Waiting in France 1944

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A young grenadier of the 12th Panzer Division “Hitlerjugend” Waffen SS, armed with a MG-42 near the front Norman in June 1944.

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Kurt Meyer held the position with poor equipment and under constant bombing with his division for two months. The units lost 60-70% of their battle force, companies were led by Unterführers, battalions were led by old Unterführers or young officers. Even their enemies admitted that the units showed excellent resistance, among those enemies was a Canadian, Chester Wilmot, from the 12th Panzer Division “Hitlerjugend” in his book “Fight for Europe”

The Canadian units sent some division members with cut pants back during the first attack, saying, “We don’t fight with children.” But this kind of attitude faded fast because the resistance of the 17-19 years old soldiers became stronger towards the enemies.

Lieutenant-General Fritz Bayerlein’s command, the so-called Panzer Lehr division, had been formed, like two other divisions (9th and 10th SS), principally to combat the Allied invasion, originating as a ‘lehr’ or demonstration unit and formed from the panzer training schools at Potsdam and Bergen. From eastern France it was transferred to Budapest in Hungary where it added the 901st Infantry Lehr Regiment, thereafter comprising two panzer grenadier regiments, the 130th Panzer Regiment, plus armoured artillery, engineer, signals and anti-tank battalions. In this form it returned to the Orleans area of France in May 1944, moving to Le Mans in June, one of the strongest divisions in the German Army with 109 tanks, forty assault guns and 612 halftracks -double the normal army complement of the last-named. As a ‘demon-stration’ division it could be expected to prove a formidable opponent of expert soldiers, but Bayerlein was a worried man, as he confided to his colleagues:

“Panzer Lehr has a prime duty on the invasion coast, but we are based well inland and unable to maintain the standard of training I demand, this due to a number of factors:

1 – the fuel situation, which becomes ever more critical;

2 – the nature of the local terrain, which prevents realistic manoeuvres;

3 – indecision at higher levels, which has resulted in a series of orders as to our location, all of which have been countermanded.

As a result I believe there is a real danger that when the invasion does come we will be caught in the wrong place. I believe Rommel agrees with this. The Field Marshal is always on the move along the coast and believes that if the enemy invasion forces are not defeated in the first few hours then we will lose, if only because of their air superiority.

What also worries me is that no firm tactical decisions have been made; every time our proposals are put forward no complete agreement is reached. The general consensus of opinion seems to be that we must wait and see. The people at 15th Army and von Rundstedt himself continually state the need to maintain strong forces in the Calais area, believing it is the most suitable place for an invasion. Rommel is scathing in countering this; he says for that very reason the enemy will avoid it! This seems obvious to him and we of Army Group B agree. Rommel insists the Bay of Seine is the most likely spot for a landing. I am sure he will be proved correct.

As to the general state of preparedness in materiel, apart from the fuel situation I am well satisfied. We are well equipped and have the experience to do a good job in defence, though from what I know of the Allied air power we are in for a difficult time. We know what we can expect from Goring and his Luftwaffe! We rarely see them! We have made our own intelligence assessment of the Allied strengths and weak-nesses on the ground; I fear if they are allowed to build up sufficient strength in materiel and manpower they will overwhelm us. They are capable in time of fielding a huge army on the continent. As to the British, I know them from experience. We are in for a tough fight. Even though I have no great fears over their tank arm I feel that once allowed to establish themselves they will never let go.

As to our Führer, I have never looked upon him as other than a Nazi figurehead, though he certainly has some amazing abilities. He is not the kind of man I see as honourable to lead Germany in any sort of conflict. I have heard rumours of a plot against him, but no details, and I never concern myself with such things. I hope Rommel stays clear of anything like that. It would be a very great shock to know he was involved.”

Major-General Gunther Blumentritt, Chief of Staff to C-in-C West, shared Bayerlein’s concerns:

“In Army Group B Rommel has done everything possible I believe to prepare the defences, but the uncertainties remain and will do until after the enemy lands his main force. We can rely on one thing: the Russians will desert at the first opportunity! As to our intelligence of the enemy’s preparations, the Luftwaffe have not been of the greatest help, though we are sure of the great concentrations of ships in the southern ports, especially in the area Portsmouth, Plymouth and Weymouth. It will need greater watching. Our listening service is monitoring the channels to the French Resistance and I believe they will provide an excellent pointer to the exact date. In the SS divisions we have excellent quality, yet even there they are to a considerable degree untried men.”

As a Colonel, Bayerlein had narrowly escaped capture and death at Alamein, allegedly taking to his heels while the then commander of the Deutsches Afrika Korps, General von Thoma, stood his ground to be bagged by the advancing British. Lieutenant-General Edgar Feuchtinger was another desert veteran who escaped capture, though the 21st Panzer was virtually destroyed in North Africa:

“We took some hard knocks in the desert, but now we are rebuilt and I have done my utmost to instil a renewed esprit de corps in the division. We have been able to get the vehicles we needed, but the men are another matter. So many veterans have been lost in Africa and Russia, but I am sure that by the time the invasion season is upon us we will have solved the problem within the constraints of our situation. Things are not perfect. The fuel situation is a constant problem; we are not allowed to carry out large-scale manoeuvres because of this and the nature of the countryside, which is very claustrophobic and thick with villages and farms to prevent combat in its more realistic terms. As a result too many of our exercises are carried out on map tables, which is all very well in theory. I had hoped to practise a large-scale invasion alert and send the division helter-skelter to the beaches, but this seems unlikely to happen. It is all very frustrating and I know our colleagues in Army Group B are of the same mood. Our conferences with 15th Army are stultifying; it is an effort to try and get some reality into our thinking and planning. We are always told the Führer will not allow this or that.

As to the SS divisions, naturally they are of good value, but it is impossible to play with them as they are all under Hitler’s control. And I must say von Rundstedt does not show the flexibility he should, even though he has no love for the Führer. He has an excellent military brain, but has become stultified through inaction.

The French play only a small part in our calculations. What activities the Resistance indulges in, such as espionage and sabotage, do not affect us, even though we must take it for granted our dispositions are known to the enemy because of French spies.

We have become good colleagues of Rommel and the other commanders in northern France. We are all much of the same mind. Once the Allies are permitted to gain a foothold they will build up over-whelming strength. For that reason the invasion must be defeated on the beaches.”

Kurt Meyer earned his laurels in the Balkans and Russia before being appointed second-in-command of the newly formed 12th SS Hitlerjugend division later in 1943.

“Gentlemen, comrades, I have been appointed deputy under General Fritz Witt, who I know very well by experience. I have every confidence in him. Our new division will now enter serious training here in Belgium, which will last several months. From my long experience in the East I feel competent to take on this honourable task and confident the division will attain its combat status to help protect the invasion front. As you realise, it is difficult to place our units at con-centration points since we do not know exactly where the blow will fall. For this reason the Führer and others, including Rundstedt, believe it wise to hold the panzer divisions back from the coast in readiness so they can be moved swiftly to any one point where the chief landing takes place. In this view I and some others agree; elsewhere there are those who disagree.

The 1st Leibstandarte SS are nearer the invasion front, but we are all spread too thin, and I fear time will prove of the essence when the Allies do come.”

His fear that the time factor would be crucial in the early stages of the coming battle would prove to be justified, though even Meyer, with his great combat experience, had no idea how time would be bought at his expense by the Allied air forces. Confidence in his division would have been shaken had he appreciated the terrible ordeal soon to face them -not that there was anything Meyer could have done about this. A total lack of preparation to face air attack by the enemy’s tactical air power went unnoticed, even though the desert veterans of the German Army could have enlightened him on this danger.

It is interesting to compare 12th SS with 21st Panzer, which according to one authoritative source was the only panzer division in the West unfit for service on the Eastern Front, being equipped in some units with inferior tanks of foreign manufacture (i. e. Czech and French), some of them lightweight.* It was also weak insofar as it contained only one infantry segment (104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment). By comparison 12th SS contained not only the standard engineer, signals, artillery and anti-tank battalions, but two infantry regiments plus a ‘projector’ battalion of heavy multiple mortars (the ‘Moaning Minnies’), totalling some 20,000 men in all. Its training cadres were supplied by the 1st SS, the average age of its soldiers alleged to be only seventeen; the truth was probably eighteen, and photographs seem to bear this out. Neither were they large, physical supermen.

Since 1940 Himmler and his staffs had endeavoured and succeeded in building up the strength of their SS divisions, so that by 1944, while practically every division in the German Army had been cut down through attrition to around 10,000 men, the SS divisions were maintained at around double that number, and were always stronger in armour. This was achieved despite the fact that every one of the ‘classic’ SS divisions had been decimated during the protracted and bitter battles in the East. For example, of the 17,265 soldiers of the 3rd SS Totenkopf division who invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941, 12,625 had become casualties by the following March, with only 5,029 being replaced. Despite an 80% loss rate, the division lived to fight again in the best SS tradition as a ‘fire brigade’ unit in Russia after being withdrawn to France for rebuilding as a full-fledged panzer division. Diverted by the impending Mediterranean crisis and then ordered back to the Russian front, Totenkopf’s extra-ordinary and often insubordinate commander Eicke managed to gain a month’s respite from his superiors (Himmler and Hitler) in order to try and bring his depleted division back to full strength. Suffice to say that his efforts, while un-typical of the SS as a whole, do illustrate the great energy and zeal displayed by the German military in times of crisis.

Eicke was saddled with thousands of sub-standard recruits, boys fresh from labour service without discipline (on SS lines) and lacking physique. These he worked from dawn to nearly midnight on gruelling physical training and combat exercises, while armed parties of SS veterans toured the French countryside, confiscating every usable vehicle and converting it to their use. By the time his month was up, 120 trains were required to transport Totenkopf to Kiev in the Ukraine, the jumping-off point for the battle zones. The soldiers had huddled frozen in box cars for two weeks on that journey.

Eicke was ruthless, as evidenced by his earlier ‘exploits’, and due for death soon afterwards. Meyer and the other SS commanders, by contrast, had no such problems in the West where conditions, at first, were heavenly in comparison to those in the East. Only in 1944 did they greatly deteriorate when the Allies inaugurated their transport inter-diction campaign through the bombing and strafing squadrons, incidentally, cost the lives of somewhere around 10,000 French civilians.

If some emphasis has been put on the SS, this is because in the Normandy match it was they who provided the backbone and became the greatest obstacle to the Allied advance. Many German Army units would fight stubbornly on the coast, but once this defensive crust was broken the cudgel was mainly in the hands of men like Meyer, Sepp Dietrich, Hausser and Ostendorff (the latter on the American front). How was it that the Germans could take ‘kids’ who were invariably undernourished by Allied military standards, certainly only average or smaller physically, and somehow transform them into fighting ‘fanatics’?

The results of SS-type training (rather than indoctrination in the ideological sense) show in the accounts that follow when the ‘Normandy experience’ is viewed from the German side.

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