Panzermeyer and the Ardenne Abbey Massacre By: Will Dabbs

A fairly common thread among incarcerated populations is difficulty controlling one’s emotions.

Most heinous crimes are crimes of passion. Penitentiaries are brimming with folks who suffer from poor impulse control. Whether it is spontaneous road rage or a husband spurned, it is the heat of the moment that drives so many people to do so many things they might later regret. Little is more emotionally heated than modern combat.

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Young folks make the best soldiers. They don’t tend to think too deeply about the extraordinary things they’re called upon to do

The most effective soldiers are, with few exceptions, young and impressionable. Lord knows I was. Old guys with a little mileage wouldn’t be willing to do the job. If nothing else we have come to better appreciate the reality of our own mortality. The toxic combination of youth, patriotic fervor, and the very real prospect of imminent violent gory death can be an explosive milieu indeed.

The Waffen SS was a curious elite army within an army during World War 2.

In June of 1944, the entire world was changing. The Allies had a foothold in Normandy, and the Germans were appreciating for the first time what a self-inflicted catastrophe they had created for themselves. Realizing the stakes, Hitler and his general staff mobilized a number of first-rate combat divisions on the Western front to oppose the British, Canadians, and Americans during their breakout from Normandy. Among them was the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.

We modern folk are really not in a position to fully appreciate the depth of depravity implicit in the Holocaust.

Adolf Hitler had a great many repugnant things for which to answer when he finally faced divine judgment in 1945. Right after the cold-blooded murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust, primary among them was the Hitler Youth. The Hitler Youth dates back to 1922. Its formal title was “Hitler-Jugend, Bund deutscher Arbeiterjugend.” That mouthful of kraut-speak translates to “Hitler Youth, League of German Worker Youth.” This paramilitary organization indoctrinated German boys age 14 to 18 to prepare them to become good little Nazis.

The 12th SS Panzer Division was crewed with what were essentially child soldiers.

Your typical fourteen-year-old lacks the sense to pick out his own clothes, much less intelligently assimilate political ideology. As a result, the Hitler Youth did a simply fantastic job of creating fanatical Hitler acolytes. When Hitler’s total war finally caught up with Germany, the 12th SS Panzer was formed from the ranks of the Hitlerjugend. Senior NCOs and officers were typically drawn from other experienced SS divisions, but the rank and file junior enlisted men were products of the Hitler Youth. 

The Germans, for all their well-documented moral failings, produced some simply superb combat soldiers. Weapons like the assault rifle, the modern combat submarine, the general purpose machine-gun, and the jet fighter all had their genesis as German wartime projects.

The 12th SS Panzer was a well-equipped and well-trained combat unit that first saw action on June 7, 1944. During defensive operations around Caen they suffered heavy casualities. The stage was set for Something Truly Horrible.

The Setting

Standartenfuhrer Kurt Meyer was a True Believer, a real Nazi’s Nazi.

Waffen-SS Standartenfuhrer Kurt Meyer commanded the 12th SS Panzer Division during this critical time following the Allied landings in Normandy. He was revered by his men. Behind his back they called him “Panzermeyer.” 

Standartenfuhrer Kurt Meyer is seen here on the right alongside Fritz Witt, and Max Wunsche.

Meyer’s command post was established in a Premonstratensian monastery in Saint-Germain-la-Blanche-Herb near Caen. The towers of the Abbaye d’Ardenne offered a commanding view of the battlefield. These relatively unbloodied SS troopers were arrayed against Canadian forces moving inland from Juno Beach. Canada was a critical partner with the Allies during the D-Day invasion, providing some 14,000 combat troops to the effort. 

Modern war is unimaginably destructive.

By the evening of June 7, the Norman countryside was a battlefield. Battlefields exemplify chaos. Now some 36 hours into the close fight there were eleven Canadian prisoners being held at the Abbey. Five were assigned to the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, while the remaining six hailed from the 27thArmoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers). The 12th SS Panzer was being pressed mightily, and Kurt Meyer felt cornered.

Standartenfuhrer Kurt Meyer felt he had no time for prisoners during the frenetic fight for Normandy. Such stuff was common on the Eastern Front where Meyer had learned his trade.

A Polish-born SS trooper named Jan Jesionek was present for what came next and testified for the prosecution at the war crimes tribunal after the end of hostilities. Jesionek reported that a pair of SS soldiers arrived at the command post with seven Canadian prisoners on June 8. One of the guards queried Jesionek regarding the location of Standartenfuhrer Meyer. Meanwhile the Canadians were remanded to a stall adjacent the Abbey for safekeeping. When informed of the seven prisoners, Meyer reportedly said, “What should we do with these prisoners? They only eat up our rations.”

This happy-looking guy was a stone cold combat leader. His fanatical commitment to his cause and his mission precipitated a massacre.

Meyer then purportedly had a quiet discussion with one of his officers out of earshot of the troops working nearby. He supposedly said, “In the future, no more prisoners are to be taken.”

Political fanaticism in combat is the breeding ground for atrocity.

The officer with whom Meyer had been speaking then questioned each prisoner individually. As each prisoner’s name was called he was led into the garden of the Abbey where this officer subsequently waited. As each Canadian turned into the garden the officer shot him in the back of the head with his machine pistol. All seven prisoners were brutally executed in this manner. 

In the heat of the moment very bad things can happen to frightened soldiers in combat. It behooves leaders at all levels to be ever mindful of the more sordid aspects of soldiering to help keep things from getting out of control.

Once the officer and guards departed, Jesionek and three fellow drivers examined the bodies lying in the garden. Jesionek reported that the Canadians realized what was happening, and that each prisoner shook hands with his comrades before walking to the garden to be shot. Jesionek admitted that he never heard Meyer give the order to kill the Canadians, but the calculus of the event was fairly self-evident.

The Gun

The German MP40 became emblematic of the war effort.

The German MP40 was the seminal submachine gun used by German forces during the war. Like the American Thompson and the Russian PPSh, the MP40 became a national icon. Roughly one million copies were produced before the gun was supplanted by the MP44 assault rifle.

In the prototype MP36 you can see the vestiges of what would eventually become a legendary weapon.

The MP40 was a streamlined development of the MP38 that was itself an evolutionary successor to the MP36. The MP36 was developed by Berthold Geipel working at Erma Werke with funding from the German Army. The MP36 never made it past prototype stage but laid the foundation for the profoundly successful guns to come.

The MP38 is most easily differentiated from the later MP40 by the grooves in the receiver and the small holes in the magwell.

The MP38 featured the same familiar layout as the subsequent MP40 but was built around a milled receiver formed from a piece of drawn tubular steel. The MP38 can be identified at a glance by the longitudinal grooves milled into the receiver as well as the dime-sized holes cut in the sides of the magazine well.

The MP40 changed the way the world made weapons.

The definitive MP40 employed a pressed steel receiver and synthetic Bakelite furniture. As a result, the MP40 was the first general issue infantry weapon in the world to eschew wood in its manufacture. The underfolding steel stock was copied almost exactly onto the AKMS folding stocked Kalashnikov rifle.

Though heavy and bulky, the MP40 is one of the most controllable and effective subguns of the war.

The MP40 runs from the open bolt and feeds from a double-column, single-feed 32-round magazine. The rear sight is flip adjustable between 100 and 200 meters. The gun fires full-auto only at a sedate rate of around 550 rounds per minute. While fairly heavy at 8.75 pounds empty, the front-heavy nature of the design makes the MP40 exceptionally controllable in action.

The Rest of the Story

SS formations were some of the most effective units in the German military. A friend who fought them in Europe once told me, “We didn’t take many of those SS men prisoner.”

All totaled, as many as 156 Canadian POWs were executed by members of the 12th SS Panzer during the Normandy Campaign. A few bodies were discovered by members of the Regina Rifle Regiment a month later on July 8 when they liberated the Abbey. The first eleven victims were not discovered until spring of the following year when locals accidentally stumbled across the remains. The forensic analysis demonstrated that, while many had been shot in the head as described by Trooper Jesionek, others had been bludgeoned to death with either rifle butts or entrenching tools.

Kurt Meyer ultimately faced military judgment for his wartime crimes.

In December of 1945, Kurt Meyer was formally charged with murder by the Allied War Crimes Tribunal. Trooper Jesionek along with SS Private Alfred Helzel testified for the prosecution, with Helzel reporting that Meyer had commanded that no prisoners be taken. SGT Stanley Dudka, a Canadian survivor, offered first-person damning testimony as well.

A friend who was there told me that after the war there was a surprising dearth of Nazis. Everybody claimed they had been unaware of the darker, more sordid activities of the regime.

For his part, Kurt Meyer denied all knowledge of the killings. He later claimed that he was aware of the presence of the bodies, but that he had not seen them until two days after the murders. Throughout his trial Meyer denied having issued the order not to take prisoners.

Kurt Meyer went to prison for his role in the massacre of Canadian prisoners during the Normandy campaign.

Meyer was convicted of incitement to commit murder for his role as Division Commander at the time of the atrocities. He was sentenced to death on December 28, 1945, though his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on January 14, 1946. He served nine years of his sentence before being released on September 7, 1954.

This fun-loving mob is HIAG, a political action group comprised of former SS troopers that was active after the war.
Worn with both dress and combat uniforms, the Knight’s Cross was the most coveted combat decoration in the German military. Men vying to earn the award were colloquially described as having a sore throat.

After his release from prison Meyer became an active member of HIAG, a lobbying group formed from high-ranking Waffen SS troops. HIAG stands for “Hilfsgemeinschaft auf Gegenseitigkeit der Angehörigen der ehemaligen Waffen-SS,” which literally translates to “Mutual Aid Association of Former Waffen-SS Members.”

The Waffen SS was a controversial though brilliant military construct. SS troopers developed a reputation for fanatical devotion to der Fuhrer.

Throughout the rest of his life Meyer remained a vocal SS apologist, painting SS troops as non-politically affiliated, profoundly brave fighters who had little to nothing to do with the crimes of the Nazi regime. Historians have since reliably debunked these claims.

Kurt Meyer spent the rest of his life defending the actions of the SS.

In 1957 Meyer published Grenadiere, the memoirs of his time with the Waffen SS. In this book, Meyer condemned the “inhuman suffering” to which Waffen-SS personnel had been subjected”for crimes which they neither committed nor were able to prevent”.Historian Charles W. Sydnor subsequently described Grenadiere as “perhaps the boldest and most truculent of the apologist works” of the post-Nazi era.

Panermeyer lived hard and died young.

Later in life, Kurt Meyer’s health declined precipitously. He suffered from kidney failure and heart disease and required a cane to walk. Meyer died two days before Christmas in 1961 at age 51. 15,000 people attended his funeral.

Special thanks to for the period gear used in our photographs.