By Gerhard Rempel
During the month of June, while the Body Guard recovered from the exhaustive Battle of Kharkov, SS Colonel Fritz Witt, chief of its 1st Armored Infantry Regiment, received appointment as commander of the HJD. Typical of an aggressive new breed of young SS officers, Witt brought with him a select number of officers, sergeants and technical specialists. The rest of the officers were transferred from army and SS divisions or activated from reserve status as the original plan provided. More than half of them must have been former HJ leaders. A shortage of company commanders, platoon and squad leaders, was gradually filled when "training assistants" arrived from the SS NCO schools. Many NCOs were barely a year older or even the same age as the young soldiers they commanded. In July and August the first 10,000 boys arrived to commence basic training in Beverloo, Belgium, while various units were formed and shaped into battle condition. The CG of the 1st SS Panzer Division, Sepp Dietrich, had already gotten Hitler's permission to provide these boys with food rations normally reserved for combat soldiers, but August Pohl, the chief of the SS Economic and Administrative Office, arranged to give them special rations much more substantial than those allotted to workers in heavy industry.
There were two battalion commanders in the HJD who were merely 26 years old and three other top commanders in their late 20s. This was quite unusual enough, but those below battalion level were nearly all in their early 20s and the bulk of the enlisted men were 17 during training and 18 at the time of their first combat engagement. It was indeed the "Baby Division"! The youthful character of the division not only worried the RJF but also Goebbels, who feared that Allied propaganda might interpret it as a sign of desperation, which it clearly was. Allied intelligence did refer to the "Baby Division" derisively in radio broadcasts and propaganda leaflets, suggesting the milk bottle as its tactical symbol. Hitler, nonetheless, believed his youngsters would fight "fanatically" and predicted that the enemy would be "struck with wonder." He was right.
Two months before the division was committed to combat Witt issued one of his periodic special directives dealing with discipline and order. He complained that many unit leaders still failed to understand that their primary duty was to "shape young soldiers into straight and decent SS men." Many company commanders apparently had forgotten that their charges had grown up with fathers away at the front and mothers employed, with the best teachers and most capable HJ leaders on the long list of casualties. Unit leaders therefore had to become substitute educators. Providing models to imitate was the best form of instruction and this required daily association, since the company was the only world these impressionable recruits knew. Witt then ordered platoon and squad leaders to live in the same room with their men to show that they cared about their welfare. Such concern was a soldier's "most beautiful task." Every noncommissioned officer "should appreciate the valuable German human material entrusted to him."
At least three hours a week were set aside for indoctrination to be conducted by company commanders. After eight years of incessant doctrinal drilling in the HJ and four weeks of intensive propagandizing in the WELs, it was still deemed necessary to conduct regular weekly indoctrination sessions within the division itself. Witt believed, as most SS officers believed, that the war against Soviet Russia had made it painfully clear that a "fanatically indoctrinated enemy" could only be conquered by the "bearer of a superior ideology." Every young soldier therefore had to know what he fought for. Hence, "attitude, spiritual strength and emotional power" were thought to be the deciding factors in "popular wars." Company commanders were expected to dedicate themselves to this task of with vigor and responsibility. The themes they used were no surprise: "Germany's demand for living space", "the enemies of Germany are the enemies of Europe", and similar platitudes familiar to these boys since the age of ten, when most of them had entered the Junvolk and ceased to be children.
Every opportunity - the waking call, roll call, a pause during training, an infrequent free hour - was to be utilized by officers and NCOs to "clarify and impregnate the weekly theme." Aiming to create a fighting force of true believers required that every man "grasped internally what he fought for." Immature youths had to be transformed into men "who lived according to the fundamentals of the SS as fanatic warriors", willing to sacrifice all and give no quarter.
Fritz Witt declared the training period to be concluded on March 16, 1944: "The...situation happily is a good one. Our...boys during these eight months have been transformed into young men who know the military craft." To celebrate the miraculous metamorphosis Witt ordered that the candy rations thus far issued be replaced by cigarettes. In April the Division was transferred to France and located southwest of Rouen, the remaining men and equipment being added in the process. If the Division attained prescribed strength - and there is every reason to believe that it did - by the beginning of June it had some 20,000 men and officers, 177 tanks, 700 machine guns, 70 mortars, 37 infantry guns and howitzers, 40 field and medium guns, 33 anti-tank guns and over 100 pieces of varied anti-tank artillery. Motor vehicles, armored troop carriers and tractors brought the total to some 2,950 vehicles. We know for certain that the Division had at least 20 more tanks than the average SS Panzer Division and certainly more than army equivalents. Since the HJD was trumpeted as a "junior Body Guard" and since Hitler had specifically ordered that it be fully equipped, there is little doubt that it was one of the better supplied fighting units of the war. There were always devious ways to acquire desired officers and equipment if normal channels failed to supply them, as Witt's most resourceful regimental commander, Kurt Meyer, and his young subordinate officers, repeatedly demonstrated.
One source of strength lay in the HJ origin of the personnel. The tie to the RJF was carefully maintained by assiduous propaganda and by visits of Youth Leader Artur Axmann, who made at least two formal inspection tours. During the first Witt ordered commanders to discuss plans with Axmann and had all positions of honor occupied by young men, making sure that the Youth Leader was accorded the same respect as W-SS generals by special order of Himmler himself. Axmann spent some time with most battalions and even with smaller units. During the second visit he brought along Dutch and Norwegian youth leaders, no doubt at the suggestion of Gottlob Berger who was, of course, eager to influence SS recruitment in the occupied countries. The RJF also assumed troop welfare for the Division in order "to solidify the special tie of the national socialist movement with the Division." Musical groups, theatrical troupes, letter-writing campaigns and dispatch of packages fell under this program. Ties with individual battalions and smaller formations were later established by regional HJ directorates.
All of this meticulous care in organizing, training and preparing the "Baby Division" was carried out in order to avoid the errors of Langemarck which hung over these activities as an ominous cloud. It was also done because the planners believed the HJD could make a difference by setting an instructive example and reversing the rising tide of defeatism and cynical indifference among regular army troops. These notions were soon to be tested when the HJD experienced its bloody baptism of fire in a crucial sector of the Battle for Normandy, around and in the city of Caen. When British and Canadian troop landed in the estuary of the Orne, the HJD surprised them. The youngsters of the HJ fought ferociously and with a suicidal determination that appalled German and Allied commanders who were not particulary sensitive or inexperienced. The HJD and its patron the Body Guard, which arrived on the scene belatedly, held up Bernard Montgomery's advance for a whole month. In the process they were destroyed. The Battle of Caen become the Stalingrad of the Hitler Youth.
From June 7 until July 9 the HJD lost 4,000 dead and 8,000 wounded and missing. An Allied officer thought that it had "fought with a tenacity and fierceness" such as he had not seen in the entire European campaign. A few days later, Field Marshal von Rundstedt, in conversation with "Sepp" Dietrich and Kurt Meyer, recognized the unique attitude of the HJD: "Your soldiers possess the spirit of the young regiments of Langemarck, but are far better trained and above all led by front-experienced officers and NCOs. It is a shame that his faithful youth is being sacrificed in a hopeless cause." Erwin Rommel made similar remarks shortly before his death.
But the end was not yet in sight. What followed was attrition, gradually grinding the remaining elements of the division to shreds. New headquarters were established at Potigny north of Falaise. Regimental staffs were withdrawn to hammer new replacements into marching companies, while remaining troops were organized into two "Battle Groups." With some 50 remaining tanks the latter played a significant role in spiking three separate British offensives between Caen and Falaise, prolonging the capture of Falaise for a month. A concerted counter-attack at Cintheaux, organized by Kurt Meyer, and isolated victories demonstrated that the HJ had lost none of its resolute combat elan. When Falaise was finally taken by the Canadians on August 16 a remnant of 60 Hitler youths held out in the ruins of the Ecole Superieure until all but two messengers, chosen by lot, were dead. The rest of the Division helped to keep the pincers of the Falaise-Argentan pocket open long enough to allow two decimated German Armies to escape. By September 4, 1944 the fighting strength of the division was enlarged again to 600 men from the 200 who slipped out of the pocket, but the sum and substance of its effectiveness had been destroyed. Eighty percent of the original combat personnel had been annihilated, and similar losses had been sustained by the support troops. The Division lost 80 percent of its tanks, 70 percent of its armored vehicles, 60 percent of its artillery and mortars and 50 percent of the rest of its vehicles.
The RJF made feeble recruiting efforts to rebuild its elite formation. In some areas 15 year olds were drafted to shore up dwindling reserves. Axmann even made plans to establish a separate reserve organization for the Division, but little came of this nonsensical effort. The shock of Caen had been too great. The Division was replenished with air force ground personnel, navy personnel and recuperated veterans from military hospitals. Some new HJ recruits must also have been added. This patched-up division, with little resemblance to its former elite character, was engaged in the Battle of the Bulge and subsequently in Hungary and Austria, with some isolated effect.
On May 5, 1945, the "Baby Division" was withdrawn from futile, last-ditch efforts to defend Vienna, their patron's libidinal battleground a generation before. SS Major General Hugo Kraas, the last commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division, gave his men free reign to follow their natural inclination to escape the clutches of the aproaching Russian troops by moving west toward the American lines. Three days later, near the small town of Enns, 6,000 weary and bedraggled survivors of the once proud HJD tried to cross a bridge across the Danube. It had been blocked by other HJ boys working in tank-trap battalions organized by Gauleiter Baldur von Schirach. Someone cried "Russky!" and panic broke loose as all stampeded towards a narrow gap on the bridge. Trucks rammed into the surging mass and killed at least 15 of them, scattering the fleeing hordes along both sides of the river. A single Russian tank "clanked toward the bridge. A Red Army lieutenant stood in the turret, laughing at the sight of 6,000 men frantically scrambling to escape his single gun." Towards the end of the day a faithful remnant of 455 men and one tank marched before Hugo Krass for the last time. In a final symbolic act of arrogant defiance, the HJ-SS soldiers refused to obey an American order to drape their vehicles in white flags and drove into American captivity "proud and erect."
"Panzermeyer", as his admiring boys called him, had been the soul of courage, strength and defiance. He led thousands of Hitler youths to what most of them probably perceived to be heroic deaths. On September 6, 1944, while the emaciated remnants of the HJD fought another in a long series of small holding actions near Namur, Belgium, Kurt Meyer became an Allied prisoner. He was subsequently the first German officer to be tried as a war criminal. A SHAEF court of inquiry alleged that soldiers and officers of the 12th SS Panzer Division "shot 64 unarmed allied prisoners of war in uniforms, many of whom had been previously wounded, and none of whom had resisted or endeavored to escape." SHAEF investigators also alleged that "it was understood throughout the division that a policy of denying quarter or executing prisoners after interrogation was openly approved." These crimes purportedly took place between June 7 and 17, and responsibility for them was distributed to all three regiments of the division.
Kurt Meyer was tried and condemned to death by a Canadian military court for collusion in the shooting of Canadian and British prisoners. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and on September 7, 1954 he was released. The commutation and release stirred up considerable controversy in Canada and elsewhere. Meyer admitted that certain atrocities occurred in the W-SS, but refused to acknowledge guilt in this particular case. The responsibility of other officers under his command remains like that of Meyer an open question. The guilt of lower-ranking soldiers cannot be determined with any degree of certainty either. In the latter case there is the additional problem of legal and illegal orders.
The distinction between murder and legalized slaughter, in the context of military combat, is always difficult to make. Every war leaves behind a trail of atrocity charges and counter-charges. It is not surprising that an unusually high number of atrocities were committed by the combat personnel of the SS during World War Two. The effort of W-SS veterans to rehabilitate their post-war image by denying connection to the genocidal policies and crimes of the SS organization has long since been discredited. The self-serving attempt by the regular German army officers to pass all blame for war crimes onto the SS has come under general suspicion as well. Accepting the theory of collective guilt, the Nuremberg Tribunal condemned the entire SS as a criminal organization, thereby painting every man who wore its uniform with the brush of personal crime. Such a conclusion cannot survive the test of historical evidence. Yet a great number of ordinary murders were committed by the soldiers of the W-SS.
In the case of the HJD the atrocities, to the degree that they actually occurred, were symbolic of SS influence. The aggressive, reckless, at times even fanatic, leadership, exercised by ambitious young SS officers like Meyer, certainly contributed to the process of blurring clear distinctions between murder and "legal" killing in combat conditions. Other factors, in this dehumanizing process, were the tender, impressionable age of most of the soldiers in the division, the long years of assiduous racial indoctrination, and the circumstances of defeat and frustration which enveloped the vastly outnumbered German forces in the Normandy Theater. The result was a form of barbarism born of desperation, primitive revenge and arrogant defiance.