With the Ghost Division

The Panzer Division that Erwin Rommel took over on 15 February 1940, though new in number and form, was by no means totally inexperienced in war. In the Polish campaign, under the name of ‘2nd Light Division’, it had been among the invading forces, but, like three similar mechanized formations raised from the old horsed cavalry units, it had been a failure. A single battalion of 90 light tanks to support 4 motorized infantry battalions was found incompatible with the mode of mobile warfare practised by the six existing Panzer divisions that Guderian and the Panzerwaffe had developed and demonstrated with such startling effect, for these contained anything up to 320 tanks each. However, absorbing new tanks from the German and Czech factories, each ‘light division’ had by now been converted into a Panzer division by giving it two additional tank battalions (including the latest medium machines), thereby increasing its tank strength to 218. Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, in fact, was different from the others in that its infantry content of two lorried regiments instead of one incorporated five battalions plus an independent motorcycle battalion.

Preparations for war

When Rommel took command, the Division lay at Bad Godesberg, its equipment suffering in the open from exposure to a perishingly cold winter, and its role in the forthcoming invasion of the West yet to be revealed. As part of Hermann Hoth’s XV Corps, it was to provide the main striking power of Gunther Kluge’s Fourth Army, which would operate on the northern flank of Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A, and spearhead the northern axis of the ambitious drive the Germans intended to launch through the Ardennes on 10 May, seizing bridgeheads over the River Meuse. While Hoth’s XV Corps made for Dinant, the two elements of Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group, Guderian’s XIX Corps (three Panzer divisions strong) and Reinhardt’s XLI Corps (with two Panzer divisions) would head for Sedan and Mont-herme respectively; then, if all three Corps achieved initial success, they would strike west with the coast of the English Channel as their objective.

Such daringly deep penetrations were second nature to Rommel: they embraced, in modern form, the battle techniques he had practised as an infantryman during the First World War, and which he had expounded ever since as a teacher. Tanks merely offered a quicker and more reliable way of advancing, while their thin armour (no German tank’s protection exceeding 30mm, compared with twice that thickness on many French and British tanks) merely gave an improved chance of survival against artillery and machine-gun fire. With so little time before the campaign, and with training in any case limited by a chronic shortage of fuel and ammunition, Rommel did not have much chance to get to know his men and machines before the invasion began. Nor could it be hoped that his staff would comprehend his style. No tactical training manuals in armoured warfare existed, but a standardized Panzer doctrine, such as it was, had been disseminated mainly by Heinz Guderian when he was Inspector of Panzer Forces before the war and, thereafter, improved by random discussions during the months of the ‘phoney’ winter war.

The 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions of XV Corps make the initial crossing of the River Meuse on 13 May, followed 12 hours later by XLI and XIX Corps. The French begin to withdraw opposite XV Corps on 14 May, as their 1st DCR advances to its destruction. XLI Corps strikes westward, soon accompanied on the flank by XIX Corps, which is also heavily engaged in fighting off determined counterattacks on its southern /lank, prior to being reinforced by infatry divisions. Panzer Group Kleist races westward, only occasionally hampered by desultory French attacks from the south, and lining its corridor with infantry divisions following more slowly behind. The 7th Panzer Division breaches the Maginot Line extension at Clairfayts on 16 May, and thrusts deep into the enemy rear. By the evening of 20 May, with the 5th Panzer Division echeloned to right rear, it has reached the outskirts of Arras, where it runs into stiff British defences and has its axis cut in rear by the French. Meanwhile, XLI and XIX Corps have moved even faster, Guderian’s XIX Corps reaching Abbeville on the evening of 20 May to complete the drive to the sea. The second phase begins on 5 June: the 7th Panzer Division races from the Somme, brushing aside resistance, and arrives at Cherbourg just too late to prevent remnants of the British 1st Armoured Division escaping.

Certain immutable principles had at least been established and drummed into every German armoured commander and staff officer: the necessity of reconnaissance, speed, concentration and reliable fuel replenishment. Reconnaissance would expose weak spots in the enemy defences, which could be exploited. Speed would help to surprise the enemy and, thereafter, prevent him from counterattacking in sufficient time at the right place—pace, in effect, would enhance security and safety. Concentration, by the employment of mass on a narrow front, would also purchase a measure of safety by distracting and overwhelming the enemy. And, perhaps above all, only an unchecked supply of fuel and ammunition would make these things possible. Such principles Rommel understood and had no need to digest-with the distinct exception of the last. He would use his tanks, armoured cars, lorries and motorcycles as he had previously used horses, bicycles and men on foot; he would utilize the wireless as once he had utilized a mobile telephone set; and, apart from the superior facilities provided by 1940s technology, he could operate as he had done in 1917, carefully rehearsing critical operations (such as the crossing of the Meuse) that could be foreseen. But, when battle began, he would dismiss logistics almost as an irrelevance.

Across the Meuse

The approach to the River Meuse, beginning at dawn on 10 May, must have awoken his memories of the march of 124th Regiment in 1914, taking him, as it did, through the enclosed terrain of the Ardennes. This time, he was in the lead from the outset, and immediately encountered opposition from the Belgian outposts, which were soon to be reinforced by the French 4th DLC (Division Legere de Cavalerie) as it arrived. Obstacles protected by enemy fire hampered progress, but were rapidly overcome by Rommel, drawing instantly upon his deeply-rooted intuition and applied in person from the forefront of battle. “I have found again and again”, he wrote in his comments on these skirmishes, “that in encounter actions, the day goes to the side that is the first to plaster its opponents with fire. The man who lies low and awaits developments usually conies off second best.”

This admirably sums up so much of his approach to life, let alone against an enemy; and, against the light mechanized cavalry and infantry forces opposed to him at this moment, the technique worked like a charm.  On schedule (while the rest of XV Corps and Panzer Group Kleist closed up to the Meuse), Rommel’s armoured cars and motorcyclists arrived at Dinant on the afternoon of the 12th. That evening, the motorcyclists infiltrated across the river, just as his mountaineers had crossed the Piave in 1917. By the following morning, the Division was tucked in among the steep ravines leading down to that fastflowing river; artillery registered on targets across the water; dismounted, motorized infantry and assault pioneers steeling themselves for the main crossing; tank battalions carrying out the maintenance work before being ferried over to continue the advance on ground more suited to their capability. On the right flank, the 5th Panzer Division had kept pace. As night fell, both divisions put the final touches to the preconceived plan for a crossing at 0300 hours next day.

The plan, however, was not to be: for the 7th Panzer Division was to beat its neighbour across the Meuse by nearly twelve hours-and at the cost of but twenty-four lives. By an enormous stroke of luck, Rommel had hit the boundary between two French Corps, a weak and sensitive point in any defence. Instinctively, he seized his opportunity and exploited it with a verve that few tacticians possess. His opponents, Generals Bouffet and Martin, were antagonists of pusillanimous calibre commanding units that were already badly shaken by bombing and the German onrush. But the French were not the only people to be disturbed. So, too, was Hoth, Rommel’s own Corps commander, who had forbidden him to cross independently and who now told him to halt and detach troops to help the 5th Panzer Division (whose bridging material he had coolly filched) coming up on the right flank. This Rommel refused to do, and he was supported by the Army commander, Kluge, who saw the possibilities of immediate exploitation.

By nightfall on the 13th, Rommel was in possession of a useful, if precarious, bridgehead on the west bank, secured in part by anti-tank guns, with eight-ton pontoons and rafts under construction at its base. But here was revealed a fault in his original orders: the eight-ton pontoon was incapable of supporting the heavier tanks.

The resulting delay, while sixteen-ton pontoons were built, meant that only fifteen tanks were floated across during the night, but the rate of build-up increased with daylight and, at 0800 hours on the 14th, with thirty tanks of the 25th Panzer Regiment assembled, he directed the assault upon the key village of Onaye, an operation that had been carefully rehearsed in exercises at Bad.Godesberg. Rommel now ran into trouble.

As heavy enemy artillery fire came down, and his tank driver swerved into a depression, Rommel was wounded in the cheek. For a short while he was a fugitive, out of touch with his Division. Onaye remained in French hands that evening, but the 5th Panzer Division was at last across on the right, and the rest of the 7th was beginning to arrive in strength, virtually unchallenged by any serious French counterattacks – despite Rommel’s exaggerated claims to the contrary. Perhaps it was his very proximity to the heart of the action that led him to overestimate, on this and several future occasions, the magnitude of the enemy threat. But perhaps it was something else: an outright determination to portray his activities to the maximum possible advantage before Hitler. At any rate, Lieutenant Hausberg, who had been one of Rommel’s students at Wiener Neustadt, had the task each evening of taking an aircraft and presenting to the Fiihrer a map depicting the day’s advances by the 7th Panzer Division, extravagant objectives for the morrow, and showing the flanking formation well in rear, signified by a question-mark. Hausberg’s embarrassing duty, which had been settled at a very high level prior to the invasion, brought him a fair measure of derision from those in the know; it also irritated officers of the other formations in the Corps, who justifiably felt slighted.

To make matters easier for the Germans, the French stood motionless while XV Corps built up its strength on the west bank during the 13th. They did not begin to react with their own armoured divisions until after midday on the 14th, when the threat at Dinant, Montherme and Sedan gradually, but forcibly, came to their notice. If this delayed reaction was another stroke of luck for Rommel, so too was the inept manner in which the 1st DCR (Division Cuirassee Rapide) approached from Charleroi on the 14th and 15th, in its attempt to counter the penetration achieved by XV Corps.

For the 1st DCR, a recently-founded armoured formation like the 7th Panzer Division, was deficient in its communication equipment, lacking in its traffic-control organization and inadequately supplied by its fuel echelons; furthermore, its men were given to outbreaks of ungovernable panic on the random occasions when they were bombed by the Luftwaffe. Its line of march now bisected the advancing prongs of Hoth’s two armoured spearheads, enabling both Divisions to share the killing. On the afternoon of the 15th, the Germans caught a thoroughly disorganized, immobile 1st DCR in open ground, where it was engaged in a delayed refuelling. The German tanks, free to manoeuvre, hit the French heavy tanks in flank. By the end of the day, only 50 out of the original 160 French tanks remained serviceable, many having surrendered intact; by the next morning, they were down to 17, the rest having been abandoned in flight and from shortage of petrol; and, the following night, these demoralized survivors were mopped-up by the 7th Panzer Division as it burst into the town of Avesnes. Only 3 escaped.

Breaching the Maginot Line

The sudden arrival of Rommel’s division in Avesnes [83] was itself the product of the Panzer units’ overall success. The breakthrough, which had opened a fifty-mile gap in the French defences, had utterly disrupted their Army. The wholesale destruction of three-quarters of their best mobile armoured forces, within a period of seventy-two hours, demolished any hope of their recovery. Apart from a few semi-mobile infantry divisions, backed up by scattered tank detachments, the French were rendered defenceless. Their Maginot Line proper, which terminated at Longwy, had been outflanked, and the thin line of pill-boxes, which extended its coverage westward along the frontier with Belgium, put up but the barest resistance-as Rommel demonstrated on the night of the 16th in the advance that carried him to Avesnes, to complete the rout of the 1st DCR. Rommel’s personal account of the breaching of the Maginot Line extension at Sivry and Clairfayts is among his best writing, and explains to perfection his methods of conducting a pursuit.

The fortifications were to be reconnoitred in daylight; the Rifle Regiments supported by tanks and artillery were then to seize the fortifications, whereupon the 25th Panzer Regiment would burst through towards Avesnes. “I rode … in the regimental commander’s command tank … When a report came in from a reconnaissance troop that the road through Clairfayts had been mined, we bore off to the south and moved in open order across fields and hedges in a semi-circle round the village … Suddenly we saw the angular outlines of a French fortification about 100 yards ahead… In a few moments the leading tanks came under heavy anti-tank gunfire from the left… and two of our tanks were knocked out.”

The 7th Panzer was called the ‘Ghost Division’ because the Allies never knew its exact location during the battle for France. Neither did the German High Command for much of the time, though Rommel could have used his communications vehicle to keep in touch. Rommel’s command car carried the license plate WH 143149 painted on the vehicle’s bow.

The battle became general over a wide front, as the Germans explored and tackled the complexity of ditches and hedgehogs guarded by the pill-boxes. At nightfall, the enemy was still very much in evidence, although gaps had been cleared in the obstacles and several French guns had been destroyed by a Panzer-kampfwagen IV [the German close-support tank with a short 75mm gun firing high-explosive shells]. Rommel took his place immediately behind the leading tank company as its engines were rewed-up and its machine-guns began spraying the surrounding countryside.

“The way to the west was now open. The moon was up … The tanks now rolled in a long column through the line of fortifications and towards the first houses, which had been set alight by our fire. In the moonlight we could see the men of the 7th Motorcycle Battalion moving forward on foot beside us … Our artillery was dropping heavy harassing fire on villages and the road far ahead … Gradually the speed increased. Before long we were 500-1,000-2,000-3,000 yards into the fortified zone. Engines roared, tank tracks clanked and clattered … Troops lay bivouaced beside the road, military vehicles stood parked in farmyards … Civilians and French troops, their faces distorted with terror, lay huddled in the ditches … the flat countryside lay spread out around us under the cold light of the moon. We were through the Maginot Line! It was hardly conceivable!”

For the ensuing forty-eight hours, Rommel drove his men hard, not for one moment letting the pace slacken, urging them beyond the point of exhaustion and frequently pushing the tank regiment so far ahead that the infantry regiments were left miles behind while the

tanks themselves ran out of petrol. Whereas the other Panzer divisions advanced on a relatively broad front, Rommel’s thrust a narrow pencil line of red crayon across the map, with himself either in action at the tip or racing backwards and forwards like a dervish, berating the units that failed to keep up. Several times he was within an ace of being captured, and hardly ever was the 7th Panzer Division complete master of the country it had traversed. French soldiers roamed about as they pleased, surrendering when convenient and then escaping as they chose, a constant menace to this handful of impudent Germans in their midst. Although Rommel often pushed his luck beyond the limits of prudence, the results proved him correct in taking such risks. The French nation’s morale had collapsed—the Polish Army would never have allowed itself to be bullied like this in 1939. Never again would he fight so innocuous a foe, whose soldiers were presented with innumerable opportunities to end his career there and then, but who supinely threw in the sponge. Rommel was lucky to get away with it.

Certainly, Major Otto Heidkamper, his principal staff officer and chief of operations, was seriously alarmed by Rommel’s unorthodox methods and the risks he took with the Division. Not for the first time, on 18 May, Heidkamper, at Divisional headquarters, was unable satisfactorily to arrange replenishment of the tanks, which as usual were in the far distance and cut off. And, since contact with Rommel (who was closely engaged in battle) was also broken, he turned, a worried man, to Corps headquarters for help-to the immense rage of his commander who subsequently wrote: “This young General Staff Officer, scared that something might happen to him and the staff, stayed some twenty miles behind the Front and, of course, lost contact with the fighting troops … Instead of rushing everything up forward he went to Corps headquarters, upset the people there and behaved as if the command of the division were no longer secure … I’ll have to make a thorough study of the documents so as to put the boy in his place.” Apart from its manifestation of his attitude to the staff, this is the first recorded instance of discord between a General Staff officer and Rommel. It may not have been the first, and it certainly would not be the last. Although it is easy to understand Rommel’s anger, one must have sympathy too with Heidkamper, who was a brilliant officer, one day to become a lieutenant-general. Lacking clear instructions from Rommel, he had had good reasons for being anxious about the command’s security. And here Rommel displays a significant misconception of how the staff should work.[84] A headquarters cannot function calmly and efficiently if it is dashing from place to place and coming constantly under fire: uniform procedures are essential, and the commander must behave in a rational manner if misunderstandings are to be avoided. Rommel’s cavalier notion of ‘rushing’ soft-skinned lorries forward was risky. In due course, peace would be restored between commander and chief of operations, but those at Corps headquarters were also decidedly, and justifiably, alarmed.

General Hoth came forward in person on the afternoon of the 19th, anxious to call a halt, since in his opinion the Division was exhausted and too far separated from the 5th Panzer Division for comfort. By then, the 7th Panzer Division stood with its head at Cambrai, in the process of bringing up supplies, resting its men and taking time for essential vehicle maintenance. Retorting that “the troops have been twenty hours in the same place”, Rommel managed to dissuade his superior and, before dawn next day, they were off again, traversing the site of the first great tank battle of the First World War. At noon, they were in sight of Arras, where the British stood firm. Rommel’s infantry were again slow to follow and, as the day progressed, French troops cut the 7th Panzer Division’s axis to the east.

Turning back to hasten the infantry forward, Rommel was nearly captured. Once more, the advance had to be halted to allow the Division to consolidate its gains and concentrate south of Arras. That night came the news that Guderian had reached the English Channel. At the same time came fresh orders. The Division was to wheel north on Lille, accompanied by the SS Totenkopf Motorized Infantry Division (as it arrived) and followed, in due course, by the 5th Panzer Division, which was still some distance to the east of Cambrai, mopping-up the mass of the bypassed enemy in stiff fighting.

Setback at Arras

Rommel’s conduct of the action that now began to the south of Arras is a classic example of improvident generalship. Ignoring reports of enemy tanks concentrating to the north, he hardly deigned to leave outposts covering his threatened right flank, but travelled himself, as usual, with the 25th Panzer Regiment far ahead of the vulnerable infantry in their lorries. His towed 37mm anti-tank artillery (which was already known to be inadequate against the armour of the best French and British tanks) lay back to guard the infantry on its line of march; his 105mm field artillery was deployed well in rear purely to provide long-range indirect fire support on call, while the attached Luftwaffe 88mm dual-purpose guns were located still farther in rear, fulfilling their anti-aircraft role.

(None of this artillery was, as is sometimes claimed, positioned specifically as an anti-tank screen.) Quite by chance, the German advance started at precisely the same moment as the British 50th Division, with the 1st Tank Brigade, began to destroy Rommel’s 6th Rifle Regiment at Agnez. Yet not a word of this disaster reached Rommel: it was by luck that he arrived back in time to see the impending destruction of the 7th Rifle Regiment, his return to the assembly area prompted purely by the desire to hasten them forward. His arrival at Vailly coincided with the assault by the right-hand British column  (which itself happened to be in a state of some confusion).

According to Rommel, some nearby field-gunners were in flight, the rest lying low. But he too was out of touch, and his sole constructive contribution to this battle was, with  The British armoured attack near Arras caught the SS Totenkopf (mot) Division by surprise. The British force was composed of 74 vehicles, including thickly armoured Matilda infantry tanks. The British gave the Germans a major scare, until Rommel used the Luftwaffe 88mm (3.5in) anti-aircraft guns attached to his division to engage the otherwise invulnerable Matilda. Other Luftwaffe assistance came from Ju-87 Stuka attacks called in by Rommel’s 7th Panzer.

On the morning of 21 May, 74 British heavy tanks with infantry in two columns, guarded on their right flank by 70 French tanks of the Cavalry Corps, begin to pivot upon Arras with the intention of then moving eastward. They are completing their wheel as the 7th Panzer Division, with SS Totenkopf Motorized Division on its left, is beginning a reciprocal wheel aimed on Lille via Acq. Since the 25th Panzer Regiment is sent far in advance of the rest of the Division, the Rifle Regiments receive the brunt of the British attack, their 37mm anti-tank guns proving quite inadequate to penetrate the British tanks’ armour. The 6th Rifle Regiment is overrun, and the 7th avoids the same /ate only because the British right column loses direction and falls behind schedule. As it is, Rommel is compelled to abandon the advance and call back the 25th Panzer Regiment, inadvertently causing it heavy losses on a line of British anti-tank guns near Agnez. The British, meanwhile, have also been stopped by the combined efforts of the 7th Panzer Division’s 105mm field artillery and 88mm dual-purpose guns at Mercatel and Telegraph Hill. The subsequent arrival of the 5th Panzer Division, post-haste from Cambrai, completes the British repulse and, next day, XV Corps can recommence its wheel to the north, his ADC, managing to get a few light (20mm) anti-aircraft guns into action in time to help repulse the already-failing British advance at Vailly. But here, as elsewhere, the real credit for the defeat of the British belonged to the crews of the 105mm and 88mm guns that just happened to be standing in the way of the triumphant British left column as it debouched into open country at Beaurains. It was they who defeated the British tanks, but even they were lucky, since the British utterly failed to coordinate their artillery fire and use it to neutralize the exposed German guns.

Later that evening, it was Rommel’s failure to arrange sound reconnaissance that led to the heavy losses sustained by the 25th Panzer Regiment after he had recalled it to the rescue (the first and only retrograde movement by any part of the Division during the campaign). For it ran, quite unexpectedly, into an anti-tank-gun ambush laid by the British at Agnez, and here lost the majority of the thirty German tanks knocked out that day. On this one day, Rommel lost 388 men-four times more than had been suffered by the Division during the previous fighting. It was as the result of his experiences in the heat of this action that Rommel actually contributed to the British success.

For, in assuming that “hundreds of enemy tanks” and ”five divisions” were against him (when only 140 tanks were involved), he greatly exaggerated the strength of the Allied forces, and radiated panic in his wireless calls for help. The 5th Panzer Division raced to the aid of what its War Diary describes as “the hard pressed 7th Panzer Division”, and ripples of alarm spread along the channels of command to the Fuhrer himself. There is little doubt that, when Hitler later told Rommel “we were very anxious about you”, he was referring to this moment. Hesitancy already had the High Command in its grip. Rommel’s reports reinforced its anxiety that the Panzer force might have overreached itself. Through a compound of mis-appreciations, the certainty of seizing Dunkirk almost unopposed was forfeited—and with it the opportunity to encircle and annihilate the best British and French formations.

For Rommel, his Division, the Panzer force and the rest of the German Army, however, the failure to wipe out the British at Dunkirk seemed merely a minor disappointment at the conclusion of a month of incredible triumphs. When Hitler called Rommel to see him on 3 June, while the 7th Panzer Division recuperated and prepared for the next phase of the campaign, he was, as Rommel told Lu “radiant”, and “I had to accompany him afterwards. I was the only division commander who did.” They all knew that France was prostrate and the British unlikely to come back for many years. That Rommel was held in high favour had been made plain eight days previously, when one of his own officers, Lieutenant Karl-August Hanke “acting on behalf of the Fiihrer, ceremonially decorated me with the Knight’s Cross and gave me the Fiihrer’s regards”. It may seem strange that so junior an officer should perform this duty, but Hanke was no ordinary junior officer. Not only had he demonstrated, according to Rommel, exceptional bravery and initiative in action, but he was one of Goebbels’ favourite officials from the Propaganda Ministry, sent quite obviously to keep an eye on one of his master’s proteges and to act as a special Nazi Party link with Berlin. He had brought with him as officers to the 7th Panzer Division several Nazi members of the Reichstag, including Kraus, the Chief of the Nazi Motor Corps (NSKK), and his financial adviser, Koebele, who later succeeded Julius Streicher as Gauleiter of Franken. And there was another man called Karl Holz, who had to remain a sergeant because he had twenty-four ‘previous convictions’-twenty-two of them ‘political’ and two criminal!

But Hanke (who, at the end of the war, would be Hitler’s nomination as head of the SS in place of the infamous Heinrich Himmler), was the most important of this liaison team, and to him Rommel extended the greatest favour, awarding him the Iron Cross (without consulting his battalion commander) even though he carried out his duties no more courageously than anybody else. A few days later (again without consultation), he recommended him for the Knight’s Cross-but this application was withdrawn because Hanke refused to take command of a tank company, telling Rommel that he scarcely knew how to lead a troop let alone a company, and that he was not prepared to risk the soldiers’ lives. This snub may well have angered Rommel, for Manfred Rommel inserts a lengthy footnote in The Rommel Papers to explain how unpopular Hanke was with the other officers of the Division, and mentions an incident in the Mess when Hanke boasted that he had, as an official, the power to remove Rommel from command. This, so Manfred says, led Rommel to report the matter to Hitler’s Army adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, with the result that Hanke was posted away (and, much later, found his way to be Gauleiter of Breslau, where he achieved a certain notoriety). Be that as it may, it is unquestionable that Rommel, in furthering his ambition, saw no impediment to using any means to curry favour within the Nazi Party; subsequent suggestions that he was a Nazi, hotly denied as they are and technically correct though they may be, were by no means groundless.

The pursuit south

The next task for Hoth’s XV Corps looked, and was, a good deal less difficult than the initial drive across the Meuse. For a start, the enemy were cripplingly deficient of mobile forces, and this time there was only a canal to cross from a well-established bridgehead south of the River Somme, east of Abbeville. The fact that the French had at last adopted a defence in depth based upon a sort of ‘chequer-board system’ did not in the least deter Hoth’s men (even though it had disastrous consequences for von Kleist’s armour to the left when it attacked southward from Amiens). On 5 June, with smooth precision behind artillery concentrations, the 6th Rifle Regiment seized a bridgehead, while the Pioneers set to work clearing obstacles from the short bridges that had not been demolished by the French. Rommel walked forward just behind his infantry, to be joined a few hours later by the leading tanks of the 25th Panzer Regiment. It was now that the French put up their best performance ever against Rommel. Fortified villages were costly and time-consuming to reduce: although the tanks bypassed this opposition with ease through the fields on either side, they dared not proceed too far until the villages and woods had been secured and, meanwhile, they came under intense gunfire from many directions. It was here that the improvised grouping of tanks with infantry was beneficial. Each time, the French were overcome by a mixture of direct and indirect fire, followed up by an all-arms assault to close quarters. Hard though Rommel makes this battle sound in his Papers, the penetration achieved by nightfall was more than five miles, and the tanks were still rolling forward. Prisoners gave themselves up by the hundred. The enemy guns fell silent.

The Germans were now entering open country, their momentum on one occasion checked only by an order prohibiting further advance until the Luftwaffe had bombed a fortified village that stood in the way. Here and there, French tanks put in an appearance. Often the French artillery made good practice against 88mm guns pushed too far ahead for their own safety. On the left flank, the 5th Panzer Division was keeping pace, cutting a wide swathe deep into the enemy rear. From now on, there was scarcely a question of strategic risk: the worst that could befall the Germans was that of aggravating casualties from sporadic ambushes. The subsequent story of the 7th Panzer Division’s rapid advance mirrors that of the other German armoured formations and some of the infantry ones too. It becomes a catalogue enumerating prisoners captured and a log of distances covered each day, a succession of rivers crossed, villages, towns and cities conquered.

Throughout these hectic days, the 7th Panzer Division wrought havoc upon the Allied lines of communication. The route between Paris and Le Havre was cut, vast munitions dumps captured, and enemy units pinned, in pockets, to the coast. Having failed in an attempted coup de main of the Seine bridges (which were blown in his troops’ faces) at Elbeuf, just south of Rouen, Hoth switched the Division on the 10th to round up several French divisions and a single British division congregated between Le Havre and Dieppe. After moving sixty miles in a single day against minimal opposition, Rommel found himself faced on the llth, in the vicinity of St. Valery-en-Caux, with an opponent who was not prepared to give way. Here, the French fought well and the British 51st Highland Division surrendered only after a stiff resistance, efforts to evacuate it by sea having largely failed. While his artillery engaged ships of the Royal Navy, resistance on shore was gradually overcome, and a rich haul of prisoners taken, including one corps and four divisional commanders.

For the Germans, it was now simply a matter of mopping-up France, while the French called for an armistice and the British pulled back across the English Channel. The final operations by the 7th Panzer Division, launched forth from a bridgehead that had been seized over the Seine near Rouen, saw the Division making full speed for Cherbourg, mopping-up stragglers and demoralized French formations on the way, but failing to reach the port in time to prevent the evacuation of the British 1st Armoured Division.

By this time, Rommel’s sense of achievement was unsurpassed in an army that could congratulate itself on one of the greatest campaigns of annihilation of all time. To Lu, he described in exultant terms the capture of Cherbourg, as he carried out “the Fuhrer’s special order to take the port as quickly as possible”. Heavy bombing of the forts and rapid exploitation of success, against an enemy he reckoned at thirty to forty times his superior in numbers, achieved the desired result with the minimum delay, and brought an end to the fighting for his Division. Since 10 May, for the loss of 682 killed, 1,464 wounded, 296 men missing and 42 tanks totally destroyed (losses higher than those in other Panzer divisions that had seen quite as much action), it had taken 97,648 prisoners, 277 field guns, 64 anti-tank guns, 458 tanks and armoured cars and over 4,000 lorries, besides a mass of other material. Josef Goeb-bels could congratulate himself upon the success of the man his judgement had backed. The feats of the air and tank arms were trumpeted on high, the names of air aces and Luftwaffe commanders were linked with the Panzer leaders, especially the charismatic Guderian and Rommel. The 7th Panzer Division came to be known as “The Ghost Division”, and its photogenic commander was firmly emplaced on the peaks of public esteem. The book he wrote extolling his troops’ feats played down or ignored the part played by the rest of the German Army and the Luftwaffe. It was illustrated by the pictures he had taken with the camera given him by Goebbels.

Naturally, the 7th Panzer Division was among the formations selected for a part in the invasion of England that was planned for September. To this task, Rommel bent himself with a lot more enthusiasm than many of the Wehrmacht’s upper hierarchy. Had the operation not been called off, it is not impossible that he would have been at the head of a spearhead driving on London. Even so, his future glory was assured. For the next three years or more, he would be Hitler’s first choice for some of the most dramatic tasks on offer, as the German frontiers were pushed farther afield.

 

 

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Airship Graf Zeppelin: Recce…

In the spring of 1939 the giant airship Graf Zeppelin was presumed to be in honourable retirement in its shed at Frankfurt-am-Main after nearly eleven years of flying.

Instead, it was being prepared for the first military electronics reconnaissance in history, twenty-one years before the American U-2 hit the headlines with its crash in Russia.

General Wolfgang Martini, head of the Luftwaffe signals organisation, had for many months been interested to discover whether Britain possessed a workable radar for detecting aircraft. German firms were busy developing such equipment, and his suspicions had been heightened by the appearance of unusual 350-foot-high aerial masts round the south and east coasts of England.

When the first masts had gone up at Orfordness in Suffolk the German Air Force maps labelled them as belonging to a radio-transmitting station. Then Bawdsey showed similar towers and these were followed by others at Dunkirk and Dover in Kent and Canewdon in Essex. By early 1939 masts were up, or in process of erection, from the Isle of Wight to the Orkneys.

Martini urgently required to know the state of British radar, its wavelength and the number of sites operational. The tall masts with their crossed lattice aerials appeared, however, to be unsuited to the wavelengths which German scientists had deemed best for their own secret Freya and Würzburg radars. Accordingly, at a meeting with Göring, Milch and other air force commanders. Martini proposed that twelve airships be made available for high-frequency ‘research’.

At first the assembly was hostile to the idea, but began to show a more helpful attitude as Martini explained his purpose. He could not, he pointed out, use an aeroplane, as it was too small, lacked endurance and could not remain motionless in the air. With an airship he would have all the space necessary, many hours of flying time and the ability to stop and take readings where necessary.

Göring and Milch felt that any production of airships would use up large quantities of materials urgently needed for aircraft. Finally, however, it was agreed that Martini should use the two existing Zeppelins, L.Z.127 and L.Z.130, and if the experiments were successful four more should be ordered.

Work was immediately started on converting one of them into an airborne radio interrogation station. A number of new high-frequency receivers were installed and an aerial array rigged underneath the gondola.

Towards the end of May 1939 preparations were completed. Under cover of night the 776-foot-long airship slipped her moorings at Frankfurt and headed out over the North Sea. Her course stood westwards in the direction of the Bawdsey Research Station in Suffolk where the tall radio-transmitting masts were situated.

General Martini himself was on board for this trial run, which was mainly concerned with testing the receivers. Off Bawdsey, Graf Zeppelin turned north and flew parallel to the British east coast. The operators and technicians in the gondola anxiously waited for some response from the radio receivers, but each set emitted a loud crackling noise and nothing else.

At Canewdon and at Bawdsey the staff were amazed to find the largest ‘blip’ they had ever seen, travelling very slowly across the cathode-ray-tubes.

Fighter Command filter and operations rooms immediately began tracking on the map tables. It became evident that the strange visitor, because of its size and speed, could only be an airship. From its course along the coast it was correctly deduced that some sort of radar interrogation was in progress.

One by one the east coast Chain Home radars picked up Graf Zeppelin as it progressed northwards. Over the Humber estuary the airship transmitted a position report back to Germany. This was picked up by British radio intelligence who informed Fighter Command that the German ‘fix’ was a few miles off the coast of Yorkshire.

At the Bentley Priory operations table this news caused considerable amusement, as Graf Zeppelin’s correct position had just been established, in cloud, over Hull itself—well inland. Air Marshal Pretty (then a flight-lieutenant on radar duty at Fighter Command) recalls that ‘We were sorely tempted to radio a correction message to the airship but this would have revealed we were actually seeing her position on radar, so we kept silent.’

Off the north-east coast Graf Zeppelin turned for home, having picked up nothing but an appalling noise in the receivers. General Martini still did not know whether British radar was operational.

It was assumed that the interference was due to an installation defect and the reflections from the airship’s envelope. Modifications were made to the sets and to the aerial and further trial runs were made over Germany.

During one of these the engineer responsible for the aerial, Dr. Sailer, slipped on the ladder between the gondola and the special basket holding the aerial. The altitude was too low for his parachute to open fully, and he fell into a forest, severely injuring his spine. This incident gave rise to later ill-founded rumours of a photographer in the under-basket with a special long-focus lens to record the radar masts on film.

Finally, all was ready for a second run up the east coast. This time Martini was not on board and the senior officer was Oberstleutnant Gosewisch, now Generalmajor retired and regional director of civil defence in Bonn.

At midnight on Wednesday, August 2nd, 1939, the Graf Zeppelin again slipped her moorings and steered for the North Sea. Her instructions were to keep close to Britain, but maintaining about fifteen miles distance from the shore. The wave-length strength and position of all high-frequency emissions was to be noted.

The night had been chosen for its poor weather and low cloud which gave adequate protection against sighting from the land. During the morning of August 3rd the airship came abreast of Bawdsey and turned north towards the Wash.

Once again no transmissions were detected and more faults developed in the receivers. Curiously, British radar did not pick up the airship, although the stations were operating.

It was not until three o’clock on the 3rd that the Graf Zeppelin was located visually off the coast of Kincardineshire proceeding north towards Scapa Flow. Half an hour later another sighting was obtained by coastguards at Collieston, Aberdeenshire. Two auxiliary air force fighters took off from Dyce, and identified the airship, which was well outside the three-mile limit.

The last sighting was by the lighthouse-keeper at Girdleness who was surprised to see the airship overhead at below 1,000 feet. Graf Zeppelin cruised on up to the Scapa Flow base, catching glimpses of British warships through the clouds. In the early evening she turned back to Germany—empty-handed. No high-frequency signals had been detected.

The London Daily Telegraph was quick to report the airship’s appearance over the islands. At 4 o’clock in the morning Gosewisch had retired to bed after the long flight, but was promptly awakened by General Jeshonnek, air force chief of general staff. The General wanted to know whether Graf Zeppelin had in fact crossed the British coast as the newspaper suggested. Gosewisch denied that this had occurred.

On the following day, August 4th, a highly amusing official communiqué was issued concerning the reconnaissance flight. Berlin denied that the Graf Zeppelin had intentionally left the Reich or had approached the coast of England. The statement went on: ‘The airship cannot leave Germany without special permission. There can be no question of an intention to fly over near British territory. There have, however, been severe storms during the last day or two and it is possible that the airship could have been blown off her course over the North Sea.’ A few days later a further flight was carried out, but again with no results.

So ended the Zeppelin’s career in radar survey. Within a month war had broken out, and afterwards both Graf Zeppelin 1 and Graf Zeppelin 2 were destroyed in the sheds at Frankfurt.

Neither side realised that the opening round of the air war against Britain had been fought and lost by Germany.

If the airship’s equipment had worked properly in the first place there would doubtless have been many more reconnaissance flights. Radar would then have merited serious study by the Luftwaffe Command staff and intelligence departments.

This in turn would have produced new German tactics for the Battle of Britain, a sustained assault on the coastal radar stations and the employment of airborne jamming devices. Such steps would have deprived the R.A.F. of its long-range-warning cover and the outcome of the Battle of Britain might have been very different.

As it was, the German Air Force made no efforts to investigate the radar chain or the fighter-control system to which it was linked. Bombing of radar stations was abandoned early in the battle. The German High Command chose to ignore the advent of science in warfare.

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.

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

To rapidly provide the necessary low-level leaders as well as specialists, the German military leadership reacted in its typical manner, namely by decentralizing the process. Instead of building up courses at home in the Replacement Army, which was already overstrained by the demands for more recruits and its own expansion, frontline units should choose men that had proven themselves in the last month under front conditions and train them right behind the front. This saved travel time, which could easily take several weeks for the men to travel back and forth, as well as administrative work. It also had the advantage of instituting a warlike training that fulfilled the demands of the frontline units. While these initial courses in winter 1942 were improvised, they were quickly institutionalized in most divisions, often in the so-called divisional combat school. The task of the combat school was described as follows:

1) The combat school’s objective is the development of independently acting, clear thinking, versatile, decisive and energetic NCOs, whose character paired with passion and technical as well as small tactical skills to convince and electrify subordinates and is example to them.

2) In addition to the use of their own weapons, all NCOs are to learn to cooperate with the heavy weapons that fight with them. Here, especially NCOs of the heavy weapons are to train in the flexible control of fire and in the rapid forming of fire concentrations. The NCOs of the Grenadier companies are to learn above all the immediate exploitation of fire.

3) Candidates for platoon- and group leaders are to drill in the technical handling of weapons and equipment, in close-combat and destroying tanks and in the giving of commands, as well as be instructed in the training of subordinates.

4) To that effect, those trained in the combat school include a) especially proven Unteroffiziere to platoon leaders, b) young, inexperienced Unterroffiziere and older good Gefreite, in special cases also Grenadiers, to group leaders, c) young, inexperienced Unteroffiziere and Gefreite of the machine gun, infantry gun and ATG companies to commanders of their weapons and group leaders.

At a divisional level, only the lowest level of leadership – the NCO – was trained. But as one can see from the tasks they were responsible for, NCOs had very different roles in the German army than in most other armies of the time, especially in tactical leadership. Officers, primarily company and battalion commanders, were trained in courses at Army or Army Group level, also a newly introduced innovation begun in winter 1942.

These two developments – the need for additional training for newly arriving recruits and the decentralized training of low-level leaders – as well as the need for training with newly introduced weapons, made training capabilities in the field units necessary. The divisional combat school was one such step, while others were taken in the field replacement battalion. It was the field replacement battalion that finally became the training facility for divisions in the east, as the following source shows:

1) Purpose of field replacement battalions:

The field replacement battalion is the ‘field training battalion’ and at the same time the personnel reserve of the Eastern army’s divisions.

With the field replacement battalion, the divisions should be given the opportunity by evaluating combat experiences to:

  1. A) train arriving replacements to become full-fledged Eastern fighters,
  2. B) train group and platoon leaders for their demands,
  3. C) Further training for the front fighters – especially through attack training – and to train specialists of all kinds.

As losses are the heaviest with the infantry and the engineers, the main task of the field replacement battalion is to train infantry and engineer replacements and sub-leaders.

To A): Newly arriving replacements, such as march companies, convalescent companies, etc., are to be trained in each division for several weeks in the field replacement battalion, as long as the combat situation allows for it, before deploying in the front. The same applies to the training of NCOs, who are supplied from the Replacement Army and are not yet suitable as a group or platoon leader as a result of their previous use. It is also not possible for the Replacement Army to fully train the replacements on automatic weapons (especially the machine gun) due to the lack of such weapons. The missing training is to be supplemented in the field replacement battalion.

To B): The formation of platoon and group leaders (sub-leader training) is of decisive importance in the present state of numerous divisions and in the continuing duration of the war. In consequence, divisional combat schools have been established in infantry divisions, light infantry divisions, and mountain divisions. The divisional combat schools are to be incorporated into the field replacement battalion. They count as a company. The commander of the divisional combat school (B-position) can be used as commander of the field replacement battalion depending on suitability.

To C): Due to the duration of the positional warfare, it is also necessary to develop the older front fighters for other types of combat. In this case ‘attack training’ is of particular importance. If there are personnel reserves (leader reserve) in the field replacement battalion, the same applies to them. The introduction of new weapons [and] the need for specialists of all kinds requires the implementation of special courses in the field replacement battalion. Furthermore, the field replacement battalion can be utilized to train the alarm units. All kinds of combat experiences can be evaluated by further trials in the field replacement battalion.

The structure of the field replacement battalion must therefore be adapted to the respective situation.

2) Training subjects:

In the case of an overabundance of subjects, the emphasis should be placed on:

Reconnaissance patrols and assault group activity

Co-operation of all infantry weapons

Close-combat training,

Anti-tank close combat,

Sniper training,

Night fighting.

At the same time, the field replacement battalion is the winter combat school of the division.

3) Structure

The field replacement battalion is to consist of the battalion staff and 2 to 5 companies. Only the command, instruction and supply personnel are fixed in the unit, while the personnel to be trained are subject to considerable changes, depending on the deployment and situation of the division. Thus, for example, the following structure may be appropriate for a division to which a march battalion had been recently added:

Staff

2 training companies for infantry training,

1 training company for heavy infantry weapons training, 1 company [at the] disposal [of the commander] (engineer training, signal training, other specialists),

1 sub-leader company (divisional fighting school)

On the other hand, it is possible that in another division, to which no march battalion or replacements were added, the field replacement battalion consists only of

1 sub-leader company (divisional combat school), 1 company [at the] disposal [of the commander] (training of specialists of all kinds),

1 company for close combat and assault group training (men removed from the front for advanced training).

4) In particular, the following is pointed out:

The training of the sub-leaders must continue independently of all combat operations.

The most appropriate officers and NCOs are to be appointed as instructors, especially to set up and get used to each other in the first training period.

Anti-gas training belongs to the basic training of every soldier and is therefore also to be pursued in the field replacement battalion.

The field replacement battalion can only fully fulfill its task of being the field training battalion of the division when the leadership does not deploy the battalion prematurely in critical situations for combat, but pursues the training as planned independent of the situation.

In addition to further training for replacements and NCOs, the Field Replacement Battalion was also not only the unit where new weapons and tactics could be tested, but also a place for the further training of men whose long stretch in the trenches had decreased their effectiveness in offensive actions. The training for newly arrived replacements in the field replacement battalion allowed for their step by step integration into frontline units, as well as for the men to adapt to conditions in the Soviet Union. When the combat situation allowed for such a period, units that carried out these programmes clearly suffered fewer losses of new men when they were again engaged in combat. But even when armed with such knowledge, German units were often forced to deploy the field replacement battalion in crisis situations or to release the replacements prematurely to the front. The demand to train NCOs independently of combat action was often impossible due to the lack of men. Interestingly, the training issues stressed did not appreciably differ from the 1941 guidelines.

In addition to filling units with individual replacements, complete units were also sent to the east. Up to mid-1943, these were mostly full divisions. A first wave of divisions was sent to the Soviet Union in the 1941/42 winter crisis to fill gaps across the front. A second wave arrived in the east in spring and early summer 1942 for the German summer offensive. This wave included many allied units. A third and final wave was sent eastward from late November 1942 on to stem the Soviet offensive in the south. After these three waves, only a few new divisions were sent eastward, mostly rebuilt units such as numerous divisions destroyed in Stalingrad. Allied threats in the Mediterranean and on the Channel coast in 1943 drew most newly formed divisions to those regions. The introduction of new troops, however, caused many problems, in some cases due to the composition of the units, while others were due to the special conditions in the east, as the following autumn 1942 report by Sixth Army illustrates:

1) The mistakes ascertained in the report of the Second Army about the formation of divisions with three hundred numbers also occurred in the divisions of the same type subordinated to the Sixth Army. In the case of future new formations, it is then necessary to avoid:

composition of almost only short-service, men classified as indispensable, numerous fathers with many children and last sons,

formation by cadre personnel mostly inexperienced in the East, including officers,

too brief and deficient infantry combat training.

It proved to be disadvantageous to order the few useful instructors to Döberitz and Jüterbog. Dispatching of a school’s instruction troop to the divisions would have been better.

Equipment with too little motorized transport capacity (only 1 small truck column), with horse-drawn bakery companies, with only one workshop platoon, with heavy military carriages instead of light commercial ones, with too many types (about 100) French motor vehicles and with horses that are too heavy, and thus unsuitable for the East;

Equipping [the unit] with horses and motor vehicles too late, so that it was no longer possible for the operating personnel to practice before employment.

2) In spite of these deficiencies, the 300-numbered divisions subordinated to the Sixth Army have proven themselves effective not only in attack, but also generally in defence.

3) In order to remedy the identified shortcomings during the winter:

  1. A) Ruthless eradication of all unsuitable leaders and an increased replacement rate of men with Eastern experiences in contrast to other divisions,
  2. B) Sustained further education during periods of relative quiet in individual and unit training up to the level of the reinforced battalion. For this, several weeks of relief for each unit. Use and training of individual battalions as instruction battalions at the company commander school of the army,
  3. C) Remedy of the deficiencies found in the supply units by modifying the table of organization, the table of basic allowances and corresponding supply.

The divisions identified as numbering over three hundred, which primarily arrived in spring and summer 1942 to support the German summer offensive, suffered heavily from all kinds of shortages, be it men or material. While a lack of instructors with experience in the east only exacerbated the problem, the leadership of experienced divisional and, in some units, regimental commanders allowed these units to perform adequately after an initial learning curve. They also profited from being transferred to the east prior to a German offensive, giving them time to settle and adapt to the conditions. Units sent eastward in the winter crisis were often hastily thrown piecemeal into battle and frequently suffered irreparable damage or were completely destroyed.

But even sending smaller units that should have been integrated into existing divisions proved very problematic, as the following report by the 5th Panzer Divisions indicates:

The I./894 is subordinated to the Panzer Grenadier Regiment 13 since 22.11.1943. The experiences made with this unit appear so serious that it is considered appropriate to make higher levels aware of them.

Grenadier Regiment 894 was formed in June 1943 for security tasks on the Atlantic coast from soldiers non-suitable for the East, men who were previously rated as indispensable, in the mass soldiers classified as fit for reduced field service (Garnisonsverwendungsfähig – Feld), and deployed in the positions on the coast at the end of July 1943. On 20 October 1943, the 1st Battalion was removed from the regiment, and newly formed after the exchange of non-suitable soldiers. From the day of formation to the day of loading to the east, the battalion had 10 days available, which for the most part still had to be used for work for establishing [the unit].

The battalion was equipped in a way that has not been seen in the East either with our own or with other units. Armament: purely MG 42, namely for each company 12 light and 2 heavy machine guns. In addition, in each company two medium mortars. Combat strength of the companies average 130 men. The equipment for the winter, from the complete winter clothing, to sleds, rescue toboggans, skis up to and including coal for heating was described as perfect.

A training of the battalion with the assigned weapons has almost not taken place at all. During the time of the use on the coast, only training on the immobile defensive weapons was carried out. Only in the reserve company was some terrain training carried out. After the formation of the battalion, a special training on the heavy machine gun and mortar was begun, which however had to be interrupted after five days as a result of transport to the east. Use, handling and maintenance of all weapons, priming and use of hand grenades, and the use of the spade invariably are almost unknown to the battalion. The principles on the use of weapons and the building of positions are also unknown to most officers and NCOs.

During the formation of the battalion, it never trained as a unit at all. Therefore, none of the leaders were trained in smooth cooperation. Because of their short affiliation with the troops, most of them hardly knew each other.

The personnel situation was as follows:

NCOs and men at march out:        800

Thereof with experiences in the East: 8%  60

Thereof with otherwise war experiences (France)  90

Without any war experience 81% 650

Officer situation at march out:      11

of which with experience in the East (mainly partisan war)  5

of which otherwise war-experienced (campaign in France)  3

of which without war experience: 3

A 46-year-old Hautpmann was appointed as the leader of the battalion, who until now had been company commander of a bicycle company, and so far had occasionally led a battalion as deputy. He had experience in bandit warfare, but all that is fundamental in the entrenchment and defence of a position is completely new to him. A Leutnant was assigned to him as adjutant, who learned about and took over the affairs of the adjutant for the first time at the end of October 1943. His wartime experiences were limited to the war against France. He had not been in the East yet. The same information applies to the special mission staff officer. Of the company leaders two had experiences in the East. However, the experience of the one limited itself to the staff activity. The third company leader was 2 months [in the Soviet Union], and the fourth not yet in the East.

Immediately prior to the start of the railroad transport, the battalion was given replacements from the class of 1925, which accounted for 16% of the total strength. These young men were all grouped together in a company. As a result of imperfect training and inexperience among the leaders and NCOs, these young replacements suffered considerable casualties within a few days, so that now only 9% are still available.

The total losses of the battalion were also comparatively high as measured by combat activity. Within 9 days, there were 180 casualties. These losses are mainly attributed to the lack of combat experience, likewise the comparatively high losses of armament, devices and equipment already in the first 24 hours.

Such a wear-and-tear of people and material would not have occurred in a veteran unit. There, men as well as weapons and equipment come into expert hands. What is lacking in training will be made good in a sound form, be it during the deployment, and weapons are issued only to those people who could operate them.

It seems more appropriate to refrain from such new formations, and to correspondingly replenish the old, combat-proven companies. Only then can such losses be avoided. We cannot afford any superfluous losses in the currently strained replacement situation.

It should also be borne in mind that there is a tradition in the old front regiments and thus the feeling of pride in one’s own troop. These are the things which, even in difficult situations, enable the troops to achieve a particularly high fighting performance.

Obviously, these conditions are completely absent in the case of such a loosely composed units as in these new formations. As a result, the fighting spirit of such a force is far less. For this reason too, such a preferred equipping [of the unit] appears to be completely out of place.

Panzer Grenadier Regiment 13 also reports that from 22.–24.11.1943, another battalion was attached to it. Here the conditions were the same as in the case of the I./894. After a deployment of 48 hours, the battalion commander reported that he had only around 250 out of 800 men still in hand! This, too, was not a result of the fighting situation, but merely the effect of the inexperience of the troops and their leaders. The troop itself is the least to blame. It is not responsible for its inexperience, and it must also be acknowledged that the good will is undoubtedly present. This good will, however, can neither replace the lack of training nor the complete inexperience of command and troops.

Once again, the source indicates that manpower deficiencies were not as damaging to the unit as was the lack of men – and especially commanders – familiar with conditions and combat in the east. In this particular case, material questions were not an issue. This source thereby reflects a larger problem that occasioned many complaints in the second half of the war, namely the uneven distribution of new equipment. Many newly formed units received new weapons and equipment while older units had difficulties in acquiring either replacements for lost or destroyed material or newly introduced weapons. This process further weakened older units. An issue not even talked about is the amalgamation of a unit trained as an infantry formation into a tank unit, despite the fact that many of these men had never before seen the inside of a tank. This was certainly a contributing factor to the decline of German Panzer units’ combat power in the second half of the war, and is a topic which deserves more research.

Even after the forwarding of replacements and transfers of full units to the east, German manpower in the Soviet Union always operated in a shortage – and it was a shortage that only worsened as the war continued. In an attempt to overcome this scarcity, the German army started to draw manpower from new sources. The most obvious means, yet often overlooked, was to shift men within the army apparatus. A well-known example of this was the tasking of Generalleutnant, later General der Infanterie, Walter von Unruh, with combing through all agencies and rear units for men to be sent to the front. Beginning in late 1942, his competencies were expanded to federal departments and Nazi party institutions. His success in creating large numbers of soldiers was moderate, but it nonetheless led to conflicts with Armaments Minister Albert Speer, because each drew from the same pool. More important was the shifting within the field army’s frontline troops, as the following order from the OKH on the enhancement of the combat power in autumn 1942 shows:

Prior to spring 1943, one cannot expect any significant replacements arriving. We must resign ourselves to this fact, and do everything we can to maintain and increase our combat strength.

Therefore the following measures must be carried out as soon as possible:

1) Complete disbanding of individual units and formations, disbanding and reduction of baggage trains;

2) Replacement of the German soldier by Russian Hilfswillige (prisoners of war) in such places which do not need to be occupied by combat soldiers. In many units this has already been carried out to a large extent, although further measures are still necessary.

3) Deployment of all hereby released German soldiers into the infantry and formation of special branch combat units.

In detail:

  1. A) Disbanding and reduction

1) The disbanding of units and formations (III. battalions […]) must be a complete one and may not be temporary. It is precisely the ‘cadre personnel’ and the baggage trains that yield gains in men.

2) Reduction of batteries to 3 guns. The fourth guns have to be parked division-wise with the least amount of German supervision and Russian support personnel. Cannoneers and drivers who are freed in this way cannot be used for filling open positions in the artillery.

3) Reduction of the baggage trains. Even where this has already been ordered and carried out, it is again necessary to examine with the strictest criteria, which parts a) can be completely disbanded, b) can be stored throughout the winter, thus freeing soldiers for combat use. I expect that commanders of all degrees will take drastic measures here.

4) As soon as the winter position is reached, approximately 50% of all horses and a large part of the motor vehicles are to be stored in the hinterland. For the care of these horses and motor vehicles, only Russian Hilfswillige and only the absolutely necessary supervisory personnel, which at the same time carries out the training of the Hilfswillige (for example as a driver of the horse, a driver, technical staff, etc.) are to be assigned to them.

[…]

5) The reduction and modification of existing tables of organization are in preparation. Correspondingly, we must now proceed. According to these, the following disappeared: about 10% in each battalion and regimental staff, 8 men per battery, all not absolutely necessary motorcycle drivers, messengers, command post clerks and drivers in each engineer battalion, the heavy machine gun group in the cavalry companies of each reconnaissance battalion, some 10% per signal battalion. In the case of supply troops, it is intended to merge all the horse drawn columns and small truck columns into large horse-drawn columns and large motor vehicle columns to save command and crew personnel.

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.

September 1944: The German Army consolidates the Western Front I


Commander-in-Chief in the West Gerd Von Rundstedt’s review of the precarious situation in early September served only to reinforce the opinion that he had formed earlier in the summer: that the German cause was lost. But he reported to OKW:

Our own forces are tied up in battle, and in part severely mauled. They are short of artillery and anti-tank weapons. Reserves worthy of mention are not available. The numerical superiority of the enemy’s tanks to ours is incontestable. With Army Group B at the present there are some 100 tanks [compared with the Allies’ 2000] available for action. The enemy air force dominates the battle area and rear communications deep into the rearward terrain…

To make matters worse, the quality of the German force in the west was deteriorating. This was not only because of a lack of fuel, ammunition and weaponry, but also because the fighting troops were tired and rapidly losing their efficiency. Poorly trained replacements were being drawn from an increasingly shallow and inappropriate pool of men from within the Reich. Those that made it to the front were invariably met by understandably disconsolate comrades who were taking part in a disorganized withdrawal after a miserable defeat. Lars Hahn was a decorated 30-year-old major who had fought on the Eastern Front for two years before being transferred to Normandy in April 1944. Recalling the difficult days after the battle of Normandy he says:

We had been fighting since 8 June without much time to sleep and only one or two days away from the front. My company was gradually whittled away during the summer. At first we received some young and inexperienced men as replacements, and then some older experienced men still suffering from wounds, but by early August there were none at all. In early June I commanded 123 men, but by the time we had crossed the Somme we were less than a section, 8 men… and I was carrying two wounds – one in the thigh and one in the shoulder. But I could not leave my men. They wanted the war to end, and so did I, but we fought on because we had to, because we were told to and because we still had some vestiges of honour left.

Hahn and his comrades were ready to continue their fight in spite of the recent morale-sapping setbacks. Others felt likewise. Young Lieutenant Erich Schneider, for example, had deserted from 553 Infantry Division at the end of August. But when questioned about the fighting spirit of his unit he replied: ‘The general opinion… was that the war would be over in eight weeks, but the soldiers of the Regt considered that they might as well retain their honour by fighting to the end.’ It was by harnessing the seemingly limited potential of such men, whilst strengthening the line with paratroopers, soldiers of the Waffen-SS and others who retained their motivation and combat effectiveness, that von Rundstedt and Model planned to build a defensive line to bring the retreat to an end. This was desperately needed for as Siegfried Westphal, von Rundstedt’s new Chief of Staff, later wrote:

The overall situation in the west was serious in the extreme. A heavy defeat anywhere along the front, which was so full of gaps that it did not deserve that name, might lead to a catastrophe, if the enemy were to exploit his opportunity skilfully. A particular source of danger was that not a single bridge over the Rhine had been prepared for demolition, an omission which took weeks to repair…

The opportunity to stop the exodus came with the stuttering of the Allied offensive around 4 September. It also coincided with Model’s final Order of the Day as Commander-in-Chief West:

With the enemy’s advance and the withdrawal of our front, several hundred thousand soldiers are falling back – army, air force and armoured units – troops which must re-form as planned and hold in new strongpoints or lines.

In this stream are the remnants of broken units which, for the moment, have no set objectives and are not even in a position to receive clear orders. Whenever orderly columns turn off the road to reorganize, streams of disorganized elements push on. With their wagons move whispers, rumours, haste, endless disorder and vicious self-interest. This atmosphere is being brought back to the rear areas, infecting units still intact, and in this moment of extreme tension must be prevented by the strongest means.

I appeal to your honour as soldiers. We have lost a battle, but I assure you of this: we will win this war! I cannot tell you more at present, although I know that questions are burning on your lips. Whatever has happened, never lose your faith in the future of Germany. At the same time you must be aware of the gravity of the situation. This moment will and should separate men from weaklings. Now, every soldier has the same responsibility. When his commander falls, he must be ready to step into his shoes and carry on.

These are strong words, but it is doubtful that many troops were aware of Model’s exhortations. It is much more likely, therefore, that the formation of an embryonic defensive position at this time came about after some fleeing troops had been successfully stopped and organized into a coherent force. Assisting in this process was the timely but unexpected arrival in southern Holland on 3 September of troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Kurt Chill. Chill had been ordered to move the remnants of his destroyed 85 Division back to Germany, but having seen Model’s Order of the Day, and angered by the stifling chaos, decided to merge his men with the remnants of two other divisions and organize a line along the Albert Canal in northern Belgium. Having set up reception centres on innumerable bridges, Chill’s officers and NCOs managed in just 24 hours to corral thousands of troops from every arm into new positions. By 5 September Chill’s growing force had been joined on its right from Antwerp along the Albert Canal to the junction of the Meuse–Escaut Canal by Lieutenant-General Karl Sievers’ 719 Infantry Division. These old men who had been stationed along the Dutch coast since 1940 – and had not fired a shot in anger – were supplemented by one Dutch SS battalion and a few Luftwaffe detachments. Over the days that followed, the newly shored up line was further reinforced by men from Fifteenth Army who had escaped a British Second Army encirclement by crossing the Schelde and reached the mainland north of Antwerp. Over 16 days, 65,000 men, 225 guns, 750 trucks and wagons and 1,000 horses were evacuated to take up defensive positions along the Albert Canal and throughout Holland. Meanwhile, Colonel-General Kurt Student’s First Parachute Army was also moving into position. It was activated on 4 September, when Jodl ordered him to collect all available units together and ‘build a new front on the Albert Canal’, which was to ‘be held at all costs!’ Göring made 20,000 men available to Student from six parachute regiments and two convalescent battalions, together with a further 10,000 men composed of sailors, Waffen-SS training units, Luftwaffe air and ground crews, along with 25 tanks. Lieutenant-Colonel Friedrich von der Heydte’s 6 Parachute Regiment moved quickly into defence with the three-regiment 7 Parachute Division, commanded by Lieutenant-General Wolfgang Erdmann, on its left flank. Completing the German line down to Maastricht was 176 Infantry Division which comprised invalids and convalescents. On 10 September, at his headquarters in Vught (17 miles north-west of Eindhoven), Student analysed the newly created 75-mile-long front that he had been charged with commanding. Spreading out a map on a large carved oak table, he announced in an exasperated tone that it amounted to little more than ‘the sweepings from Germany and elsewhere and the exhausted from France: not many of them and very little armour. But it must remain steadfast.’ Student, the talented yet modest creator of Germany’s airborne forces, recognized that his men would very soon be confronted with a renewed Allied thrust and that if he was to provide time required for the defences on the Rhine and along the West Wall to be reinforced, his army could not afford to crumble at the first blow.

It was the earliest arriving of these newly tasked German troops that the British clattered into as they resumed their offensive on 6 September. Immediately offering resistance to XXX Corps, 11th Armoured Division was held on the Albert Canal, whilst the Guards Armoured Division just managed to push on to the Meuse–Escaut Canal and to create a bridgehead at Neerpelt. Amongst those initially defending against Adair’s Guards was Lieutenant Adi Strauch, a platoon commander in 2 Parachute Regiment who had been wounded whilst fighting in Russia. Just before moving out to the front in northern Belgium he inspected his men:

Standing alongside young volunteers were old NCOs, Luftwaffe men taken away from their company office desks and from headquarters duties. The nucleus of the company consisted of just eight trained paratroops. We were soon to go into action so there was little time; a few days at the most, in which to give them weapon training.

The company began its journey forward on 5 September. It consisted of ‘two heavy machine gun platoons, a mortar platoon, a half-platoon of infantry guns, two Panzerschrek sections and company headquarters’. By the following day, the battalion was preparing itself for an attack on the village of Helchteren near the Albert Canal:

Our battalion reached the form-up area during the morning of the 7th and was soon involved in fighting against a British armoured division… On 8 September and for the next few days the British attacked again and again, but each assault was beaten back, although there were now heavy losses to both sides.

As the British bludgeoned their way forward, the Germans struggled to contain them, and suffering prohibitive casualties, Strauch was forced to take command of the company:

My old comrade, who had led No. 1 Platoon, was fatally wounded… and enemy tanks began to work round our left flank. Over the field telephone, which was still working, I was ordered to pull back. British tanks were only metres away as I, together with five others, worked our way back to battalion headquarters which enemy tanks were now nearing. Our close-quarters tank-busting teams went into action and the enemy advance on that sector was quickly halted.

This was the type of tenacious defence that the British troops had not experienced since the middle of August. It spelled the end of ‘Montgomery’s waltz through northern Europe’ and the beginning of something far more plodding and fraught. Indeed, the Dutch resistance informed the British that the German line was solidifying, and by the end of the first week in September Twenty-First Army Group was reviewing evidence to suggest that new units and formations were moving into Holland as Fifteenth Army escaped its clutches and a further 20,000 troops were sent into the line by OKW. This latter force consisted of various third-rate troops pillaged from units in training, cadres of veterans supplemented by untrained personnel, and Volksgrenadier divisions. These Volksgrenadier formations not only lacked men and heavy weapons but also suffered from a bare minimum of training, which made them useful only in static defensive positions. Their units were formed around a small cadre of experienced soldiers, but their ranks were filled with the young, the old, those who had previously been deemed unfit for military service and ‘unemployed’ men from other services and arms. Lieutenant Lingenhole, a platoon commander in the recently formed 553 Volksgrenadier Division, believed that the division was not ready for battle when it received its orders for the front. During that summer ‘no long tr[ainin]g marches were made… The co[mpan]ys of 1st Bn, GR1120 had a march of approximately 12 km to the range where they fired [their weapons]. About 10 per cent to 15 per cent of the personnel were unable to march that distance, and had to be transported.’ Lingenhole also said that the division’s troops were aged from 17½ years to 39½ years, the formation was at 60 per cent strength when deployed and ‘approximately half were not completely fit for field service’. Moreover, Major Geyer, who was on the divisional staff, reported that ‘The personnel of the Division suffered from low morale, not so much because of their lack of desire to fight, but because they felt that they were so poorly equipped with weapons.’ Even so, Model could not afford to be choosy about the men that he took: he understood that such formations were essential if the Germans were to have anything other than Student’s thin crust of a defensive line.

September 1944: The German Army consolidates the Western Front II

Heinz Harmel

 

Accompanying these new formations through the rear area were those who had been so badly battered that they had been pulled out of the line for rest, refit and reorganization. In Holland this included 9 and 10 SS Panzer Divisions of II SS Panzer Corps, commanded with passion by the highly skilled and well-respected 50-year-old Lieutenant-General Wilhelm (‘Willi’) Bittrich. The SS (Schutzstaffel, or protection squad) was originally formed as protection for Hitler in the late 1920s and commanded by Heinrich Himmler, who sought to make it racially exclusive. By the mid 1930s it had an armed wing (the Waffen-SS), which was increasingly seen as an alternative army. Highly motivated, fiercely proud and rigorously trained, the SS boasted four divisions by 1941 which sought to have no rival on the battlefield and were given the toughest missions. I SS Panzer Corps’ official historian has written: ‘The combined effects of brave officers and senior NCOs and brave, dedicated soldiers made for an extremely formidable military machine. Wounds were to be borne with pride and never used as a reason to leave the field of battle; mercy was seen as a sign of weakness and normally neither offered nor expected.’ The 9 and 10 SS Panzer Divisions were created in early 1943, and during the remainder of the year were trained at various locations in France. SS-Rottenführer Gerd Rommel of 10 SS Panzer Division recalls:

Our training was indeed hard… These were the last divisions that were able to make use of relative peace in the West for their training, before the D-Day invasion in June 1944. However, it was very intensive. They all received the most up-to-date and modern equipment but, because they were so well equipped, a great deal was expected of them when they went into action.

The corps saw action on the Eastern Front a year later, suffering such heavy losses that it was forced into reserve after a refit. However, although still desperately needed in Russia, within a week of the invasion of Normandy it was moved to France, where it arrived before the end of June. Here, both divisions were heavily involved in the fighting and, once again, took substantial casualties. Even so, the two divisions remained dangerous antagonists, and during the Allied breakout they held the line, counterattacked and fought stoically in whatever role was required of them. They became such a feared and highly respected opponent that Dwight Eisenhower said of the final phase of the battle of Normandy: ‘while the SS elements as usual fought to annihilation, the ordinary German infantry gave themselves up in ever-increasing numbers’. But such was II SS Panzer Corps’ sacrifice during the summer of 1944 that both of its divisions were beginning to be referred to as ‘Kampfgruppe’ – a battle group which varied in size and consisted of various divisional elements which took the name of its commander. For example, 9 SS Panzer Division had left Russia 18,000 men strong with a fearsome array of tanks, vehicles and heavy weapons, but by late August it consisted of a mere 3,500 men and a handful of vehicles. Nevertheless, it continued to work in close cooperation with 10 SS Panzer Division, and together they took part in operations in the Falaise Pocket to hold open an exit for other units to escape through before managing to break away themselves. In so doing, the two divisions revealed that they remained not only selfless, but highly competent fighting organizations.

Walter Harzer

Much of the continued vitality of II SS Panzer Corps came from Bittrich’s excellent direction and the quality of his subordinates. The 9 SS Panzer Division was commanded by the determined and decisive 32-year-old SS-Obersturmbannführer Walter Harzer, who had very recently taken up the position. Looking older than his years and often scruffily presented, he was a first-class combat soldier who had recently been awarded the Cross in Gold for his superb leadership in Normandy. The 10 SS Panzer Division, meanwhile, was commanded by 38-year-old SS-Gruppenführer Heinz Harmel. The debonair Harmel was also a highly decorated officer who had himself been awarded the Cross in Gold and also a Knight’s Cross of Iron with Oak Leaves, a Wound Badge, an Infantry Assault Badge, Tank Destruction Badges and a Close Combat Clasp. He was a popular soldier with his superiors and also his men. SS-Sturmmann Rudy Splinter revealed that Harmel was ‘a real soldier’s soldier, no airs and graces, and he would do anything for his men. It’s no wonder they would follow him anywhere and do anything he asked…’ Thus, in spite of their recent losses, with men of the quality of Harzer and Harmel at the helm, the two formations remained driven and highly competent. Throughout the last week of August, having crossed the Seine, II SS Panzer Corps conducted several important rearguard actions to slow the Allied advance. The divisions stayed just ahead of the British and American spearheads and continued to suffer casualties. Indeed, losses were taken just getting designated replacements to the front from Germany. Nineteen-year-old Alfred Ziegler, a despatch rider for the staff of a newly raised anti-tank unit for 9 SS Panzer Division, remembers that during the train journey to the front, Allied aircraft constantly harassed them:

The first company was caught in a very heavy fighter-bomber attack during which our company commander von Brocke was killed. We all fired our machine guns so that no bombs scored a direct hit on the train. Subsequent strafing runs did, however, cause some damage to the tank destroyers and vehicles, and wounded about 10 men. Later we detrained and joined the third company which had already been in the West for some time. But now the enemy started to chase us.

Ziegler and his unit arrived at the front just in time to fight alongside some German paratroopers. Such actions were always frenetic, with little time for preparation, and exhausting. The division’s armoured engineer battalion was commanded by 41-year-old SS-Captain Hans Moeller who said:

The situation could change by the hour. Every second was vital and called for quick decisions. The engineer battalion was last in the divisional column, and had to look after itself; we had lost radio contact. Should we be struck off as lost already? The weather at this moment was favourable. It had rained and low cloud was hindering enemy air sorties… There was always a feeling of uncertainty. Although not openly admitting it, everyone was preoccupied with the thought that chance or the fortunes of war may yet change. I kept my thoughts to myself, but I knew all these sleeping forms, exhausted, wrapped in blankets and tents, were thinking the same. We were absolutely worn out.

It was the norm for the SS troops to be outnumbered and outgunned. Indeed, when Harzer fought at Cambrai on 2 September he was confronted with ‘200 American tanks and accompanying infantry’. The battle that followed was ferocious and although he later claimed that some 40 of those tanks had been put out of action, by the end of the day his Kampfgruppe had lost most of its 88mm guns, and he had to order his men to withdraw. Its move down the Cambrai–Mons road that night has been described by SS veteran and historian Wilhelm Tieke:

The highway was overcrowded with fleeing vehicles. At the end the stream drove the last prime movers of the 4th SS Flak battery with its sixteen survivors, among them many severely wounded. Shortly before Valenciennes, one of the vehicles broke down. The badly wounded were no longer able to endure the torments of the hasty retreat. The courageous battery medical orderly, Gottschalk, remained with those wounded who could no longer be transported and went into captivity with them.

Having been cut off from the main body of his Kampfgruppe on becoming surrounded, Harzer and his command group only managed to get away by flying British and US flags on their vehicles and taking several unattended Allied trucks that they found at the roadside. The experience was indicative of the division’s role for it fought until the very last moment, and on several occasions they were nearly encircled or overrun. It was by providing such excellent cover for the general withdrawal that Harzer and Harmel stopped more of the German armed forces from being neutralized than eventually occurred. However, such was the intensity of their involvement that the two divisions could not continue in the role indefinitely, and so on 4 September, II SS Panzer Corps received orders to pull out of the line for a rest and refit around the quiet Dutch town of Arnhem, 75 miles behind the front line.

By the time that Bittrich’s corps had been given an opportunity to catch its breath, von Rundstedt and Model were on the cusp of bringing their ugly withdrawal to an end on the line of the Albert Canal. As has been described above, by marshalling units already at the front, and supplementing them with new formations from Germany, a new defensive zone was created that was a credit to German improvisation. This reorganization coincided with the damaging effects of overstretch being felt by the Allies, and so by the time that British Second Army lurched forward again, it found the way barred far more formidably than just a few days earlier. Nevertheless, the problems that Hitler faced after a summer of catastrophic setbacks were chronic, and finding a few thousand new second-rate troops to hold a line together with some shattered comrades was never going to alter his strategic prospects. With every passing day Hitler, OKW and the commanders in the West recognized that a major new Allied offensive was increasingly likely. Between 9 and 14 September Model’s intelligence officer issued daily warnings about increasing reinforcements coming up behind British Second Army and an imminent breakout, probably towards Nijmegen, Arnhem and Wesel, aimed at the Ruhr. This enlightened soldier was further convinced that Eisenhower would deploy his airborne forces, a known and feared commodity which had led to the Germans seeking some depth to their defences, in order to crack the front wide open. In an attempt to read Allied intentions more clearly and empathize with their ambitions, he went as far as to write a report as though he were Dwight Eisenhower giving orders to Miles Dempsey. His instructions to British Second Army were:

on its right wing it will concentrate an attack force, mainly composed of armoured units, and after forcing a Maas crossing, will launch operations to break through to the Rhenish–Westphalian industrial area [Ruhr] with the main effort via Roermond [24 miles east of Neerpelt]. To cover the northern flank, the left wing of the [Second British] Army will close to the Waal at Nijmegen, and thus create the basic conditions necessary to cut off the German forces committed in the Dutch coastal areas [the Fifteenth Army].

Allied plans were somewhat different, for although Model’s intelligence officer had correctly identified the Ruhr as a medium-term Allied objective, the main effort was to seize a Rhine crossing via Eindhoven and Nijmegen. It was this blow – Operation Market Garden – that was about to fall in depth on defences that had not been there just two weeks before. In such circumstances the role of the airborne forces in the undertaking looked not only more important but also far more risky.