The German Army in the Second World War

Under the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the German Army was unable to grow to more than 100,000 men. One way that Adolf Hitler dealt with this issue was to allow the Sturm Abteilung (SA) to grow rapidly. By 1934 the SA had grown to a force of over 4,500,000 men.

The growth in the importance of the SA worried other leaders in the National Socialist German Workers Party. It also upset leaders of the German Army who feared that it would be taken over by the Ernst Roehm and the SA. They were won over to the Nazis when Adolf Hitler ordered the Night of the Long Knives where around 400 leaders of the SA were murdered.

Whereas the SA now lost its power, Hitler allowed the German Army to grow rapidly. In 1935 he introduced military conscription. This enabled the German Army to train 300,000 conscripts a year. By 1938 it had 36 infantry divisions of 600,000 men.

In 1939 the German Army had 98 divisions available for the invasion of Poland. Although some were ill-equipped veteran reservists, the still had 1.5 million well-trained men available for action. It also had 9 panzer divisions. Each one had 328 tanks, 8 support battalions and 6 artillery batteries.

When the German Army mounted its Western Offensive in 1940, it had had 2.5 million men and 2,500 tanks. Whereas the French Army had the ability to mobilize 5 million men, the army supported by motorized infantry units and aircraft easily secured victory.

The German Army continued to grow and in June 1941 around 3 million (including 200,000 from its allies) were available for Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union. This included 142 infantry divisions, 17 panzer divisions and 4,000 tanks.

Despite heavy losses in the Soviet Union and in France following the D-Day landings, the German Army had 168 infantry divisions and 25 panzer divisions by January, 1945. The Waffen SS also had 23 divisions, seven of which were armoured.

The army was also supported by a People's Militia created by Adolf Hitler to defend German cities under attack from the Red Army. This was mainly composed of men too old or too young for regular service. It was also poorly equipped as the German economy found it increasingly difficult to fully support the needs of its armed forces.

Of the seventeen field marshals in the German Army, ten were relieved of their commands by the Fuehrer in the course of the war, three were killed after the July Plot, two were killed in action, one was taken prisoner and only one remained throughout the war without being subject to discipline.

Of thirty-six generals, twenty-six were removed from their post, of whom three were executed and two were dishonorably discharged; seven were killed in action and only three remained in service throughout the war without disciplinary action.

A total of around 12.5 million Germans served in the army during the Second World War. It is estimated that of these, between 3 and 3.5 million were killed.

Primary Sources

(1) General Hans von Seeckt, Thoughts of a Soldier (1928)

In this way a military mass is constituted which, though unsuited to take part in a war of movement and seek a

decision in formal battle, is well able to fulfill the duty of home defence, and at the same time to provide from

its best dements a continuous reinforcement of the regular, combatant army in the field.

In brief, the whole future of warfare appears to me to lie in the employment of mobile armies, relatively small but of high quality, and rendered distinctly more effective by the addition of aircraft, and in the simultaneous mobilization of the whole forces, either to feed the attack or for home defence.

(2) General Werner von Blomberg, Volkischer Beobachter (29th June, 1933)

The Army's role is clearly determined; it must serve the National Socialist State, which it affirms with the deepest conviction. Equally it must support those leaders who have given it back its noblest right to be not only the bearer of arms, but also the bearer, recognized by State and people, of their unlimited confidence. The Army stands, loyal and disciplined, behind the rulers of the State, behind the President, Field-Marshall von Hindenberg, its Supreme Commander, and behind the leader of the Reich, Adolf Hitler, who came from its ranks and remains one of ours.

(3) Stephen Roberts, The House that Hitler Built (1938)

There is no doubt that Germany has the largest army outside Russia. When completely organized, her thirty-six infantry divisions alone will include 600,000 men. Britain has just over 150,000 men, in five divisions. France has a peace-time army of twenty-five divisions at home. No reasonable observer can doubt that, if Hitler organizes his thirty-six divisions and trains 300,000 conscripts a year, in a few years he will have the finest army in Europe.

(4) General Walter Warlimont, order issued to German Army about the occupation of the Soviet Union (12th May, 1941)

1. Political officials and leaders are to be liquidated.

2. Insofar as they are captured by the troops, an officer with authority to impose disciplinary punishment decides whether the given individual must be liquidated. For such ax decision the fact suffices that he is a political official.

3. Political leaders in the troops (Red Army) are not recognized as prisoners of war and are to be liquidated at the latest in the prisoner-of-war transit camps.

(5) Wilhelm Keitel, order issued to German Army (16th December, 1942)

This war no longer has anything to do with knightly conduct or with the agreements of the Geneva Convention. If this war is not fought with the greatest brutality against the bands both in the East and in the Balkans then in the foreseeable future the strength at our disposal will not be sufficient to be able to master this plague. The troops are therefore empowered and are in duty bound in this war to use without mitigation even against women and children any means that will lead to success. Consideration of any kind are a crime against the German people and the soldier at the front.

(6) Lieutenant-General Khozin, of the Red Army, wrote about the German Army in the book, Strategy and Tactics of the Soviet-German War (1943)

The claim that the German Army is "invincible" is a myth invented by the Nazi rulers. The easy victories of 1939 and 1940, on which the German militarists now preen themselves, were won not so much by their own forces as by base treachery in the countries against which they fought.

It is common knowledge that some members of the former French government were connected with German agents and deliberately led their army and people to defeat.

In cases where the Germans met resistance they crushed it by superiority in numbers and armament. In September, 1939, the Nazis moved 45 infantry divisions of 16,000 men each against Poland, which only had 40 divisions of 10,500 men each. The Germans had twice as much heavy artillery-1,400 guns against 600; they had 3,100 light guns against 2,400; 4,790 anti-tank guns against 600; 3,350 tanks against 910; and 2,500 aeroplanes against 1,200. Even with this superiority of equipment the German Reinhardt tank division was smashed in Warsaw.

In the main drive against the Allies in Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg on May 10, 1940, the Germans used 107 infantry and 10 tank divisions, while the Allies used 63 infantry divisions, 4 light mechanized and 6 cavalry divisions. These Allies belonged to four different armies - the French, British, Belgian and Dutch - which actually were not under one command. Moreover, some of these armies were disunited by deep-rooted political friction and conflicting opinions on operations and strategy.

Actually, however, the German Army has had no experience in breaking through modern fortified zones. The Polish western frontiers were completely unfortified, and the defences on the northern frontiers of France were extremely weak. The German Army actually advanced on the Maginot Line from the rear, making use of the splendid French roads.

(7) Colonel Maltitsky of the Red Army took part in the fighting in Finland in 1941.

It is significant that even in the wooded terrain, where close fighting predominates, the Germans avoid hand-to-hand encounters and strive to dislodge the Soviet sub-divisions from their positions solely with the aid of fire. They have never been known to accept a bayonet charge of the Soviet infantry. When launching an offensive the Fascist units usually sustain heavy losses in manpower. Whenever successful, they completely refrain from pursuit.

The Finns practise different methods of warfare. They rarely attack the well-organized defence and prefer cautiously to advance where resistance is weaker. The Finnish offensive on an organized defence is easily routed with heavy losses to them. In defence, however, the Finnish forces are superior to the Germans.

In general, the methods of offensive operations of the Finns consist in advancing slowly but securing their positions. Usually, after occupying a district, the Finns immediately try to fortify it. A scouting party then

seeks a new terrain and the units try to occupy the next district.

(8) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1930)

It is obvious that the officers of the Reichswehr were beneficiaries, in their professional prospects, from the expansion of the forces that followed Hitler's advent. Moreover, Blomberg and other generals have admitted

that they originally welcomed his regime because it released Germany and the Army from the shackles of the Versailles Treaty. That was a very natural attitude on the part of keen professional soldiers, though one that many of them lived to regret. Others, with more foresight, were apprehensive from the start, for there was good reason to assume that the amateur or "displaced" soldiers who led the S.A. would not be content, once their Party was in power, to see military office remain a privileged preserve of the traditionally conservative Reichswehr.

What is really more remarkable than the German generals' submission to Hitler is the extent to which they managed to maintain in the Army a code of decency that was in constant conflict with Nazi ideas. Many of our own soldiers who have been prisoners of war have borne testimony to this. Moreover, in visiting France, Belgium, and Holland since the war I have often been candidly told, by staunch anti-Nazis, that the general behaviour of the occupying German Army - as distinct from the S.S. - was better than that of the Allied Armies which came to liberate them. For that due credit has to be given to the generals, and to Rundstedt in particular.

Where the German generals can be justly criticized is for the way they tended to dose their minds to the excesses of the Nazis, and for their lack of moral courage, with some exceptions, in protesting against things they would not have done themselves. Nevertheless, it is obvious from any study of Hitler's brutal orders that the scale of atrocities, and the sufferings of the occupied countries, would have been much worse still if his sweeping intentions had not been tacitly disregarded or at least modified by the military commanders.

(9) Joseph Goebbels, diary (2nd March, 1945)

I talked to Sepp Dietrich and he told me of the next assignment given him by the Führer. Dietrich quite openly criticised measures taken by the Führer. He complains that the Führer does not give his military staff a sufficiently free hand and that this tendency has now become so pronounced that the Führer even lays down the employment of individual companies. But Dietrich is in no position to judge. The Führer cannot rely on his military advisers. They have so often deceived him and thrown dust in his eyes that he now has to attend to every detail. Thank God he does attend to them, for if he did not, matters would be even worse than they are anyway.

(10) In 1943 Lieutenant-General Rokoossovsky of the Red Army wrote about the German invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

The Germans avoid woods, fearing guerillas and knowing how difficult it is to use tanks there. In the villages they generally select brick houses or houses with brick foundations as firing posts. Not infrequently German soldiers dressed in women's clothing move from the houses to the trenches, reckoning that Soviet artillery will not notice this ruse.

Bayonet charges are dreaded by the Germans and they always avoid them. In counter-attacking, they shoot without even taking aim.

Engagements with enemy tank units have led us to the conclusion that German tank crews are afraid of the anti-tank grenades extensively used by Soviet infantry.

(11) Major General Susloparov fought in the Red Army against the German Army during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

Close-range fighting is the chink in the German infantry's armour. On the South-Western Front 300 Nazi soldiers were destroyed in one day, mostly as the result of Soviet bayonet attacks. The German infantry rarely brings the attack close enough for bayonets to be used; but when they do, they scatter in panic or surrender. The German infantry is accustomed to advance behind a steel wall of tanks. Independent action is their weak point, and the Red Army takes advantage of this weakness.

In a recent engagement Major Laskin was given the task of smashing a German concentration at a certain point. The Nazi forces included a large number of tanks and motorized infantry. Under cover of night Major Laskin's battalion approached the enemy's outposts and entrenched itself in a hollow during the artillery barrage.

By the time the barrage was over the Nazi infantry had climbed out of its transports and their tanks were moving off. The hidden Red Army men let the tanks pass and then made a bayonet charge on the infantry. The Germans declined to fight. Some of them scrambled back into the transport lorries, but the fear-crazed drivers

drove off and left most of their comrades to their fate. The Nazis fled in all directions, some hiding in the tall rye, others taking refuge in ditches and on roof-tops. They were everywhere hunted out and dispatched with bayonets.

(12) Harold Alexander, Memoirs: 1940-1945 (1961)

Twenty-six nations contributed contingents to my command in Italy. I feel, therefore, it will be agreed that I speak from first-hand experience of the varying fighting qualities of troops in battle when I affirm that there are no better soldiers than those of the British race, provided they have a cause worth fighting for - and dying for, if necessary.

And what of the foe that our soldiers and those of our allies overcame and mastered? Having fought against the Germans in two world wars I cannot conceal my regard for their ability as fighting men. They are very brave and tough, and have a marked sense of duty and discipline. Furthermore, they take pride in mastering their weapons and learning their job on the battlefield.

If the Germans are a warrior race, they are certainly militarist also. I think they love the military pageant and the panoply of war; and the feeling of strength and power that a well-organized and disciplined unit gives to each and every individual member of that unit. I am quite willing to admit that I myself share this curious attraction for the strength and elegance of beautifully trained and equipped formations, with all the art and subtlety of their movements in action against an enemy. I can well understand the enthusiasm which the soldiers-from marshals to the private soldier - showed for Napoleon; and why they followed their leader without doubt or question in his victorious campaigns. Feeling thus, they shared the glory of his conquests.

I can also understand the German soldier's high morale when Hitler seemed invincible; but I think it very remarkable that they fought their last battles just as toughly and bravely as when they were winning their first-although they must have realized that all was lost. The last battles in Italy were just as bitter as any we had experienced in the Western Desert, or in the earlier stages of the Italian campaign. Like the boxer in the ring, the German soldier didn't give up until he was knocked out: and make no mistake about it, he was!

(13) Captain George Leinster of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry took part in the D-Day invasion. He wrote about his experiences in a letter to his mother on 29th September 1944.

My failure to write earlier has not been due to being always on the move. Between our periods of movement and excitement we have been able to have short but very pleasant rests. These 'rests' are often my busiest times, and somehow I always just failed to write the fuller type of letter. Often too, experiences crowded on one another so fast that there was too much to say in anything less than a small book. Now that another phase seems to have ended, it is possible to look back and see things in truer perspective.

On that and on many other occasions we have felt that if the Germans were not such swines we could feel some pity for them. We feel not a shred of pity. I have talked with many German prisoners; do not do so now as they make me feel furious. They have a sort of mental leprosy which render parts of their minds and emotions entirely insensitive. I know that when they are destroying and burning in their heyday they felt no pang or qualm for the suffering they caused. That they lack a sense of persona conscience is understandable, but it is baffling to find all their kinder emotions equally atrophied.

How you who have not come into close contact with the Germans can hope to understand them I do not know. It is difficult enough for us who meet them constantly. I hope that those who control our post-war relations with Germany shall be men who know the German as the Soldier does.

The Germans were very frightened of the Maquis, the armed civilians, in France and Belgium. It was the fear of a guilty conscience. They were delighted to surrender to us and so be protected against the vengeance of the partisans. Never was protection given less willingly. There were many cases in which natural justice was speedily meted out by the civilians. We could not countenance this when we were present, but did not regret it when we could not prevent it.

The joy of the people is equalled only by their hatred of the Germans. This can almost be felt. Their great fear is that the mass of the English, so far away in detached England, will again be too lenient towards the Germans owing to a mistaken sense of fair play. Most of them wish to see the Germans literally exterminated, and all say we must go right to Berlin and impose our will from there. We realise how fortunate we are that England is an island; it is hard for Englishmen to appreciate the feelings of these smaller countries who are on Germany's doorstep and who cannot stand up to Germany without strong support. I think our prestige has been very high since Autumn 1940, when we stood alone, but never in all our history has it been so high, at least in Europe, as it is today.