Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Common Misconceptions Regarding the Wehrmacht

German Horse-Drawn Transport
First off, let's clarify something regarding the word "Wehrmacht." If as a kid you watched a lot of World War II movies, you probably heard this word a few times and assumed, like I did, that it was the German word for "army."

Nope. Wehrmacht is the German word for armed forces, literally "defense force." The Wehrmacht (which really only existed under that formal term from 1935 to 1945) was composed of das Heer (the Army), die Kriegsmarine (the Navy), and die Luftwaffe (the Air Force).

For comparison, the modern German armed forces are called the Bundeswehr, which is composed of (again) das Heer and die Luftwaffe, but the modern term for the German Navy is the Deutsches Marine or simple, die Marine. (Pronounced ma-reen-na, not ma-reen.)

You may have also heard of the Waffen SS, they were not part of the Wehrmacht but were a separate force. Property of the Nazi Party for the most part.

The SS were responsible for most of the atrocities committed by the Third Reich during the war. But not all, the German Army participated in a number of "police actions" on the Eastern Front. Police action meaning the rounding up of non-combatants and murdering them. But enough on that, that is something for a different post methinks.

One of the enduring myths of Word War II is the vision of the German Army being mostly motorized. That and having lots and lots of tanks.

Note my use of the word myth...
    1. a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.
    2. a widely held but false belief or idea.
I'm going with definition number 2 here. (Though a thousand years from now, definition 1 could apply...)

There are a lot of folks who think that the Germans were nearly fully motorized in World War II, when in truth, most German soldiers went to war the old fashioned way, they walked. Up until the end of the war most German transport was horse drawn. Think 80% or so.

Soldaten heading off to war...

Here's the World War I version...

Even the rifle they carried wasn't much different from what their grandfathers carried to war.

WWI Gewehr 98

WWII Karabiner 98
Basically the same action and the same caliber (7.92 mm, which is often simply referred to as 8 mm). The K98 was (as you might imagine) a shorter version of the venerable G98. (Karabiner is the German for carbine - a shorter version of a long rifle, traditionally used by cavalry.)

A weapon designed in 1898. Yes, 1898.

But, I digress...

The German Army entered World War II with 514,000 horses, and over the course of the war employed, in total, 2.75 million horses and mules; the average number of horses in the Army reached 1.1 million. They lost nearly 150,000 horses that first winter in Russia. Pretty good Wikipedia article about the horse in WWII here. Covers most of the major combatants.

Even in units which were supposed to be fully mechanized (generally indicating that the troop transports were somewhat armored and partially or fully tracked), in reality most of the infantry rode in trucks, which suck off-road compared to a half-track or fully tracked vehicle.

Who was really motorized and mechanized? The Western Allies and to some extent the Soviets, once we had supplied them with trucks. Lots and lots of trucks.

There is a great deal of truth (all of it) in this rant by PFC Webster from the excellent mini-series Band of Brothers. (Raise hands those who haven't watched that series. I would rectify that most riki-tik if I were you.)

Oh and, ahem, language alert...

(Before you watch the clip, see the screenshot below, do you recognize the actor on the left of the screen? No? Ever seen Inglourious Basterds or Centurion? That's enough hints I think...)


  1. Class is in session...
    ...educating us, Sarge.

  2. Another history lesson! Love it!!

  3. Indeed. Out three most important generals--

    General Motors
    General Electric
    General Dynamics (Electric Boat Co.)

    More tid-bits--

    Glenn Martin taught William Boeing how to fly and sold him his first airplane.
    (From here--

    In 1911 the Army sent Hap Arnold to Ohio to learn to how to fly from Orville and Wilbur Wright. He became U.S. Army Aviator Number Two.

    I used to tell war stories. Now I teach history.

    1. War stories become history if they can be verified.

    2. Point taken. It's just my line to imply that I am now considered on "old guy". As to horses, I've always liked this movie--

      Dramatized to be sure, but a good story.

      By the time I was 11, I had three horses of my own, two of which were foaled on our ranch. By the time I was old enough to rodeo, I had no interest. I had already been kicked, bitten, stepped on, bucked off, and broken my left arm.

    3. Re: It's just my line to imply that I am now considered on "old guy".

      Hahaha, I think I missed the boat on that one, now I get it. Makes perfect sense.

      Definitely need to set aside time to watch the whole movie. The opening scene is reminds me of why I don't care for Douglas MacArthur.

      I've been on horseback a couple of times. I might make a blog post of that, thanks for the reminder!

    4. I have the capability to add a few more times to get you on horseback. Anytime you feel like coming down.

  4. Replies
    1. The Army used mules in Burma, North Africa, and Italy. Bill Mauldin even did a cartoon about one:

    2. Mules are very useful animals. They can go places even a 4WD can't handle!

      (A link to a Mauldin cartoon is always welcome!)

  5. A practical solution to available resources. Horses don't need fossil fuel.

    1. But they do need fuel, which needs to be transported if it can't be foraged. Logistics....There's no gettin' round it.

    2. Logistics, logistics, logistics.

      (Forage takes up a lot of space, and if it's being transported by horse drawn vehicles, well, let's just say that those draft animals need to eat too!)

    3. A hell of a lot of the German freight trains into Russia were used to carry fodder for the horses.

      Besides that, Germany's reliance on horses prevented them from using poison/irritating/nerve gases. Goering stated in an interview at Nuremburg Prison that they couldn't use gas because they didn't have a gas mask that horses would tolerate and work while wearing.

    4. Now there's an interesting tidbit Comrade, goes far towards explaining why the Germans didn't use chemical warfare on the Eastern Front.

    5. Regarding logistics:

      A horse needs 5-10 gallons of water (41-83 pounds) and 20 pounds of hay daily. That means that a four-horse wagon needed 250-400 pounds of "fuel" per day, probably on the high side.

      What could the wagon hold? A ton? And the speed? 20-30 miles a day max? Assuming these guesstimates are correct, the wagon will transport a ton of supplies maybe 150 miles in a week, needing a ton of feed and water to do that.

      A 2 1/2-ton truck carries 150% more payload just as far, doing so in half a day. At 5 MPG it needs 30 gallons (240 pounds) of fuel to do that. Therefore, the truck needs around 5% the fuel weight compared to the wagon. And it does that work 10-15 times quicker.

      Both need a driver, so his needs are not factored in. Do so and the truck's advantage is slightly less.

      SOOOO... if feed and water are available AND you're willing to accept a slow operational pace, the wagon works fine.

      Oh, another thing: trucks only need fuel when they're running. Horses? Not so much.

      Then again, a horse can provide sustenance in the dead of winter. Kinda hard to eat a truck.

    6. One key factor, water and fodder are, for the most part, readily available locally. Petroleum products? Not so much.

      Another thing is the use of rail transport. Wagons were meant to move stuff from the railhead to the front, which wouldn't be that far away. Yes, motorized transport makes that happen faster. The Russians used a wider gauge on their railroads, the Germans had to convert the gauge as they went. Time consuming and as partisans became more active, fighting men had to posted in the rear to protect the logistical base.

      Russia is not a place you want to fight. Even in good weather. The size of the country stunned the average German.

    7. Sure, water and fodder are usually available in most areas, but fodder, if it's there, is around only seasonally. As for the petroleum, we return to our earlier conversation on Malta, Suez, and the Mideast...

  6. a bit of trivia:
    Germans won most of the early blitzkreig wins on inferior tanks
    PZ1 and Pz2 were majority in Polanmd and France. Czech-made pz35t and Pz38t added to the mass.
    Germans lost around 1k armored vehicles in Poland, 200+ from which were irreparable losses.
    Barbarossa atarted with PzIII as mainstay and Pz IV moved to fill the gap later.
    Tigers were extremely rare, only 1300-odd Tiger Is were ever amde, and less than 500 Tiger IIs
    Panthers were ubiquitous by 1944 with over 6000 built, but still more PzIVs were in service.
    Germans made extensive sue of SP AT guns based on multiple obsolete tanks chassis.
    Marder series based off pz II, Hetzer on pz38t, and Stug based on Pz III.

    Germans did try to make functional semi-auto rifles, but mostly failed, and 98k soldiered on until late 1944 when Sturmgewehr 44 - a totally new class of weapon transforming infantry combat showed up.
    What firepower advantage was held by german infantry was mostly due to machine guns. MG-34 amd MG-42 provided easily mobile , versatile firepower that chewed up enemy infantry with high rate of fire, either from bipod or tripod.

    Artillery was mostly based off ww1 era 105 and 150mm howitzers.
    Infamous 88mm gun was used both as AA and AT specialist, but low-caliber AA guns were much more common, and mainstay of the AT defence from 1942 up was formidable PAK-40 75mm gun which was basically what was used on PZ IV late versionand STUG III.
    Early in war though 37mm guns were infamous for being next to useless against anything with rela armor - from Matilda to T-34.

    1. Which, given the closeness the German's came to victory, brings a ground combat spin to Richtofen's saying "The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it."

    2. Great stuff as always Paweł. I also recall that the first production runs of Panther were rushed into service for Operation Citadel, many teething problems, many vehicles out of action because of that. Once they ironed the kinks out the Panther was probably the best tank to come out of that war.

      A German squad retained the bulk of their firepower even when down to half strength or less, as long as they could keep the MG-34 or 42 in action. Terrifying rate of fire and scary sounding too.

    3. Juvat - particularly in France, the French boxes were generally better with one serious caveat - one man turrets. The TC had to load, point and shoot the gun all by himself. And direct the actions of his crew.

      French doctrine sucked too. De Gaulle actually had the right idea, he was just too junior to have any real say.

      The Russian T-34 scared the crap out of the Germans when they first encountered it. But once again, their doctrine saved their bacon until they could field better "boxes."

    4. eventually numbers of the boxes mattered the most...
      between Shermans and T-34 both numbering productions runs in order of around 50k, no kill ratio could save the panzerwaffe - and both were relaible workhorses, which could be upgunned (Firefly and 34-85) to kill Panthers and Tigers
      and both Russians and western allies eventually honed their crews into hardened veterans while germans had to field ever more green crews as the losses mounted
      had the French and Brits been even 20% more adapt at mobile warfare in 1940 they could have cut off the drive to the sea and affect early Stalingrad, heck even the abortive counterattack at Arras slowed the advance enough for the most of the BFE make run to Dunkirk...

    5. Quantity has a quality all its own.

      And yes, the Western Allies could have stopped Hitler in his tracks early on. Understandably though, no one wanted another war like the last one. Hitler thought he could use that to his advantage. Chamberlain and Daladier almost let him.

      Good stuff!

  7. +1 on the MG-34. Have been on the driver's end of one of these---

    ---I would not EVER want to be on the receiving end. However, I did earn one of these (in bronze)---

    1. Once spent the better part of an hour lugging two ammo cans and a spare barrel for an MG-42 up a snowy hillside in Colorado.

      I was the assistant gunner, which is why I was carrying all the support stuff while the gunner himself humped the gun.

      We were nicely set up in a fine ambush position, the enemy came into view, the gunner leaned into his weapon and...


      One effing round is all we got off. Blank ammunition is very fickle. Second round decided not to feed.

      Oh well...

    2. But the hatred that the Allies had for the MG34/42 was more than reciprocated by the Germans hatred for the Inland Tool and Frigidaire divisions of GMC's M2HB .50 ( Colt couldn't make them fast enough ). U-boats were not very fond of GMC's TBM Avengers dropping Genral Electric MK24 FIDOs, that RCA radar revealed. The Mighty 8th had vast numbers of Chevrolet 1 1/2 ton bomb trucks, and CCKW fuelers and crash trucks. Of the over 150 countries in the world in 1939, the US had 48% of the industrial potential. What were those people thinking?

    3. The Germans were thinking that the USA wouldn't enter the war. This was based on two factors, the very popular isolationist movement in the USA and the German belief that they would conquer Europe and Britain before the US could mobilize. If Britain had fallen or signed a truce in 1940 Operation Overlord would have been impossible.

      If the Germans had persuaded Japan to attack Russia prior to Barbarossa and leave Pearl Harbour alone it would be a very different world today.


    4. Scott - good points, but Al has some as well.

    5. Al - Excellent observations. Without the Brits, without Lend Lease, and with the Japanese nipping at their Far Eastern possessions the Russians would have been hard pressed. Stalin may have even accepted a deal to keep most of Russia in that event. Then again, Hitler would probably not go for a deal with Stalin, his hatred of Communism was only exceeded by his hatred for the Jewish people.

    6. Axis completely sucked at coordinating their actions. Italy managed to botch invasion of tiny Greece and attack on Egypt, forcing Germans to divert valuable resources from attack on Russia. Japan not only failed to backstab Russia (probably smarting after Zhukov handed them their ass on a silver plate with sake in small border war in 1939), but ensured entry of the US into the war.
      Best chance axis had was to eliminate UK first, then Russia. US would be probably left to wage cold war aginst victorious Axis then. Note that Japan could have snatched Dutch East Indies and Malaya bypassing completely US forces in Phillipines. With Germans driving East from Suez and Japan sttacking thru India they would crush British empire and possibly force the fall of Churcill cabinet and negotiated end of war. Then it would be time to punce on Russia from all sides.
      By comparison allies despite intense power struggles managed to get their act together on basis of "Germany first".

    7. In point of fact, they were allies in name only. Japan had no intention of marching to anyone's tune but their own. As for the Italians, Mussolini had big dreams and not one single tool to make it happen. I do believe Japanese arrogance was their downfall. In reality there was no need for attacking Pearl or the Philippines, they could have run wild in Asia and the USA under FDR would have done nothing, at least that's how I see it.

      Love your historical perspectives Paweł!

  8. Really liked that rant by Webster. Far too often we go to war because of a $%^*@# madman with an ego trip and a big mouth. After Obama abandoned Iraq and we saw ISIS take over, I bet there were a ton of Soldiers and Marines who felt the same way.

    1. Roger that.

      (Webster's rant is a favorite.)

    2. When I saw this post's subject the first thing I thought of, before reading a word, was Webster's rant. That episode focused on the troops' war-weariness, as shown by Perconte's rant at replacement private O'Keefe ( and Capt. Nixon's bitterness about the war.

      But at the end we (and they) are reminded of the meaning of the segment's title: "Why we fight."

    3. Exactly.

      Perconte's rant is also on point.

  9. Don't forget bicycles:,_Russland-Nord,_zwei_Soldaten_mit_Fahrr%C3%A4dern.jpg

    1. Oh yes, the bicycle is often overlooked in WWII. Motorcycles as well, German reconnaissance battalions had a bunch of them. The Germans learned in Russia that they weren't all that useful off road in bad weather.

      Many nations used the bicycle, the Brits even had a folding version for issue to paratroops!

  10. Two of Germany's biggest shortcomings were its disorganized industrial base and a poor appreciation of logistics. Speer worked wonders at streamlining production, which led to 1944 being Germany's best year in terms of armored vehicle and aircraft production, but they never got a handle on the supply pipeline.

    The famous story of German troops wearing summer uniforms in the depths of the Russian winter is always brought up, but there are other examples. I remember a story of a single bridge in Russia being the only rail connection to a sector of the German front, but it was so unsteady that they had to uncouple the cars and manually push them across the bridge, one at a time.

    Another example was the Afrika Korps' constant loss of shipping due to Malta-based submarines and aircraft. The Germans had a plan to take the island with a seaborne/airborne attack, but (like SeeLöwe) ended up being a pipe dream. A good part of the Axis' reluctance was due to Hitler's reaction over the heavy loss of airborne troops at Crete. In any event, Malta-based units are credited with sinking 2,300 ships (according to Wikipedia) and Rommel had to rely on half-rations and captured fuel to keep his units in action.

    1. All excellent points Bruce. Malta especially, I wonder what would have been the result had the Axis seized the island and then supporting Rommel to push on to Cairo and cut the Suez Canal.

      Scary thought.

    2. Not only could they have cut the Suez Canal, but they would have opened the Mideast oil fields to invasion.

    3. Taking fuel from their foes while increasing their own supply!

    4. I seem to recall reading in one of my books that something around 90% of the energy to run German industry during WWII came from coal. For whatever reason, the importance of this was not fully grasped by allied planners until late in the war. It became obvious that the key was not the coal mines, but the movement of coal by rail, and allied bombers went after the rail system with a vengeance. Towards the end Germany had 250,000 people dedicated solely to repairing railroad lines at night, and the blast furnaces were going cold one by one.

    5. Rail was also used for shuffling troops back and forth between the various fronts. Also, for long distances, armor moved exclusively by rail.

      A lot of German industry was located in the Ruhr, which has (IIRC) at least three major coal fields near by. So it didn't have far to go. The Ruhr also had a lot of AAA.

      Germany was a target rich environment in WWII. Strategic bombing tied up a lot of people who could have been used elsewhere. Not to mention AAA, fighters, searchlight batteries, radar, and all the people tied up fixing things we blew up.

      As to the planners not grasping the importance of coal until late in the war, you're probably right.


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