Josef 'Sepp' Dietrich (1892-1966) was one of Hitler’s favourite SS commanders, but his military record was mixed, and included successes in Normandy and failures during the battle of the Bulge. He was also implicated in a series of war crimes, and convicted for his part in the Malmedy Massacre.
Dietrich was born into a peasant family in Hawangen, Bavaria, on 28 May 1892. He joined the army in 1911, and fought throughout the First World War. He served in the artillery, and probably in one of the few tanks operated by the Germans (photographs show him wearing the Tank Memorial Badge). He was certainly awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class, and probably the Iron Cross 1st Class.
Dietrich joined the Nazi party in 1928, and soon rose within the party ranks. He became close to Hitler, who found him a series of jobs. He was also elected to the Reichstag on 5 January 1930. He soon joined Hitler’s bodyguard, before becoming the effective commander of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. This unit began life as a bodyguard unit with only 120 men in 1933, but eventually grew to become a Panzer Division, combining a varied military reputation with a deserved reputation for committing war crimes.
Under Dietrich’s command the LSSAH took part in the Night of the Long Knives of 1934 (for which Dietrich was later convinced by a post-war German court), and the Anschluss with Austria.
By the start of the Second World War the LSSAH had been expanded to full regimental size, with three infantry battalions. During the invasion of Poland it fought on the southern flank of the German attack, and gained a reputation for burning villages and for taking higher than usual casualties. It also began its career of war crimes, committing at least two massacres of civilians during the fighting.
Early in 1940 the LSSAH became a motorised infantry regiment, with the addition of an assault gun battalion. It took part in the invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, then the invasion of France. The LSSAH took part in the fighting outside Dunkirk, where it committed the Wormhoudt massacre, murdering eighty British and French POWs.
After the end of the fighting in France, the LSSAH was expanded to brigade size. Dietrich commanded the new brigade during the invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece. The Germans planned to expand the brigade into a division before the invasion of Russia, but the work wasn’t completed in time, so it took part in Operation Barbarossa as an expanded brigade.
The LSSAH was held in reserve during the initial attack, but was soon committed to the fighting, taking part in the battle of Uman and the capture of Kiev. In the aftermath of that battle they may have committed another war crime, murdering 4,000 Soviet POWs on 18 August, but on this occasion the evidence is thin. In September the LSSAH was moved south, and was ordered to try and capture the Perekop Isthmus, the northern entrance to the Crimea. However it’s initial attack failed, leading to a costly battle in the isthmus. In October the LSSAH was moved back north, then took part in the first capture of Rostov-on-Don in November. During the winter the unit had to withdraw to the Mius River, before taking part in the German spring offensive in 1942, taking part in the second capture of Rostov.
By this point the unit was badly under strength, so it was withdrawn to France, where it was finally raised to division status, as a panzergrenadier division. The division was then rushed back to the eastern front after the disaster at Stalingrad, and took part in Manstein’s successful recapture of Kharkov. Once again the LSSAH’s combat record, and with it Dietrich’s own reputation, was stained by war crimes, in this case repeated murders of Soviet civilians. Back on the home front men from Dietrich’s unit also took part in the ‘factory action’, in which the last remaining German Jews working in the arms industry were rounded up and sent to the death camps. In March 1943 Dietrich was awarded the Swords to the Knights’ Cross.
In July 1943 Dietrich was promoted to command the new 1st SS Panzer Corps, taking with him most of the HQ staff from his old division. The corps was formed for action on the Eastern Front, but in September 1943, in the aftermath of the Italian armistice, the corps was rushed to northern Italy, where it disarmed the Italian army, shipped British POWs back to Germany, and took part in the growing war against the Italian partisans. Dietrich’s new command also continued to train while in Italy.
Early in 1944 the corps HQ was moved to Brussels, to refit and prepare for service under Geyr von Schweppenburg in France (as part of Panzer Group West). In April 1944 the corps moved to Septeuil, to the west of Paris. After the D-Day landings the corps was amongst the first reinforcements to be moved to Normandy, with one division entering the battle north of Caen on 8 June. Schweppenburg had been planning to launch a three panzer division counterattack, but on 10 June he was wounded when his HQ was attacked by the RAF. Dietrich briefly took command of Panzer Group West, and had some success in the fighting north of Caen. Schweppenburg was soon back at work, but was replaced by Eberbach on 2 July after supporting Rundstedt’s request for a retreat from Caen. Dietrich returned to command of his corps, until Eberbach was promoted to command the 7th Army on 21 August. Dietrich was given temporary command of Panzer Group West from 22 August to 10 September, but by this point it was something of a hollow command as most of the group’s tanks had been lost in the Falaise Pocket. During this period Dietrich was promoted (6 August 1944) and awarded the Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross.
Partly because of his military reputation, but mainly because he was close to Hitler, Dietrich was chosen to command the 6th Panzer Army during the battle of the Bulge. This unit was never officially designated the 6th SS Panzer Army, but it is often given that name, and did contain a large number of SS panzer divisions. Dietrich’s army was meant to be the main striking force during the battle of the Bulge, but it made very limited progress, forcing the Germans to focus more on the right wing of the attack. Once again a unit under Dietrich’s command committed a war crime during the battle, this time the Malmedy Massacre.
After the failure of the Ardennes offensive Dietrich and the 6th Panzer Army were rushed to Hungary to try and restore the situation on that front. He attacked on 17 February 1945 from Hron, in Operation Southwind. This attack made some progress, but it was only a preliminary for Operation Spring Awakening, a more ambitious attack. This was the last major German offensive of the war, and saw Dietrich’s army attack around Lake Balaton (6-15 March 1945). This attack was a total failure, but by this point even the most capable of German commanders wouldn’t have been able to achieve much. In the aftermath of the battle the army was forced back to Vienna. Dietrich himself surrendered to the Americans in the foothills of the Alps on 8 May 1945.
Dietrich provided a wide range of reactions. von Mellenthin later wrote that ‘His ideas and his conversation were often disjointed … but he was already ready for anything and had a sense of humour, which was rather on the robust side’. In 1943 Goebbels recorded that Hitler considered him to be ‘one of our top troop commanders and expects miracles of him’. In contrast Rundstedt called him ‘decent but stupid’.
His record at the highest levels of command was rather mixed. He performed well during his spells in command of Panzer Group West in Normandy, but is generally seen as being out of his depth as commander of the 6th SS Panzer Army during the Battle of the Bulge.
A more serious stain on his record are the war crimes committed by units under his command. The most famous of these were the Wormhoudt massacre of 28 May 1940, in which members of the LSSAH murdered eighty British and French POWs, and the Malmedy massacre of 17 December 1944, in which members of Kampfgruppe Peiper, part of his 6th Panzer Army, murdered 84 American POWs. While it was under his command the division also committed well documented war crimes in Poland, and is accused of slightly less well documented crimes in the Soviet Union.
After the war Dietrich was put on trial by the US Military Tribunal at Dachau and sentenced to life imprisonment for his part in the Malmedy massacre trial. However his sentence was later lessened to 25 years and he was released in 1955 after serving ten years in Landsberg Prison. However in the following year he was arrested by the German authorities and convinced for his role in the Night of the Long Knives. He was sentenced to 19 months in prison, and had served almost all of it before he was released in February 1958 because of ill health. After his release he became an active member of HIAG, an SS lobby group and denialist organisation that unsuccessfully attempted to rehabilitate the reputation of the Waffen-SS. Given that the Waffen-SS thoroughly deserved its vile reputation, HIAGs activities had little impact. Dietrich died of a heart attack on 21 April 1966.