Soldiers of the Volkssturm man a trench system in the late months of the war, armed mainly with World War l-vintage rifles. The price paid by the Volkssturm for their last-ditch defence of the Reich is unclear, but the number of those killed or captured would potentially reach 175,000.
The HJ were just some of the unfortunates caught up in the final collapse of the Third Reich. For those who became combatants in the Volkssturm, they stood at the young end of a scale that incorporated thousands of individuals who had no place facing the combined might of the Allied armies.
On 25 July 1944, having just escaped assassination in the 20 July bomb plot and with Allied forces massing on Germany’s western and eastern borders, Hitler issued a ‘Decree for Total War’. He announced on 25 September that all Germans aged 16—60 who were not Jews, gypsies, criminals or members of French, Polish or Slovene minorities, and who were not already in the armed forces or RAD, would join the new ‘People’s Militia’, the Deutscher Volkssturm. The six-million-strong force would have about 10,180 battalions — limited staff personnel and rear-echelon facilities, and lack of weapons standardization, made the battalion the largest tactical unit — divided into four Aufgebote (levies):
1st Levy: 1.2 million men in 1,850 battalions (400 in frontier districts); all physically fit 20—60-year-olds without essential war work exemption, assigned to frontline battalions, quartered in barracks, liable for service outside their home district, and including all available NSDAP political officials, Allgemeine-SS, SA, NSKK and NSFK (Nazi Air Corps).
2nd Levy: 2.8 million men in 4,860 battalions (1,050 in frontier districts); all physically fit 20—60-year-olds with essential war work exemption, usually organized in factory battalions, quartered at home, liable for service within their home county.
3rd Levy. 600,000 16—19-year-olds, plus some 15-year-old volunteers, in about 1,040 battalions; mostly 16-year-old Hitler Youths trained in the Wehrertuchtigungslager.
4th Levy. 1.4 million 20—60-year-olds unfit for active service, plus volunteers over 60 in about 2,430 battalions, for guard duty, including guarding concentration camps. The NS-Frauenschaft (Nazi Women’s League) provided rear-echelon support, and on 23 March 1945 were issued with firearms.
Not all planned battalions were formed, but at least 700 did see combat, the vast majority of these recruited from the frontier districts in the East, who, along with recruits from the South East, found themselves facing the Soviet forces. Troops recruited from the West were faced with the Western Allies.
Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, Nazi Head Office Chief and Hitler’s deputy, commanded the militia on the Fiihrer’s behalf. He was assisted by two chiefs of staff: Oberbefehlsleiter Helmut Friedrichs, responsible for organization and political affairs, and Gottlob Berger, SS Main Office Chief, representing the SS and Replacement Army commander, Heinrich Himmler. A staff of army officers, under Colonel Hans Kissel, was responsible for equipment, weapons and training.
Each of Germany’s 42 districts formed a Volkssturmabschnitt (Volkssturm District) under a NSDAP Gauleiter assisted by an SA general or senior NSDAP official. A district contained on average 21 Kreise (counties), each under a NSDAP Kreisleiter assisted by a Kreisstabsfuhrer, and required to raise about 12 battalions. Berger and Friedrichs achieved a good working relationship, but Bormann and Himmler frequently clashed for control of the Volkssturm, a situation exacerbated by a confused chain of command, leaving NSDAP officials and SA officers resentful of the SS’ upper hand.
Given the nature of the recruits, the Volkssturm was given an ambitious range of missions: surround and contain large seaborne and airborne landings; eliminate agents and small sabotage groups; guard bridges, streets and key buildings; reinforce depleted army units; plug gaps in the front after enemy breakthroughs, and to man quiet sectors; and crush feared uprisings by the estimated 10 million POWs and foreign workers in Germany.
A 649-man 1st Levy Battalion had a 27-man staff; companies 1—3, each with three or four platoons, containing three or four ten-man sections; and a 4th infantry howitzer company. Other levy battalions had 576 men. Each company was supposed to have three five-man Panzernahbekampfungstrupps (Tank Close Combat Squads), each with ten Panzerfauste anti-tank weapons, often manned by HJ volunteers. Each battalion received a consecutive number within its district, e.g. Bataillon 25/97 = 97th Battalion (HQ Konigsberg) in District 25 (East Prussia).
During 1945, Volkssturm units helped form army Gneisenau formations within the Replacement Army. In January, 26 ‘Baden’ battalions joined Upper Rhine Infantry Regiments 1—15, later grouped into the 805th and 905th Divisions and 1005th Brigade of the 19th Army — nicknamed the ’19th Volkssturm Army’. The 303rd, 309th, 324th, 325th and 328th and ‘Banvalde’ Divisions contained Volkssturm battalions, as did the Volksgrenadierdivisionen established by Himmler. Other Volkssturm recipients included 16 grenadier regiments and SS-Grenadier Regiment ‘Becker , later part of the Waffen-SS 30.Jatmar Division. Also in 1945, the army formed Festungs units from Volkssturm companies with army staffs, with the unforgiving job of manning defensive lines in the East.
Volkssturm recruits, many already working a 72-hour war-emergency working week, were given a 48-hour training programme by armed forces instructors, and were expected to master the rifle, Panzerfaust, the grenade-launcher, hand grenade and Panzerschreck, and in emergency the pistol, SMG and land mine. In fact there were scarcely enough weapons for the 1st and 2nd Levies, and many militiamen were sent into battle unarmed. The 3rd Levy was not issued weapons, and the 4th Levy were expected to use hunting-rifles or captured firearms. Troops were often only issued a trench-spade for self-defence.
The Gauleiters on the eastern border began to establish a series of defensive lines during the pause in the fighting after July 1944. Thousands of local men and women, Hitler Youth, RAD conscripts, POWS and foreign forced labourers built tank-traps, artillery and anti-tank positions, protected by earthworks and linked by trenches. Eight lines skirted the East Prussian frontier, three in Wartheland and two in Upper Silesia. Other lines faced the Czech border. By December 1944, these lines were manned by armed forces and Volkssturm units, many organized from January 1945 into fortress battalions.
In combat, the Volkssturm paid heavily for its role as last-ditch infantry. Driven from East Prussia by the Soviet offensives of autumn 1944, they became escorts to the three million refugees heading westwards along congested snow-swept roads, harassed by Polish guerrillas. About 750,000 people died from exposure, were killed by overtaking Soviet or Polish forces, drowned on evacuation ships in the Baltic sunk by Soviet air or submarine attacks, or caught in the Dresden air raid of 13/14 February 1945. Some Volkssturm soldiers, aware of the Soviet writer Ilya Ehrenburg’s encouragement to Red Army troops to butcher all Germans, still stood their ground to buy time for the escape of the refugees. Others, afraid of being shot as guerrillas if captured, joined the mass retreat.
The Volkssturm’s final, epic defence was in the German capital itself. The last Soviet offensive began on 16 April 1945.The Oder Line was breached, and by the 25th Berlin defenders included 24,000 Volkssturm (18,000 of whom were ‘Clausewitz Levy’ troops of the 2nd Levy, on six hours’ standby). The fighting was desperate. Those Volkssturm who could find the courage – bolstered by the threat of SS police squads hanging them for cowardice — would assault Soviet tanks at close range with Panzerfauste, utilizing their knowledge of the city’s layout. If they secured a good hit, they might knock out the tank, but the blistering Soviet response frequently resulted in their deaths. Nevertheless, many individual Volkssturm rose to the occasion, and defended their city with a passion. In the battle for Berlin, and that of Breslau (with 45,000 defenders including 25,000 Volkssturm in 38 battalions) Battalion 21/41 and two Hitler Youth 3rd Levy battalions distinguished themselves in the fighting.
On 8 February 1945, the Western Allies, in three army groups, began their advance into western Germany. On the 12th the local Volkssturm was mobilized and sent to man the Westwall, but they showed none of the desperate determination of their comrades in the East. Many ignored the call-up; others surrendered at the first opportunity, or threw away their armbands and hid in the woods or returned home. The Westwall was quickly breached and on 7 May the Western Allies met Soviet forces in central Germany.
Hitler deceived himself into believing that a huge civilian army, led by militarily inexperienced Nazi officials, could stave off Germany’s defeat. The Volkssturm’s ultimate failure, however, should not blind us to the bravery of many of its members who, though unfit, untrained and underequipped, fought not to preserve their state, but to save fellow Germans from a Red Army eager to exact vengeance for the brutal German occupation of the Soviet Union.