Surrender Invites Death: Fighting the Waffen SS in Normandy

By: Jack A. English  

Rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Stackpole Books, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8117-0763

Format: Hardcover, 240 pages

This well researched book describes in detail the fighting in Normandy between Anglo-American forces and Waffen SS units between 6 June 1944 (D-Day) and the collapse of the German defenses in mid-August 1944.

Referenced from both Allied and German sources, the reader is taken through the background, formation and expansion of the Waffen SS (Armed SS) up through the fierce Normandy campaign.  Background is given on how the Waffen SS was formed from a wide range of sources, including volunteers from the greater German Reich, concentration camp guards rotated to get combat experience and even 17 and 18 year old Hitler Youth, some of whom were formed into their own 12 SS Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’.  Also included is a brief combat history of Waffen SS units that took part in the early campaigns in Poland, France &  the Low Countries, the Balkans and of course, the colossal campaign in the East against Russia up through mid-1944, where the book turns to the fighting in the West.  Several notations are made of atrocities perpetrated in these campaigns by both sides, especially in the East.

As the title refers, the focus is on the Normandy campaign.  At this point, the Waffen SS had a formidable reputation, not only as an elite military force, but also as fanatical Nazis capable of horrible atrocities.  This reputation became even more intense and inflamed with propaganda, battlefield rumors and actual atrocities discovered during the battle.  The battle for Normandy was Hitler’s last chance to turn the war in a more favorable direction for his Third Reich.  If the German Army could force the Western Allies back into the sea, more focus and troops, could be sent east to battle the Soviets.  To this end, Hitler sent two SS Panzer Corps to Normandy to smash the Allied landings in Normandy. This was the largest collection of SS divisions for one battle ever assembled to this point in the war and provided high hopes for Hitler and his cronies.

The SS divisions, 6 in all with corps units including two SS Tiger tank battalions, were mostly arrayed against the British and Canadian forces advancing from the beaches.  Although these forces were the cream of the SS crop, they were mostly forced into battle piecemeal by circumstances and were never used in masse which was what was needed for victory.  Thus forced into reactive and attritional warfare with stand-fast orders from Hitler, the battle for Normandy, after the first few days, was a foregone conclusion.

Although the entire campaign is not discussed, there is a wealth of insight into the battle for Normandy.  Anglo-American plans and operations are detailed throughout the Normandy campaign from 6 June through the final collapse at Falaise in mid-August.  Waffen SS and other German unit reactions and operations are detailed as well.  Operations such as Epsom, Atlantic, Cobra and Tractable, their success or failure against a well entrenched and dangerous Waffen SS foe, are depicted chronologically with particular attention given to tactical situations, units involved and weapons available and their effectiveness in battle.   How effective was the Waffen SS units with Tiger and Panther tanks against a vastly numerically superior enemy with complete air superiority and an apparently inexhaustible supply of tanks, artillery and equipment? Outnumbered as much as three to 1 (or more), how did the Waffen SS stave off defeat for more than 2 months?  What mistakes or successes could have been exploited, or were missed completely by the commanders who were there?  These are but a few questions discussed.

Another facet of the book, also referenced by the title (Surrender Invites Death) is the murder of prisoners and civilians.  Whether by order, convenience, reprisal, desperation or just revenge for a fallen comrade or beloved leader, this occurred on both sides of the hill; although the murder of civilians was exclusively a German enterprise and Allied incidents appear random.  Incidents such as the murder of Canadian prisoners by the 12th SS Panzer Division ‘HitlerJugend’, the reprisal murder of civilians for Partisan attacks on the 2nd SS Panzer Division ‘Das Reich’ and the discovery of executed German prisoners in an area re-taken in a German counterattack (most likely by Canadian troops) are explored.  These and other incidents are discussed and how they affected the conduct of the battle and how, in some fighting, quarter was not asked for, nor given.

Overall, Surrender Invites Death: Fighting the Waffen SS in Normandy is superbly researched and well written, not overly detailed and an easy read.  The maps provided give an easy understanding of the area being fought over with unit dispositions and tactical situations easily identifiable.  35 black & white photos are provided with appropriate captions.  As mentioned, this is not a book on the entire campaign in Normandy, but is limited to the conduct of operations between Allied forces and the Waffen SS who opposed them.  Students of the Normandy campaign, like me, will find an interesting aspect of the battle with remarkable conclusions about the Waffen SS and the Allies who fought them.

Thanks to Chris Evans at Stackpole Books for the review copy.

Cpt. C. Sosebee, USA (Ret.)