Sustaining the German Army in the East – Replacements and Training I

The German army was spilt into two main organizations: the Field Army for operations and the Replacement Army for recruitment and training. This relatively clear line between the institutions increasingly blurred as the war dragged on, especially due to developments on the Eastern front. The call for more men led to the forming of Reserve Divisions and Field Training Divisions, which were first created in mid-1942 and used for rear security, occupation tasks, anti-partisan warfare and coastal guard duty in the west, thereby freeing up forces for combat tasks in the east. On the other hand, decreasing time devoted to training, as well as a lack of weapons and equipment in the Replacement Army, denied a proper training to the recruits. Furthermore, the high losses of low-level leaders could not be replaced adequately. All of this forced frontline units to take over increasing numbers of training tasks.

The length of this basic training differed during the course of the war, not only according to crisis situations, but also between the different branches of the army. Twelve to sixteen weeks were usual for riflemen, with eight weeks the absolute minimum, while panzer crew members trained for sixteen to twenty-one weeks. Due to a permanent flow of information, as well as continual exchanges of officers, NCOs and men, the Replacement Army was kept well informed about the training necessities (although, as we will see, the question of achieving such necessities is altogether different). The information was channelled and summarized in guidelines for basic training every three to six months. The following source is the first such guideline from October 1941. The introduction of the guidelines stresses a training that prepares for the conditions in the east by acclimating the soldiers to a spartan life and giving them a sense of the war (including the enemy’s typical behaviour) to overcome the first shock of the battlefield. At the same time, a feeling of superiority needed to be inculcated into the soldiers. This was an essential, yet often underestimated, aspect of German combat power and motivation. German soldiers would often fight in nearly hopeless situations, their confidence based on their belief in their own superiority as soldiers, as well as on willpower. Both attitudes were part of the education of the soldier (in comparison to the rather technical training on weapons and tactics).

1) The experiences of this war, especially of the campaign in the East, are to be used extensively for the training and education of the Replacement Army. It is essential that the Field Army’s experiences are brought to life in the training of the Replacement Army. The training must carry the whiff of war and be conducted so that after the conclusion of basic training, the recruit can be appointed to the field troops as a full-fledged fighter based on attitude, hardness, agility and military skill. Therefore, the imparting of these war experiences must initially take into account the recruit’s meagre powers of imagination and, with progressive training, allow him to grow into the life and spirit of a good field soldier and into modern combat. It is essential therefore that the self-confidence of the recruit is raised and that the conviction is roused that the German soldier can cope with any adversary and any difficult and dangerous situation through determined action, well-considered use of his weapon and his own courage.

2) The utilisation of war experiences can occur in following ways:

  1. a) Drawing on war experienced officers and NCOs. These include: lectures by combatants, preferably with sketches or at the board, with the use of slides on small combat sections and individual deeds, the use of front reports and Wochenschauen [weekly propaganda movies] of the propaganda companies in a similar way, and stories at comradely gatherings, to give the recruits a vivid and clear picture of war’s reality.
  2. b) Transfer those insights gained from under section a) into similar combat exercises, that correspond as near as possible to reality. Hereby the assigned enemy has to conduct themselves as the Russians or English fight. The combat practices of the British are similar especially in their toughness und tenacity, their good camouflage, observation of the combat area and their devious conduct of war.
  3. c) In all branches the recruits must be educated to hardness. This hardness must find its expression in the will and the ability to bear hardships, such as long marches, simple quarters, meagre rations and inhospitable climate, and in the determination and self-confidence that are also necessary to carry forward an attack against a stronger opponent until the enemy’s destruction and to hold one’s ground in the defence against an opponent superior in number and weapons. […]
  4. d) Prepare the recruits of all branches on the combat practices of the opponent, especially on the possibility of raids at any time, day or night, and at every opportunity. This training must be handled, so that after the basic training the soldier cannot be confounded by anything and is not surprised by even a very unusual situation.

In addition to these general guidelines, the issues most important for each specific type of formation were also transmitted within each unit. Those for the infantry and motorized infantry are compiled below:

The following areas of training are to be carried out with special emphasis:

1)Observation of the combat area, recognition and addressing of targets, becoming familiar with the terrain, and estimation of distances.

2)Orientation in terrain day and night without maps, with simple sketches, compass, by sun and stars.

3) Reconnaissance patrol and stealth exercises […]

4) In the attack, use of one’s own heavy weapons and artillery fire or artificial fog to advance. During a break-in, firing on the move and assaulting with the will to destroy the enemy who does not surrender in close combat. Increased close combat training with all available means and weapons. […]

5) Combat in woods and for and in villages is to be increasingly practiced.

6) Night training and training in fog to acclimatise the recruit to these types of combat are especially necessary. While doing so, seeing, hearing, movement and orientation at twilight and during the night, reconnaissance patrol missions, attacks, raids and defence against them, security and sentry service.

7) Defence: Construction of the position according to [Infantry Training] Manual 130/11 with a considered adaptation to the terrain, skilful camouflage and use of spade. Increased use of changing positions for light machine guns and all heavy infantry weapons. Educate [the men] that there could be big holes by neighbour[ing units] in the defence of broad front sections, which have to be mastered by fire, sealing off and counter attacks. The enemy who has broken into our positions also has to be destroyed by heavy weapons in close combat. The positions of heavy weapons, especially anti-aircraft guns, are to be selected as 360 degree defence. […]

8) Defence against tanks. No tank fright can arise among the infantry. He must know that he is protected in the tank foxhole and that he is in the position to destroy tanks with his equipment. […]

9) Fire effectiveness with all weapons is to increase. The primary emphasis should be placed on combat firing exercises against well camouflaged targets. Also firing at twilight or in the night is to be especially practiced. Every recruit must master his weapon to perfection even under the most difficult situations. The training with the M.G. 34 is to be promoted with stronger emphasis. Care and maintenance of weapons are an important area of training. Good riflemen are to be trained with the telescopic sight and the semi-automatic rifles.

10) The defence against aircraft with infantry weapons is of special importance. Air attacks are not to be passively endured. […]

11) Marches are not only carried out on roads, but also on lanes and cross country with available equipment. In principle, all marches are to combine a tactical idea with constant combat exercises. Night marches are to be practiced often.

12) Physical exercises are to be adapted to the training area, for example, cross country running for habituation to continuous activity, hand grenade throwing in regards to close combat and so on.

German basic training aimed for soldiers who mastered their weapons, could work together with other weapons and types of units, had an eye for the terrain, and could act independently, the last being a general principle of the German army since the pre-First World War era. Issues especially stressed as a consequence of the campaign in the east included defensive positions, unit defence against tanks and aircraft, and night fighting. Such issues had rarely arisen in the short campaigns of 1939 and 1940, as German forces were primarily on the offensive, encountered few enemy attacks and profited from air superiority, if not air supremacy. In the east, many units already had to go over to the defensive temporarily in the first months. The sheer size of the theatre, as well as the fluidity of the combat situation, did not allow for a continuous front line, and so many advancing German units were attacked by Soviet tanks or aircraft. The Red Army was also more accustomed to night fighting.

Men trained in the Replacement Army were formed into march battalions, numbering up to 1,000 men, to be sent to the front. The German army was organized territorially, which meant that German divisions were connected to a clearly defined area from which to draw recruits. The replacement units functioned as an intermediate level between the field unit and the recruitment area. So, for example, the 73rd Infantry Division originated from Military District XIII (Nuremberg), which consisted primarily of Franconia. Its Infantry Regiment 170 received replacements from Infantry Replacement Battalion 170, its Artillery Regiment from Artillery Replacement Battalion 173, and its Engineer Battalion from Engineer Replacement Battalion 17. This connection was vitally important for the combat power of the German army. Field units were bound to a territory, allowing them to draw from the traditions and symbols of that region. It also enhanced the units’ cohesion, as soldiers from the same region shared comparable values and identities. This explains the relatively high effort the army directed towards maintaining this system. Furthermore, the ties between the field and replacement units allowed for an exchange of personnel, which increased the realistic nature of combat training, as well as giving war-weary men an opportunity to take a break from the front. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the men trained in the replacement units were already acquainted with the men with and under whom they would fight in future. So, integration into the field unit started with basic training, an important factor for the unit’s cohesion.

There was a second type of replacement unit, the so-called convalescent companies. These consisted of men so severely wounded or ill that they had to be sent back to Germany for recuperation and recovery. They were collected and retrained (or used as trainers, depending on their rank) at the replacement unit and then sent forward. These men, combat experienced and already well integrated into their units, were of high value for the divisions. Only officers and a few specialists were sent individually or in small groups to the front.

This system worked well during the short campaigns of 1939 to 1941, when periods of quick, intensive operations alternated with longer periods of rest and refitting. Few replacements had to be integrated during an operation or campaign, and if this was carried out in a defective manner, it had only a minor impact. The moulding and training of new low-level leaders, as well as specialist training, was carried out between campaigns and not within the framework of combat divisions, but instead in the Replacement Army. This idea prevailed in the German military apparatus in summer 1941, since the German military leadership expected another short campaign. As it became clear in autumn 1941 that at least a second campaign would be necessary in 1942 to finally destroy the Red Army, the first adjustments were planned. But at this stage, the massive losses in men and leaders, combined with the permanent logistical crisis – which did not allow the movement of replacements in significant numbers – led to a near collapse of the German replacement system. In response, the German military expanded the Replacement Army. In 1941, for every soldier in the Replacement Army, three were in the Field Army; by 1942, this ratio approached two soldiers in the Field Army for one in the Replacement Army. Therefore the Replacement Army was expanded by 50 per cent in size. This quantitative expansion and the demands for replacements from the front troops had consequences for the quality of the replacements, which increasingly became a source of complaints by field units, as the following sources from 1942 show. The first is from Engineer Battalion 173, subordinated to 73rd Infantry Division, fighting in the Novorossiysk area:

There were some suitable men in the replacements. A large part, however, is almost unfit for front service due to physical ailments (hardness of hearing etc.) or susceptibility to diseases (age group 1907). The replacements’ level of training is not sufficient in terms of engineer tasks and military basic training.

In addition to the lack of both adequate basic and specialist training, the first signs of the evanescent German manpower pool appeared, with the need to send men to the front with physical handicaps.

More detailed in describing the training deficiencies of freshly arrived replacements is the following report by 8th Panzer Division, fighting under Army Group North’s command:

The training of the replacements shows considerable gaps in all branches. The shortcomings that have arisen are not only traced back to carelessness and the individual’s lack of discipline, but reveal a cursory and hasty training.

In detail:

1) Weapons training

The soldiers are not yet fully familiar with their weapons. By far the largest part of the replacements is, for example, not able to disassemble the lock of the rifle with certainty, to fix the magazine butt plate, or to carry out the exercises of loading and securing properly according to regulations. 40% of the recruits are not trained on light machine guns. Of the remaining 60%, only a few are adept at handling the machine gun, such as changing the barrel and lock, [and] the detection and elimination of jamming.

Of the replacements distributed to the heavy mortars, only a very few people had previous knowledge.

The greater part of the replacements is neither informed on the use of the stick grenade 24, nor is it trained in throwing it.

On the other hand, the ATG and light infantry gun riflemen had training on the gun.

2) Training in firing

In training in firing, considerable deficiencies occur, particularly in the most elementary things, such as loading and securing, taking up the slack of the trigger, and all types of combat firing positions. Furthermore, the firing technique and the calmness during targeting must be significantly improved. This applies to the same extent for shooting with the rifle, as well as with the light machine gun.

3) Utilization of terrain

Here, the replacements lack the quick confident eye for the favourable position. In the use of entrenching tools, as well as in the camouflage of their own entrenching work, great deficiencies are evident, especially with regard to the experience gained in the deployment in the East. The use of the prismatic compass is only mastered by a few, map knowledge generally does not exist.

4) Group training must be characterized as insufficient. Collaboration and the ability to move in a closed unit are nowhere to be seen. It must be begun with the simplest forms of deployment and development exercises.

5) The mental and physical condition of the replacements is average. The replacements consists of 2/3 Reichsdeutschen and 1/3 Volksdeutschen (resettlers from Bessarabia, Romania, Poland). A part of these Volksdeutschen has strong language difficulties. Among them are some illiterates. 2/3 of the replacements are from the birth years 1922-1924 and 1/3 of the men are over 27 years old. Above all, the older cohort is particularly vulnerable and weak and will only gradually adapt to the suddenly changed circumstances. The good will to cooperate and the willingness to serve are universally present. All recruits show keen interest in the training.

To sum up: Regarding the actual state of training of the replacements, the division considers a thorough three-week training necessary, followed by an additional two-week training in the front before any deployment for attack.

There were hugely important gaps in the training, such as an insufficient understanding of weapons, especially with the light machine gun that formed the backbone of the German infantry’s firefight tactics. Crews for heavy infantry weapons were also unevenly trained and were generally not ready for combat. But even with the soldier’s individual weapon, many training deficiencies existed, including targeting, combat use and maintenance. These flaws severely undermined the individual feeling of superiority, as the German soldier in the field missed his target or experienced a jammed weapon in the firefight due to lack of cleaning and oiling his rifle or machine gun. Complaints about the inability to use terrain and the building of positions are also interesting, as these were clearly stressed in the training guidelines from autumn 1941, as seen above. Finally, the physical and intellectual quality of the replacements, in this case the forwarding of Germans from different regions outside of Germany (often pejoratively called ‘booty Germans’), who often spoke broken German and therefore had problems in following training exercises, was also noted in the report. On the flip side, the Panzer troops profited from being favoured when it came to replacements. They often received younger men, here represented by 2/3rds of the replacements between the ages of eighteen and twenty years old.

A third report from 186th Grenadier Regiment – the regiment in conjunction with Werner Ziegler while fighting in Novorossiysk – shows a sinking combat morale of the replacements not fully overcome by their formation while in the Replacement Army. More strikingly, it precisely explains the consequences of the adding replacements of dubious quality:

The replacements were not suitable as a result of their low combat experience. Especially striking is the general phenomenon that the replacement men lacked combat will and enthusiasm, drive and hardness. While they overestimated the effect of enemy defensive fire during the attack, in which the example of their leader did not motivate them to advance faster, they are not nearly active enough in defence. Instead of engaging every opponent, they keep quiet out of fear of betraying their position to the enemy through their fire. The burden of fighting lays mainly with the old soldiers, whose conduct is admirable. In contrast to the old fighters, the replacements strive to leave the frontline with just about any minor wound or sickness. The best part of the unit’s regulars, who could have had an educational effect on the replacements, has become casualties. The remainder of the old men, which as before is still dutiful, is incapable of having an educational effect on the replacement due to the constant employment in such a state of mind. This is a phenomenon that is attributed to fatigue and the overstraining of nerves. With appropriate rest and relaxation, this phenomenon can be rectified. In this period of rest it could be possible for the company commander, through many lectures, conversations, and lessons, to enhance the inner firmness of the replacements, their enthusiasm and combat joy. The necessity to educate the replacements to hardness, to carry out intensive training under special consideration of mountain warfare and Russian combat conditions, must thereby not be disregarded.

The lack of both quantitatively and qualitatively adequate replacements therefore led to a burnout of units, as well as the loss of an experienced and high-quality core.

It became increasingly difficult to replace those men who formed a formation’s backbone and additionally fulfilled the important roles of integrating replacements. This issue, which first arose in 1942, was more of a problem for the infantry divisions, who were rather low on the list of replacement priorities. The majority of the best and most motivated men went as volunteers earlier into military service. These men frequently chose the Luftwaffe, Waffen-SS or U-Boat service, and those going to the army generally went to the Panzer troops. While many of those men would have made good NCOs or even officers, the consequences of an unbalanced distribution were units packed with many over-qualified soldiers, who could not be promoted due to the lack of positions, while other units suffered from a lack of men able to become even NCOs. This was certainly the case with the regular infantry divisions. Further strain came from the tendency of each service branch to form its own ground forces. The surplus personnel of the Luftwaffe that was transferred into the ill-fated Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen (Air Force Field Divisions) – essentially infantry divisions with excellent soldiers, but poorly trained for ground combat and led by officers and generals unfamiliar with this type of fighting – was only the first such step. The expansion of the Waffen-SS, which accelerated in 1943, also drained personnel from the army, both in quantity and in quality. In combination with a strategy of forming permanent new units instead of feeding the existing ones, this led directly to the already mentioned infantry crisis, breaking the backbone of the German field army. The final blow for the traditional units and the system beyond came with the massive losses in summer 1944 and the command changes after the 20 July plot. This included the formation of the so-called Volksgrenadier Divisions under the newly appointed Chief of Replacement Army, Reichsführer-SS Himmler. The German army afterwards was only a shadow of its former itself, and comparisons with other armies after this period of time only have minor relevance in discussing combat power.

Another issue of replacements emerged in the winter 1941/42 when the German army had to adapt to the changing nature of war, namely those of low-level leaders and specialists, as mentioned in the source below:

The time that is available for the division after its relocation to a suitable area for refreshing will be tightly measured and must be completely utilized.

The most important preparatory work is the development of instructors, NCOs and specialists. Due to the high losses in the division especially in this regard, the accelerated commencement of this training is especially urgent.

Therefore all troop sections are to organize immediately courses for the training of NCOs, instructors and specialists. All instructors for this purpose should only be divided among completely suitable officers and NCOs, who have conspicuously proven themselves and preferably have some success in this field. The lack of suitable teaching personnel makes it necessary to consolidate the training courses in the panzer regiment, the artillery regiment, and the rifle regiments as well as the rifle brigade. This brings with it the advantage of the standardization of training.

As long as the teachers belong to the front-line sections of the division, their withdrawal is to be immediately requested at the division. […]

For the selection of the course participants, proving themselves before the enemy is above all decisive. […]

A duration of some 4 weeks is initially foreseen for the training courses. […]

By 12.1.42, the Rifle Brigade 8, Panzer Regiment 10, Artillery Regiment 80, Tank Engineer Battalion 59, Anti-tank Battalion 43, Tank Signal Battalion 84, Light Anti-aircraft Battalion 92 have to report to the division: a) the place where courses are held, b) the date of commencement, (c) the [personnel] strength of the courses.

By 16.1.42, the training plans have to be submitted to the division.