Building the army for Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive.
Ever the optimist, Hitler was already thinking about how he could regain the initiative in the war even before the last remnants of his battered armies had retreated across the German and Dutch borders in September 1944. Hitler decided that his élite Waffen-SS panzer divisions would lead this new offensive. For reasons of secrecy, none of his top Wehrmacht commanders was let in on the secret. Each one was just told to get his troops ready for battle as soon as possible.
The 20 July Bomb Plot had destroyed for good Hitler’s trust in the army’s generals. He wanted his favourite Waffen-SS general, “Sepp” Dietrich, to command the most powerful armoured force Nazi Germany had ever put in the field. At an audience with the Führer in early September 1944, Dietrich was told that he was to command the newly formed Sixth Panzer Army. Although nominally an army formation – rebuilt from the remnants of XII Corps that had been badly mauled in Russia during the summer – almost all of Dietrich’s key staff officers were old hands from either his Leibstandarte or I SS Panzer Corps days. Dietrich’s right-hand man was SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Kraemer who, as chief of staff, was the powerhouse behind his commander’s bluster. As an army commander, Dietrich was perhaps over-promoted. He himself realized that he was no professional staff officer, and he relied on the likes of Kraemer to turn his ideas into concrete plans. Dietrich’s true forte was man-management and motivation of the troops. His down-to-earth bonhomie was exactly what was needed to mould the thousands of new recruits who were now arriving to fill out the ranks of his divisions. Hitler liked him so much because Dietrich never had any ambition, beyond looking after his men. He never felt threatened by Dietrich and, because of their time together in 1920s Munich, the Führer would listen to his views on what was happening at the front.
To fill out his new army, Dietrich was given the two premier Waffen-SS corps headquarters, I SS and II SS Panzer Corps. I SS Panzer Corps boasted the Leibstandarte and Hitlerjugend Divisions, under the command of SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Priess, who had previously commanded the infamous Waffen-SS Totenkopf Panzer Division in Russia and was considered a sound tactician, if ruthless, even judging by Waffen-SS standards.
After his success commanding one of Hitlerjugend’s panzergrenadier regiments in Normandy, Wilhelm Mohnke, now an SS-Oberführer, was given the honour of commanding the Leibstandarte. Although Mohnke had fought well in Normandy, he was far from popular with his comrades. He lost a foot in the Yugoslav campaign, so missed fighting with Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps in Russia, and he was still considered an “outsider” by many of the Waffen-SS officers who were now regimental and divisional commanders in Dietrich’s army. Taking the place of Kurt Meyer, who had been captured in early September, was SS-Standartenführer Hugo Kraas, a highly decorated Leibstandarte Division veteran.
The victor of Arnhem, Willi Bittrich, remained in command of his beloved II SS Panzer Corps, and he had Walther Harzer at his side as chief of staff. He still had the Hohenstaufen Division, under the capable Sylvester Stadler, but the Frundsberg Division had been replaced by the Das Reich Division. Its commander, Heinz Lammerding, was a rabid Nazi who was considered one of the most stupid officers who ever reached high command in the Waffen-SS. He relied on his chief of staff and regimental commanders to come up with battle plans and he was loathed for taking credit for their successes. Bittrich’s corps, however, was now very strong and considered the most militarily professional in the Waffen-SS.
By the beginning of October, battered Waffen-SS units were garrisoned in old Wehrmacht barracks in northwest Germany, where they began to receive a steady stream of new recruits and new equipment. Thousands of conscripts, ex-Luftwaffe and navy men – as well as a few idealistic volunteers – had to be given the basics of military training and then moulded into effective fighting units. Under the direction of veteran officers, as well as noncommissioned officers, this process gathered pace during October and into November as more ambitious tank-gunnery training and field exercises were undertaken.
The presence of so many highly decorated combat veterans in the ranks of the Waffen-SS panzer divisions was a major boost to morale. The newly arrived youngsters were treated to a series of medal parades, where Normandy veterans received decorations for their heroism only a few weeks before.
Optimism against all odds
The steady arrival of new tanks, halftracks, artillery pieces, weapons and uniforms added to the spirit of optimism. If Germany, after five years of war, could still find the equipment to outfit completely four panzer divisions, then the Führer’s promises of new wonder-weapons to turn the tide of war might well be true. By mid-November 1944, morale among the divisions of Dietrich’s new army was high and still rising.
Hitler ordered that Dietrich’s army would have priority for new equipment coming from the Reich’s remaining armament’s factories. British and American bombing, along with the loss of factories in eastern Poland, meant this was almost the last efforts of armament minister Albert Speer’s organization.
The Ardennes Offensive: German Plans
The reorganization and re-equipping of Dietrich’s divisions was nearly complete by the end of November. While the frontline panzer divisions were at between 80 percent and 90 percent strength, there was a severe shortage of Waffen-SS corps-level artillery and heavy tank units. These had to be replaced by army units.
As befitted its status as one of the premier units of the Waffen-SS, the Leibstandarte boasted a formidable compliment of tanks and armoured vehicles. Its Panzer Regiment was again commanded by Jochen Peiper, who had now recovered from wounds received in Normandy, and fielded 38 Panthers and 34 Panzer IVs in a single battalion. To beef up its firepower, the 501st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion – formed from the old 101st SS Battalion – was attached with 30 of the monster 70-tonne (69-ton) King Tiger tanks. The division’s antitank battalion boasted 21 Panzerjäger IVs. The division had the pick of Germany’s manpower, and veteran officers considered it to be on a par with previous intakes.
The Hitlerjugend Division was equally powerful, with 38 Panthers and 37 Panzer IVs in its Panzer Regiment, which were grouped in one battalion. It had a strong contingent of self-propelled antitank guns, including 22 Panzerjäger IVs, in its own antitank battalion. To add to its firepower, the army’s 560th Antitank Battalion was attached to the Panzer Regiment, with 28 Panzerjäger IVs and 14 of the 88mm-armed Jagdpanthers. It continued to draw its recruits from the ranks of the Nazi Youth organization, which gave it its distinctive character.
I SS Panzer Corps had four army Nebelwerfer and two army artillery regiments attached for fire support.
Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps was next in line to receive men and equipment, and was not as strong as its sister formation. He only had two army corps-level artillery regiments attached.
The Das Reich Division had 80 percent of its designated manpower strength and a strong compliment of armour. Its Panzer Regiment boasted two full battalions, with 58 Panthers, 28 Panzer IVs and 28 StuG IIIs. The division’s antitank battalion had 20 Panzerjäger IVs.
The Hohenstaufen was the weakest Waffen-SS division, with only 75 percent of its allocated manpower under arms at the end of November 1944. Its Panzer Regiment had 35 Panthers and 28 StuG IIIs in one battalion and 39 Panzer IVs and 28 StuG IIIs in a second battalion. Antitank firepower was provided by 21 Panzerjäger IVs.
Dietrich had an assortment of army artillery, assault gun, antitank gun and heavy tank battalions attached to his army, which, when added to the divisional equipment totals, gave him just under 400 Panzer IV, King Tiger and Panther tanks, 685 guns, 340 rocket launchers, 112 assault guns and 215 Jagdpanzers.
One of the most unusual units attached to Dietrich’s army was the 150th Panzer Brigade under the command of the flamboyant SS-Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny. It was intended to infiltrate behind Allied lines, dressed in US Army uniforms and driving American vehicles, in order to spread chaos and confusion. Some 500 Waffen-SS men were attached to this 2800-strong unit.
The threat to the Reich
Building Dietrich’s army was the number one priority for the Waffen-SS in the autumn of 1944, attracting the bulk of its resources and manpower. The Allied threat to the borders of the Reich was real, and a number of Waffen-SS panzer units, however, found themselves dragged into a series of small-scale engagements. The Leibstandarte Division dispatched two battalion-sized Kampfgruppen to help defend the city of Aachen in early October when it was threatened by American troops. One of the Kampfgruppe was trapped inside the city when it was encircled. Rather than surrender with the rest of the army garrison, the Waffen-SS men broke out. Only eight soldiers made it back to German lines, though.
During October and November, the fight for Aachen became a bloody battle of attrition as the US Army tried to advance into the Hurtgen Forest and seize the Roer dams that provided power and water for the Ruhr industrial region. Stung that a German city had fallen into American hands, Hitler ordered defences to be strengthened. The Frundsberg Division was diverted from the effort to build up Dietrich’s army to fight in the Aachen region.
The Alsace city of Metz on the French–German border was the scene of a similar bloody campaign during November 1944, as the famous General Patton tried to batter his way onto German territory. The 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division was sent to hold a stretch of the front south of Metz, and it gave Patton’s 5th Infantry Division a stiff fight before being forced back to the West Wall at the end of November.
The determined resistance of the Frundsberg and 17th SS Divisions, along with scores of Wehrmacht divisions, was all part of Hitler’s deception plan to cover his build-up for what was then known as Operation Watch on the Rhine. The strong defence of Metz and Aachen drew in Allied reserves and diverted their commanders’ attention away from the Ardennes region in southeast Belgium.
In September, even before Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps had defeated Operation Market Garden, Hitler was thinking of launching a counteroffensive in the West. By early October, the Ardennes had been identified as the vulnerable point in the Allied line, with the port of Antwerp as the offensive’s objective. The aim was to split the British forces in Holland from the American armies in France.
At the end of the month, Dietrich and the other army commanders who were to lead the offensive were briefed on the details of the plan. Even the normally loyal Dietrich was incredulous at what was being proposed. The terrain was unsuitable for tanks, the roads were too narrow, their troops were not yet fully trained and there was not enough fuel. They suggested a more modest offensive aimed at cutting off the American units in Aachen, but the Führer was adamant. He wanted his dramatic and decisive attack, that would in one stroke change the course of the war. No argument was allowed.
A major deception programme was instituted to ensure that the Allies had no idea where the German offensive would fall. All orders were issued by hand at meetings, or by despatch rider, so Allied radio interception units would not be able to track the movement of headquarters concentrating for the coming offensive.
Apart from a few senior commanders, no one was briefed on the full scope of the operation in order to reduce the chance of it being compromised. Halfway through the planning of the attack, its codename was changed to Autumn Mist to further conceal its purpose. Even the Waffen-SS corps and division commanders were not briefed until 10 days before the offensive was due to start, and the troops themselves had no idea of the full size and scope of the operation until 24 hours before they were due to go into action. The German deception was totally successful, and the Allies were unaware about what was going to happen until the first panzers advanced into the Ardennes region. Surprise was total.
Hitler’s greatest gamble finally got under way at 05:30 hours on 16 December 1944. He was relying on his Waffen-SS panzer élite to come forward and save his Thousand Year Reich, or die in the process.