In the summer of 1944, the mostly teenage soldiers of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Panzer Division threw itself against the mighty Allied onslaught to retake Europe.
By Jon Latimer
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 beachhead 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.