Nazi Germany fielded soldiers from a number of armed organisations for conventional warfare, anticipatory-retaliatory anti-partisan warfare, and prejudicial counter-intelligence operations. These were subordinated to two major organisations, the SS (Schutzstaffel - lit. 'protection squadron') and the Wehrmacht (Military). The SS was created from the merger of paramilitary groups associated with the Nazi Party with Germany's major police forces upon their seizure of power in 1933, and was originally focused on unconventional enemies. The Wehrmacht was created from the Reichswehr, the military of the German Republic (1918-1933), in 1935 and had an initial focus on conventional enemies.
Over time the competitive nature of Nazi bureaucracy compelled the Schutzstaffel to mold its policemen into soldiers and the Wehrmacht to use its soldiers as policemen, and while there was some fierce political squabbling the 'spirit of cooperation' which characterised all of Germany's paramilitary groups meant that this did not translate into destructive rivalries in the field. For instance, wherever the Schutzstaffel won the race to implement The Holocaust (such as in the Netherlands) the Wehrmacht put aside their institutional rivalry to help them out as best it could, and wherever the Wehrmacht managed to win that honor (as in Belgium) the Schutzstaffel did likewise. Both organisations had a number of component organisations which initially exercised a high degree of independence, but which they managed to subordinate over time. Said components were as follows:
- Waffen-SS (lit. Protection Squadron Force)
- Ordnungspolizei (lit. Order Police)
- Sicherheitspolizei (lit. Security Police)
- Sicherheitsdienst (lit. "Security Force", Intelligence)
- Heer (lit. Army)
- Kriegsmarine (lit. Navy)
- Luftwaffe (lit. Air Force)
- Abwehr (lit. "Defence", Intelligence)
The SS had a number of armed organisations which served alongside the Wehrmacht to enact 'security policy' (against partisans and Undesirables) and serve in the frontlines. The Waffen-SS was the largest and best-equipped of these, with up to 400,000 German and Foreign-volunteer combat troops versus a wartime peak of just 3.5 million Wehrmacht combat troops, but the Order Police certainly rivaled it for size (though not in terms of equipment or training) with up to 150,000 police troops and 300,000 Hiwi troops. The Regional Security Chiefs nominally had no troops of their own, but in practice recruited more than 50,000 Hiwi troops. The Security Police (under Reinhard Heydrich until '42), on the other hand, never exceeded 20,000 - though this was still enough for an actual armed presence in some areas, unlike the criminally undermanned Kripo and Gestapo. The Waffen-SS were equipped and trained to the same standard as Wehrmacht units and were somewhat elite and extremely fanatical. However, losses in the Ukrainian campaigns of '43 reduced both characteristics. Waffen-SS divisions tended to get new equipment and replacement troops before Heer ones did, which made them increasingly effective relative to the progressively more depleted Heer units from early 1942 onward.
The relationship between the Wehrmacht and the various paramilitary and police organizations (Waffen-SS, Order Police, Regional Security Chiefs, Security Police, Criminal Police, Secret Police) was fairly cordial and they forged good working relationships in both 'security policy' and combat, but there were still notable bureaucratic squabbles and their partnership was often strained in the chaos of the retreats (where units literally fought over evacuation/rearguard duty). Perhaps the biggest bones of contention occurred when the Wehrmacht managed to secure overall control over 'security policy' in France and the Regional Security Chiefs (HSSPFs) for Reichskomissariats Ukraine and Ostland managed to secure control over 'security policy' in their regions. This forced both organisations to take on one another's roles in order to maintain this supremacy, with the Wehrmacht taking responsibility for eliminating 'enemies of the state' (including "Undesirables") in France and the HSSPFs directing the 'anti-bandit' military campaigns in the occupied Soviet Union.
A case can be made that the Wehrmacht was technically not a 'Nazi' institution because (before 1944) none of its personnel were Nazi Party members and the Wehrmacht's leadership did not wholeheartedly agree with all Nazi ideals and policies. However, the Wehrmacht's leadership actively supported the Nazi regime and shared almost all of its ideals. Even though there was a distinction between the regime and the military in the minds of many German military personnel and civilians, in practice this separation was artificial and reflected neither the attitudes of the organization's leadership nor its policies. Many of the Wehrmacht's 'pragmatic'/'non-Nazi' policies were virtually indistinguishable from 'Nazi' ones. Ur-Example of such a policy was the purely 'rational' measure of working together with the Croatian Utasha regime and Waffen-SS to execute all Yugoslavian Jews and Gypsies in the field. This was a 'logical' exercise in 'preventative security' because some of them were associated with Tito's Communist partisans and there was no point in leaving radicalized survivors.
On the other hand, it is absolutely not true that all of the rank and file of the Wehrmacht were Nazis. While we have no way of knowing the extent to which they were, we can rule out the extremes of 'widespread opposition to Nazism', 'no popular support for Nazism', and 'total popular support for Nazism'. Beyond that the nature of individual motivations over time makes it impossible to generalise.
The Wehrmacht's officers were somewhere inbetween the leadership and the rank-and-file when it came to support for Nazism, though there was a clear shift towards Nazism over time. Within the Wehrmacht there was a fairly clear division between the branches 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 didn't really start to become Nazified until 1938-40 when the conservative Commander-in-Chief was replaced and before then had been largely conservative, especially in its pre-war Junker-dominated officer corps (and until 1943-44 Wehrmacht soldiers were freer 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 I). 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).
My Country, Right or Wrong was a very common attitude among many Wehrmacht soldiers despite a strong undercurrent of heartfelt racial prejudice against Jews and Slavs (and all non-Europeans). Due to German laws, everyone needed to resign from a political party before joining the Wehrmacht and swearing the requisite oath of loyalty to Hitler. While quite a few ordinary soldiers went beyond what was strictly necessary in their support of the Nazi regime, most were just conscripts (just like many other militaries) who only gave as much support as they were expected to and thought they were fighting to defend their loved ones and their country from extermination (at the hands of the Soviets) and/or subjugation (at the hands of the Allies). Even the Hitler salute was only instituted from 1944 onwards, at the insistence of leading Wehrmacht figures including Heinz Guderian and Wilhelm Keitel, in the wake of the Valkyrie incident. Before then it had only been required when greeting Hitler.
The army's leadership enjoyed a happy marriage with the Nazi Party (which, because of its love of war, gave them lots of shiny new weaponsnote ) and even the rank-and-file came under their sway as the war went on and they lost friends and brutalised and/or killed enemy civilians. By June 1941 the military's various arms were not just enthusiastically approving of but also contributing to the first genocidal programs (in the Soviet Union), and by July 1944 (with everything falling apart in the wake of Operation Bagration, the Allied landings in France, and the Valkyrie plot) the distinction between the military and the Nazi Party had all but disappeared. This was partly due to a purge of non-Nazis from the leadership, but also due to the institution of 'political officers' modeled after The Red Army's 'commissar' system note for bolstering morale, monitoring patriotic sentiment, and enforcing ideological orthodoxy.
Be very 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. In Germany, study of the Wehrmacht's performance in warfare is basically unheard of and studies of the Wehrmacht focus almost exclusively upon its deep complicity in the Nazis' genocidal schemes. But in the USA, military and Armchair Military studies have often sought to separate the Wehrmacht's 'professional' conduct on the battlefield from its 'political' conduct against POW and civilians and held up the former as a shining paragon of professionalism worthy of emulation. However, the latter approach presents a FalseDichotomy given the fundamentally ideological nature of Germany's wars. Germany's stated aim in her war against the USSR was to exterminate her people, and every action taken in the name of that goal (however mindful to avoid civilian losses, which none of them werenote ) was one which furthered this ultimate, 'political', aim.
The idea that the Wehrmacht was a professional and a-political institution which bravely opposed the excesses of the Nazi regime 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. To quote section II.1 of the OKH (Army High Command) Barbarossa Decree of 13/5/1941: "For acts which members of the Wehrmacht or its retinue commit against enemy civilians, there is no compulsion to prosecute, even when the act represents at the same time a military crime or offense."
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 nobody can 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 two million Soviet POW to die in, enforced the illegal Commissar and Commando Orders (execution of all Soviet civil servants and Communist Party members, partisans, and Special Forces like those of Britain's SOE on sight), helped the understaffed SS Einsatzgruppen transport and massacre Jews, and helped the 100,000 men of the 'Security Forces' keep the up-to-40 million people and up-to-500,000 square kilometres of the rear areas 'pacified'. This was done in accordance with the guidelines set out in the OKH Barbarossa Decree. The 'drastic action' mandated in section I.4 was generally understood to mean 'execution': "Collective drastic action will be taken immediately against communities from which treacherous or insidious attacks against the Wehrmacht are launched, on the orders of an officer with at least the rank of battalion commander upwards, if the circumstances do not permit a speedy apprehension of individual culprits."
Several individual officers displayed basic decency and fewer still great chivalrynote , 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 nominally subordinate to the command brand of the SS, in the field, tactical and operational command was given to the Wehrmachtnote . In practice, the Oberkommando des Heeres was in charge of the Eastern theatre while the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht was in charge of all other fronts. 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.
- Leader: Walther von Brauchitsch, then the Führer himself
- Second: Hans Krebsnote
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.
Some of the high-ranking Heer officers were respected by their Allied opponents, if only because said Allied opponents didn't know what they'd been up to on the Eastern Front and in the occupied territories. The most famous of these is Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox. 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 successfully portrayed themselves as having been this way as well and so salvaged their careers following the war. Erich von Manstein, who promoted himself as an apolitical Master of Strategy (despite his role in executing the Holocaust and litany of defeats against the Soviets), was the most famous of these. The senior ex-Wehrmacht personnel convicted of War Crimes were released by 1955, despite having received much longer sentences, and so advised on the creation of the Bundeswehr in 1955. Friedrich Foertsch, the 1961-3 Inspector-General (de facto Chief of Staff) of the Bundeswehr had actually received a death sentence for his war crimesnote . This was commuted to 25 years' Hard Labour and in 1955 he was released at Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's personal insistence.
Unlike other armies, the Heer used 'mission-type tactics' which called for a high degree of independence for tactical-level units. These were given specific goals and allowed means to achieve them. The great strength of this system was its ability to cope with unexpected turns of events. Its great weakness was its inability to cope with a situation which called for detailed planning or a high degree of centralised control (chiefly when breaking through strongly-held enemy defensive lines)
The Heer also introduced a slight variation on the French Army's revolutionary new concept (the 'Mechanized division'): the 'tank' or panzer division, which contained specialised anti-tank guns which effectively doubled its striking power against other units equipped with tanks. In World War I, the new vehicles known variously as 'Tanks' (English, American) or 'Chars' (French, American) were manufactured by the French and British (and given to US forces) and employed as a form of mobile artillery. This is because building them and using them to directly fire at enemy positions was, even given the outright destruction of up to 80% of the attacking tank force, was actually slightly cheaper than building enough artillery pieces to perform the same task (with 'indirect' fire). For their part the Germans shied away from doing this, as they were more concerned with saving lives in general and were on the defensive for most of the war in the west in any case. The French mechanized divisions, which grew out of the French cavalry corps of the inter-war period, maintained this tradition but took it even further. In these units tanks were the primary means of artillery fire, with indirect-fire artillery pieces being of secondary importance.
Contrary to popular belief, after 1940 Panzer divisions didn't have more tanks than western Allied tank divisions or Soviet tank corps (in fact the non-SS divisions often had fewer). Like their French precedents and Allied counterparts, Panzer divisions were designed from the ground up as combined arms formations with transport truck, panzer, 'motorised/mechanised' (transported by trucks/armoured half-tracks) infantry, artillery, and reconnaissance units permanently assigned ('organic') to each division.
One notable weakness of the system was the narrow focus on maneuver and combat during the planning and conduct of operations/campaigns, with support services not being consulted on the physical possibility of fulfilling the demands that would be placed upon them. When demands upon the support services exceeded their capabilities, there was also no room for the support services to improvise solutions at the expense of combat elements note . In practice this weakness did not become obvious until the first campaigns against the Soviet Union.
Another notable weakness of the German system was the imperfect concentration of combat assets for operations. Unlike in the Red Army no substantial artillery, anti-tank, or engineering assets were retained outside the divisions so they could be parceled out to where they were most needed. This system ensured that the Red Army got full and best use of these assets (especially during times of high demand), rather than them being unused or used in sub-optimal sectors. The Germans also didn't have an official system for stripping engineers and artillery from divisions on 'quiet' sectors of Theatres or Fronts so they could be used where they were needed, though in practice certain lower-level commanders (at Army level) did do this such as with the engineering Battalions stripped from the 2nd and 6th (Infantry) Armies in 1942 and used within Stalingrad.
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. This precaution proved its worth during partisan and urban warfare in particular.
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 the 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 (also still being produced in slightly-modernised versions), though the Mauser action was significantly slower than that used by the British Lee-Enfield (which also had double the magazine capacity of any other rifle in widespread use). These were semi-replaced mid-war by the Gewehr 43 semi-automatic rifle, a direct counterpart to the Soviet SVT-40 and American M1 Garand. note The Germans were never able to produce enough G43s to outfit anything more than a minority of their forces, so the K98 continued to be the bulk issue rifle with the G43 only being issued to snipers and special units. While captured French, Soviet, and British rifles were issued to training and Police units throughout the war, towards the end of the war some frontline military units were equipped with them as stocks of K98s began to run dry.
One of the most iconic German weapons 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, and for using the same ammunition and magazines as the British Sten and Lanchester submachine guns (or rather, the other way around: The British weapons were knock-offs of German designs, and the ability to use captured German magazines and ammunition was seen as an advantageous feature).
Nazi Germany developed a lot of weaponry 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) 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", and also as Parabellum. The pistol was actually used in World War I, 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. The Walther P38 was also still manufactured until 2004 as an updated version called the P1 and was still used by the German army until being phased out. 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.
The MG-34 was the first General Purpose Machine Gun to be adopted by any state, 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.
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. Even the handles were clever: It had three along the top, making it easier to pass from one man to the next, or allowing a soldier to carry two empty cans comfortably in one hand. The design proved so good that it remains in use to this day by both military forces and civilians.
One of the more unconventional improvised inventions of Wehrmacht forces was the Minensuchgerät 42 (Minesweeper 42). This was used by Wehrmacht forces in Belarus as part of wider measures to dismantle the former Soviet defensive lines on the Dnepr-Dvina around Smolensk and create Wüstenzonen (desert zones) to combat the partisan threat. Since qualified Pioniere (combat engineers) were scarce, the terrain was marshy, and the infrastructure poor the Minensuchgerät 42 was ideally suited to operational requirements in Belarus. It was doubly useful as Wehrmacht policy in Belarus adhered to the principle, neatly summarised by the Army Group Center Rear Area commander (General Max von Seckendorff), that "The Jew is the partisan, the partisan is the Jew": using Jews for the Minensuchgerät 42 could alleviate or even eliminate the need to expend Belarussians in this capacity. The Minensuchgerät 42 is a shining example of the Wehrmacht's ingenuity in improvising minesweepers from nothing more than farm equipment and people note , its base inhumanity in doing so, and its attempts to conceal its indescretions through the use of euphemisms.
On 22/6/1941 the Wehrmacht invaded the USSR with 2.7 million combat troops, 120k trucks, 500k cars and motorbikes, 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. As early as March 1942 the Panzer Divisions were outfitting their motorcycle reconnaisance troops with bicycles, and by 1943 the Wehrmacht was the least-motorised military force of the war bar the IJA and NRA.
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.
All half-tracks designed for military purpose within Germany used a similar cleverly-designed Schachtellaufwerk chassis, scaled to their respective size, which proved their undoing: to allow high road speeds, all track links were fitted on needle bearings with individual sealing and lubrication. Hundreds of roller-bearings for each damn vehicle. No wonder they could not make more than a few thousands of each type.
When the Blitzkrieg raged, and the bodies stank.
German army was badly overrun by British tanks in the World War One, and was a quick learner. The Army adopted tank and armoured assault warfare early, and was the first to notice the role of tank on battlefield: tank was to be the knight of the 20th century, and deployed like knights: in concentrated formations on their own, employing firepower and mobility and crush the enemy lines with impetus, enabling breakthroughs and allowing mobilized infantry to employ the gaps on enemy lines. "Tank" itself is Panzerkampfwagen in German language, literally "armoured fighting vehicle", abbreviated just Panzer ("armour"). The official abbreviation for Panzerkampfwagen is PzKpfW, or just Pz.
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 Heer went to war with four types of tank: Panzerkampfwagen I through IV. The Panzer I was a light tank only ever intended as a training tank and was equipped with two machine guns, while the scout and reconnaissance tank, Panzer II, carried a 20 mm gun. It was fast and agile, but sadly obsolete already in 1940. The Panzer III was a medium tank armed with first a 37mm cannon and then a 50 mm cannon and whose purpose was to engage the enemy tanks, while Panzer IV was an infantry support tank armed with a 75 mm howitzer. The annexation of Czechoslovakia 1938 provided Germany the excellent Czech Skoda tanks, Heer designation being Panzer 38(T) [1938, Tschechoslowakei]. Germany thus went to war with five main types of tank.
Regardless of the astonishing success of Blitzkrieg, Germany's ability to engage heavy armour was very poor right up until halfway through the war in the Eastern Theatre; 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, while the British 2 pounder QF 40 mm gun AP shell could penetrate any German armour. In the first month of Operation Barbarossa a single Klimenti Voroshilov mk2 (KV-2) heavy tank held up elements of the Sixth Panzer Division (a unit of 14,000 men and 200 panzers) for over a day, and in an ambush at Krasnogvardeysk five KV-1 and T-34 tanks destroyed 43 panzers with no losses. Events like this showed a clear need for heavier hardware. At desert, the agile and mobile British cruiser tanks, such as Crusader, dominated the battlefield, and only the 88 mm anti-aircraft guns were able to keep the heavy Matildas and Valentines in check. Moreover, Panzer I was obsolete already in 1939, while Panzer II and Panzer 38(T) were withdrawn from service in late 1942 and Panzer III by 1943.
The result was the up-gunning and up-armouring of the Panzer IV, formerly an infantry tank specifically not designed to engage armour. Panzer III had reached its peak evolutive potential and could no more be up-gunned. As a stop-gap measure, the Panzer IV received a new 75 mm KwK 40 anti-tank cannon and thickened glacis and frontal armour. Many obsolete hulls of Panzer II, Panzer III and Panzer 38(T) 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, and the last models sported the formidable 75 mm KwK 42 gun and ''Schürzen'' applique armour. This was a trade-off on reliability, ergonomics and durability: its weight increased for almost 33% and its powertrain, engine and primitive leaf spring suspension could not stay on pace. Eventually it became apparent that the Panzer IV was about equal in armament and armor to the American Sherman and the Soviet 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 Panzer VI 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. It was decently fast, manoeuvreable and extremely well armoured. Its dreaded 88 mm KwK 36 (short for Kampfwagenkanone, "fighting vehicle cannon") gun could penetrate any Allied armour of the time it was introduced. Almost as famous, and produced in much larger numbers, was the Panzer 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. All that armor and firepower came at a cost: Weight. Cross-country performance was only average, and the tank would often destroy country roads and bridges. Even with 700 horsepower, its engine was highly taxed to move it, and poor reliability ensued, combined with a complicated suspension and weak drive train. The engine was powered by gasoline too, which is quite flammable compared to diesel. The late war tanks suffered from rushed development and were never as reliable in service as their American and Soviet 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 Soviet 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 rocketed 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 slightly-improved versions of the Sherman and T-34. Nevertheless, the highest scoring German tank commanders received similar kudos as fighter aces, and several Tiger aces, such as Michael Wittmann and Otto Carius, would have over 100 destroyed enemy tanks on their credit, with countless anti-tank guns, trucks and softskins.
Tigers were employed as heavy battalions (Schwere Abteilungen) which acted as "fire brigades", being assigned to a division or army corps which was in need of them, either in offence or in defence. They were used both by Heer and Waffen-SS. The moral effect of the Tigers was enormous, both encouraging the Germans and scaring their enemies whenever they showed up.
An even heavier and better armed and armoured heavy tank, Tiger II or the formidable Königstiger (literally "King Tiger", meaning "bengal tiger") came to service in 1944. It was completely superior to any Allied tanks, its 88 mm KwK 43 gun could destroy any enemy tank at any distance, and only the 90 mm cannon of the M36 Jackson and M26 Pershing had any hopes piercing its armour. Fortunately for the Allies, it was hideously over-engineered, prone to break up when least expected, and fuel-thirsty. Nevertheless, it provided unnecessary headache for the Allied commanders in 1944-1945 wherever it was present.
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.
The Allied strategic bombing offensive beginning in 1943 meant that Germany switched its emphasis on turretless, casemated assault guns and tank destroyers, which were quicker to manufacture, simpler and cheaper than turreted tanks. 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. Other famous tank destroyers were Jagdpanther (a tank destroyer based on Panther chassis with 88 mm KwK 43), Elefant (extremely heavily armoured tank destroyer based on Porsche chassis and armed with 88 mm PaK 43) and Jagdtiger, which was based on Königstiger chassis and armed with 128 mm (!) PaK 44.
- 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 underwaternote . 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 run their diesels underwater indefinitely (this was mainly used to hide from aircraft. The diesels made so much noise they were easily detected by ships). 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. Three out of every four U-boat crewmen never returned from the war, a permanent casualty rate that no branch of any armed service has suffered and yet continued to function, and a third of all lost boats were sunk on their first patrol.
Note: (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 and Tirpitz; 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.
As for the performance of said surface vessels, Nearly all of Germany's surface ships from its destroyers all the way up to its battleships followed a design philosophy called a "commerce raider". The idea was to build ships capable of destroying the entirety of a convoy by itself or with very little support. As such, rate of fire was normally prioritized and secondary gun battery armament on cruisers and battleships were taken more seriously than on other nations. They also tended to be individually far more powerful than other comparable types in other nations due to limited amounts of ship yards available and a desire the maximize the efforts of each one. The commerce raider concept would initially prove to be effective with the pocket battleship, a sort of hybrid between a heavy cruiser and a battleship, was able to go on an anti commerce rampage in the Atlantic before being stopped. However improved reconnaissance soon meant that these small raiding parties could no longer slip in and out of the Atlantic uncontested and the numerically inferior surface force was essentially condemned to their ports while they were outstripped in terms of performance by waves of new improved allied surface vessels.
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 and Konteradmiral (Rear Admiral).
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 XVII: The Walther-Boot: an experimental air independent submarine. Basically a Me 163 Komet underwater.
- Type XXI: The first true submarine, in that it was designed for use solely underwater. The batteries and air replenishment system gave it the ability for the boat to be faster underwater than surfaced. Readied in the final months of the war, only two made wartime patrols, neither of which sunk any ships. Nevertheless, many intact boats were captured by the Allies and the Soviets, forming the basis for the next generation of submarines.
- Type XXIII: Another Elektroboot, meant to replace the Type II for coastal patrols. It was made operational before the Type XXI, though still too late to make a difference, and unlike its ocean-going cousin, the Type XXIII managed to damage or sink five enemy ships.
- 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 after a short training regimen with clipped-wing two-seater gliders. 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 paratroopers. More on Fallschirmjäger can be read on their own folder. Normally, paratroopers are part of the army and not the air force. But The Luftwaffe 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. However, their greatest contribution to the war-effort was undoubtedly to leave the undermanned Heer short of 250,000 men and instead put them into completely 'green' units wherein no soldier had ever seen combat before. This meant that both Heer and Luftwaffe combat-units took greater and inflicted less losses against Soviet units since the Heer units were critically under-manned and the Luftwaffe units were full of panicky civiliansnote .
- Rot scheint die Sonne, fertig gemacht. Wer weiß ob sie morgen für uns auch noch lacht— Fallschirmjägerlied, the song of the German paratroopers
- Leader: Kurt Student
Fallschirmjäger is the German word for paratroopers (Fallschirm = parachute, literally "fall screen", jäger = light infantryman, literally "hunter"). They played an important role during World War II, when, together with the Gebirgsjäger (mountain troops) they were perceived as the elite infantry units of the German military. After World War II, they were reconstituted as parts of postwar armed forces of both West and East Germany, mainly as special operations troops. German Fallschirmjäger in World War II were the first paratroopers to be committed in large-scale airborne operations. They came to be known as the "Green Devils" (Grüne Teufel) by the Allied forces they fought against, as well as for their uniquely distinct morale.
In the early 1930s Hermann Göring, after having observed Soviet airborne infantry maneuvers, became committed to the creation of Germany's airborne infantry. He ordered the formation of a specialist police unit in 1933, devoted to protecting Nazi party officials. The unit carried out conventional police duties for the next two years, but in 1935, Göring transformed it into Germany's first dedicated airborne regiment. The unit was incorporated into the newly formed Luftwaffe later that year and training commenced. Göring also ordered that a group of volunteers be drawn for parachute training. These volunteers would form a cadre for a future Fallschirmtruppe ("parachute troops"). In January 1936, 600 men and officers formed a Jäger and an engineer company. Germany's parachute arm was officially inaugurated in 1936 with a call for recruits for a parachute training school. The school was open to Luftwaffe personnel, who were required to successfully complete six jumps in order to receive the Luftwaffe parachutist's badge.
The training of the Fallschirmjäger was intense and hard, and was stressed on survival and swift light infantry operations. The formal discipline of the troop was far more relaxed than in other German formations, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie. The training contained also thorough jump training. Unlike Allied paratroopers, each Fallschirmjäger packed his own parachute. While the Fallschirmjäger usually were assigned the best weapons available and special uniforms, their Achilles heel was their parachute gear itself: the RZ parachute rig (Rückfallschirm, Zwangablösung or Backpack Parachute, Static Line Deployment) was inferior compared to Allied rigs. It had only one riser, so steering the parachute during the descent was impossible and the jumper literally hung on the riser like a spider on web and landed on his knees. The landings were hard compared to Allied parachutes, and taking the rig off was impossible in prone position and could be done only whilst standing. It was slow to take off, and landing on water resulted almost always in drowning.note The only weapon they carried on the jump was a pistol and a knife: all long weapons were dropped on separate canisters. The usual jump plane was Junkers Ju 52, and jump altitude being 80 to 100 metres (240 to 300 ft).
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. Of almost 20,000 Fallschirmjäger which were deployed, some 5,000 were lost as killed in action and 6,000 as wounded or injured. Hitler considered the Cretan victory as a Pyrrhic victory and forbade further parachute operations, to much dismay of Göring and Kurt Student. Ironically, the western Allies were so impressed by the Fallshirmjäger's performance at Crete that they started building up their own airborne divisions (which played important roles in Overlord and Market Garden). For the rest of the war, they were pretty much used alongside regular infantry forces. Luckily, in 1943: the rescue of Mussolini without the loss of a single life. The guys were so elite, they had their own Ten Commandments for combat.
The Fallschirmjäger fought as elite units on foot from 1941 onwards, and carried out only small-scale jumps. Their finest hour against the Western Allies was the defence of Monte Cassino 1943 in Italy, where they fought so tenaciously they earned the nickname Green Devils. Because Luftwaffe and Waffen-SS units received first priority on new troops and reinforcements, their units became progressively more effective than Heer ones. Consequently, by the time of the 1944 Allied invasion of and offensives in France their main nemeses there were Waffen-SS panzer and Fallschirmjäger infantry troops. The Fallschirmjägers' last combat jump was during the December 1944 Wahcht am Rhein offensive in France, and their last combat action was the defence of the Seelöw heights (immediately to the east of Berlin) from Georgy Zhukov's 1st Belorussian Front in April 1945.
Max Schmeling, the world champion of heavyweight boxing, served in WWII as a Fallschirmjäger and jumped at Crete 1941, being one of the survivors. He was a well known member of post-WWII German boxing and skydiving communities.
- 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 note 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, Wiking - 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 Panzergrenadiers. One formation deserves special mentioning: 36th Waffen Grenadier Division Dirlewanger, historically recognized as the most eminent criminal unit in the Waffen-SS, which was first composed of convicted thieves and poachers and used as an anti-partisan unit, but soon its ranks were swelled by other criminals and sexual offenders (Oskar Dirlewanger himself was a convicted paedophile). It soon gained notoriety as "worst of the worst" and it committed many notorious war crimes and massacres - to the extent other SS formations shunned it and Heer formations outright hated it.
The Einsatzgruppen were death squads established by SS leader Heinrich Himmler for the purpose of murdering Jews, Gypsies and Soviet political commissars. Most of their members were Security Police personnel, though they were supplemented with (regular) Order Policmen. At their peak they had 15,000 German members in 4 active groups and up to 33,000 Hiwis (also known as 'Trawnikis', as they were trained at the Trawniki concentration camp in the Generalgouvernement). The Einsatzgruppen alone shot at least .5 million undesirables, an impressive proportion of the 1.8 million Undesirables shot in The Holocaust. However, the HSSPF (Regional Security Chief) forces of Reichskomissariat Ukraine and Galicia-Podolia (annexed from Ukraine by the Generalgouvernement in July 1941) completely outshone them in their respective spheres of responsibility. Galicia-Podolia was cleansed a full .5 million Undesirables with no Einsatgruppen input whatsoever, and the vast majority of the million Undesirables shot in the Ukraine were handled by (Order Police, Security Police, and Hiwi) forces under HSSPF control. The Einsatzgruppen were also unable to claim full credit for the cleansing of Belarus, where Wehrmacht forces embraced the logic of wiping out all Jews (given their possible ties to Communism). The cleansing of the Baltic States (Reichskomissarist Ostland) was their only 'clean'/'total' victory.
The Allgemeine SS ("common SS" or "general SS") were responsible for administering the Concentration Camps, which were ran by the SS Totenkopfverbande (SS-TV). In 1942, the SS-TV were placed under the authority of the Waffen-SS for administrative purposes, which allowed the Waffen-SS to rotate soldiers between camp guard duty and combat duty as the need should arise. Rotating soldiers between combat and camp guard duty was common practice, meaning large parts of the Waffen-SS participated in running the concentration camps. This would provide justification for the classification of the Waffen-SS as a criminal organization after the war.
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. One Viking soldier, Finnish Major Lauri A. Törni, fought also in Finnish Army, winning the highest decoration, the Mannerheim Cross, joining the US Special Forces after the war. He advanced from Private to Major in the US Army, and was killed in action in The Vietnam War 1965.
- 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 Soviet 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 employed against one of the Red Army offensives of 1945, and whilst it performed relatively well its lack of weapons and medical supplies limited its effectiveness 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 of their assigned front (within the modern-day Czech Republic) so they could attempt to march to Bavaria and surrender 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 hanged, according to one witness with piano wire and a hook on the base of his skull.
- 13th Waffen-SS Grenadier Division "Handschar": These guys were a nasty lot. Originally recruited from Croat and Muslim Bosnian volunteers at Balkans, they were mostly used on anti-partisan duties and against Tito's Communists and Serbian Chetniks in Yugoslavia. Being extremely ill-disciplined, the German superiors described the Handschar volunteers as "completely useless as soldiers, but experts on terrorizing defenceless civilians". It took an oath of allegiance to both Adolf Hitler and the Croatian leader Ante Pavelić. The division fought briefly in the Syrmia region north of the Sava river prior to crossing into northeastern Bosnia. After crossing the Sava, it established a designated "security zone" in northeastern Bosnia between the Sava, Bosna, Drina and Spreča rivers. It also fought outside the security zone on several occasions, and earned a reputation for brutality and savagery, not only during combat operations, but also through atrocities committed against Serb and Jewish civilians. In late 1944, parts of the division were transferred briefly to the Zagreb area, after which the non-German members began to desert in large numbers. Over the winter of 194445, it was sent to the Baranja region where it fought against the Red Army and Bulgarians throughout southern Hungary, falling back via a series of defensive lines until they were inside the Reich frontier. Most of the remaining Bosnian Muslims left at this point and attempted to return to Bosnia. The rest retreated further west, hoping to surrender to the western Allies. Most of the remaining members became prisoners of the British Army. Subsequently, 38 officers were extradited to Yugoslavia to face criminal charges, and 10 were executed. As a bizarre detail there were no military chaplains in Waffen-SS units in general, but each Handschar battalion had a military imam.
- 20th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Estonian): Finno-Ugric peoples weren't originally high on the Aryan scale of Nazi Party, but after having seen the Finnish performance against the Soviets and the situation becoming dire in late 1943, the SS decided to raise a division of Estonian volunteers to defend Estonia from Soviet onslaught. Thousands of volunteers signed up. They were given military training and in Spring 1944 after the general conscription-mobilization was announced in Estonia on 31 January 1944 by the German occupying authorities, the cadre of the 3rd Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade, renamed the 20th Estonian SS Volunteer Division on 23 January 1944, was returned to Estonia and reformed. Additionally 38,000 men were conscripted in Estonia and other Estonian units that had fought on various fronts in the German Army, and the Finnish Infantry Regiment 200 were rushed to Estonia. Estonian officers and men in other units that fell under the conscription proclamation and had returned to Estonia had their rank prefix changed from "SS" to "Waffen" (Hauptscharführer would be referred to as a Waffen-Hauptscharführer rather than SS-Hauptscharführer). The wearing of SS runes on the collar was discontinued, and these formations began wearing Estonian national insignia instead. The Estonian troops defended their small homeland ferociously. Little love was lost between Germany and Estonia, but they all knew what was the fate of small nations under Soviet rule, and they fought successfully against twentyfold Soviet overpower, winning several battles and causing over 150,000 casualties to the Soviets. When Estonia was finally overrun, many of the SS men fled to Sweden over the Baltic sea and after the war to US and UK.
- 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.
- 29th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Italian) "Italia", or Legione SS Italiana (Italian SS Legion): A volunteer unit raised among Italian veterans after the Kingdom of Italy passed on the Allies' side and Mussolini's puppet state could put back together an army. Technically an Italian unit attached to the SS, they fought with such valor at Anzio and Nettuno to earn their place among the Waffen-SS proper. They were also the main unit employed to hunt down the Italian Resistance, as the German soldiers tended to either underestimate the Italian partisans or, after the first encounter, be terrified of the surprisingly well-organized, well-equipped and ferocious partisan units. The division suffered heavy losses in 1945 due both fights against the Resistance and the Allies, and the survivors surrendered to the Americans on April 30th at Gorgonzola (the then town near Milan, not the cheese named after it).
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 guns 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). Thats 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. In addition, the gyroscopic targeting mechanism was not very good, and British intelligence was actually able to trick the Germans into thinking the rockets were actually off-target, causing them to aim the V-2 even further away from London.
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 and personnel as they could, with the Soviets getting the lion's share of the factories and technicians and the Americans the vast majority of the scientists - creating 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 the USA to the Moon.
The strategic emergency and concomitant manpower shortage resulting from the losses in mid-1944 required the creation of infantry divisions that economized on personnel and emphasized defensive strength over offensive strength. The Volksgrenadier divisions met this need by using only six line infantry battalions instead of the normal nine for infantry divisions already a common reality for many existing divisions. The units also had a higher proportion of submachine guns and light automatic weapons and thus relied more on short-range firepower than in standard German Army infantry units. Automatic weapons like the new "wonder weapon" Sturmgewehr 44 and anti-tank weaponry like the single shot Panzerfaust were also used by Volksgrenadier units.
Volksgrenadier was the name given to a type of German Army division formed in the Autumn of 1944 after the loss of the vast bulk of the Ninth and Fourth Armies in Belarus, Third Panzer Army in western Ukraine, and Fifth Panzer Army in Normandy (for a total of 500k troops, most of the survivors from these Armies having been hospitalised in Germany at the time). The name itself was intended to build morale, appealing at once to nationalism (Volk) and Germany's older military traditions (Grenadier). Germany formed 78 (!) Volksgrenadier Divisions (up to 700,000 troops) during the war.
They were organized around small cadres of hardened veteran soldiers, noncoms and officers, and then bulked out with anything the Replacement Army could supply: "jobless" personnel of the shrinking Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe, wounded soldiers from broken formations returning to duty from hospitals, older men who would have been considered too old or too unfit for the peacetime army and teenagers were recruited into the ranks. Technically, many of the Volksgrenadier soldiers would have been Child Soldiers.
Most Volksgrenadier divisions had passable training and were useful as stop-gap units, especially in the Eastern Theatre. The presence of veteran soldiers made them more useful than Luftwaffe divisions for holding so-called 'quiet' sectors (such as on the Northern/Leningrad Front with Army Group North), 'quiet' of course being a relative term.
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 (People's Militia).
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 Soviets 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. Despite the forceful "conscription," the strength of six million was never attained. In addition, 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 fresh 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.
The most iconic decoration of Germany was and remains the Iron Cross, awarded for bravery. The base medal became the center of many different orders and levels of decoration.
- Order Of The Star Of The Grand Cross Of The Iron Cross: Intended to be awarded to the most successful field marshal once Germany attained the final victory. Unsurprisingly, it was never awarded.
- Order Of The Grand Cross Of The Iron Cross: Awarded to victorious generals or field marshals. Hermann Göring received the only one.
- Order Of The Knight's Cross Of The Iron Cross With Golden Oak Leaves, Swords And Diamonds: Intended to be awarded to the twelve greatest war heroes. Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the top Stuka ace, was the only recipient.
- Order Of The Knight's Cross Of The Iron Cross With Oak Leaves, Swords And Diamonds: Awarded for continuous bravery. Each of the preceding awards had one fewer items.
For various combat situations, there were numerous awards.
- Infantry Assault Badge: Awarded for taking part in three or more infantry assaults, counter-attacks, or reconnaissance missions.
- Close Combat Clasp: Awarded for achievements in close-quarters combat. Over 45,000 were awarded.
- Panzer Badge: Awarded for achievements in Panzer battles. Over 34,000 were awarded.
- U-boat War Badge: Awarded for participating in two or more U-boat patrols.
- Wehrmacht Long Service Award: Awarded at intervals of four, twelve, eighteen, twenty-five, and forty years of service in the different branches of the Wehrmacht. It took into account service in the Reichswehr and even prior to World War I, allowing a handful of the forty year medals to be awarded. There was a corresponding award for the SS, though obviously the forty year medal was never distributed (and through some loopholes, a few twenty-five year medals were made).
- Cuffbands: Worn on the right arm cuff, these indicated the wearer's unit or a campaign they had participated in. Wearing one was considered a great honor and they are still used in the Bundeswehr.
- 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 (Equivalent 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 First 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 Senior Colonel)
- SS-Brigadeführer (Equivalent to Brigadier General)
- SS-Gruppenführer (Equivalent to Major General)
- SS-Obergruppenführer (Equivalent to Lieutenant General)
- SS-Oberst-Gruppenführer (Equivalent to General)
- Reichsführer-SS (Special rank for the head of the entire Schutzstaffel. Equivalent to Field Marshal or General of the Army)
The standard soldiers of the Wehrmacht have been Mooks in non-German fiction since (and even during) World War II, with varying doses of Those Wacky Nazis behavior depending on the decades, countries, genres and mindsets. They're generally considered Acceptable Targets, so to speak. They can't shoot straight (contrary to their Real Life counterparts). Most of this is averted in German movies, which tend to have the most realistic portrayals, for obvious reasons.
The SS are almost always utterly evil in non-German works, meanwhile. Making a sympathetic portrayal of Waffen SS characters can be quite difficult due to that branch's infamous reputation (in short, a long list of war crimes).
There have been some notable German works on the Wehrmacht since the early 1990s, making them more human and providing an interesting perspective from the other side. West Germany also produced German point of view war films as soon as the 1950s.
Some German army-centric works of notes:
- Das Boot — About the hell of submarine warfare.
- Das Boot — The 2018 TV series sequel to the above.
- The Eagle Has Landed — A British made stereotype-free portrayal of German commandos in a fictional plot to assassinate Winston Churchill.
- The Green Devils of Monte Cassino — About the Fallschirmjäger who fought in the battle of Monte Cassino.
- Stalingrad — About the eponymous battle and the slow agony of the 6th Army.
- Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter — A group of friends is separated by the war. Two of them have to enlist, and they witness the horrors of the Eastern Front.
- Valkyrie — About Operation Valkyrie, the most famous plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.