If you squint, you can just about see final victory!
"Where the German soldier stands, he remains."
The Wehrmacht, the military of Nazi Germany
, was established in 1935, replacing the Reichswehr.
The Weimar Republic had already been covertly breaking the Treaty of Versailles, but the Nazis did it openly.
- Heer (Army)
- Kriegsmarine (Navy)
- Luftwaffe (Air Force)
The SS, itself almost a state within a state, had its own military wing separate from the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS. Often thought of as elite, fanatical troops. The latter was much more true than the former - particularly later in the war, they tended to get new equipment and replacement troops before the Heer divisions did, which is what contributed to the "SS formations are more elite" idea. It also didn't exactly ease the relationship between the SS and the Wehrmacht, which was already strained.
Because it is absolutely not
true that All Germans Are Nazis
, even while Hitler was in power, it should come as no surprise that only the officer corps of the Wehrmacht
were in it for the ideology. Even within the officer corps there was a fairly clear division between the branches of the Wehrmacht
in terms of politics; the Luftwaffe was the most Nazi-fied service as it had only been re-created under Hitler's regime; the Army did not become Nazified until 1939-40 and before then had been largely conservative, especially in its pre-war Junker
-dominated officer corps (and the Wehrmacht soldiers were freee to crack jokes about Hitler than they were at home); and (as anyone who's seen Das Boot
can tell you) the Navy was the least ideological service and still
wasn't Nazi-fied even in 1944-45. The navy in particular is occasionally considered to have been a hotbed of democratic and leftist sentiment (sailors of the High Seas Fleet had started the German Revolution
at the end of World War One
). Hitler himself was known to joke that he had "a conservative army, a Nazi air force, and a communist navy" (another version of the same joke is that Nazi Germany had Frederick the Great's army, Kaiser Wilhelm's navy and Hitler's air force).
Given this situation, My Country, Right or Wrong
was a very
common attitude among many Wehrmacht soldiers. Due to German laws, everyone needed to resign from a political party before joining the Wehrmacht. While a few were supporters of the Nazi regime, most were just conscripts (just like many other militaries). Even the Hitler salute was not used by the Wehrmacht unless they were greeting Hitler. By June 1941 the military was basically just another arm of the Nazi Party and enthusiastically approved of and strived to contribute to its genocidal programs, and by July 1944 (with everything falling apart in the wake of Operation Bagration
and the Allied landings in France) the distinction between the military and the Nazi Party had all but disappeared due to the institution of 'political officers' modeled after The Red Army's 'commissar' system (somewhat ironically, given that the Soviets had actually greatly improved their own fighting efficiency by stripping their commissars of all real power).
However, be wary of making sweeping generalizations like "the SS were evil, but the Wehrmacht were good and awesome" - this is simply not borne out by the historical record. This perception was encouraged by the self-serving memoirs of those Wehrmacht generals that escaped execution after the war, who promoted the idea of the "clean Wehrmacht
". The Wehrmacht was not
clean. It was less 'dirty' than the SS, but by normal standards it was still incredibly cruel and brutal. This was encouraged by the Wehrmacht's proclamations prior to the execution of Unternehmen Barbarossa
in 1941 (which they made of their own free will) that a Soviet citizen disobeying an order given by Wehrmacht employee was a crime punishable by death and that no Wehrmacht employee would ever be tried for any actions taken against any Soviet citizen. Essentially, the Wehrmacht abolished the very idea of 'War Crimes
' (against the USSR and its peoples).
These rights were
abused by the rank and file of the Wehrmacht, who were just as susceptible to the NSDAP's anti-Jewish and anti-Slavic 'racial' propaganda as everyone else - though we can't put a number on the informal suffering and death this caused. The Wehrmacht as an institution also (with no objections or protest) ran 'starvation camps' for four million Soviet POW to die in, enforced the illegal Commissar and Commando Ordersnote
, helped the understaffed SS Einsatzgruppen
transport and massacre Jews, and helped the 100,000 men of the 'Security Forces'
carry out their 'Programme of Terror' to keep the up-to-40 million people and up-to-500,000 square kilometres of the rear areas 'pacified' (by destroying ''every'' settlement in the vicinity of ''every'' partisan attack
). Several individual officers displayed basic decency and fewer still great chivalry, but their comrades and their organisation as a whole had the blood of millions of sexually assaulted, tortured, or murdered POW and civilians on its hands.
As part of a means of keeping the Wehrmacht in check, Hitler created an extremely convoluted chain-of-command to keep the branches from working in concert, and thus, keep all of them from being a threat to his power. In theory, the supreme command of the military sat with the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht
, which oversaw the Oberkommando des Heeres
, Oberkommando der Marine
, and Oberkommando der Luftwaffe
. Although the Waffen-SS was subordinate to the command brand of the SS, in the field, tactical command was given to the Wehrmacht
. In practice, the Oberkommando des Heeres
was in charge of the Eastern Front while the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht
was in charge of all other theaters. In fact, the OKW and OKH headquarters outside Berlin were so isolated from each other that the staff joked either bunker could be destroyed and the other one would not notice for days. Only in the final days of the war did Hitler finally make the OKH subservient to the OKW.
So that's the history and command. To see specific analysis of each part, have a gander at these 'ere folders:
open/close all folders
Fiction's No. 1 Mook Service: the Heer
In a one-to-one fight, the winner is the man with the last round.
The largest organization of the German war machine, the Heer
is often erroneously referred to as the Wehrmacht
. Properly, the Wehrmacht
refers to the entire armed forces of Nazi Germany while the Heer
refers to the ground forces. The most recognized symbol of the Heer
was the "coal scuttle" helmet known as the Stahlhelm
("steel helmet"). It was such a popular design that it was used by the rest of the Wehrmacht
, as well as civil organizations such as police and fire departments. Today, it can still be seen in the Chilean Army, with American military PASGT helmets having a similar swooped-back design (which has found its way back into the German military). Neutral Ireland used this helmet in the first year of WW2
. But with British soldiers on the other side of the border, nervous about any sign at all of a German invasion through the Irish back door, it was thought wise to retire it and replace it with a different design. Irish soldiers patrolling their side of the border in German-style helmets and uniforms were considered too much of an accident waiting to happen.
Many of the high-ranking Heer officers were respected by their Allied opponents. The most famous of these is Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox and the Trope Namer
of Magnificent Bastard
. Churchill himself said it was a shame Rommel was on the other side. As most in the Heer were conscripts who believed in "My Country, Right or Wrong
", quite a few officers were able to salvage their careers following the war. Erich von Manstein, known as the master of strategy, became a senior advisor to the new West German military in the 1950s.
Compared to other infantry forces, the Heer used mission-type tactics, with squads given a specific goal and any means to achieve it. The Heer also introduced a revolutionary new formation: the Panzer
division. In World War I, the new technology known as the tank was used as an infantry support vehicle. The Germans switched things around and focused on the tank as the principle weapon of attack which was supported by infantry, which was mechanized for the first time so that they could keep up with the advance. Contrary to popular belief, the Panzer divisions did not have more tanks then contemporary Allied formations (in fact they usually had less) but instead were designed from the ground up as combined arms forces with tanks, mechanized infantry and organic artillery and reconnaissance built in rather than working together in an ad-hoc fashion.
As part of their training, Heer
infantrymen were encouraged to think two steps of command above themselves. That way, if their squad leaders were killed, the troopers next in line could take charge quickly.
The Nazi propaganda cast Hitler...as a wrathful Jupiter, flinging the latest "miracle weapons" at his enemies like bolts of fateful lightning.
— Anthony Beevor
Despite the common belief that German weaponry was exclusively high-tech, the average soldier in the Heer
would find himself equipped with a Mauser bolt-action rifle, the Karabiner 98 Kurz, a slight modernisation of a weapon his grandfather would have been familiar with. It was a perfectly servicable rifle (although nothing special in WWII terms) and was comparable to the Russian Mosin-Nagant and Japanese Arisaka, though the Mauser action was significantly slower than that used by the British Lee-Enfield. These started to be replaced in the middle of the war with the Gewehr 43, which is a bit comparable with American M1 Garand. However, the Germans were never able to produce nearly enough G43s to outfit their armed forces, so the K98 continued to be the bulk issue rifle with the G43 treated as more of a specialist weapon. And even towards the end of the war, stocks of K98s began to run dry and the Germans had to resort to issuing whatever rifles they could find from the stocks they had captured from the enemy, such as Mosin Nagants and French Lebels.
Probably the most iconic German weapon of WWII was the MP-40 sub-machine gun. Near ubiquitous in war films, it wasn't quite so common in real life as it was only really useful in short ranged firefights (such as Stalingrad, where the Germans realized how useful entire squads armed with sub-machine guns are in urban settings). It was issued to paratroopers, tank crews, platoon and squad leaders. The MP-40 is also noteworthy for being specifically designed to be easy to mass produce.
Nazi Germany developed a lot of military technology that remains in use today. The idea of disposable one-shot anti-tank weapons started with the German Panzerfaust. The first widely used assault rifle, the MP43 / MP44 / Sturmgewehr 44 (StG44), which inspired the Russian Kalashnikov AK-47, was of Nazi origin. In addition, the Wehrmacht developed the Goliath tracked mine, one of the first remote-controlled weapons to be used in combat. For other stuff see below.
The iconic pistol associated with Nazis is the Pistole 08, universally known as the "Luger". The pistol was actually used in World War One
, but was gradually being replaced by the Walther P38 after 1938. The pistol just looks evil◊
(so does the P38◊
, just that it's slightly boxier
) and enough were collected as trophies
by Allied soldiers to ensure continued currency. As with the K98 example above, however, despite its refinements in mass production technology there were simply not enough P38s to go around that the Luger could be removed from service (even had any of the servicemen who were lucky enough to have one been inclined to do so), so the two sidearms soldiered along side by side for the duration of the war. The P38 is also associated with another evil figure in modern culture, Megatron
. Another iconic pistol is the Walther PPK; the gun that James Bond
uses is also the one that Hitler used to kill himself.
was the first General Purpose Machine Gun to be adopted by any nation, and its successor - the infamous MG-42
machine gun - is actually still in use by many countries, including Germany itself, as the MG-3
(with only minor modifications). And again, despite the MG42 being specifically designed to be mass produced with metal-stampings and other shortcuts, there simply weren't enough of them to replace the MG34 (Beginning to see a pattern here?). In particular the MG34 was still favored as the machinegun for tanks because its barrel change mechanism was far better suited for being mounted in an AFV ball or coaxial mount, while the MG42 with its side-break barrel change mechanism required specialized mounts for AFVs. An interesting difference between the Heer and all other armies was that the machine-gun was viewed as the primary
offensive weapon of the infantry platoon, rather than being a support
weapon in other armies. This meant that German platoons had significantly more machine-guns per platoon than Allied (or even other Axis) forces, and that infantry tactics were designed around movement of these machine-gun squads and channelling enemies into their fields of fire. Allied infantry tactics used machine-guns as either purely defensive, or mostly for covering fire to allow movement of infantrymen into more advantageous positions.
Paratroopers or Fallschirmjager soldiers were sometimes equipped with the FG-42 Paratroop Rifle
It was one of the first selective fire weapons and had a hand in the development of modern assault rifles. It was made in limited numbers so most paratroopers would have used the MP40 instead.
The iconic "potato masher"
grenade (developed in WW1
) was also a standard part of the German soldier's kit, and is usually displayed prominently in any visual media. While considerably larger and heavier than the standard Allied "pineapple" or "baseball" grenade, the handle meant that it could be thrown significantly farther.
Perhaps the greatest innovation in personal equipment the Nazis came up with, however, was not a weapon at all. The Wehrmachtskanister
, better known as the "jerrycan
", might seem totally ordinary nowadays, but in 1939 it was considered so advanced and secret that German soldiers were ordered to destroy them if there was a risk of their being captured. Compared to the flimsy, leaky fluid containers used by other armies (it was estimated the British in North Africa lost 30% of all shipped fuel to leaking containers), the jerrycan was nothing short of miraculous; it could be opened and closed without the use of tools, was self-sealing without additional parts, included a pouring spout rather than requiring a funnel, couldn't be overfilled as a failsafe against heat and vapor expansion and was still cheap to manufacture despite being much more sturdy. The design proved so good that it remains in use to this day by both military forces and civilians.
Halftracks and Hooves
The bulk of the German Army—the dough feet of the normal infantry divisions—moved on mare's shank.
— Oliver Marks
On 22/6/1941 the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR with 2.7 million combat troops, 120k trucks, and 624k horses
. As the war ground on the Wehrmacht became less
motorised because even in May 1941 they were losing more trucks per month (2%) than they were producing (1%), the replacements also being of inferior quality. By 1943 the Wehrmacht was the least
-motorised military force of the war bar the IJA and Guomindang
Perhaps the most distinctive of Nazi Germany's transport vehicles were their numerous halftracks; the Sonderkraftfahrzeug
251 series of halftracks (often simply called "Hanomags" after their manufacturer) being the most common of these. In spite of this, the majority of German supplies were still moved using horse-drawn limbers, including most light and medium field artillery pieces; only the heaviest would be moved by the giant "Famo" prime movers. It has been suggested that the reason the Germans did not resort to chemical warfare in WWII (as both sides had in WWI) was because it would shut down their entire logistical apparatus, whereas it would merely hamstring that of their (more-motorised) enemies.
Despite media portrayals and poor historical research on many historians' part, the Heer was in fact composed mostly of infantry units that were increasingly reliant on horse-carts as the war went on and they were continually stripped of their few remaining trucks in favour of the mobile formations. Combat-capable infantry divisions outnumbered Panzer and Motorised divisions note
by at least 5 to 1 at every stage of the war. The infantry divisions marched everywhere on foot and were supplied by horse-carts. The vast majority of the WWII-era Heer was thus almost indistinguishable from that of WWI.
Big Kitty Cats: the Panzers
Ob's stürmt oder schneit, ob die Sonne uns lacht,
Der Tag glühend heiß, oder eiskalt die Nacht,
Bestaubt sind die Gesichter, doch froh ist unser Sinn, ja, unser Sinn!
Es braust unser Panzer im Sturmwind dahin.
Es braust unser Panzer im Sturmwind dahin!note
Nazi Germany always appreciated the tank's role in combined arms, building fast, relatively light tanks at the start of the war to support infantry; the Panzer I was only ever intended as a training tank and was equipped with two machine guns, while the Panzer II carried a 20 mm gun. Germany's ability to engage heavy armour was very
poor right up until partway through the campaign in Russia; in France, Rommel found the British Matildas could not be damaged at all by anything short of his HQ's giant fixed 88 mm FlaKs. In Russia a single KV-2 tank held up elements of the Sixth Panzer Division for over a day, and in an ambush at Krasnogvardeysk five KV-1 tanks destroyed 43 German tanks with no losses whatsoever. Events like this showed a clear need for heavier hardware.
The result was the up-gunning of the Panzer IV, formerly an infantry tank specifically not
designed to engage armour; many obsolete hulls were turned into tank destroyers with heavier fixed main guns, and a new series of Panzers envisioned; larger, with heavy armour and powerful main guns. Despite that, the Panzer IV would remain the Heer's workhorse for the duration of the war. Eventually it became apparent that the Panzer IV was about equal in armament and armor to the American Sherman and the Russian T-34, which was a bad thing for the Germans, since both the Americans and Soviets outnumbered them significantly by this point.
Commencing the Heer's
late-war policy of trying to put an 88 mm gun on absolutely everything (tanks, tank destroyers, chairs, trees, surprised farm animals, etc), the Tiger I was the first of the new heavy tanks. While it used a traditional armour scheme and was hideously over-engineered (to the point where the manual was a picture book made by
the tank crews), it proved a fearsome opponent. Almost as famous, and produced in much larger numbers, was the Pz V Panther medium tank which featured thick, sloped armour, excellent firepower, good mobility and is widely viewed as the best all round tank of the war. However, the late war tanks suffered from rushed development and were never as reliable in service as their American and Russian opponents. In addition, their high quality and over-engineering meant that Panthers and Tigers were incredibly outnumbered by Shermans and T-34s, which the Americans and Russians could crank out in vast numbers very quickly. Another factor that limited their effectiveness was Allied air superiority. Tigers and Panthers could not risk staying in the open too long for fear of being strafed by Allied planes. By the end of the war, both the Americans and Soviets had developed tanks that were even better than the Panther, but mostly held back on deploying them in large numbers in favor of continuing the mass production of the Sherman and T-34.
In late 1942, the Germans had begun development of the "Entwicklung" - "Evolution" - series of armored vehicles. This was intended to bring standardization of production; rather than have various designs competing for the same role, there would be a standard chassis for each weight class, starting with the light E-5 (intended to be used as scout tanks, light tank destroyers, and an APC) and ending with the E-100 (intended to be a super-heavy tank armed with an 128mm gun and turret from the infamous Maus
). Planned to use standardized parts across the whole series, the "Entwicklungen" could have proved an antidote to Germany's terrible supply problems, but the war ended before most had even left the drawing board. A trackless chassis for the E-100 prototype was captured by the British in 1945 and scrapped after testing.
Despite the great fame of the "big cats", the most successful German armored vehicle of the war, both in terms of kills and design, was the Sturmgeschütz
III assault gun, which began life as a gun carrier to support infantry advances, and ended up as a tank destroyer with 20,000 kills by 1944. The design saw especial success in the hands of Germany's Finnish allies, who used them to knock out 87 Soviet tanks for only 8 losses (some of which were due to mechanical failure or destruction to avoid capture). The tank served in the Finnish and Syrian armies until the 1960s, and in Syrian, Romanian and Spanish service until the 1950s. Some may still be in use as static pillboxes on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Wolf-packs and Pocket Battleships: the Kriegsmarine
The only thing I truly feared during the war was Dönitz and his U-boats.
- Leader: Erich Raeder, replaced by Karl Dönitz in 1942
- Second: Hans-Georg von Friedeberg
The U-boats (unterseeboot
, "undersea boat") were not true submarines in the modern sense of the word, but rather submersibles - they spent most of their time on the surface and were slow underwater. Midway through the war Germany employed the schnorchel
(snorkel) device, which they copied from a pair of Dutch submarines captured in 1940 (their design having been begun in in 1938), allowing U-boats to draw air from the surface and stay underwater indefinitely. The U-boats were probably the single most successful weapon at the Kriegsmarine's
disposal, but even they had issues; persistant problems with faulty torpedoes led to many vessels escaping destruction, and at least two U-boats sank themselves
with faulty acoustic homing torpedoes. Even with those corrected, U-boat tactics and technology would be outpaced by Allied anti-submarine warfare (ASW) tactics and technology, leading to tremendous losses for the U-boat service.
(The Type XXI U-boat was
the first true submarine thanks to the snorkel, a greatly increased battery capacity and much greater submerged speed than previous U-boats, but due to severe construction faults all but two Type XXIs would never make it to wartime patrol... and then Germany surrendered before either of those two could sink a ship.)
Because Admiral Karl Doenitz expected the British to adopt the convoy system quickly, which led to a sharp decline in kills by U-boats during the first world war, he instituted a new tactic for dealing with them: the Wolfsrudel
, or wolf pack. A group of five or more U-boats would stalk a convoy by day and then attack at night. Due to Doenitz's micromanagement of the Atlantic campaign, this tactic was eventually turned against itself; with his high usage of radio traffic, the Allies were eventually able to hunt down the boats with High Frequency Direction Finding ("Huff-Duff"). However, in their heyday, known as the "Happy Time", this tactic did prove deadly against convoys. It proved so useful that the Americans started using wolf pack tactics in the Pacific Theater against the Japanese.
Germany's surface navy wasn't up to a tremendous amount. Capital ships take a long time to design and build and the Navy had scarely begun its ambitious expansion plans when the war started (Admiral Raeder had been assured by Hitler that there wouldn't be a major war until 1945). It's widely agreed that, without Alien Space Bats
, Operation Sea Lion would have failed as the landing craft would have been devastated by British naval power, and because, lacking the mobile harbours of operation Overlord, it would have had to have taken one of the British channel ports relatively intact to keep the invasion forces supplied. Notably, Nazi Germany never completed an aircraft carrier, though two were laid down; this was largely due to politics. Hitler found the carriers thoroughly uninteresting and Goering viewed the concept of a naval air arm as undermining the Luftwaffe's authority; Erich Raeder even found opposition within the Kriegsmarine itself from the influential Admiral Karl Dönitz. Political infighting was one of the Kriegsmarine's greatest challenges - an overlooked facet of Operation Sea Lion's (under)planning is that the Navy had very few actual landing craft, and had to rely in a large part on commandeered civilian craft, including a large number of Dutch canal barges, which were totally unsuitable for sea-going. This lack of preparedness reduced the weather window for the operation drastically. Much of the ocean-going fleet was seriously damaged in the Norwegian campaign. Various measures took care of their two biggest capital ships, Bismarck
; even if they hadn't, both ships were hardly state-of-the-art, using two types of deck guns rather than modern dual-purpose guns and an obsolete pre-Jutland armouring scheme that left their rudders and steering gear without any effective protection.
While the Kriegsmarine
was generally more liberal than the rest of the Wehrmacht
, they did serve a rather unwitting role in the Holocaust. After returning from a successful patrol, U-boat crews were treated to a luxurious train ride back to Germany. In one of the cars, the crews found a large sea chest inscribed "From the Commander-in-Chief of the U-boats to his men". Inside were hundreds of pocket watches of every type: small ones, big ones, gold ones, Arabic numbers, Roman numerals, but each one without a chain. These watches were taken from the discarded clothing of Jews in concentration camps. Many U-boat crewmen would later say that the fact none of these watches had chains made them very uneasy. Ironically, despite their perceived leftism, the Kriegsmarine
ended the war as Hitler's favourite service. His will even unfavourably compares the Heer
to them as a public rebuke. Their last major operation was the evacuation of almost 3 million Germans from East Prussia, Danzig and the Baltic Coast in 1944-45, as the Red Army approached.
Like some of the Heer
soldiers, because many Kriegsmarine
officers were anti-Nazi, a fair few able to salvage their careers in the new West German military. Fregattenkapitan
(Commander) Otto Kretschmer and Erich Topp, the first and third highest scoring U-boat aces respectively, joined the Bundesmarine
and eventually retired with the lovely ranks of Flottillenadmiral
Unlike just about every other navy, the Kriegsmarine
limited its marine corps to a few units
. Part of the reason was because, well, Germany didn't need one. All of its campaigns were over land and the few island invasions were conducted by paratroopers. If Operation Sea Lion went ahead, the Heer
would have been the invasion force. Another reason was simply how the Wehrmacht
operated, with each branch operating on its own, and often fiercely resisting outside influence. In the last months of the war, the Kriegsmarine
did start to organize its personnel into infantry divisions
, mostly because they were cut off from their French ports and there was not much else to do until the surrender.
- Type II: Short-range boat. Used to patrol coastal waters.
- Type VII: Medium-range boat. The workhorse of the U-boat fleet. Many of the most well-known boats were of this type, such as U-96 (used in Das Boot).
- Type IX: Long-range boat. Used to patrol waters off of America or Africa.
- Type XIV: Supply boat, nicknamed the "Milchkuh" ("Milk Cow"). Only ten were built and all ten were sunk.
- Type XXI: The first true submarine, in that it was designed for use solely underwater. Readied in the final months of the war, only two made wartime patrols, neither of which sunk any ships.
Warbirds Large and Small: the Luftwaffe
The Nazis entered this war under the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and nobody was going to bomb them. At Rotterdam, London, Warsaw and half a hundred other places, they put their rather naive theory into operation. They sowed the wind, and now they are going to reap the whirlwind.
— Air Marshall Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, RAF
- Leader: Herman Göring
- Second: Robert Ritter von Greim
The Luftwaffe found substantial favour with Hitler for much of the early war, and was a key element in Nazi Germany's highly effective combined-arms strategy; the infamous Stuka dive-bombers were a common sight on the front lines, attacking targets in support of advancing tanks and infantry. Politically, the Luftwaffe was committed mainly to a tactical bombing role, with Goering convinced that there was no need for Germany to field the four-engined heavy bombers that formed the backbone of the RAF and US Army Air Force's strategic bombing operations; even so, enough strategic and pseudo-strategic bombers were constructed to seriously damage Luftwaffe's combat ability. The Luftwaffe high command generally tried to do things their own way; Goering even at first resisted the idea of tricycle undercarriage on the Me 262, saying the nosewheel was "too American."
The Luftwaffe's strength as a fighting force was severely damaged by the Battle of Britain, as Hitler, not satisfied with early results, demanded a shift from tactical bombing of British industry, RAF airfields and radar installations to strategic bombing of major cities, something the Luftwaffe was in no way equipped to carry out; Bf 109 escorts would arrive at London with just ten minutes' worth of fuel remaining, not nearly enough to offer effective protection for their charges. The battle proved a disaster, failing to meet its objective of gaining air superiority over England as a prelude to an amphibious invasion, and significantly decreasing the Luftwaffe's political influence.
Germany was one of the first countries to get jet aircraft into military service (the jet engine was an independent, simultaneous German and British invention, as agreed on by both inventors), but the Me 262 arrived too late in the war to have a major impact due to a lack of pilots, fuel, manufacturing capacity, viable runways (the plane required a longer runway to take off), and raw materials. It is also sometimes argued that Hitler himself crippled the Me 262 program by demanding that the new aircraft be purposed as a fighter-bomber rather than the originally designed air superiority fighter. Powerful engines that would have made it a nimble and incredibly fast interceptor made for a merely decent
ground attack aircraft due to their high fuel consumption, and heavy bombs ruined the jet's biggest advantage — an enormous climb speed.
As a last ditch effort to win the war the Luftwaffe introduced the Heinkel He 162 Salamander fighter. Named the Volksjager it was initlly intended to be an aircraft piloted by Hitler Youth. In reality it proved quite difficult for all but the most skilled of pilots which were in very short supply by the time it finally saw combat in April of 1945. Unlike other jet aircraft it was made primarily of wood as steel was in short supply and was priortized to other aircraft. It's rushed construction and devlopment caused mechanical and structural failures killing the very pilots who flew it. A glider variant the He 162S was introduced for training purposes but none were actually flown as the Hitler Youth unit they had been shipped to was still in formation and had not even begun training by the time the war had ended.
Unlike other militaries, the Luftwaffe
had its own ground troops: the Fallschirmjäger
, or paratrooper (normally, paratroopers are part of the army and not the air force). Germany employed the first large scale airborne operations during their invasion of Norway. However, a massive loss at Crete convinced Hitler that airborne operations would no longer be feasible. Ironically, the Allies were so impressed by the Fallshirmjäger's performance at Crete that they started building up their own airborne divisions (which would play a critical role at Normandy). For the rest of the war, they were pretty much used alongside regular infantry forces. Luckily, they did get a pretty nice Crowning Moment Of Awesome
in 1943: the rescue of Mussolini without the loss of a single life. The guys were so elite, they had their own Ten Commandments
had more troops than just the elite Fallschirmjäger
. Goering had the "bright idea" to bolster Eastern Front strength by building field divisions from ground, support and other auxiliary personnel. In total, the Luftwaffe
Field Divisions bolstered strength by some 200,000 to 250,000 troops. Sadly, these guys were pretty much just one step up from the Volkssturm
, the difference being these were men who were in their prime to actually serve as soldiers. They performed horribly in combat and were eventually reduced to rear duties.
Worst of the Worst: Die Schutzstaffel
Whether ten-thousand Russian females die digging an anti-tank ditch interests me only insofar as Germany's antitank ditch gets finished.
— Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler
- Leader: Heinrich Himmler
- Second: Hans Jüttner
The Schutzstaffel (Protection Squad) rose from being a simple thousand man bodyguard detail for Hitler to a state-within-a-state. After the war, Himmler intended to make an SS nation out of Schleswig-Holstein, with his men being the absolute highest order of the master race (and even held on to these goals in the last week of the war). While the SS itself was not a part of the Wehrmacht, two of its sections were respectively under the command of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command) and attached to Heer units. These were the Waffen (Armed) SS and Einsatzgruppen ("Task forces"). These were administrated by Hermann Fegelein. Yes, that Fegelein
It is a myth
that the entirety of the Waffen SS was elite. Many of them actually received poorer equipment and training than their Heer counterparts, and only three divisions are generally considered by militaria experts to be elite, namely the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte (Life Guard) Adolf Hitler, Hitler's personal bodyguard
, the 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, infamous for their actions
at the French town of Oradour-sur-Glane (it says something that the officer responsible would probably have been tried for war crimes even if Germany had won the war)
and the 3rd SS Division Totenkopf, infamous for both their Death's Head insignia and their roots in the prewar Totenkopfverbände (Death's Head Organisation), which administered the prewar (and slightly less brutal
) concentration camp system. In fact many of the enlisted men in the earlier days of the 3rd SS Division had been guards at conectration camps. Other few Waffen SS divisions (at least 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking
, 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen
, 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg
, 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division Nordland
, 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend
, 28th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Wallonien
and 34th SS Volunteer Grenadier Division Landstorm Nederland
) claimed elite status similar to the first 3 divisions, due to both their arduous training
and the fierce resistance they displayed
when facing enemies, Hitlerjugend
being renowned for their fierce attitude during the Normandy battles. The SS was notorious for scavenging enemy weapons, especially the Soviet SVT-40, which was used because their own semiautomatic rifles were so seldom supplied. Nevertheless, those SS divisions which were genuinely elite - Das Reich
, Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler
- often received top of the line equipment, sometimes over better qualified Heer
units. Despite all their advanced weaponry, no Waffen-SS unit ever achieved a better kill ratio than the Heer's best troops, such as the Großdeutschland
The Einsatzgruppen were death squads established by SS leader Heinrich Himmler for the purpose of murdering Jews, Gypsies and Soviet political commissars. They were a far smaller group, consisting of around 15,000 members. 6 groups of them existed, 2 of them thankfully never seeing action. They were responsible for the deaths of more than 1,300,000 people, among their most infamous crimes being the massacre of 33,771 civilians at Babi Yar, a ravine near the capital of Ukraine.
Equal Opportunity Tyranny: Foreign Help
Why do you wear a German uniform?
Why do you wear an American one?
— General Phillipe Leclerc and SS-Hauptsturmführer Henri Fenet, 1945
The Waffen SS was a mostly-volunteer organisation with many recruits from across Europe, ranging from Germans to Austrians to White Russians to French to Scandinavians to Muslim Bosniaks and even to Indians. In some ways, a Nazi version of the French Foreign Legion
. At its height, it consisted of around 1,000,000 total personnel. The reason for this being the fact Heer could not recruit men who were not German citizens for being bound by pre-war military regulations, while the SS was not - they were responsible practically in all matters to Heinrich Himmler and above him to the Führer
himself. Some notable examples are here:
- The British Free Corps: Originally known as the Legion of St George, this was an attempt to raise a force of British volunteers from British POWs. This force would take advantage of the "natural tenacity of the British race" (which the Nazis admired) and be a propaganda coup, assuring the British public that a Nazi-dominated Europe would allow Britain to retain its power and influence. So, how many Brits betrayed their nation and joined up with Hitler? A terrifying 59 in all. At no single point in time did it reach more than 27 men in strength, smaller than a contemporary German platoon.
- 5th SS Panzer Division "Wiking": A genuinely elite SS Motorized Infantry (later Panzer) division, Wiking was one of the Waffen-SS's strongest battle units. Composed by foreign volunteers, from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, Finland and Estonia, the Netherlands and Belgium under the command of German officers, it first saw action during Operation: Barbarossa. It did itself well in the fighting on the Mius and around Rostov-On-Don before deploying to the Caucasus and playing a large role in the capture of Grozny. During its long campaigns, it was encircled several times but broke out each time, narrowly escaping being trapped in the infamous kessel at Stalingrad. It also helped suppress the Warsaw Uprising. After being badly mauled trying to relieve Budapest, after a week-long forced march in horrific weather conditionsnote , the division fell back through central Europe to eventually surrender to the US Army in Austria. Most of its members were repatriated and either acquitted, imprisoned, or in some cases, executed.
- 11th SS Volunteer Panzergrenadier Division "Nordland": The Nordland was a primarily Scandinavian regiment, but anyone considered an ethnic volkdeutsch could join up, and so they did. By the end of the war, it was the most ethnically diverse Nazi formation; Danish, Hungarian, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, French, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish, Swiss and British volunteers and Estonian conscripts had either served in the division or been attached to it. It fought around Leningrad, but was eventually pushed back into the Courland pocket. They were rescued by sea, and redeployed to the battles for East Prussia and Pomerania. It fell back into Berlin and was destroyed. Its last seven tanks have the distinction of spearheading the breakout attempt out across the Weidammer Bridge by the Fuehrerbunker's staff. Very few managed to reach the Anglo-American lines on the Elbe.
- The Russian Liberation Army: Recruited from anti-Bolshevik Russian POWs and several other Russian emigre forces, and led by a former general of Josef Stalin's, Andrey Vlasov. Hitler disliked it intensely, and only agreed to its formation on the prompting of a desperate Heinrich Himmler. It was deployed against a Red Army attack in 1945, and whilst it had some success, Hitler's refusal to grant it modern equipment, air support, or even medical supplies meant that its effect was minimal, and the Red Army soon broke its back. Seeing that the writing was on the wall, Vlasov ordered all the army to concentrate in the South, so it could be entirely surrendered to the Western allies (who he hoped wouldn't repatriate him). In a last, desperate attempt to save themselves, the division aided the Czech resistance against the Germans, and was vital to the defense of Prague from Waffen-SS soldiers sent to level it. Afterwards, it splintered. Those caught by the Soviets were sent to Siberia or killed, those caught by the Allies were forcibly repatriated or permitted to escape by officers looking the other way, and those very few who went to Lichtenstein were granted political asylum, as the tiny principality defied the largest country on earth's demands to return them. Vlasov was hung, according to one witness with piano wire and a hook on the base of his skull.
- 33rd Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS "Charlemagne" (1st French): Composed of French anticommunists, the Charlemagne was formed from Vichy French forces and the previous organization, the LVF. It had nearly 8,000 men at its largest, and has the distinction of being the last Third Reich unit to see action during WWII, as, knowing that they would face a dreadful fate if they surrendered, they continued to fight in the ruins of the Reich Chancellery. A group of just twelve managed to destroy sixty-two Soviet tanks using Panzerfausts alone, and several won the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross, being awarded the decoration in a half-wrecked railway carriage that served as battalion HQ. The last French Nazis fought in the ruins of the Fuehrerbunker until 2 May, so the Soviets wouldn't capture it on May Day. They then tried to escape back to France. Most were denounced, shot on capture by French troops, or later sentenced to hard labor. One group, captured in Bad Reichenhall, was asked by General Leclerc why they wore German uniforms. The highest-ranked asked the general "why do you wear an American one?" Of those who survived, some repented, but most died in the late 20th and early 21st centuries unrepentant fascists.
- Indische Legion: A unit formed of Indian nationalists under the radical Subhas Chandra Bose, it was intended to spearhead an Indo-German land invasion of British India. Only a tiny handful ever came close to this intended purpose, being parachuted into Iran and infiltrating the Raj via Baluchistan. However, they were generally used for non-combatant duties in Europe, as Hitler did not trust themnote . Their discipline was very poor and they were hated by those troops they were billeted with, due to a combination of racism and genuine instances of larceny and brutality. Another company saw action in Italy, where they proved little obstacle to Allied forces. After attempting to escape via Lake Constance, they were captured by the French and Americans. French Moroccan troops, apparently for the giggles, shot a large number out of hand. The rest were delivered to the British, who, although they already intended to grant India independence, were still rather miffed. Most were tried for treason and executed, the last a few days before India's official independence.
- Not to be confused with the Azad Hind Fauj, or Indian National Army, the revolutionary force led by Bose after his departure from Germany and sponsored by Imperial Japan. By contrast, the INA took part in a general uprising in the Subcontinent that led to the British responding with an actual aerial bombardments on British India.
Thunderbolts from Clear Sky: Nazi Rocketry
I aim for the stars...but sometimes I hit London.
— Wehrner von Braun
Germany was the first country to use cruise missiles (the V-1) and ballistic missiles (the V-2) in a war, against France, Britain and Belgium. On the 3rd of October 1942, a V-2 test-launch at Penemunde achieved a height of between 85 and 90 kilometers, and became the first man-made object to reach outer space.
The former, sometimes known as "The Doodlebug" or "Buzz-Bomb" due to its distinctive noise, had a system where the missile would be forced into a dive after a certain number of revolutions, which also cut the engine. Once the engine stopped, people on the ground knew an explosion was imminent. The V-1 was somewhat inaccurate, generally falling short of London and false intelligence from British double agents led to this not being corrected before the V-1 sites were overrun by the Allies. They could also be shot down with anti-aircraft gun firing shells with proximity fuses, while fighter planes were able to down them, albeit with considerable difficulty. One popular, though difficult and potentially dangerous, method used by fighter pilots was to slide one of their planes' wingtips underneath a V-1's wingtip, then tilt their planes' wings until the V-1 tipped over (the V-1's rudimentary guidance system, which was basically a gyroscope and little more, could not stabilize the missile if it made too much a turn). That’s right: to defeat a V-1, make it Do A Barrel Roll.
Of course the alternative (shoot it) could cause about 850 kg of high explosives explode right in front of your fighter.
The latter was built using slave labour, killing far more people in its construction than its actual use (c.25,000 v. 7,000). There was no warning and no defence against these - not only did the V-2's engine cut off long before impact, the missile was traveling faster than sound when it came down. As noted in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,
this produced the very eerie effect of a large explosion followed
by the whistling sound of an incoming projectile. A project that would have allowed V-2s to be launched at US cities from a sub-towed platform
was tested, but never really got anywhere and probably wouldn't have been very effective anyway.
When the war ended, the Allies sneered at the great cost of the V Weapons - especially compared to the actual damage they inflicted - whilst simultaneously rushing to copy them. Both the US and the USSR grabbed as much V-2 stuff as they could, brought back personnel (sometimes overlooking possible war crimes) and created the modern version of the Mad Scientist
in the process. Wernher von Braun, a major player in the V-2 project, would later create the launchers that would take man to the Moon.
We Still Have Reserves, Dammit!: the Volkssturm
Military service has been part of German society for decades, so it was not surprising to see that most men in Germany had some military experience. In 1944, with the Red Army rapidly approaching, Hitler ordered the creation of a national militia to bolster strength. On paper, they could mobilize roughly six million men to defend the country against the Soviets. This led to the creation of the Volkssturm
In practice, this boiled down to rounding up anyone who was not already in the Wehrmacht or Waffen-SS in some capacity. Nazi supporters would "conscript" old men, many of whom were veterans of the First World War, and place a gun in their hands in the hopes of killing as many Russians as possible. Boys from the Hitler Youth were also given weapons. Allied solders were shocked and disbelieving at being attacked by children, who were often fiercer than the old men due to youthful foolishness and actually believing in Nazism. There was barely any standardization. For uniforms, only a few managed wear from the stockpiles, while most Volkssturm members simply wore their own clothes with Nazi armbands. Some of the WWI veterans wore their old Imperial uniforms. With the tattered remnants of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-SS, the Volkssturm comprised a good number of Berlin's defense forces.
Regular army officers called Volkssturm battalions "casseroles" because they were a mixture of old meat and green vegetables.
The Nazi commanders gave the units grandiose names, such as the "Storm Division", which "lacked the weapons to storm anything" and the Panzerjagdkompanie
, "which was supposed to hunt tanks on foot
" (Beevor). Nevertheless, the Volkssturm
were not entirely useless; one Volkssturm officer, the elderly East Prussia aristocrat Baron von Puttkamer, formed his estate's staff into a company of Volkssturm
which was instrumental in evacuating several villages in front of the Soviet advance, using their strongest members to trample the snowdrifts flat.
- Enlisted Ranks
- Grenadier/Fusilier (Equivalent to Private)
- Obergrenadier/Oberfusilier (Equivalent to Private in the US and British Armies, and Private First Class in the US Marines)
- Gefreiter (Equivalent to Lance Corporal in the British Army and US Marines, and Private First Class in the US Army)
- Obergefreiter (Equivalent to Corporal)
- Hauptgefreiter (Equivalent to Senior Corporal)
- Stabsgefreiter (Equivalent to Administrative Corporal)
- Non-Commisioned Officer Ranks
- Unteroffizier (Equivalent to Sergeant)
- Unterfeldwebel (Equivalent to Staff Sergeant)
- Feldwebel (Equivalent to Sergeant First Class, or Gunnery Sergeant in the US Marines)
- Oberfeldwebel (Equivalent to Master Sergeant or Warrant Officer Class Two)
- Stabsfeldwebel (Equivalent to Sergeant Major, or Master Gunnery Sergeant in the US Marines)
- Commissioned Officer Ranks
- Leutnant (Equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant)
- Oberleutnant (Equivalent to (1st) Lieutenant)
- Hauptmann (Equivalent to Captain)
- Oberstleutnant (Equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel)
- Oberst (Equivalent to Colonel)
- Generalmajor (Equivalent to Brigadier General)
- Generalleutnant (Equivalent to Major General)
- General der (arm) (Equivalent to Lieutenant General)
- Arms included Kavallerie (calvary), Artillerie (artillery), Infanterie (infantry), Panzertruppen (armoured troops), Gebirgstruppen (mountain troops), Pioniere (engineers), and Nachrichtentruppen (communications troops).
- Generaloberst (Equivalent to General)
- Generalfeldmarschall (Equivalent to Field Marshal or General of the Army; no US Marine equivalent)
- Matrose (Equivalent to Seaman)
- Matrosengefreiter (Equivalent to Ordinary Seaman)
- Matrosenobergefreiter (Equivalent to Able Seaman)
- Matrosenhauptgefreiter (Equivalent to Leading Seaman 3rd class)
- Matrosenstabsgefreiter (Equivalent to Leading Seaman 2nd class)
- Matrosenoberstabsgefreiter (Equivalent to Leading Seaman 1st class)
- Non-Commisioned Officer Ranks
- Maat (Equivalent to Petty Officer 3rd class)
- Obermaat (Equivalent to Petty Officer 2nd class)
- Feldwebel (Equivalent to Petty Officer 1st class)
- Stabfeldwebel (Equivalent to Chief Petty Officer)
- Oberfeldwebel (Equivalent to Warrant Officer)
- Staboberfelbwebel (Equivalent to Chief Warrant Officer)
- Commissioned Officer Ranks
- Leutnant zur See (Equivalent to Ensign in the US; equivalent rank does not exist in the UK)
- Oberleutnant zur See(Equivalent to Lieutenant Junior Grade in the US and Sub-Lieutenant in the UK)
- Kapitanleutant (Equivalent to Lieutenant)
- Korvettenkapitan (Equivalent to Lieutenant Commander)
- Fregattenkapitan (Equivalent to Commander)
- Kapitan zur See (Equivalent to Captain)
- Kommodore (Equivalent to Commodore in the UK, Rear Admiral (lower half) in the US)
- Konteradmiral (Equivalent to Rear Admiral in the UK, Rear Admiral (upper half) in the US)
- Vizeadmiral (Equivalent to Vice Admiral)
- Admiral (Equivalent to Admiral)
- Grossadmiral (Equivalent to Fleet Admiral)
- Enlisted Ranks
- Flieger (Equivalent to Airman Basic or Aircraftman)
- Gefreiter (Equivalent to Airman)
- Obergefreiter (Equivalent to Airman First Class or Lance Corporal)
- Hauptgefreiter (Equivalent to Senior Airman or Corporal)
- Non-Commisioned Officer Ranks
- Unteroffizier (Equivalent to Staff Sergeant or Sergeant)
- Unterfeldwebel (Equivalent to Technical Sergeant or Flight Sergeant)
- Hauptwachtmeister (Equivalent to Master Sergeant)
- Stabsfeldwebel (Equivalent to Warrant Officer Master Aircrew)
- Commissioned Officer Ranks
- Leutnant (Equivalent to 2nd Lieutenant or Pilot Officer)
- Oberleutnant (Equivalent to 1st Lieutenant or Flying Officer)
- Hauptmann (Equivalent to Captain or Flight Lieutenant)
- Major (Equivalent to Major or Squadron Leader)
- Oberstleutnant (Equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel or Wing Commander)
- Oberst (Equivalent to Colonel or Group Captain)
- Generalmajor (Equivalent to Brigadier General or Air Commodore)
- Generalleutnant (Equivalent to Major General or Air Vice-Marshal)
- General der (arm) (Equivalent to Lieutenant General or Air Marshal)
- Includes Flieger (aviators), Fallschirmtruppen (parachute troops), Jagdflieger (fighter pilots), and Flakartillerie (anti-aircraft artillery).
- Generaloberst (Equivalent to General or Air Chief Marshal)
- Reichsmarschall (Special rank created for Hermann Goering, equivalent to General of the Air Force or Marshal of the Royal Air Force)
- Enlisted Ranks
- SS-Schütze (Equivalent to Private)
- SS-Oberschütze (Equivalent to Private First Class)
- SS-Sturmmann (Equivalent to Lance Corporal)
- SS-Rottenführer (Equivalent to Corporal)
- Non-Commissioned Officer Ranks
- SS-Unterscharführer (Equivalent to Sergeant)
- SS-Scharführer (Equivalent to Staff Sergeant
- SS-Oberscharführer (Translates to ?Sergeant First Class?)
- SS-Hauptscharführer (Equivalent to Master Sergeant)
- SS-Sturmscharführer (Equivalent to Sergeant Major)
- Commissioned Officer Ranks
- SS-Untersturmführer (Equivalent to Second Lieutenant)
- SS-Obersturmführer (Equivalent to (1st) Lieutenant)
- SS-Hauptsturmführer (Equivalent to Captain)
- SS-Sturmbannführer (Equivalent to Major)
- SS-Obersturmbannführer (Equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel)
- SS-Standartenführer (Equivalent to Colonel)
- SS-Oberführer (Equivalent to Brigadier-General)
- SS-Brigadeführer (Equivalent to Major General)
- SS-Gruppenführer (Equivalent to Lieutenant General)
- SS-Obergruppenführer (Equivalent to General)
- SS-Oberstgruppenführer (Equivalent to Field Marshal or General of the Army)
- Reichsführer-SS (Special rank for the head of the entire Schutzstaffel. Equivalent to General of the Armies)
The Wehrmacht in Fiction