The division, with 20,540 personnel, first saw action on June 7, 1944 as part of the German defense of the Caen area during the Normandy campaign. Caen was a D-Day objective for the British Second Army. On the morning of 7 June the 12th SS Division attacked Allied troops.
The battle for Normandy took its toll on the division and they came out of the Falaise pocket with a divisional strength of 12,500 men. Following the invasion battles, the division was sent to Germany for refitting. On 16 December 1944, the division was committed against the US Army in the Battle of the Bulge. After the failure of the Ardennes offensive the division was sent east to fight the Red Army near Budapest. The 12th SS Division eventually withdrew into Austria; on 8 May 1945, the surviving 10,000 men surrendered to the US Army at Enns. The reputation of the division has been damaged by proven and alleged war crimes committed by members of the division during the early battles in Normandy.
Formation and training
The idea of a Waffen-SS division composed of Hitlerjugend (HJ) members was first proposed by Gruppenführer Gottlob Berger in January 1943. Berger approached Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler with the proposition, and Himmler soon became an enthusiastic advocate. The plan for a combat division made up of all Hitlerjugend members born in 1926 was passed on to Adolf Hitler for his approval. Hitler was also enthusiastic about the idea, and on 13 February 1943, the official order for the creation of an Hitlerjugend division was issued.
Berger nominated himself as the divisional commander, but Himmler instead chose 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) veteran,Oberführer Fritz Witt.
A competition was held to design insignia for the new unit. The winning design, picked from thousands of entries, depicted the Hitlerjugend sigrune crossing a key from the 1st SS Panzer Division LSSAH's insignia.
By 1 September 1943, over 16,000 recruits had completed their six-week basic training and were listed on the rosters of the SS Panzergrenadier Division Hitlerjugend.. As training continued in Beverloo, Belgium, the division was notified that it was to be formed as a panzer rather than a panzergrenadier unit, and the division was redesignated 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 late October 1943 the division received its final designation, 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
While the Hitlerjugend members, who had grown up under NSDAP propaganda, were committed to the Nazi cause, they lacked any military aptitude. To provide a skilled backbone for the division, veterans from the 1st SS Panzer Division LSSAH were assigned to the Hitlerjugend division and provided all the regimental, battalion and most of the company commanders. However the SS could not provide all the officers required and 50 Army officers were assigned. They served in their army uniforms but were completely part of the division. Training for the division was unusual. Witt, realizing that the division had to be made ready for combat as quickly as possible, ignored many rules and regulations and instead focused on realistic combat scenarios and live-fire exercises. A result of this was that the morale of the HJ was exceptionally high, and the relationship between the officers, NCOs and men was an informal one, based on mutual trust and respect.
In March 1944 the 12th SS was deemed ready for active service and was ordered to move to Caen in Normandy and became part of the 1st SS Panzer Corps. Throughout the spring of 1944 the division continued training exercises in the peaceful area around Caen, familiarizing itself with the terrain. This was to prove invaluable in the months to come. On 27 May, Witt celebrated his 36th birthday and his recent promotion to Brigadeführer. The peaceful 'holiday atmosphere', as one grenadier described it, was soon to be shattered.
At the beginning of June 1944 the division was declared ready for combat operations. The Division's tank strength at this time was 81 Panther and 104 Panzer IV tanks. The division was also equipped with Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers, three prototype Wirbelwind flakpanzer vehicles, along with a number of 20 mm, 37 mm and 88 mm flak guns, Hummel, Wespe and sIG 33 self-propelled guns and regular towed artillery pieces.
Its tank destroyer unit, SS Panzerjäger Battalion 12, however, was not considered ready for action and was understrength in Jagdpanzer IV.
On 6 June 1944, the Western Allies launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. The 12th SS Division, along with the 21.Panzer-Division, was the closest Panzer divisions to the landing beaches, but they were unable to move until they got authorization for Hitler. The 12th SS was not ordered to the front until 1430 hours on 6 June, sixteen hours after the first reports of the landings. Kurt Meyer's SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25 and Max Wünsche's SS-Panzer-Regiment 12 were the lead elements of the Division as it started for Normandy from their base to the west of Paris and South of Rouen.
The Division's advance to Normandy and the landing beeches of Sword and Juno was severely hampered by the incessant allied fighter-bomber attacks, the losses to Allied aircraft were not heavy, but the delays caused by wrecked vehicles were enough to destroy the Division’s timetable. The first units of the 12th SS finally reached their assembly area near Evrecy at 2200 hours on 6 June.
On 7 June, Kurt Meyer's SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25, along with the II Battalion of Max Wünsche's SS Panzer Regiment 12, supported by artillery, were ordered to crush the advancing Canadian infantry and tanks and drive through to the coast, still only a few miles away. In Meyer's words they were to "throw the fish into the sea". Meyer had three Panzergrenadier battalions and two companies of tanks on each flank with artillery in support. Watching the Canadian advance unfold from the tower of the Ardenne Abbey, he saw an opportunity opening in front of him. At 1000 hours 7 June, the 50 Panzer IV tanks of the II Battalion, SS Panzer Regiment 12, arrived and moved into position. The Canadians continued to file across the German front. Once the lead Canadian tanks reached the ridge south of Franqueville, they spotted one of the panzer companies waiting in ambush (they had allowed the tanks to move forward without firing a shot). Meyer reported that "The battalion maintained excellent fire discipline" and the advancing tanks moving across the front were then hit in their unprotected flank by the tanks of SS Panzer Regiment 12. The attack by the 12th SS had caught the Canadians unawares, and their infantry were forced to fall back to Authie with Meyer’s III Battalion in pursuit. They captured Authie and Franqueville in their initial attack and the next objective was Buron, a kilometer to the north.
The attack by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend was supposed to have been supported by the 21 Panzer Division which was still at Couvre as a result the right flank was open and being probed by Canadian tanks, which were destroyed by the anti-tank platoon of the I Battalion. During these attacks the 12th SS had captured about 150 prisoners from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and crews from the 27th Tank Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers).
On 8 June, SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 26 under command of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Wilhelm Mohnke arrived on the battlefield. Meyer's attack had pushed back one part of the Canadian advance but another brigade had occupied a group of small villages two miles into the German line. They crossed behind Meyer's regiment and the 26th took up positions to their west. After planning and positioning the regiment for a powerful thrust the 1st Battalion launched an attack towards Norrey-en-Bessin, defended by the Regina Rifles of the 3rd Canadian Division. Their orders were to drive over the Canadians and force a deep wedge between them and the British division to the west. Again, no reconnaissance of the Canadian positions was done and the infantry met a maelstrom of defensive fire from firmly established defensive positions.
The attack, launched at 0330 hours - had little initial success. The various companies in the attacking 12th SS failed to co-ordinate their moves towards the Canadians and, despite heavy casualties during repeated attempts by the infantry, Canadian artillery and supporting heavy machine guns of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa took a heavy toll on each attacking company of SS troops. The Regina Rifles held their ground and the I/26 Battalion fell back.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Mel Gordon the 27th Tank Regiment had lost 28 Sherman tanks and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders 245 men.
Although the attacks destroyed many Canadian tanks and overran a company of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders in Authie, they failed to break through the advancing Canadians. Meyer, however, countermanded the divisional commander's order on his own initiative, feeling that objective unrealistic, and hoped to merely stop the flow of Canadian units inland until the situation could stabilize .
Meyer set up his command post in the Abbey Ardennes, whose towers provided an excellent view of the countryside. In the early evening of 7 June, as he planned the regiment's next moves. Meyer's regiment was deployed near the villages of Authie and Buron, in positions covering the vital Carpiquet Aerodrome.
The same evening, SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26 under command of Wilhelm Mohnke arrived and moved into Putot, but was thrown out after a fierce counterattack by the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade. With neither side able to secure complete victory the lines on either side were becoming fixed and turning the battle into one of attrition to capture the surrounding villages. A company of Panther tanks arrived on 8 June, and Meyer personally led a night attack toward the village of Rots, which they reached at midnight. After several hours of fighting, however, the 12th SS were forced to withdraw, leaving behind six tanks. The Canadians noted that, despite advancing with courage and determination, the young Germans seemed to lack tactical control and had a habit of attacking piecemeal and failed to exploit favorable opportunities.
On the Canadian right the II Battalion attacked the Royal Winnipeg Rifles defending the village of Putot-en-Bessin. The Battalion managed to break into the village and surround several companies, effectively pushing the Winnipeg Rifles out of the village, inflicting 256 casualties - of which 175 were taken prisoner. A counter-attack launched at 2030 hours by the Canadian Scottish, however, regained Putot-en-Bessin, and the II Battalion withdrew and dug-in south of the village.
Despite the ferocity of the 12th SS counterattacks, the Division failed to fulfill its orders to throw the attacking allies back into the sea. British troops had moved up to the positions now firmly held by the troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and had also established a firm line from which they could develop future operations.
What followed were a series of local attacks by both sides. Neither was able to secure any strategic advantage, and the German defensive perimeter around Caen tightened. Casualties on both sides steadily mounted. The 12th SS headquarters, positioned some 27 kilometers southwest of Caen, came under naval gunfire on 16 June, killing the commander, Fritz Witt, and several other senior officers. The High Command appointed Kurt Meyer as the new commander of the division. (some sources believe he was the youngest divisional commander on any side during the war). The 12th SS was now deployed in detachments north and west of Caen, and like the rest of the German army, was suffering from shortages of ammunition, fuel and equipment. To the north of Caen, some of its panzer's supported unreliable units such as the 16th Luftwaffe Field Division and to the west, a flak battery and 15 tanks, together with the I Battalion, SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26, held the important Carpiquet airfield.
The 3rd Canadian Division ceased major combat operations until July, with only one day of major operations, on 11 June, at Le Mesnil-Patry. This saw the 12th SS inflict major casualties to the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada and the 1st Hussars (6th Armoured Regiment) which lost 51 Sherman tanks during the attack.
Also on 11 June the 46th Royal Marine Commando assaulted Rots. The official historian of Le Régiment de la Chaudière, described the scene the following day:
They fought like lions on both sides, so that the dead lay corpse by corpse. We searched every house, every courtyard to avoid ambush. And here is the confirmation of how ferocious last night's battle must have been. The Commandos lie dead in rows beside the dead SS. Grenades are scattered all over the road and in the porches of houses. Here we see a Commando and an SS man, literally dead in each other's arms, having slaughtered each other. There, a German and a Canadian tank have engaged each other to destruction, and are still smoldering, and from each blackened turret hangs the charred corpse of a machine gunner. Over here are a group who ran towards a wall for shelter and were shot down before they got there. And then near the church, as the advance guard of C Company and the carriers turn the corner, there are three Germans. Only three. But one of them instantly draws his pistol and hits one of our men. A Bren gunner kills two of the three SS men, but the survivor gets away. Now we understand with what kind of fanatic we have to deal.
The following two weeks until the end of the month, was a period of relative quiet, as both sides were exhausted. What did not stop was the constant artillery, naval bombardment and Allied air attacks.
Major operations for both sides began again in July. Losses were suffered when they successfully defended the Carpiquet airfield (which the Canadians called Operation Windsor) though the village itself fell as only fifty men were available to defend it from an attack by an entire Canadian battalion.
More attacks during Operation Charnwood fell upon the Division the following week. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting took place in various locations, notably at Buron with the Highland Light Infantry of Canada on 8 July where the Highland Light Infantry lost 262 men in a single day of combat with the SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25.
The capture of Caen had now become a matter of prestige for Montgomery. For the next four days, the 12th SS held out against repeated attacks by the British I Corps. Finally 2,600 tons of bombs were dropped on the city by the Royal Air Force. The bombing destroyed the city and caused further problems for the Germans supply line. Meyer, unwilling to retire, continued his bitter defense. On 8 July, after all hope of holding the city was lost, Meyer ignoring his orders ordered the evacuation of the city and the remnants of the Division withdrew to the south of Caen.
Operation Jupiter began on 10 July, while some elements of the 12th SS still held part of the line between Eterville and the Orne River. Although they held the line for a time, the defenders were eventually overcome by sheer numbers. A young grenadier noted in his diary what it was like to face the British.
From 0630 to 0800, again heavy machine-gun fire. Then Tommy attacks with great masses of infantry and many tanks. We fight as long as possible but we realize we are in a losing position. By the time the survivors try to pull back, we realize we are surrounded.
The following day, the division was pulled out of the line and sent to Potigny, some 30 kilometers north of Falaise, for a rest and refit.
The division was to have little respite though, and on 19 July were under attack in the Anglo-Canadian Operation Goodwood. Following this the division was pulled out of the line and used to form the mobile reserve for I.SS-Panzerkorps. Goodwood was followed by Operation Cobra on 25 July, which also coincided with the breakout of the Americans to the west.
Their final battle in July was defending against the British 2nd Army's attack Operation Bluecoat.
On 8 August the Canadian First Army launched Operation Totalize, a night attack without a preliminary artillery barrage, the point of the attack was again directed at the 12th SS. The attack started well and once they reached their objectives, the infantry started to clear out the defenders. The SS Panzerjager Battalion 12, held up the Canadians after an advance of three miles, with two member of the Battalion being awarded the Knight's Cross ,Oberscharführer Rudolf Roy and his gunner Fritz Eckstein who had knocked out eight tanks on the 8 August. The next day they knocked out a further 13 tanks and within 5 days had knocked out a total of 26 tanks. Over the next two days, this action and continued series of counterattacks reduced the 12th SS to little more then a large Kampfgruppe.
The Allies next tried to bomb their way through, but the 12th SS had captured a copy of the plan on 13 August, and Meyer had pulled what remained of the Division back.
The Division now reduced to 500 Panzergrenadiers and 15 tanks were called upon to defend Hill 159 northwest of Falaise between 14 and 16 August. Under almost continuous artillery and air attack, the 12th SS were forced to withdraw when the 2nd Canadian Division broke through on their western flank.
With only one avenue of escape left open, what was left of the 12th SS were ordered to help hold open the northern side of the Falaise gap, so what was left of the German VII Army could escape. When the withdrawal had been completed, Meyer ordered a Frenchman to guide the Division across the Dives River.
After crossing the Dives Army Group B reported on the 22 August that the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend now consisted of only 10 tanks, 300 men and no artillery. The battles in Normandy and lack of any reinforcements had effectively destroyed the Division. The units in the Division that were not fit for combat were ordered to pull back to Germany on 8 September, leaving behind a small Kampfgruppe attached to the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich. It was formed around the II Battalion, SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 26 with a mixed artillery battalion.
The Division losses during the fighting in Normandy were severe, in the three months from June to September, 55 officers, 229 NCO's and 1,548 had been killed. A further 128 officers, 613 NCO's and 3,684 had been wounded with 58 officers, 182 NCO's and 2,012 reported missing. A combined total of 241 officers, 1,024 NCO's and 7,244 men.
This amounts to 8,569 members of the Division from a strength of 20,540.