The Hitler Youth Were Fierce Fighters
There are few German formations surrounded by as much legend and notoriety as the Hitler Youth Division. There is a very good reason for that. The 12th SS Panzer Division "Hitlerjugend" was one of the premier formations of the entire Third Reich military apparatus despite being composed largely of boys below the age of 18. Let's take a look at the 12 SS Panzer Division's history, from birth to death.
|SS-Panzergrenadiers Sepp Bund, Klaus Schuh, and Günther Hamel of Regiment 25 (12 SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend”) on June 12, 1944. They are in the orchard of the Abbaye d’Ardenne near Caen, Normandy. This colorized photo shows them after being awarded the Iron Cross Second Class for the destruction of a British tank. They also would have received the Tank Destruction Badge. Of the three, only Hamel on the right survived the war (Woscidlo, Wilfried, Federal Archive Bild 146-1984-035-09A).|
BackgroundFirst things first: the 12th SS Panzer Division has the "SS" in its name because it was not an ordinary Wehrmacht outfit. Instead, it was an auxiliary to the German Army (Heer). As a general matter, SS fighting (Waffen) divisions began proliferating as the war progressed due to necessity: military skill began to take a back seat to political reliability, and the SS units were reliable. The SS (Schutzstaffel," or "Protective Squadron") was not originally intended to form fighting units, and Adolf Hitler was opposed to the idea of integrating these ideologically pure men into the Heer, so they were kept separate from regular units. SS unit operations were under the control of the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht), as distinct from the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) which controlled most Heer units. This gave the SS units wide latitude to chart their own tactical course. It also gave them special channels to the high command to blame defeats on the regular army units.
|Hitlerjugend troops during the Battle of Caen, Summer of 1944 (colorized).|
GenesisGottlob Berger, an aide (SS-Gruppenführer) to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, came up with the idea of a Hitler Youth Division in January 1943. It was the time of Stalingrad and the onset of "Total War," so any idea that might work was quickly accepted. An order went out on 13 February 1943 creating what would become the 12th SS Panzer Division, to be composed originally of the Class of 1926 (16- and 17-year-olds).
|Troops of the Leibstandarte. It originated as a spit-and-polish unit for the protection of Adolf Hitler. It evolved into a savage Waffen-SS outfit. This picture must have been taken late in the war, note the presence of an apparently Asian soldier.|
|Heinrich Himmler and Arthur Axmann inspect the 12th SS Hitlerjugend.|
|Fritz Witt with his dog.|
NormandyThe 12th SS Panzer Division remained encamped near Caen until Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy, on 6 June 1944. Caen was a key objective of the British troops landing at the eastern end of the landing beach, and the 12th SS Panzer Division defended the city. This began a 10-week struggle between the British and the 12th SS Panzer Division which forms the heart of the division's legend and notoriety. The 12th SS Panzer Division moved to the front on the afternoon of 6 June after finally receiving orders from Berlin, opposing the British near Sword and Juno beaches.
|Panzer Meyer and fellow officers at Ardenne Abbey.|
|Max Wünsche and Panzer Meyer in Kharkov, Ukraine.|
|M4 Sherman tank of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers advancing in Caen, Normandy. 10th July 1944.|
|Infantrymen of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles preparing to embark for the invasion of France. England, 1 June 1944.|
|Battleship HMS Rodney fires its guns off the coast of Normandy, supporting the D-Day invasion. Naval gunfire support was critical throughout the Normandy campaign.|
|Troops advancing during Operation Cobra.|
|Kurt "Panzer" Meyer (colorized).|
|An obvious propaganda shot, but does show the weaponry of a Hitler Youth.|
|Waffen SS Brigdeführer Fritz Witt confers with Max Wünsche and Panzer Meyer in Normandy. (Ang, Federal Archive).|
|Hitler Youth (right) visit the Hitler Youth Division (left) during the spring of 1944 (Woscidlo, Wilfried, Federal Archive Picture 146-1987-121-11A).|
|A memorial held in 2007 for the victims of the massacre at Tavaux and Plomion. The village of Tavaux received the Medal of the Resistance.|
Operation Wacht am RheinWith the firming of German defenses in October 1944, the 12th SS Panzer Division was re-formed at Nienburg, Germany. The new permanent commander was SS-Obersturmbannführer Hugo Kraas. The 12th SS Panzer Division returned to the front lines for Operation Wacht am Rhein, the German offensive usually known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was placed within SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army.
|Waffen-SS tankers in Belgium/France, 1943/44 (Kurth, Bernhard, Federal Archive Picture 101I-297-1726-07).|
Operation FrühlingserwachenHaving once again suffered massive casualties, the 12th SS Panzer Division was ordered along with the rest of the 6th SS Panzer Army to Hungary to assist with the recapture of Budapest. The 12th SS Panzer Division arrived in Hungary in early February 1945, too late to make a difference. After participating in the unsuccessful Operation Frühlingserwachen (Spring Awakening) that began on 6 March 1945, the 12th SS Panzer Division soon was fighting to avoid encirclement itself. A steady move toward Vienna ensued which was a cross between retreat and wild flight. Once Vienna was lost on 14 April, the objective became to reach American lines, as the Russians were notorious for brutality to prisoners. This objective the remnants of the 12th SS Panzer Division achieved by the end of the war on 8 May 1945, when the survivors surrendered to the 65th US Infantry Division commanded by Major General Stanley Eric Reinhart.
|German soldiers surrender in Budapest, Hungary. February 1945|
AftermathAs noted above, the 12th SS Panzer Division committed atrocities during its operations. This was not uncommon with Waffen SS troops by this stage of the war. While the murder of American GIs at Malmédy on December 17, 1944, by men under the command of Joachim Peiper in the 1st SS Panzer Division is better known than the crimes committed by men of the 12th SS Panzer Division, the Hitler Youth commanders were called to account.
|A member of the Hitler Youth Division in Normandy.|
|One of the few survivors of the Hitler Youth Division.|