Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Hitler's Boy Soldiers in Normandy Part II
Although the Allied salient was now five miles deep, nowhere was it more than two miles wide. They had yet to achieve their hoped-for breakthrough, and the narrowness of the salient made it an obvious target for a major German counterstroke.
Facing the British by June 29 were elements of no fewer than six panzer divisions, including the 12th SS. Beginning late on the 29th, the Germans tried to regain the initiative, but dogged British resistance halted the attack. The commander of the assault, General Paul Hausser, explained that "the murderous fire from naval guns in the channel and the terrible British artillery destroyed the bulk of our attacking force in the assembly area." Those tanks that did get forward were easy prey to infantry anti-tank weapons, which could pick them off at short range.
Montgomery now resumed the offensive. On July 4, the 3rd Canadian Division launched an attack against Carpiquet. Despite suffering heavy losses from German artillery, elements of two Canadian battalions found themselves fighting some 50 Panzergrenadiers in the village. By nightfall, the Canadians held the northern half of the village and airfield, while the Germans controlled the south. Lack of infantry reinforcements prevented the Germans from launching effective counterattacks, but they had stopped the Canadian advance.
The capture of Caen had now become as much a matter of prestige as necessity, and Montgomery decided that desperate measures were necessary. For the next four days, the Hitlerjugend was the cornerstone of the defense of Caen against the British I Corps. Finally, by means of 2,600 tons of bombs dropped from the air, Montgomery managed to isolate the forward defenses of Caen. The bombing destroyed the city and exacerbated the Germans' already acute supply problems. Meyer, unwilling to retire, continued his bitter defense. On July 8, after all hope of holding the city was lost, Meyer ordered his boys to evacuate their positions.
Sheer weight of resources on the Allied side made the outcome inevitable. By July 9, the British had captured the city and inflicted crippling losses on the 12th. The division had been nearly shattered. It had only 65 tanks out of an original 150 and had suffered 60 percent casualties.
Those who had survived the maelstrom were now hardened veterans. They were lauded at home in the excited prose of the SS periodical SS Leitheft: "Thousands of aircraft, rolling barrages of batteries, massed tank attacks hammered them with bombs and shells. The earth heaved thunderously. An inferno was unleashed. But faith was the strongest support of courage. Smeared with blood, covered with dust, gasping and fighting, doggedly dug into the earth, these youths brought the Anglo-Americans to a halt."
Using Hill 112 as a vantage point, which they had regained after the British inexplicably withdrew on June 30, the Germans were able to dominate the Odon Valley behind Caen and the ground to the north. With German armor starting to move toward the American sector, the British decided to regain Hill 112 and secure it and the surrounding villages.
Operation Jupiter began on July 10. Some elements of the 12th 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: "From 0630 to 0800, again heavy machine-gun fire. Then Tommy attacks with great masses of infantry and many tanks. We fight as long as possible but we realize we are in a losing position. By the time the survivors try to pull back, we realize we are surrounded." 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 respite did not last long. The next major British drive, Operation Goodwood, began on July 18 on the eastern side of Caen. As soon as the attack began, the 12th SS was recalled to help prevent a breakthrough. A British Second Army Intelligence summary of the day before noted that the "12th SS is the only reserve formation not committed and it is but a shell of its former self." Divided into two battle groups, Kampfgruppe Krause and Kampfgruppe Waldmüller, with a combined strength of just 50 tanks, it quickly became a key element in the defense of the German position south of Caen. But it was an increasingly desperate position. The relentless and punishing attacks in and around the city were sapping the strength of the defenders, and the Allies' absolute control of the air was making it impossible to relieve or reinforce them. Goodwood was followed on July 25 by Cobra, which coincided with the breakout of the Americans to the west and the beginning of the end for the Germans in Normandy.
Cobra was followed by Operation Bluecoat, the return of the British Second Army to the offensive. Following Bluecoat, the Canadian First Army took up the gauntlet with Operation Totalize on August 8. Once more, the pressure was applied directly to the 12th SS. The attack involved a daring and innovative plan in which narrow columns of armored vehicles drove through the defenses at night without a preliminary artillery barrage, but with heavy bombing from the air to seal the flanks. Once they reached their objectives, the infantry exited their armored personnel carriers and cleared out the defenders. Although the attack began well, Meyer's determination prevented it from becoming a disaster for the Germans.
Meyer later remarked on what he saw while driving forward to reconnoiter immediately after the bombing. "Before me, making their way down the Caen-Falaise road in a disorderly rabble were the panic-stricken troops of the [German] 89th Infantry Division," he said. "I realized that something had to be done to send them back into the line and fight. I lit a cigar, stood in the middle of the road and in a loud voice asked them if they were going to leave me alone to cope with the enemy. Having a divisional commander address them in this way, they stopped, hesitated, and then returned to their positions." Having rallied the frightened soldiers from the 89th, he sent armor and anti-tank guns to the positions they had abandoned at Cintheaux before directing his two battle groups to counterattack to the north of the village.
Stiffening their resistance against continued pressure, the German anti-tank gunners held up the Canadians after an advance of three miles. Over the next two days, the effects of this action and the continuous grind of counterattacks reduced the German division to little more than a reinforced battle group. The Allies tried to bomb their way through, but the Germans had captured a scout car on August 13 with a copy of the plan for the attack, and Meyer moved his men back in time. Between August 14 and 16, the 500 or so Panzergrenadiers and 15 tanks remaining defended Hill 159 to the northeast of Falaise against the 3rd Canadian Division. Under nearly continuous artillery and air attack, the Germans were forced to withdraw when the 2nd Canadian Division broke through on their western flank.
Fighting at Falaise itself was another small detachment of some 60 boys from the 12th SS. They held out for three days, and only four were taken prisoner. The loss of Falaise meant the gap between the British and American arms of a large pincer was only 20 kilometers, and in the pocket the remnants of some 19 German divisions were subjected to incessant and increasingly heavy artillery bombardment.
With only one tiny avenue of escape left open to them, the pitiful remnants of the 12th SS were ordered to help hold open the northern side of the salient. The aim was to permit the remains of the Seventh Army to escape. Hitler's refusal to face reality, however, meant that in the end less than half of those within the pocket succeeded in breaking out. Those who did could thank the defenders of the gap, which was under enormous pressure for two days. When the withdrawal had been completed, Meyer ordered a French peasant to guide his last small group of some 200 men across the Dives River. On August 22, Army Group B reported that the 12th SS Panzer Division consisted of 10 tanks, 300 men and no artillery. It had effectively been destroyed in Normandy.
The Hitlerjugend shared many characteristics with other formations of the German army and Waffen SS fighting in Normandy in 1944. They fought exceptionally well and suffered appalling losses. The 12th had been well equipped, but in other respects it was less well provided for. Its training was not as thorough as in regular formations. As became the normal procedure for most German formations, especially in the later war years, it ended up divided into widely scattered battle groups where gunners, engineers, cooks and clerks had all found themselves fighting as Panzergrenadiers. However, the primary difference between the 12th SS and other German formations lay in the singular spirit of self-sacrifice these youngsters espoused in the name of Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Not every one of them was a volunteer, but even the vast majority of those who had been drafted into the division accepted its ethos as a result of their charismatic leaders.
Such fanaticism could not always make up for the tactical shortcomings in their senior officers' leadership. A high level of casualties certainly suggests bravery. But it is not necessarily commensurate with military skill and was no substitute for tactics and firepower. One British tank commander recalled how Hitler Youth soldiers had sprung at Allied tanks "like young wolves, until we were forced to kill them against our will." The nature of the fighting in Normandy meant that leadership often devolved down to junior noncoms and officers. Hardly older than the boys they led, their fanatical devotion to the point of death was an inspiration to the others. One example was Sergeant Emil Durr, who was posthumously awarded the Knight's Cross for attacking a Canadian flame-throwing tank. Although seriously wounded, he attacked it three times and eventually destroyed it, losing his life in the process.
Unfortunately, devotion to duty, bravery in action and aggression, while in many ways admirable qualities in soldiers, also led to extreme brutality. During the campaign there were numerous instances of the division's mistreatment of prisoners and civilians. The boy soldiers gained a fearsome reputation for shooting prisoners, especially Canadians, and were responsible for the deaths of 64 British and Canadian prisoners between June 7 and 16. After his capture, Meyer was tried and convicted for the part his division played in the massacre of Canadian prisoners at Buron, Authie and Ardenne Abby.
Normandy did not quite mark the end of the Hitlerjugend's involvement in the war. The 12th SS Panzer Division was re-formed in time to play a part in Hitler's final gamble in the West. It was to be part of the great Ardennes offensive launched less than six months later in a vain attempt to capture Antwerp, where the division had originally been formed 18 months earlier.
Despite all that had gone before, the next group of boys to be collected under the Hitler Youth banner showed no less idealism than their predecessors. A letter found on the body of a young grenadier killed in the fighting expressed the attitude of many of the division's young men: "I write during one of the momentous hours before we attack, full of excitement and expectation of what the next days will bring....Some believe in living but life is not everything! It is enough to know that we attack and will throw the enemy from our homeland. It is a holy task. Above me is the terrific noise of V1s and artillery, the voice of war." On the back of the envelope is written a postscript: "Ruth! Ruth! Ruth! We March!"