Wilhelm Bittrich, 1894-1979

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Wilhelm Bittrich (1894-1979) was a SS General who played a major part in the defeat of the Allied attack on Arnhem in 1944, and became one of the last recipients of the Swords to the Knights Cross.

Bittrich served in the German army during the First World War, both as an army officer and a pilot. He won the Iron Class 1st Class during the conflict. Immediately after the war he joined a Freikorps, before joining the post-war army. He benefited from the surprisingly close links between the German military and the Soviet Union, undergoing pilot training at secret bases inside the Soviet Union.

By 1934 Bittrich was a trained staff officer, and he was recruited into the SS to help form junior officer and NCO schools. As a professional officer he helped give the Waffen SS its tactical knowledge, but was never really trusted by Hitler.

Bittrich commanded the SS Panzer Regiment Deutschland during the invasion of Poland in 1939, France in 1940 and the Soviet Union in 1941. He was awarded the Knights Cross on 14 December 1941, and was promoted to command the Das Reich SS Division.

On D-Day Bittrich commanded the Hohenstaufen SS Division (although he wasn't involved in the fighting until the end of June). He retained this command until the suicide of Colonel-General Dollman, commander of the Seventh Army, on 28 June. General Hausser, commander of II SS Panzer Corps, was promoted to replace Dollman, and Bittrich stepped up to command the corps. His last day in command of his division was the first day of II SS Panzer Corps' counter attack on the British positions on the Odon (29 June). The division was hit hard by allied air power, but still had the best of a tank battle late in the day. Bittrich thus took over a corps that had suffered heavy casualties - Hohenstaufen had lost 1,150 men and Frundsberg around 570. The German counterattack had failed to break the Allied lines, but it had stopped Operation Epsom, and helped preserve the German line.

During the battle for Normandy Bittrich commanded II SS Panzer Corps. This made him one of the most important German commanders of the battle, with authority over a large part of the German armour (alongside Sepp Dietrich). During July Bittrich held the line on the Odon River, west of Caen. On 30 July Montgomery attacked at the western end of the British sector (Operation Bluecoat). Bittrich was forced to move II SS Panzer Corps west to deal with the new threat. The British attack was eventually contained, but further west the German line was about to crack. Bittrich was pinned down in the east when the Americans began Operation Cobra, the attack that finally broke the German defensive lines in Normandy. 

Hitler responded by ordering a counterattack towards Mortain. This inevitably failed, and he responded by ordering Bittrich to join in. Only one of his divisions, Frundsberg, could be extracted from the front line and it had little impact.

Bittrich's men were in the middle of the German line as the battle of Falaise began to develop, and were thus threatened with encirclement as the Allies advanced south on their right flank. Bittrich was able to extract many of his men, losing around 10,000 men from his two divisions during the Normandy campaign, but most heavy equipment was lost. By 21 August his corps had no operational tanks. Despite the overall failure of the Normandy campaign, Bittrich was awarded the Oakleaves to the Knights Cross on 28 August.

His corps took part in a rearguard action against American troops on 2 September, before it was ordered to move to a quiet area just to the north of Arnhem to refit and recover after two months of constant battle. The corps was now down to around 6,000 men and no more than 30 tanks, and its two divisions were referred to as divisional battlegroups. Bittrich also had responsibility for part of the front line around Eindhoven.

This meant that he was in the front line when the Allies began Operation Market Garden, the audacious attempt to leap across the Rhine at Arnhem. Bittrich reacted quickly on 17 September, and his scattered command was able to delay and then defeat the British troops in the Arnhem bridgehead. He also received reinforcements that he used to slow up the Allied troops approaching Arnhem along a narrow line. Bittrich was eventually awarded the Swords to the Knights Cross for this success, although the award was made very late in the day (6 May 1945), making him the 153rd of 159 recipients of the award.

Bittrich's II SS Panzer Corps was allocated to the new Sixth Panzer Army being formed for the Ardennes offensive. It now consisted of the Hohenstaufen and Das Reich divisions, and was one of the strongest formations available for the offensive. The Sixth Panzer Army was posted on the right flank of the German attack, where it was to make the main effort. I SS Panzer Corps was to capture bridges of the Meuse, allowing II SS Panzer Corps to cross over and capture Antwerp, splitting the Allied armies in half.

Once the battle began on 16 December the SS troops performed unexpectedly poorly, and the most threatening German advances were made on their left flank. Bittrich's corps wasn't engaged until 21 December, by which time the 1 SS Panzer Corps attack had failed. Bittrich was ordered to split his corps in half, and advance to the north and south of the American strong point at St. Vith. If the attack had succeeded 20,000 prisoners might have been taken, but the Americans were able to hold off the advancing Germans and evacuate the town. Das Reich did achieve a temporary success at Manhay, but was soon forced to retreat. After only a week the Sixth Panzer Army's offensive was over, and the Allied counterattack about to begin.

After the war Bittrich was charged with being in a command appointment when units under his command committed mass murder and war crimes. He was imprisoned in France until 1954 and then released. He died in Muensingen in 1979.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 November 2011), Wilhelm Bittrich, 1894-1979 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_bittrich_wilhelm.html

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