimes in the USSR (August 1942 - 15 February 1943).
Bittrich was a source for Cornelius Ryan in researching A Bridge Too Far. During the interview he is reported to have been most concerned with correcting inaccurate reports that he was a skilled concert pianist. He claimed these reports stemmed from confusion with his brother.
After his arrest on 8 May 1945 he was extradited to France on charges of having ordered the execution of 17 members of the Resistance in Nîmes. The trial revealed that Bittrich had not given such an order and had even opened procedures against the responsible officers. As the commander in charge of the culprits, he was held responsible for the misconduct of his subordinate troops and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was considered as served after a long pretrial detention. He was put on trial for a second time in 1953 and sentenced to five years in prison for countenancing hangings, pillage and arson, but was acquitted by the French court in Bordeaux again and released in 1954.
Opposition of the Nazi Party
General Bittrich was among a circle of young Reichswehr officers who appreciated the SS's military doctrine and took the opportunity to form the new service. He always described himself as convinced of large parts of the Nazi ideology, but felt disdain for his "incompetent" leaders and thought the regime's crimes would violate an officer's sense of honour.
According to German historian Heinz Höhne, Bittrich vowed to support a plot against the Nazi regime on 15 July 1944 when he met Erwin Rommel and promised that he and his troops were at Rommel's disposal if the Field Marshal so requested, but like many he warned that Hitler had to be removed from power first. This condition was never met. Bittrich is also reported to have been the most sarcastic man in Germany. He was allegedly marked for death by Heinrich Himmler in 1945 as a result of the extremely unflattering comments he made about the Nazi leadership. In any case it is known that his superiors tried to replace him by force several times; during Operation Market Garden in 1944, Himmler had sent "Reichsarzt-SS" Karl Gebhardt to relieve Bittrich from his command and bring him back to Berlin.
Following operation Market-Garden in 1944, Albert Speer visited the frontlines and had an opportunity to meet General Bittrich. Speer later wrote:
Other visits (to the front) showed me that efforts were being made on the Western Front to arrange agreements with the enemy upon special problems. At Arnhem, I found General Bittrich of the Waffen-SS in a state of fury. The day before, his Second Tank Corps had virtually wiped out a British airborne division. During the fighting the general had made an arrangement permitting the enemy to run a field hospital behind the German lines. But party functionaries had taken it upon themselves to kill captured British and American pilots, and Bittrich looked like a liar. His violent denunciation of the party was all the more striking since it came from an SS general.
After his unit had been tasked with the defense of Vienna in spring 1945, Bittrich immediately pulled his troops out of the city to save it from destruction despite the order to hold Vienna "to the last breath".
Summary of his SS career
- SS-Anwärter: 1 July 1932
- SS-Mann: 15 July 1932
- SS-Oberscharführer: 10 September 1932
- SS-Sturmführer: 31 October 1932
- SS-Obersturmführer: 12 April 1934
- SS-Hauptsturmführer: 17 June 1934
- SS-Sturmbannführer: 1 October 1936
- SS-Obersturmbannführer: 30 January 1938
- SS-Standartenführer: 6 June 1939
- SS-Oberführer: 1 September 1940
- SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS: 19 October 1941
- SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS: 1 May 1943
- SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS: 1 August 1944
- Iron Cross of 1914, Second and First Class
- Luftstreitkräfte World War I Pilot Badge (Preußisches Militär-Flugzeugführer-Abzeichen)
- Wound Badge (1918) in Black
- Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918 (1934)
- SS-Honour Ring
- Clasp to the Iron Cross (1939)
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
- Knight's Cross on 14 December 1941 as SS-Oberführer and commander of SS-Infanterie-Regiment "Deutschland"
- 563rd Oak Leaves on 28 August 1944 as SS-Obergruppenführer and General of the Waffen-SS, and commanding general of the II. SS-Panzerkorps
- 153rd Swords on 6 May 1945 as SS-Obergruppenführer and General of the Waffen-SS, and commanding general of the II. SS-Panzerkorps[a]
- German Cross in Gold on 6 March 1943 as SS-Brigadeführer and Generalmajor of the Reserves in the 8. SS-Kavallerie-Division "Florian Geyer"
- Mentioning by name in the Wehrmachtbericht on 27 September 1944
- a No evidence of the award can be found in the German National Archives. The award was unlawfully presented by SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich. The date is taken from the announcement made by the 6. SS-Panzerarmee. The sequential number "153" was assigned by the Association of Knight's Cross Recipients (AKCR). Bittrich was member of the AKCR.
- Axis History Forum • View topic - SS-General Willhelm Bittrich - Awards
- 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer
- New York Times, June 24, 1953:6:6
- Speer 1970, p. 399.
- Thomas 1997, p. 47.
- Scherzer 2007, p. 224.
- Fellgiebel 2000, p. 134.
- Fellgiebel 2000, p. 87.
- Fellgiebel 2000, p. 48.
- Patzwall & Scherzer 2001, p. 44.
- Scherzer 2007, p. 121.
- Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt der Bundeswehr (Hrsg.): Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg. 10 Bände. Stuttgart 1991-2005.
- Berger, Florian (1999). Mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern. Die höchstdekorierten Soldaten des Zweiten Weltkrieges [With Oak Leaves and Swords. The Highest Decorated Soldiers of the Second World War] (in German). Vienna, Austria: Selbstverlag Florian Berger. ISBN 978-3-9501307-0-6.
- Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches] (in German). Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6.
- Hohne, Heinz (1966): The Order of the Death's Head. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-139012-3
- Kershaw, Robert J. (1994): It never snows in September. Ian Allen Ltd. ISBN 0-7818-0287-3.
- Krätschmer, Ernst-Günther (1999). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Waffen-SS [The Knight's Cross Bearers of the Waffen-SS]. Coburg, Germany: Nation Europa Verlag. ISBN 978-3-920677-43-9.
- Mühleisen, Horst (2000). Wilhelm Bittrich. Paderborn: Ronald Smelser / Enrico Syring (Hrsg.): Die SS, Elite unter dem Totenkopf. ISBN 3-506-78562-1
- Patzwall, Klaus D.; Scherzer, Veit (2001). Das Deutsche Kreuz 1941 – 1945 Geschichte und Inhaber Band II [The German Cross 1941 – 1945 History and Recipients Volume 2] (in German). Norderstedt, Germany: Verlag Klaus D. Patzwall. ISBN 978-3-931533-45-8.
- Ryan, Cornelius (1974): A Bridge too Far. Coronet Books/Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-19941-5.
- Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives [The Knight's Cross Bearers 1939–1945 The Holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939 by Army, Air Force, Navy, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and Allied Forces with Germany According to the Documents of the Federal Archives] (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2.
- Speer, Albert (1970): Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Macmillan. Library of Congress #70-119132
- Thomas, Franz (1997). Die Eichenlaubträger 1939–1945 Band 1: A–K [The Oak Leaves Bearers 1939–1945 Volume 1: A–K] (in German). Osnabrück, Germany: Biblio-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7648-2299-6.
SS-Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser
|Commander of 2. SS-Panzer Division Das Reich
15 October 1941 – 31 December 1941
SS-Obergruppenführer Matthias Kleinheisterkamp
SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein
|Commander of 8. SS-Kavallerie-Division Florian Geyer
August 1942 – 15 February 1943
SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Freitag
|Commander of 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen
15 February 1943 – 29 June 1944
SS-Standartenführer Thomas Müller
SS-Oberstgruppenführer Paul Hausser
|Commander of II. SS-Panzer Corps
29 June 1944 – 8 May 1945
dissolved on 8 May 1945