Let’s focus today on the sole official German mechanized division fielded in Normandy, the “Iron Fist Division”: 17. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division ‘Götz von Berlichingen‘.
FORMATION & TRAINING
17. SS-Panzergrenadier-Division was formed in Poitiers (France) in October 1943, and was among the first SS divisions to be recruited from conscripts instead of volunteers. Many draftees were very young men from the 1926 class, while several thousand much older men were drawn among non-essential industry workers or Allgemeine-SS.
In addition to the latter, many Volksdeutsche, “ethnic Germans” from outside Germany, were pressed into the ranks of the division. Hence its high numbers of Romanians, but also some French & Czechoslovakians, members. 500 Italian soldiers serving in German units in France also volunteered, following the example of their military chaplain.
17. SS doesn’t seem to have been given a high priority in cadres, since most came from replacement units, straight out from schools or from hospitals for some convalescents. In November 1943, SS-Oberführer (senior colonel) Werner Ostendorff was appointed as commander of the division.
In February 1944, 17. SS still lacked so many vehicles that it was barely mobile: only 245 trucks out of the 1.686 it should have. But of an even greater concern was the almost complete absence of prime movers for the guns! To remedy to that shortage, it received the unusual order to collect as many civilian French trucks as it could find. A logistical and mechanical nightmare for the workshops which had to ensure their proper functioning but, nonetheless, by May four out of the six infantry battalions were motorized.
Weapon delivery was also an issue: although it was supposed to get Jagdpanzer IV, the division never received one before moving toward Normandy, and those sent later as replacements never reached them, being re-routed to fill gaps or secure crossings. Another shortage was to be found with squad anti-tank weapons, namely the ubiquitous Panzerfaust: although lavishly distributed to other divisions, 17. SS didn’t have any on D-Day, and only acquired some during the campaign.
Yet, not everything was that bleak for 17. SS. Although it was supposed to field a Panzer-Abteilung equipped with Panzer IV, as per regulation, it was instead given brand new StuG IV. Had anyone higher in the logistic chain foresaw the combats in the bocage the 17. SS was to be involved in, he couldn’t have made a smarter move: the low profile, well-armored assault gun proved excellent for ambush and infantry support.
It is interesting to come back to 17. SS‘ title: Götz von Berlichingen. It was the name of a XVIth century knight and mercenary, whose distinguishing feature was his prosthetic iron right hand, replacing the one he’d lost at the siege of Landshut. The “Iron Fist” was therefore selected as the 17. SS-Panzergrenadier‘s coat of arms.
GvB was also made famous by writer and poet Goethe, who made him the hero of a play he wrote and attributed to him a quite profane line, now commonly referred to as the “Swabian Salute”: “Er kann mich im Arsche lecken!“. Which can be roughly translated as “Kiss my Ass!“, his answer to an Imperial envoy asking him to surrender the besieged fortress he was defending, in the manner of McAuliffe’s “Nuts!” at Bastogne or Cambronne’s “Merde!” at Waterloo in the same circumstances. The quote gained fame fast, Mozart composed a canon about it , and in 1944, members of the 17. SS referred to their division as the “Küss meinen Arsche-Division“!
17. SS was ordered to Normandy on June 7th, the day after the landing, and went piecemeal due to lack of transport and enemy air superiority. Entire Abteilungen (battalions) would not show up until late June, and even mid-July! Directed at the base of the Cotentin peninsula, in an effort to prevent the expansion of the American beachhead, the division’s vanguard first came into contact with isolated paratroopers from both 82nd & 101st Airborne Divisions on June 10th. From there, the division moved toward Carentan, which had fallen into American ends.
From June 9th to 12th, paratroopers from both sides, 101st Airborne & 6. Fallschirmjäger , had been fighting bitterly for Carentan, a major crossroad & crossing point over the Douves river. On June 12th, 6. FJ had been forced to fall back outside of the city, just when the vanguard of 17. SS arrived in support. All the available elements from both units were gathered into a Kampfgruppe (battlegroup) which counter-attacked at dawn the next day. The Americans, themselves preparing for an assault, were caught off guards and soon two flank companies gave up under pressure and fell back without order. It left only one, the famous Easy Company from 506th PIR, in the path of the German SS & paratroopers, holding out until the cavalry arrived in the form of freshly landed 2nd Armored Division‘s Shermans. An episode later called “Battle of Bloody Gulch” and depicted in the book & show Band of Brothers.
After the failure against Carentan, 17. SS fell back South, in the bocage, where it fought for over a month to delay the American advance toward Saint-Lô. Using small combined arms battlegroups, Panzergrenadier supported by assault guns or SPG, they held each hedgerow and counter-attacked every time they could. They prevented the Americans from taking Saint-Lô, but at a dreadful cost.
Already reduced to almost half its strength, 17. SS had the bad luck to be standing on the path of Operation Cobra but unlike other units whom completely disintegrated under the bombardment, its survivors kept trying to hold off the Americans. Surrounded near Coutances, they managed to break out of the pocket, but at the cost of considerable loss of equipment and men.
Reduced to an infantry Kampfgruppe attached to 2. SS-Panzer, 17. SS took part in the ill-fated Mortain counter-offensive on August 7th-13th, and from there in the retreat Eastward. Trapped in the Falaise pocket, it broke into small combat groups which managed to break out. Once again, with heavy loss. Constantly harassed by the Americans, they only managed to break off from their pursuers by the end of September.
Since several units hadn’t joined the division in Normandy or had been pulled out for refitting before the battle of Falaise, the division was quickly brought back to strength by the absorption of replacement units, yet still lacking vehicles. Therefore, it was sent back to fight the American advance in the Metz sector as soon as September 1944. In the wake of the Battle of the Bulge, 17. SS attacked in Alsace during Operation Nordwind. But once again, the operation ended in a failure, and it retreated in Germany where what was left of the division surrendered to the American 101st Airborne, their old enemy from CCarentan on May 6th, 1945.
THE LAST BATTLE
Incidentally, elements from 17. SS were involved in what is sometimes referred to as “the strangest battle of WW2“: the battle of Castle Itter, on May 5th, 1945. Castle Itter was a gilded cage in Austria for French VIP prisoners: two former heads of governement (Daladier & Reynaud), the two former commanders in chief of 1940 (Weygand & Gamelin), former minister & tennis champion Borotra, as well as party or union leaders and even general de Gaulle’s sister. All were held as hostages by Himmler under SS guard.
But on May 2nd, with the war nearing its end and the Americans getting close, the castle’s SS commander and his garrison fled, leaving them on their own. Fearing that some other roving bands of SS could arrive and decide to get rid of them, the French VIPs gathered what weapon they could find and set to defend themselves. They also sent for SS captain Schrader, an officer in convalescence in the nearby village of Itter, and whom some of the VIPs had befriended over time, to come to the castle and assume command in case the (other) SS were to return.
In the meantime, the castle’s Czech cook was looking for a way to get in touch with the Americans but managed to contact the Austrian resistance instead. He was then introduced to … Major Joseph Gangl, a Wehrmacht artillery officer, and resistance sympathizer. With too few men under his command, Gangl decided to get in touch with the enemy! Under a white flag, he went to the American lines and explained the situation of the French VIPs. His opposite, Captain Lee, immediately volunteered to lead a rescue mission. And so they went, a patrol of American Shermans, with a Wehrmacht Major and his artillery crews converted into infantry in tow. But still, they were too small of a force: once inside Itter Castle on May 4th, the rescue party was trapped as well. Captain Lee was placed in charge of the merry band while outside about 150 men from 17. SS, supported by FlaK guns, surrounded the place. The only reinforcement they received before the assault were two more of Gangl’s men and a teenage Austrian resistance fighter.
The battle began the next day. Although ordered to hide, army generals Weygand & Gamelin (who hated each other) refused and fought as mere riflemen, as did others. Trying to bring Reynaud to get to safety, Major Gangl was shot dead in the head by an SS sniper. Since they were without radio contact with the rest of the of the 12th Armored, Jean Borotra, still an athlete, jumped the castle’s high wall and raced to meet them and let them now of the defenders’ situation. With the American recon patrol he first met was future Québec PM René Lévesque, then a war correspondent, who recognized the tennis star instantly. And thus a Roland Garros champion led back a patrol of American scouts with a future Québec PM to the already extravagant collection of defenders of Itter Castle.
When the relief force arrived, the besiegers were quickly defeated and taken prisoners. In a strange twist of fate, this battle in the dying days of WW2 saw a few American and Wehrmacht soldiers, French government and army officials, a tennis champion, an SS captain & a teenage Austrian resistance member fighting together against a 17. SS company, under the eyes of a future Québec PM …
THE 17. SS-PANZERGRENADIER-DIVISION INGAME
17. SS is clearly a defensive division, with plentiful of strong infantry (although lacking the usual Panzerfaust) supported by anti-tank guns & artillery, including off-map, from Phase A. Small SMG assault squads are also available for local counter-attacks.
With each passing phase, 17. SS doesn’t get much better by way of offensive power, but on the other hand, it greatly increases its defensive abilities. Although it gets plenty of StuG IV, the latter are more suited for defense than offense, yet are perfect to support infantry counter-attacks.
More artillery assets get available in Phase B, with Nebelwerfer, 120mm mortars, … as well as fire support guns, such as the s.IG 33 or its self-propelled version Grille. 17. SS will also get massive close air support from Luftwaffe, be it Stuka, rocket-firing Me 109 or heavier JU 88 S.
Phase C still increase the division’s artillery, infantry & anti-tank capacities, especially the most deadly AT gun to be fielded in Normandy, the 88mm PaK 43.