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12th Nazi SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
The 12th Nazi SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend ("Hitler Youth") was a German Waffen Nazi SS armoured division during World War II. Described as a "crack" division, the Hitlerjugend was unique because the majority of its junior enlisted men were drawn from members of the Hitler Youth born in 1926, while the senior NCOs and officers were generally veterans of the Eastern Front.
The division, with 20,540 personnel, first saw action on June 7, 1944 as part of the German defense of the Caen area during the Normandy campaign. The battle for Normandy took its toll on the division and it came out of the Falaise pocket with a divisional strength of 12,500 men. The division has been criticized for performing inadequately in the opening days of the Normandy campaign. Following the invasion battles, the division was sent to Germany for refitting. On 16 December 1944, the division was committed against the US Army in the Battle of the Bulge. After the failure of the Ardennes offensive the division was sent east to fight the Red Army near Budapest. The 12th Nazi SS Division eventually withdrew into Austria; on 8 May 1945, the surviving 10,000 men surrendered to the US Army at Enns.
The reputation of the division has been affected by war crimes committed by members of the division during the early battles in Normandy.
Formation and training
The idea of a Waffen-SS division composed of Hitlerjugend (HJ) members was first proposed by Gruppenführer Gottlob Berger in January 1943. Berger approached Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler with the proposition, and Himmler soon became an enthusiastic advocate. 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 was also enthusiastic about the idea, and on 13 February 1943, the official order for the creation of an Hitlerjugend division was issued.
A competition was held to design insignia for the new unit. The winning design, picked from thousands of entries, depicted the Hitlerjugend sigrune crossing a key from the 1st Nazi SS Panzer Division LSSAH's insignia.
By 1 September 1943, over 16,000 recruits had completed their six-week basic training and were listed on the rosters of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Hitlerjugend. As training continued in Beverloo, Belgium, the division was notified that it was to be formed as a panzer rather than a panzergrenadier unit, and the division was redesignated SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. Many of the recruits were so young that they were supplied with sweets and candies instead of the standard tobacco and alcohol ration. In late October 1943 the division received its final designation, 12th Nazi SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
While the Hitlerjugend members, who had grown up under NSDAP propaganda, were committed to the Nazi cause, they lacked any military aptitude. To provide a skilled backbone for the division, veterans from the 1st Nazi SS Panzer Division LSSAH were assigned to the Hitlerjugend division and provided all the regimental, battalion and most of the company commanders. However the Nazi SS could not provide all the officers required and 50 Army officers were assigned. They served in their army uniforms but were completely part of the division. Training for the division was unusual. Witt, realizing that the division had to be made ready for combat as quickly as possible, ignored many rules and regulations and instead focused on realistic combat scenarios and live-fire exercises. A result of this was that the morale of the HJ was exceptionally high, and the relationship between the officers, NCOs and men was an informal one, based on mutual trust and respect.
In March 1944 the 12th Nazi SS was deemed ready for active service and was ordered to move to Caen in Normandy and became part of the 1st Nazi SS Panzer Corps. Throughout the spring of 1944 the division continued training exercises in the peaceful area around Caen, familiarizing itself with the terrain. This was to prove invaluable in the months to come. On 27 May, Witt celebrated his 36th birthday and his recent promotion to Brigadeführer. The peaceful 'holiday atmosphere', as one grenadier described it, was soon to be shattered.
At the beginning of June 1944 the division was declared ready for combat operations. The Division's tank strength at this time was 81 Panther and 104 Panzer IV tanks. The division 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 regular towed artillery pieces.
Its tank destroyer unit, Nazi SS Panzerjäger Battalion 12, however, was not considered ready for action and was understrength in Jagdpanzer IV.
On 6 June 1944, the Western Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. The 12th Nazi SS Division, along with the 21.Panzer-Division, was the closest Panzer divisions to the landing beaches, but they were unable to move until they got authorization from Hitler. The 12th Nazi SS was not ordered to the front until 1430 hours on 6 June, sixteen hours after the first reports of the landings. Kurt Meyer's Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25 and Max Wünsche's Nazi SS-Panzer-Regiment 12 were the lead elements of the Division as it started for Normandy from their base to the west of Paris and South of Rouen.
The Division's advance to Normandy and the landing beaches of Sword and Juno was severely hampered by the incessant allied fighter-bomber attacks, the losses to Allied aircraft were not heavy, but the delays caused by wrecked vehicles were enough to destroy the Division's timetable. The first units of the 12th Nazi SS finally reached their assembly area near Evrecy at 2200 hours on 6 June.
On 7 June, Kurt Meyer's Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25, along with the II. Battalion of Max Wünsche's Nazi SS Panzer Regiment 12, supported by artillery, were ordered to crush the advancing Canadian infantry and tanks and drive through to the coast, still only a few miles away. In Meyer's words they were to "throw the fish into the sea". Meyer had three Panzergrenadier battalions and two companies of tanks on each flank with artillery in support. Watching the Canadian advance unfold from the tower of the Ardenne Abbey, he saw an opportunity opening in front of him. At 1000 hours 7 June, the 50 Panzer IV tanks of the II Battalion, Nazi SS Panzer Regiment 12, arrived and moved into position. The Canadians continued to file across the German front. Once the lead Canadian tanks reached the ridge south of Franqueville, they spotted one of the panzer companies waiting in ambush (they had allowed the tanks to move forward without firing a shot). Meyer reported that "The battalion maintained excellent fire discipline" and the advancing tanks moving across the front were then hit in their unprotected flank by the tanks of Nazi SS Panzer Regiment 12. The attack by the 12th Nazi SS had caught the Canadians unawares, and their infantry were forced to fall back to Authie with Meyer's III. Battalion in pursuit. They captured Authie and Franqueville in their initial attack and the next objective was Buron, a kilometer to the north.
The attack by the 12th Nazi SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was supposed to have been supported by the 21 Panzer Division but they could not disengage from fighting the British 3rd Infantry Division and were still at Couvre, as a result the right flank was open and being probed by Canadian tanks, which were destroyed by the anti-tank platoon of the I. Battalion. During these attacks the 12th Nazi SS had captured about 150 prisoners from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and crews from the 27th Tank Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers).
On 8 June, Nazi SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26 under command of Nazi SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke arrived on the battlefield. Meyer's attack had pushed back one part of the Canadian advance but another brigade had occupied a group of small villages two miles into the German line. They crossed behind Meyer's regiment and the 26th took up positions to their west. After planning and positioning the regiment for a powerful thrust the I. Battalion launched an attack towards Norrey-en-Bessin, defended by the Regina Rifles of the 3rd Canadian Division. Their orders were to drive over the Canadians and force a deep wedge between them and the British division to the west. Again, no reconnaissance of the Canadian positions was done and the infantry met a maelstrom of defensive fire from firmly established defensive positions.
The attack, launched at 0330 hours - had little initial success. The various companies in the attacking 12th Nazi SS failed to co-ordinate their moves towards the Canadians and, despite heavy casualties during repeated attempts by the infantry, Canadian artillery and supporting heavy machine guns of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa took a heavy toll on each attacking company of Nazi SS troops. The Regina Rifles held their ground and the I. Battalion fell back. The division was criticized for performing inadequately in the opening days of the Normandy campaign. 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.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Mel Gordon the 27th Tank Regiment had lost 28 Sherman tanks and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders 245 men.
Although the attacks destroyed many Canadian tanks and overran a company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders in Authie, they failed to break through the advancing Canadians. 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 stabilize.
Meyer set up his command post in the Abbey Ardennes, whose towers provided an excellent view of the countryside. In the early evening of 7 June, as he planned the regiment's next moves. Meyer's regiment was deployed near the villages of Authie and Buron, in positions covering the vital Carpiquet Aerodrome.
The same evening, Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26 under command of Wilhelm Mohnke arrived and moved into Putot, but was thrown out after a fierce counterattack by the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade. With neither side able to secure complete victory the lines on either side were becoming fixed and turning the battle into one of attrition to capture the surrounding villages. A company of Panther tanks arrived on 8 June, and Meyer personally led a night attack toward the village of Rots, which they reached at midnight. After several hours of fighting, however, the 12th Nazi SS were forced to withdraw, leaving behind six tanks. The Canadians noted that, despite advancing with courage and determination, the young Germans seemed to lack tactical control and had a habit of attacking piecemeal and failed to exploit favorable opportunities.
On the Canadian right the II. Battalion attacked the Royal Winnipeg Rifles defending the village of Putot-en-Bessin. The Battalion managed to break into the village and surround several companies, effectively pushing the Winnipeg Rifles out of the village, inflicting 256 casualties - of which 175 were taken prisoner. 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.
Despite the ferocity of the 12th Nazi SS counterattacks, the Division failed to fulfill its orders to throw the attacking allies back into the sea. British troops had moved up to 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. Neither was able to secure any strategic advantage, and the German defensive perimeter around Caen tightened. Casualties on both sides steadily mounted. The 12th Nazi SS headquarters, positioned some 27 kilometers southwest of Caen, came under naval gunfire on 16 June, killing the commander, Fritz Witt, and several other senior officers. The High Command appointed Kurt Meyer as the new commander of the division. (some sources believe he was the youngest divisional commander on any side during the war). The 12th Nazi SS was now deployed in detachments north and west of Caen, and like the rest of the German army, was suffering from shortages of ammunition, fuel and equipment. To the north of Caen, some of its panzer's supported unreliable units such as the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and to the west, a flak battery and 15 tanks, together with the I. Battalion, Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26, held the important Carpiquet airfield.
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 Nazi 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.
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:
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 artillery, naval bombardment and Allied air attacks.
Major operations for both sides began again in July. Losses were suffered when the 12th successfully defended the Carpiquet airfield (which the Canadians called Operation Windsor) though the village itself fell as only fifty men were available to defend it from an attack by an entire Canadian battalion.
More attacks during Operation Charnwood fell upon the Division the following week. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting took place in various locations, notably at Buron with the Highland Light Infantry of Canada on 8 July where the Highland Light Infantry lost 262 men in a single day of combat with the Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25.
For the next four days, the 12th Nazi SS held out against repeated attacks by the British I Corps. Finally 2,600 tons of bombs were dropped on the city by the Royal Air Force. The bombing destroyed the city and caused further problems for the Germans supply line. Meyer, unwilling to retire, continued his bitter defense. On 8 July, after all hope of holding the city was lost, Meyer ignoring his orders ordered the evacuation of the city and the remnants of the Division withdrew to the south of Caen.
Operation Jupiter began on 10 July, while some elements of the 12th Nazi SS still held part of the line between Eterville and the Orne River. Although they held the line for a time, the defenders were eventually overcome by sheer numbers. A young grenadier noted in his diary what it was like to face the British.
The following day, the division was pulled out of the line and sent to Potigny, some 30 kilometers north of Falaise, for a rest and refit.
The division was to have little respite though, and on 19 July were under attack in the Anglo-Canadian Operation Goodwood. Following this the division was pulled out of the line and used to form the mobile reserve for I.SS-Panzerkorps. Goodwood was followed by Operation Cobra on 25 July, which also coincided with the breakout of the Americans to the west.
Their final battle in July was defending against the British 2nd Army's attack Operation Bluecoat.
On 8 August the Canadian First Army launched Operation Totalize, a night attack without a preliminary artillery barrage, the point of the attack was again directed at the 12th Nazi SS. The attack started well and once they reached their objectives, the infantry started to clear out the defenders. The Nazi SS Panzerjager Battalion 12, held up the Canadians after an advance of three miles, with two member of the Battalion being awarded the Knight's Cross, Oberscharführer Rudolf Roy and his gunner Fritz Eckstein who had knocked out eight tanks on the 8 August. The next day they knocked out a further 13 tanks and within 5 days had knocked out a total of 26 tanks. Over the next two days, this action and continued series of counterattacks reduced the 12th Nazi SS to little more than a large Kampfgruppe.
The Allies next tried to bomb their way through, but the 12th Nazi SS had captured a copy of the plan on 13 August, and Meyer had pulled what remained of the Division back.
The Division now reduced to 15 tanks were called upon to defend Hill 159 northwest of Falaise between 14 and 16 August. Under almost continuous artillery and air attack, the 12th Nazi SS were forced to withdraw when the 2nd Canadian Division broke through on their western flank.
With only one avenue of escape left open, what was left of the 12th Nazi SS were ordered to help hold open the northern side of the Falaise gap, so what was left of the German VII Army could escape. When the withdrawal had been completed, Meyer ordered a Frenchman to guide the Division across the Dives River.
After crossing the Dives Army Group B reported on the 22 August that the 12th Nazi SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend now consisted of only 10 tanks and no artillery. The battles in Normandy and lack of any reinforcements had effectively destroyed the Division.
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 Nazi SS Panzer Division Das Reich. It was formed around the II. Battalion, Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26 with a mixed artillery battalion.
The Division losses during the fighting in Normandy were severe, in the three months from June to September, 55 officers, 229 NCO's and 1,548 had been killed. A further 128 officers, 613 NCO's and 3,684 had been wounded with 58 officers, 182 NCO's and 2,012 reported missing. A combined total of 241 officers, 1,024 NCO's and 7,244 men.
This amounts to 8,569 members of the Division from a strength of 20,540.
Withdrawal - Wacht Am Rhein
12th Nazi SS Panzer Hitlerjugend was given a brief respite, but received virtually no reinforcements or equipment. The division was soon thrown back into battle and took part in the fighting withdrawal to the Franco-Belgian border. On 6 September, Kurt Meyer was captured by Belgian partisans. Meyer had removed his Nazi SS uniform and was wearing the uniform of a regular German army officer. In the confusion of the withdrawal, the division was unable to undertake a rescue attempt. Obersturmbannführer, Hubert Meyer was placed in command of the division.
In November 1944, the division was pulled out of the line and sent to Nienburg in Germany, where it was to be reformed. The majority of the much-needed reinforcements were transferred Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel, and the reformed division would never match the elite status it had boasted in the spring of 1944. Late in the month, Hubert Meyer was replaced by Obersturmbannführer Hugo Kraas, and the division was attached to Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich's 6.SS-Panzer-Armee, 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, Kampfgruppe Peiper from the Leibstandarte Nazi SS Adolf Hitler led the assault, breaking through the Allied lines. The 12th Nazi SS, which was to follow the Kampfgruppe and exploit the breakthrough, became bogged down in traffic jams caused by the 12.Volksgrenadier-Division. When the division reached the front, it was met with heavy resistance from American troops stationed on the Elsenborn Ridge. Despite several intense 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 Leibstandarte Nazi SS Adolf Hitler. American defenders prevented the division from reaching its objective, and after the destruction of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the advance of Dietrich's army altogether. Near the end of the year, the 12th Nazi SS was shifted south to take part in the efforts to capture Bastogne, and saw heavy fighting around the city. On the 8 January Hitler admitted defeat and gave authorization to withdraw, the 12th Nazi SS were in a bad condition with a strength of 26 tanks and assault guns and a average of 120 men in each Panzergrenadier battalion. In total during the offensive the division had lost 9,870 men which included 328 officers and 1,698 NCO's By 18 January 1945, the 12th Nazi SS, along with all the German forces, had been pushed back to its starting positions
Hungary - Austria
On 14 January 1945, Dietrich's 6th Nazi 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, where 45,000 men of the IX.SS-Gebirgskorps had been encircled.
While the division was in transit, the IV Nazi SS Panzer Corps launched several ill-fated relief operations. The 12th Nazi SS, alongside the LSSAH as a part of I Nazi SS Panzer Corps arrived in Hungary in early February 1945, only a few days before the city fell. The division was thrown into action against the Gran Bridgehead, a strong position formed by the Soviets over the Danube near the town of Gran. The 12th Nazi SS and the LSSAH both fought well, and by the end of February the bridghead had been destroyed.
The division was next to take part in Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening), the operation to retake the Hungarian oilfields. Adolf Hitler, desperate to keep the operation a secret, had ordered that no reconnaissance of the battlefield was allowed before the attack began. The attack got underway on 6 March 1945, in atrocious conditions. The spring thaw meant that the German attack was confined to a few narrow roads and, after initial successes, the offensive was aborted after a Soviet counterattack threatened to encircle the German forces. After the failure of "Frühlingserwachen", Hitler lost faith in the Waffen-SS and ordered that the honorary cuffbands issued to the divisions involved in the attack be returned. Outraged at the order, Dietrich refused to pass it on to his men.
In mid-March, a heavy Soviet counterattack near Stuhlweissenberg split Armeegruppe Balck in half and resulted in a general withdrawal towards Vienna. The 12th Nazi SS was involved in many desperate rearguard actions, and on 13 April fell back from Vienna. Withdrawing through Odenburg and Hirtenburg, the division reached Linz, Austria near the American lines. On 8 May 1945, 10,000 survivors of the division surrendered to the Americans near Enns. In a final act of defiance, the division refused to drape their vehicles with white flags, as the Americans had ordered.
The proven war crimes of the division happened in Normandy where about 140 Canadian soldiers were executed by their captors in the 12th Nazi SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. Their murders, and the consequent search for justice, is well documented. Two British soldiers from the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division were also murdered during the killing of Canadian prisoners.
Between 7 June and 8 June 1944, Canadian prisoners were executed by elements of Kurt Meyer's Nazi SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25 at the Abbey Ardennes south of Caen. As this was Meyer's command post, he, along with several subordinates, was charged with this crime after the war. Testimony at Meyer's war crimes trial, later deprecated, also suggested that Meyer later made it clear he expected no prisoners to be taken during subsequent fighting. The evidence for this (called Exhibit T3, a handwritten testimony) was a set of secret orders given during training that was remembered by Nazi SS-Schütze F. Tobanisch who said that receipts of these orders had to be signed by all soldiers. No supporting testimony was provided and the witness was not available to the court. Also on 7 June the bodies of men from the 21st Panzer Division and staff from 12th Nazi SS were found shot in the head near Rots, which may have been a factor in the execution of the prisoners. All the charges against the 12th Nazi SS are dated between 6 - 17 June. It is however not the case that any official encouragement of those events has been documented unlike the situation of the Canadian forces where Meyer claims that a "no prisoners" edict was in place as evidenced by documents captured from Canadian officers at the time. The 12th Nazi SS Division returned three times the level of prisoners as other divisions. A post-war investigation into alleged war crimes in Normandy by Canadian soldiers found no evidance of any orders, verbal or written, that German soldiers were to be murderd after being taken prisoner.
After the war, Meyer was tried and condemned to death by a Canadian military court for collusion in the shooting of Canadian and British prisoners. The main weight of the Prosecution's case rested on Jan Jesionek. Jesionek was a Pole who is alleged to have been forcibly conscripted into the Waffen-SS from which he deserted. Jesionek's testimony was refuted by Meyer and as a result Meyer's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by Canadian Major General Christopher Vokes, who considered all evidence against him circumstantial. Vokes recognized that in the heat of battle it was often difficult to decide who had killed an enemy and who had murdered a prisoner. There was no direct proof Meyer ordered the murder of Canadian prisoners but it was clear from physical evidence collected after the fighting that dozens of unarmed Canadians had been murdered after being interrogated by Meyer, who at the time, was the commander of 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. This can also be considered retaliation for what Canadian soldiers did to three captured German officers by tying them to their vehicles. Two were subsequently shot and killed while passing through the lines; the third one managed to crawl back to his lines were he subsequently died 3 days later. As the unit's commander, Meyer - while not guilty of the murders - was held fully responsible for the crimes committed by soldiers under his direct command.
On 7 September 1954, with the support of several Canadian and British officers who had faced him in Normandy, along with the mayor of his home town; he was released:
Order of battle June 1944
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