Horses in World War II were used by Germany and many other nations for the transportation of troops, artillery, materiel, and, to a lesser extent, in mobile cavalry troops. The role of horses for each nation depended on its military strategy and state of the economy and was most pronounced in the German and Soviet Armies. Over the course of the war, both Germany and the Soviet Union employed more than six million horses.
Horse-drawn transportation was most important for Germany, as it was relatively lacking in natural oil resources. Infantry and horse-drawn artillery formed the bulk of the German Army throughout the war. Only one-fifth of the Army belonged to mobile panzer and mechanized divisions. Each German infantry division employed thousands of horses and thousands of men taking care of them. Despite losses of horses to enemy action, exposure, and disease, Germany maintained a steady supply of work and saddle horses until 1945. Cavalry in the German Army and the Waffen-SS gradually increased in size, peaking at six cavalry divisions in February 1945.
The German Army entered World War II with 514,000 horses, and over the course of the war employed, in total, 2.75 million horses and mules. The average number of horses in the Army reached 1.1 million.
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The trench warfare of the Western Front of World War I resulted in a strategic stalemate. Defensive weapons and tactics prevailed over the offensive options available. Early tanks, supported by artillery and foot infantry, provided a weapon for breaching the front line but were too slow to turn the breach into a strategic offensive. The railroads of France and Germany provided the defending side with the ability to move troops and counterattack in sufficient time. Postwar armies concentrated on developing more effective offensive tactics through the mechanization of ground troops. The mechanization strategy was influenced by the state of economies, anticipated scenarios of war, politics, and lobbying within civilian governments and the militaries. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany chose three different strategies. A fourth option was chosen by the Soviet Union who, influenced by the mobile warfare experience of the Russian Civil War and the Polish-Soviet War, introduced mechanized corps and airborne troops. Each strategy closed the gap between the capabilities of cavalry and mechanized infantry.
Another factor prompting motorization was the decline of national horse stocks and the inability to restore them in a reasonable time. Of all the major powers, only the United Kingdom, weakened by the loss of Ireland, was in part compelled to motorize for this reason while horse stocks in Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union remained sufficient for at least their peacetime armies. In 1928, the United Kingdom became the first nation to begin replacing horse cavalry with motorized troops and by 1939 had become the first to motorize their national army.
German analysts rejected the French concept of mixed horse-and-motor troops as unworkable. The Wehrmacht had its opponents of mechanization, but with Adolf Hitler’s support Ludwig Beck, Werner von Fritsch, and Heinz Guderian succeeded in forging a compact but effective panzer force that coexisted with masses of traditional foot infantry and horse-drawn artillery throughout World War II. It was observed that the French are limited to the armored division, while the Germans have created an armored branch. By 1939, the Wehrmacht disbanded their 18 cavalry regiments, leaving a single active cavalry brigade. The cavalrymen with their warhorses were integrated into infantry divisions.
Motorization of the 1930s raised a number of concerns, starting with the need to secure a continuous fuel supply. The Spanish Civil War and other conflicts of the 1930s did not provide definite solutions, and the issues remained unresolved until the onset of World War II. Only the German blitzkrieg achieved in the Battle of France finally persuaded the militaries of the world, including the United States, that the tank had replaced the horse on the battlefield.
German and Soviet armies relied heavily on workhorses to pull artillery and supplies. Horses seemed to be a cheap and reliable transport especially in the spring and fall mud of the Eastern Front but the associated costs of daily feeding, grooming, and handling horses were staggering. In theory, horse units could feed off the country, but grazing on grass alone rendered horses unfit for work and the troops had no time to spend searching the villages for fodder. Hard-working horses required up to twelve pounds of grain daily, and fodder carried by the troops made up a major portion of their supply trains.
Horses needed attendants to hitch a six-horse field artillery team, for example, required six men working for at least an hour. Horse health deteriorated after only ten days of even moderate load requiring frequent refits. Recuperation took months and the replacement horses, in turn, needed time to get along with their teammates and handlers. Good stables around the front line were scarce and makeshift lodgings caused premature wear and disease. Refit of front-line horse units consumed eight to ten days thus slowing down operations.
Movements over 30 kilometers which were the daily horse travel limit were particularly slow and complex. Longer hauls were relegated to trucks at the first opportunity, while horses persisted at divisional level and in auxiliary units. Horse transports were particularly inadequate in deep offensive operations, just like they were in 1914.
The use of trucks was constrained by the lack of fuel and high costs of synthetic gasoline on the German side and the losses of equipment in 1941–1942 on the Soviet side. The Soviets managed their losses with the formation of 76 horse transport battalions of 500 horses each and employed reindeer in the Arctic and camels in the South. But overcoming the shortage of horses themselves was insurmountable. A workhorse matures in three to four years. Farm stocks were already depleted of horses as well as tractors. Western European nations, starting with the United Kingdom, witnessed a shortage of horses since the 1920s and adjusted their armies accordingly. Germany of the 1920s managed to restore their population of horses, but then it declined again as farm horses were replaced by motor power.
Most of these horses were employed by foot infantry and horse-drawn artillery troops that formed the bulk of the German Army throughout the war. Of 264 divisions active in November 1944, only 42 were armored or mechanized. In addition to workhorses, each infantry division possessed a reconnaissance battalion with 216 cavalrymen which were the leftovers of the disbanded cavalry regiments. They wore cavalry insignia until September 1943. Over the course of the war, these horse elements were reduced, and the 1945 divisions lacked horsemen altogether. Reconnaissance and antitank battalions were the only mobile elements in a German infantry division.
The organization of infantry troops and the mindset of their commanders were radically different from those of advanced panzer forces. The mechanization of the German Army substantially lagged behind the Red Army. A large part of this was due to the supplying of American vehicles to the Soviet Union from the Allies via the arctic convoys. Although the blitzkrieg of 1941 temporarily reversed the tables for the Germans captured tanks, trucks, and tractors but were losing horses. For example, 179,000 died in December 1941 and January 1942 alone. A German soldier wrote once: “A curious odor will stick to this campaign, this mixture of fire, sweat and horse corpses.”
A German division was supposed to be logistically self-sufficient, providing its own men, horses, and equipment to haul its own supplies from an Army level railhead. Soviet divisions, on the contrary, relied on the Army level transports. The supply train of a 1943 German infantry division employed 256 trucks and 2,652 horses attended by 4,047 men, while other divisional configurations had up to 6,300 horses. The supply train of a lean 1943 Soviet infantry division, in comparison, had only 91 trucks and 556 horses attended by 879 men. Luftwaffe Field Divisions were designed to be lean and rely on trucks and halftracks but in real life, these were substituted with horses and mules. Incidentally, psychotherapist Ernst Göring, nephew of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, used therapeutic horseback riding to rehabilitate wounded pilots, but in 1942 the program was shut down as too expensive.
Horse logistics slowed down the German advance. The 6th Army, engaged in urban warfare in Stalingrad, was unable to feed or graze their horses and sent them to the rear. When the Soviets enveloped the 6th Army in November 1942, the German troops were cut off from their horse transport and would have been unable to move their artillery had they tried to evacuate the city. In an earlier envelopment of the Demyansk Pocket, 20,000 horses were trapped together with 95,000 men, and airlifting fodder drained precious air transport capacity. However, these horses also provided food for soldiers when food supplies were lacking or wiped out.
During the war, German cavalry units increased in numbers from a single brigade to a larger but still limited force of six cavalry divisions and two corps HQ. All regular cavalry troops served on the Eastern Front and the Balkans while a few Cossack battalions served on the Western Front.
German and Polish mounted troops fought one of the last significant cavalry vs cavalry clashes, during the Battle of Krasnobród in 1939.
The German Army of 1941 had a single cavalry division assigned to Heinz Guderian’s panzer group. Continuously engaged against Soviet troops, it increased in size to six regiments and at the beginning of 1942 was reformed into the 24th Panzer Division that later perished in the Battle of Stalingrad. In April–June 1943, the Germans set up three separate cavalry regiments Nord, Mitte, Süd which translated from German stands for North, Center, and South. They were horse units reinforced with tanks and halftrack-mounted infantry. In August 1944, these regiments were reformed into two brigades and a division forming, together with the Hungarian 1st Cavalry Division, Gustav Harteneck’s Cavalry Corps that operated in Belorussia. In February 1945, the brigades were reformed into cavalry divisions. This was possible due to stud farms in East Prussia were not affected by the Allied air raids that crippled the German industry.
The SS operated both paramilitary horse units for a total of 23 cavalry regiments in 1941 and military Waffen-SS cavalry. The SS Cavalry Brigade, formed in 1940, was engaged against civilians and guerrillas in the occupied territories and then severely checked by the Soviet Rzhev-Sychevka offensive. In 1942, the SS reformed the brigade into the 8th SS Cavalry Division manned by Volksdeutsche, which operated on the Eastern Front until October 1943. In December 1943, the 8th Cavalry spun off the 22nd SS Cavalry Division manned with Hungarian Germans. These divisions were properly augmented with heavy, field, and anti-aircraft artillery. Another SS cavalry division, the 33rd Cavalry, was formed in 1944 but never deployed to full strength.
The Germans recruited anti-Soviet cossacks since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, although Hitler did not approve the practice until April 1942. Army Cossacks of 1942 formed four regiments. In August 1943 were merged into the 1st Cossack Cavalry Division with six regiments totaling up to 13,000 men trained in Poland and deployed in Yugoslavia. In November 1944, the division was split in two and reformed into the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps. The Kalmyks formed the Kalmykian Cavalry Corps, employed in rear guard duties.
In February 1945, German and Hungarian cavalry divisions were thrown into the Lake Balaton offensive. After limited success, German forces were ground down by the Soviet counteroffensive. Remnants of Army cavalry fell back into Austria with 22,000 men surrendering to the Western allies and bringing with them 16,000 horses. Remnants of SS cavalry, merged into the 37th SS Division and followed the same route.