German Army (1935–1945)
The German Army (German: Heer (German pronunciation: [ˈheːɐ̯]) was the land forces component of the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, from 1935 to 1945. The Wehrmacht also included the Kriegsmarine (Navy) and the Luftwaffe (Air Force). During World War II, a total of about 15 million soldiers served in the German Army, of whom about seven million became casualties. Separate from the Army, the Waffen-SS (Armed SS) was a multi-ethnic and multi-national military force of the Third Reich. Growing from three regiments to over 38 divisions during World War II, it served alongside the army but was never formally part of it.
Only 17 months after Hitler announced publicly the rearmament program, the Army reached its projected goal of 36 divisions. During the autumn of 1937, two more corps were formed. In 1938, four additional corps were formed with the inclusion of the five divisions of the Austrian Army after the Anschluss in March. During the period of its expansion by Adolf Hitler, the German Army continued to develop concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and air (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. Coupled with operational and tactical methods such as encirclements and the "battle of annihilation", the German military managed quick victories in the two initial years of World War II, prompting the use of the word Blitzkrieg (lightning war) for the techniques used.
The German Army entered the war with a majority of its infantry formations relying on the horse for transportation while the infantry remained foot soldiers throughout the war, artillery also remaining primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the main reason for the success of the German invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941) and the early campaigns in the Soviet Union (June 1941). However their motorized and tank formations accounted for only 20% of the Heer's capacity at their peak strength.
The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was Germany's Army High Command from 1936 to 1945. In theory the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) served as the military General Staff for the German Reich's armed forces, coordinating the Wehrmacht (Army Heer, Navy Kriegsmarine, and the Air Force Luftwaffe) operations. In practice OKW acted in a subordinate role as Hitler's personal military staff, translating his ideas into military plans and orders, and issuing them to the three services. However, as the war progressed the OKW found itself exercising increasing amounts of direct command authority over military units, particularly in the west. This created a situation where by 1942 the OKW was the de facto command of Western Theatre forces while the Army High Command (OKH) served Hitler as his personal command Staff on the Eastern Front.
The Abwehr was the Army intelligence organization from 1921 to 1944. The term Abwehr (German for "counter-intelligence") was used as a concession to Allied demands that Germany's post-World War I intelligence activities be for "defensive" purposes only. After 4 February 1938, its title was Overseas Department/Office in Defence of the Armed Forces High Command (Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht).
Nazi Germany used the system of military districts (German: Wehrkreis) to relieve field commanders of as much administrative work as possible, and to provide a regular flow of trained recruits and supplies to the field forces. The method OKW adopted was to separate the Field Army (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres) from the Home Command (Heimatkriegsgebiet), and to entrust the responsibilities of training, conscription, supply and equipment to Home Command.
The commander of an infantry Corps also commanded the Wehrkreis with the identical number in peacetime, but command of the Wehrkreis passed to his second-in command at the outbreak of the war.
Before the start of the war, there were also four Motorized Army Corps (Armeekorps (mot.)) which were in effect, staffs to control the training of Panzer and Light Panzer formations, and which had no corresponding military districts, but were provided with conscripts and supplies by the districts in which Corps headquarters or subordinate formations had their Home Garrison Stations. The Districts were organized into a hierarchy that included Area Headquarters (Wehrersatzbezirk Hauptquartier) and Sub-area headquarters (Wehrbezirk Hauptquartier).
Organization of the field forces
The German Army was mainly structured in Army groups (Heeresgruppen, see Army groups of the German Army) consisting of several armies that were relocated, restructured or renamed in the course of the war. Forces or allied states as well as units made up of non-Germans were also assigned to German units.
For Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Army forces were assigned to three strategic campaign groupings:
- Army High Command Norway (Armee-Oberkommando Norwegen)
- Army Group North (Heeresgruppe Nord) with Leningrad as its campaign objective
- Army Group Centre (Heeresgruppe Mitte) with Smolensk as its campaign objective
- Army Group South (Heeresgruppe Süd) with Kiev as its campaign objective
The troops sent to North Africa to support Italian forces were initially designated the Afrika Korps. Later the force grew into Panzer Army Afrika. Below the army group level forces included Field armies - (see List of World War II military units of Germany), panzer groups, which later became army level formations themselves, corps (see List of German corps in World War II), and divisions (see List of German divisions in World War II).
The army used the German term Kampfgruppe which equates to the English 'combat group' or battle group. These provisional combat groupings ranged from an Army Corps size such as Kampfgruppe Kampf to commands composed of several companies and even platoons. They were named for their commanding officers using the family name, e.g. Kampfgruppe Meyer. The same name was used by the Luftwaffe to designate Gruppe-designated units dedicated to medium bomber roles, either (rarely) by themselves, or much more often within Kampfgeschwader that comprised USAAF wing sized units.
Waffen-SS field formations also served alongside army units.
Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Wehrmacht during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans who were either volunteers or later conscripted for service. Russians recruited from prisoner of war camps fought in the Russian Liberation Army or as Hilfswilliger. Non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the Wehrmacht.
Army command, arms of service, and service corps
Luftwaffe ground formations
Four types of Luftwaffe formations and units served in ground roles within the German army during the Second World War:
- Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring (1st Paratroop Panzer Division Hermann Göring – abbreviated Fallschirm-Panzer-Div 1 HG) was an elite German Luftwaffe armoured division. The HG saw action in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and on the Eastern Front. The division was created by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, and through the war increased in size from a battalion (German: Abteilung) to a Panzer Corps.
- Fallschirmjäger (or "parachute rangers" in English, from Fallschirm "parachute" and Jäger, "hunter or ranger") is also used as a term for light infantry). Fallschirmjäger (plural) were the first to be committed in large-scale airborne operations during the Second World War, notably during the Battle of Crete which proved to be bloody for the Corps. During the whole period of its existence, the Fallschirmjäger commander was Kurt Student.
- The Luftwaffe Field Divisions Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen) were German military formations which although nominally part of the Luftwaffe served within the army organisational structure. The Luftwaffe field division were mostly organized on the same principle as the army infantry divisions.
- The Flakkorps and Flakdivision (anti-aircraft artillery Corps and divisions), which served as the headquarters for controlling smaller flak units attached to army formations rather than separate divisions organized for ground combat. However they also served as area formations deployed to protect large important cities and fortified areas.
Operational methods of the Army
German operational doctrine emphasized sweeping pincer and lateral movements meant to obliterate the enemy as quickly as possible. This "strategy", referred to as Blitzkrieg, was an operational doctrine instrumental in the success of the offensives in Poland and France.
The military strength of the German army was managed through mission-based tactics (Auftragstaktik) (rather than order-based tactics), and an almost proverbial discipline. In public opinion, the German military was and is sometimes seen as a high-tech army, since new technologies that were introduced before and during World War II influenced its development of tactical doctrine. These technologies were featured by propaganda, but were often only available in small numbers or late in the war, as overall supplies of raw materials and armaments became low. For example only 40 per cent of all units were fully motorized, supply columns mainly relied on horses, and most soldiers moved by foot or used bicycles.
Use of fortifications and field defenses
German use of fortifications included the Siegfried Line which was intended for defence of the western borders, and the Atlantic Wall erected under command of Field Marshal Rommel stretching from Denmark to France's border with Spain. The Germans also made great use of fortified cities (termed Festungen) such as Metz, Warsaw, and Poznań during the latter part of the war.
When building temporary field defenses the Heer relied on the defensive tactics developed during the First World War. Infantry would occupy up to five lines of defence with the first being only lightly held advance posts. Further back would be pre-sited anti-tank and artillery positions preferably not registered by the enemy field artillery counter-battery fires. The armoured formations would stage behind these prepared positions to counter-attack any enemy breakthroughs. The armoured reserves would employ a range of counter-offensive tactics depending on the size of the breach and enemy strength. The most important consideration for the defenders would be to hold the flanks of any breach no matter how wide, and then attempt to close the breach.
- Sturmgeschütz III, most-produced German armored fighting vehicle
- Sturmgeschütz IV
At various times, the German forces used captured equipment, absorbing them into the German type notation with national suffixes (e.g. "t" for Tschechoslowakei (Czechoslovakia), "e" for englisch, "r" for russisch, etc.). In the case of Czechoslovakia, their contemporary tanks were found to be more reliable than German ones of the period; captured Czech units and those manufactured for Germany after March 1939 were a significant proportion of the German armoured forces during the "blitzkriegs" in Poland and France.
- Jagdpanzer IV
- Marder I
- Marder II
- Marder III
- Panzerjäger I
Uniforms, insignia and personal equipment
Max Hastings, British author, historian and ex-newspaper editor, said in a radio interview on WGN Chicago "...there's no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war". This view was also explained in his book Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy. In the book World War II : An Illustrated Miscellany, Anthony Evans writes: "The German soldier was very professional and well trained, aggressive in attack and stubborn in defence. He was always adaptable, particularly in the later years when shortages of equipment were being felt".
An often-overlooked characteristic of the late-war German Army was the liberal use of machine-guns with high rates of fire and medium- and heavy-caliber mortars. Although German battalions were often smaller than those of their opponents by 1944, they were still capable, in terms of organic weapons, of bringing substantially higher weights of fire to bear than those of their opponents. This discrepancy in relative weights of fire made the dislodgement of defending German units difficult.
After the war
Confronted with a huge number of German prisoners of war after VE Day, the Western Allies kept Feldjägerkommando III, which was a regimental-sized unit of German military police, active and armed to assist with the control of the POWs. Feldjägerkommando III remained armed and under Western Allied control until 23 June 1946, when it was finally deactivated.
- Glossary of German military terms
- Military of Germany
- World War II German uniform
- War crimes of the Wehrmacht
- McNab, Chris. The SS: 1923–1945, pp 56, 57, 66.
- Haskew, Michael. The Wehrmacht: 1923–1945, p 28.
- Haskew, Michael. The Wehrmacht: 1923–1945, pp 61, 62.
- Haskew, Michael. The Wehrmacht: 1923–1945, p 40, 41.
- Williamson, p. 13.
- Davies, W. J. K. (1973), German Army Handbook, Ian Allen Ltd., Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-0290-8.
- Evans, Anthony A. (2005), World War II: An Illustrated Miscellany, Worth Press, ISBN 1-84567-681-5.
- Haskew, Michael (2011), The Wehrmacht: 1935-1945, Amber Books Ltd. ISBN 1-907446-95-8.
- Hastings, Max (1999) , Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944, Pan, ISBN 0-330-39012-0.
- Hastings, Max (2004), Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1945, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90836-8.
- McNab, Chris, The SS: 1923–1945 (2009), Amber Books Ltd. ISBN 978-1-906626-49-5.
- Williamson, Gordon (1995), German Military Police Units 1939–45, London: Osprey, ISBN 0-85045-902-8.
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