The Heer was the land forces component of the German armed forces (Wehrmacht) from 1935 to 1945, which also included the Navy (Kriegsmarine) and the Air Force (Luftwaffe). During the Second World War, a total of about 15 million soldiers served in the German Army, of whom about three million perished.
During the period of its rebuilding by Hitler the German Army continued to develop concepts pioneered during the First World War, 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 several quick victories in the two initial years of the Second World War, prompting foreign journalists to create a new word for what they witnessed, Blitzkrieg
The Wehrmacht entered the war with a minority of its Army infantry formations relying on the horse for transportations while the infantry remained foot soldiers throughout the war, artillery also remaining 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 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 motorised and tank formations accounted for only 20% of the Heer's strength at their peak strength.
Role in the Second World War
Wehrmacht Army military system
During the Second World War the German Reich
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).
Command, Arms of Service, and Service Corps of the Heer
Decision making process
The Oberkommando des Heeres
(OKH) was Germany's Army High Command from 1936 to 1945. In theory the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) commanded the OKH. However, the de facto situation after 1941 was that the OKW directly commanded operations on the Western front while the OKH commanded the Russian front.
Determination of goals and objectives
In theory, 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 as Hitler's personal military staff, translating his ideas into military plans and orders, and issuing them to the three services while having little control over them. 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 (Oberkommando des Heeres) (OKH) served Hitler as his personal command Staff on the Eastern Front.
Abwehr (Army intelligence)
was a German intelligence organization from 1921 to 1944. The term Abwehr (German for defence) 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 name in title was Overseas Department/Office in Defence of the Armed Forces High Command ("Amt Ausland/Abwehr im Oberkommando der Wehrmacht" in German).
System of operational planning
Organisation of the field forces
High Command in the field
The German term Kampfgruppe (pl. Kampfgruppen; abbrev. KG) which equates to the English 'combat group' or battle group
, can refer to a combined arms combat formation of any size, but most usually to that employed by the Wehrmacht and its allies during World War II, ranging 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.
Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Wehrmacht during World War II
were ethnic Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states 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.
Other military and support organisation
Strategic employment of the Army
The German Army was mainly structured in Heeresgruppen
, 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: Army Group North Heeresgruppe Nord with Leningrad as its campaign objective
Army Group Centre Heeresgruppe Mitte with Smolensk as its campaign objective
Army Group South Heeresgruppe Süd with Kievas its campaign objective
- Later in the campaign the Army Group was divided into
- * Army Group A Heeresgruppe A with Caucasus as its campaign objective
- * Army Group B Heeresgruppe B with Stalingrad as its campaign objective
The troops sent to North Africa to support Italian forces were designated the Afrikakorps.
Operational methods of the Army
German operational doctrine emphasized sweeping pincer
movements meant to obliterate the enemy as quick as possible. This "strategy" referred to as Blitzkrieg
was an operational doctrine
instrumental in the success of the offensives in Poland and France.
The Wehrmacht's military strength was managed through mission-based tactics
(rather than order-based tactics) and an almost proverbial discipline. In public opinion, the Wehrmacht 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 only 40% percent of all units were fully motorised, supply columns mainly relied on horses, and most soldiers moved by foot or used bicycles (Radfahrtruppen
Use of fortifications and field defenses
German use of fortifications defenses included the Siegfried Line
which was intended for defence of the western borders, and the Atlantic Wall
erected under command of General Rommel
stretching from Normandy to southern Cherbourg. The Germans also made great use of fortified cities (termed Festungen
) such as Metz
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-sighted 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.
Logistics, evacuation and movements
Practice of combined Arms operations
Luftwaffe ground formations
Four types of Luftwaffe
formations and units served in ground roles with the Wehrmacht Heer during the Second World War:
Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring (1st Paratroop Panzer Division Hermann Goering - 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 a created by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, and through the war increased in size from a abteilung battalion to a Panzer Corps.
Fallschirmjäger (or 'parachute rangers' in English, from Fallschirm "parachute" and Jäger, "hunter or ranger") is 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 (German: Luftwaffen-Feld-Divisionen) were German military formations which although nominally part of the Luftwaffe served within the Wehrmacht Heer organisational structure during the Second World War. The Luftwaffe field division were mostly organised on the same principle as the Infantry divisions of the Heer.
The Flakkorps and Flakdivision (anti-aircraft artillery Corps and divisions) which served as the headquarters for controlling smaller flak units attached to Herr 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.
Relationship with Waffen-SS
Uniforms, insignia and personal equipment
, British author, historian and ex-newspaper editor, said in a radio interview on WGN Chicago "...there's no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war". This view was also explained in his book "Overlord: D-Day
and the battle for Normandy
". In the book World War II : An Illustrated Miscellany
, Anthony Evans writes: 'The German soldier was very professional and well trained, aggressive in attack and stubborn in defence. He was always adaptable, particularly in the later years when shortages of equipment were being felt'. These views of the Wehrmacht are an attempt to evaluate their fighting abilities and not trying to excuse or justify some of the aims or actions of the Nazi regime.
An often-overlooked characteristic of the late-war German Army was the liberal use of machine-guns with high rates of fire and medium- and heavy-caliber mortars. Although German battalions were often smaller than those of their opponents by 1944, they were still capable, in terms of organic weapons, of bringing substantially higher weights of fire to bear than those of their opponents. This discrepancy in relative weights of fire made the dislodgement of defending German units difficult, and often resulted in Western Allied and Soviet tendencies to 'even the odds' through the use of artillery and air support. Coupled with a high unit cohesiveness that was a product of German social behavior, these factors made the German Army a dangerous opponent even into 1945.
After the war
Confronted with a huge number of German prisoners of war after VE Day
, the Western Allies
kept Feldjägerkommando III
(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.
- Max Hastings, Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944, 1985, reissued 1999, Pan, ISBN 0-330-39012-0.
- Max Hastings, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1945, 2004, Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-90836-8.
- Anthony A Evans, World War II: An Illustrated Miscellany, 2005, Worth Press, ISBN 1-84567-681-5.
- W.J.K. Davies, German Army Handbook, 1973, Ian Allen Ltd., Shepperton, Surrey, ISBN 0-7110-0290-8.
- Gordon Williamson, German Military Police Units 1939-45, 1995, London: Osprey, ISBN 0-85045-902-8.