Deutsches Heer / German Army

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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 brought back into existence a free-standing German army, navy and airforce, something that had been essentially banned after the end of World War I.

  • Active – 1935–1946.
  • Type – Ground Forces.
  • Size – 13,600,000 personnel.
  • Wars –
    • Spanish Civil War.
    • World War II.

With the end of World War I and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the Weimar Republic being 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 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 and the renamed Heer and Kriegsmarine, but a new airforce was born as well being the Luftwaffe.

Helmet decals used by the army.

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 in September 1939, Norway and Denmark in April 1940, Belgium, France, Netherlands in May 1940, Yugoslavia in April 1941, and Operation Barbarossa, the Invasion of the Soviet Union in 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.

An example of Heer unit standards.

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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Adolf Hitler with generals Keitel, Paulus and von Brauchitsch, discussing the situation on the Eastern Front in October 1941.

Structure

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 (Heer, Kriegsmarine, and 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 whereby 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.
German soldiers in Greece, April 1941.

Doctrine and Tactics

German operational doctrine emphasized sweeping pincer and lateral movements meant to destroy the enemy forces as quickly as possible. This approach, referred to as Blitzkrieg by historians, was an operational doctrine instrumental in the success of the offensives in Poland and France. Blitzkrieg has been considered by many historians as having its roots in precepts developed by Fuller, Liddel-Hart, and von Seeckt, and even having ancient prototypes practiced by Alexander, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon. Recent studies of the Battle of France also suggest that the actions of either Rommel or Guderian or both of them had contributed to the theoretical development and early practices of what later became blitzkrieg prior to World War II, ignoring orders of superiors who had never foreseen such spectacular successes and thus prepared much more prudent plans, were conflated into a purposeful doctrine and created the first archetype of blitzkrieg, which then gained a fearsome reputation that dominated the Allied leaders’ minds. Thus ‘blitzkrieg’ was recognized after the fact, and while it became adopted by the Wehrmacht, it never became the official doctrine nor got used to its full potential because only a small part of the Wehrmacht was trained for it and key leaders at the highest levels either focused on only certain aspects or even did not understand what it was.

Grossdeutschland Division soldiers during Operation Barbarossa, 1941.

Tactics

The military strength of the German army was managed through mission-based tactics (Auftragstaktik) rather than detailed order-based tactics, and an almost proverbial discipline. Once an operation began, whether offensive or defensive, speed in response to changing circumstances was considered more important than careful planning and coordination of new plans.

In public opinion, the German military was and is sometimes seen as a high-tech army, since new technologies that were introduced before and during World War II influenced its development of tactical doctrine. These technologies were featured by propaganda, but were often only available in small numbers or late in the war, as overall supplies of raw materials and armaments became low. For example, lacking sufficient motor vehicles to equip more than a small portion of their army, the Germans chose to concentrate the available vehicles in a small number of divisions which were to be fully motorized. The other divisions continued to rely on horses for towing artillery, other heavy equipment, and supply-wagons, and the men marched on foot or rode bicycles. At the height of motorization, only 20 percent of all units were fully motorized. The small German contingent fighting in North Africa was fully motorized due to relying on horses in the desert was near to impossible because of the need to carry large quantities of water and fodder, but the much larger force invading the Soviet Union in June 1941 numbered only some 150,000 trucks and some 625,000 horses  in which water was abundant and for many months of the year horses could forage thus reducing the burden on the supply chain. However, production of new motor vehicles by Germany, even with the exploitation of the industries of occupied countries, could not keep up with the heavy loss of motor vehicles during the winter of 1941–1942. From June 1941 to the end of February 1942, the German forces in the Soviet Union lost some 75,000 trucks to mechanical wear and tear and combat damage which was approximately half the number they had at the beginning of the campaign. Most of these were lost during the retreat in the face of the Soviet counteroffensive from December 1941 to February 1942. Another substantial loss was incurred during the defeat of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–1943. So there were periods in which the percentage of motorized units was reduced to as few as 10%.

In the offensive operations, the infantry formations were used to attack more or less simultaneously across a large portion of the front so as to pin the enemy forces ahead of them and draw attention to themselves, while the mobile formations were concentrated to attack only narrow sectors of the front, breaking through to the enemy rear and surrounding him. Some infantry formations followed in the path of the mobile formations, mopping-up, widening the corridor manufactured by the breakthrough attack and solidifying the ring surrounding the enemy formations left behind, and then gradually destroying them in concentric attacks. One of the most significant problems bedeviling German offensives and initially alarming senior commanders was the gap created between the fast-moving fast formations and the following infantry, as the infantry were considered a prerequisite for protecting the fast formations flanks and rear and enabling supply columns carrying fuel, petrol and ammunition to reach them.

In defensive operations, the infantry formations were deployed across the front to hold the main defense line and the mobile formations were concentrated in a small number of locations from where they launched focused counterattacks against enemy forces who had broken through the infantry defense belt. In autumn 1942, at El Alamein, a lack of fuel compelled the German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, to scatter his armored units across the front in battalion-sized concentrations to reduce travel distances to each sector rather than hold them concentrated in one location. In 1944, Rommel argued that in the face of overwhelming Anglo-American airpower, the tactic of employing the concentrated fast formations was no longer possible because they could no longer move quickly enough to reach the threatened locations because of the expected interdiction of all routes by Allied fighter-bombers. He, therefore, suggested scattering these units across the front just behind the infantry. His commanders and peers, who were less experienced in the effect of Allied airpower, disagreed vehemently with his suggestion, arguing that this would violate the prime principle of concentration of force.

After the War

The German Army was demobilized following the unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. Confronted with a huge number of German prisoners of war after VE Day, the Western Allies kept Feldjägerkommando III, which was a regimental-sized unit of German military police, active and armed to assist with the control of the POWs under the US Army. Feldjägerkommando III remained armed and under Western Allied control until 23 June 1946, when it was finally deactivated.

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