The pivotal and terrifying battle for Normandy’s beaches lay only hours ahead. Experienced soldiers, what few the 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment had, understood what was coming. They also knew how much would depend upon the fresh-faced teenagers assembling around them. They were the cream of German youth, but they were babies. In the 1st Battalion, for example, 65 percent were under 18 years old. Only 3 percent were over 25, and almost all of these older soldiers were officers and noncoms. Organized in Antwerp, Belgium, in July 1943, the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division, of which the 25th was part, had been formed around a cadre of veterans from the 1st SS Panzer Division, the army and the Luftwaffe. Most of its personnel came from the Hitler Youth leadership schools, and it was not uncommon to have boys of 16 in its ranks. ‘We could foresee what lay ahead,’ recalled one older veteran. ‘The fine young grenadiers by contrast glanced smiling at us. They had no fear, full of confidence, trusting in their strength and innate aggression. How willing will these youngsters be to stand the test?’
Sixteen hours earlier the first reports of the June 6 Allied landings had been received. Colonel Kurt Meyer had finally received orders committing his regiment to the struggle to throw the Allies back into the Channel. However, since receiving the order, confusion as to the true scale and nature of the landings had hampered the German high command, and a German armored counterstroke was late in forming. But first, Meyer’s 25th Regiment, which was located with the rest of the division to the west of Paris and south of Rouen, had to reach the battlefield.
At 5 o’clock on the afternoon of June 6, 1944, the division’s 229 tanks and assault guns, 658 armored vehicles, some 2,000 soft-skinned vehicles and 20,540 men moved off along three routes. ‘We’ll soon give it to Tommy!’ was the banter remembered by Corporal Helmuth Pock as the boys traveled to the front. Despite the overall exuberance, Pock recalled that many of the youngsters were smoking cigarettes to steady their nerves.
Driving forward in a Panzerkampfwagen (PzKw.) Mark IV medium tank, Pock soon ran into traffic jams that hampered the division’s advance. While progressing slowly he heard many words of encouragement shouted to the tank crews. When they got closer to the front, some of that excitement was tempered by seeing the number of vehicles shot up by Allied fighter-bombers, the dreaded Jabos.
Losses to enemy aircraft were not heavy, but the accumulated delays caused by wrecked vehicles were enough to destroy the division’s timetable. By nightfall, barely a third of the division’s strength had reached the assembly area southwest of Caen. Despite the delays and fear of what lay ahead, morale remained high as soldiers hastily dug in and erected camouflage netting around their positions.
As soon as his men reached the assembly area, Meyer went to the headquarters of the 716th Infantry Division to get a better picture of what was happening. He was disturbed to discover that even the division headquarters had lost all communications with its regiments and battalions. ‘Caen is a sea of flame,’ he noted as he negotiated blazing trucks at the roadside to rejoin his regiment. The battle was at a critical stage. Nearly 10 Allied divisions faced seven battered and fragmented German divisions. Unable to concentrate effectively, the Germans would be forced to launch their counterstrokes with whatever forces were available.
Nevertheless, Meyer was still confident. ‘Little fish,’ he called the enemy. ‘We’ll throw them back into the sea in the morning.’ Meanwhile, the 3rd British Division had been ordered to close the gap that the 21st Panzer Division had created between itself and the 3rd Canadian Division on June 6. At the same time, the 3rd Canadian Division was directed southwest toward Carpiquet airfield.
Army Group B, which was responsible for plugging the rapidly expanding hole in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, was now reduced to scraping together a Kampfgruppe (battle group) of the 12th SS and part of the 21st Panzer Division. The scratch formation was supposed to drive the Allies back to the beaches.
Meyer had three Panzergrenadier battalions in the line with two companies of tanks behind each flank and artillery in support. He was also told that the 21st Panzer Division had been ordered to form up on his right flank. Watching the Canadian advance unfold from the tower of Ardenne Abbey, he could see an opportunity opening in front of him. At 10 a.m. on June 7, the 50 Mark IV tanks of the 2nd Battalion, 12th SS Panzer Regiment, arrived and moved into position. The 1st Battalion, with its powerful PzKw. Mark V Panthers, was stranded and momentarily idled east of the Orne River for want of fuel.
The Canadians continued to file across the German front. Once the lead Canadian tanks reached the ridge south of Franqueville, they spotted one of Meyer’s panzer companies waiting to advance. It was at that moment that the German youngsters could hear Meyer’s voice over the radio net, ordering them to advance. Engines roared to life and tracks squeaked as the 12th SS received its initiation. ‘It cracked and flashed around Franqueville,’ recalled a German soldier. ‘The lead enemy tanks began smoking, and I saw how the crews bailed out. Other tanks exploded in pieces in the air. A Panzer Mark IV suddenly stopped, burning, tongues of flame shooting out of the turret.’ Meyer’s sudden advance had caught the Canadians unawares, and their infantry were forced to fall back to Authie. Meyer’s 3rd Battalion pursued them doggedly. The boys overran Authie and Franqueville in their initial rush. Buron, a kilometer to the north, was the next objective. The ‘enemy forces appeared to be completely surprised,’ wrote Meyer. ‘Artillery on both sides had not fired a single round.’
Meyer’s panzers roared around Authie and headed for Buron. Canadian anti-tank guns hit four or five of the tanks, and the Hitlerjügend crews’ inexperience showed as they turned away while trying to retire. Hans Fenn’s tank was one of those hit: ‘The shell tore off the tank commander’s leg–SS Scharführer [Sergeant] Esser–but I heard he got out of the turret later,’ Fenn recalled. ‘Phosphorus shells caused the tank to instantly burst into flames all over. I was helpless….I made my way back with third degree burns, toward our grenadiers following up. They recoiled from me on sight, as if they had seen a ghoul.’ The Panzergrenadiers reached Buron but were forced out by a Canadian counterattack.
Meyer was concerned at the slowing of the attack’s momentum. The Canadians had recovered from their initial surprise, and now their artillery had found the range and was heavily shelling the area. Nevertheless, Meyer ordered his tanks to resume the attack. Meanwhile, the 1st and 2nd battalions were approaching Cambes. ‘Until Cambes, everything went well,’ Emil Werner remembered. ‘So far as we were concerned, the village looked fine. But on the outskirts we came under infantry fire and then all hell broke loose.’ Two men were killed, but the tankers still had not seen any enemy soldiers. Unaware of exactly what was to his front and unable to make contact with any supporting formations, the battalion commander leading the attack on Cambes decided to go onto the defensive. With his attack now slowing down, Meyer was horrified to discover that the 21st Panzer Division had not yet been able to advance, and his right flank was open and being menaced by Allied tanks.
Although their situation was now precarious, the boys of the 12th were reluctant to withdraw. A company commander described the difficulty of extricating exposed sections that, having fought their way forward, would not retire: ‘All had the will to reach the sea. It was difficult to get them back on the leash again. The order to fall back was met with disbelief, and as a result was followed only after a long delay.’ Some witnesses later said that they came across boys from the division crying over their failure to force the Allies back into the sea. That evening, the 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment arrived and moved into Putot, but was thrown out after a fierce counterattack by the 7th Canadian Brigade. With neither side able to secure complete victory, the lines on either side were solidifying and turning the battle into one of attrition around the villages.
A company of Panther tanks finally appeared on June 8, and Meyer personally led a night attack toward the village of Rots, which they reached at midnight. After several hours of confused fighting, however, the Germans 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, failing to exploit favorable opportunities.
With pressure mounting to crush the Allied lodgment, the Germans planned a major offensive for June 10, in which the 12th SS, 21st Panzer and Panzer Lehr divisions were also due to take part. Before the attack could begin, however, the Allies seized the initiative and attacked the left flank of Panzer Lehr.
A series of local and largely inconsequential attacks was mounted by both sides. Neither was able to secure a strategic advantage, and the German defensive perimeter around Caen tightened. Casualties on both sides steadily mounted. The 12th’s headquarters, positioned some 27 kilometers southwest of Caen, came under heavy and sustained naval gunfire on June 16, killing the commander, Brig. Gen. Fritz Witt, and several other senior officers. So determined had his attacks been since the invasion that Meyer was given command of the division. The 12th 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 panzers supported unreliable units such as the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division. To the west, a flak battery and 15 tanks, together with the 1st Battalion, 26th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment, held the important Carpiquet airfield.
British General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery, commander of the 21st Army Group, now began a series of attacks intended to push the Germans out of Caen once and for all. He hoped that seizure of the city would draw the bulk of the German armor to the eastern side of the Allied beachead and create the conditions for the breakout by the Americans in the west. The first was Operation Epsom, beginning on June 26 and directed toward Hill 112, south of Carpiquet. Meyer’s boys defended each hedge tenaciously but were steadily pushed back by the weight of Montgomery’s attack, which was mounted by three infantry divisions and two armored brigades, with more than 700 artillery pieces in support.
One German, forced to the ground by a rolling artillery barrage, surfaced to find his unit swamped by tanks and ‘furious Scotsmen hurling grenades.’ It was a confusing battle, and few participants retained clear memories of it, but the British line moved slowly southward, regularly subjected to fanatical counterattacks by the boys of the 12th.
The Germans were now forced to commit their last reserves to stem the tide, but on June 27, the British advance resumed. The Commonwealth soldiers managed to capture Hill 112 the next day. The Germans clung on for a while but then withdrew, and by the 29th the British had secured the important summit.
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 Hasser, 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!’
This article originally appeared in the July 2001 issue of World War II and written by Jon Latimer. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!