The German disaster at Stalingrad in the winter of 1943
brought home to the Nazi leadership that they were now on
the defensive, and would have to take steps to increase their
military potential. In typical Nazi fashion, this could not
proceed under rational lines of economic mobilization. The
regular army had failed due to lack of commitment to National
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, saw an opportunity to
expand his fiefdom and seized it with both hands. The Waffen
SS, the armed branch of his criminal empire, now gained the
ability to draft soldiers. And among these changes, his henchman
Artur Axmann obtained a directive to form an SS division from
underage Hitler Youth.
Youth dug in on Hill 112.
Adolf Hitler saw indoctrinating the young as the key to a
Nazi future. Obedience and fanaticism would be drilled into
them from an early age in the Hitler Youth, while Germany’s
women would be specially targeted by propaganda to assure
that this continued at home. Membership in the Hitler Youth
became compulsory, and boys as young as 9 received pre-military
training and marched in formation.
By the time they reached their teen years, Hitler Youth
could join special flying, motorized or naval formations to
receive specialized training leading to military roles as
pilots, tank commanders or sailors.
In February 1943, thousands of 17-year-old Hitler Youth
volunteers reported to form the 12th SS “Hitler Youth”
Panzer Grenadier Division. Experienced men
from the 1st SS Panzer Division were transferred
to form a cadre, along with 50 regular army
officers with Hitler Youth experience. In
October 1943, the division was upgraded to
panzer division status.
Though the directive specified that the
boys had to be 17, there was widespread cheating
on this requirement and many of its grenadiers
were 16 and some even 15. Despite the deep
penetration of Nazi ideology in some of
these children, Army recruiters filed complaints
that SS officers were using compulsion
to force boys to sign up as volunteers. Boys
would be held in locked rooms without contact
with their parents, and denied food, water
and toilet facilities until they signed.
Others, the Army claimed, had been physically
beaten into submission.
In place of the traditional tobacco ration, the Hitler Youth
soldiers received candy. And in place of the beer ration,
they got milk. Otherwise, they trained to fight like any other
SS men, and like the other SS panzer formations they received
preferential allotments of weapons and equipment.
The division was still recruiting
in April 1944 when it moved from its training areas in Belgium
to France as part of the operational reserve. It was a formidable
force, with one infantry regiment in trucks and another in
half-tracks, and a tank regiment of two battalions, one of
PzKw V Panthers and one with new-model PzKw IVH tanks. Like
other SS divisions it had a large array of support units:
full battalions of rocket launchers, reconnaissance troops,
self-propelled anti-tank guns, motorized anti-aircraft guns
and half-track-mounted engineers. There were two battalions
of motorcyclists, and four of artillery.
The division rushed to the front when the Allied landings
began in Normandy, and fought fanatically against the British
and Canadians around Caen. On July 4th, 200 men and boys of Maj. Bernhard
Krause’s I Battalion/26th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment
fought off the entire Canadian 8th Brigade, reinforced by
two tank battalions, to hold Carpiquet airfield.
Grenadier on Hill 112.
Note the fuzz mustache.
Though not as dramatic, the Hitler Youth fought with similar
determination to hold Hill 112 to the east of Caen, the battles
covered by the out-of-print Beyond Normandy. They did not surrender
even when wounded, though sometimes they faked it to take
a few unwary Tommies with them in death. The children had
learned their lessons well, and fought with a skill to match
their fanaticism. By the time the division withdrew from Normandy
in August, fewer than 600 combat soldiers remained.
“That, which I now experienced, was not war any more,
but naked murder,” the division’s commander wrote
later. “I knew every one of these boys. The oldest of
them was barely eighteen years old. These boys had not yet
learned how to live — but God knows they knew how to
The division’s first commander, Fritz Witt, had led
a regiment in the 1st SS Panzer Division in Russia and was
killed on 16 June during an Allied naval bombardment. The
25th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment’s commander, Kurt
“Panzer” Meyer, took over at age 33 as the youngest
divisional commander in the German armed forces. Meyer had
led the 1st SS Panzer Division’s recon battalion on
the Russian front, and would be sentenced to death (commuted
to life imprisonment) after the war for the murders of 18
Canadian prisoners of war.
In Liberation 1944, the SS infantry (GREN, or grenadiers) have the highest
firepower ratings yet bestowed in the series. Their morale
is generally extremely high. As a display
of battlefield courage, few units have ever equaled the Hitler
Youth Division’s stand in Normandy.
A cornered rat will also fight with great determination.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold is a good dog.