Within days the French defences along the Somme, extravagantly named the Weygand Line, had been broken and on 9 June the Aisne was crossed. The following weeks saw one river line after another carried with ease. On 14 June, the same day as that on which the Marne was crossed, Paris fell and with the surrender of the capital French morale plummeted and military efficiency suffered. This does not imply either that the French Army did not continue to fight well or that SS V’ Division saw no action of any importance. Many French divisions struggled heroically, but by the evening of 17 June the Army of the East was breaking up and by the 22nd it had surrendered. This forced the French government to ask for an armistice which was signed on the 25th. An account of that pell-mell advance southwards from the Somme, was given by Ernst Schuelke who was on a course for unit leaders in Sennelager when the campaign in the west opened.
‘We all wanted to get back quickly to our units, but we had to stay and finish the course. It was, therefore, not until the middle of May that the RTO in Cologne could send me back to my unit, 3rd Battalion of the Artillery Regiment. Our army’s advance had been so rapid that I did not catch up with the Division until it was positioned on the east bank of the River Somme.
The enemy had blown the bridges and was defending the west bank. The guns of our battalion, together with the heavy weapons companies of ‘Deutschland’ Regiment, were to support the crossing by that regiment’s infantry. On the night before the crossing was made the enemy artillery fired without pause but caused little damage. The artillery survey group, to which I belonged, together with D’ Regimental HQ crossed the river at dawn. The artillery shoot was faultless. The infantry then went into action along the whole length of the Somme and as we of the artillery survey group were with them we could quickly bring down enfilade fire to good effect. Resistance was soon broken and with the enemy defeated on the Somme the great pursuit battle began. We thrust past Orleans, Tours and Poitiers and south of that place were given a short rest. The CO gave me orders that on the following day I was to go out and survey good artillery positions south of Poitiers. I left at dawn heading west and noticed that many of the villages had similar names, differentiated only by the name of a river. Soon I was hopelessly lost. Then we heard the sound of BMW motor cycles. It was the lads of No. 15 Company of ‘Deutschland’ Regiment. In the middle of the column rode Steiner and his officers. I reported to him and he told me to join the group. We were still heading westwards in the direction of Angouleme and there was not another German soldier on the road, but we did see columns of French soldiers who mistook us for British troops, probably because of our camouflage jackets. As we rushed past them we could hear their shouts of “Lay down your arms!” Angouleme came in sight. At the side of the road stood a French machine-gun mounted on a tripod, but before the soldiers manning it could grasp what was happening they had been disarmed and we drove towards the railway station. The roads leading off the station were guarded by platoons of No. 15 Company. Standartenführer Steiner then reported over the wireless that we had penetrated more than 60 kilometres through the French lines.
He then ordered me to take my five men and a motorcycle combination to fetch the mayor and arrange the surrender of the town. Outside the Town Hall there were about thirty heavily armed policemen. I jumped from my car and asked them in a friendly fashion where the mayor could be found. They were so surprised that none of them reacted aggressively. I was taken to a conference room while my men stood around our vehicle with their guns at the ready. The men in the hall jumped up, shocked, when I entered. I told them, through an interpreter, that the town was surrounded and that if the mayor did not present himself without delay at the railway station the town would be blown apart by artillery. I directed the mayor to take a seat in my car and to wave a white flag. If there were any resistance in the town he would not have long to live.
In this fashion we drove back to the station and handed over our prize to the regimental commander. In the course of my report I remarked that we had seen a number of officers and soldiers in the town. Immediately Steiner told me to fetch the Town Major. I must admit that his order shook me, but we drove back into the centre of the town. It was now midday. People whom I questioned told me that it was lunch time and that I would find the officers and their ladies in the Mess. This was a large three-storey building located just outside the town. We reached it, and together with two signallers I raced up the stairs while the rest of my detachment stayed with the car. On my way to the first floor I noticed, with relief, that the officers had left their pistols in the cloakroom. We charged into the hall. In it was a horseshoe-shaped table set with food and lots of wine. Around the table sat a number of officers and their ladies.
‘What sort of impression we three made I cannot say. There we were in our dirty, dusty camouflage jackets with weapons at the ready. A hubbub of noise broke out and I shouted above this, in French. “Gentlemen, you are my prisoners.” The ladies reacted hysterically and again I shouted, “The ladies will please leave the room.” They departed quickly and in response to my question whether any of those present spoke German an Alsatian lieutenant came forward. I asked him to point out the senior officer present. This was an elderly colonel, the commander of a tank regiment which was quartered in barracks just outside the town. The interpreter translated my message that resistance was useless, the town was surrounded and that any resistance would be met by an artillery barrage. The officers formed three ranks and marched behind my car with the colonel and the interpreter seated in the back and waving white flags. One hundred and sixteen officers marched behind my car while the motor-cycle combination brought up the rear with a machine-gun trained on them. Standartenführer Steiner was quite surprised with our little haul and gave me the order to return to the barracks with the colonel and bring in the tank regiment. A platoon of motor cyclists accompanied me. The colonel was told to parade his men on the barrack square without weapons and the prisoners were guarded by a small group of our SS motor cyclists until these were relieved by an infantry unit.’
One last anecdote from the fighting on the Western Front is that of Hermann Busch of No. 15 Company of Deutschland’ Regiment. He was one of a team chosen to test the British Boys anti-tank rifle, numbers of which had been captured during the fighting in the Nieppe forest. An armoured plate was set up but the first shot did not hit the target. We did notice, however, that a stallion grazing in a field to the right of the target had suddenly dropped down. Inspection showed that it had been killed by the bullet fired by the anti-tank rifle. We then found out that the Tommies had slightly bent the barrel of every one of the guns before they took ship at Dunkirk.’
With the signing of the Franco-German armistice, hostilities in western Europe came to an end. There was a short break in the South of France before SS V’ moved into Holland at the beginning of July where chief among its duties was the supervision of the Dutch army’s demobilization. Life had returned to an almost peace-time level and the local population, if not overly friendly, was certainly not hostile. The colour of the uniforms worn by the soldiers in the streets, the army of occupation, was field grey and not the familiar khaki of the Royal Netherlands Army, but the men of SS V’ Division were young, smart and willing to be friendly.
During the stay in the Low Countries men and sub-units were posted away to Leibstandarte’, as cadres for units which that formation was raising. There was expansion in ‘V’ Division when the number of battalions in the artillery regiment was increased. A new SS Division Viking was being created at this time and drafts were supplied from ‘V’ Divisional Headquarters, from Germania’ Regiment, the 2nd Battalions of the artillery and of the reconnaissance regiments as well as No. 3 Company of the anti-tank battalion. The biggest loss to V Division was that of Brigadeführer Steiner, commander of Deutschland’ Regiment, who went off to lead Viking’ Division. He was replaced as regimental commander by Willi Bittrich.
From Holland SS V marched to Visoul in southern France where on 3 December an order from Reichsführer HQ changed the title to SS Division Deutschland’, a distinction which was held for only a brief time.