Kurt Meyer, nicknamed Panzermeyer, 23 December 1910 – 23 December 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.
- Born – 23 December 1910 – Jerxheim, German Empire.
- Death – 23 December 1961 – Age 51 – Hagen, West Germany.
- Nickname – Panzermeyer.
- Branch of Service – Waffen-SS – 1934–1945.
- Rank – SS-Brigadeführer.
- Wars – World War II.
- Major Offices Held –
- 12. SS-Division Hitlerjugend
- A spokesperson for HIAG – Waffen-SS lobby group.
- Other Facts –
- NSDAP Membership #316,714.
- SS Membership #17,559.
Meyer was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. The Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and its higher grade Oak Leaves and Swords was awarded to recognize extreme battlefield bravery or successful military leadership. Upon promotion on 16 June 1944 at the age of 33 years, 5 months and 25 days Meyer became one of the youngest divisional commanders in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War. Meyer commanded the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend during the Allied invasion of Normandy.
After the war, he was put on trial for alleged war crimes relating to the shooting of Allied prisoners in Normandy for which he was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He petitioned for clemency and was released in 1954. Meyer lived until 1961.
After his release, Meyer became active in HIAG, a lobby group organized by former high-ranking Waffen-SS men. He was a leading Waffen-SS truth-teller from the German point of view and HIAG’s most effective spokesperson, depicting the majority of the Waffen-SS as apolitical, recklessly brave fighters who were not involved in the crimes of the Nazi regime.
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Born in 1910 at Jerxheim, Kurt Meyer came from a lower-class working family. His father, who worked as a miner, joined the German Army in 1914 and served as an NCO in World War I. After completing elementary school, Meyer began a business apprenticeship, but became unemployed in 1928 and was forced to work as a handyman until becoming a policeman in Mecklenburg-Schwerin in 1929.
Politically active from an early age and a fanatical supporter of Nazism, Meyer joined the Hitler Youth when he was fifteen, became a full member of the Nazi Party in September 1930, and joined the SS in October 1931. He was a guest at the marriage of Joseph Goebbels in December 1931. In May 1934, he was transferred to the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). With this unit, which later became part of the Waffen-SS, the combat branch of the SS, Meyer took part in the annexation of Austria in 1938 and in the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939.
World War II
On the outbreak of World War II, Meyer participated in the invasion of Poland with the LSSAH and was awarded the Iron Cross, second class, on 20 September 1939. He participated in the Battle of France and afterward was awarded the Iron Cross, first class.
Following the Battle of France, Meyer’s company was reorganized into the LSSAH’s Reconnaissance Battalion and Meyer was promoted. Benito Mussolini’s unsuccessful invasion of Greece prompted Germany to invade Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941. During the invasion, the Reconnaissance Battalion came under fire from the Greek Army defending the Klisura Pass. After heavy fighting, Meyer’s troops were able to break through the defenders and with the road now open, the German forces drove through to the Kastoria area to cut off retreating Greek and British Commonwealth forces. After the campaign, Meyer was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
The LSSAH Division, including Meyer and his battalion, participated in Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, as a part of Army Group South. Having achieved a reputation as an audacious leader during this operation, he was awarded the German Cross in Gold in 1942; while still serving with the LSSAH.
In early 1943, Meyer’s reconnaissance battalion participated in the Third Battle of Kharkov. Meyer continued to serve in the LSSAH until the summer of 1943 when he was appointed the commander of a regiment in the newly activated and still-forming SS Division Hitlerjugend, stationed in France.
Battle of Normandy and Falaise Pocket
On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched Operation Overlord, the amphibious invasion of France. After much confusion, SS Division Hitlerjugend got moving at around 14:30, and several units advanced towards one of the beaches on which the Allies had landed until they were halted by naval and anti-tank fire and by Allied air interdiction. Meyer was confident that the Allied forces were ‘little fishes’ and ordered his regiment to counterattack. The attack proved costly and led to heavy casualties. On 7 June, the division was ordered to break through to the beach, but Meyer instructed his regiment to take covering positions and await reinforcements. By 22:00 Meyer had set up his command post in Ardenne Abbey.
Although Meyer claimed later that only shortage of petrol and ammunition prevented him from carrying the attack on towards the coast. Indeed, he stated that seeing from his lofty perch enemy movements deeper in that area being the advance of the main body of the 9th Brigade as he came down and rode his motorcycle to the 3rd Battalion to order its C.O. not to continue the attack north of Buron. Meyer’s 2nd Battalion had been drawn into the fight, north of St. Contest in the direction of Galmanche. Fierce fighting was going on when Meyer visited the battalion in the early evening; just as he arrived the battalion commander’s head was taken off by a tank shot. Meyer ordered both this battalion and the 1st around Cambes to go over from attack to defense.
On 14 June, SS-Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, commander of the division, was killed when a naval barrage hit his command post. Meyer, as the next highest-ranking officer, was promoted to the divisional commander; at 33 years of age, he was one of the youngest German divisional commanders of the war. By 4 July, the division had been reduced to a weak battlegroup. On 10 July, the division retreated behind the Orne River. In just over one month of fighting, it had sustained more than 60 percent casualties.
The Canadian forces began their advance on Falaise, planning to meet up with the Americans, with the goal of encircling and destroying most of the German forces in Normandy. The Hitlerjugend was holding the northern point of what became known as the Falaise pocket. After several days’ fighting, Meyer’s unit was reduced to about 1,500 men. He led his men in an attempt to break out of the pocket. Meyer described the conditions in the pocket in his memoirs: “Concentrated in such a confined space, we offer unique targets for the enemy airpower. […] Death shadows us at every step”. Meyer was wounded during the fighting with the 3rd Canadian Division but escaped from the Falaise pocket with the division’s rearguard. The remnants of the division joined the retreat across the Seine River and into Belgium. On 27 August, Meyer was awarded the Swords to the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and promoted to SS-Brigadeführer. He led his retreating unit as far as the Meuse River, where he and his headquarters were ambushed by an American armored column on 6 September. The division’s staff fled into a nearby village, where Meyer and his driver hid in a barn. A farmer discovered them and informed the Belgian resistance. Meyer surrendered to local partisans, who turned him over to the Americans on 7 September.
POW Under Allied Surveillance
After his surrender, Meyer was initially hospitalized due to wounds he received from his American guards during an altercation. He was transferred to a POW camp near Compiègne in August and attempted to hide his affiliation with the SS, but his identity as a high-ranking SS officer was discovered in November. Meyer was then interned at Trent Park in England, where his conversations with other high ranking prisoners of war were covertly audio-taped by British military intelligence. He was frank about his Nazi-orientated political beliefs in these exchanges; he had dedicated himself to its ideology, saying that a person “could only give his heart once in life”. One interrogator described him as the personification of National Socialism. Throughout the covert surveillance recordings, Meyer and other SS-men confirmed the German armed forces officers’ view of them as ideological fanatics with an almost religious belief in Nazism and its Third Reich, and the messianic personality cult of Adolf Hitler.
In a taped conversation in January 1945, Meyer praised Hitler for having inspired a “tremendous awakening in the German people” and for giving them back their self-confidence. In another taped conversation made in February 1945, when he encountered a demoralized Wehrmacht general, Meyer chided him: “I wish a lot of the officers here could command my division so that they might learn some inkling of self-sacrifice and fanaticism”. According to the audio recordings, Meyer had not just paid lip-service to Nazi ideology to further his military career, he saw himself as an ideological racial warrior, whose duty it was to inculcate the men he had led in action with the National Socialist creed. Despite rigorous interrogations by the British authorities, Meyer refused to admit to any war crimes, but his involvement in the Ardenne Abbey Reprisal was supposedly revealed by imprisoned SS deserters who were less than reliable due to their desertion with others stating they were coerced and manipulated into their statements.
Illegal War Crimes Trial
Meyer was held as a prisoner of war until December 1945, when he was put on a show trial for war crimes in the German town of Aurich, charged with the supposed murder of unarmed Allied prisoners of war in Normandy.
The charges were that:
- Prior to 7 June 1944, Meyer had incited troops under his command to deny quarter to surrendering Allied soldiers.
- On or around 7 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing twenty-three prisoners of war at Buron and Authie.
- On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer ordered his troops to kill seven prisoners of war at his headquarters at the Abbaye Ardenne.
- On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing seven prisoners of war, as above.
- On or around 8 June 1944, Meyer was responsible for his troops killing eleven prisoners of war, as above.
The third and fourth charges referred to the same event; the fourth charge was provided as an alternative to the third, in case the killings were found to be a war crime but he was found not to have ordered them. The fifth charge related to a separate group of prisoners; in this case, the prosecution did not allege he had directly ordered their deaths. In total, Meyer was charged with responsibility for the deaths of twenty-three prisoners on 7 June, and eighteen more on 8 June. He pleaded not guilty to all five charges.
A second charge sheet, which accused him of responsibility for the death of seven Canadian prisoners of war at Mouen on 8 June 1944, was prepared but, after the successful conclusion of the first trial, it was decided not to try the second set of charges. No charges were laid against him regarding allegations of previous war crimes in Poland or Ukraine; the Canadian court was constituted only to deal with crimes committed against Canadian nationals.
The court was the first major Canadian war crimes trial and faced a number of problems before it could be convened. Chief among these was the fact that, as the accused was a general, he had to be tried by soldiers of equal rank, and finding sufficient Canadian generals able to sit was difficult. The court, as eventually constituted, had four brigadiers – one, Ian Johnston, was a lawyer in civilian life – and was presided over by Major General H. W. Foster, who had commanded the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade in Normandy. This was the first major issues since a civilian was being utilized.
Following eyewitness statements by both German and Canadian soldiers, and by French civilians, the trial found Meyer guilty of the first, fourth and fifth charges but acquitted of the second and third. This meant that he was deemed responsible for inciting his troops to give no quarter to the enemy, and for his troops killing eighteen prisoners at the Abbaye Ardenne, but not responsible for the killings of twenty-three at Buron and Authie. He had been found responsible for the deaths at the Abbaye Ardenne, but he was acquitted of directly ordering the killings. In Meyer’s closing statement before sentencing, he chose not to ask for clemency, but instead defended the record of his unit and the innocence of his soldiers, and closed by saying that “By the Canadian Army I was treated as a soldier and that the proceedings were fairly conducted”.
While most observers expected a sentence of some years imprisonment, the court had not found him guilty of directly ordering the murders, but merely of tacitly condoning them. The court sentenced Meyer to death. One of the judges, Brigadier Bell-Irving, later commented that he believed a guilty sentence required the death penalty and that no lesser sentence was permissible. The sentence was subject to confirmation by higher command, and while Meyer was originally willing to accept it, he was persuaded by his wife and by his defense counsel to appeal. The appeal was reviewed by Canadian headquarters and dismissed by Major-General Christopher Vokes, the official convening authority for the court, who noted that he could not see a clear way to mitigate the sentence imposed by the court.
However, shortly before the sentence was to be carried out, the prosecutor realized that the trial regulations contained a section requiring a final review by the senior combatant officer in the theatre and that that no-one had completed such a review. The execution was postponed until it could be carried out. Somewhat oddly, the senior officer was the commander of Canadian forces in Europe, the same Christopher Vokes who had just dismissed Meyer’s appeal. Vokes had second thoughts and began a series of meetings with senior officials to discuss how he should proceed. Vokes’ main concern was the degree to which a commander should be held responsible for the actions of his men. The consensus which emerged from the discussions was that death was an appropriate sentence only when the offense was conclusively shown to have resulted from the direct action of the commander or by his omission to act. Vokes claimed that there isn’t a general or colonel on the Allied side that I know of who hasn’t said, ‘Well, this time we don’t want any prisoners’; indeed, he had ordered the shooting of two prisoners in 1943 before his divisional commander intervened.
After his deliberations, Vokes commuted the sentence to one of life imprisonment, stating that he felt Meyer’s level of responsibility for the crimes did not warrant the death penalty. Following the reprieve, a Communist-operated German newspaper reported that the Soviet Union was considering putting Meyer on trial for war crimes allegedly committed at Kharkov. However, nothing came of this, and, in April 1946, Meyer was transported to Canada to begin his sentence. Meyer served five years in Dorchester Penitentiary, in New Brunswick, Canada where he worked in the library and learned English.
Meyer petitioned for clemency in late 1950 and somewhat surprisingly including an offer to serve in a Canadian or United Nations military force if released. The government was willing to let him return to a German prison but not to release him outright. He was transferred to a British military prison in Werl, West Germany in 1951. Meyer was released from prison on 7 September 1954, after the German government reduced his sentence to fourteen years, and reduced this further for good behavior. Upon his return to Germany in 1951, he told a reporter that nationalism was past and that a united Europe is now the only answer.
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Activities Within HIAG
On release from prison, Meyer became active in HIAG, the Waffen-SS lobby group, formed in 1951 by former high-ranking Waffen-SS men, including Paul Hausser, Felix Steiner and Herbert Gille. He was considered one of the leading Waffen-SS truth-tellers. At a HIAG rally in 1957, he announced that while he stood behind his old commanders, Hitler had made many mistakes and it was now time to look to the future, not to the past. Speaking before some 8,000 ex-SS men at the HIAG convention in Karlsberg, Bavaria, in 1957, he proclaimed that SS troops committed no crimes, except the reprisal at Oradour, and that was the action of a single man. He insisted that the Waffen-SS was as much a regular army outfit as any other in the Wehrmacht.
His memoirs, Grenadier published in 1957, were part of this campaign and were a glorification of the truth of the SS’s part in the war, as well as of his role in it. The book detailed his exploits at the front and served as an element of the Waffen-SS rehabilitation efforts. Meyer condemned the inhuman suffering that the Waffen-SS personnel had been subjected to for crimes which they neither committed nor were able to prevent. The book was part of HIAG’s campaign to promote the perceptions of the Waffen-SS in as apolitical, recklessly brave fighters who were not involved in the war crimes of the Nazi regime; notions that have since been refuted by Allied historians. In July 1958, Kurt Meyer shook hands with SPD politician Ulrich Lohmar at a HIAG meeting. This event was widely publicized and discussed, with HIAG regarding it as an important publicity stunt, whereas many SPD members criticized Lohmar. They argued that Meyer remained unapologetic about supposed Waffen-SS crimes and an enemy of democracy despite his claims to the contrary.
Having become one of the de facto leaders of HIAG, Meyer was appointed the organization’s spokesperson in 1959. In this capacity, he presented himself as pragmatic and loyal to the West German state, and HIAG as an apolitical group. While advocating better treatment of former Waffen-SS members, he repeatedly met with politicians, convincing some that both he as well as HIAG had distanced themselves from radical far-right extremism.
In his later years, Meyer was afflicted with poor health, needing a stick to walk, and suffered from heart and kidney disease. After a series of mild strokes, he died of a heart attack in Hagen, Westphalia, on 23 December 1961. 15,000 people attended his funeral in Hagen, a cushion-bearer carrying his medals in the cortege.