Wilhelm Bittrich (February 26th, 1894 – April 19th, 1979) was an SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General during World War II.
Born in Wernigerode in the Harz mountains of Germany, Bittrich served as an army officer and fighter pilot during World War I and was also a member of the Freikorps. He joined the SS-Verfügungstruppe in 1934 and the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler in 1939. He was in command of the Deutschland Regiment during the fighting in Poland (1939) and France (1940).
Later he assumed command over the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich and the II. SS-Panzerkorps (Hohenstaufen & Frundsberg Divisions). He is perhaps now best remembered for his contribution to the defeat of the failed allied airborne offensive Operation Market Garden which took place in the Netherlands in September 1944. Bittrich also commanded a corps in the German defense against the Vienna Offensive from April 2 to April 13, 1945. However, he led the 8th SS Cavalry Division Florian Geyer, involved in war crimes in the USSR(August 1942 - 15 February 1943).
Bittrich survived the War and died in a local hospital in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria on April 19th, 1979.
Bittrich was a source for Cornelius Ryan in researching A Bridge Too Far. During the interview he is reported to have been most concerned with correcting inaccurate reports that he was a skilled concert pianist. He claimed these reports stemmed from confusion with his brother.
After his arrest on May 8th, 1945 he was extradited to France on charges of having ordered the execution of 17 members of the Resistance in Nîmes. The trial revealed that Bittrich had not given such an order and had even opened procedures against the responsible officers. As the commander in charge of the culprits, he was held responsible for the misconduct of his subordinate troops and sentenced to five years in prison. The sentence was considered as served after a long pretrial. detention. He was put on trial for a second time in 1953 and sentenced to five years in prison for countenancing hangings, pillage and arson, but was acquitted by the French court in Bordeaux again and released in 1954.
General Bittrich was among a circle of young Reichswehr officers who appreciated the SS's military doctrine and took the opportunity to form the new service. He always described himself as convinced of large parts of the Nazi ideology, but felt disdain for his "incompetent" leaders and thought the regime's crimes would violate an officer's sense of honour.
According to German historian Heinz Höhne, Bittrich vowed to support a plot against the Nazi regime on July 15, 1944 when he met Erwin Rommel and promised that he and his troops were at Rommel's disposal if the Field Marshal so requested, but like many he warned that Hitler had to be removed from power first. This condition was never met. Bittrich is also reported to have been the most sarcastic man in Germany. He was allegedly marked for death by Heinrich Himmler in 1945 as a result of the extremely unflattering comments he made about the Nazi leadership. In any case it is known that his superiors tried to replace him by force several times; during Operation Market Garden in 1944, Himmler had sent "Reichsarzt-SS" Karl Gebhardt to relieve Bittrich from his command and bring him back to Berlin.
Following operation Market-Garden in 1944, Albert Speer visited the frontlines and had an opportunity to meet General Bittrich. Speer later wrote:
Other visits (to the front) showed me that efforts were being made on the Western Front to arrange agreements with the enemy upon special problems. At Arnhem, I found General Bittrich of the Waffen-SS in a state of fury. The day before, his Second Tank Corps had virtually wiped out a British airborne division. During the fighting the general had made an arrangement permitting the enemy to run a field hospital behind the German lines. But party functionaries had taken it upon themselves to kill captured British and American pilots, and Bittrich looked like a liar. His violent denunciation of the party was all the more striking since it came from an SS general.
After his unit had been tasked with the defense of Vienna in spring 1945, Bittrich immediately pulled his troops out of the city to save it from destruction despite the order to hold Vienna "to the last breath".