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1944 Heer (Army)

By 1944 the German army was no longer a cohesive force but a number of fugitive battle groups, disorganized and even demoralized, short of equipment and arms. In five years of war the German armed forces had lost 114,215 officers and 3,630,274 men, not including wounded who had returned to duty. The bulk of these had been Army losses. Many had been incurred in 1944 during the months of June, July, and August, which had brought the Germans their most disastrous defeats in both East and West. During these three months the Army alone had suffered losses in dead, wounded, and missing of 1,210,600, approximately two thirds of which had been incurred in the East where both sides employed larger masses of men. Losses in transport and equipment also were tremendous; during August alone, for example, a total of 254,225 horses were lost.

Not counting "paper units," which had headquarters but no troops, the Third Reich in early September 1944 possessed some 252 divisions and 15 to 20 brigades, greatly varied as to strength and capabilities. They were deployed in five theaters. In Finland, the East, and the Balkans they were supplemented by approximately 55 allied divisions (Finnish, Hungarian, and Bulgarian), for which the Germans had little respect. Most of the total of some 7,500,000 men were in the Field Army (Feldheer), the Replacement Army (Ersatzheer), or the services of supply. About 207,000 were in the Waffen-SS, a mechanized Army-type force originally made up of volunteers from Nazi-party organizations.

Of the 48 infantry and 15 panzer or panzer-type divisions which Field Marshal von Rundstedt controlled in the West, two represented a new class of 18 divisions which had been in process of formation since early July. These 18 divisions-15 of which went to the East and 1 to Scandinavia-were the first of the "volks grenadier" divisions, an honorific selected to appeal to the national and military pride of the German people (das Volk). The troops were hospital returnees, converted naval and Luftwaffe personnel, previously exempt industrial workers, and youths just reaching military age.

When Hitler in late August 1944 began to consider how to stop the headlong retreat in the West, he settled upon a plan to increase the number of volks grenadier divisions. On 2 September 1944 - already seriously planning a large-scale operation designed to regain the initiative-he directed creation of an "operational reserve" of twenty-five new volks grenadier divisions. They were to become available in the West between 1 October and 1 December 1944.

Organization and equipment of the new divisions reflected a tendency, current in the German Army since 1943, to reduce manpower while increasing fire power. Early in 1944 the standard infantry division had been formally reduced from about 17,000 men to 12,500.44 By cutting each of the conventional three infantry regiments to two rifle battalions apiece and by thinning the organic service troops, the volks grenadier divisions were further reduced to about 10,000 men. Attempts were made to arm two platoons in each company with the 1944 model machine pistol (known to Americans as the burp gun), increase the amount of field artillery, and provide a larger complement of antitank weapons and assault guns (self-propelled tank destroyers). Approximately three fourths of the divisional transportation was horse drawn, while one unit, the Fuesilier battalion, had bicycles.

To supplement divisional artillery and antitank guns, Hitler ordered formation of a number of general headquarters (Heeres) units; 12 motorized artillery brigades (about 1,000 guns), 10 Werfer (rocket projector) brigades, 10 assault gun battalions, and 12 20-mm. machine gun battalions. These were to be ready along with the last of the 25 volks grenadier divisions. In addition, Hitler on 4 September assigned the West priority on all new artillery and assault guns.

Two other steps were of a more immediate nature. As the month of September 1944 opened, 10 panzer brigades were either just arriving at the front or were being formed. These were built around a panzer battalion equipped with about forty Mark V (Panther) tanks. On the theory that the Mark V was tactically superior to the US Sherman tank, the panzer brigades were expected to make up temporarily for Allied numerical superiority in armor. The other step was to commit to battle approximately a hundred "fortress" infantry battalions made up of the older military classes and heretofore used only in rear areas. About four fifths of these were to be assigned to the West. Calling the battalions a "hidden reserve," the First US Army later was to credit them with much of the German tenacity in the West Wall.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:54:12 ZULU