The 12th SS-Panzer Division 'Hitler Jugend' was a direct product of Hitler Youth indoctrination and training. Thrown into action against British and Canadian troops in June 1944. it performed far more effectively than many on both sides had predicted. These young Panzergrenadiers of the division are receiving medals less than two weeks after the D-Day landings.
The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend ("Hitler Youth") was a German Waffen SS armoured division during World War II. 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 7 June 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.
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 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.
The training of the 'Hitlerjugend' Division was distinct from that of other Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS formations, and reflected many of the core values of the Hitler Youth. In particular, the idea that youth must be led by youth was reflected in the relatively young age of the cadre of former HJ members who provided many of the officers and NCOs of the division. For example, Max was called back from service with the Leibstandarte Division to take command of a company in the 25th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 'Hitlerjugend' Division at the age of only 23. Even the commanders of the Division were relatively young, with the original commander Fritz Witt being aged 34 at the time of his death in 1944, while his replacement, Kurt Meyer, was only 33. The youth of the division as a whole was reflected in the fact that its members were issued with a ration of sweets instead of cigarettes, much to their disgust. Although he had few qualms about throwing German children into battle, Himmler remained concerned to the end that they not learn the habit of smoking.
Max joined the recruits of the 'Hitler Jugend' Division at their training facility at Beverloo in Belgium in August 1943. The boys he trained had come straight from various Wehrertuchtigungslager, and were fit and highly motivated. They looked up to Max, the experienced veteran of the Eastern Front, as a model to emulate and impress. Training at Beverloo reflected the comparative egalitaranism of the Hitler Youth ethos. Max was encouraged to develop a close relationship with his 'men', and he took pains to explain the purpose of orders rather than expecting unthinking obedience. In this way, the military unit itself was supposed to mirror the ideal of the Volksgemeinschaft. Little emphasis was placed on drill, training instead aiming to give as realistic an idea of actual battle as possible. The terrain games' of the Hitler Youth supplied the model for this, with boys of the Hitler Jugend training intensively in exciting and demanding field exercises.