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Kurt "Panzer" Meyer.


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Kurt Panzer Meyer in 1942 after being awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross
Kurt Panzer Meyer in 1942 after being awarded the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross

Kurt "Panzer" Meyer (December 23, 1910-December 23, 1961) served as an officer in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War. He saw action in many major battles, including the Invasion of France, Operation Barbarossa, and the Battle of Normandy.

Over the course of his career, Meyer was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, the third highest military decoration for bravery of the Third Reich. Meyer also was promoted to become the youngest divisional commander of either side of the War.

Meyer's record as a brave and daring officer was ruined by his conviction for war crimes committed during the heavy fighting around Caen in 1944, when he was accused of counseling troops under his command to deny quarter to allied prisoners of war, after which his soldiers shot surrendered Canadians at Meyer's headquarters in Abbey Ardennes. Following the war, he served nine years in British and Canadian prisons. After his release, he became active in the veteran's association HIAG.

Early life

Kurt Adolph Wilhelm Meyer was born in Jerxheim, Duchy of Brunswick (now Lower Saxony) on 23 December, 1910.

He came from a lower class family, his father being employed as a factory worker. In 1914, his father joined the Imperial German Army and served as an NCO in the First World War, obtaining the rank of Sergeant Major before being discharged for wounds received in battle.

Meyer attended school in Jerxheim. After completing his education, Meyer found work on a factory assembly line, then as a miner. He applied to join the Mecklenburg Landespolizei (Police force), seeing it perhaps as an escape from a labourer's life. He was accepted on the 1st October 1929.

Meyer's nickname Panzer has nothing to do with armoured warfare. While in training in the Police Academy at Schwerin, Meyer decided to play a prank on a fellow student. The plan was to throw a pail of water onto his classmate's head from the roof of a two story building. Meyer slipped and fell, landing on his feet but suffering over 20 fractures. His condition was so serious that he was expected to die, but he recovered to full health. After this debacle, Meyer's classmates christened him Panzer, because he was as tough as a battle tank.

Career in the SS

Meyer joined the NSDAP on 1 September 1930, three years before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He then applied to join the elite and clandestine Schutzstaffel, commanded by Heinrich Himmler. He was accepted on 15 October 1931, his first posting being to 22.SS-Standarte, based in the town of Schwerin. Meyer was commissioned as an officer, an SS-Untersturmführer (2nd Lieutenant), in 1932. In May of 1934, he was transferred to the SS's most respected unit, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). By September 1936 Meyer had again been promoted, this time to SS-Obersturmführer (1st Lieutenant), and he had also taken command of the LSSAH's Anti-Tank unit, 14. Panzerabwehr-Kompanie. Meyer and the LSSAH took part in the bloodless campaign to annex Austria as a part of the XVI. Armeekorps, and later under General Heinz Guderian in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Campaigns in Poland, France and the Low Countries

Though the command of a static Anti-Tank company did not suit Meyer at all, he performed admirably during the Fall Weiss, the Invasion of Poland. The LSSAH was attached to Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt's Heeresgruppe Süd during the campaign.. He was wounded on the 7th September 1939, receiving a shot through the shoulder. Despite this, Meyer continued to command the Anti-Tank company, and received the Iron Cross second class on 25 September 1939.

After the campaign in Poland, Meyer requested a more mobile command. He received it, in the form of the LSSAH's Motorcycle Reconnaissance company (15 Kradschützenkompanie). He led the LSSAH Motorcyclists through the invasion of France and the Low Countries. Commanding the 1st and 2nd platoons were his future comrades Hugo Kraas and Max Wünsche. The LSSAH was attached to General von Wietersheim 's XVI. Armeekorps, and during this campaign Meyer was awarded the Iron Cross first class.

The Balkans and Greece

Following the Western Campaign, the 15 Kradschützenkompanie was reorganized into the LSSAH's Aufklärungsabteilung (Reconnaissance detachment) and Meyer was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer (Major).

Signal Magazine cover photo depiciting Kurt Panzer Meyer in action at Klissura Pass, 14 April 1941.
Signal Magazine cover photo depiciting Kurt Panzer Meyer in action at Klissura Pass, 14 April 1941.

Mussolini's ill-fated invasion of the Balkans resulted in the Barbarossa campaign being delayed, and German forces brought to bear on the Yugoslav and Greek forces. Meyer's detachment was to cut off the Greek III Corps currently retreating from Albania. Meyer's Abteilung had to storm the formidable Klissura Pass, drive like hell for Lake Kastoria and cut off the Greek forces based in the town of Kastoria. The attack began on 13 April, but by the next day the attack had stalled in the face of stiff resistance at the Klissura pass, near the town of Werjes. The Greek 20th Division was well entrenched in both the town and the heights bordering the Pass itself.

Meyer organised his Abteilung into three assault groups, leading one himself, one by Krass and one by Wünsche. The dawn attack resulted in the outer defenses being broken by 1100 hours, with Meyer throwing a grenade into a group of his own men to keep the assault moving. By mid afternoon, the town and heights were cleared and the road to Kastoria was open. The battle for the heights yielded 600 prisoners - all for the loss of only 1 officer and 6 men killed, 1 officer and 17 men wounded. On the 16th, Meyer's Abteilung travelled behind the Greek lines and assaulted Kastoria from the south, capturing a further 1,100 prisoners. For these actions Meyer was awarded the Knight's Cross on 18 May 1941.

Barbarossa

Meyer's Abteilung took part in the June 1941 Operation Barbarossa as a part of Heeresgruppe Süd. His lightning quick actions during this campaign resulted in the nickname 'Schnelle Meyer' (lit. Speedy Meyer). The Abteilung's actions in the capture of Mariupol on the Black sea, where Meyer ordered his men to literally 'charge the guns', resulted in the capture of not only the city, but also virtually a whole Soviet division. This battle is a typical example of Meyer's style of command. Daring and brave (Meyer was always at the front of his assaults) though also perhaps reckless.

In October, Meyer fell ill and relinquished command to Kraas. After convalescing with his wife in Berlin, he returned to active duty in January 1942. Soon after returning, he was awarded the German Cross in gold for bravery in combat.

Kharkov and the Hitlerjugend Division

By Meyer's return, the LSSAH had been transformed into SS-Panzergrenadier-Division 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. After the II SS-Korps had withdrawn from Kharkov, General Paul Hausser ordered its recapture. Eager to reclaim their damaged prestige, the SS men launched into the assault. Meyer's reformed SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 1 was constantly in the forefront of the fighting. During the Third Battle of Kharkov, Meyer's Abteilung frequently co-operated with Wünsche's SS-Panzer-Regiment 1, Theodor 'Teddy’ Wisch’s SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 2 and Joachim Peiper's III./SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 2. These ad-hoc Kampfgruppen acted like fire brigades, rushing from one crisis point to another, slicing in and out of Soviet lines rescuing trapped German troops and capturing soviet officers. Meyer’s Abteilung captured the entire command staff of a Soviet division near Jeremejewka and Aleksandrowka.

In the final phase of the capture of Kharkov, the Leibstandarte's role was to capture the city’s huge central plaza, called Red Square. Meyer, Wünsche and Peiper all led Kampfgruppen which were to take the responsibility of capturing the city. Meyer led his Abteilung in a high speed charge to the Square, capturing part of it before being cut off by the Soviet defenders. Meyer and his grenadiers held their ground against vastly larger Soviet forces until they were relieved by Peiper’s Kampfgruppe on 13th March. Together with Peiper’s Kampfgruppe and the rest of Teddy Wisch’s Regiment, Meyer’s Abteilung finally cleared the city centre after a desperate and bloody fight. In honour of this action, Red Square was renamed Platz der Leibstandarte.

The actions of the three SS divisions, The Leibstandarte, 2.SS Das Reich and 3.SS Totenkopf, along with the Heer's elite Grossdeutschland division, resulted in the blunting of Soviet General Nikolai Vatutin’s offensive and rendering the Soviet Voronezh and Southwestern Fronts impotent. The Third Battle for Kharkov was the last major German victory of the War. For his actions, Meyer became the 195th man to be awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knight's Cross.

In the summer of 1943, Hitler declared the formation of a new SS Division. The 12.SS-Panzer- Division 'Hitlerjugend' was to be filled by members of the Hitler Youth organization born in 1926 - all 17 year olds, brought up knowing only the Nazi system. The division's commanding officers were to come from the 1. SS-Panzer Division "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler". The division was to be commanded by Meyer's old comrade SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, and he was to be joined by Max Wünsche and Despite his desire to lead the Hitlerjugend's Panzer-Regiment, Meyer was selected to command the young Grenadiers of SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment 25. Meyer was again promoted to SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) on 21 June 1943. Meyer was present during the unit's training at Beverloo in Belgium, and early in 1944 the Hitlerjugend was moved to Hasselt, also in Belgium, in anticipation of the Allied invasion.

Normandy and the battles around Caen

On June 6 1944, the Allies launched the greatest amphibious invasion in history - Operation Overlord. The Western front now existed. After much confusion, the Hitlerjugend got moving at around 1430 on June 6th, and several units advanced on Sword Beach until they were halted by fierce naval and anti-tank fire, and by the Allied Air Cover. Meyer's Regiment were ready for combat by 2200 on June 6th. Meyer set up his command post in the Ardenne Abbey, whose towers provided excellent view of the rolling fields of Normandy.

Signal Magazine photograph of Meyer as commander of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 25. Mid June, 1944. Note the tailored Italian camoflague jacket
Signal Magazine photograph of Meyer as commander of SS-Panzergrenadier Regiment 25. Mid June, 1944. Note the tailored Italian camoflague jacket.

During their first engagement, the 'kid-warriors' of Meyer's regiment proved themselves exceptional soldiers, destroying 28 Canadian tanks while losing only 6 soldiers for their efforts. Meyer wrote of this battle:

But what is this? Am I seeing clearly? An enemy tank is pushing through the orchards of Contest! My God! What an opportunity! The tanks are driving right across II Battalion's front! The unit is showing us its unprotected flank. I give orders to all battalions, the artillery and the available tanks. Do not shoot! Open fire on my order only!.

The commander of our tank regiment has positioned his command vehicle in the garden of the monastery. A wireless link is quickly established with the tank. . . . Wünsche, commander of the tank regiment, quietly transmits the enemy tank movements. Nobody dares raise his voice.

. . . An unbearable pressure now rests on me. It will happen soon now. The enemy spearhead pushes past Franqueville and starts across the road. I give the signal for the attack to Wünsche, and can just hear his order, "Achtung! Panzer marsch!" The tension now fades away. There are cracks and flashes near Franqueville. The enemy tank at the head of the spearhead smokes and I watch the crew bailing out. More tanks are torn to pieces with loud explosions.

It was during this period that the shooting of Canadian prisoners occurred. Meyer would later be charged with and convicted of ordering that no prisoners be taken, and also found guilty of responsibility for the shooting of 18 prisoners of war.

Casualties were not to be so light for long however, and over the next two weeks, the regiment was to suffer badly in the battles for Carpiquet Aérodrome and the villages of Contest, Buron, and Authie.

On the 14th of June, SS-Brigadeführer Witt was killed when British naval gunfire hit his command post. Meyer, as highest ranking officer, was promoted to commander of the Division. At 33 years of age, he had become the youngest divisional commander of the war.

Meyer managed to hold the line above Caen in spite of several major British and Canadian offensives. By July 4 the division was reduced to a 'weak battlegroup'. Despite this, Meyer still clung to the Carpiquet Airfield while wave after wave of allied Troops and tanks tried to wrest it from his grasp. By the 9th of July, Meyer realised he had to withdraw his division, or watch it be annihilated. On the 10th, despite Hitler's 'No Retreat' order, Meyer ordered that the Hitlerjugend be pulled back behind the Orne river, abandoning Caen to the allies. In just over one month of fighting, the Hitlerjugend had been reduced from 22,000 men to just under 5,000.

Final battles in Normandy - Falaise pocket

While the Division rested and refitted, Meyer went to visit Erwin Rommel, the overall commander of the Army Group. When he requested air cover, Rommel replied:

Why are you telling me this? Do you believe that I drive around with my eyes closed? I have written report after report. In Africa I drew attention to the fatal impact of the fighter bombers, but the gentlemen in Berlin, of course, know much better, they simply don't believe my reports any longer! Something has to happen! The war in the west has to end! But what will happen in the east?

Later that afternoon, Rommel's own staff car was strafed and he was wounded. Soon after this, he was forced into suicide for complicity in the July 1944 Bomb Plot.

The Canadians began their assault on Falaise, meaning to meet up with the Americans who were circling behind the German lines, hoping to surround and destroy the German divisions around Caen. Meyer realised at this point that further resistance can only end with death or capture, nonetheless he set up his battered division to attempt to defend the road to Falaise. After several days fighting, Meyer realised again that he had to try to save the remainder of his division, reduced to about 1,500 men. He led his men in an attempt to break out of the Falaise pocket. Here he speaks of the terror felt when surrounded:

The misery around us screams to high heaven. Refugees and soldiers from the broken German armies look helplessly at the bombers flying continuously overhead. It is useless to take cover from the bursting shells and bombs. Concentrated in such a confined space, we offer unique targets for the enemy air power. The forest areas are full of wounded soldiers and the sundered bodies of horses. Death shadows us at every step. We are lying as if on a salver in full view and range of the 4th Canadian and 1st Polish Divisions' guns. It is impossible to miss.

Despite this, Meyer made it out of the Falaise pocket. On 27 August, he became the 91st soldier to be awarded the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. One week later, on 1 September, he was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer (Brigadier). Meyer and the remnants of the Hitlerjugend joined the retreat across the Seine River and into Belgium. On September 6, 1944, in the town of Durnal near Namur in Belgium, he was captured by partisans and handed over to American forces disguised as a german army captain knowing fully well he would have otherwise been identified as an important member of the SS.

End of the war - war crimes trials

Meyer was held as a prisoner of war until December 1945, when in the town of Aurich Germany he was charged with five war crimes. During this time he was guarded by Corporal Peter Zwarich who had served with the 2nd Battalion in Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry.

Kurt Meyer stands trial in Aurich, Germany for 5 counts of war crimes in December 1945.
Kurt Meyer stands trial in Aurich, Germany for 5 counts of war crimes in December 1945.

After a brief trial, he was convicted of three of the five charges: inciting his troops to deny quarter; the killing of seven Canadian prisoners of war at his headquarters at the L’Ancienne Abbaye Ardenne on 8 June 1944; and the killing of eleven Canadian prisoners of war at his headquarters at the L’Ancienne Abbaye Ardenne on 7 June 1944. (The War Crimes Commission prosecutor for the trial was Canadian Army Lt. Col. Clarence S. Campbell who in 1946 became President of the National Hockey League, a position he held for 31 years until his retirement in 1977.)

He was sentenced by Major General H.W. Foster, commander of the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade and his opponent during the battle of Normandy, to death by firing squad. This sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment in January 1946 by Major General Chris Vokes who stated: When I studied the evidence against Meyer I found it to be a mass of circumstantial evidence. This was, however, in spite of eyewitness testimony by members of the 25th SS-Panzergrenadier-Regiment that they were ordered to take no prisoners. However, these eyewitnesses had been interogated heavily, one refused to make this accusation in court and the other could not be found at all casting huge doubt over the veracity of their claims.

Meyer served five years in Dorchester prison, located in New Brunswick, Canada. He was then transferred to a British Military prison in Werl, West Germany. During his time in jail, he corresponded with several Canadian officers who had faced him in Normandy, and continued to keep in contact with some of these former adversaries after his release.

After nine years imprisonment, he was released on 7 September 1954 and after several unsuccessful job applications went to work for the Andreas Brewery in Hagen.

Meyer became very active in the Waffen-SS veteran's organization HIAG, and was very outspoken in its battle to have war pensions awarded to former members of the Waffen-SS.

In 1957 his war biography Grenadiers was published. A reader can notice Meyer's urgent writing style which conveys the action and terror of combat; he also uses the book to defend himself from the war-crimes charges of which he had been convicted. Meyer uses the final chapters to argue for the rights of Waffen-SS veterans, his Grenadiers.

Suffering from failing health, Meyer had three mild strokes in 1961, before dying of a heart attack in Hagen, Westphalia on 23 December, 1961, on his 51st Birthday.

Summary of SS career

Dates of rank

  • SS-Sturmführer: July 10, 1932.
  • SS-Obersturmführer: March 10, 1935.
  • SS-Hauptsturmführer: September 12, 1937.
  • SS-Sturmbannführer: September 01, 1940.
  • SS-Obersturmbannführer: November 09, 1942.
  • SS-Standartenführer: June 21, 1943.
  • SS-Oberführer: August 01, 1944.
  • SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS: September 01, 1944 .

Notable decorations

  • German Cross in Gold (1942).
  • Eastern Front Medal (1942).
  • Iron Cross Second (1939) and First (1940) Classes.
  • SS-Honour Ring (?).
  • Sudetenland Medal (?) with Prague Castle bar (?).
  • Anschluss Medal (?).
  • Knight's Cross (1941).
  • Oak Leaves (1943).
  • Swords (1944).
  • Waffen-SS Long Service Award (?).
  • Military Order for Bravery in War 4th Class (1st grade) of Bulgaria (?) .

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