Wilhelm Bittrich (February 26, 1894 – April 19, 1979) was an SS-Obergruppenführer (rank equivalent to Lt General) and Waffen-SS General during World War II.
Born in the town of Wernigerode in the Harz mountains of Germany, Bittrich served as an army officer and as a fighter pilot during World War I and was also a member of the Freikorps. He joined the ((SS-Verfügungstruppe)) in 1934, where he served until 1939, whereupon he joined the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler?. He was in command of the Deutschland Regiment during the fighting in Poland (1939) and France (1940).
He later commanded 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. Bittrich survived the War and died in a local hospital in Wolfratshausen, Bavaria on April 19, 1979.
Although Bittrich claimed to have conducted himself with honor throughout his career, after his capture on May 8, 1945, by American troops, he was extradited to France on charges of having given the order to summarily execute 17 members of the Resistance in Nimes. However, Bittrich is said to have not been aware of the massacre beforehand and to have acted against the Feldgendarmerie officer who authorized the killings. A French military tribunal at Marseilles found him guilty as the responsible officer of his unit and sentenced him to five years imprisonment on June 23, 1953. He was put on trial for a second time later in 1953, for war crimes, but was acquitted by the French court in Bordeaux and released in 1954.
Following operation Market-Garden in 1944, Albert Speer visited the front and had an opportunity to observe General Bittrich. Speer later wrote:
Other visits (to the front) showed me that efforts were being made on the Western Front? to arrive at understandings with the enemy on 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 situated behind the German lines. But party functionaries had taken it upon themselves to kill British and American pilots, and Bittrich was cast in the role of a liar. His violent denunciation of the party was all the more striking since it came from an SS general.
According to Höhne, Bittrich pledged his support to at least one plot to topple the Nazi regime when he promised Field Marshal Erwin Rommel on July 15 that he and his subordinate officers were at his command if requested so, but like many he warned that Hitler would have to be disposed of first. This condition was never met.
Bittrich is also recorded to have been known as the most sarcastic man in Germany. He is reported (unverifiable) to have been marked for death by Heinrich Himmler in 1945 as a result of extremely unflattering comments he made about this superior. Though it is known that his superiors several times tried to replace him by force; During Operation Market Garden in 1944, Himmler had sent “Reichsarzt-SS” Karl Gebhardt to divest him of his command and bring him back to Berlin?.
After his unit had been tasked with the defense of Vienna in spring 1945, Bittrich immediately pulled his troops out of the city to avert unnecessary destruction in it despite the order to hold Vienna “to the last breath”.
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. Bittrich himself played the bluegrass banjo.