1st SS-Aufklärungs-Abteilung Leibstandarte SS "Adolf Hitler"
- Published: 12 December 2010 12 December 2010
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
by Richard Murphy & Timo Worst
SS-Hauptsturmführer Kurt Meyer, commander of 15.(Kradschützen)Kompanie of the Leibstandarte "Adolf Hitler", oversaw the expansion of his unit during the reorganization of the Waffen-SS in August 1940 to what became officially known as Aufklärungs-Abteilung LAH at the beginning of September. Formation of AA LAH took place at Fort Alversleben in Metz and was completed by Februari 1941.
Under command of Meyer, who was promoted to SS-Sturmbannführer in September 1940, the Aufklärungs-Abteilung LAH performed well during the invasion of Greece. The Brigade strength LSSAH fought their first campaign as an independent unit as part of 12th Armee’s XL Pzk. The Aufklärungs-Abteilung showed its skills during the attack on Klisura Pass and by crossing the street of Corinth. Meyer won the Knights Cross there for his leadership.
Two months later they crossed into Russia, initially as part of Ewald von Kleist’s Panzergruppe 1 reserve, fighting the Sokolov battles and defending the Shitomir marchroute, before being attached to XLVIII (Mot.) Korps (Werner Kempff) in support of 11th Panzer Division during the encirclement of the Soviet 6th, 8th and 18th Armies near Uman in August. LSSAH then returned to the reserves for a month before being attached to XXX Korps for the drive to cut off the Crimea.
Around the same time as sealing off the peninsular in October, Meyer was taken ill and temporarily replaced by 2.Kompanie commander, Hugo Kraas, who continued the drive of Rostov. But, despite reaching the Don in November, strong Russian counter-attacks ejected LAH from the city only a week after the its fall. A defeat which cost Heeresgruppe Süd commander Gerd von Rundstedt his job (even with the support of LAH commander "Sepp" Dietrich). Kraas was awarded the DKiG on Christmas Day, as one of the first members of the division.
By the time Meyer returned to the unit in January 1942, AA LAH was part of XIV Pzk., fighting defensive actions along the Mius River. The Division continued in this role until, after another brief spell in reserve during June, they rejoined III Pzk. While the Division was still in action in the East, the formation of new units for the Aufklärungs-Abteilung began in Sennelager. Drivers were trained for the new Schwimmwagens, which would replace the motorcycles in the 1. and 2.Kompanie, a le.SPW-Kompanie was formed and the crew for the new heavy weapons for the schwere Kompanie were trained. The Division helped to recapture Rostov in July before the LAH was withdrawn to France in August for refitting as a Panzergrenadier Division.
Refitting took longer than expected and they did not return to the Eastern Front until Hausser’s new SS-Panzerkorps was called upon to halt the Soviet drive into the flank of Heeresgruppe Süd from a salient around Kharkov in February 1943. On 29 January, Meyer’s command was one of the first units to go into action. It helped to halt the onslaught of 12th Tank Corps and rescue the encircled 298th Infantry Division. Despite being temporarily cut off from the rest of the division, the Aufklärungs-Abteilung held their positions in Alexejewka, as the Red Army made desperate attempts to break out, resulting in the destruction of the Soviet 6th Guards Cavalry Corps. These successes, coupled with his outstanding leadership during the early days of Barbarossa, resulted in Meyer being awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knights Cross on 23 February 1943.
Following these victories, and the subsequent Third Battle of Kharkov, which handed the Waffen-SS their finest moment, Meyer was sent back to the rear to begin training as a regimental commander as the division’s higher commands (And several of their best units.) were stripped out to provide the newly formed 12.SS-Pz.Div. "Hitler Jugend" with an experienced leadership. The Aufklärungs-Abteilung also saw its complete 1.Kompanie been transferred to the 12.SS-Pz.Div., including its commander Gerd Bremer.
The former commander of the 3.Kompanie, SS-Sturmbannführer Gustav Knittel, took over as commander of the Aufklärungs-Abteilung in April 1943, just as the division was preparing for its participation in the battle for Kursk. Despite being seriously hamstrung by the lack of experience of the various newly promoted regimental CO’s of command at this level, the LAH, nevertheless, acquitted themselves well, though the majority of the credit went to both 2.SS-Pzgren.Div. "Das Reich" and 3.SS-Pzgren.Div. "Totenkopf" and the nature of the fighting did not allow Knittel’s command to be deployed in it's intended role.
After covering 4th Panzerarmee’s retreat from the Belgorod Salient, Leibstandarte began withdrawing to northern Italy for rest and complete refitting as a Panzer Division in mid-July, (Initial plans to withdraw all of Hausser’s Korps were abandoned in the face of continue Soviet advances in the Ukraine.), but the impending collapse of the southern Russian Front forced their return in December, when they re-joined 4th Panzerarmee, this time as part of XLVIII Pzk. in the Shitomir area, with whom they remained until February 1944 (Knittel was awarded the DKiG on 23 January). Belatedly switched to the Cherkassy area, forming part of Valentin Hube’s 1st Panzerarmee, they arrived too late to help rescue Stemmermann’s XI and Lieb’s XLII Korps from the pocket near the town and were themselves encircled in a large pocket north-east of Kaments-Podolsk, close to the pre-war Russo-Polish border at the end of March. During the fighting in the Hube Pocket, Knittel distinguished himself when he defended Hill 300, together with 68.Inf.Div., against repeated attacks from Russian units. Rescued by the newly re-organized II SS-Panzerkorps (9. and 10.SS-Pz.Divs., both fighting their first major action.) under Paul Hausser the remnants of the division were again withdrawn, this time to Belgium, and extensively re-built.
On 4 June Gustav Knittel is awarded the Knights Cross. On 17th June 1944, the LAH began the move, by rail, to the Normandy Bridgehead, The Aufklärungs-Abteilung had to leave it's 1.Kompanie behind in Turnhout, due to lack of vehicles (the promised SdKfz. 250/9s were never delivered). It was not until a full three weeks later that the whole division was able to assemble, and they were soon pressed into action helping "Hitler Jugend" (Now led by Knittels old CO "Panzer" Meyer.) defend the Carpiquet airfield, just West of the Allies most treasured objective of Caen. Elements of the detachment continued to fight in this area until early August, when they were amongst the first units of the division to be transferred to the west for the operation against the American breakthrough at Mortain (Unterhemen "Lüttich".), and, together with I SS Pz. Btn., supported by 7 Pz. IV’s from II Btn., and the SPW Btn. from 2nd SS Pzgren. Regt. were attached to the Heer’s 2nd Pz. Div. for the assault to the north-east of the town begining in the early hours of 7th August. Knittel’s command, on the right flank, initially made good progress, and by late morning had secured the village of le Mesnil-Tôve, 10 Km from their start line, but still 25 Km short of their objective of Avaranches, but von Schwerin’s 116th Pz. Div., on their right flank, had failed to gain any ground at all (Von Schwerin himself was sacked that evening.), leaving them very exposed to counter-attacks. Heavy and persistent attacks by the American Task Force 1 from the US 3rd Armoured Division’s Combat Command B eventually forced the recconaissance detachment to abandon the village the following evening (8th August.).The SS men held on to the high ground just to the east, but this left Kuhlmann’s Kampfgruppe, attempting to advance south of their positions, dangerously exposed, and, after handing their positions over to elements of 2nd Panzer, Knittels unit was shifted south-east to fill the gap in the line as the rest of the division finally began to arrive, whilst still continuing to inflict serious losses on Task Force 1. With the offensive stalled, Hitler ordered the attack renewed on the 11th, and the unit spent the remainder of the 9th and all of the 10th on the defensive before they began withdrawing to Alençon, mid-way between Argentan and Le Mans, which had already fallen to Patton’s US 3rd Army the day before, precipitating the Falaise crisis.
The confused state of events surrounding the retreat of LAH is understandable, under the circumstances, but it is known that 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Aufklärungs Co.’s got back to the divisional assembly area some 15 Km south-west of Argentan by the 14th and began moving to break out through the ever decreasing gap to the east, holding positions en route to Putanges, the only bridge left over the Orne, by day and travelling at night to avoid both Allied Ground and Air Forces. They were fortunate to make it, blowing the bridge just as their old rivals from the US 3rd Armoured tried to follow them across just before mid-day on the 18th. Knittel was now given orders to set up his unit in Habloville, about 8 Km. to the south of Falaise, and begin the search for a safe route to the east, whilst the remainder of the division rested just to the north-east of his positions. Details then become even more sketchy, with only Wawrczinek’s 3rd Co. being mentioned as part of the Kampfgruppe under Max Wünsche, which had to traverse the infamous "Corridor of Death" before crossing the Dives at Moissy, though two other KG’s also got across at different places during that final nightmare week in Normandy and most of the company commanders went on to serve with the detachment in the Ardennes.
Details on what happened between the end of the Normandy campaign and beginning of the Ardennes offensive (Wacht am Rhein, later Herbstnebel.) are almost as sketchy as the last days in Falaise. LAH spent September still attached to 7th Armee via 1st SS-Panzerkorps, and retreated to the Eifel Mountains region on the Franco-German Border. When Dietrich’s staff was withdrawn to begin rebuilding, the division was transferred to LXVI Korps, which had just arrived in the area after retreating through France from the Mediterranean coast and began re-fitting in preparation for the forthcoming Ardennes offensive.
Supervised by SS-Hauptsturmführer Emil Wawrzinek, the Aufklärungs-Abteilung refitted in the Eichhorst-area and was transferred to Nörvenich at the end of November. The equipment shortages led to 1.Kompanie, which was still waiting for it’s vehicles and was now commanded by SS-Untersturmführer Rentsch, to stay behind in Germany when the Battalion prepared for the Ardennes Offensive. SS-Obersturmführer Heinz Goltz took over command of the Stabskompanie after the death of SS-Obersturmführer Ferdinand Ötter during an air raid in Nörvenich. 5.Kompanie was disbanded to make good the losses in the other companies. Knittel returned shortly before the offensive began. SS-Obersturmführer Hans-Martin Leidreiter initially commanded the 3.Kompanie, the 4.Kompanie was commanded by SS-Obersturmführer Heinz Wägner. Two units were added to form Kampfgruppe Knittel, SS-Obersturmführer Butschek’s 5th SS Artillery Battery and Obersturmführer Körner’s 2nd SS Pz. Pioneer Co.
During the initial phase of the offensive the Gruppe followed behind Kampfgruppe Hansen en route to cross the River Salm, the last major defensive line before the Meuse. But on 18 December, two days into the advance Hansen’s battle group was halted at Recht, about 7 Km. short of the crossing and Knittel received orders to move north to follow Peiper's panzers instead, reaching Stavelot at midday. Shortly after the main parts of his unit crossed the Amblève River, the Americans recaptured Stavelot. Knittel and Sandig tried in vain to take Stavelot again, as the river crossing was essential for their supply columns, but infantry and heavy American artillery deny them access to the bridge. Thus the faith of the units of both Peiper and Knittel were sealed and, short of ammo and fuel, they withdrew across the Amblève a week later. The LAH re-deployed to the front around Bastogne as the Americans broke the siege there. After Knittel was wounded on the last day of the year, Leidreiter took over as Abteilung commander. A week later Hitler agreed to abandon the battle and LAH was finally withdrawn for a hurried refit.
Wawrzinek took over the Abteilung again. It seems unlikely that the Aufklärungs-Abteilung was given a high priority during the refitting and only a part of Wawrzinek’s command, arrived on the Hungarian-Slovak border in time to take part in the preliminary Südwind offensive against the Soviet bridgehead over the Gran on 12 February 1945, where they formed part of a new Kampfgruppe Hansen but by the time Frühlingserwachen, the main attack south-east of Budapest, was launched in early March the whole unit was again in action, again as part of Hansen’s Battle Group. The attack by I SS-Panzerkorps, passing down the west bank of the Sarviz Canal, progressed well, forcing the Russians to divert significant forces in an attempt to stop them, but, on the east bank, where II SS-Pzk. was operating, it was much slower, giving a major headache to the staff of 6th Panzerarmee as Prieß’s left flank became more and more exposed. Nevertheless, the battalion spent the period 12th-14th March supporting Hitler Jugend’s assault across the Sio Canal, but by the 15th, unaware that the Red Army was building up a considerable force to the north with the intention of cutting off the SS men’s spearhead from the base, the advance, despite achieving a small bridgehead, had stalled and Wawrczinek’s men went back the way they had come to join a Kampfgruppe from the 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich" which was fighting in the Kaloz area, approximately 20 Km. to the north. Later that same day the Soviet 4th and 9th Guards Armies supported by the 6th Guards Tank Army launched their counter-attack, aiming to cut Dietrich’s forces off. The whole Panzerarmee, facing an annihilation comparable to that suffered at Falaise six months before, was forced to pull back and the Aufklärungs Abteilung attempted to maintain some form contact between I SS-Pzk and both IV SS-Pzk. and I Kav. Korps operating to their right as they fell back through the Bakony Forest noth of Lake Balaton, but on 1st April a lucky mortar shot hit the detachment HQ, killing Wawrczinek, his adjutant, signals officer and a company commander (Thought to be Gerlach). Leidreiter, who had been serving as Staff Co. commander took command whilst Heinrich Goltz, previously 4th Co. commander, moved up to the Staff Co.
Six weeks later the survivors of Kursk, the retreat through the Ukraine, "Hube’s Pocket", Normandy, The Ardennes and Lake Balaton crossed the Enns River, south of Linz, which marked the demarcation line between the avenging Russians and the American forces and surrendered between 8th and 10th May. The last week of it's existence, the Aufklärungs Abteilung was commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Löschnigg.
SS-Sturmbannführer Kurt Meyer (1 Sep 1940 - 23 June 1943)
SS-Sturmbannführer Gustav Knittel (23 June 1943 - 30 Dec 1944)
SS-Hauptsturmführer Emil Wawrzinek (30 Dec 1944 - 1 Apr 1945)
SS-Obersturmführer Hans-Martin Leidreiter (1 Apr 1945 - ? May 1945)
SS-Hauptsturmführer Löschnigg (? May 1945 - ? May 1945)
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