The early war grenadiers were the elite of the German army, later the term would be used more widely and would come to represent the generic German infantry. They were renamed in honour of Fredericks the Great’s army by Adolf Hitler. This was a moral boosting tactic by linking them to their elite counterpart units in the past. The infantry elements of the Panzer regiments that were formally known as Schutzen, were renamed panzergrenadiers. The grenadier regiments of the German army went on to inspire other armies of the war to adopt similar military organisation into their own forces.
One German unit was the renamed 272nd Volks-Grenadier division. Forged from remnants of another division, the Volks-Grenadiers deployed in the Hurtgen Forests after only having six weeks of training in 1944. Their role was to hold off the advancing Americans at key defensive positions within the forest. They also prevented the Americans from discovering the build-up of the German army’s forces in preparation for the battle of the Bulge. They succeeded in barring the Americans but at a high cost to themselves. The division lost a great number of men and did not have the strength to continue the campaign.
Later during the Ardennes campaign they defended successfully against the Americans once more. The unit was eventually pushed back to across the river Roer and due to lack of supplies and equipment they eventually fell back first to the Rhine, then on to the Wied River before disbanding after being cut off. Some however did manage to escape into the nearby Harz mountains before eventually surrendering late April 1945.
The panzergrenadiers were mounted infantry often carried on the backs of tanks. These elite infantry were fast and hard hitting individuals, well-built and well-armed, they would form the backbone of the German armies in World War II.
The panzergrenadiers were units originally formed from regular infantry divisions that had been upgraded, such as those from motorized divisions. The Waffen SS had their own panzergrenadiers that had been built up in the same way, and even created them from scratch in the later years of the war. Featuring in both Heer and Waffen units, the grenadiers were an elite fighting unit in an already elite category.
Panzergrenadier divisions were formed as combined arms formations, with around six battalions of truck mounted infantry formed into two or three regiments with an attached battalion of tanks and the normal plethora of artillery, anti-tank and so forth. All of these elements however would be mechanized in the division, making them very mobile and could get to where they were needed in a hurry. Panzergrenadiers were usually to be seen with heavy assault guns instead of tanks, although some more of the elite units would have had both!
The 33 SS Grenadier Division was marked by their tricolour shoulder badge and was formed from volunteer French soldiers. Originally named the Legion of French Volunteers, the Charlemagne division consisted of 11,000 men in one common cause – to defeat communism. They fought battles in Russia and Poland against overwhelming odds and even managed to break into Berlin to defend the Fuhrer. With only three hundred men, the German unit would vainly try to stop the Red Army. The Unterscharfuhrer Egune Valot destroyed eight tanks with panzerfausts, posthumously earning him the distinguished Knights Cross. He was a prime example of the type of men that joined up with the Charlemagne’s. The unit would go on to fight with the Hitler youth in the desperate defence of Berlin, there having some success at taking out over 14 soviet tanks in hit and run style raids. They were eventually whittled down to just 30 men before escaping.
Ultimately many of them met grisly ends at the hands of vengeful Free French. Some were rounded up and executed on site, whilst some escaped into France where many were arrested.
Article written by Sam Phillips
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