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ROBERT C. STERN, illustrated by DON GREER and RON VOLSTAD
The men who fought the battles at Normandy, winning and losing, and some dying.
Three grenadiers of HJ, looking very boyish now, are in the hands of Canadian troops, having been captured at Carpiquet airfield, 4 July 1944. Note the mix-and-match camouflage patterns of their uniforms. There was no standardization of dress at this stage of the conflict. [Public Archives Canada]
Hitler's offense was in a shambles. At this point, several days earlier than planned, Hohenstaufen was committed to the fight around Poteau, where parts of the US 7th Armored Division had been holding up the Southern sector of advance by Leibstandarte. The next day, 20 December, saw HJ swung South in an attempt to outflank the US positions, with no more success than before. On the same day Das Reich was committed, again much earlier than planned and not on the SS front which was stalled, but on the front of the Army's 560. Volkgrenadier Division at Samree to the South. By the 23rd, HJ was pulled out of line after being bled white, having pushed a grand total of seven miles into US lines. K-Gr Peiper, which had been stalled at Stoumont, first by lack of fuel and then by US resistance since the 19th, and cut off since the 21st, was given permission to abandon its vehicles and pull back. Hohenstaufen had reached Salrachateau, the farthest point of advance on the SS Front, but was now stalled still less than halfway to the Meuse. Das Reich was the only SS division still moving. Attacking repeatedly to the North in the direction of Huy, attempting to regain the original SS line of advance, it was forced Westward and eventually halted by a scratch force of US Armored Divisions. The Americans held the high ground north of the Marche-Manay road against the German attacks for six days. On the 25th Das Reich took Manay, but was unable to advance beyond. The next day the attack was to the West, and the following day, having been reinforced by Hohenstaufen and a grenadier regiment from HJ, at Erezee another five miles Westward. On 29 December, after a final unsuccessful thrust on the road to Hotton, the attack was called off. The remainder of HJ and LAH, which had been directed against Bastogne on the 27th, were now joined by the formations retreating from the West.
New Year found the four divisions which had been involved in the Ardennes operation assembled around Bastogne, making the final assaults on the town and trying to halt the move to Patton's Third Army up from the South. All had paid a price for their attacks, HJ was less than half strength, but none would be allowed the time to rest and refit. Crises were developing elsewhere that needed the attention of this once potent spearhead of the Third Reich.
The new year found the military situation deteriorating on all fronts. In the West, the failure of the Ardennes Offensive left the Germans in a weakened condition all along the front. Units that had been shorted on men and equipment to provide the extra punch for the spearhead divisions, now had to face Allied counterattacks. And those which had taken part in the offensive had taken losses which could no longer be made good. Frundsberg near Aachen and GvB in the Saar had seen some fighting, but were in much better condition than the four around Bastogne. RFSS was still falling back in Italy, but the most serious problem had developed in Hungary. There, in mid-December, a Russian offensive had trapped Florian Geyer and the rest of 9.SS-Korps (the incomplete 22. SS-Kav-Div. and the Army's Feldherrnhalle and 13. PanzerDiv) in Budapest.
The first reaction was to use SS divisions to free the trapped SS Corps. The first to be moved to Hungary was 4. SS-Panzer-Korps, Totenkopf and Wiking, which had been spending a relatively quiet two months behind the Vistula bridgehead in Poland. This move was to prove disastrous as the German line in front of Warsaw collapsed under Russian attacks immediately after they were pulled out. 4.SS-Panzer-Korps had been the only reserve on that front. When the Russian attack was finally halted on the Oder, the enemy was almost within sight of Berlin. And most tragically, these last sound SS divisions were wasted in the attack on Budapest.
Hitler's pride declared that the Hungarian capital must be held. Yet had a link up been achieved, it wouldn't have helped the overall German position in any way. The Allies must have been pleased to find that Hitler's best divisions were bogged down on what can only be called a minor front, while the German homeland was about to be invaded from both sides. They did not even succeed in relieving the city. Having gotten as close as the airport on 11 January 1945, Totenkopf was inexplicably sent on a pointless move around the North of the city, never getting as close again. By the end of the month, they were being driven towards the Southwest in some disorder by powerful Russian counterattacks. Not only had Budapest not been relieved but 4.SS-Panzer-Korps was in dire shape. But rather than accept the loss of Hungary and pull all useable troops out, at the end of January Hitler insisted upon another counterattack to regain the lost territory, aimed again at linking up with Budapest. In pursuit of this hopeless task, SS divisions were pulled away from the West, where they formed the only significant reserve. The results were predictable. Instead of being in position to contest the Allied Rhein crossing, they were in Hungary wasting their last strength on a false hope.
After the failure in the Ardennes, the SS divisions that had been involved were pulled back to refit areas. They were not to remain there long enough to achieve much. On 10 January Leibstandarte had been pulled back from Bastogne, being posted to the Bonn area. HJ, at about the same time, had been moved from Bastogne to the west of Koln. Both divisions, on about the 20th, were ordered to proceed to the area north of Budapest where the Russians had broken through across the Hron River. In a series of attacks beginning 5 February, they were successful in forcing the enemy back to the East bank. At the beginning of February, Das Reich followed a similar pattern, being pulled from Bastogne at the end of January and moved almost immediately to the area West of Budapest to which the divisions of 4.SS-Panzer-Korps had been forced by enemy pressure. All this activity, however, failed to achieve its primary objective, saving the encircled 9.SS-Korps in Budapest. On 12 February the defense of the city collapsed. Of the 50,000 men who were trapped in the city two months before, only 800 broke through the German lines (and only 170 of them were SS).