Erich’s actual military service started about 9 months later on 15th June 1943; this was at 2pm in Bitche (France). After 2½ months of basic training, Erich and his comrades were put on a train, not knowing where this journey would end. Rumours indicated the destination would be Southern France, Italy or even Russia.
Their final destination turned out to be Mailly-le-Camp in France where SS-Panzerregiment 12 was being formed. Erich was now being trained as “Kradschütze” which is best translated as a motorised infantryman. After working through a function-based training regime, and gradually receiving equipment, the regiment was transferred to Belgium in January 1944 where they joined the rest of the 12th SS-Panzerdivision “Hitlerjugend” (Hitler Youth).
Here, training continued on division level for several months until Spring 1944 when they were transferred back to France. Near Evreux, the Hitler Youth, or “Baby Division”, as it was called by the Allies, was now awaiting D-Day...
“On 6th June 1944, at about 0200, our Company was given the alarm. Just when we were ready to leave, we were told the Allies were landing. Our staging area was about 130 km (70 miles) from what was to become our battle zone. For us youngsters, this was really going to be our baptism of fire. Even so, as our officers were all battle hardened veterans we were confident in getting the job done.
“As motorised reconnaissance platoon, we had to mark the routes to our Regimental HQ. We did this by mounting tactical road signs, our so-called ‘Wünsche’- signs, at road crossings.
From D-Day onwards, we certainly felt the Allied air supremacy. Our vehicles were all camouflaged with branches to give us some protection and we looked like roaming bushes. Over and over again we had to take cover in road ditches as Allied fighter-bombers fired at everything that moved. For the first time I saw and felt the firepower of those aeroplanes, their guns and the impact of their rockets. There were damaged and destroyed vehicles everywhere, lying in ditches on both sides of the road. We bypassed the burning vehicles in a large curve to avoid the danger of exploding ammunition. Being almost defenceless against air attacks, we could only move and take new positions at night or in the early morning, when protected by the mist.
There you lie, in a ditch, your face covered with dirt, helpless, just waiting to get hit. Then those guys up ahead would move on, and you have another grace period.
But the Allied air forces also had losses. Once I saw our flak shooting down 2 planes at low altitude. The pilot from the second plane managed to get out, but crashed into the ground, just in a short distance from us. There was not much left of the poor fellow; only a shapeless body the size of a sack of potatoes. The pilot’s parachute didn’t have time to open completely, and only gave half of its cover.”
Now the Division had taken positions west of Caen. The Panzerregiment HQ was located in a monastry, Ardenne. From here, Max Wünsche led his men, defending the area around the airfield at Carpiquet.
“I was continually on the road with my motorcycle, as despatch rider or driver for officers or war correspondents. Due to the unknown terrain and ever changing positions, it was often very hard to find my way to various company HQs. Most difficult of all were the road journeys at night. As I couldn’t use my headlights, I had to focus on the red-hot exhausts of the tanks in front of me. On top of that, I was often so tired that I would notice a crater too late, or scrape a wall that I somehow missed to see.
I had hardly any sleep, and in an occasionally break I would lie down to rest wherever there was an acceptable spot. If there wasn’t a table or bench, I would just lie on my bike – with backside on the saddle and head on the spare wheel with my legs on the steering. On one occasion I slept in a real bed in a farmhouse, just until I discovered it was infested with lice!”
Heavy fighting took place along the road and railroad between Caen and Bayeux. Totally outnumbered by British and Canadian forces, the Germans tried to defend this line. From the military perspective, the major disadvantage wasn’t being outnumbered; it was the total lack of air cover and the resulting difficulties and danger moving anywhere.
“Along the railway embankment near Villeneuve was a sunken road which I took to reach the tanks of our 1st Battalion. Destroyed vehicles along the route slowed my speed but this was the only way to get there with a little cover. The tanks were engaged in a heavy battle, and the thick smoke of burning vehicles made it hard to find the commanding tank. When I found it, I was glad I could hand them the orders and quickly get out of the bedlam. Back at the sunken road, I took two wounded men on my bike and delivered them to the nearest Dressing Station.
After such a day I was glad to get a few hours of ‘safe’ sleep in a basement, or beneath a tank.”
From 24th to 27th June, the Panzer Regiment HQ was located at Raury, while Erich’s platoon generally took cover in a nearby orchard.
“When looking for a good spot to dig in, we discovered a hidden stockpile left by the Dutch firm ‘Bols’. A rich selection of various liqueurs and other spirits were a temptation we just couldn’t resist. So busy with our discovery, we didn’t notice a nearby Launcher Battery. After launching their grenades, they instantly moved out as their position would now be betrayed by the firing smoke. Only a short time later the Allied artillery started firing at the position of our former neighbours and we had to dive into our foxholes quickly. The next thing I remember was being found by my comrades, sleeping in my foxhole under some canvas. Fatigue, or the content of those liqueur bottles, had sent me into a comatose sleep. Or was it both...?
Being a despatch rider, I once witnessed a British attack. From safe cover, we welcomed the advancing infantry with effective machinegun fire, and after heavy losses they withdrew in disarray. Also a second wave, with tank support, was held off with heavy losses of attacking tanks and men. It was only after further persistent attacks of superior forces that we were forced to withdraw. At our front section between Fontenay and St.Manvieu we were again significantly outnumbered by the attacking infantry. In the air there was no balance of power at all, as our Luftwaffe was almost non-existent.
The superior strength of the advancing Allied Forces kept our tanks and our HQ on the move over and over again. This required reorientation on almost every trip as despatch rider. Picking up speed was impossible, as there were craters and dead cattle strewn everywhere. The sun was burning on their bloated corpses and made them smell horrible. It was a gruesome sight, those dead cows with their stiff legs pointing in the air.
One of my tasks was driving OStubaf. Wünsche to one of the HQs, or on a mission. Rather, most of the time he was driving himself, with me in the sidecar, as (beside smoking cigars) his passion was driving a motorbike! That’s how I joined him in almost every place of action during the Battle for Normandy. He demanded a lot of me and my comrades and sometimes I wished him to Hell. There was one time when he left his cigars in an HQ building we had just deserted and he sent me back to get them. But seeing him caring for his men, trying to never leave wounded or dead men behind, all my anger would go, and deep respect for this man would return.”
“Some of the heaviest fighting took place at Hill 112 near Maltot. British and Canadian forces took this hill after a massive and unbelievable artillery barrage. In the morning of 10th July, I brought OStubaf. Wünsche to our tanks which were lined up behind an embankment, ready for a counterattack. The grove on top of the hill was occupied by strong armoured forces and the earth was dug up by the attack of our rocket launchers.
Our tanks started rolling, sending grenade after grenade into the enemy ranks which were in complete chaos by then. We managed to recapture the hill, though it was only for a short while. As soon as our soldiers had taken their places on the hill, ‘Tommy’ started his counter attack. I remember Hill 112 was captured & recaptured several times with huge losses on both sides as a consequence.
Our motorised platoon also had losses, even though we hardly ever took part in front line fighting. Our losses were mostly caused by enemy artillery and fighter planes. Due to our task we often had to drive on the open roads of Normandy, having hardly any cover from the roaming Typhoons and Spitfires. As our tasks took us over the whole area of our division, it was typical and inevitable that we would hear of the loss of a comrade only several days after the event.
Visiting Normandy in 1994, I discovered a memorial of a British or Canadian Unit on the side of the road, just below Hill 112. I noticed a wreath of the German division “Hohenstaufen” was laid at this memorial. Just like the Allied military cemeteries, the German cemeteries also look perfect, pleasingly without any provocative graffiti such as is commonly seen at military cemeteries in Germany. Obviously the French have more respect for the dead of their former enemy than our people have for their own dead.”
Over the course of about six weeks fighting, the division “Hitlerjugend” lost approximately 5,000 young men. Then the Division was taken back to regroup and to be re-supplied and rested. Men and machines which were supposed to refresh the division didn’t arrive due to destroyed supply routes. After only a week’s rest, much sooner than the men had hoped for, they were called back into action. The remainder of the Division was now deployed to the right of National Route 158, Caen-Falaise.
“The next Allied offensive was opened by a massive air attack. Many tanks were destroyed by direct hits, or temporarily put out of action as viewing mechanisms and motors were covered in sand. Our platoon was continuously making reconnaissance trips. On one occasion we were driving towards Cagny at dusk to see where the enemy was and in what sort of strength. Visibility was so bad that we came across enemy units only when we were right on top of them. The British or Canadians were apparently so busy preparing their next attack that they didn’t notice us before we turned at full throttle back towards our own lines. We reached our lines and HQ unharmed and reported what we had seen. The next morning the Allied attack was withheld with an Allied loss of about 60 tanks.”
On 7th August Erich’s task force was moved towards Bretteville-sur-Laize, West of the N-158. Their HQ was at Chateau Quesnay.
“The next morning, British tanks attacked our HQ from the Northwest. The attack was repelled without any losses at our side. Two British tanks were extremely unlucky. Trying to get cover behind a farm, they became stuck in a cesspool. The crews abandoned their tanks and took off. We used the opportunity to get some extra rations which the crews had obviously left. In the meantime one of our commanding officers, HStuf. Schlauß, fooled the enemy by using their own radio and reported a larger number of tanks than we actually had.
At this latest HQ in Chateau Quesnay, together with some comrades I received the Iron Cross Class II and received a promotion.”
“In the early morning of 10th August, I had to go from our Regimental HQ to a small task force near Hautemesnil. I was driving along the N-158, to us known as “Jabo-Rennstrecke” . Due to craters and burnt-out vehicles I could only advance slowly. On a small hilltop between Quesnay and Langannerie, I took a short stop to get orientated again. I mounted my bike to move on when I was suddenly under fire. I felt a mighty blow to my left arm and tumbled with my bike into a ditch. I spotted two M5 Greyhounds about 500-600 yards Northeast of the road. I didn’t move until I saw them disappear behind some hedges. When I tried to get up, I felt the first real pain. My camouflaged jacket was ripped apart and I couldn’t move my left arm. My bike had received a hit and grenade splinters had penetrated my arm and upper body. I returned to our HQ on foot where I reported what happened. Then, our Sani Uscha. Fabian took care of my wounds and brought me to the field hospital.”