German Army (Wehrmacht)

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German Army
Balkenkreuz, a stylized version of the Iron Cross,
used after Operation Weserübung on Army vehicles
Active 1935–46
Country  Germany
Allegiance Adolf Hitler
Branch Wehrmacht
Type Army
Motto "Gott mit uns"
Engagements Spanish Civil War
World War II
Supreme High Command Oberkommando des Heeres

The German Army (German: Heer, German pronunciation: [ˈheːɐ̯]) was the land forces component of the Wehrmacht, the regular German Armed Forces, from 1935 until it was demobilized and later dissolved in August 1946.[1] The Wehrmacht also included the Kriegsmarine (Navy) and the Luftwaffe (Air Force). During World War II, a total of about 18 million soldiers served in the German Army, of whom about 10 million became casualties.[2] Most army personnel were conscripted.

Only 17 months after Adolf Hitler announced publicly the rearmament program, the Army reached its projected goal of 36 divisions. During the autumn of 1937, two more corps were formed. In 1938, four additional corps were formed with the inclusion of the five divisions of the Austrian Army after the Anschluss in March.[3] During the period of its expansion by Adolf Hitler, the German Army continued to develop concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and air (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. Coupled with operational and tactical methods such as encirclements and the "battle of annihilation", the German military managed quick victories in the two initial years of World War II, prompting the use of the word Blitzkrieg (literally lightning war, meaning lightning-fast war) for the techniques used.[4]

The German Army entered the war with a majority of its infantry formations relying on the horse for transportation. The infantry remained foot soldiers throughout the war; artillery also remained primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the main reason for the success of the German invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941) and the early campaigns in the Soviet Union (June 1941). However their motorized and tank formations accounted for only 20% of the Heer's capacity at their peak strength. The Heer's lack of trucks (and petroleum to run them) was a severe handicap to infantry movement especially during and after the Normandy invasion when Allied air power devastated the French rail network north of the Loire. Panzer movements also depended upon rail: driving a tank over 150 kilometers wore out its tracks.[5]


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

The Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) was Germany's Army High Command from 1936 to 1945. In theory the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) served as the military General Staff for the German Reich's armed forces, coordinating the Wehrmacht (Army Heer, Navy Kriegsmarine, and the Air Force Luftwaffe) operations. In practice OKW acted in a subordinate role as Hitler's personal military staff, translating his ideas into military plans and orders, and issuing them to the three services.[6] However, as the war progressed the OKW found itself exercising increasing amounts of direct command authority over military units, particularly in the west. This created a situation where by 1942 the OKW was the de facto command of Western Theatre forces while the Army High Command (OKH) served Hitler as his personal command Staff on the Eastern Front.

The Abwehr was the Army intelligence organization from 1921 to 1944. The term Abwehr (German for "defense", here referring to counter-intelligence) was used as a concession to Allied demands that Germany's post-World War I intelligence activities be for "defensive" purposes only. After 4 February 1938, its title was Overseas Department/Office in Defence of the Armed Forces High Command (Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht).

Nazi Germany used the system of military districts (German: Wehrkreis) to relieve field commanders of as much administrative work as possible, and to provide a regular flow of trained recruits and supplies to the field forces. The method OKW adopted was to separate the Field Army (Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres) from the Home Command (Heimatkriegsgebiet), and to entrust the responsibilities of training, conscription, supply and equipment to Home Command.

The commander of an infantry Corps also commanded the Wehrkreis with the identical number in peacetime, but command of the Wehrkreis passed to his second-in command at the outbreak of the war.

Before the start of the war, there were also four Motorized Army Corps (Armeekorps (mot.)) which were in effect, staffs to control the training of Panzer and Light Panzer formations, and which had no corresponding military districts, but were provided with conscripts and supplies by the districts in which Corps headquarters or subordinate formations had their Home Garrison Stations. The Districts were organized into a hierarchy that included Area Headquarters (Wehrersatzbezirk Hauptquartier) and Sub-area headquarters (Wehrbezirk Hauptquartier).

Organization of the field forces

German soldiers in Greece, April 1941
An ex-Soviet volunteer, serving in the German army on the Eastern Front, January 1943

The German Army was mainly structured in Army groups (Heeresgruppen, see Army groups of the German Army) consisting of several armies that were relocated, restructured or renamed in the course of the war. Forces or allied states as well as units made up of non-Germans were also assigned to German units.

For Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the Army forces were assigned to three strategic campaign groupings:

Later in the campaign Army Group South was divided into

The troops sent to North Africa to support Italian forces were initially designated the Afrika Korps. Later the force grew into Panzer Army Afrika. Below the army group level forces included Field armies – (see List of World War II military units of Germany), panzer groups, which later became army level formations themselves, corps (see List of German corps in World War II), and divisions (see List of German divisions in World War II).

The army used the German term Kampfgruppe which equates to the English 'combat group' or battle group. These provisional combat groupings ranged from an Army Corps size such as Kampfgruppe Kampf to commands composed of several companies and even platoons. They were named for their commanding officers using the family name, e.g. Kampfgruppe Meyer. The same name was used by the Luftwaffe to designate Gruppe-designated units dedicated to medium bomber roles, either (rarely) by themselves, or much more often within Kampfgeschwader that comprised USAAF wing sized units.

Waffen-SS field formations also served alongside army units.

Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Wehrmacht during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Balkans who were either volunteers or later conscripted for service. Russians recruited from prisoner of war camps fought in the Russian Liberation Army or as Hilfswilliger. Non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the Wehrmacht.[citation needed]

Army command, arms of service, and service corps

Luftwaffe ground formations

Four types of Luftwaffe formations and units served in ground roles within the German army during the Second World War:

  • Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring (1st Paratroop Panzer Division Hermann Göring – abbreviated Fallschirm-Panzer-Div 1 HG) was an elite German Luftwaffe armoured division. The HG saw action in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and on the Eastern Front. The division was created by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, and through the war increased in size from a battalion (German: Abteilung) to a Panzer Corps.
  • Fallschirmjäger (or "parachute rangers" in English, from Fallschirm "parachute" and Jäger, "hunter or ranger" – also used as a term for light infantry). Fallschirmjäger (plural) were the first to be committed in large-scale airborne operations during the Second World War, notably during the Battle of Crete which proved to be bloody for the Corps. During the whole period of its existence, the Fallschirmjäger commander was Kurt Student.
  • The Luftwaffe Field Divisions (Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen) were German military formations which although nominally part of the Luftwaffe served within the army organisational structure. The Luftwaffe field divisions were mostly organized on the same principle as the army infantry divisions.
  • The Flakkorps and Flakdivision (anti-aircraft artillery Corps and divisions), which served as the headquarters for controlling smaller flak units attached to army formations rather than separate divisions organized for ground combat. However they also served as area formations deployed to protect large important cities and fortified areas.

Doctrine and Tactics

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. German operational doctrine emphasized sweeping pincer and lateral movements meant to obliterate the enemy as quickly as possible. This "strategy", referred to as Blitzkrieg, was an operational doctrine instrumental in the success of the offensives in Poland and France. However, more recent study of the Battle of France emphasises the possibility that Rommel's handling of 7th Panzer Division, ignoring orders in some cases, has been conflated into a purposeful doctrine. Actually 'blitzkrieg' may have been recognised after the fact.


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

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

The Germans adapted their tactics to this situation by separating their forces into two mobility categories: the infantry formations (those divisions dependent on walking, bicycles and horses) and the "fast formations" ("schnelle Verbaende" – the armoured and motorized-infantry divisions).

In offensive operations the infantry formations were used to attack more or less simultaneously across a large portion of the front so as to pin the enemy forces ahead of them and draw attention to themselves, while the mobile formations were concentrated in one (for example in the conquest of France in 1940, in the various offensives in North Africa and in the final counter-offensive in Belgium in 1944) to four concentrations (for example three concentrations in Poland and four in Operation Barbarossa in Russia) that each attacked only narrow sectors of the front, breaking through to the enemy rear and surrounding him. Some infantry formations followed in the path of the mobile formations, mopping-up, widening the corridor manufactured by the breakthrough attack and solidifying the ring surrounding the enemy formations left behind, and then gradually destroying them in concentric attacks. One of the most significant problems bedeviling German offensives and initially alarming senior commanders was the gap created between the fast-moving "fast formations" and the following infantry, as the infantry were considered a prerequisite for protecting the "fast formations" flanks and rear and enabling supply columns carrying fuel, petrol and ammunition to reach them.

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

Use of fortifications and field defenses

German use of fortifications included the Siegfried Line which was intended for defence of the western borders, and the Atlantic Wall erected under command of Field Marshal Rommel stretching from Denmark to France's border with Spain. The Germans also made great use of fortified cities (termed Festungen) such as Metz, Warsaw, and Poznań during the latter part of the war.

When building temporary field defenses the Heer relied on the defensive tactics developed during the First World War. Infantry would occupy up to five lines of defence with the first being only lightly held advance posts. Further back would be pre-sited anti-tank and artillery positions preferably not registered by the enemy field artillery counter-battery fires. The armoured formations would stage behind these prepared positions to counter-attack any enemy breakthroughs. The armoured reserves would employ a range of counter-offensive tactics depending on the size of the breach and enemy strength. The most important consideration for the defenders would be to hold the flanks of any breach no matter how wide, and then attempt to close the breach.

After the war

The German Army was demobilized following the unconditional surrender on 8 May 1945. Confronted with a huge number of German prisoners of war after VE Day, the Western Allies kept Feldjägerkommando III, which was a regimental-sized unit of German military police, active and armed to assist with the control of the POWs. Feldjägerkommando III remained armed and under Western Allied control until 23 June 1946, when it was finally deactivated.[7]

Weapons and Equipment

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It is a myth that the German army in World War II was a mechanized juggernaut as a whole. In 1941, between 74 and 80 percent of their forces were not motorized, relying on railroad for rapid movement and on horse-drawn transport cross country. The percentage of motorization decreased thereafter.[8] In 1944 approximately 85 percent was not motorized.[9]

Infantry weapons

Artillery weapons


Tanks and armoured fighting vehicles

At various times, the German forces used captured equipment, absorbing them into the German type notation with national suffixes (e.g. "t" for Tschechoslowakei (Czechoslovakia), "e" for englisch, "r" for russisch, etc.). In the case of Czechoslovakia, their contemporary tanks were found to be more reliable than German ones of the period; captured Czech units and those manufactured for Germany after March 1939 were a significant proportion of the German armoured forces during the "blitzkriegs" in Poland and France.

Tank destroyers

Assault guns included the Sturmgeschütz III, most-produced German armored fighting vehicle, the Sturmgeschütz IV, Sturmpanzer, and Sturmtiger. Anti-aircraft guns included the Ostwind, Kugelblitz, Flakpanzer 38(t), Möbelwagen, and Wirbelwind.

See also


  1. Large, David Clay (1996). Germans to the Front: West German Rearmament in the Adenauer Era, p. 25
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  3. Haskew, Michael. The Wehrmacht: 1923–1945, p 28.
  4. Haskew, Michael. The Wehrmacht: 1923–1945, pp 61, 62.
  5. Keegan, John Six Armies in Normandy, pp 156, 157.
  6. Haskew, Michael. The Wehrmacht: 1923–1945, p 40, 41.
  7. Williamson, p. 13.
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External links