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Dueling Narratives: Panzer Meyer and the Canadians

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: May 03, 2010 
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It's one of the most dramatic moments of World War II.  The date is June 7, 1944–the day after the day, as it were–and there is some killing to be done. 

The Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, freshly landed at the beach called "Juno," is pressing inland, skirting west of the big Norman city of Caen.  The objective is Carpiquet airfield, southwest of the city.  To get there the division has to pass through a series of obscure Norman towns, blips on the map like Buron, Contest, and Authie.  The unit in the divisional van is the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade (9 CIB), and the unit in the van of the brigade is the North Nova Scotia Highland battalion.

What follows is a tale that everyone conversant in the history of the Normandy campaign knows well.  As the North Novas head south out of Contest and then veer southwest on the road towards Carpiquet, they meet a very special reception committee.  A German division–no, more than that:  an SS Division, one of the lucky German formations still topped off with men and materiel even at this late point of the war.  It is the 12th SS Panzer Division, also known as the Hitlerjugend ("Hitler Youth") Division.  Much of the manpower is raw, certainly, consisting as it does of 17 or 18 year old boys.  Their leaders more than make up for that lack of experience, however.  Commanding the division's 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment is a trained killer by the name of Kurt Meyer.  He is a Standartenführer (Colonel) in the Waffen-SS, and so fearsome is his reputation in mobile warfare–earned in some pretty tough scrapes on the Eastern Front–that his nickname is, of all things, "Panzer."

Panzer Meyer recognizes an opportunity when he sees one.  As the North Novas veer southwest towards Carpiquet, his regiment is drawn up in a defensive position at the Abbaye d'Ardennes, facing northwest.  The hapless Canadians are, therefore, passing directly across his front.  Standing high up in the bell tower of the Abbaye, Meyer spies the entire thing though his binoculars.  We can almost hear him breaking into a chuckle.  He's seen this before.  A unit advancing as if on a parade ground.  Drawn up in a long, vulnerable road column.  Meyer himself would later recall the moment:

But what is this? Am I seeing clearly? An enemy tank is pushing through the orchards of Contest! My God! What an opportunity! The tanks are driving right across II Battalion's front! The unit is showing us its unprotected flank. I give orders to all battalions, the artillery and the available tanks. Do not shoot! Open fire on my order only….  Wünsche, commander of the tank regiment, quietly transmits the enemy tank movements. Nobody dares raise his voice. … An unbearable pressure now rests on me. It will happen soon now…. I give the signal for the attack to Wünsche, and can just hear his order, "Achtung! Panzer marsch!" The tension now fades away. There are cracks and flashes near Franqueville. The enemy tank at the head of the spearhead smokes and I watch the crew bailing out. More tanks are torn to pieces with loud explosions.

There you have it.  Another allied unit learning the art of war from a more experienced Wehrmacht.  Learning to be careful.  Learning respect. 

A classic tale.  But what if it isn't true?  Tune in next week for the Canadian "counter-narrative."

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22 Responses to “Dueling Narratives: Panzer Meyer and the Canadians”


  1. 1
    Ross says:

    Robert

    An opportune post with the publication of Marc Milner article on this very subject in the JMH. He effectively refutes Meyer’s claims, and those of most orthodox historians who have criticised the performance of the Anglo-Canadians in the Normandy Campaign. The construction of combat narratives by those who were there very rarely match up even in the official records. Two sides of the same coin.

    Ross
    http://warstudies.wordpress.com/

  2. 2
    Bill Nance says:

    The funny thing I've always found about fights, is that you can have 20 witnesses and get 20 very different accounts of what happened. This is confusing enough when things are actually going on and the commander is trying to piece together an accurate enough picture to fight from, imagine doing this years later when events have been shaded with time, hindsight, and personal prejudices.

    I guess this is what keeps Dr. Citino in business – piecing things together as best as possible.

  3. 3
    Rob Citino says:

    Ross–Yes, it was the Milner piece in the JMH that served as the inspiration for this entry (as well as the next one!)
    –RC

  4. 4
    Rob Citino says:

    Bill–
    And "piecing it together" is exactly what historians try to do!
    –RC

  5. 5
    O. Noort (NL) says:

    Kurt Meyer got his nickname "Panzer" in another way as suggested in the article above:

    While playing a prank at the police academy, he fell off the roof of a two story building. He had about 20 fractures and was expected to die but regained his full health. This got him his nickname from his fellow students because he is a tough as a Panzer.

    So the nickname "Panzer" actually has nothing to do with mobile warfare (though fitting it would be).

  6. 6
    Dan Hynes says:

    Robert, I object to your reference to Panzer Meyer as a trained killer. He was a tough warrior, are not all soldiers "trained killers?"

  7. 7
    Rob Citino says:

    O. Noort–Thanks for the update!
    Dan–Perhaps you're right, but Meyer fits the bill more than most.

    –RC

  8. 8
    Reynardine says:

    "But he fits the bill more than most".

    Of course. Our generals (when they are any good) are "great leaders" and "victorious commanders". THEIR generals, if they are any good, are "vicious butchers" and "crazed killers".

    Oh, please. If you wish to make reference to specific accusations of war crimes against any general, do so. Otherwise, try to maintain at least the semblance of historical detachment.

  9. 9
    Bill Nance says:

    I think that some are getting a little side tracked on a minor word choice. I think most can agree that the SS contained a large number of war criminals. If you dispute this, look up what Kurt Meyer was convicted of, and spent time in jail for after the war (ordering the murder of an entire village, ordering the killing of Commonwealth POWs in Normandy, etc.).

    I'm not saying that some atrocities didn't happen on the Allied side, just that calling Meyer "a trained killer" is not that far off the mark.

    Add in that he was a particularly effective tank commander could also lead to this particular name. Ask any combat arms guy, the appellation can also refer to a particularly efficient fighting organization or person.

  10. 10
    rs morrison says:

    there is no firm evidence that meyer ordered the killing of cdn prisoners after the early normandy battles. some of his subordinate commanders certainly did. read cdn historian mark zeuhlke's accounts of this time.

    he certainly was no angel and his young troops could be viscous little bastards.

    meyer caught the green canadians off guard. but our army certainly learned the art of war well as we went along.

    the 3rd cdn div in normandy had been training for years. it was picked for normandy because the first div was in italy and the 2nd had been decimated at dieppe.

  11. 11
    I. Ali says:

    Tony Foster, the son of Canadian General Harry Foster who was one of Panzermeyer's opposite numbers in Normandy, wrote a book called "Meeting of the Generals", a largely undocumented work which gives a two-sided perspective on the whole campaign. Foster remembers that his father was of the opinion that many Allied generals would have stood on trial for war crimes if Germany had won. He was apparently not particularly viciously disposed towards Meyer and wasn't too upset when he found out that the Brigadefuehrer's death sentence had been commuted. Interesting reading. Recommended.

  12. 12
    William Rolston says:

    I always judge articles based on whether or not they get the story of "Panzer" Meyer's nickname right.

    Having said that, if you talk to the combatants and read primary sources it is clear that the battles around Caen are the closest thing that the western front got to the "fight to the end" battles of the pacific.

    You have to remember that the Canadians were all volunteers which was both a good and bad thing. Good for moral and esprit but bad because they couldn't fight a long war of attrition. Most of them were tough farm boys who have lived a life without central heating and central plumbing in a very very cold climate. Sure they were green but they were very, very tough.

    A long time ago, I talked to a WaffenSS sargent who said that the toughest guys that he fought were the Canadians. Meyer ended up selling beer to the Canadian officer's mess in Baden Baden after the war. I was told that he would come in and talk drink with the officers there. I don't have any evidence of his opinion of the Canadians but I think that he must have had some grudging respect for them as soldiers.

    As far as the 12th SS goes, Chris Hedges has said that there is nothing more dangerous than a teenager with a gun. Add to that the NCO's and leaders were all eastern front experienced and you have probably the most dangerous unit on the battlefield.

    I'm never sure what to make of people writing stories about Canadians on the Western front. I'm never sure of the agenda. I'm sure that the Canadians could have done better from a military point of view (hell, the most critical writers of the performance has come from Canadian historians) but considering that they put down probably one of the top 3 units in German order of battle speaks volumes about how good the Canadian formations were regardless of the rather average performance of their Generals.

    I've always found that there is always a conceit by the Americans or British that they could have done better. Stephen Ambrose and Max Hastings are the worst examples of this. I'm not sure why this is but if it makes Brits or Yanks feel better about themselves then I say "knock yourself out".

  13. 13
    Bill Nance says:

    I've always had the impression that the Canadian army deserved a lot better treatment than what they got. Seems like they ended up with most of the nasty, inglorious jobs in the 21st Army Group. Still, most of the recent professional military literature I've read recently seems to be giving them their due. More fun to slam the brits.

  14. 14
    William Rolston says:

    I guess in summary, the toughness of the Canadians probably made up for rather average senior leadership.

    The British rather greedily sucked up almost 700 junior officers from Canada so I find it difficult to believe that the Brits found them so bad.

  15. 15
    William Rolston says:

    One last thing I was thinking about. You know there are institutional biases everywhere and they last a long time.

    I think that the British are kind of resentful and embarrassed of how badly that they were shown up in WW1 by the Canadian Corps and Arthur Currie. There is always a constant low level bitching and backbiting that has always perpetuated by the British when it comes to Canada. Any Canadian accomplishments are explained away or ignored.

    This is in contrast to the institutional "jock sniffing" for lack of a better term, on the part of both the British and Americans when it comes to the Anzacs which I also think comes from WW1. It is interesting psychology. Everyone has favourites and I don't begrudge people/institution having favourites I just wish that they would acknowledge this bias.

    I guess it is good to be Canadian or else all this would bother me. I'm proud of Canadian military accomplishments I am thankful that they are more interested in winning than in blabbing about how wonderful they are. and I'm also glad that my national identity isn't wrapped up in military accomplishments or else it would really screw us up as a people, just look at the US and Britain.

  16. 16
    Luke Truxal says:

    Similar to books such as the German Way of War and the American Way of War it appears that after reading this debate that their is a way of writing military history. It seems the British and Americans seem to almost enjoy blaming each other for mishaps in coalition warfare when writing this history. I don't know if their is anything written on the subject, but that would make an interesting book for me. However, I am afraid the reading audience would be so small that it may not warrant being written. However, it seems that it would be interesting to see how each country goes about their process of writing military history and to see if there are any trends that military historians have when writing history.

    I was just thinking of this after reading these posts which I found quite interesting.

    • 16.1
      The Forester says:

      Go to the US Army Center for Military History web site Green Books link.

  17. 17
    Scott Blair says:

    I agree and cite in particular Rick Atkinson's The Day of Battle about the Sicilian and Italian campaigns in 1943-44. Atkinson's account is clearly American-centric, and he consistently trashes General Bernard Montgomery's performance in those campaigns. I will grant Atkinson does save some of his poisoned pen writings for U.S. General Mark Clark.

    It is important to note that Atkinson is a journalist, and a pretty good writer (I think An Army At Dawn was even better written), but not a trained historian. He weaves many vignettes together to paint a fairly comprehensive picture of the Italian campaign. He even gives grudging respect to the Free French mountain troops who finally broke the Monte Cassino line.

    There is no doubt that inherent nationalism underpins all the accounts of war. After all isn't that what (traditional) war is about, clashes of nations? As the historian Marc Bloch argued in The Historian's Craft, pure objectivity in history is impossible.

  18. 18
    Pierre Corbeil says:

    Canadians vs Germans vs English…. I had the opportunity to hear a first hand and very personal account of the war on the ground in the Canadian Army in the Northwest campaign. My father, Raoul, served in the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, a tough bunch if there was one, in Belgium and Holland from July 1944 to February 1945 when he was badly wounded in Germany.
    Indeed, the Canadian Army was given a dirty job, pushing into Holland along narrow dikes and through swampy terrain.
    He felt no hatred against the German soldiers, whom he said were doing their job as he was doing his; his one complaint is that they always fought as hard as they could before surrendering. His anger was directed at the English, who were condescendent towards the colonials and openly racist against the French-Canadian that he was, despite the exploits of his regiment. He also felt a community of spirit with the Scots, especially when he visited his sister-in-law's relations in Scotland.
    Relations between front-line soldiers on opposing sides are often very respectful. My father remembered entering Groningen and taking the surrender of a dozen Germans in the basement of a house. One soldier was very worried that his wedding ring might be taken by the military police. My father asked him by gestures to give him his kepi and the ring. My father then cut a slit in the kepi's lining, so that the soldier could hide his ring. Immediately, half a dozen German soldiers were pressing their kepis to my father so that he could make a slit in their kepis.
    The Americans were too far and too powerful to enter my father's thinking, though, since he had little use for Montgomery, he might have sided with the Americans. But then, French-Canadians are Americans too, on their way.

  19. 19
    William Rolston says:

    Pierre,

    I'm sincerely sorry about the past and the way that the French-Canadians were treated. When I was in the forces I was very proud to serve under and along very excellent French Canadians.

    Don't think that just because people spoke English that they thought highly of Montgomery. I would probably say that once the sheen of El Alemain wore off, most Canadian troops would have preferred to fight with American commanders. The Americans kind of lucked out with getting very high quality commanders in that war. I can't vouch about todays commanders though. Sometimes people just get lucky.

    As far as French-Canadian's being American, I would say in the broadest sense but if you have spent as much time down here with them as I have, I can't think of anyone anywhere who is like an American and I've spent most of my life out of Canada in many different countries. The closest that I've come to finding some people who are like Americans are the Afghans.

  20. 20
    Sandra Kleinschmit says:

    Ya know,..if it's anyone BUT the Germans who are great warriors,able to kill their prey easily and quickly,..they are feted and celebrated.I mean Anyone,..but the German soldiers. It's been said that Kurt Meyer was one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. Never did he hide from his duty,sitting behind the lines in a truck,he was always right out there with his men,whom he cared much for.I wish people would let up on the German people,and allow them to be proud of their own fine Warriors.If we Americans,and the Canadians,English,and others can,so can they.
    All sides committed what some might call murder,so why is it that only the German officers,..notably of the Waffen SS,..were persecuted and executed for their'crimes',..and not the US officers who shot unarmed surrendering German Wehrmacht soldiers? Only the winners are the good ones,..

  21. 21
    WhiskeyRiver says:

    Kurt had two nicknames.One,of course,"Panzer"meyer,from his younger days with friends,and falling off a roof.The other,was "Schnelle" Meyer,..
    because he was always riding his motorcycle out in front of his troops.Always taking off so fast(hence schnelle),just to make it out there,..



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