Marder I, 17 SS Panzergrenadier Division Gotz von Berlichingen
17. SS commander Werner von Ostendorf (left) plans the attack on Carentan with Fallschirmjager commander Friedrich August
Freiherr von der Heydte (centre).
Thrown into combat on 10 June 1944 near Carentan, the reconnaissance battalion of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division fought the American paratroops of the US 101st Airborne. Dubbed the Battle of Bloody Gulch, the paratroops were only saved by the arrival of the US 2nd Armored Division. The 17th SS then suffered during the American Operation Cobra and during the subsequent futile German counterattack at Mortain. The division escaped the Falaise pocket and was eventually withdrawn to Metz. It was the only panzergrenadier unit to fight in Normandy.
The grand sounding 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen was authorised by Hitler on 3 October 1943, though it did not start coming together until 15 November in France, within General Chevallerie’s 1st Army area of responsibility. Created from replacement units and conscripts under SS-Gruppenführer Werner Ostendorff, the formation found itself relying on Romanian conscripts and French vehicles and assault guns. Under the circumstances it needed a man of some character to meld the fledgling division.
Werner Ostendorff’s background was as a qualified Luftwaffe pilot and he had served in Russia on a technical exchange. In the mid-1930s he joined the SS and served in Poland during the invasion. In 1942 Ostendorff became Chief of Staff with Paul Hausser’s SS General Kommando (later II SS Panzer Corps), seeing action at Kharkov and Kursk, during which time he gained a reputation as a highly-respected staff Officer. The division was to have ten different commanders before the end of the war, with Ostendorff and SS-Standartenführer Otto Binge serving with Götz von Berlichingen twice.
The Division’s title came from Götz von Berlichingen (1480–1562), a knight who lost a hand in battle near Landshut in 1504, during the Bavarian War of Succession. His hand was replaced with an iron fist and this was adopted as the symbol of the 17th SS. Hitler’s right-hand man, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, travelled from Berlin on 10 April 1944 to attend the division’s formal activation, with Panzergruppe West’s commander, Schweppenburg, and I SS Panzer Corps’ commander, ‘Sepp’ Dietrich, at Thouars, northwest of Poiters. Divisional cuff titles were also bestowed on the unit.
The only other German divisions in the region were the 158th Infantry Division way to the west, deployed between Nantes and Fontenay-le-Comte, and the 708th Infantry Division to the southwest near Royan, guarding the bay of Biscay against possible Allied invasion. Elements of the latter division were also to end up fighting the Americans in Normandy. Even further south lay the 11th Panzer Division, the only armoured unit not to be drawn north to Normandy.
By the time of D-Day, the 17th SS was not fully combat ready and although some 17,321 men strong it lacked forty per cent of its Officers and noncommissioned Officers (NCOs). The division also lacked transport and by mid-May had just 257 trucks and towing vehicles. SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 17 had received none of its Jagdpanzer IVs and the III Abteilung had just nine self-propelled guns.
By early June the situation was little better, with its armoured forces consisting of just forty-two StuG III assault guns equipping SS-Panzer Abteilung 17 and twelve Marder self-propelled guns with SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 17. Three Panzer IV command vehicles did not arrive until 12 August. SS-Panzer Abteilung 17, though, was in capable hands; Sturmbannführer Ludwig Kepplinger was a Waffen-SS veteran who had fought in Russia with the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking.
Two days after the Allies landed, the independent Sturmgeschütz Abteilung 902 with thirty-one assault guns, stationed at Tours on the Loire, to the northeast of Thouars, was placed under Ostendorff’s control. These were a welcome supplement to the division’s meagre armoured forces. En route, however, the battalion was side-tracked, for while the 17th SS was attached to General der Fallschfirmtruppen Eugen Meindl’s II Parachute Corps, Abteilung 902 ended up with von Choltitz’s LXXXIV Corps. By 24 June it was with the 91st Air landing Division and, escaping encirclement, it eventually ended up with Wiese’s 19th Army in southern France.
On 6 June, the 17th SS divisional HQ was still at Thouars and it would take a week for Ostendorf to get the division to the front. The very day after D-Day, the division received orders to depart its marshalling area and head for Normandy. Under the designation of Operation Mimose (or Mimosa) the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division redeployed from the area of General Chevallerie’s 1st Army, south of the Loire, to the sector of General Dollmann’s 7th Army, facing Lieutenant General Omar N Bradley’s US 1st Army at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.
The complete lack of transport meant that the division could only be moved piecemeal, and the most readily-available unit was SS-Panzeraufklärungs Abteilung 17, the reconnaissance battalion. A kampfgruppe had to be scraped together from three battalions. Nonetheless the division moved off in good spirits, happy at last that the uncertainty was over and that it would be seeing action. The Allies though were determined that this unit would not have an easy time of it.
Only four of the division’s six infantry battalions moved on 7 June, the other two battalions had to rely on bicycles. Similarly, a flak battery and the artillery units began to move on the evening of the 7th, while the assault guns and self-propelled guns were loaded onto trains. Allied fighter-bombers quickly pounced on the freight cars, claiming one StuG III for the loss of two aircraft. Three days later they had been unloaded between Montreuil and la Feche and were rumbling toward Mayenne.
Some units, including SS-Flak Abteilung 17 and SS-Pioneer Bataillon 17, had to be left behind to protect the crossings over the Loire at Saumur, located between Angers and Tours. The flak battalion did not deploy to Normandy until the end of June and then I Battery and its 8.8 cm guns were left to guard the bridges for the want of prime movers or tow trucks. Similarly the pioneer battalion, some 726 men, did not reach Normandy until mid-July.
A divisional Staff Officer recalled how moving in daylight would soon draw the unwanted attentions of the Allied fighter-bombers:
Our motorized columns were coiling along the road towards the invasion beaches. Then something happened that left us in a daze. Spurts of fire licked along the column and splashes of dust staccatoed the road. Everyone was piling out of the vehicles and scuttling for the neighbouring fields. Several vehicles were already in flames. This attack ceased as suddenly as it had crashed upon us fifteen minutes before.
An hour later the fighter-bombers were back inflicting even more damage, wrecking the division’s anti-tank guns and even more vehicles. Werner Ostendorff’s men gave up the advance and abandoned the road trying to camouflage their vehicles and equipment in the nearby farms and farmland. From now on the 17th SS would travel toward the battle at night, the cost of doing otherwise was simply too great.
By 8 June SS-Panzeraufklärungs Abteilung 17, although under fighter-bomber attack, reached Balleroy, halfway between St Lô and Bayeux. Two days later it went into action for the first time when it was committed to the 352nd Infantry Division’s sector north of St Lô; the latter had suffered 1,200 casualties on D-Day. At the same time SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 37 arrived at La Chapelle southeast of the city.
While the reconnaissance battalion was sent to help the 352nd Infantry near Caen, Ostendorff went forward to make contact with the 6th Fallschfirmjäger Regiment defending Carentan, which had been advised by 7th Army, via LXXXIV Corps, that the SS were on the way. The German paratroopers were so short of ammunition that they requested an air drop by the Luftwaffe, but late in the afternoon of the 11th they abandoned Carentan to the Americans, just as the 17th SS were preparing to relieve them.
The US 101st Airborne Division captured Carentan on 12 June and the 17th SS adopted defensive positions to the south. The first real test of strength came on the 13th when the panzergrenadiers, supported by the StuG IIIs, set about the 101st Airborne southwest of the town.
The bulk of the 17th SS began to arrive in their assembly areas prior to a counterattack to recapture Bayeux on 11 June and was subordinated to II Parachute Corps. After D-Day, General Meindl’s II Parachute Corps with the 3rd Parachute Division were deployed from Brittany to counter the Americans in the St Lô area.
Formed from the XIII Flieger Corps, Meindl’s command came into being in February 1944 and deployed in reserve near Paris under C-in-C West. In May it was placed under Dollmann’s 7th Army. Unusually for a command and control staff, Meindl’s Corps had its own dedicated armoured unit in the shape of Fallschfirm-Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 12 with eleven combat-ready assault guns. Numerous units, including the 17th SS, would pass through II Parachute Corps’ hands.
Ostendorf and his operations Officer, Obersturmbannführer Konrad, set up their command post at St-Sébastien-de-Raids southwest of Carentan to direct the attack. At 0700 on the 13th Sturmgeschütz of SS-Panzer Abteilung 17 got to within 500 yards of Carentan before being stopped by elements of the US 2nd Armored and 101st Airborne Divisions. Similarly SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 37 made no progress and by midday it was clear the attack on Carentan had failed. By the 15th the division had suffered 456 casualties in its struggle with the Americans.
In the meantime, 7th Army’s reserve, Panzer Abteilung 100, attached to the 91st Air landing Division, faired poorly at Baupte, meaning that the Americans were soon threatening the flank and rear of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division. The battalion was in fact a training unit equipped with obsolete French tanks, stationed west of Carentan and covering Baupte and Ste Mère-Eglise. Panicked by the American airborne landings that had claimed a number of Officers and men within two weeks, the unit had ceased to exist.
Ostendorf and Konrad were furious at the commander of the 6th Fallschfirmjäger Regiment for withdrawing southeast from Baupte and arrested the man. Only the intervention of the II Parachute Corps secured his release.
General Max Pemsel, Chief of the General Staff, 7th Army, noted:
The failure of the attack launched by the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division in the direction of Carentan was due not so much to the lack of air support as to the inadequate training of the young division, which ran into the simultaneously launched counterattack. The 100th Panzer Training Battalion had only a few obsolete and hardly manoeuvrable French tanks. It was intended to deceive the enemy by the name of this unit.
By mid-June nearly all the division’s units had arrived, although the flak and pioneer battalions were held back at Saumur to assist with the crossings over the Loire river, which were under regular air attack. In total, the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division fielded about 15,500 men. On the 16th SS-Brigadeführer Ostendorf was wounded and relieved by SS-Oberführer Eduard Diesenhoffer.
The division was bolstered with a number of units of dubious utility. The disgraced Fallschfirmjäger Regiment 6 was tactically attached to the 17th SS on 20 June, which had previously been part of von Choltitz LXXXIV Corps based south of Carentan. Two battalions of Soviet deserters, Ostbataillon 439 and 635, also came under its direction along with the remnants of 7th Army’s Sturm-Bataillon AOK and Pionier-Bataillon Angers. The division was also assigned Fallschfirm Pioneer Bataillon 5 from the wholly inadequate 5th Parachute Division in mid July. The battalion was of little value as it lacked small arms; in late May it had just twenty-eight riles.
The presence of the 17th SS in the Carentan area helped persuade the Americans that they should first clear the Cotentin Peninsula and capture Cherbourg before making further efforts to strike southward. In the face of the US 4th, 9th and 79th Divisions the German garrison did not surrender until 26 June.
At the end of June the division’s six infantry battalions were still alright, but the reconnaissance battalion had been considerably weakened. By this stage the 17th SS had lost nearly 900 casualties. Similarly, the panzer regiment only had eighteen combat-ready assault guns, supported by thirty-two 7.5cm anti-tank guns, including the self-propelled weapons and four powerful 8.8cm Pak 43s. During early July the 5th and 7th Kompanies from SS-Panzer Regiment 2 were attached to the 17th SS along the Périers-Carentan road. However, by the middle of the month it had lost another eight Sturmgeschütz and Kampfgruppe Fick was formed using SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 37 and SS-Pioneer Abteilung 17 under SS-Obersturmbannführer Jacob Fick.
Other units facing the Americans were suffering much higher rates of attrition. Deployed to the east of St Lô, the 3rd Parachute Division, consisting of three regiments with little heavy equipment of note apart from nine 7.5cm Pak 40 anti-tank guns and twelve 10.5cm field guns, had suffered 4,064 casualties by12 July. Likewise, the 352nd Infantry had been through the grinder and lost 7,886 casualties. All of the infantry formations west of St Lô fighting alongside the 17th SS were in similar dire straits.
This meant that the principal forces that would have to withstand and deflect the American’s break-out offensive, Operation Cobra, were the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division and Panzer Lehr Panzer Division. West of the Vire, the sector facing the American XIX Corps, was part of the 20 mile (32km) front held by the 17th SS. Its right wing consisted of Kampgruppe Heintz, employing units from the battered 275th and 352nd Infantry Divisions.