Gustav and his twin brother, Bernhard, were born on November 27, 1914, in Neu-Ulm, Bavaria, the sons of a baker. Gustav’s life’s ambition was to be a soldier, so he joined the Allgemeine-SS (General-SS) and the Nazi Party in the spring of 1934, because he thought membership in these organizations would help him when he applied to join the Reichswehr. It did not. Gustav received his Abitur (school leaving certificate, roughly equivalent to today’s high school diploma) in 1934 and promptly tried to enlist in the army but was rejected. (He was one year too early. Hitler’s military expansion did not begin in earnest until 1935.) Disappointed, he enlisted in the Waffen-SS instead and was assigned to the SS-Standarte “Deutschland” of the SS-VT in Ellwangen. He was promoted to SS corporal in 1936 and SS sergeant in 1937.
In a sense, advancement in the Waffen-SS was easier than in the more class-conscious army, and Knittel took advantage of this fact. He applied for officer training and was sent to the SS-Junkerschule at Bad Toelz, where he graduated 7th in his class in 1938. Commissioned SS second lieutenant on November 9, 1938, he returned to the SS Deutschland Regiment. The following summer, he was named adjutant of the SS Reserve Motorcycle Battalion “Ellwangen.” He was promoted to SS first lieutenant on November 9, 1939.
Knittel first saw action in France, as a platoon leader in the 15th (Motorcycle) Company of the LAH, where he did well until he was severely wounded in the left thigh during the attack on St. Pourcain on June 19, 1940. After he recovered, he was given command of the 3rd Company of the Leibstandarte’s Reconnaissance Battalion (later redesignated 1st SS Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion “Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler”). He led this company in the conquests of Yugoslavia and Greece, and in Operation Barbarossa, until July 10, 1941, when he was wounded by shrapnel and shot through the right shoulder as the Leibstandarte stormed the heights at Marchlewsk. After stops at various hospitals, he was sent to the SS replacement and training battalion at Dachau to recover.
Promoted to SS captain on November 9, 1941, Knittel was back in action on the Eastern Front later that month, where he distinguished himself in the capture of Rostov. He continued to lead his company in the retreat to the Mius, after which he was given command of the 3rd (light half-track) company of the 1st SS Recon. This unit was sent to the Sennelager Maneuver Area in Germany, where it was rebuilt and reequipped following its heavy losses on the Russian Front. Knittel and his men were then sent to Normandy, where they recovered from the winter fighting and trained new replacements until after the 6th Army was encircled at Stalingrad. The Leibstandarte was then hurried to the southern sector of the Eastern Front, where it took part in the battles around Kharkov. Knittel was wounded in the leg near Bereka on February 15 and in the left arm near Teterewino on July 11, but he remained with his troops.
In the spring of 1943, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, the commander of the 1st SS Reconnaissance, was earmarked to command the 25th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division “Hitler Youth.” Knittel succeeded him as commander of the 1st SS Recon and led it in the Battle of the Kursk and the subsequent retreats through Russia and Ukraine. He was promoted to SS major on April 23, 1943.
In March 1944, Knittel’s battalion held Hill 300 against five major Soviet attacks and enabled the army’s 68th Infantry Division to escape encirclement. For this and other actions, Gustav Knittel was awarded the Knight’s Cross. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Germany for a short leave and married 21-year-old Raymonde Gauthier on May 6. They would have one child, a son named Bruno, who was born on May 28, 1946. Knittel, meanwhile, returned to the war.
After three years on the Eastern Front, Knittel and his men were thrown into the Battle of Normandy a few days after D-Day. Here they were in action almost daily, and the Leibstandarte was again smashed. It was here, as he witnessed the devastating power of the Allied air forces, that SS Major Knittel realized that the war was lost. He nevertheless continued fighting—in Normandy, in the Falaise Pocket, and in the retreat across France to the Siegfried Line. After the retreat ended, Knittel finally managed to secure a noncombat position. Following a brief furlough at Neu-Ulm, Knittel took charge of the 1st SS Field Replacement Battalion at Luebbecke in Westphalia.
Because he knew that the war was lost, Gustav Knittel did not want to return to the front. Meanwhile, however, the brutal Wilhelm Mohnke replaced the badly wounded Theodor Wisch (who lost both of his legs) as commander of the 1st SS Panzer Division. It was Mohnke—who had obviously been impressed by Knittel’s performance in Russia—who insisted that he be reassigned as commander of the 1st SS Reconnaissance Battalion. Knittel arrived back at the Western Front on December 13, 1944, where he was named commander of Schnell Gruppe Knittel (Fast Group Knittel), a battle group built around the 1st SS Recon. Knittel asked Mohnke to give the command to another, but his appeal was rejected.
The Battle of the Bulge began on December 16. By this point of the war, the 1st SS was almost completely brutalized, especially under Mohnke’s command, and at least a dozen atrocities were committed. On December 17, at Wereth, members of Knittel’s battalion murdered 11 African American soldiers from the U.S. 333rd Artillery Battalion after they had surrendered. It is not clear whether or not Knittel knew about this, but it seems fairly certain that he was aware of atrocities against civilians at Stavelot, Parfondruy, and Renardmont on December 19. It is not certain that he sanctioned these murders, but it is certain that he did little to restrain his men. His battalion was not involved in the Malmedy Massacre, as its route of advance that day was south of Kampfgruppe Peiper, which did the killing. Later in the battle, Knittel covered the retreat of the remnants of Joachim Peiper’s regiment.
For Gustav Knittel, the war ended on December 31, 1944, when American airplanes bombed his command post near Vielsahn. The SS major suffered a serious concussion (his fifth wound of the war). He had not returned to active duty when Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945.
Following the surrender, Knittel hid out at a farm near Stuttgart. On January 5, 1946, he attempted to visit his wife at Neu-Ulm, but found that agents of the American CIC (Counter Intelligence Service) were waiting for him. He was taken to Schwaebisch Hall, where he was a defendant in the Malmedy trials. He confessed to the murder of American prisoners, but later averred that the CIC obtained the confession as a result of physical abuse and psychological torture. The CIC agents naturally denied this, and Knittel was found guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment on July 16. Six weeks later, his wife filed for divorce.
Gustav Knittel filed at least three appeals and his sentence was progressively reduced. He was released as part of an amnesty on December 7, 1953. Shortly thereafter, he went to work for Opel as a car salesman.
Knittel suffered his first heart attack in 1968 and the rest of his life was characterized by ill health, which forced his retirement in 1970. He died of heart failure during surgery in an Ulm hospital on June 30, 1976.