1943 marked the military turning point for Hitler's Reich. In January, the German Sixth Army was destroyed by the Russians at Stalingrad. In May, the last German strongholds in North Africa fell to the Allies. In July, the massive German counter-attack against the Russians at Kursk failed. The Allies invaded Italy. An Allied invasion of northern Europe was anticipated.
The war could only end with the "unconditional surrender" of Germany and its Axis partners, as stated by President Franklin Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. In February, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels retaliated by issuing a German declaration of "Total War."
Amid a dwindling supply of manpower, the existence of an entire generation of ideologically pure boys, raised as Nazis, eager to fight for the Fatherland and even die for the Führer, could not be ignored. The result was the formation of the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
To fill out the HJ Division with enough experienced soldiers and officers, Waffen-SS survivors from the Russian Front, including members of the elite Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler, were brought in. Fifty officers from the Wehrmacht, who were former Hitler Youth leaders, were also reassigned to the division. The remaining shortage of squad and section leaders was filled with Hitler Youth members who had demonstrated leadership aptitude during HJ paramilitary training exercises. The division was placed under of the command of 34-year-old Major General Fritz Witt, who had also been a Hitler Youth, dating back before 1933.
The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was the 12th German Waffen SS armored division, which fought during the last phase of World War II. The majority of its enlisted men in the Hitlerjugend Division were very young men, teenagers, drawn from members of the Hitler Youth born in 1926. The division first saw action on June 7, 1944, as part of the German defense of the Caen area during the Normandy campaign.
As the German Military was having a serious shortage of manpower after the surrender of the 6th Army at Stalingrad in February 1943, plans were put forth to create a 12th division in the Waffen-SS. Unlike some other divisions which were made up of foreign volunteers, this division would be created using the all German members of the Hitler Youth.
In September 1943, over 16,000 recruits had completed their basic training and were listed on the rosters of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Hitlerjugend. When the division was further training continued in Beverloo, Belgium, it was notified that it was to be formed as a panzer rather than a panzergrenadier unit. In October 1943 the division received its final designation, 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. Many of the recruits were so young that they were supplied with sweets and candies instead of the standard tobacco and alcohol ration.
In April 1944 the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend moved into its reserve area northwest of Paris and was declared fully operational. On D-Day, June 6, 1944 it was ordered to operate on the left flank of the 21st Panzer Division and throw the enemy west of the Orne into the sea and destroy him. When the Allies took the Normandy beaches and its surrounding areas, the SS Division Hitlerjugend, which consisted of 20,540 men, marched into the area to the north and west of the city of Caen.
The British and Canadian troops had been ordered to capture Caen within 24 hours of the D-Day landings. On the morning of June 7 the Hitlerjugend Division attacked and delivered many stinging defeats to the allies on that first day of battle. This SS Division fought so ferociously that they kept the allies from taking Caen for over a month. The British and Canadian outnumbered these young German SS soldiers both in men and material, but the fighting spirit of this elite division stopped operations ‘Epsom’ and ‘Goodwood’ in their tracks.
After the invasion battles the division was sent to Germany for refitting and on December 16, 1944, was once again sent to the front. The 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend fought against the Americans at the Battle of the Bulge, in the Ardennes forest. After the failure of the Ardennes counteratack, the division was sent east to fight the Red Army near Budapest, but eventually withdrew into Austria.
The SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend surrendered to the Americans in Enns on May 8, 1945 with a strength of about 10,000 men. Proud and defiant until the end, they refused to drape their vehicles with white flags as ordered by the Americans and instead marched into captivity as if on the parade ground.
Among his young troops, morale was high. Traditional, stiff German codes of conduct between officers and soldiers were replaced by more informal relationships in which young soldiers were often given the reasons behind orders. Unnecessary drills, such as goose-step marching were eliminated. Lessons learned on the Russian Front were applied during training to emphasize realistic battlefield conditions, including the use of live ammunition.
Down but not out
On D-Day, June 6th, 1944, the HJ Division was one of three Panzer divisions held in reserve by Hitler as the Allies stormed the beaches at Normandy beginning at dawn. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the HJ Division was released and sent to Caen, located not far inland from Sword and Juno beaches on which British and Canadian troops had landed. The division soon came under heavy strafing attacks from Allied fighter bombers, which delayed arrival there until 10 p.m.
The HJ were off to face an enemy that now had overwhelming air superiority and would soon have nearly unlimited artillery support. The Allies, for their part, were about to have their first encounter with Hitler's fanatical boy-soldiers.
The shocking fanaticism and reckless bravery of the Hitler Youth in battle astounded the British and Canadians who fought them. They sprang like wolves against tanks. If they were encircled or outnumbered, they fought-on until there were no survivors. Young boys, years away from their first shave, had to be shot dead by Allied soldiers, old enough, in some cases, to be their fathers. The "fearless, cruel, domineering" youth Hitler had wanted had now come of age and arrived on the battlefield with utter contempt for danger and little regard for their own lives. This soon resulted in the near destruction of the entire division.
By the end of its first month in battle, 60 percent of the HJ Division was knocked out of action, with 20 percent killed and the rest wounded and missing. Divisional Commander Witt was killed by a direct hit on his headquarters from a British warship. Command then passed to Kurt Meyer, nicknamed 'Panzermeyer,' who at age 33, became the youngest divisional commander in the entire German armed forces.
After Caen fell to the British, the HJ Division was withdrawn from the Normandy Front. The once confident fresh-faced Nazi youths were now exhausted and filthy, a sight which "presented a picture of deep human misery" as described by Meyer.
In August, the Germans mounted a big counter-offensive toward Avranches, but were pushed back from the north by the British and Canadians, and by the Americans from the west, into the area around Falaise. Twenty four German divisions were trapped inside the Falaise Pocket with a narrow 20 mile gap existing as the sole avenue of escape. The HJ Division was sent to keep the northern edge of this gap open.
However, Allied air superiority and massive artillery barrages smashed the HJ as well as the Germans trapped inside the pocket. Over 5,000 armored vehicles were destroyed, with 50,000 Germans captured, while 20,000 managed to escape, including the tattered remnants of the HJ.
By September 1944, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend numbered only 600 surviving young soldiers, with no tanks and no ammunition. Over 9,000 had been lost in Normandy and Falaise. The division continued to exist in name only for the duration of the war, as even younger (and still eager) volunteers were brought in along with a hodgepodge of conscripts. The division participated in the failed Battle of the Bulge (Ardennes Offensive) and was then sent to Hungary where it participated in the failed attempt to recapture Budapest. On May 8, 1945, numbering just 455 soldiers and one tank, the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend surrendered to the American 7th Army.
In 1943, hundreds of thousands of young German lives had been lost on the Eastern Front, with huge casualties in and around Stalingrad. According to Hubert Meyer, who was the chief of staff of the 12th SS "Hitlerjugend" Division, "these events led to extraordinary measures on the German side which can most easily be summed up with the expression ‘Total War.' The Hitlerjugend Division was created from volunteers from the HJ born in the year 1926. The division "was to be a symbol of the willingness of the German youth to sacrifice itself and of its will to achieve victory." On 10 February 1943, Hitler gave his agreement to its formation in principle. Reichsfuhrer SS Henrich Himmler, in a letter to Reichsjugendfuhrer Artur Axmann (who replaced von Shirach in 1940), wrote:
"I have submitted to the Fuhrer your offer, on behalf of the youths born in 1926, to form a division of volunteers for the Waffen-SS, and of the same value as the "Leibstandarte." I have also informed him of your desire and request that this division be identified in a manner which would clearly emphasize its origins and its simultaneous membership in the HJ. The Fuhrer was highly pleased and has directed me to convey to you that you should immediately begin the recruiting of volunteers…. I have further proposed that the name "Hitlerjugend" be conferred on the division."
Much like the strict requirements needed to be a member of the 1st SS, Hitler's Praetorian Guard unit, it was stated that volunteers for the Hitlerjugend Division must be "recruited from those born during the first half of 1926." Minimum height for the infantry soldier was 170 cm and 168 for Panzer, motorcycle, and communications units. By comparison, minimum height for a 1st SS "Adolf Hitler" trooper was 180 cm. The youth had to be fit for service and "should have been, preferably, in possession of the HJ achievement badge." Once recruited, members had to attend a pre-military training period of six weeks. This training was allowed to replace the national labor service. The man who was put in command of the Hitlerjugend was a highly decorated Russian front veteran named Fritz Witt, former commander of the 1st SS. Because the 1st SS had taken so many casualties fighting the Russians, it was also ordered that a number of officers and noncoms be transferred to the new unit as well. Within a few months after its formation, the HJ had a total available strength of 20,540 fanatical and fiercely loyal soldiers.
The HJ soldiers, contrary to widespread relief, had not had military training in peacetime. Instead, their prior education in all things Nazi, coupled with their strong work ethic during summers spent in labor units, made them predisposed to become good soldiers. Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, a liaison officer of the army to the Reichs-jugend leadership for a time said of these young men:
"There is no trace of mindless drill. Rather too much spontaneity than too little. It is surprising that the boys adapt to the discipline as recruits without any friction."
HJ leaders who had been wounded in other units, and then sent to the HJ to once again become instructors to these teenaged warriors conducted the training. Three priorities were set during training. The first was physical fitness, which many if not all were already extremely well fit, due to the hikes, sports, and games played by them while in the HJ. Interestingly, the recruits were not allowed to smoke, and were not issued cigarettes, but received candy instead. The second priority was character development. Because of the lack of noncoms, many HJ recruits were encouraged to show initiative and leadership abilities so that they may become noncoms. Those that succeeded were sent for additional training to a special noncom course, where others would be chosen as officer cadets. The third and probably most important training priority was weapons and combat training. The youthful soldiers were trained in firearms in open terrain. Often, they trained in battlefield conditions, with live ammunition. This training would later lead to combat effectiveness on the battlefield.
In April 1944, the HJ Division was redeployed to Normandy, between the lower Seine and Orne rivers. The division began to dig in and make its defenses ready, camouflaging its tanks, artillery, and anti-aircraft guns. They had endured nine months of training since officially being formed, and according to Jochen Leykauff, a volunteer born in 1926, "was waiting for the attack across the Channel….we were looking forward to it." Leykauff's determination and confidence in throwing back the Allied attack can be gleaned from his memoirs:
"The Allies planned to take apart the "baby milk division," as they called us. But we were not afraid. Sometimes we even got carried away a bit, and big-headed….We trusted our officers and noncoms who had been hardened in battle….During combat training with live ammunition we had enjoyed seeing them in the mud together with us…."
On 6 June 1944, the Allies invaded Normandy, France. The HJ Division was finally going to have its chance to prove itself in battle, fighting for the Fatherland and their Fuhrer.
With the confusion that accompanied the paratroop airdrops and the successive landings of the Allied forces from the sea, the 12th SS was ordered to do reconnaissance duties in the area of Caen, France. On 7 June, the HJ Division was ordered to attack the right flank of British and Canadian forces near the Caen-Luc sur Mer railroad line and drive the enemy into the sea. Close to 20,000 HJ soldiers were ready for battle and twenty-eight Canadian tanks were promptly knocked out of action. One former HJ member said, "Our division fought valiantly." By the middle of July, the division had lost 3,000 soldiers and replacements were becoming more difficult to find. Many of these youthful soldiers engaged in suicide missions that seasoned Wehrmact soldiers would never have dared to attempt, such as allowing tanks to roll over them and then detonating a grenade. Their commanding officer, Kurt Meyer, proudly claimed,
"I know every single one of these grenadiers. The oldest is barely eighteen. The boys have not yet learned how to live, but by God they know how to die!"
But they became more hated for their war crimes than their utter fanaticism. In the late summer of 1944, the HJ Division shot sixty-four British and Canadian prisoners-of-war (which led to the sentencing of death of their commanding officer Kurt Meyer after the war). Other sources put the number of POWs killed outright at one hundred and sixty-four. Many Allied soldiers came to hate the young fanatics, but they also earned grudging respect. One Canadian soldier said, "They're a bad bunch. But are they ever soldiers!"
After being pushed out of Caen, the HJ became encircled some twenty miles south with only 600 men fit for duty and no tanks. The Allied air attacks had helped destroy the division in Normandy, and the 12th SS regrouped as part of the 6th SS-Panzer Army. During twelve weeks of fighting in France, they lost 8,626 personnel, with at least 1,951 confirmed dead, including their beloved general Fritz Witt. As tenacious as they were, the teenaged soldiers could not counter Allied airpower or the massive amounts of soldiers and materials of the Allied war effort.
The HJ Division also played a role in the Ardennes Offensive, Hitler's bold but ultimately useless plan to push the British and American armies out of Germany, as well as being redeployed to Hungary, before being pushed back by the Russians. Towards the end of the war, the HJ was refitted and were fighting American troops in lower Austria. Near the river of Enns, the Americans arranged for the unconditional surrender of the division. A general of the division thanked his boys for "their valor, loyalty, and comradely spirit." They had fought until they could no longer hold out, long after their beloved Fuhrer committed suicide. With a heavy heart, the Brigadefuhrer closed with the words:
"….We set out on the bitterest journey of our life as soldiers with our heads held high. In quiet composure, we will march toward our destiny. We have fought bravely and with integrity on all theaters of war, still, the war is lost. Long live Germany."
When the HJ entered captivity on 8 May 1945, 328 officers, 1,698 NCOs, and 7,844 men, a total of 9,870 men of the 12th SS "Hitlerjugend" were going into American POW camps. The war for the Hitlerjugend division was over.
SS Hitlerjugend also provides a full combat record of the division, which fought on both fronts in World War II. The book outlines the unit;s involvement in the defense of Normandy, when allied troops were shocked by the youth of the enemy; the battle for Caen and the catastrophe of the Falaise Gap; refitting in Germany before the Ardennes Offensive and its service on the Eastern Front at the end of the War, fighting to recapture Budapest. Illustrated with rare photographs and with an authoritative text, SS Hitlerjugend is a definitive history of one of Germany's most fanatical fighting units in World War II.