In 1944, German divisions were frequently commanded by an Oberst (colonel); regiments – the equivalent of a British brigade – led by an Oberstleutnant (lieutenant-colonel) or a Major; battalions by a Hauptmann (captain); and companies by a Leutnant (lieutenant), in each case a grade or two lower than their Allied opponents. This partly reflected necessity, but also that German combat arms were lean, efficient and needed fewer officers because more weight was thrust onto the shoulders of NCOs, the Fronthasen (‘front hare’) – a euphemism for a veteran soldier. In the German army system every officer migrated through the ranks, serving as a corporal and sergeant first, so the calibre of NCOs was generally very high. In March 1944, General Wilhelm Burgdorf, head of the Army Personnel Office, outlined the Reich’s expectations of its leaders: ‘The Führer wants soldiers who distinguish themselves by their courage [and] willingness to assume responsibility … but the most decisive factor of all is … the ability to command; social origins or educational background should not even be taken into consideration …’
At the other end of the spectrum, basic training for new recruits had shrunk from sixteen weeks in 1938 to twelve by early 1944. With little ammunition to spare for recruits and time in short supply before the Bulge, such was the requirement for fresh divisions that some Volksgrenadier units were raised and sent to the front in six weeks. The reality was that those personnel already in the forces, such as re-roled Luftwaffe aircraft mechanics and Kriegsmarine sailors, were lucky if they had a month in which to reskill and learn the basics of fieldcraft before being committed to battle as a Landser. This term, used universally throughout the Reich for any soldier, was a corruption of the old German Landsknecht, the trooper of the German Renaissance , and akin to GI Joe, the French grognard (literally ‘grumbler’) or British Tommy Atkins. Although the arrival of all these fresh divisions seemed impressive, on being reappointed to OB West in September 1944 Rundstedt immediately warned OKW that ‘the state of training of the newly-arrived Volksgrenadier divisions is poor due to insufficient time dedicated to instruction. Greater in-depth training has been disrupted by the constant commitment of … weapons schools to the fighting.’
To a certain extent it was all smoke and mirrors for Hitler’s benefit, because these new formations did not represent the full-strength units that had previously featured on the Wehrmacht’s order of battle. A glance at the map table in the Wolfsschanze would be misleading; although the number of units represented might be as high as ever, the combat capability of each was lower. A Volksgrenadier division, for example, had a nominal strength of 10,072 men in three regiments of two battalions each. Instead of a reconnaissance battalion with armoured cars and motorcyclists, Volksgrenadiers had an Aufklärungskompanie (reconnaissance company), equipped with bicycles (quite what they were intended to achieve on a 1944 battlefield is anyone’s guess). The main combat power of previous German divisions had rested on their nine infantry battalions; now there were only six. By November 1944, the average divisional strength was 8,761, nearly half of the September 1939 figure of 16,626. For comparison, the average US divisional strength, in January 1945, taking into account casualties, was around 13,400.
However, there was nothing standard about the Volksgrenadier order of battle and some divisions, for example the 212th, were lucky to retain a seventh infantry battalion, 500- or 600-strong, traditionally used for divisional reconnaissance. This was always called the Fusilier Battalion, and harked back to an older military tradition; but for most divisions this was reduced to a single 200-man Fusilier Company. The use of older military terminology was to suggest strength which simply did not exist. Besides the loss of three battalions, Volksgrenadier divisions also suffered a dilution of their remaining six, losing mostly logistics and administrative personnel, although this served to increase the proportion of combat versus service troops to around 80 per cent. In 1939 infantry battalions boasted a theoretical strength of twenty-three officers and 800 NCOs and men; by late 1944 this had shrunk to fifteen officers and 700 NCOs and men, but in practice they were lucky to achieve five officers and 500 NCOs and men.
By way of compensation for their fall in manpower, there was a greater allocation of automatic weapons. The mainstay of this was the arrival into Volksgrenadier arsenals of the Maschinepistole-44, the world’s first modern assault rifle, alternatively known as the Sturmgewehr. With its signature curved magazine holding thirty rounds, the MP-44 was the direct ancestor of the famous Kalashnikov AK-47, the US M-16 and all modern self-loading, automatic-fire rifles. Nearly 500,000 MP-44s had been manufactured by the war’s end, used predominantly by the Volksgrenadiers, its metal stampings and wooden stock making it cheap and quick to assemble. It was designed to replace the standard bolt-action, five-round 7.92mm K-98 Mauser rifle, first introduced to the German soldier in 1898 (and which I witnessed being used by Bosnian Croat soldiers in the mid-1990s).
Each infantry company was meant to possess two platoons’ worth (about fifty) of MP-44-equipped grenadiers and one of Mauser-clutching riflemen. Although slightly heavier than the Mauser, the MP-44’s main drawback was the same as the 7.92mm MG-42 machine-gun with which the Volksgrenadiers were also furnished. ‘Their MG-42 machine-guns could fire 1,500 rounds a minute,’ remembered 2nd Infantry Division Sergeant Joseph Jan Kiss, Jr. ‘It scared the holy hell out of us. It was a vicious, wicked gun. Just went BBRRRRUUPPP. We called it “Hitler’s saw”. Our air-cooled only fired 600 rounds a minute.’ Yet the high rate of automatic fire of the MG-42 and MP-44 (500–600 rounds per minute) meant an excessive consumption of ammunition, which was always in short supply. These weapons did, to a certain extent, offset the lack of Volksgrenadier numbers (an MP-44 had twenty times the firepower of a Mauser), but they couldn’t make up for the lack of combat experience.
All German divisions were graded periodically by their higher commanders as to their readiness and capability, according to a scale of Kampfwert (combat performance), from I to IV. It is telling that at the time of Herbstnebel, no Volksgrenadier division in the west was rated Kampfwert I (able to perform an all-out attack); some were Kampfwert II (capable of limited offensive actions) most were III (fit for mobile defence) and a few IV (fit only for static defence). This was no slur on their enthusiasm, but a reflection of several factors, revolving around their mobility and equipment. While the panzer and Waffen-SS divisions possessed the lion’s share of half-tracks and trucks, all Volksgrenadier units relied on horses to tow equipment and supplies across the battlefield. In the summer of 1944 the Wehrmacht had lost 250,000 horses, which greatly affected its mobility. In an effort to restore some degree of mobility, one Volksgrenadier battalion in six was bicycle-mounted, a pathetic acknowledgement of how immobile the infantry arm had become. A couple of days into the Bulge, one GI specifically remembered that ‘Every fourth or fifth German [we captured] carried about a five-and-a-half inch hose. We wondered why. Then it dawned on me – it was to siphon gas from disabled vehicles; they were short of gas.’
Another way to compensate for the smaller infantry divisions was to attach to their parent army corps a generous quantity of artillery. There were VolksArtillerie formations available to the Seventh, but, as with engineers and air defence, Sixth Army in the north had the lion’s share. Whereas Dietrich had three corps of ‘People’s Artillery’, totalling 685 gun barrels, 180 of them over 150mm calibre, Seventh were allotted two VolksArtillerie corps, comprising 319 guns, of which only 76 were over 150mm. The bigger the calibre, the heavier the shell, and its concomitant destructive power, so here, too, Brandenberger lost out. Seventh’s VolksArtillerie units included guns, mostly captured in Russia, of no fewer than eight different calibres – a quartermaster’s nightmare. Formations obviously work much better with a consistency of weapons and ammunition throughout.
The Wehrmacht was also generally at a disadvantage when it came to communications. The standard army man-pack field radio was in very short supply, heavy and required two men to carry all its components. Issued as a couple of cumbersome steel boxes weighing over forty pounds apiece, the VHF portable field transceiver was developed in 1936–9 and obsolete by 1944. The same held true for tank radios, which in any case were hampered by the screening effect of the trees and geology of the region. All required many components made of raw materials that were in short supply by 1944. The Wehrmacht never had the chance to revisit their pre-war designs and found that US radios were generally lighter, more robust in the field, and, of course, mass-produced. As with many things, the US Army had out-engineered their opponents by 1944, producing field equipment of far superior quality.
Wehrmacht wireless equipment was only issued at company level, while platoons and squads had no direct means of wireless contact. In contrast, every American rifle platoon possessed the superb SCR (Signal Corps Radio)-536: the walkie-talkie, which weighed around five pounds and had a range of one mile. The positive side of the lack of low-level signals equipment was that junior German commanders were required to develop a higher degree of initiative, rather than wait for orders, as was the tendency in the top-down culture of British and American units. Such independence, however, came at the cost of situational awareness. Instead, for communications downwards, a Kompanietrupp (company headquarters group) had three Melder (messengers), mounted on bicycles if necessary, to relay orders to each Zug (platoon). This was one of the most dangerous tasks in a battalion, and frankly should not have been necessary in the 1940s era of wireless radios; it was, as we have seen, a role Hitler had performed in 1914–18 for which he won his Iron Crosses.
Wherever possible, German units relied on field telephones, which worked well in static defence but not in the kind of rapid advance envisaged by Herbstnebel. This affected forward artillery observers, who were deployed, but not in the quantities used by US forces. Thus, advancing Volksgrenadiers could not reply on timely fire support to the extent of their opponents. At short range, they made extensive use of flare pistols, sending up combinations of coloured flares to initiate quick bombardments. An indication of the obsolescence of communications equipment was that their standard means of transport was a horse-drawn signals wagon.
Seventh Army could also call on the 8th and 18th VolksWerfer brigades, which fielded 108 Nebelwerfers – those ‘screaming minnies’ of various calibres, but, again, Dietrich’s Sixth Panzer Army in the north had managed to grab three brigades, with 340 of the multi-barrelled rocket launchers. In Seventh Army, seventeen-year-old Kanonier Emil Frie had been drafted into the third battery of the 18th Brigade in April that year and had since learned how to launch and direct his Nebelwerfer rockets, which were effective to around four miles. They were fired from a group of five barrels, mounted on a pair of pneumatic tyres. Each 150mm rocket was carried by one man, but the larger 210mm warheads were a four-man lift. Frie recounted how each launcher was pulled by an Opel Blitz truck, which carried the crew of an NCO and five men, their baggage and the rockets. In peacetime the launcher was towed by a half-tracked vehicle but by December 1944 only the faithful Opel was available: ‘it often happened that one truck towed three launchers … Sometimes the VW Kübelwagen used by the chief of the unit was also hitched on behind. The whole train then looked more like a circus and had little in common with a dangerous military unit.’ Lack of vehicles and especially petrol hampered the artillery and rocket troops, as well as the tanks.
The cutting edge of both Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies would rest on the four armoured divisions and several independent battalions of panzers that Manteuffel and Dietrich each possessed, yet Seventh Army owned not a single tank whatsoever. All it had were their divisional Panzerjäger (anti-tank) battalions. These included a company of tracked, turretless armoured vehicles – little four-man Sturmgeschütz (literally ‘assault gun’, and abbreviated to StuG) or Hetzer (‘Baiter’) tank destroyers, both carrying a 75mm gun and built on to a tank chassis. This equated to between six and fourteen vehicles per anti-tank battalion. Lightweight compared to tanks (a StuG weighed twenty-nine tons, a Hetzer half that), they were effective in defence, but the limited traverse of their main gun, having no turret, made them very vulnerable in attacks of the kind envisaged by Herbstnebel. American tank men regarded these as ‘an interminable viper slinking across the terrain’ by comparison to a ‘tyrannosaurus of a King Tiger, which was too big and too dumb to succeed, and sloshed through the mud like a primeval beast’. The StuG ‘made a hell of a nice target. Just fire low and you’d hit something … Fascinating to look at, but you don’t win a war by fascinating the enemy,’ wrote one tanker. Another company in the same anti-tank battalion possessed horse-drawn 75mm anti-tank guns. As we shall see, even a modest allocation of some extra cannon and armour would have aided Brandenberger considerably.
The Seventh Army commander continued to protest about his lack of armour; as noted, he had originally been promised a panzer division by Jodl at OKW; later this was revised to a Panzergrenadier formation (mechanised infantry which included some tanks), but they were used elsewhere on the front. In the final days before the offensive, Gersdorff lodged a formal complaint with Model over the famine of tank support and, at the last minute, Seventh Army was allocated some StuGs. This was Oberstleutnant Hollunder’s Fallschirm-Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 11, a battalion-sized unit of about 500 men and a theoretical thirty StuGs armed with 75mm guns, which had been attempting to halt the tidal wave of General Jake L. Devers’ US Sixth Army Group in its romp through southern France. The 11th StuG Brigade entered combat in the vicinity of Nancy and was virtually destroyed in September, withdrawn and remained under-strength when given to Brandenberger in mid-December, at which time it possessed three batteries of six or seven vehicles, totalling about twenty assault guns. Called a ‘brigade’ for the purposes of deception, the Eleventh was another example of the bizarre, competitive world of the German armed forces. They were Göring’s idea, designed originally to support paratroops, who had no tank support of their own, so came under Luftwaffe control: an oddity for armoured crewmen to wear the badges of their air force.
Apart from these vehicles, Volksgrenadiers had very few towed anti-tank guns; instead they were lavishly equipped with personal anti-tank weapons, such as the hand-held Panzerschreck (‘tank terror’) and Panzerfaust (‘tank fist’). Although the former’s hollow-charge warhead could penetrate the armour of every Allied tank easily, its range of just 120 yards meant that the two-man crew had to squat in their foxholes and practically wait for opponents to roll on to them. The same applied to the single-shot, throwaway Panzerfaust, with its shorter range of 60–100 yards, and issued in the tens of thousands. Unfortunately for their operators, Allied doctrine was to precede any advance with an artillery bombardment, precisely to destroy any such threats with high explosive. Nevertheless, both these anti-tank weapons constituted a cheap, practical way to counter Allied tanks at very short range, if at a high cost in personnel. By the war’s end nearly six million Panzerfausts had been manufactured – the US 82nd Airborne Division assessed it as even more effective than their own bazookas, and used captured stocks whenever possible in the Ardennes. After the war, of course, Russian designers adapted it into the highly successful RPG (Rocket-Propelled Grenade) family of shoulder-launched anti-armour weapons.
Each Volksgrenadier division also had its own firepower in the form of an artillery regiment of four battalions, in theory nine batteries of cannon, totalling fifty-four weapons; however, the allocation of guns had been diluted in 1944, in an effort to equip all the new formations. Previously, divisions had a similar number of guns, but distributed across twelve batteries; the smaller number of these sub-units was an economy measure, designed to trim the number of officers and specialist staff needed. In earlier times, vehicle-drawn batteries possessed modern 150mm howitzers and 105mm guns, designated heavy and light, but by 1944 the Volksgrenadier horse-drawn units were mostly equipped with field guns of First World War vintage, 77mm Feldkanone re-bored to 75mm, or captured from vanquished nations, such as France, Italy and Russia. These were less accurate, had a shorter range and slower rate of fire than their more modern equivalents.
In the Ardennes offensive, Brandenberger’s Seventh Army had a front of over twenty miles to cover, initially with just four weak infantry divisions. The extreme left (southern) wing of the attack was the concern of General der Infanterie Dr Franz Beyer’s LXXX Corps, which comprised, from south to north, the 212nd and 276th Volksgrenadier divisions. Further north, simultaneous attacks would be launched by the LXXXV Corps of General Baptist Kneiss, who likewise possessed two divisions, the 352nd Volksgrenadiers, and a miscellany of Luftwaffe personnel swept up into a formation called the 5th Fallschirmjäger Division.
Kneiss had commanded his LXXXV Corps since July, but was allowed to take a month’s leave beforehand, incredibly returning to active duty on the day Herbstnebel began. Of his two commanders, forty-one-year-old Oberst Ludwig Heilmann was the superbly energetic leader of the 5th Luftwaffe Division. He had joined the army as a private in 1921, invaded Poland as an infantryman, volunteered for airborne training and jumped into Crete as a battalion commander in 1941. He had led a regiment fighting British paratroopers on Sicily. However, Heilmann’s finest hour was defending Monte Cassino earlier in 1944 which brought him Swords to the previously awarded Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves. Popular with his men but stubborn, he used to refer to his high decorations for bravery as Blech (tin) or a ‘good cure for throat-ache’ (the Knight’s Cross being worn around the neck), when joking with the ‘stubble hoppers’, the veterans in his units. A capable and resourceful commander at regimental level, Heilmann was appointed to his new post on 15 October; the Ardennes would be his first test in charge of a division.
Heilmann’s formation, however, was a different matter. Raised in March 1944, destroyed at Falaise and re-formed in October, the 5th Fallschirmjäger was airborne in name only; but a fraction of its personnel were trained jumpers, and most of them were the result of Himmler’s policy of redirecting unemployed Luftwaffe troops into combat roles. Most had hitherto enjoyed a comfortable war on airbases behind the lines, servicing and maintaining aircraft, carousing with the local female population and returning to clean sheets and mattresses. Unfit, untrained in ground tactics, few had seen action or fired weapons in anger. The only thing they shared with Heilmann was the swooping eagle badge of the Luftwaffe they all wore on their tunics.
Oberst Eric-Otto Schmidt, who possessed a solid record of experience in infantry units, serving in Poland and Russia, had commanded 352nd Volksgrenadier Division since 6 October, shortly after its activation as a unit in Schleswig-Holstein. He had some help from a sprinkling of seasoned officers and NCOs in his formation, which was created from the remnants of the old 352nd Infantry Division, destroyed in Normandy. The original unit had been stationed behind Omaha Beach on D-Day where it had caused great harm to the US First and Twenty-Ninth Divisions, but was overwhelmed in the subsequent fighting, with very few of its ranks escaping unscathed. For example, only one Normandy veteran was known to have served in the Ardennes with its 916th Volksgrenadier Regiment, Leutnant Willi Heller of the 6. Kompanie. Another veteran recalled that 50 per cent were seventeen- or eighteen-year-old Hanoverian conscripts, 20 per cent were Poles classed by the authorities as being of German stock (Volksdeutsche), and therefore eligible for combat service, a further 20 per cent came from the recently dissolved Vlassov division of Russian volunteers, and the final 10 per cent were Ostfront veterans.
Leading the Seventh Army’s other formation, LXXX Corps, was General Dr Franz Beyer, a reliable veteran Ostfront hand, who was leading a formation in the attack because he was assessed as being a convinced National Socialist: Himmler had vetted all the senior commanders for their loyalty.
The more experienced of Beyer’s two divisional commanders, Franz Sensfuss, had taken over his formation on 17 September 1944 when its sub-units came together for the first time. The Generalleutnant’s 212th Volksgrenadier Division contained mostly young recruits, including many Bavarians aged seventeen. The 212th had been reconstructed from a destroyed division, as was its twin, Generalmajor Kurt Möhring’s 276th Volksgrenadiers. Möhring was something of a rising star in the army. At sixteen he had volunteered to serve as a Fahnenjunker (officer cadet) in the First World War, doing well enough to be retained in the 1919 slimmed-down Reichswehr. Twenty years later he was an infantry battalion commander; promoted to Oberst and given a regiment in 1942, this was followed by the significant command, still in Russia, of the elite GrossDeutschland Division for a year. His reward was a Knight’s Cross and ultimately the 276th Volksgrenadiers. Möhring’s experience was unrivalled, having commanded in Poland, France and Russia, reaching the gates of Moscow, and at Kursk, before commencing the Battle of the Bulge. However, 276th proved to be ill prepared for their coming test, which was blamed on inadequate training, just as Rundstedt had warned in September, and too few good leaders to make it a first-class formation. As we shall see, it would perform less well than Senfuss’s 212th.
In sum, the Wehrmacht that attacked the Ardennes in December 1944 was an inferior version of its predecessor, which reached the peak of professionalism by mid-1942 and had declined slowly since. Its experienced troops had generally been wounded in the east and sent to Western Europe to convalesce. Many of the ‘comb out’ from industry were in their late forties, less fit and slower to react in combat; to offset this, most of the youngsters were true disciples, fanatics who believed in Endsieg, the final victory, were highly motivated and fit, so fought bravely if carelessly. Generally, though, the Volksgrenadiers comprised ill-trained and ill-equipped men held together by the quality of their few officers and experienced NCOs.
Actual bayonet strength – as a head count of riflemen is called – in a Volksgrenadier division was at least 1,500 less than in an equivalent US formation, but total divisional firepower was similar. About equal in artillery, German divisions enjoyed a superiority in automatic weapons (if they were issued as planned), and bazooka-type anti-tank guns. American units had a much higher proportion of administrative and logistics personnel, and so experienced none of the headaches of mobility, fuel and ammunition supply that routinely bugged their counterparts.
Unfortunately, the Volksgrenadier divisions were essentially devised for defence, not offence. Despite the impressive firepower, without armoured help their manpower was generally inadequate to batter their way through a front line, even thinly held lines in the Ardennes; if they achieved a penetration, units were unable to exploit with a pursuit, for they lacked any mobility. Successful offensive operations have always required manoeuvrability and reserves of manpower to reinforce success quickly. Alas, the Volksgrenadiers had neither. They were relatively poorly prepared, too. Secrecy was so paramount that junior officers in all the attacking divisions were only given their individual assignments on 15 December, leaving less than twenty-four hours in which to ready and brief their men.
Friedrich Schmäschke, a seventeen-year-old former sailor and runner with the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division, had been manning a concrete blockhouse behind the lines when he and his mates received their orders on 15 December.
The peaceful silence of the bunker was now replaced by restless muttering. There were even comrades who broke out in wild euphoria … Then we had a hot meal which some ghoulishly called our ‘hangman’s meal’. Our iron rations were distributed and checked. Some of the men turned to the liquor ration to raise their spirits. Everything non essential was left at the bunker. Hand grenades, Panzerfausts and extra small arms ammunition was passed out and we had to lie down and rest while fully dressed … It had a numbing effect on us. Our minds were cleared, resulting in a terrible emptiness. No thoughts of home or family … The morning of 16 December came inexorably. We were to be awakened at 04:00 am but that didn’t prove necessary since nobody slept.
When I first visited the area held by 352nd Division in December 1989, I came across a relic from the fighting. The countryside was still and blanketed by deep virgin snow as it had been in 1944, though it hadn’t penetrated the woods where the Volksgrenadiers had gathered on 15 December, forty-four years earlier. Their foxholes were still evident, and so were the shell craters caused by retaliatory US artillery fire. It was there I found the helmet. Issued to a grenadier for the coming battle, at some stage damaged by shrapnel, it had been discarded. It was of the traditional German coal-scuttle shape, I noted, but slightly different from the helmets the Wehrmacht usually wore. For this was a steel helmet from the First World War. In equipping all their Volksgrenadiers for the coming offensive, the Reich’s quartermasters had to have been scraping the very bottom of the barrel in order to issue this 1917-model Stahlhelm.
So carried away in their enthusiasm for Herbstnebel were the Führer and OKW that they failed to see they were sending their Seventh Army into battle in late 1944 exactly as it had been deployed in 1914: with its infantry marching on foot and horses dragging the same weapons it had used thirty years before.