SS-Panzer Regiment 12
SS-Panzer Regiment 12 entered combat in Normandy equipped with 87 Panzer IV and 66 Panther tanks, 12 Flak-Panzer 38(t) anti-aircraft armoured vehicles and three selfpropelled 2cm quadruple-barrelled anti-aircraft guns mounted on Panzer IV chassis. During the fighting it received a further 17 Panzer IVs and 35 Panthers as reinforcements. Thus there were 104 Panzer IVs and 101 Panthers, 205 tanks altogether, in the strength of the regiment between 6 June and 31 August 1944.
Unfortunately there are no contemporary summarized reports on the losses of the regiment in the surviving documents. According to the documents of the two Abteilung, a total loss of 65 Panthers and 59 Panzer IVs can be confirmed. However, the real total of the losses of armoured vehicles of SS-Panzer Regiment 12 was certainly considerably larger. On 4 September 1944 the division was ordered to hand over all of its remaining tanks and Jagdpanzers – whether they were operational or repairable in 14 days – to other German units. This way the regiment was finally deprived of its last tanks salvaged from the fighting.
Most of the armoured vehicle losses of SS-Panzer Regiment 12 in Normandy were combat losses. According to the written evidence only eight Panthers and one Panzer IV were destroyed by their crews. Most of the losses suffered during combat were caused by Allied anti-tank guns (among them tank-destroyers described as self-propelled antitank guns) and the guns of the field artillery. Allied tanks accounted for fewer. Despite the almost total dominance of the Allies in the air, in the case of the 12.SS-Panzer Division only three Panthers and a Flak-Panzer 38(t) are likely to have been destroyed by Allied air raids (fighter-bomber aircraft).1 The effective anti-aircraft defences of SS-Panzer Regiment 12 contributed to this; the self-propelled 2cm guns of the three Flak Züge of the unit are documented to have shot down a total of 15 Allied aircraft during the fighting in Normandy.
At the beginning of October 1944, SS-Panzer Regiment 12 summarized the number of Allied armoured combat vehicles knocked out by the tanks of the two Abteilungen in Normandy2. According to this they knocked out 690 such vehicles during the fighting, of which 601 were tanks or tank destroyers. However, according to the war diaries of the two Abteilungen, 211 armoured fighting vehicles were knocked out by the Panthers, and 183 armoured fighting vehicles were knocked out by the Panzer IVs; a total of 394. This difference of more than 200 vehicles can be explained by the fact that in October 1944, scores by other German units temporarily subordinated to the regiment were also credited to the regiment (for example Tigers of schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, the Panthers of the 1./Panzer Regiment 3 or the Jagdpanzer IVs of the 1./SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12).
In the August 1944 issue of the Nachrichtenblatt der Panzertruppe, the journal issued by the chief inspector of the German Panzertruppe, the experiences of the armoured tactics in Normandy was summarized as follows:
1 The terrain is disadvantageous for tanks; therefore the concentrated deployment of the armoured forces, so effective otherwise, has to be abandoned.
One should send the tanks into combat as tank destroyer commandos or armoured detachments!
2 These armoured detachments are to consist of a few tanks that stand directly behind the frontline. Their task is to immediately launch counterstrokes and to destroy the enemy that breaks through the lines.
3 The armoured detachments have to closely cooperate with the Panzergrenadiers and the Grenadiers, who shall direct them!
4 The interspaced battle order deprives the enemy of the ability to observe troop movements from the air. Camouflage of the vehicles will protect them from air raids. The tank commanders and gunners determine targets beforehand and prepare distance charts.
5 Changing positions shall be prepared for the tanks so they can serve in positions behind slopes (as defensive positions offering coverage from which the enemy can be defeated from short combat distances with surprise attacks). From these positions behind the slopes the enemy tanks that break through can be successfully attacked in the flank.
6 The enemy penetrability regarding close combat and flanking attacks shall be exploited with short counterstrokes, directly following the ceasing of artillery fire at the main battle line.
7 After the counterstroke has commenced the Grenadiers will defend the flanks of the tanks and fight directly with them.
The strictest order to all troops and units is to exploit the possibilities presented by the terrain, the cover, entrenchments, strict observance of security instructions regarding radio and telephone contact. Civilians shall constantly be prevented from informing the enemy.
The following experiences, acquired before, have now been confirmed:
1 The morale and training of our own tank crew is above that of the enemy. Dominance of the enemy can only be traced to the number of their tanks.
2 Morale of the British infantry is low. Due to this, until now we have only met British anti-tank units a few times.
3 Despite their thick armour the Tigers are forced to follow tactical regulations prescribed for light tank Kompanien (camouflage, exploitation of terrain, covered positions) due to enemy air superiority, well-directed artillery fire on identified targets and the 9.2cm anti-aircraft/anti-tank gun!3
Because of the broken terrain in Normandy and the Allied dominance of the air SS-Panzer Regiment 12 (the same as most of the German armoured regiments) had not been deployed in regimental force. For the same reasons the armoured Kampfgruppes used on the Eastern Front (consisting of a Panzer Abteilung, a Panzer-Grenadier-Bataillon equipped with armoured personnel carriers, a self-propelled Panzer-Artillerie-Abteilung and a Panzer-Pionier-Kompanie mounted on armoured personnel carriers) were not successful either. Due to this the Germans soon ceased using this form of combat grouping.
After this, the tanks were mostly deployed (mostly in Kompanie-force) to support the Panzergrenadier-Bataillone. This way, the SS tanks fought with the attacking Allied tanks and tank destroyers as moving anti-tank reserves.
Sturmbannführer Jürgensen, who was awarded the Knight’s Cross for his command of the I./SS-Panzer Regiment 12 in Normandy (he was the only one in the Abteilung to receive the Knight’s Cross), prepared the following report at the beginning of August 1944 of the experiences of the Panther tanks in his Abteilung4:
I./Panzer Regiment 12 was in battle from the third day of the invasion. During this time it was revealed that the battle fought by armoured forces in Normandy was very different from what was experienced in open country due to the undergrowth and the rugged terrain, and this prevented the normal deployment of panzers. Attack is extremely disadvantageous over terrain with the thick undergrowth of Normandy. The Abteilung-sized attack is very hard, if not entirely impossible, due to the undergrowth. The assault gun-like group deployment seems to be the most advantageous form of deployment, in close cooperation with the Panzergrenadiers. For this, good cooperation and extensive knowledge of the armoured units for at least the officers and NCOs of the Panzergrenadiers is essential. All experiences gathered so far have shown that the Grenadiers do not understand the battle deployment of tanks. On the one hand they require the impossible, on the other they fail to exploit even the most advantageous possibilities (firing positions).
Cooperation with the artillery is especially weak. During the whole campaign there was not a single example of at least an acceptable level of cooperation. The primary reasons are: the heavy radio equipment that is not mobile enough, and above all, is not sufficient or used adequately. Attacks with limited goals have failed one by one, with extensive losses suffered, because the artillery were not ready, or were ready too late and even then it scarcely fired.
Both sides have to have knowledge and understanding of the armament and its functioning. Thorough preparation is essential at all times. It is better to depart half an hour later, following thorough preparations (briefing and discussion of the attack of the Grenadiers and the artillery) than to attack unprepared and scattered.
The advantages which the Panzer V (Panther) has, due to its optics or gun, cannot be exploited on terrain with thick undergrowth, as seen in Normandy, because of the short effective range and short lines of sight. The enemy anti-tank guns and tanks that are well-covered in the undergrowth and in the hollows at the outskirts of villages cannot be discovered, or only from a short distance by which time it is already too late: therefore the enemy anti-tank guns and tanks can easily knock out and disable the Panzer V (close cooperation of the tanks, Panzergrenadiers and the artillery).
The Panzerkampfwagen V has never failed regarding engineering, armament engineering and mechanical engineering, although engineering service was scarce and not sufficient. The exhausts glowing or flaming at night are extremely disadvantageous (they must be covered).
For the battle fought on the Invasionfront the tanks are best deployed as tank destroyers, well-camouflaged and covered, and directly behind the main battle line because of the dominance of enemy artillery and the extensive usage of enemy tanks.
Counterstrokes carried out by armoured units deployed in reserve were not effective again. Reasons: broken terrain with undergrowth, enemy artillery dominance, swiftly deployed anti-tank guns and tanks located on the outskirts of villages, behind bushes and hollows, in ambush positions, which let the counterstrokes come close then knocked out the armoured units at short range.
Battle tactics of the enemy tanks: avoiding the open field, stealth through valleys, hollows, ravines; camouflage and well-covered firing positions on the outskirts of villages, in the undergrowth, behind slopes and on the flanks; firing at long distances, extensive exploitation of smoke.
The experiences above could also have been echoed by Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann, the famous German Panzer ace. Although the tactical circumstances of the death of Wittmann and his comrades on 8 August 1944 do not constitute an essential part of the combat history of SS-Panzer Regiment 12 in Normandy, we have to touch upon the subject, especially as the above mentioned event occurred subordinated to the II./SS-Panzer Regiment 12.
Before the catastrophic combat action is examined we would like to resolve quite an old ill-founded belief, which is that Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann was the most effective tank commander in the Second World War. Until 8 August 1944 the destruction of 138 enemy tanks was credited to Wittmann. On account of this he was probably the most effective German Panzer ace until his death. However the war raged on in Europe for nine more months. During this time, three tank commanders of the Army5 surpassed Wittmann, who was not able to increase his score any further.
Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann, the highest scoring Waffen-SS tank ace, receives his Swords to the Knight’s Cross from Adolf Hitler (see Chapter 8 Footnote 45 and main text). (Mark C. Yerger)
On 8 August Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann did not depart on a mission, particularly because his heavy Tiger I Ausf E tank (turret number 205) was under repair. Some of the still operational Tigers of schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 (mostly from the 3.Kompanie, commanded by Hauptsturmführer Franz Heurich) were assigned to the II./SS-Panzer Regiment 12 of Sturmbannführer Karl-Heinz Prinz.
As can be clearly seen from the war diary of the II./SS-Panzer Regiment 12, at 0630 hours that day the Tigers of Heurich were dispatched, together with the Panzer IVs of the Abteilung, via Grainville and Hautmesnil towards Cintheaux by the order of the Abteilung (that is, this was not done by order of Wittmann).
Wittmann was angry, offended that it was not he that had given orders to Heurich. The Ordonnanz Offizier of schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, Hauptscharführer Josef Höflinger, was sent after Heurich’s 3.Kompanie to stop them and order him to wait for further orders. Wittmann drew up with Heurich’s Tigers around 1100 hours in Cintheaux.6 Considering the fact that the Divisionsführer of the 12.SS-Panzer Division, Oberführer Kurt Meyer, discussed details of the planned attack with Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann and Sturmbannführer Hans Waldmüller, commander of the I./SS-Panzer-Grenadier-Regiment 25, Wittmann had surely taken over the command of the Tigers from Heurich by then.
Oberführer Meyer had earlier decided that the inevitable assault of the Canadian and Polish Armoured Divisions at the forefront of the Canadian II Corps would be anticipated with a sweep forward, and thus the unit should try to regain initiative.7 To carry this out, around noon Meyer had eight Tiger I Ausf Es, five Panthers and nineteen Panzer IV tanks, plus ten Jagdpanzer IVs. This meant there were 42 operational German tanks altogether. Opposite them stood – taking only the Allied armoured units into consideration – two full armoured divisions (with 381 tanks in each) and two individual armoured brigades (with approximately 220 tanks). We can not apprehend how Meyer thought that he could regain initiative with his 42 tanks against 1,200 Allied tanks, even with the most advantageous circumstances?
In our opinion, it would have been more favourable, considering tactical aspects, if SS Kampfgruppe“Waldmüller”, strengthened with Tigers, had awaited the Allied tank assault in the southern-south-eastern area of Cintheaux, then, exploiting the temporary bafflement and organizational disturbances caused by the initial losses, had launched a counterstroke. In this case at least the exact enemy positions would have been known for all tank commanders taking part in the mission.
Instead of this, Meyer himself chose to attack, and sent Kampfgruppe“Waldmüller” into the ‘unknown’ without precise reconnaissance details. In our opinion Meyer would have sent his tanks into the assault even without the discovery of the Allied marker aircraft and his attempts to avoid the air raid, if just a little later. Incidentally Cintheaux was not even listed among the targets to be bombed by the B-17s on that day.8 The truth was, however, that Meyer did not know this for sure.
From then on, only Wittmann commanded the fight of the attacking Tigers, and in our opinion made a number of serious tactical mistakes.
First, he divided his already limited number of tanks, so three of the eight Tigers were left to strengthen the defence of Cintheaux, with the task of preventing the Canadian tanks from coming close. As there were already a number of German 8.8cm anti-aircraft guns and 2cm guns in firing positions around the village, we do not see the point of this action. The three Tigers could have been used for the covering of the unsecured flanks.
Second, although Wittmann had to launch an immediate attack in open terrain, without supporting Panzergrenadier Infanterie, in a totally unknown situation regarding the enemy’s positions, he did not choose an appropriate formation for this. According to the war diary of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry armoured regiment, his Tigers – baffling even the British – advanced towards the enemy in a column, behind each other. With this, they left their flanks and the weaker armoured sides of the heavy tanks exposed and defenceless. This formation was only used while in motion, and not at all before engagement with the enemy. In tactical situations like this, one platoon of tanks would form a Keil (wedge), in which two heavy tanks would drive to the front, besides each other in a line, and behind them, on the right and left sides, the other Tigers would have driven in echelon. According to some interpretations, Wittmann presumably anticipated enemy fire only from Hill 122 north of his position.9 However this would not explain the improper tactical formation. It also cannot be excluded that the (successful) firefight with the Canadian tanks discovered north-westwards at a distance of 1,800 metres engaged his attention so much that his tanks were not able to watch their right flank.
Third, Wittmann could have secured the right flank of his tank group even better if he had waited for the Panzer IV tanks, Jagdpanzer IVs and the SS-Panzergrenadiers attacking eastwards to reach the orchard (where the ambush positions of the British tanks were hidden), and ordered the Tigers to attack in line with them in close cooperation. However, he acted differently, and led his heavy tanks directly in front of the British tank guns. The events that followed have become part of history.
In our opinion Wittmann was killed on 8 August 1944 due to the following causes and effects. At first, he unwarrantedly took over the command of the Tigers subordinated to the II./SS-Panzer Regiment 12, which were deployed by Oberführer Meyer in an unprepared ‘rush’. Wittmann divided his forces and chose an improper tactical formation. Judging by the fact that he was rushing forward with his Tigers alone, we draw the conclusion that he misjudged the forces and abilities of both the enemy and the other units of Kampfgruppe “Waldmüller”.
SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12
According to data from 1 October 1944, SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12 only had two Jagdpanzer IVs (one in both the 1. and 2. Kompanien).10 However this does not mean that 19 Jagdpanzers were lost in Normandy.
According to the original documents of the Panzerjäger Abteilung two Jagdpanzer were knocked out in the 1.Kompanie, five in the 2.Kompanie, and one in Kampfgruppe “Wöst” (eight altogether) by the Allies in combat. Apart from these, one Jagdpanzer IV was “missing” (that is, there was no information available as to the fate of the tank and its crew), and at least one was blown up by its own crew because of technical problems. Because the fate of only two of the eight Jagdpanzers of Kampfgruppe “Wöst” is known, and the group avoided the most dangerous sector of the breakout, it is possible that six of its tanks, towed or on their own, crossed the Seine at last. The remaining three Jagdpanzer IVs were presumably abandoned by their crews and/or were blown up during the breakout from the Falaise Cauldron.
During September 1944 SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12 summarized the number of Allied tanks and other vehicles knocked out in the Normandy battles. The Jagdpanzer of the unit reported knocking out 102 tanks, one armoured carrier vehicle, one armoured reconnaissance car, four prime movers and five trucks. The towed 7.5cm anti-tank guns of the 3.Kompanie knocked out at least a further three Allied tanks, however, because their crews had been killed or seriously wounded, there was no one to report these scores.
The Jagdpanzer IVs of the 1.Kompanie reported destroying 86 Allied armoured fighting vehicles during seven days in combat. Could this amount be an exaggeration? Not so. The war diaries of the opposing Allied (British, Canadian and Polish) troops confirm this data, and they can be deduced from the tank scores of the other German units (for example the two schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung equipped with Tiger tanks) fighting in the same sector.
Therefore it is not a coincidence that three members of the 1./SS-Panzerjäger-Abteilung 12 were awarded the Knight’s Cross because of their accomplishments in Normandy: Obersturmführer Georg Hurdelbrink, Kompanie Chef of the 1.Kompanie and Oberscharführer Rudolf Roy, a Zugführer in the 1.Kompanie on 16 October 1944, and Rottenführer Fritz Eckstein, the gunner of Roy’s Jagdpanzer IV, on 18 November 1944.11
A number of books and internet websites describe Oberscharführer Rudolf Roy as one of the German “Panzer aces”, having knocked out 36 armoured fighting vehicles.12 Although Roy was an eminent Jagdpanzer Zugführer and tank commander beyond question, it was Rottenführer Eckstein behind the optical sight of the Jagdpanzer IV who provided a key element to Roy’s success. Moreover, this Jagdpanzer knocked out only 26 Allied tanks in Normandy (all of them with Eckstein), and because Roy fell from a headshot on the second day of the Ardennes offensive, 17 December 1944, it is highly implausible for him to have knocked out ten more armoured fighting vehicles before his death.
At the same time, according to the combat reports of the 1.Kompanie, Hurdelbrink had 36 confirmed armoured fighting vehicle scores before 16 August 1944. It is true however that he was also a tank commander and not a gunner when knocking out enemy tanks; despite this, Hurdelbrink is not usually featured on these “Panzer ace” lists.
The new commander of SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12, Hauptsturmführer Karl Brockschmidt, observed the following in 1977 in connection with the unit as it was reorganized before the Ardennes offensive in December 1944:
The Abteilung as a Panzerjäger Abteilung fulfilled our expectations and was awarded high decorations. However this time the task was to form a Sturmgeschütz Abteilung from this Panzerjäger Abteilung. This meant that the approach of the tank destroyers (waiting, lying in ambush position, then knocking the armoured fighting vehicle out) was to be reformed into the dynamic tactics of a Sturmgeschütz Abteilung. The task of the Abteilung had to be to blow away everything from the centre and draw the infantry with them.13
However, Brockschmidt was only right in some respects. SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12 only had two Marder III tank destroyers in Normandy, which had an open combat compartment at the top and at the back, and their armour was thin, therefore they waited for the enemy armoured fighting vehicles in ambush positions, and following direct fire had to change firing positions as quickly as possible. However, two Kompanien of the Abteilung were equipped with Jagdpanzer IVs and not with Marder III tank destroyers. These combat vehicles had closed combat compartments, thicker and sloped glacis plates and lower silhouettes. This meant they were not confined to the ambush positions and could take part actively in attacks as assault guns, under the protection of the infantry. Indeed the bold sweeps of Hurdelbrink and Roy exemplify that the Jagdpanzer IV was especially able for this kind of task even in the difficult terrain of Normandy.
Almost all hits of the German 7.5cm and the 8.8cm armour-piercing shells pierced the armour of the Sherman tanks, and in 62% of cases this also meant that the tank was knocked out.14
In the case of SS-Panzer Regiment 12 both Abteilungen equipped with Panther and Panzer IV tanks reported to have knocked out 3.5 times more Allied tanks than their own losses in armoured fighting vehicles.15 In most cases these losses are confirmed by the war diaries of the British, Canadian and Polish units. If we are trying to draw an exact picture of the efficiency of the regiment during the larger campaigns of the Allies in Normandy, with little margin of error we can state that all armoured fighting vehicles that were lost on the German side (regardless of the type) equalled three Allied tanks or tank destroyers lost. This rate is even more astonishing regarding the Jagdpanzer IVs of SS-Panzerjäger Abteilung 12: for each of their armoured fighting vehicles knocked out in combat 15 Allied armoured fighting vehicles were lost!
According to an Allied analysis the German gunners needed 1.63 armour-piercing shell hits to knock out a Sherman tank. The Allies, however, generally needed 2.55 hits in the case of a Panther and 4.2 in the case of a Tiger to achieve the same result. According to another report, if a Sherman or a Cromwell tank was engaged from a distance of 500 yards (approximately 457 metres) or closer by German anti-tank guns, then the chance of the Allied tank surviving diminished by 50% every 6 seconds.16
The destruction ratio of the Sherman tanks was extremely high. A British examination discovered that 37 out of 45 Sherman tanks knocked out between 6 June and 10 July 1944 were burnt out (of these, 33 tanks were lost due to armour-piercing shell hits). 94 of the 166 tanks lost from the British 29th and 8th Armoured Brigades were burnt out. According to an American analysis 65% of their Sherman tanks knocked out by direct controlled gunfire were burnt out.17
Interestingly enough, despite the obstructed Normandy terrain – which was therefore extremely advantageous for tank destroying tactics – only 15% of the Allied losses in armoured fighting vehicles was caused by close combat. Within this figure only 6% of the total Allied losses were caused by Panzerfausts and Panzerschrecks. At the same time, almost half of the Allied armoured fighting vehicle losses in Normandy were caused by tanks, assault guns and Jagdpanzers.18
According to the remaining contemporary documents used in this work the tanks and Jagdpanzers of the 12.SS-Panzer Division were not exceptions either; they knocked out almost 500 Allied armoured fighting vehicles altogether during the fighting in Normandy in 1944.
This, however, does not alter the fact that the 12.SS-Panzer Division (with its Panzer Regiment and Panzerjäger Abteilung), similar to other German units, was defeated and almost completely destroyed in Normandy by the Allied troops.
1 Of the 110 German tanks captured and examined by the British in Normandy between 6 June and 7 August 1944, only 10 were rendered disabled by aircraft (seven by rockets and three by automatic cannon fire). During the examination carried out between 8 and 31 August 1944 again only 10 out of 223 captured German tanks were destroyed by aircraft (seven by rockets, two by automatic cannon fire and one by bombs). See Thomas L. Jentz, Die deutsche Panzertruppe Band 2, Wölfersheim-Berstadt: Podzun-Pallas Verlag, 1999, pp.189, 193 (hereafter cited as Jentz). According to this it can be stated that only 6% of the German armoured losses were caused by Allied aircraft in the British-Canadian sector.
2 The tanks, tank destroyers, self-propelled guns, armoured reconnaissance cars and armoured personnel carriers were all reported as armoured combat vehicles.
3 Cited in Jentz, pp. 189–190.
4 The report constitutes Attachment no. 11 of the KTB for the I./SS-Panzer Regiment 12.
5 Feldwebel Kurt Knispel (schwere Panzer Abteilung 503 then “Feldherrnhalle”) with 162 credited successes, Oberleutnant Otto Carius (schwere Panzer Abteilung 502) with 150 credited successes and Hauptmann Johannes Bölter (schwere Panzer Abteilung502) with 144 credited successes.
6 Agte, p.258.
7 Meyer, p.304.
8 Presumably because there were a number of German 8.8cm and 2cm anti-aircraft guns in firing positions around the village, which shot down nine B-17s. See Reynolds, p.277.
9 S.A. Hart, p.60.
10 Vojenský Historický Archiv, Praha (Military History Archives, Prague), Anlagen zum KTB der SS-Panzer-Jäger-Abteilung 12 “Hitlerjugend”, Kriegsgliederung Panzer-Jäger-Abteilung 12 “HJ” Stand: 1. 10. 1944.
11 Hurdelbrink and Eckstein survived the war. Roy was shot in the head by an American sniper on 17 December 1944 during the Ardennes offensive. See Appendix XVIII.
12 See, among others, S. Hart and R. Hart, A Waffen-SS fegyverei és harceljárásai [Weapons and Fighting Tactics of the Waffen-SS], Debrecen: Hajja, 1999, p.222.
13 Cited in Meyer, p.408.
14 John Buckley, British Armour in the Normandy Campaign, London, Frank Cass, 2004, p.125 (hereafter cited as Buckley).
15 See Appendix XIII.
16 Buckley, p.107.
17 Buckley, p.127.
18 Buckley, p.123.