Brandenberger’s Grenadiers I

Appointed to command the Seventh Army on 3 September 1944, Erich Brandenberger (1892–1955) was an old Russia hand, having led armoured divisions and corps on the Eastern Front. A former Kriegsakademie instructor, he was methodical rather than flashy, and earned his army on account of his confidential personnel report which concluded ‘a very experienced combat leader, even in the worst circumstances he always improvised and mastered the situation. Excellent National Socialist behaviour’

Tired and understrength, Major-General ‘Tubby’ Barton’s US 4th Infantry Division was ordered to garrison the southern Ardennes at the beginning of the month, but it was 13 December by the time they had completed their occupation of positions along a thirty-five-mile stretch of the front. With their left flank adjacent to the 9th Armored Division, only Colonel Robert H. Chance’s 12th Infantry Regiment, whose forward line amounted to outposts overlooking the Sauer river, would find itself in the path of the planned offensive. Theirs was the terrain to be attacked by Volksgrenadiers of General Erich Brandenberger’s Seventh Army, whose aim was to seize and hold ground, then block any US attempt to slice into the southern flank of the panzer armies. However, nowhere else on the Ardennes front was the irrational thinking of Hitler and OKW more in evidence than in their allocation of units to Brandenberger.

His Seventh Army had been reactivated in Stuttgart on 25 August 1939 under General Friedrich Dollmann. Its predecessor had invaded France through Alsace and Lorraine in 1914 and, when most of the Wehrmacht attacked Poland in 1939, Dollmann’s Seventh was left manning the Westwall. It stayed there in 1940 when Rundstedt, Manstein and Guderian invaded France, belatedly attacking outposts of the Maginot Line just before the Armistice. Seventh was thereafter designated an occupation force, from April 1941 taking responsibility for the defence of Normandy.

The least experienced and most poorly equipped of all German formations by 1944, Seventh’s comfortable rear-area life disappeared when the Allies landed on their patch in June 1944. With no experience of any of the blitzkrieg-type invasions of France or Russia, or of fighting the British and Americans in Africa or Italy, and no understanding of the defensive battles in the east, or the threat posed by Allied tactical airpower over the battlefield, Dollmann was rather like his army: out-of-date, ill-trained and unfit for modern war. As Cherbourg fell to the Allies, the sixty-two-year-old Dollmann died from a heart attack on 28 June (although some sources point to suicide, knowing Hitler’s wrath at the capture of this key port), after not quite five years in command. Despite the efforts of his successors, SS General Paul Hausser and Panzer General Heinrich Eberbach, most of the Seventh were killed or captured in Normandy, with very few escaping from the Falaise Pocket. After Eberbach’s unlucky capture (by a British forward patrol as he was on the point of evacuating his HQ in Amiens), the autumn of 1944 found Seventh Army reinforced, lurking behind the Siegfried Line under a new commander, and designated with a role in the forthcoming winter offensive.

The fifty-two-year-old, bespectacled Brandenberger (actually he wore pince-nez, like President Roosevelt or Heinrich Himmler, which clipped on to his nose) possessed little charisma, but was thoroughly competent, having served with Bavarian artillery units in the First World War and spent most of the inter-war period in staff and training posts. He had been chief of staff of border troops on the Westwall in 1939, and had gone on to command 8th Panzer Division with great distinction for two years in Russia, which won him a Knight’s Cross and first brought him to Hitler’s attention. He progressed to leading two army corps, winning Oak Leaves for his Ritterkreuz in November 1943. In Hitler’s eyes, his stock was elevated also because he lacked the aristocratic background of so many of his contemporaries. It was his confidential personnel report that won Brandenberger his army command: ‘Gifted militarily, full of foresight, and very active, he filled his divisions with action and passion. A very experienced combat leader, even in the worst circumstances he always improvised and mastered the situation. Excellent National Socialist behaviour.’ Whether true or not, the last four words, one feels, were the most important of the whole assessment.

Nonetheless, Brandenberger irritated his superior, Model, who referred to him as ‘the professor, a typical product of the general staff system’, but the latter was a harsh taskmaster and fell out with most officers during his career. The Army Group ‘B’ chief saw his job as to deliver, not to be liked. His subordinate Brandenberger was not a flashy army commander, nor inclined to stamp his own personality on his commands, as did Manteuffel on his Fifth Panzer, Montgomery with Britain’s Eighth Army or Patton with the US Third. For one thing, he had no time, officially taking over on 3 September, but also he had few troops. To observers, the four divisions plus supporting arms he possessed, totalling perhaps 50,000 men, would constitute merely a corps, scarcely an army. Another challenge for him was that all of his formations were recently raised, meaning none of the new Seventh Army had worked together before; Fifth and Sixth Armies were different, being built around a core of long-established units, with a proven track record.

Field Marshal Model’s orders, issued on 27 October to an incredulous Brandenberger and his chief of staff, Oberst Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff, were the first hint they had that their formation was going over to the attack. With the focus of Herbstnebel weighted to the north, Seventh Army was assigned the role of southern flank protection. For this they were allotted initially two army corps, each of two infantry divisions, with the promise of further support, including panzers. The highly competent, Kriegsakademie-trained Gersdorff was a complicated character. An aristocratic former cavalry officer of the old school, he had won a Knight’s Cross for guiding what remained of the Seventh out of the Falaise Pocket that August. He was also part of the Stauffenberg plot, a fact he miraculously managed to keep secret during the era of subsequent repercussions. With what must have been divided loyalty by October 1944 (which side did he really want to win?), Gersdorff set about planning his Army’s part in Herbstnebel.

Model ordered that Seventh Army was ‘to protect the flanks of the operation on the south and south-west … It will break through the enemy positions … and build up a defensive front … Using vanguard units of its Volksgrenadier divisions, the right wing will maintain contact with the Fifth Panzer Army.’ This immediately gave Brandenberger cause for concern, for how on earth were his Volksgrenadiers (only some of whom had bicycles for mobility) to keep up with Manteuffel’s much faster panzers?

Model’s instructions continued, ‘By energetic thrusts to the south and south-west using any favourable opportunities, Seventh Army will gain time and ground to build up a strong defensive front, carrying out intensive destruction and minelaying in front of its lines.’ Once the Allies had started to react to Herbstnebel, Brandenberger and Gersdorff realised, their formation would become the punchbag of Patton’s counter-attacking Third Army. The orders went on: ‘The most important task … is the destruction of enemy artillery units stationed to the south … It will be necessary to provide fully adequate matériel and units for blocking purposes, as well as anti-tank weapons.’

Brandenberger’s three years’ experience of commanding panzer divisions and corps on the Eastern Front provided him with insights into the problems he would almost immediately encounter in the Ardennes. As he had taught prospective staff officers to do, when an instructor at the Kriegsakademie in 1932–3, he analysed the US Third Army’s capabilities and equipment, as well as its aggressive commander. He assessed correctly that Patton would counter-attack very quickly – much faster than OKW anticipated – and was concerned that the Seventh had been allocated no tanks at all with which to halt and drive back any American assaults. Model’s requirement of ‘units for blocking purposes’ was a euphemism for a mobile armoured reserve to counter Patton’s tanks, and Seventh possessed none.

On 3 November, at one of the many planning conferences attended by the three army leaders, Brandenberger, Dietrich and Manteuffel, the latter echoed the Seventh Army’s concerns; ‘I don’t think we need anticipate a strong reaction coming from the north, or the east bank of the Meuse, but I am rather worried by the possibility of strong enemy counteraction from the south’, meaning, of course, Patton’s Third Army. Generaloberst Jodl tried to reassure him that ‘General Brandenberger will have six infantry divisions and one of panzers in his Seventh Army to cover the southern and southwestern flanks’. Manteuffel countered wisely, ‘Yes, I know, but I have to anticipate strong enemy forces – maybe even the bulk of his [Patton’s] forces – in action in the Bastogne area by the evening of the third day of our attack.’

In the event, Manteuffel only slightly overestimated Patton, but it was clear that it was the US Third Army’s commander whom the Herbstnebel planners considered their greatest threat. General Brandenberger later recalled his conclusion that a southern counter attack ‘would probably be commanded by General Patton, who … had given proof of his extraordinary skill in armoured warfare, which he conducted according to the fundamental Guderian concept, made it quite likely that the enemy would direct a heavy punch against the deep flank of the German forces …’ Hitler and Jodl were unruffled at these concerns, partly because they had reasoned the Western Allies would be so off-balance and weighed down with bureaucracy that their decision-making and reactions, in mid-winter just before Christmas, would be slow. Hitler was also convinced the Allies would first deploy reinforcements along the west bank of the Meuse rather than boldly attack either flank.

Sworn to secrecy by Sippenhaft, prevented from sharing these plans with all but a trusted few subordinates at this stage, and forbidden to drive forward and make any form of reconnaissance, Brandenberger and Gersdorff conducted map exercises to identify their options. They knew straightaway that climate and terrain were against them: two of the very factors upon which Hitler was counting. The thick fogs of the season, morning mists rising from the rivers and low-lying ground, together with the hills, woods, steep gorges and a difficult road network would play into the hands of the American defenders (however few there were) and make their own going slow. With Seventh’s limited engineering resources, ‘intensive destruction and minelaying’, as well as the provision of ‘units for blocking purposes’, were considered impossible tasks. They realised also that the fast-flowing Our and Sauer rivers which ran across their front would be swollen in December by rain and the first snowmelt, presenting a particular challenge to their meagre bridging units.

In fact, Seventh Army possessed only one bridge-building battalion and five bridging columns. The former, 900-strong, was trained to construct crossings under fire, while the latter was a 100-man unit of two platoons, equipped with bridging parts and pontoons, that constructed and operated vehicle ferries. By comparison, Sixth Panzer Army in the north deployed six bridging battalions and nine bridging columns. Furthermore, all Seventh Army’s potential bridging sites were obvious to their opponents and preregistered by US artillery – hence the emphasis in Model’s order to ensure ‘destruction of enemy artillery units’. Speer’s civilian bridging experts would prove of only limited value under these conditions. Likewise, Brandenberger knew the dangers from the air; whereas Dietrich’s Sixth Army had the four regiments of 2nd Flak Division (164 anti-aircraft guns), the entire Seventh Army could draw only on the protection of the Luftwaffe’s Flak-Regiment 15, with sixty AA guns, though around half were the powerful 88mm, equally deadly to Allied tanks and aircraft.

General Brandenberger’s main combat power rested on the four infantry divisions he would deploy in his attack. As with so many other aspects of the German army, the 20 July 1944 attempt had acted as a spur for Hitler to reorganise his infantry. Cumulatively, the Wehrmacht had lost 1.8 million killed by 1944, of whom 4.5 per cent were officers. Almost as many again had been posted as missing or were prisoners of war; neither of these totals included the wounded. In June, July and August 1944 alone, the Wehrmacht had been deprived of forty-four divisions with the destruction of Army Group Centre during Operation Bagration in the east, in Italy, and the disaster of Normandy. To these could be added another 200,000 men, whom Hitler had ordered to defend the French ports and Channel Islands, manpower and equipment that were now completely surrounded and impotent. Not only did these lost formations need replacing, but on 6 September Hitler and Jodl had discussed the creation of an additional operational reserve of around twenty-five divisions for his Ardennes offensive.

When Himmler seized his chance to control the Ersatzheer (Reserve Army) on 21 July 1944, in place of Stauffenberg and his fellow plotters, he also assumed responsibility for raising new army units and training them. This was empire-building on the part of the Reichsführer-SS, for he saw an opportunity to finally ‘Nazify’ the German army. His partner in this enterprise was propaganda chief Josef Goebbels. Earlier in 1944 the latter had already seen the need to shake Germany into a (belated) mobilisation of all resources for a ‘total war’ – something his British, Russian and US opponents had done from the outset. On 18 February 1944, in a passionate speech at the Sports Palace in Berlin, Goebbels had advocated the complete devotion of the Reich’s economy and society towards the war effort. He argued that if they did not prevail in Russia, then Germany would fall to Bolshevism, and the rest of Europe would follow. ‘Two thousand years of Western history are in danger,’ he screamed.

Supporting Himmler’s recruitment drive, Goebbels now saw his chance to move to a total war footing, shutting theatres and universities, mobilising youth to work in the Red Cross or help with air defence, and – finally going against the Nazi creed – encouraging women to become part of the war effort, too. In July 1944 some 500,000 German women were still working in domestic service, when their Allied counterparts, typified by ‘Rosie the Riveter’ in the USA, were working in armaments factories. Hitherto their role had been to stay at home and bring up children for the Reich, even encouraged to do so with the award of a ‘Mother’s Cross’ for bearing large families. The army, meanwhile, was forced to identify itself totally with the state, to prevent a repetition of 20 July. Goebbels’ Party newspaper, Völkischer Beobachter, echoed this on 3 August with an editorial stating ‘True marriage between Party and Wehrmacht has today become a living reality … The Army that will win this war will be a National Socialist People’s Army.’

Between them, Himmler and Goebbels established that all new infantry formations raised after July 1944 were labelled Volksgrenadier. The title embraced both the political notion of the Volk (‘People’), and the older, distinguished notion of the Grenadier, a term that harked back to the days of Frederick the Great. Thus, the concept was designed to appeal to modernists and traditionalists. Nineteen such divisions were created by order on 31 August 1944, another seventeen on 9 October and seven more before the end of the month; a total of forty-three fresh formations must have seemed like a heaven-sent miracle with which to prosecute the war. From where did this manpower suddenly appear?

Himmler, controlling recruitment, had created mobile drafting units, Heldenklaukommandos (literally ‘hero-snatching units’), press gangs who searched the Reich for manpower. Although there was fierce inter-service rivalry between the German army, navy and air force, the Luftwaffe could no longer justify the 1.9 million personnel on its books in the summer of 1944, nor did the Kriegsmarine have jobs for all the 700,000 men they employed at the same time. Neither organisation, in any case, was prepared to argue with the Reichsführer-SS. Similarly, the Ersatzheer was already responsible for some 2.4 million soldiers, a quarter of the Wehrmacht’s total strength. The majority were on courses or under some form of education or instruction, so training periods were abbreviated. The Reserve Army also administered the wounded, many of whom were on convalescent leave: they were called back to duty or had their recovery periods shortened. These were all veterans, although in some cases physically or psychologically exhausted. Speer and Goebbels also assessed that 3.2 million men were working in government administration and industry, some of whom could be diverted to the army.

With health and fitness entry requirements for army personnel also relaxed, Himmler’s commandos, local party officials and hospitals (which were forced to discharge wounded soldiers earlier than hitherto) filled the new divisions with a mix of older, poorly trained fortress troops withdrawn from garrisons elsewhere; Kriegsmarine sailors who no longer had vessels to crew or maintain; Luftwaffe ground personnel now redundant given the paucity of aircraft; able-bodied civilians ‘combed out’ of jobs in industry; older men exempted from war service because of large families or their farms; railway workers who were replaced by women; and new age groups, born in 1926–7, mobilised on reaching seventeen or eighteen. Some of the latter, as we saw with Grenadier Werner Klippel at Hotton, were as young as sixteen.

Ethnic German men, the Volksdeutsche, were also regarded as fair game for military service and conscripted. These population groups, who lived beyond the borders of the Reich, included Czechs, Slovaks, Danes, Poles, Ukrainians, Hungarians, Romanians, Slovenians from Yugoslavia, and Baltic Germans from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, whose ancestry might, once upon a time, conceivably have been German or Austro-Hungarian; they might not even speak German, but looked Germanic, were suspicious of Britain and the United States, and hated Communism. By 1944, approximately 100,000 Volksdeutsche, 10 per cent of whom were Ukrainians, were already working alongside 500,000 Germans in Luftwaffe air defence. From January 1943 Hitlerjugend (HJ – Hitler Youth) boys, aged fifteen or over, and from 1944, Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM – ‘League of German Girls’) girls, could be called up to work as Flakhelfer, releasing further manpower for the Volksgrenadier divisions.

By this stage of the war, some of these Volksdeutsche would also be conscripted into the Waffen-SS divisions that deployed to the Bulge. Several frontier provinces of Belgium, France and Luxembourg were forcibly absorbed into the state, making their citizens German and thus liable for service. In many cases, their reliability would prove questionable, though this could sometimes be offset by good leadership. Such a blend of backgrounds, nationalities, ages and experience hardly made for homogenous units.

Training such groups was Obergefreiter (a lance corporal of several years’ service) Günter Koschorrek, a wounded and much decorated Eastern Front veteran, who noted in his diary on 9 October, ‘the rabble to be trained in our company consists of a mix of older East Europeans of German ethnic descent, most of whom were heads of families, and naval personnel, who because of the shortage of ships are to be retrained as tank infantry. Because of the undisciplined attitude of the sailors, many of whom had served in the Kriegsmarine for years, instructors who were highly decorated combat veterans were preferred because these were the only people the sailors would respect. Even so, it was not always easy for us instructors to find the right tone of voice to use in order to get the message across to this group.’

Whereas the old Ersatzheer under Stauffenberg and his boss, Generaloberst Friedrich Fromm, had turned out 60,000 new soldiers a month, by the end of August Himmler had assembled 450,000 new grenadiers. It was a stupendous achievement. Not all became infantrymen, for Himmler created or redesignated other units to become VolksArtillerie corps (heavy artillery groups attached to army corps) and VolksWerfer brigades, which operated the Wehrmacht’s multi-barrelled rocket launchers, known to the Allies as ‘screaming minnies’ but to the Germans as Nebelwerfers.

To lead all these Volks-titled organisations, Himmler could draw from a large pool of experienced combat leaders, like Koschorrek, all highly decorated and given accelerated promotion. The posting of officers to the Volks units was initially delayed, because Himmler insisted on his own vetting procedure, to ensure his new formations were led by true National Socialist fanatics. Practicality overtook this Himmlerian fantasy and the measure soon lapsed. Throughout the war a very high number of German commanders perished while leading their men in combat, in sharp contrast to the Anglo-American forces where this happened comparatively rarely. Experience of the First World War, which killed many battalion and brigade leaders, persuaded the Allied armies that commanders had a role out of the line of fire, directing the battle, rather than getting their heads blown off. German leadership culture dictated otherwise, as this pre-battle order, issued on 20 November 1944, reminded officers: ‘Commanders up to and including divisional commanders should be where they can obtain the best overall view of the battlefield, where they can intervene personally at a moment’s notice. They must not only lead their men, but … direct the extensive and varied fire of supporting weapons. We still attack too much with our legs and not enough with our weapons.’

This debate, as to where a field commander should be, has still not been resolved, despite many advances in military technology and communications. A battalion CO killed in the British 1982 Falklands campaign was posthumously blamed for leading a failed attack which rendered his battalion leaderless, while another who died in 2009 was similarly criticised for being in the lead vehicle of his battlegroup in Afghanistan, instead of further back. Neither observation constitutes a slur on the reputation of a brave officer, but underlines the tension in all modern armies today as to how far forward a tactical commander should place himself.

Unsurprisingly, given Himmler’s obsession with his pagan quasi-religion, Protestant and Catholic chaplains were left out of the Volksgrenadier order of battle, while a Nationalsozialistischer Führungsoffizier, or Nazi Guidance Officer, effectively a political commissar, was introduced instead. Their job was to deliver morale-building lectures to the troops and furnish independent reports on the loyalty of their commanders. They were inexperienced, zealous and universally resented. Many senior commanders after the war recalled with bitterness the ability of these quite junior Nazis to be able to overrule their decisions.

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