Wilhelm Bittrich

Wilhelm Bittrich (26 February 1894 – 19 April 1979) was a high-ranking Waffen-SS commander of Nazi Germany. Between August 1942 and February 1943, Bittrich commanded the SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer, in rear security operations (Bandenbekämpfung, literally: "bandit fighting") in the Soviet Union. From July 1944 until the end of the war Bittrich commanded the 2nd SS Panzer Corps in Normandy, during Market Garden and in Hungary.

After his arrest in May 1945, Bittrich was extradited to France on charges of having ordered the execution of 17 members of the French Resistance. He was tried, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. Following his release from prison, Bittrich became active in HIAG, a revisionist organization and a lobby group of former Waffen-SS members and served as chairman during the 1970s.

World War I

Born in 1894 into a family of a traveling salesmen, Bittrich volunteered for military service after the outbreak of World War I.[1] He served on the Western and Italian Front and was awarded both classes of the Iron Cross.[1] In 1916, Bittrich transferred to the Luftstreitkräfte and trained as a pilot.[2] He served with several units, including the 37th Fighter Squadron.[3]

Inter-war period

From March to July 1919, Bittrich was a member in the paramilitary Freikorps under the General Bernhard von Hülsen during the German Revolution of 1918–19. From 1921 he was for a short time gymnastics and sports teacher and employee of a brokerage firm. In 1922 he married theatre actress and director Käte Sonntag-Blume.

In 1923, Bittrich was accepted into the Reichswehr of the Weimar Republic.[2] In December 1931 or early 1932, Bittrich joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) (Nr. 829,700).[4] From March until June 1932, he served in the Sturmabteilung (SA). On 1 July 1932, Bittrich joined the SS (Nr. 39,177) and served in various SS units in leadership positions, reaching the rank of Hauptsturmführer by June 1934.[5]

From August 1934, Bittrich was a commander of the Politische Bereitschaft (Political Readiness Detachment) in Hamburg.[2] This unit later became part of the SS-Standarte "Germania" in the SS-Verfügungstruppe (SS-VT).[1] By January 1938, Bittrich was promoted to Obersturmbannführer.[6] He was given command of a battalion in the SS-Regiment "Deutschland".[3] With this unit he participated in the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in March 1938.[1] In May 1939, Bittrich was posted to the headquarters unit of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) and was promoted to Standartenführer in June 1939.[3]

World War II

Bittrich (far right) at the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp during tour with Heinrich Himmler (center), June 1941.

Bittrich took part in the invasion of Poland (1939), assigned as LSSAH Chief of Staff to Sepp Dietrich.[7] In January 1940 through October 1941, he was commander of the Regiment "Deutschland" and fought in the battle of France.

In January 1942, Bittrich was relocated to SS headquarters and instructed to set up the SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer,[8], with whom he fought until the beginning of 1943 in the middle section of the Eastern Front, tasked with rear-security operations (Bandenbekämpfung, literally "bandit-fighting") in the Soviet Union. On 9 July 1942 Bittrich attended a conference called to convey the principles of the Bandenbekämpfung to senior police and security leaders. Organized by Heinrich Himmler, the conference included Kurt Daluege, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, Odilo Globocnik, Bruno Streckenbach and others. The policies included collective punishment against villages suspected of supporting partisans, automatic death penalty for immediate families of suspected partisans, deportation (to labor and death camps) of women and children, and confiscation of property for the state.[9]

From February 1943 he set as commander of the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen.[10] On 1 May 1943 he was promoted to SS-Gruppenführer and Lieutenant-General of the Waffen-SS. His division remained initially in Belgium and France, where it was converted in October 1943 to a tank division. From March 1944 he fought in the framework of 2nd SS Panzer Corps in the Tarnopol area in Ukraine.

After the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944, the II SS Panzer Corps was relocated to France, where on 1 August 1944 Bittrich became the successor of Paul Hausser's SS Obergruppenfuhrer and commanding general of the unit. Under his leadership, the corps, now consisting of the 9th SS Panzer Division, the 3rd Paratroopers Division and parts of the 21st Panzer Division, initially fought on the invasion front, including in the Caen area. On 20/21 August, the unit broke the Falaise gap with heavy losses, freeing parts of the enclosed 7th Army and 5th Panzer Army. For his leadership in this operation, Bittrich received on 28 August 1944 Oak Leaves Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross.

With the Western Front defences now under the command of Walter Model, the II. SS Panzer Corps was relocated to the Arnhem area at the beginning of September 1944 to refresh its units. On 17 September 1944, the Allies began Operation Market Garden with the deployment of British paratroopers right in the staging areas of the SS unit. Bittrich's corps managed to encircle the 1st Airborne Division and bring heavy casualties. At the request of the British Divisional Medical Officer, Bittrich ordered a three-hour cease-fire on 24 September 1944, to remove more than 2,000 wounded British from the resultant Arnhem pocket, and place them in the infirmary of his divisions.

From 16 December 1944, the II. SS Panzer Corps took part in the Battle of the Bulge in the 6th Panzer Army under Sepp Dietrich. Bittrich was subordinate to the operation next to the 9th SS Panzer Division "Hohenstaufen" and the 2nd SS Panzer Division "The Reich" and the "Leader Companion Brigade". After minor initial successes, the core of the corps were stuck and suffered heavy losses due to constant Allied air attacks.

After the final failure of the Battle of the Bulge and the impending Soviet offensive in the south of the Eastern Front, the 6th Panzer Army with Bittrich II SS Panzer Corps was relocated to Hungary in February 1945 (Balaton offensive), but could not prevent the breakthrough of the Red Army.[11] The II SS Panzer Corps was then charged with the defence of Vienna. After the attack on the city began on 2 April 1945, Bittrich was ordered by the High Command of the Wehrmacht (OKW) on 9 April 1945 to hold Vienna "to the last breath". That same day, however, he withdrew his corps from Vienna and moved them behind the Danube Canal, to avoid a pointless destruction of the old town of Vienna and a bleeding out of his divisions - the 2nd SS Panzer Division, 9th SS Panzer Division, 44 Infantry Division and the 6th Panzer Division. A renewed order came from the OKW to recapture Vienna, to which Bittrich made no reaction or plans. Fighting a defensive withdrawal action, Bittrich withdrew westward with his corps, and on 8 May 1945 with the remains of his corps, negotiated a peaceful surrender near Steyr (Upper Austria) into US Army captivity.

Bittrich was listed as a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords by the Association of Knight's Cross Holders, although no record of the award could be found in the German archives due to the irregular nature of its presentation.[12]

Conviction for war crimes

After his arrest on 8 May 1945 he was extradited to France on charges of having ordered the execution of 17 members of the Resistance in Nîmes. The trial revealed that Bittrich had not given such an order and had even opened procedures against the responsible officers. As the commander in charge of the troops who committed the execution, he was held responsible for their misconduct and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was considered as served after a long pretrial detention. He was put on trial for a second time in 1953 and sentenced to five years in prison for countenancing hangings, pillage and arson,[13] but was acquitted by the French court in Bordeaux again and released in 1954.[11] He was never brought to trial for any actions and war crimes of the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer in the Soviet Union.

Activities within HIAG

Following his release from prison, Bittrich became active in HIAG, a revisionist organization of former Waffen-SS members. In the 1970s, he served as the organization's chairman.[14] Bittrich died in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria on 19 April 1979.[6]

Summary of SS career

Decorations
Promotions
19 October 1941: SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS[5]
1 May 1943: SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS[5]
1 August 1944: SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS[5]