The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend went into battle for the first time in Normandy, but gave a good account of itself as the scourge of Canadian arms throughout the Normandy campaign. Derisively called a baby division with a milk-bottle badge by a disparaging Allied press, the division had been formed in June 1943 almost entirely of youths around seventeen years of age. This was a consequence of Reichsjugendführer Arthur Axmann’s Hitler Youth project, approved by Hitler after Stalingrad, to induct senior Hitlerjugend with some military training into a volunteer division. On passing the test of war, this formation would serve as a model for the incorporation of additional volunteers into other German divisions.
In June 1943, Oberführer Fritz Witt of the Leibstandarte assumed command, and with other veteran officers and noncommissioned officers from the Waffen SS and army, he instituted a vigorous training program that stressed fitness. One suspects that easier access to better training areas than the Allies had in Britain also enabled them to conduct more realistic field exercises, including live fire. The training philosophy of the Hitlerjugend appears to have been innovative, with great importance attached to inculcating a sense of responsibility, self-sacrifice, and comradeship. Only eighteen-year-olds were allowed cigarettes; younger soldiers were issued candy. The relationship between battle-hardened veterans and inexperienced youth has been likened to that between older and younger brothers.
For nine months, despite certain equipment shortages, the 12th SS conducted thorough battle-oriented training. Fieldcraft—in particular camouflage techniques learned from the Russians—received special attention. Marksmanship training focused on shooting not on formal gallery ranges, but exclusively in the field using silhouette targets. Physical fitness was attained mainly through playing sports and running obstacle courses rather than route marching. Parade square drill took a back seat to training under as realistic combat conditions as possible. Panzer battalions concentrated on their basic skills, which included repair and maintenance, driver training, radio operation, and gunnery. As cross-training was an unaffordable luxury by 1944, new crewmen learned only one of these jobs. Formation training from early 1944 consisted of live-fire and large-scale tank exercises that stressed the cooperation of arms within the panzer battle group. By April 1944, the division had already suffered fifteen dead, presumably the result of training accidents. When the 20,540 soldiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division (two panzergrenadier regiments of three infantry battalions each and one panzer regiment with Mark IVs and one Panther battalion) went into action, they were considered excellently trained—as well trained as scarcely any other division had ever been—so that their operational employment could be fully justified. This, more than just will and fanaticism, was surely their great forte.