The German Heer, or army, was formed in May of 1935. It was formed after the passing of the “Law for the Reconstruction of the National Defense Forces”. This law brough back into existance a free standing German army, navy and airforce, something that had been essentially banned after the end of World War I.
With the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Weimar Republic – the successor to Imperial Germany – was allowed only a small defensive military force known as the Reichswehr. The Reichswehr’s size and composition was strictly controlled by the Allies in the hope that by restricting its constitution they could prevent future German military aggression. The Reichswehr consisted of 100,000 men divided between a small standing army, the Reichsheer, and a small defensive navy, the Reichsmarine.
In 1933, the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) came to power and the infamous Third Reich was born. Two years later in 1935 the Treaty of Versailles was renounced and the Reichswehr became the Wehrmacht. The newly formed Wehrmacht would still consist of an army and a navy – the renamed Heer and Kriegsmarine, but a new airforce was born as well – the Luftwaffe.
Only 17 months after Adolf Hitler announced publicly the rearmament program, the Army reached its projected goal of 36 divisions. During the autumn of 1937, two more corps were formed. In 1938, four additional corps were formed with the inclusion of the five divisions of the Austrian Army after the Anschluss in March. During the period of its expansion by Adolf Hitler, the German Army continued to develop concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and air (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. Coupled with operational and tactical methods such as encirclements and the “battle of annihilation”, the German military managed quick victories in the two initial years of World War II, prompting the use of the word Blitzkrieg (literally lightning war, meaning lightning-fast war) for the techniques used.
The German Army entered the war with a majority of its infantry formations relying on horse-drawn transport. The infantry remained foot soldiers throughout the war; artillery also remained primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the main reason for the success of the German invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941), and Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union (June 1941). However their motorized and tank formations accounted for only 20% of the Heer’s capacity at their peak strength. The army’s lack of trucks (and petroleum to run them) was a severe handicap to infantry movement especially during and after the Normandy invasion when Allied air power devastated the French rail network north of the Loire. Panzer movements also depended upon rail: driving a tank over 150 kilometers wore out their tracks.
The Heer initially consisted of 21 Divisional sized units and 3 Army Groups to control them, as well as numerous smaller formations. Between 1935 and 1945 this force grew to consist of hundreds of Divisions, dozens of Army Groups and thousands of smaller supporting units. Between 1939 and 1945 close to 13 million served in the Heer. Over 1.6 million were killed and over 4.1 million were wounded. Of the 7361 men awarded the initial grade of the highest German combat honor of WWII, the Knights Cross, 4777 were from the Heer making up 65% of the total awarded.
Between 1939 and 1945, the Heer bore the majority of six years worth of fierce combat, some of which was so fierce – as on the Eastern Front – humankind will likely never again see such fighting. Although not immune to the overtones of politics and the occasional brush with questionable actions, the vast majority of German Heer units served with great distinction across many thousands of miles of battlefields.
The Heer was defeated with the German capitulation on May 8th 1945, although some units continued to fight for a few days longer in fits of sporadic resistance, mainly against the Soviets in the East. The Allied Control Council passed a law formally dissolving the Wehrmacht on the 20th of August 1946, the official “death” date of the German Heer.
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The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was Germany’s Army High Command from 1936 to 1945. In theory the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) served as the military General Staff for the German Reich’s armed forces, coordinating the Wehrmacht (Army Heer, Navy Kriegsmarine, and the Air Force Luftwaffe) operations. In practice OKW acted in a subordinate role as Hitler’s personal military staff, translating his ideas into military plans and orders, and issuing them to the three services. However, as the war progressed the OKW found itself exercising increasing amounts of direct command authority over military units, particularly in the west. This created a situation where by 1943 the OKW was the de facto command of Western Theatre forces while the Army High Command (OKH) is the same on the Eastern Front.
The Abwehr was the Army intelligence organization from 1921 to 1944. The term Abwehr (German for “defense”, here referring to counter-intelligence) was used as a concession to Allied demands that Germany’s post-World War I intelligence activities be for “defensive” purposes only. After 4 February 1938, its title was Overseas Department/Office in Defence of the Armed Forces High Command (Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht).
Nazi Germany used the system of military districts (German: Wehrkreis) to relieve field commanders of as much administrative work as possible, and to provide a regular flow of trained recruits and supplies to the field forces. The method OKW adopted was to separate the Field Army (OKH) from the Home Command (Heimatkriegsgebiet), and to entrust the responsibilities of training, conscription, supply and equipment to Home Command.
Organization of the Field Forces
The German Army was mainly structured in Army groups (Heeresgruppen) consisting of several armies that were relocated, restructured or renamed in the course of the war. Forces or allied states as well as units made up of non-Germans were also assigned to German units.
For Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Army forces were assigned to three strategic campaign groupings:
- Army Group North with Leningrad as its campaign objective.
- Army Group Centre with Smolensk as its campaign objective.
- Army Group South with Kiev as its campaign objective.
Below the army group level forces included Field armies, panzer groups, which later became army level formations themselves, corps, and divisions. The army used the German term Kampfgruppe which equates to the English ‘combat group’ or battle group. These provisional combat groupings ranged from an Army Corps size such as Army Detachment Kempf to commands composed of several companies and even platoons. They were named for their commanding officers.
Select Arms of Service
- Anti-tank troops.
- Panzergrenadier – Armoured infantry troops.
- Panzerwaffe – Armoured troops.
- Army propaganda troops.
- Experimental command Kummersdorf.
- Foreign Armies East.
- Feldgendarmerie – Military field police.
- Mountain troops.
- Geheime Feldpolizei – Secret Field Police.
- Prussian Military Academy.
- Kriegsschule – War college.
Doctrine and Tactics
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