The German Army suffered from a catastrophic shortage of replacements ever since it had gone to war in Russia, but particularly from 1944 onwards.
That the army had come to this state was in part a response to the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944, but also due to the draining losses suffered on the Eastern Front. Since the beginning of the campaign in 1941, to the autumn of 1944, the campaign had cost the Germans in excess of 1,400,000 killed with another million missing and five million more wounded. From a strength of 3.3 million men in June 1941, the Army had been bled white, fielding as few as 2.7 million just a year later. This situation was not to improve despite the ruthless trawling of the country for replacements. Following the assassination attempt on Hitler, Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had been appointed commander of the Replacement Army, replacing General Fromm who had been implicated in the plot. Instead of ensuring the regular supply of replacements to the Army units in the field, Himmler’s chaotic command saw him concentrate his efforts on rebuilding burnt out infantry divisions as a new generation of Volksgrenadier Division. These units were based around the remnants of old divisions which had already been shattered in the fighting on the Western or Eastern Fronts. Each rebuilt division comprised three, two-battalion regiments, a theoretical strength of around 10,000 men although few ever achieved anywhere near this. Their experienced cadres were fleshed out with a collection of Hitler Youth, Luftwaffe ground staff, middle-aged businessmen from reserved occupations, recovering invalids and naval cadets. Training was brief at best, sometimes as little as six weeks but they did receive some of the newest infantry weapons and were lavishly equipped with both light and medium machine guns. This ensured their morale was relatively high, and if they held together under combat conditions, they could pack a powerful defensive punch. The Volksgrenadier divisions were intended for holding and defensive operations rather than offensive action and as such lacked the mobility of the Soviet units opposed to them.
Alongside this program, Himmler also massively expanded his Waffen SS, creating a plethora of new divisions. With the demands on the limited German manpower pool being made by Martin Bormann, who was in charge of the Volkssturm, and Himmler for his Volksgrenadier Divisions and Waffen SS divisions, the Army struggled to secure enough replacements to make good the steady losses it suffered. That it managed to maintain a defence at all was a testament to the strength of the men and officers of the German Army at that time, despite all of its setbacks.
The Regular German Army units had been transformed after three years of fighting in the Soviet Union. The divisions of 1941 which had begun the invasion, well equipped and with up to 17,000 men, were a thing of the past. The increase in the number of divisions fielded in the succeeding years had been at the expense of their strength. By 1944 many infantry divisions no longer comprised three battalion regiments as they had originally, but instead had been reduced to just two battalions in order to concentrate their strength and cut down on support services. The strongest units would number just 12,000 men although like their Soviet opponents, many were often considerably lower than this and were starved of replacements. Towards the end, divisions numbering in the hundreds of men rather than thousands were all too common. One factor which had not changed was the mobility of the German infantry divisions. Even from the earliest days of the war, the German infantry had relied heavily on horse drawn transport to move itself across the battlefield. The image of the German Army as a highly mechanised force which motored across Europe is inherently false. Motorisation was largely restricted to the few panzer and panzergrenadier divisions, the many infantry using their feet, as their forebears had before them. This was one of the major factors which hindered the Germans in their cauldron battles during the early days of Operation Barbarossa. Quite simply, the infantry simply could not keep up with the armour and as a result many Soviet troops were able to escape from encirclement.
The panzer divisions, the pride of the Wehrmacht, had suffered equally as badly as the infantry formations and by 1944 many comprised just a single panzer regiment with two panzer battalions, plus a panzergrenadier brigade of two regiments (each with two battalions), a force of 13,000 men with around 120 tanks when at full strength.
The mainstay of the German panzer division was the reliable Panzer IV medium tank. Originally armed with a short barrel 75mm gun, it had been upgraded a number of times. By 1944 it sported a long barrelled 75mm gun, had been given additional armour plating on the hull and was protected by armoured skirts against shaped charge anti-tank rounds. The Panzer IV was a popular tank, although it was only just a match for the T-34 rather than superior to it. In an effort to overcome the scourge of the T-34 the Germans rushed into service in 1943 the Panzer V Panther.
This vehicle turned out to be one of the finest tanks of the war, despite its initial teething troubles. Armed with a long barrel 75mm gun and protected by sloped armour copied from the T-34, it could knock out the Soviet tanks at great ranges. Unfortunately it was over-engineered and often struggled in the harsh conditions experienced on the Eastern Front.
In late 1942 the heavy Panzer VI Tiger I tank entered service with the Army. This vehicle was armed with the formidable 88mm gun which had wrought great havoc as an anti-tank weapon. The Tiger was an effective weapon and could knock out the T-34 at distances where the Soviet tanks could not fire effectively in return. In 1944 the Tiger II appeared, a truly formidable machine, although too slow and heavy, and in too few numbers to make a real difference to the course of the battles to come.
Despite their technical superiority, the Germans simply could not produce enough vehicles to take on the masses of Soviet tanks that opposed them. In an effort to redress this balance they increased production of assault guns. Assault guns, grouped into brigades, were crucial anti-tank formations supporting the hard pressed infantry. Under the command of the artillery service rather than the panzer arm, they were equipped with turretless versions of the Panzer III and IV, and the formidable little Hetzer’s which were based on the reliable Panzer 38(t) chassis. These vehicles were considerably cheaper and easier to produce than tanks, and offered an excellent defensive capability in the place of wheeled anti tank guns. The assault gun brigades were used widely, supplementing the infantry’s lack of anti-tank weapons in many instances.
Fighting a war on a number of fronts had a crippling impact on the German war effort. The demands of the Western and Italian Fronts, together with the Allied bomber offensive against the industrial heartland of the Ruhr and other areas of western Germany, and in particular the terrible damage done to the supply of fuel, drew badly needed men and weapons away from the Eastern Front. The Allied bombing of the oil refineries and fuel storage facilities across Nazi occupied Europe had a devastating effect on the armies in the field. From late 1943, and particularly after the Normandy invasion in the summer of 1944, German fuel production collapsed. The operations of the Luftwaffe were severely curtailed, the most insignificant use of fuel becoming heavily monitored. For the men at the front, air support was often just a dim and distant memory. The greater part of the Luftwaffe had been pulled back to protect the Homeland and what few units were left at the front were desperately short of fuel. Army units suffered too, often finding they were left immobile, with perfectly usable tanks being lost to the enemy for want of a few drops of petrol. To counter the threat of the Allied bomber fleets, thousands of the deadly 88mm anti-aircraft guns were used in air defence rather than in their ground role again Soviet armour.
Hitler’s refusal to accept a policy of flexible defence, which would have taken advantage of the space available in the east, merely exacerbated the problems the Germans faced. His stubborn refusal to allow any form of withdrawal had seen the Ostheer smashed in a number of encirclement operations, culminating in the catastrophic defeat in Belorussia in June and July of 1944. Through sheer necessity a defence policy was adopted by the armies at the front, which proved successful only when sufficient forces and strong defensive positions were in place. In general outline the German defensive plan meant establishing forward, main and reserve defence positions. The forward lines were lightly manned and designed to absorb the weight of a Soviet offensive, soaking up the bombardment. As many troops as possible would be pulled back from this position to the main defensive position in the event of an enemy attack so that their barrage fell on empty positions and vacated artillery sites. This would ensure that the main defence line remained largely intact. Effectively, the Germans intended the Soviets to punch into thin air at the forward position, and then they would launch their own counter attacks from the main defensive position to disrupt further attacks and derail the Soviet timetable. The Soviet tendency to undertake reconnaissance attacks before an offensive began gave the German commanders ample warning that an attack was imminent. It was then just merely a question of timing in pulling out of the forward defence position. Many generals became adept at judging the correct moment to do so. This policy provided a sensible defence but experience showed that when the Germans were pushed out of their entrenched positions, their lack of mobile forces, anti-tank and armour reserves generally meant that a collapse of the front would quickly follow.
As the war had approached the Reich frontiers in late 1944, and with the huge manpower losses suffered both in the West and East, the Germans had been forced to consider the mass employment of civilians in defence of their Homeland. Guderian, by now Chief of the Army General Staff, had suggested the formation of a Landsturm in the eastern provinces in a discussion with Hitler in early September 1944. Guderian’s idea had been to establish formations made up of men from reserved occupations, probably from the ranks of those registered with the SA. Hitler initially agreed with him but just a day later he changed his mind and gave responsibility for the raising of these troops to Martin Bormann and the Nazi Party. The Volkssturm, as this civilian defence force was named, was officially created by the Führer Decree of October 18th 1944. Rather than just being an organisation for the defence of the eastern provinces, the Volkssturm was now to be a national defence force, and Bormann envisioned it numbering in the millions. All males between the ages of 16 and 60 who were capable of bearing arms were liable for conscription. Volkssturm units were organised into battalions, a battalion generally numbering around 600 men and being commanded by the equivalent of a Major, although battalions of up to 1,000 men were not unknown. Once part of a unit many men found themselves with just a Volkssturm armband for a uniform. Sometimes even the Volkssturm armband was not available which meant they went into combat in civilian attire only, in contravention of the Geneva Convention. Following the disaster at Stalingrad and the continual heavy losses on the Eastern Front there had been many trawls for reinforcements for the army. Himmler’s tenure as commander of the Replacement Army made an already difficult situation even worse. The result was that by October 1944, when the Volkssturm was raised, it comprised mainly young Hitler Youth and the elderly; those fit enough to fight having already been called upon.
The problem of arming the Volkssturm units was also considerable. Stocks of captured weapons were issued widely but there was no central control over their distribution. An even greater problem was the supply of ammunition. Many Volkssturm members were handed a foreign or obsolete rifle with just a handful of rounds apiece. Weapons from the Great War were brought back into service to try to flesh out the firepower of the Volkssturm battalions. Perhaps the most deadly weapon the Volkssturm employed was the Panzerfaust, which cost the Soviets many hundreds of tanks destroyed throughout the final months of the war. Quickly manufactured and relatively easy to use, the one shot Panzerfaust comprised a hollow charge warhead propelled by a small rocket, and proved extremely effective at knocking out tanks. Unfortunately for the user, the effective killing range of the weapon was between thirty and one hundred metres, depending on the model employed. This meant that once a hit had been achieved, a safe retreat from any accompanying infantry or other tanks was unlikely. Training for the new recruits was often rushed and inadequate, many men and boys having to master the use of their weapons when they entered combat for the first time. For the older members a familiarity with military life from the First World War was common, and younger members had grown up under a Nazi regime which had militarised most aspects of their lives.
With this mixture of forces the Germans waited for the next round of Soviet attacks, attacks which would push across the eastern frontiers of the Reich and bring the war to the German people.
Himmler als Feldherr
From 20 July Himmler was appointed the commander of the Ersatzheer in place of the arrested Fromm and henceforth he was to be responsible for the raising of all new army formations – mainly infantry divisions, these to be known as Volksgrenadier. The manning, discipline and administration of these divisions was to be controlled entirely by the SS, a special Abteilung 10 being set up in the Heerespersonalamt to provide ‘SS approved’ officer replacements for these divisions: thereafter the officers could not be posted elsewhere without SS permission. The Volksgrenadier divisions remained responsible to Himmler, as were the SS divisions, even when they took to the field. The word Volk added to the divisional titles was intended to emphasize the link between these later groupings and the people, and to give expression to the ‘National-Socialist spirit’ of these new troops, in contradistinction to the old style that was tainted by the reactionary officer corps.
On 26 August all army formations that recruited foreigners were transferred to the SS and, since the SS was now raising its own SS army headquarters (SS Armeeoberkommandos) and additional corps headquarters, army general staff officers were transferred to the SS against their will to occupy technical appointments that the SS were not qualified to fill. By January 1945 candidates for army commissions could be compulsorily directed into the SS. Himmler had no wish to absorb the German Army into the Waffen SS, but he wanted to use army personnel, when absolutely necessary, to fill out the SS; for he jealously safeguarded the Waffen SS identity and exclusiveness. His intention was to have the German Army subordinated to, and controlled in its entirety by, the Waffen SS with himself at its head. The V-2 development and production programme and the control of firings and operational units was taken over by the SS immediately after 20 July.
That Himmler had Feldherr pretensions there can be no doubt; in September he became the commander at the front of all troops in the Upper Rhine, taking under his command 19 Army, Wehrkreis V and 14 and 18 SS Corps. At the turn of the year he was to take over Army Group Vistula on the eastern front. According to Goebbels, the question had been mooted, and presumably put to Hitler in late 1944, as to whether Himmler should not also be appointed as the German Army Commander-in-Chief.