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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
A still from some well-known movie footage, showing Panther ausf As of HJ moving through Caen on D-Day. The building in the background which is frequently cropped off, identifies the exact location of this shot. [Bundesarchiv]
In the east, 4.SS-Panzer-Korps had been in action, with some success since the middle of July. By the end of August, Totenkopf and Wiking were fighting in front of Warsaw, halting the Russians at the Vistula. Into October, the two divisions were involved in fighting off fierce enemy attacks in front of the city and, less gloriously, putting down a rebellion inside it. By the end of that month, the pressure had eased to the point that 4.SS-Panzer-Korps was again pulled out of line into reserve.
In the West there was no such lull. While the armored SS divisions were behind the lines undergoing refit, the Allies brought the war directly to them. Having arrived at Arnhem on 7 September, 2.SS-Panzer-Korps took up positions around that city. On 14 September, Hohenstaufen was ordered back into Germany to ease reinforcement. That move had just begun, when the war virtually dropped in the laps of Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg in the form of the 1st British Airborne Division and "Operation Market-Garden." What followed was 12 days of house to house fighting as the intended Allied sweep across the Rhein faltered. Montgomery had intended Arnhem to be relieved in three days. Yet on the twelfth day, 2.SS-Panzer-Korps was mopping the last pockets of resistance East of the Rhein as the Allies finally closed the river from the West. Having been interrupted at the beginning of their refit period, the divisions of 2. SS-Panzer-Korps were now split up and sent to the rear to continue the process. Frundsberg was dispatched to the vicinity of Geilenkirchen. Hohenstaufen reformed the corps with Das Reich in the Schnee-Eifel.
With the failure of "Market-Garden", Hitler considered that the Allies were in a vulnerable position. He perceived, or thought he did, that the enemy's lines were overextended and too lightly held in the Ardennes. That site was also attractive because it was the location of the dramatic breakthrough in 1940. Perhaps it would work again. The plan was to push through the weakly held Ardennes Front, drive on the Meuse and beyond, toward Antwerp. If that port could be captured, the British-Canadian 21st Army Group would be trapped, cut off from supply and forced into a second, larger, even more disastrous Dunkirk.
The plan had some chance of success, although slight, and if successful would certainly ease the pressure in the West for months to come. But for success, a number of conditions had to be met, among them, suppression of Allied air superiority, sufficient fuel supply and rapid "Blitzkrieg" like movement. These conditions were not to be fulfilled. The Luftwaffe simply could not challenge Allied mastery in the skies. Fog did ground enemy planes for a few days, but once that lifted, the SS Armor found itself extremely vulnerable to P-47s and Typhoons. Fuel supply proved inadequate, so much so that on a number of occasions tactically favorable moves had to be foregone in the search for Allied fuel dumps. But, perhaps most serious, the leadership of the "Blitzkrieg" days was not there. Guderian and Manstein had been replaced by Dietrich and Peiper. Even the best of the SS commanders, Hausser and Steiner, were not present.
Of "Sepp" Dietrich, who had risen from command of the tiny "Stabswache" to leadership of 6.Panzer-Armee, Baron von der Heydte, commander of German paratroop forces for the Ardennes offensive said:
He had all the qualities of a first-class NCO of the old German Army; he was personally brave, tough and disciplined and he cared for his men as though they were children... He was feared, respected, and even loved, but he was certainly not a commander.
And further, he was drinking; never drunk, but not quite sober. When he gave orders, they were frequently imprecise. Among the orders that he gave his point troops was a particularly ambivalent one; "No time is to be wasted in the matter of prisoners". To von der Heydte this meant that any captured enemy soldiers were to be disarmed and left for following troops. To Peiper, it meant something quite different. Obersturmbannführer Joachim Peiper was 28 years old, handsome and brave, and utterly ruthless. He had gained a reputation for leading successful, if quite costly, counterattacks during the fierce defensive fighting on the Eastern Front. To Peiper and to the men of Kampfgruppe Peiper, the armored battlegroup of "LAH" entrusted with the task of leading the breakthrough to the Meuse, Dietrich's order meant license to treat captured enemy troops as they would have in the East. There, prisoners were often not taken. Before the offensive fizzled out at the end of the year, Peiper's men would be guilty of a number of attrocities, most notably the massacre of 86 US prisoners at Malmedy.
An SdKfz 251/7 engineer's vehicle of HJ complete with bridging equipment, is seen here under heavy foliage camouflage, halted by the side of a French road. Note the Black numerals which have been oversprayed, and the divisional insignia. [National Archives]
Four of the six SS armored divisions that had fought at Normandy were assigned to 6. Panzer-Armee for the Ardennes offensive. LAH and HJ of 1. SS-Panzer-Korps were assigned to the first wave of the planned assault. On 16 December 1944, they were to punch through the lines held by green US divisions, for which task they were given considerable extra armor. Das Reich and Hohenstaufen [2. SS-Panzer-Korps] were held back in reserve, to be released to continue the advance if the first was slowed. The SS divisions were given the Northern and shorter route to the Meuse. They had ten miles less to cover (48 vs. 58) than the six Wehrmacht Panzer divisions assigned to the attack.
The offensive opened on 16 December, with less than overwhelming success. HJ, in particular, was halted along its entire front. Leibstandarte, especially K-Gr Peiper, had more luck, breaking through and starting to exploit to the West. 72 hours later HJ was still being held up, LAH was 20 miles to the West and out of fuel.