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

Soviet Union – Sergeant with binoculars and a soldier with rifle and portable radio coverage in a foxhole / trench.

While the order aimed at creating new frontline soldiers, primarily infantry and engineers, it also reveals an often forgotten issue. Losses in combat and rear area troops were not at the same level. In his pioneering study on the 253rd Infantry Division, Christoph Rass has indicated the level in which losses diverged between the rear and front. While many infantry units were virtually destroyed more than once, loss rates in rear area units were rather low, except for extraordinary circumstances (that admittedly became more common beginning in 1944). The difficulty in regulating the recruitment and flow of replacements often led to imbalances between rear services and frontline troops. Orders such as the one mentioned above tried to realize that balance. But there were also limits to the exchange of personnel from the rear area to the front. The last-surviving sons and fathers of several children could not be endangered for morale reasons, while men physically unfit for frontline duty were more ballast than asset. The same was true with older men, but the age limit was continuously raised as the pool of younger men gradually depleted. In addition to the imbalance between rear and frontline troops, the sustaining of cadre units was also a vital issue. While – as mentioned in the order – this led to a real gain in combat power, the issue was more complex than that. Neither rebuilding units from scratch nor integrating completely new units was an easy task, as was demonstrated by the experience of the 5th Panzer Division. The massive dissolution of battalion-level units in 1942 in the traditional divisions and the formation of many new units, such as independent infantry battalions or the already mentioned Luftwaffe Field Divisions, marked the first step in the erosion of the German infantry that would eventually evolve into the infantry crisis. As a result, the German army lost much of its tactical superiority, which had been an essential component of its ability to successfully fight against numerically superior foes.

As part of its internal shifting of troops, Sixth Army also amended some points to the order, thereby sharpening it:

1) In the staff of the Sixth Army (including the army engineer leader and the army signal leader): return of all officers, NCOs, and men commanded to the staff of the 6th Army; reduction of the remaining actual strength by 10-15%; in addition: replacement of additional soldiers by Russian Hilfswillige. […]

2) In the corps and divisional staffs: return of all officers, NCOs, and men commanded to these staffs; reduction of the remaining actual strength by 10%; in addition: replacement of additional soldiers by Russian Hilfswillige. […]

3) Formation of alarm units: all units of the divisions, which are not directly deployed at the front (parts of the signal battalion, supply units, etc.), of all higher staffs (from divisional staff to and including army headquarters), all corps troops and all army troops not immediately fighting at the front.

4) Disbanding of a rifle company in the infantry battalions and of the 3rd battalion in the infantry regiments, for the saving of baggage trains, etc., in cases where the combat strengths are not in a sustainable relationship with the baggage trains’ strength.

5) Reduction of soldiers and units not directly engaged in combat in the divisions and likewise in the army troops:

Reduction of battalion and regimental staffs by about 10%

Reduction of batteries to 3 guns (removal of the 4th cannon for overhaul and as a material reserve)

Disbanding of individual batteries. Formation of 6-gun batteries […]

6) Handover of 2 NCOs and 10 men from each bridging column to the engineer battalions. […]

8) c) Registration of soldiers not suitable for infantry service, as well as of the last surviving sons from the divisions’ units and all soldiers from the army troops in divisional replacement battalions and army troop replacement battalions (directly subordinated to the Sixth Army).

Training of these replacement battalions for infantry defensive warfare in winter. Deployment is intended only in crisis situations, disbanding and return of the soldiers to their original units in the spring or after receiving sufficient replacements is intended. Use of the army troops replacement battalions only by order of the army command. Beginning of training in the replacement battalions from 5.11.42.

In addition to the measures ordered by the OKH, Sixth Army ordered the disbanding of further units on the lower levels, the reduction of staffs, including higher levels, and decreed that the corps and army levels free soldiers too. Sixth Army at this time was in an extremely difficult situation in and around Stalingrad and in need of every fighting man for the front.

A further means to gain frontline soldiers was to replace German soldiers in various positions by so-called Hilfswillige (literally: one willing to help), Russian men generally drafted into the Wehrmacht for auxiliary services, though in a few cases, they were also used in combat. To be clear: the Hilfswillige formed just one group of Soviet collaborators, but they were the most numerically important for the German army in the east, with their numbers estimated between 800,000 and one million. Divisional files reveal that many divisions employed between 700 and 1,500 Hilfswillige in their ranks in 1942 and 1943. While the initial use of Soviet prisoners of war – the primary source for Hilfswillige – was improvised, the German military in its typical manner developed a set of regulations concerning Hilfswillige in 1942 and 1943, including rations, payment, uniforms, insignia and so on. The training for these men aimed mainly at moulding them into convinced anti-communists and thereby reliable auxiliaries. This was directly formulated in the following manual:

Guidelines for the training of the Hilfswillige

1) The objective of the training and education of the Hilfswillige is to educate them to be reliable fellow combatants against Bolshevism.

2) In order to carry out that training and education, the Hilfswillige are to be appropriately concentrated in camps and suitable supervisory personnel and trainers (including interpreters) have to be made available. The following organization of the Hiwi replacement company has proven itself here in the camps: for every division one or more Hiwi replacement companies. Disposal of training personnel by the division in question. The training personnel train the Hilfswillige for their own division and assist with the allocation of the Hilfswillige inside the division.

3) […]

4) Sustainment of the commitment to service and willingness to fight against Bolshevism are important. In addition to a variety and variation in training, this will be achieved by the example and personality of the German superiors and their active care. Strict but fair treatment through an exact knowledge of the Russian mentality, the eradication of Bolshevik influence through systematic military-ideological leadership to educate the Hilfswilligen to a reliable fellow combatant for the troops. The belief in the absolute superiority of the German leadership and the German soldier over the Red Army and its members is to be stimulated and sustained.

5) […]

6) At every roll call, one has to pay attention to bearing and uniform.

Complementing this focus on developing an anti-communist attitude, the training – or rather education – aimed at a strict discipline. Of course this was needed, but the stressing of discipline here was also part of the German perception that Russian ‘subhumans’ had to be educated to discipline, as they inherently lacked this due to their ‘nature’. As with German replacements, Hilfswillige were trained in the division to which they were attached. With this decentralized organization, the German army again desired to achieve a rapid deployment, but it also wanted to give divisions control over the process of selection. The divisions thus had a keen interest in choosing those men since they would have to fight with them later. This made the selection of instructors especially important. These individuals had a difficult task, as they needed to educate Russians to become ‘reliable fellow combatants’, while at the same time convincing them of the ‘absolute superiority’ of the German military. This became more difficult after the defeat at Stalingrad, but nearly impossible from summer 1943 on, when German victories became very rare events. Even during the years of German defeat, many Hilfswillige and other Soviet auxiliaries stayed with their German units, though this was not so much out of conviction, but rather a consequence of the Stalinist policy that deemed these men as traitors and threatened them with severe punishment.

The main purpose of Hilfswillige was to free German soldiers for combat duty. How this was intended for various positions can be seen again in the orders of the OKH on the enhancement of combat power in autumn 1942:

  1. B) Replacement of the German soldier

Hilfswillige (prisoners of war) are to be employed in place of German soldiers:

In all units up to and including company and battery as a driver, co-driver, horse and mule-driver, craftsman, technical personnel (locksmith, weapon personnel, etc.) and as working personnel in construction and supply units.

In addition: as ammunition bearers in machine gun companies, infantry-gun companies and anti-tank companies.

In battalion and regimental staffs as cable carriers at telephone sections.

In batteries as gunner 5 and 6.

In engineer battalions as engineers not directly involved in the combat. Example:

Formation of a company from only German soldiers for combat deployment.

Formation of 2 further companies with German cadre, filled with Hilfswillige, for bridge building, road and quarters construction, mining and demining, obstacle construction.

In signal battalions in mixed telephone-construction groups.

For building units of all kinds. Only German supervisory staff (ratio 1:10) can be used here.

For supply troops of all kinds. In these, generally, only supervisory staff and the absolutely necessary specialists such as mechanics, bakers, butchers, etc. are to be left.

The purpose of these measures is to free German soldiers. It is not possible that Hilfswillige are hired additionally, just to do mindless work, and the baggage train is thus increased without gaining a German soldier. A sharp supervision is also necessary here!

Therefore, Hilfswillige were to fill all types of auxiliary service positions. While the requirements for most of these positions were low – and therefore could be brought in line with the Nazi ideological belief of Russians as primitive subhumans – the use of Hilfswillige in craftsman or mechanic positions blurred that line. Even when considering all of the boundaries drawn by the German military between German soldiers and Hilfswillige, one cannot escape the impression that in this question, military necessity overtook Nazi ideology. This became especially clear in the cases where Russian Hilfswillige fought side by side with German soldiers, prompting XIth Army Corps Chief of Staff, Oberst Helmuth Groscurth, to write: ‘It is disturbing that we are forced to strengthen our fighting troops with Russian prisoners of war, who are already being turned into gunners. It’s an odd state of affairs that the “beasts” we have been fighting against are now living with us in closest harmony.’ However, even the most fanatical Nazi ideologue had to recognize from mid-1942 on that German troops in the east could not have fought without the help of hundreds of thousands of Soviet men and women serving in the German army and in other agencies, such as, for example, the Reichsbahn. Otherwise, the Germans would have had to mobilize the Reich’s manpower resources at a much higher level, an issue that was feared by Hitler and many other high-ranking German officials due to traumatic experience of the collapse of 1918. Because of this period of limited German mobilization from mid-1942 to summer 1944, Bernhard Kroener has written that it was ‘not quite total war’.

Once German soldiers were freed, units needed to proceed in the following manner:

  1. C) Use of freed German soldiers

The following is to be done:

1) infantry (not the last-surviving sons or the physically unsuitable), whose present position will be filled in the future by Hilfswilligen, are a) if their training permits, to be immediately integrated in rifle companies, b) to be consolidated in training companies by the division and after sufficient training to be transferred to rifle companies. The divisions may, at their own discretion, also use members of other branches.

2) Soldiers of all other branches and supply troops, as well as the last-surviving sons and the physically non-suitable for infantry service, are to be registered by each division and are to be trained for winter and positional warfare. They are then available as reserves, which must suffice until spring, for the winter position.

The initial gain of these measures was rather small, as few soldiers could be directly placed into rifle units. Furthermore, these measures destroyed valuable cadres and necessitated the introduction or rebuilding from scratch of new companies and battalions, a demanding task that cost much blood. The units mentioned under point 2 often enough could not fulfil their task due to the lack of adequate training, equipment and especially leadership. They marked the bottom of a poor man’s army, often suffering extraordinary losses with minor military effect. The widespread forming of such alarm units in late 1942 was a clear sign of an army that had lost its balance.

German losses in the east were enormous – and continual. In 1942, for example, German monthly casualties exceeded 70,000 in nine months. In this year, the German replacement system could forward more troops than the Ostheer lost in only eight months. But when it did so, it never surpassed an additional 30,000 men. On the other side, January 1942 alone saw losses of over 214,000 men, while the Ostheer received only 43,800 replacements; the heavy fighting in August 1942 cost the Ostheer over 250,000 losses, while not even 90,000 replacements arrived in the east. These massive losses forced the German army to lower training and recruiting standards. While part of that could be compensated for by field training, the quality of replacements decreased. The actual strength of the German Ostheer never again reached its peak strength of 22 June 1941 (3.3 million men). While primarily allied units helped to rebuild the strength of the Ostheer for the 1942 summer offensive, their destruction in 1942/43 forced the Germans to send more men in spring 1943. Before Operation Citadel, the German army in the east could field nearly 3.15 million men, but from then on – with pressure from the Western Allies rapidly increasing – German strength fell sharply. Combined with a decrease in training quality, this led directly into the defeats of late 1943 and 1944.


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