German panzer troops fought ferociously to halt the Allied advance after the invasion of Normandy.
By Michael D. Hull
John Keegan, the eminent British historian, noted that, despite defeats and heavy casualties, the German army always seemed to have an endless supply of platoon and battalion leaders in World War II. Sadly, this was not always the case with the British army, which was faced with a critical manpower shortage by the time of the Normandy campaigns.
“I would be interested to know how the Germans were able to pull out good leaders at the moment of crisis,” one retired senior British officer wrote after the war. “They were also better at blending a wide variety of units and arms of the service into one group and then fighting like tigers.” Many Allied veterans have agreed that, although they could never forget nor forgive the atrocities committed by some members of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, they had to admire the Germans’ military achievements and astounding resilience.
In the hedgerows and battered towns of Normandy during the summer and autumn of 1944, the Germans fought the armies of four nations, suffering heavy losses in men and materiel, but with no flagging of morale or of combat effectiveness. It was one of the most impressive fighting records in military history, which retired Maj. Gen. Michael Reynolds argues lucidly in Steel Inferno: 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy (Sarpedon Publishers, New York, 1997, $27.50). He details the day-to-day actions of the six panzer divisions based in northern France and Belgium, focusing on the two Waffen SS divisions designated by Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1943 to form the new I Panzer Corps–the feared 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte (Lifeguard) Adolf Hitler, which had fought almost continuously since September 1939, and the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjügend (Hitler Youth). From Villers-Bocage to Caen, from Bourguebus to Tilly-sur-Seulles, and from Mortain to the Falaise Pocket, the I Corps fought in every major battle in Normandy.
Reynolds, whose in-depth understanding of the subject and analytical and narrative skills are exceptional, examines tactical rather than strategic aspects of the Battle of Normandy, as well as its effect on the German soldiers. His book is meticulously balanced and rich in detail.
A Sandhurst graduate who has commanded at every level from infantry platoon to international division, General Reynolds fought alongside U.S. and Canadian troops in the Korean War. He also commanded the NATO International Mobile Force for three years in the 1980s. Like his widely acclaimed study of SS Lt. Col. Joachim Peiper, The Devil’s Adjutant, this is a first-class history.
The author traces the intense armored battles of Normandy and closely follows the actions of such legendary black-clad panzer leaders as Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, Peiper, Max Wunsche and Michael Wittman, who defeated a British brigade single-handedly with his Tiger tank in one of the most remarkable exploits of World War II.
Reynolds shows how the Normandy deadlock was finally cracked in August 1944 when Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s British and Canadian divisions, hammering doggedly at the bulk of the panzer force before Caen, enabled General George S. Patton’s Third Army to break out and threaten the German rear. He also describes the ensuing action on the killing ground of the Falaise Pocket, where the Germans found themselves caught in the Allied pincers.
Reynolds’ book shifts the historic emphasis of the Normandy campaign away from the beaches, where the invading British, American and Canadian armies were opposed by only five unsuspecting infantry divisions and one parachute regiment, to its most crucial aspect–breaking through the panzer divisions inland. This was the critical test of the campaign, and the unrelenting German resistance forced the Allies to struggle for virtually every yard of French soil.
The officers and men of the Leibstandarte and Hitlerjügend divisions were not supermen, says the author, and not all of them acted bravely. There are many examples of terrified youngsters surrendering to Allied soldiers. But they were extraordinary men, revered by some as heroes, while judged as criminals and reviled by others.
As a whole, says Reynolds, these German soldiers can be equated with the men of Julius Caesar’s finest legions and Napoleon Bonaparte’s Old Guard. They did not believe that war was a game to be played by rules, but a contest that had to be won. In the face of flawed strategic direction from the supreme command (Hitler), which often placed the panzer corps in almost impossible situations, the tactical-level officers compensated, and they and their men achieved remarkable results.
The combined effect of skilled officers, senior noncommissioned officers and brave, dedicated soldiers made for an extremely formidable military machine, says the author. Wounds were to be borne with pride and not used as a reason to leave the battlefield. Mercy was seen as a sign of weakness among the panzer soldiers and was neither offered nor expected.
The willingness of the Waffen SS to go on fighting when it was clear that Germany had lost the war can only be a source of wonder to today’s generation, Reynolds concludes. However, their experiences on the Eastern Front undoubtedly added to the panzer men’s resolve to protect their homeland for as long as possible and at whatever cost.
Original, gripping and thoroughly reliable, Michael Reynolds’ book is a masterfully crafted study of the Germans’ struggle in the Normandy campaigns.