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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
A frequently mis-identified photograph, this shows a Kfz 1/20 VW Schwimmwagen of SS-sPz-Abt 501 driving down a road on which there is a PzKpfw IV of Panzer-Lehr on the left and a knocked out British Cromwell on the right.
The Normandy invasion found the four SS divisions in the West widely separated. LAH was in Belgium, near Enghien as immediate reserve in the Pas de Calais area; Hitlerjugend [HJ] was near Dreux, due west of Paris, closest to Normandy; Gotz von Berlichingen (GvB) was at Thouars, south of the Loire", and Das Reich was at Cahors, in the Bordeaux region, nearly at the Spanish border. The German reaction was to the invasion immediate. HJ, being the closest, was ordered to make a rapid counterattack, aimed at driving the invaders back into the sea. The afternoon of D-Day and the next morning "Panzer" Meyer's tanks and grenadiers had some local success against the Canadians, but lack of experience and lack of co-operation with the neighboring 21.Panzer-Division (and in the opinion of some, lack of ability on Meyer's part) precluded any permanent gains. This was the beginning of a near-stalemate that was to last almost two months. For that time, the Germans, and the bocage country, limited the Allies to minimal and extremely costly gains.
One by one the SS divisions were engaged. Within days both Das Reich and GvB were in line against the US forces at the Western edge of the beachhead, between Coutance and St. Lo. And six days after the invasion, realizing that the forces available were insufficient, the German command ordered Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg from the Kovel area in Poland to the West at top speed. By 29 June both divisions were in line, in conjunction with HJ on the Odon. On 11 July, LAH was finally released from reserve, entering the battle on the Falaise road south of Caen.
Two views of Kfz 1 VW Kubelwagens of Hitierjugend.
The Kubelwagen is seen here following a line of HJ vehicles on the way to the front. Leading is a Panther, followed by an SdKfz 250/1 ISPW and two motorcycles. Of interest is the divisional insignia on the VW's right rear fender and the convoy marking, instructing the following driver to stay back 100 meters. [National Archives]
A group of unhappy HJ troopers observe the craftmanship of Allied "Jabo" pilots. The Kubelwagen, which is Sand Yellow with Olive Green overspray and considerable mud, still has the shipping stencil visible on its door. Note the wide variety of uniform worn by the troopers. [Bundesarchiv]
The battles around the Normandy beachhead continued fiercely, and relatively successfully from the German point of view, for nearly two months. On the Western edge, Das Reich and GvB had held US forces to virtually no gain. In the East around Caen, where the Allies made their big pushes, the other four divisions had given some ground, but in general contained the attacks. On 12 and 26 June and 18 July the British and Canadians launched major offensives aimed at breaking through to the interior. In each case, the attacks were held. On 25 July the Americans had their turn, with different results. After a massive air and artillery bombardment, US infantry divisions broke through at St. Lo, opening the way for Patton's tanks. Das Reich and GvB were both roughly handled in the attacks, pushed aside and temporarily encircled at Coutance. In a fierce battle lasting 2 days, the two divisions cut across the lines of the American breakthrough, and while they were not nearly strong enough to seal off the breach, they were at least able to save most of their men and equipment, linking up with German lines at Mortain.
But the problems for the Germans in France were just beginning. The German Command, from Hitler on down, now began a series of incredibly bad moves that markedly worsened an already threatening situation. With Patton circling behind and the British still pushing in front, the Germans were being forced into an extremely vulnerable, narrow pocket between Falaise and Mortain. Two fairly obvious solutions presented themselves, either withdrawal from the pocket or attacking out of it toward Avranches, aimed at cutting off Patton. The Germans did neither for ten days. When an attack on Avranches was approved, it was too late and insufficiently strong. At the same time the position at Mortain was growing daily more untenable, the order was given to advance. Leibstandarte, which had been ordered first one direction then another for the last week, joined up with Das Reich, GvB and the Army's 2. and 116. Panzer-Divisions on 6 August 1944 for the attack (Unternehmen "Luttich"). The Americans, expecting just such a maneuver, held the Germans to virtually no gain. (The fact that 1.SS-Panzer-Korps, LAH and HJ, could field a total of 35 tanks while the US 2nd Armored, which was only one of the divisions facing "Luttich", had 250 must also be considered a factor.)
The attack, having been held, left the Germans in a worse position than had it never been launched, with three of their strongest divisions to the West of Mortain. They could do little more than watch Patton and the British attempt to close the trap on them at Falaise-Argentan, 30 miles to the East. In all, 19 German Divisions were nearly encircled. At this point, the only remaining question was how many, if any, of those divisions would be able to escape the trap. What followed was a race against time. The Germans began pulling some divisions out immediately (GvB being pulled out on 15 August) using others to attempt to keep the doors of the trap open for those still in the pocket. LAH and Frundsberg were pulled out soon thereafter, the first towards the Siegfried Line in the Saar, the other toward Compiegne. HJ, Das Reich and Hohenstaufen remained in the Falaise area at the North edge of the pocket. In spite of their best efforts, Falaise fell on 17 August. By the next day, the trap was closed behind the last of the German forces. The escape had been made, but again at a terrible cost in equipment. The remaining divisions, weakened by three months of fighting, fought unsuccessful rearguard actions across France. The Allied drive across Europe came to a halt at the end of August more from a lack of gasoline than stiffening German resistance. By the end of August, only HJ was still in combat attempting to hold up the Americans between Amiens and the Belgian border. The divisions of the Waffen-SS that had been engaged in the West were in appalling condition. Das Reich was down to 15 tanks, HJ to ten and LAH had none at all.