The war against the Soviet Union was a massive undertaking for Germany, who was outnumbered from the minute the first Brandenburg commandos started crossing the border on 22 June 1941. Germany relied on the assistance of several nations in Eastern Europe, most notably the Finns, who fought a border war with Russia in 1939-1940, and Romania, who fielded a very large army and also had territorial axes to grind. When it became obvious that the war would not be won quickly, cheaply or easily, Germany turned more and more to other nations and national groups for volunteers, extending across the entire continent. Below is the briefest of overviews of the major Axis participants in the war against the USSR.
As for the nations that followed Germany into what was later billed an "anti-Bolshevik crusade", there were many factors, as described briefly in the various nationality sections below. In summary, we can see that many of the central and eastern European nations had many reasons to want to participate; reliance on Germany for security, desire to recover lost territory from the Soviet Union, fear or hatred of communism, desire to be free of Soviet rule, and the opportunistic notion that booty might be theirs for the taking by assisting in the destruction of the USSR. Many also participated with varying degrees of willingness in the Final Solution, either staging executions, assisting German execution squads, or deporting citizens to German concentration camps.
As the fortunes of war changed in favour of the Red Army, many of the Axis allies demonstrated opportunism of another kind, and through their self preservational instincts turned on Germany in 1944 as the war ground down to a final confrontation on German soil in 1945.
Even before Barbarossa began, Hitler single handedly set out foreign policy for the German nation, and his decisions to attack countries - even as monumental an undertaking as the war against the USSR - were done without consulting his military. After December 1941, his power was all encompassing, and the war against the Soviet Union can rightly be called Hitler's War. The war against the Soviet Union ended in abject failure, and all of Hitler's foreign policy goals failed to be achieved, with the partial exception of his desire to destroy the Jewish peoples of Europe. This goal was worked towards with ruthless and ghastly efficiency; Jewish populations in many Eastern European nations were almost completely wiped out. But Gemany itself was occupied, the lands it gained by hook and by crook between 1933 and 1943 had been reclaimed, and the German state was occupied and partitioned for nearly 50 years.
Germany's Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) consisted of the Army (Heer), Air Force (Luftwaffe) and Navy (Kriegsmarine). During the war, the Waffen SS also gained importance in dramatic fashion - originally a political organization, the SS grew during the war to encompass the General SS (under whom many state security and police organizations fell) and the Waffen SS, the military arm of the organization.
The SS was the private domain of one Heinrich Himmler, and the Luftwaffe too, under Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, developed a large set of ground forces. At first only responsible for parachute troops and anti-aircraft units, the Luftwaffe raised several divisions of infantry units, as well as the elite armoured division named after the Reichsmarschall himself. The Army, however, fell more and more under Hitler's direct control - especially after assuming the post of Chief of the Army High Command in December 1941 in addition to his title of Supreme Commander. His most senior officers were lackeys and yes-men, notably the Chief of the Operation Staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces, Alfred Jodl, and the Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces, Wilhelm Keitel. Any senior generals who opposed his orders or even his thoughts were routinely dismissed, some to be reinstated - and then dismissed again.
The Axis forces on Germany's Eastern Front were divided into Army Groups, as noted below. Each Army Group was made up of Armies, each Army made up of two or more Corps, each Corps having two or more divisions, and troops of all the services were combined into these Army Groups. The various contingents of foreign national armies or foriegn legions listed further down on this page were attached to German higher formations and fought in the area of responsiblity of the various Army Groups as well.
German Army Groups on the Eastern Front
Nationhood and Early Beginnings
A German national Army did not exist as such until after the First World War; troops in that conflict had come from different states such as Bavaria, Saxony, Prussia, etc. Tradition extending back centuries always dictated that the Army would be a non-political and highly obedient servant not just of the State, but of the Ruler, be he emperor or king. With the abolition of the monarchy after World War One, and with no Kaiser to swear loyalty to, German soldiers and ex-soldiers (one Adolf Hitler among them) threw themselves into the political turmoil throughout the country, as the Freikorps (Free Corps) roamed the countryside. The Army eventually moved itself out of the political arena, withdrawing into its traditional anti-democratic and non-political stance. A condition of the peace of 1918 was that the German state as a whole be permitted only a 100,000 man Armed Forces called the Reichswehr, in which volunteers had to sign on for extensive periods of time. The Army once again pledged itself to total obedience and service to the state.
When Hitler finally came to power as Chancellor in the early 1930s, the Army struggled to remain non-political. Officers noted with alarm that political armies such as the SA (see below under the Waffen SS) had gained in importance - in 1933 the SA numbered 400,000 men, outnumbering the Army some 4 to 1. A brief flirtation with political power immediately before Hitler's accession to Chancellor is seen as the last chance the Army had of preventing a National Socialist takeover. But the generals, for a variety of reasons, were powerless to intervene.
In 1939, the Army had grown to number 52 active and 51 reserve divisions, with 730,000 men under arms and 1,100,000 in reserve. After mobilization for war in September, a remarkable achievement in itself, Germany's men under arms totalled over 3,700,000, of a total population of some 80,000,000. But the rapid expansion had its dangers; from 84 infantry battalions in 1934, Germany fielded some 885 in 1939 - more than ten times as many. Twenty-four artillery battalions had expanded to become 439 in the same time frame. Some 3,550 officers existed in the German Army in 1933 (not counting 450 medical and veterinary officers), and 500 of these were transferred to the fledgling Air Force. By 1939, some 100,000 officers were required. Many NCOs and Police officers were commissioned to make up shortfalls - with the added effect of breaking down social class distinctions in the Army, which had been a supposed goal of National Socialism in any event. The cameraderie that grew during the war between officers and men in the German Army was arguably more intense than in the armies of most of the Allies; this infusion of men from the ranks no doubt helped this take place.
Victory in Poland, followed by the unexpected declaration of war by France and Britain, paved the way for successful campaigns in Norway, and finally the Low Countries and France itself. Victory had come through capitalization of poor Polish deployment; their armies did not take advantage of natural obstacles such as rivers, and worse, was forced to deploy on two fronts when the Soviets invaded from the east after the initial German successes in the western part of the country. Despite immense logistical problems caused by the reliance on nearly 200,000 horses accompanying the German Army, the campaign was effectively concluded by the 18th day, and had been decided by the fourth day. A large battle ending with the capture of some 170,000 Polish soldiers would be the largest encirclement in the entire history of warfare to that date.
The Polish campaign revealed another trend that would continue throughout the war; that of Adolf Hitler's willingness to gamble. In September 1939, the gamble had been that the western Allies would not declare war, a gamble that Hitler lost.
The Nature of German Warfare
The Polish Campaign had been essentially an infantryman's battle; German infantry made up 75% of the attacking force, and the majority of battles were concluded within 50 miles of the frontier, where the bulk of the Polish forces chose to deploy. A small portion of the German force had to march as far as 200 miles, but supply and fatigue did not pose any real problem - as they would later in the expanse of the Soviet Union. More tellingly, German air and armoured forces were not deployed for long ranging shock action - as the myth of Blitzkrieg would have us believe - but in some cases, armoured formations were actually subordinated to the command of infantry corps. The armoured units were envisioned as leading a collaborative effort against the enemy - not of taking independent action.
The Army leadership in Poland became aghast at German plans for occupation of the country, and especially the action of the Security Police, members of the SS that followed the Army and were tasked with securing the rear areas. Unofficially, they served a more sinister purpose, along with the Einsatzgruppen, or Special Action groups. Six such groups, numbering between 400 and 600 men each, marched into Poland and under several pretexts, rounded up intelligentsia, officials, businessmen, religion figures and other important personages, and executed them. Army commanders and rank and file alike were not fooled by the official pretexts for the murders - usually attributed to "counter espionage work" - and after the conclusion of the campaign, Army generals were so keen on distancing themselves from the killings that they pulled out of their occupation duties before being formally relieved. The SS stepped happily in, and the campaign continued unhindered. The Army turned its attention to the West.
Campaigns in the West and the Myth of Blitzkrieg
The campaigns in Denmark and Norway in the spring of 1940 formed a necessary prelude to the invasion of France and the Low Countries. It was here that German armoured forces were able to practice techniques that would later come to play in the Soviet Union. Even before the invasion of France, however, there was no consensus on the correct method of attack, and no thought that "Blitzkrieg" was the ultimate solution to the problem. The final plan drafted by Manstein was notable for its high risk factor - an attack with mobile forces through the dense Ardennes Forest. But the plan was also consistent with conventional German military thinking; a difficult campaign was expected in which the infantry would play a major role.
The myth of Blitzkrieg persists in the image of German panzers driving deep into French territory with air power blasting a way forward. This simply did not happen. Rough terrain, and especially the obstacle of the Meuse River, delayed German armoured forces to a great extent, and the infantry was still the mainstay of the attacking forces; the assault over the Meuse was actually led by anti-tank and engineer units. Airpower was indeed crucial to the campaign, with aerial supremacy being established quickly, and providing a secure blanket over the troops on the ground, as well as confusing French commanders as to the intent of German forces - but in no way did the use of airpower signify any revolution in modern warfare, and aerial attacks accounted for little destruction among enemy ground forces. Conservative employment of the armoured troops, too, caused the Army to stop short of annihilating some 300,000+ troops at Dunkirk by prematurely halting.
Planning for an invasion of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1941, Hitler's plans were sidetracked by the need to intervene to assist Italy in North Africa as well as the Balkans. After a quick conquest of Yugoslavia and Greece, and the despatch of a token force to Africa, Barbarossa was slated for June. Several weeks of good campaigning weather had been lost. Further, the myth of Blitzkrieg and the miraculous victory over France in six weeks led many Germans to believe that the Soviet Union would be a pushover.
By 1941, the German Army had a considerable amount of experience at conducting operations in the field, and had not yet faced a major defeat. Two schools of thought pervaded the grand strategy planned for the Russian campaign; the "armoured concept" of Heinz Guderian, who advocated swift moving armoured forces rapidly advancing to capture enemy power centres, and the classical approach, favoured by the High Command , of decisive manoeuvre, in which pockets of enemy troops could be encircled and destroyed. The use of manouevre had been practiced by German armies for at least a century; the war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866 had lasted just six weeks, the main battles of the 1870-71 war with France lasted just over six weeks, and initial successes in 1914 also showed the effectiveness of manoevre. No tanks or Stuka dive bombers had been necessary; in 1940 new technology was applied to these older ideas, but the concepts were nothing new. After the shock of attrition warfare and the ascent of the machinegun as the master of the infantryman's battlefield, there were serious questions as to whether decisive manoevre could still work, but the new technologies - tanks, support aircraft, and flexible artillery support - seemed to ensure that the decisive maneovre could be successful, and the two schools of thought, with much in common (both rejected attrition as a viable means of waging war) would shape German strategy in Russia.
Nature of combat in the Soviet Union
The German Army was not prepared for many factors it encountered in the Soviet Union. Firstly was the fighting ability of the Soviet soldier, who showed a marked willingness to accept casualties, as well as a genius for entrenchment and camouflage. Secondly was the appearance of excellent Soviet tanks such as the T-34 and KV-1; while poorly employed and co-ordinated in the field, and often lacking spare parts, the Germans had few weapons capable of dealing with these weapons on an equal footing and their existence came as a rude surprise. The weather, too, was an enemy as dogged as the individual Russian soldier, be it the long periods of mud and rain in spring and autumn (made even more noticeable by the lack of paved roads in the Soviet Union) or the intense cold of winter which froze many types of German equipment. Notably, no preparations had been made to transport cold weather clothing to German soldiers in Russia in late 1941, general consensus being that the campaign would be over before the snows fell.
While the German soldier fought with great skill and determination, his Soviet counterpart in time also became quite skillful and lavishly equipped with automatic weapons, tanks and artillery, and his tactics improved (the eventual addition of radios to their tanks, for example, helped greatly). German units received improved small arms as the war went on, including semi-automatic and automatic weapons, though these never fully supplanted the bolt action K98 Mauser rifle as the mainstay of the infantryman. But by no means had the current modern family of small arms reached the entire German Army by June of 1941, and numbers or older weapons remained in front line units long after the invasion of Russia began; none of which probably mattered a great deal; both sides found the majority of casualties suffered were usually inflicted by artillery.
The Soviet Union also had a significant manpower advantage, and despite the crushing losses inflicted on it early in the war, the Soviet nation was able to mobilize and replace these losses in a significantly short period of time. The declaration of war on the United States by Japan also allowed the Soviets to reduce her eastern garrisons and move troops to the west to fight the Germans - the arrival of the Siberians in December of 1941 was especially significant.
The further into the Soviet Union that the invading Axis armies travelled, the harder it became to keep them supplied. Soviet railway lines were of a different guage than German trains, Soviet rails were lighter and only capable of carrying a 17 ton axle load (7 tons less than the European standard), Soviet locomotives had larger water capacity which meant that watering stations were farther apart in the USSR than in Europe - a problem when the Germans decided to relay the track in the country to the German guage. Construction of new railway lines were inefficient, and length of track laid was given priority over necessities such as roundhouses, depots, workshop facilities, coal and water stations, etc. Only about 25 percent of the Soviet rail lines were double tracked rather than single tracked, and poor roadbeds in many areas limited maximum speeds to 20 miles per hour. Motor transport was also hampered severely by the lack of graded and paved roads in the Soviet Union, as well as the spring and autumn rainy periods which quickly turned the dirt roads into quagmires.
Production and Distribution of Materiel
German units were always deficient in key items of equipment, notably motor transport, and were heavily reliant on draft animals - very often supplementing their own horses with smaller Russian ponies when they could be found. A single first line infantry division required some 4,842 horses to supplement its motor transport allotment of just over 1000 cars and trucks. Weaker divisions required fewer cars and trucks, (still amounting to close to 600 vehicles ) but required over 6,000 horses. By the war's end, over 2,700,000 horses would have passed through the German Army. The 198th Infantry Division reported in November 1941 that its complement of 4600 horses had diminished to 3100, with some 1200 of these barely able to stand for due to a combination of cold weather, overexertion and lack of suitable fodder. These horses were stabled until they recovered - in mid June 1942; in their place 1600 local Panjes (Russian ponies) were utilized.
Halftrack vehicles and armoured personnel carriers - in theory the standard mount of the elite Schützen and Panzergrenadier regiments of the Panzer divisions - were never available in anything like adequate numbers. Tanks capable of keeping pace with Soviet tank design were long in coming, and the introduction of the Tiger in late 1942 was a blessing for German tank men. The even better Panther was delayed until the summer of 1943, and original models were mechanically unreliable. By this point, the disasters at Stalingrad and El Alamein had fallen and the Combined Bomber Offensive of the western Allies was wreaking havoc, if not directly on the German economy, then not so co-incidentally her civilian population.
The German economy was never properly geared for war production until very late in the game; James Lucas tells us (in his book REICH) that in 1943 1 million German women were employed as hairdressers rather than employed in "war work." The word "krieg" (war) was also never used openly before 1943, rather a "period of national emergency" was declared.
German Leadership of Barbarossa
Perhaps most importantly, Adolf Hitler assumed greater control over the Army's employment in the field in December of 1941, assuming the post of Chief of the Army High Command. While his Stand or Die orders that winter may in fact have been the correct method of preventing a rout, his continued issuance of similar orders on later occasions throughout the war were not suited for many of the tactical situations of units to whom those orders were given. The most notorious example was the Sixth Army at Stalingrad; most historians feel that had von Paulus been permitted early on to withdraw or attempt to fight his way out of the Soviet encirclement, thousands of German lives might have been saved. As the war went on, many German generals were sacked (some more than once) when they were seen to disagree with Hitler or issue orders contrary to his wishes.
The einsatzgruppen followed the Army into Russia as well, and amidst the legitimate concerns of anti-partisan warfare, mass executions of enemy civilians were commonplace, and on a large scale. At Babi Yar in September 1941, some 33,771 civilians were exterminated, ostensibly in reprisal for German Army casualties caused by the explosion of mines laid by the Red Army. By the end of 1941, with the assistance of local volunteers in the Baltics and Ukraine, the einsatzgruppen could report that nearly 500,000 civilians had been killed. The direct effect on the Army - whose level of direct participation is unclear but whose level of knowledge of these activies is easier to surmise - was the necessity of employing large numbers of men on security and anti-partisan duties in the rear areas.
After the defeat at Stalingrad, the German Army had transformed from an unbeaten force of conquerors to an army forced to fight for its life. The first major defeats in North Africa occured just as the Stalingrad battle opened, and by the time the Kursk battle was concluded - the last great German offensive of the war in the East - the western Allies had landed on Sicily and Italy was soon to capitulate. But the German soldier fought on, along with desperate allies who saw the Red Army advancing towards their borders, and decided that their best hope for fair treatment by the invading Soviets would be to switch sides.
During the two years of defensive warfare and retreat, the German Army maintained discipline and morale - sometimes through draconian means, such as the creation of "flying courts martial" and special military police units who were authorized to try, convict and execute deserters and shirkers. The policy of aggressive counter-attacks often led to hastily prepared attacks for little gain with appreciable losses in valuable resources, especially tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
Perhaps the most visible sign that Hitler had lost faith in his Army was his order on 24 July 1944 (in the wake of the Bomb Plot that almost killed him four days earlier) that the military hand salute was to be immediately replaced with the "German Greeting" - the act of stretching the arm out to a 45 degree angle, accompanied by the salutation "Heil Hitler." All officers of the German Army were ordered to re-swear their oath of allegiance. Certainly many officers had finally seen Hitler as the greatest obstacle to Germany's well being. But the plot against Hitler had been put down bloodily and swiftly by both the SS, and regular Army officers still devoted to the cause. There would be no more chances for conspirators; Hitler soon retreated into seclusion, drastic security measures were taken not only for his own personal safety, but to ensure that soldiers in the field kept fighting. Soldiers who deserted or surrendered now left their families at risk of arrest; flying courts-martial and execution became so common that historians can't determine with precision exactly how many German troops were executed in the last days of the war.
The German General Staff - a unique institution - was also deeply mistrusted by Hitler. After December 1941, the Army High Command (OKH) and Hitler's personal staff, the Armed Forces High Command (OKW) operated seperately and were united only by Hitler's personal direction. By 1945, Hitler promised to dismantle the entire system, and by March 1945, Kesselring of the Luftwaffe and Doenitz of the Navy were in command of ground operations, leaving Army officers completely out of the highest levels of the command loop.
The German infantryman was a highly trained specialist, whose training began with 16 weeks of basic military training (decreased during the war to eight, and progressively less in the closing months of the war) in the region (Wehrkreis) where he was recruited. After advanced trades training - where the infantryman learned to use the machine pistol, light machinegun, several types of grenades, different tactics and drills, the art of entrenchment and camouflage in the field, how to attack tanks, first aid, survival skills and a variety of other skills - the soldier joined a March Company and moved to the front as a formed unit, eventually to join one of the numbered regiments of the Army that hailed from his home region. He was taught to take over a squad or platoon in an emergency, and that it was always better to do something, than nothing. The concept of auftragstaktik - misson-type orders - meant that leaders at the lowest levels were given the flexibility to think for themselves in battle rather than tie themselves to rigid plans, and show initiative where men in other armies might simply remain idle.
Changes to regimental organization were minor during the war, though individual armament changed greatly. From the beginning of the Russian Campaign, German soldiers were taught to aggressively react to armoured threats with whatever means were at hand. Eventually, of necessity, an increasingly deadly array of anti-tank weaponry was introducted, from magnetic mines to hand held disposable rocket launchers which improved in quality as the war went on, to the bazooka-inspired Panzerschreck. But hand in hand with new weapons came decreases in manpower, and the established strengths of German units decreased as the war went on. Infantry squads of 10 men were replaced with a nine man organization, for example (in practice these numbers meant little in any event). Other weapons were upgraded in capability; the 3.7cm anti tank gun was successively replaced with 5.0 cm and 7.5 cm models, and the 8.1 cm mortar began to be replaced in infantry battalions with the 12 cm model.
Usually outnumbered by 1943, and kept in the line by harsh discipline, the German Army also represented a progressive entity where cameraderie - even between commissioned officers and enlisted men - was a cornerstone of morale and efficiency. Whereas the soldier of the Kaiserheer in 1914-1918 had sometimes been abused in basic training by strict NCOs, and required to refer to his officers in the third person, the Landser in Russia was often closer to his company commander than members of the "democratic" armies of the US or Britain, where officers sometimes remained insulated from their men by tradition or class difference. German officers ate the same food as their men (albeit off a metal plate) and shared their dangers, while recruits in training were treated more humanely than in the Old Army (with some old soldiers venturing the opinion that the Army had "lost it.").
Mountain troops date back to before the start of the 20th Century; previous to this, wars were usually conducted in spring, summer or early autumn weather - European nations with mountainous borders up until the late 19th Century could depend on small bands of militia to defend their mountain passes. As railways and roads were developed during the 1800s, it became obvious that small bands of soldiers were inadequate to the task of delaying enemy forces moving through their mountainous borders, and a need for specially trained mountain troops was felt. During the First World War, the first combat employment of specially trained mountain troops occurred in the Austrian, Hungarian and Italian alps. German alpine troops came to see action in Tyrol and later Macedonia, and proved themselves so capable they were used as assault troops at Verdun before being employed in mountains once more in Romania, the Vosges, and Caporetto, among others. The tradition of mountain troops continued in the Wehrmacht, and during the period of German expansion, three small units were expanded to become the 1st Gebirgsjäger Division. With Austrian annexation in 1938, two more mountain divisions were added to the Wehrmacht, and all three were employed in Poland. Aside from their initial fighting against Polish alpine troops, the German mountain soldiers were too lightly equipped to be of much use in the rest of the campaign; pooled transport allowed one division to advance to Lemberg, where they did not have the equipment or manpower to take the city itself.
Mountain troops saw action in France, and extensive employment in Norway, followed by fighting in the Balkans. All these employmens, with the exception of brief periods in France and the Low Countries, saw the Gebirgsjäger employed in mountainout terrain. This stopped in June 1941 when the Mountain divisions were sent into Russia as part of Barbarossa. By now there were six divisions of German mountain troops, spread along the front from Finland in the north to Army Group South. Two more mountain divisions were raised by 1944, and all the divisions were widely employed, moving to different sectors of the front, and to other fronts, as was felt necessary.
The German Army began the war with Poland possessing some 4,500 armoured fighting vehicles, of which under 600 were armed with guns larger than 20mm. In France, German AFVs (which include armoured cars and halftracks) were outnumbered by British and French AFVs by some 4,000 to 2,800. German tanks were marked by reliability for the most part, but also complexity and over-engineering, as well as a lack of standardization (leading to problems in the mass production of vehicles - for example, both Porsche and Henschel produced components for Tiger tanks that were not interchangeable.) In other words, when running, German tanks performed very well, but when broken down were more difficult to repair. Shortages of these vehicles also led to their constant use, and the sheer number of differing types (again, a result of non-standardization) led to supply and repair problems.
The Germans entered the Soviet Union with an initial force of 3,350 armoured vehicles, and production was not increased to war levels until late 1942. Over 20,000 vehicles were built in 1943 after the move to a war footing (some 350% the number of vehicles produced in 1941) - though a third of this total represented armoured halftracks. By the end of the war, some 80,000 armoured vehicles had been built by Germany - with only 22,000+ being main battle tanks (to use the modern term) or Panzer III, IV, V or VI type. By way of contrast, the US produced almost 50,000 Shermans (with few going to the Pacific) and the Soviets produced some 71,000 T-34, KV and IS tanks.
The discovery of the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks in the summer of 1941 was a rude shock for German tank troops, though German tankers had also seen heavier tank models fielded by the French (Char B1 bis) and English (Matilda) in France in 1940 as well. It was not until late 1942 and the introduction of the Tiger that the German armoured force had a heavyweight tank of its own in sizable numbers. German armour had many advantages over Soviet armour from the beginning of the campaign, however. Mechanical reliability was superior (some Soviet tanks came complete with hammer so the driver could change gears by beating the stiff controls into place), as were optics and crew training. The use of wireless allowed for flexible command and control over armoured formations, and German tank units were deployed en masse for maximum efficiency.
In 1939, most trucks used by motorized infantry had been road-bound and could not travel cross-country with the tanks. After the Polish Campaign, armoured divisions were increased in infantry power; in 1942 the Schützen regiments were designated Panzergrenadier, and in tandem with this name change came the introduction of SPW halftracks - initially intended for issue to two full battalions in each division with these halftracks, in reality only one battalion per division became the norm. In France, this allotment had been only one company of armoured infantry for every panzer division. Of 226 panzergrenadier battalions in the whole of the German Army, Luftwaffe and Waffen SS in September 1943, only 26 were equipped with armoured half tracks.
Strategically, Germany never developed successful defensive policies with its armour once the initiative passed to the Allies in 1943; armour was usually amassed and thrown into new offensive operations rather than used defensively. As the tide of the war turned, assault and self-propelled guns were built in large numbers, as these were cheaper to produce than fully turreted tanks - though having 17 seperate types of assault gun (and this only includes major types, defined as having production runs of 60 vehicles or more) did not help ease logistical burdens.
The operations of German mobile troops were highly publicized throughout the war, and their presence was essential for most major actions to be successful. They never accounted for more than a simple minority, however, among the far more numerous infantry divisions who marched (with their horses) from battle to battle, and even the mythical panzergrenadiers, fighting while safely ensconced in armoured halftracks, was something of a myth - truck and halftrack-borne infantry invariably dismounted to fight.
The artillery was an important and decisive arm of the division's firepower. By 1941, the 75mm field pieces found in some units had been replaced with 10.5 cm and 15 cm pieces being standard. By the middle of the war, the standard configuration for an infantry division was 36 of the lighter 10.5 cm field pieces with 12 heavier 15 cm guns, scaled back to 24 of the 10.5 cm pieces after a 1943 reorganization of infantry divisions. Higher formations used 17 and 21 cm guns, with rocket artillery becoming important, generally grouped independently and assigned to divisions as needed. Higher formations also used the same (smaller) field guns as the divisional artilleries as well, generally attached directly to Armies. These units tended to be motorized rather than horse drawn as the majority of infantry division artillery regiments were. A wide variety of rocket weapons were also employed, both towed and self propelled, and these also were assigned to a corps or army rather than specific divisions, and these units too were primarily motorized. Most German artillery was horsedrawn, with the panzer and motorized infantry/panzergrenadier divisions having self-propelled guns. At the time of Barbarossa, air power (most notably Stuka dive bombers) was used heavily as fire support; as the Allies achieved greater mastery of the skies by 1943 and 1944, rocket artillery and larger field pieces were used to supplement divisional artillery, as well as the increasing use of assault guns in the direct fire role.
The most notorious artillery piece of the war was the "88", officially the 8.8 cm FlaK 18 (later also a FlaK 36 model). The suitability of this high calibre anti-aircraft gun against ground targets had been noted in the Spanish Civil War, and after ad hoc use in France as an anti-tank gun against the near-impregnable Char B1 bis and Matildas, it's place in the German anti-tank arsenal was assured by its performance in North Africa - picking off British tanks at ranges of 2000 metres with ease. The 88 was produced in large numbers, and was employed freely as an anti-armour and anti-personnel weapon in addition to its main anti-aircraft role. The Germans also used a variety of low calibre, quick firing cannons for anti-aircraft work that were routinely used as a ground weapon, both towed and self-propelled weapons of 2 and 3.7 cm were employed, in single and multiple mounts.
German artillery practices differed from those of the Allies in many ways; Artillery Battalions were normally fired as a single unit, rather than batteries firing independently in support of different infantry units (as was often the case with Commonwealth units, for example). In rare circumstances, this was done, but was not the norm. Unlike the Soviets, the Germans saw artillery as a supporting arm rather than having a central role. Whereas one forward observer in a British unit could conceivably call down the fire of an entire corps or even army with a single code word, German artillery organization precluded such massing of fire. An Arko (Artillerie Kommandeur - Artillery Commander) designated both an officer and a headquarters unit created specifically to co-ordinate all the artillery units within a corps, and later in the war, Harkos (Höherer Artillerie Kommadeur - Higher Artillery Commander) were designated to perform the same function with all artillery units within an Army. The ability to call down artillery fire was not as lavishly given out as in other armies, due to the logistical realities the Germans faced in the Soviet Union, and the attendant need to husband ammunition. Divisional artillery officers, and corps level staff officers, generally allocated firepower resources to units on the front, with artillery units being assigned to specific formations or units. In this way, infantry units could not rob their neighbours of fire support allocated to them.
Artillery units were weakened during the war in the east by occasional combings-out of personnel to form emergency infantry units for partisan hunts or to shore up defences in the event of enemy breakthroughs, and many experienced artillerymen were lost in this way.
In all, some 12.5 million men passed through the German Army (and 18 million in all three services) in World War Two with about 1.6 million being killed between 1939 and 1945 on all fronts.
The roots of the Waffen SS lay in the political turmoil in Germany after the First World War. The SA (Sturm Abteilungen or Storm Troops), created in 1921, were one of the necessities of political life in Germany at the time. Their role was to protect the fledgling Nazi Party from opposing groups. The SA rose to number 3 million members by 1933 while at the same time, a Schutz Staffel (Protection Squad) was created as the personal bodyguard of one Adolf Hitler. By 1929 this group had only 280 members, but under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler came to number 30,000 members by 1933. After the Knight of the Long Knives in 1934, when the head of the SA and Hitler's main political rival, Ernst Roehm, was killed (along with many of his lieutenants in key positions in the SA), the SS grew in importance, taking over political police work and becoming increasingly important in the realms of Party and government.
The SS came to be a very complex empire, and what was to become the Waffen SS was only a small part of the Allgemeine SS (General SS). The SS as a whole was largely a bureaucratic and political entity who controlled key security functions such as the SD (Security Police), Gestapo (Secret State Police), and Concentration Camps.
Despite poor showings by Polizei and Nord, the performance of the other divisions earned the Waffen SS a reputation for steadfastness and respect from their comrades in the Army. The year 1942 saw several more divisions created; Polizei joined the Waffen SS proper, and both a mountain division and a Cavalry division were formed. The former ("Prinz Eugen") was created from Austrian-Germans and served (notoriously) on anti-partisan duties in Yugoslavia.
After the Waffen SS played a starring role in the important capture of Kharkov in the spring of 1943 (in the wake of the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad), three new German SS divisions were recruited, along with a growing list of foreign legions and divisions composed of ethnic volunteers. By early 1945, the Waffen SS numbered some 38 divisions on paper, though many of these were in reality fictitious, some divisions fielded a handful of companies. Racial policies were relaxed and hopelessly confused in the closing years of the war, and many "ethnic" SS formations were renamed several times as the need for troops increased, and the apparent need for racial purity not so coincidentally dissipated. By 1945, the Waffen SS numbered some 800,000 men and accounted for 25 percent of Germany's tank troops and 33 percent of Germany's motorized infantry.
The Army usually looked on the better SS divisions as "good comrades" and came to respect their fighting abilities by the middle of the war. Comradeship among Waffen SS troops was high; even taking the extra step of eliminating the need for soldiers to address auperiors by the formal "Herr" in addition to their rank. At the same time, the SS showed a contempt for the human qualities of their enemies, and the core divisions were truly feared on the battlefield for the no-quarter attitude displayed by SS men, the higher scale of issue of new weapons afforded them in deference to their "elite" status, their willingness to take high casualties, and reluctance to yield ground or break off an attack. SS formations have also gained a reputation - before the war and after - for willful commission of atrocities. Some units earned especial notoriety - Prinz Eugen in Yugoslavia, for example, or the Hitlerjugend Division in Normandy.
Many foreign legions were incorporated into the Waffen SS proper, more details are found below under the various nationality headings. The raw numbers of volunteers are as follows.
It is estimated some 180,000 SS soldiers were killed in World War Two (on all fronts) with 400,000 wounded and 40,000 missing, In June 1944 the Waffen SS had over 594,000 troops on its rolls (serving on all three fronts), with 368,000 of them considered field troops.
Like the SS, the Luftwaffe was very much affected by the personality and political clout of its commander. Hermann Goering, a World War One fighter pilot and ace (who in fact commanded Baron von Richtofen's unit after his death) was the number two man in Nazi Germany, holding the title Reichsmarschall in addition to his command of the German Air Force. Like Himmler, Goering wanted his personal empire to play an important role in German victories. As early as 1933, Goering had organized the General Goering Police Regiment (as part of his portfolio as Prussian Minister of the Interior), which later became the famed Hermann Goering Panzer Division.
By 1941, the Luftwaffe numbered nearly 2,000,000 men, the largest percentage of these being anti-aircraft personnel and signal troops, with a small minority of men actually being associated with aerial operations. Overall, of all of Germany's total manpower of armed troops, the Air Force accounted for twenty percent. The first six months of campaiging in Russia cost the Army some 700,000 casualties, with half that number again lost in the first three months of 1942. Replacements could not make good these losses, and front line Army units were continually short handed. When the Army requested a transfer of 50,000 Air Force troops to their control, Goering convinced Hitler that the solution was not to lose politically loyal troops to the tradition bound Army (the Air Force was considered most National Socialist of the three services, the Navy was traditionally Christian, and the Army was widely considered reactionary) but to create Luftwaffe ground units. In September 1942, the first calls went out for volunteers, with a target of 100,000 men set.
In the meantime, Anti-Aircraft units had already accompanied Army troops into Russia, and an entire division of paratroopers were employed for the first time in a pure foot soldier role near Leningrad in the autumn of 1941. (The zenith of German airborne operations had been Crete, which proved so costly that Hitler forbade any future parachute or glider operations.) As the Air Force followed the Army deep into Russia, emergency units were created out of necessity to combat partisans and for security duties around the airfields and supply bases. Successful deployment of emergency units in early 1942, necessitated by the Soviet counterattacks against Army Group Centre, led to the creation of Luftwaffe Field Regiments, and the satisfactory performance of Division Meindl in particular prompted the creation of the first 10 Luftwaffe Field Divisions in September 1942.
The 10 Field Divisions were widely scattered throughout Russia almost immediately, and despite Goering's personal intention they be used only on quiet fronts for defensive duties were employed in attack roles - notably during the attempt to relieve the Sixth Army at Stalingrad. Some divisions went to form all-Luftwaffe corps while others were assigned to Army formations. Heavy casualty rates and poor performance caused the Air Force and Army both to re-evaluate their necessity, but nonetheless these ground divisions remained on active duty throughout 1942 and into 1943. By the summer of 1943, 22 Field Divisions were in existence, and it was recognized that they were not being employed for their original purpose of security, and were occupying portions of line that regular Army divisions would have occupied - but without much of the same equipment (or training) that those Army divisions would have had. Proposals to reorganize the divisions were not made before their deficiencies were once again showcased by Soviet offensives in the autumn of 1943. Heavy casualties ensued among the Luftwaffe men fighting in several areas, and finally, in November, they were ordered transferred to Army command.
The Army replaced Luftwaffe officers up and down the chain of command in the divisions with Army officers, upgraded equipment and organization to match the standard Model 1944 Army Division, assigned Army post office numbers and redesignated the former Luftwaffe Field Divisions as Field Divisions (Luftwaffe). The reorganizations did not go entirely smoothly; Anti-aircraft battalions never transferred to Army command and were taken from the divisions, and many veteran officers, NCOs and men transferred to other Luftwaffe duties, notably paratroops units.
The beginning of 1944 saw the Field Divisions again suffer heavy casualties defending against Soviet attacks along the front and by the end of the summer of 1944 only two divisions were left in the Soviet Union. They went on to fight with Army Group Kurland, some remnants holding out until May 1945.
It is estimated that 250,000 volunteers joined the Field Divisions in 1942 and 1943, and that 180,000 transferred to Army command in the winter of 1943. Most of these men no doubt became casualties as the divisions were destroyed in 1944. The experiment had been a costly failure; not only in men's lives but also considering the issue of weapons and vehicles had delayed the refitting of Army formations that might have made better use of them.
By June of 1941, the heyday of the German paratroops was over. After thrilling the world by its exploits at Eben Emael in Holland in 1940, the casualties suffered by parachute and glider troops on Crete in the spring of 1941 caused Hitler to forbid their future employment in their intended role. Two divisions of Fallschirmjäger came to be employed in the Soviet Union, as ground troops.
Fallschirmpanzerdivision Hermann Göring
The Hermann Göring Division had an extensive history from its beginnings as a battalion in 1935, then regiment, then division, but did not see service on the Eastern Front until August 1944, after which it served extensively in the East, in the central sector until February 1945, and in Poland and East Prussia until the end of hostilities. This division formed the nucleus of an entire panzer corps, but like the Panzer Korps Grossdeutschland, was a corps in name only, most component units coming from the division of the same name. Also like the Grossdeutschland, the HG was considered an elite formation and received first rate equipment and recruits, and was equipped as an armour-heavy panzergrenadier division with two regiments organized identical to Army panzergrenadiers and a full panzer regiment.
In addition to the paratroops and Field Divisions, there were other Air Force ground units to participate in the ground fighting in Russia, including emergency units and penal battalions, as well as the use of anti-aircraft weapons in a ground role, especially "88" units.
Types of Infantry Units in the German Military (Eastern Front 1941-1945)
Following German occupation of the country in 1940, one of the two national groups - the Flemish - found themselves favoured by the Germans over the other national group, the Walloons. After the invasion of the Soviet Union, Flemish volunteers wanting to fight communism in the East were permitted to enlist in the Waffen SS while the Walloons would initially only be accepted by the Army.
In March 1943, the Volunteer Legion Flandern was reorganized as 6. SS Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade "Langemarck". This unit, composed of Flemish volunteers (with perhaps some Finnish troops as well) saw action in the Ukraine in late 1943, suffered heavy lossed at Zhitomir in early 1944, and after rest and refitting in Czechoslovakia went back into action on the Narva front in July. The remnants withdrew in September 1944 where the unit was expanded to divisional status, known as the 27th Freiwilligen Grenadier Division "Langemarck". (Possibly also with Flämische Nr. 1 suffixing the divisional designation). The division was made up of Flemish soldiers, sailors and airmen, as well as other labour and political groups. One of these groups was the Vlaamse Wacht, a German security unit raised in Flanders who in July 1944 received German uniforms. Some four battalions, or 3,000 men it total, had been intended for defence of Flemish territory but instead the majority went to join the 27th SS Division. The Division saw action in the East from January 1945 onwards, surrendering in May 1945.
Walloon Infantry Battalion No. 373, was formed, chiefly from members of the fascist "Rexist" party in Belgium, and was attached to the 100th Jäger Division, fighting its first major battle during the Soviet counter offensive of 1941. Some 300 of the battalion's 600 Belgians managed a successful defensive battle, and though some 30 percent casualties were suffered, the Germans were suitably impressed with their abilities. It remained in the line until March 1942 when its shortages of men caused it to be withdrawn. It saw action again in May, and by July was attached to the German 97th Infantry Division and advanced some 800 km during a single month of the German summer offensive. After hard fighting in the Caucasus, it withdrew to Germany to refit.
By June 1943, the unit was back up to strength and the rapidly expanding Waffen SS accepted the "Legion Wallonie" into its own ranks, expanded, and titled the 5. SS Freiwilligen Sturmbrigade "Wallonien." In late 1943 and early 1944 the brigade distinguished itself fighting alongside the German Wiking SS Division. Only 632 men were fit for duty of the original 2,000 after being cut off in the Tscherkassy Pocket. After rest and refit, the division moved to the Narva front in the spring of 1944, and was upgraded to divisional status by October 1944, becoming the 28th SS Freiwilligen Panzergrenadier Division "Wallonien" including Spanish and French troops as well. The division briefly served in the west, then in early 1945 moved back to the Eastern Front where it was reduced to some 700 men during the fighting in February, March and April.
Bulgaria had a deep rooted mistrust and fear of Stalin's Soviet Union; their declaration of war on 13 December 1941 was aimed at Britain and America so as not to antagonize the Soviets. Bulgarian fear was not misplaced; Stalin did indeed seek greater influence in that country, which Hitler was able to use to advantage. While Bulgaria did not send troops to fight against Russia, their army did conduct garrison and anti-partisan duties - a role their army conducted with great efficiency. Bulgaria let German troops pass through during the fighting in Yugoslavia and Greece in the spring of 1941, even offering flank protection to German forces fighting the Greeks along the Metaxas Line.
Bulgaria's reward was 50,000 square kilometres of new territory, and Bulgarian troops served in anti-partisan duties in former Greek and Yugoslavian areas such as Macedonia, Thrace and Salonika, as well as spending three years in western Macedonia and Serbia defending German supply lines. The latter areas, annexed officially by Bulgaria in May 1941, were ruthlessly policed, so much so that no partisan movements developed until 1944.
The best troops of the Bulgarian army deployed along the frontier with Turkey (for fear of Turkish intervention on the part of the Allies), while reserve soldiers, mainly, served on security duties and gained a reputation for ill discipline and harsh treatment of civilians. Bulgaria's hatred of the Turks and Greeks made them a politically reliable ally, and though even the best of the Bulgarian army would have been an impediment on the Russian Front, they performed their security duties well. When Tsar Boris III died in 1944, with Soviet forces on Hungary's border, a pro-Allied coup took place in September and Bulgaria switched sides. Morale under the new Soviet command was poor, and Bulgarian forces did not have much success in their new role of harrassing the German retreat from Greece and the Aegean. Some Bulgarian forces advanced as far as Austria, linking with British forces shortly after VE Day.
In 41 months of anti-partisan duties, 1,000 soldiers and policemen of a force of 100,000 had been killed. Under the brief period of Soviet command in the last months of the war, the 450,000 man Bulgarian army lost over 30,000 killed, wounded and missing.
Estonia had been occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939 and formally annexed as part of the Soviet Union in 1940. German troops occupied Estonia in 1941 until the country's "liberation" by the Red Army in 1944, and its return to the Soviet Union.
Early Estonian defence forces numbered 13 regional defence units and a rail security force, collectively called the Civil Guard (later Self-Defence Corps). In the autumn of 1941 six Estonian security detachments were raised, and on 1 January 1943, these detachments went to form Estonian Company 657 and Estonian Battalions 658, 659 and 660. They transferred to the Waffen SS in the spring of 1944.
The Germans raised an Estonian Legion in the spring of 1943, designated 3. Estonian SS Volunteer Brigade (3. Estnische SS-Freiwilligen Brigade), went into action at Nevel in the autumn of 1943, and expanded to divisional status in January 1944, becoming 20. Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (Estnische Nr. 1) and utilizing conscripted Estonian Army troops and a cadre from a German SS infantry brigade. The division saw further action at Narva in the spring and summer of 1944, avoided being encircled in Kurland, retreated to Silesia and surrendered to the Red Army in May 1945.
Six Estonian battalions were raised in February 1944 for domestic defence, numbering some 38,000 troops. Four of them with German artilley, divisional support troops and staff formed the Special Purpose Division 300 (Div.zbV 300), also known as the Estonian Frontier Guards Division. Totalling 20,000 men, this formation was in fact the largest Axis unit on the entire Narva front and was given the largest section of front to defend. Divided into two brigades, the division came under heavy attack on 18 September, and was broken up as it retreated, leaving behind small groups to fight it out with the advancing Red Army in the marshy terrain near Lake Peipus.
Hungary, with a long tradition of power as an ally of the Holy Roman Empire, and later member of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had proudly fought alongside Germany in World War One, and like Germany, was greatly reduced in power after their defeat. Limited to an army of 35,000 men, the Kingdom of Hungary had also been reduced by nearly two-thirds of its territory and population by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. Hungary therefore had scores to settle, developing close links with Fascist Italy and more reluctantly with Nazi Germany. Rearmament began in earnest in 1939, especially after obtaining southern Slovakia in 1938. Hitler allowed Hungary to take Ruthenia back from the Czechs in March 1939, and in August 1940 Hitler arranged for northern Transylvania to transfer from Romania to Hungary. It is noted that the Germans later found it necessary, once fighting in the Soviet Union, to keep Hungarian and Romanian units as widely seperated from each other as possible, lest they take to fighting each other rather than the Red Army.
The bulk of the Hungarian army deployed to the Carpathians in anticipation of Barbarossa, and sought to gain for itself while offering the Germans a minimum of assistance. During the invasion of Yugoslavia in April 1941, Hungary managed to regain almost all of the territory lost after World War One, though naturally Yugoslavia was alienated just as Romania had been, and Hungary became very much dependent on German support for national security.
As repayment, Hungary offered assistance to the German forces involved in Barbarossa, and declared war on Russia on 27 June 1941. German and Hungarian officers worked well together at the tactical level; many senior Hungarian officers had experience in the Austrian Army during the First World War, and many Hungarian officers were in fact fluent in German. Hungarian troops were appalled by German policies towards civilians in the Soviet Union, and apparently tried to intervene in some cases (especially where Jews serving in Hungarian labour battalions were singled out for persecution). However, some Hungarian troops did also take part in questionable actions in Yugoslavia in 1941-42.
Hungarian troops did advance into the Ukraine, and across the Dniepr, and despite the very odd mix of horses, bicycles and civilian pattern vehicles, the so-called "Mobile Corps" fought well over a 600 mile advance to reach the Donets basin area - at the cost of 80 percent of its motorized transport and 26,000 casualties.
By the spring of 1942, a 200,000 man Hungarian army was mobilized, moving to defensive positions on the Don during June 1942, and staying there until smashed in a Russian winter offensive in January 1943, leaving behind 50,000 men as prisoners, and losing 30,000 more as casualties. The 2nd Hungarian Army was sent home in March 1943 (Hungary by this point had become what was described as a neutral country, free of rationing or compulsory military service). The 8th Hungarian Corps was the only formation to remain in action on the Eastern Front, and was called the "Dead Army" and consisted mostly of reserve regiments. The Corps was mostly engaged in anti-partisan work, along with many security formations in the Ukraine.
As time passed, Hungarian forces in the Ukraine formed truces with local partisans, again keeping with the theme of gaining for themselves with a minimum of assistance to the Germans. Hungarian troops did not fight at Kursk, nor did they take part in the reduction of the Warsaw uprising, where in fact one artillery unit tried to sell their guns to the insurgents; the Germans stopped this from occurring and understandably demanded the Hungarians be sent elsewhere. Major reorganizations of the entire Hungarian military took place at this time, mid-1943, and Hitler became so worried about Hungary seeking to opt out of the war that German troops were ordered in during March and April of 1944. The Hungarian army was ordered not to resist, but ironically was mobilized fully for the first time during the war at this point.
In August 1944, Romania defected to the Allies, leaving Hungary's flank exposed. Hastily assembled units were moved to Transylvania, but Red Army and Romanian forces crossed the Carpathians and Hungarian units began individually defecting to the Soviets. Hungary proclaimed an armistice on 15 October 1944, but Vice Admiral Horthy, the Regent, was arrested and the Hungarian army was placed under German control directly. By December 1944, now stiffened with German troops, the Hungarian army retreated into Slovenia. Much fighting in Hungary itself raged through the early months of 1945, while a rival Hungarian government was set up by the Soviets and company and battalion sized Hungarian units were integrated into Soviet divisions. The new government promised Stalin 8 divisions - in the end only one was deployed - but the war was over before real combat could be entered into.
Hungary's contribution to the anti-partisan war had also been minimal; five divisions were provided to the Germans, though they were of poor quality. The worst four were put in a minor sentry role, and the remaining division was used for railway security.
Between 136,000 and 148,000 Hungarian soldiers had died in the Second World War, with 50,000 more dying in Soviet captivity.
Indian opposition to British rule was keenly felt, and efforts made by the Italians and Germans to recruit Indians (from among the thousands captured in North Africa) for service against the Allies were reasonably successful. The Italians organized a special commando type unit in May 1942 which included 400 Indians amongs its 1800 personnel. They were not employed in Russia but in Africa, and mutinied upon hearing of the German defeat at El Alamein. The Indians were returned to their POW camps.
German recruiting efforts were more successful; beginning in January 1942, from an initial recruitment of 8 volunteers the "Indian National Army" grew to include some 2,000 men by mid 1943 (though not all had "volunteered). On 26 August 1942, the Legion Freies Indien became an official unit of the German Army, also referred to as Indisches Infanterie Regiment 950. Some of the regiment's German commissioned officers began to be replaced by Indian officers, newly commissioned after service as German NCOs. The unit was later referred to instead as Panzergrenadier Regiment 950 (Indische) due to its partially motorized status.
While Regiment 950 was composed of men of several religions and nationalities (including Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, Jats, Rajputs, Marathas and Garhwalis), Indians specifically of the Moslem faith were considered for recruitment into the 13th Waffen SS Division. This division, however, was recruited mainly from Bosnian Moslems and it was not felt that the Indians and Europeans would mix well, so the idea was abandoned.
The Free India Legion/Infantry Regiment 950 was envisioned as a force to be used in German advances through the Caucasus into Iran and India. Small numbers of Indian troops were in fact parachuted into Persia to begin sabotage operations in anticipation of a national revolt against the British. However, the defeat at Stalingrad took attacks into India itself out of the realm of possibility. Small numbers of picked men and officers were taken away for a move to the Far East, while the majority of the Legion moved to the Netherlands for garrison duty, arriving in the spring of 1943 and remaining until September. The cold weather forced a redeployment of the regiment to the south of France, where the unit was inspected by Field Marshall Rommel (responsible for the original capture of most of these troops when they served against him in North Africa) in April 1944. In August 1944, the 2,300 man Legion was transferred - with all German Army national legions - to the Waffen SS and being retitled Indische Freiwilligen Legion der Waffen SS. On the same day that the Allies landed in southern France, the Indian Legion was moved to Germany. The first death in combat occurred during fighting with French troops in September as the unit moved back through France to Germany on foot.
The Legion remained in Germany until March 1945, eventually seeking sanctuary in neutral Swiss territory by attempting to march around Lake Constance to gain entry to Switzerland via alpine pass, but the Legion was captured by allied troops. Some were shot by French troops, the rest were turned over to the British, who shipped them back to India, where they were dealt with leniently.
The Italian Army had been instrumental in implementing the foreign policy of their leader, Benito Mussolini ('Il Duce') almost as soon as he became the youngest national leader in modern Italian history. In 1923 a small force was sent to seize Corfu from the Greeks, though political pressure made him back down. But his dreams of a new Italian empire focussed his gaze on other areas of the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and northeastern Africa. An Italian show of force in 1934 thwarted a German attempt at unification with Austria, and diplomatic successed yielded some new territories for Italy in Africa. Minor incidents in Abyssinia in 1934 precipitated the move of some 12 divisions to East Africa, and hostilities were opened against Somalia in October 1935. In May 1936, despite the official disapproval and sanctions of the League of Nations, Italy was victorious. Mussolini further flexed the Army's muscles by sending troops to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. In April 1939, a poorly organized and trained Italian force landed in Albania - up til this time a protectorate of Italy - and seized control.
In the meantime, Italy had been drawn into Germany's sphere of influence, officially joining the Axis with Germany and Japan in May 1939. Mussolini fully realized Italy was unprepared to fight any major wars for several years (after war began in September, optimistic appraisals set the date of Italy's readiness at October 1942 at the earliest), and Hitler never informed his new ally of the attack on Poland. Mussolini, by now convinced of the myth of Italian military might that had been set by his lucky successes of the 1930s, declared war on France and Britain in 1940, choosing to share Germany's destiny.
Mussolini sent a 60,000 man force called the "Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (Corpo Spedzione Italiane in Russia, or CSIR) to participate in Barbarossa, feeling it would bring prestige and material gains to support Germany in this endeavor. This initial corps of three divisions (Pasubio and Torino, both infantry divisions, as well as the 3rd Mobile Division), ostensibly motorized, followed the Germans of Army Group South into the Ukraine, mostly on foot. They were later joined by a Legion of Blackshirts. The CSIR impressed the Germans at first, but the initial high morale brought on by thoughts of an easy campaign (as France had been in 1940) waned as it became apparent the Italian force had neither the leadership, armour, motorized transport or artillery and anti-tank weapons to be able to fight effectively against the Red Army.
Nevertheless, a 2nd Corps was also sent to the Soviet Union in March 1942 (Sforzesca, Ravenna and Cosseria Divisions), as well as an elite Alpine Corps of one infantry and three mountain divisions. More Blackshirt units also were added to the CSIR, now renamed the 35th Corps. This Italian force of 3 Corps eventually numbered over 225,000 men and was grouped to create the 8th Army. In August 1942 it found itself garrisoning the Don front after advancing with Army Group B, to the north of Stalingrad. In December, an expected Soviet counterattack disintegrated the 2nd and 35th Corps, stranding the Alpine troops and creating a large breach in the Don line.
In January 1943 the remnants of the force were assembled in the Ukraine, but the force was returned to Italy by the Germans, with most units having started the return journey in March, with some small units staying behind to fight partisans. The 229,000 man 8th Army left behind 85,000 killed and missing soldiers, and 1,200 of the 1,340 artillery pieces destroyed or abandoned. Also a severe blow for the Italians, for whom sufficient motor transport had always been a sore point, was the loss of 18,200 motorized vehicles out of a total complement of 20,000.
Some historians argue that these forces might have had a larger impact on the outcome of the war had they been sent to North Africa in 1941 instead of being squandered for little apparent purpose in the Soviet Union. Mussolini was ousted in 1943 (to be captured, rescued by German commandos and paratroops, and returned to control of a puppet state in Northern Italy) and the nation formally changed sides, to fight with the Allies.
Japan and Germany became allies with the signing of the Anti-Comintern Pact in 1936. Japanese and Soviet forces had clashed briefly over territory in China, including open armed conflict, in 1939. Nonetheless, Japanese forces did not engage in direct large-scale combat with Soviet forces until after the capitulation of Germany. Japan's attack on the United States in December 1941 did provide the Soviet Union the ability to redeploy sorely needed resources from her eastern frontiers, however, and fresh Siberian divisions had profound effects on the combat outside Moscow in December 1941.
In the closing weeks of the war, Soviet forces determined to make last minute territorial gains in Manchuria before the close of the American-Japanese war initiated a brief period of combat with Japanese forces before the surrender of Japan in September 1945.
Latvia was an authoritarian state in the 1930s; when Germany and the Soviet Union formed an alliance in August 1939, the nation was occupied by the Soviets, and formally annexed the next year. In the ensuing year some 35,000 Latvians were killed, deported or forced to flee the country.
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, of which Latvia was technically a part, Latvia created several security formations to help protect the German rear areas, known as "Schuma-Battaillone." In early 1943 some of these battalions were formed into a Latvian SS Volunteer Legion (Lettische SS Freiwilligen Legion), later redesignated a Brigade. In November 1943 this brigade went into action on the Nevel line, and in early 1944 was expanded to become 15th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (Lettische Nr. 1). The unit fought at Narva in the summer of 1944, refitted late in the year, and suffered many losses in Danzig in 1945. Parts of the division escaped to the west to surrender to the US. Of all Baltic forces fighting for the Germans, the 15th SS Division is said to have the best fighting record. A scond division, titled 19th Waffen Grenadier Division der SS (Lettische Nr. 2) was formed in early 1944, also from Latvian security troops, and fought on the Baltic Coast and Kurland before surrendering at Mitau in May 1945.
As the German Army retreated into the Baltic area in early 1944, autonomous governments were allowed to take power in Estonia and Latvia to allow men of draft age to be called up for national service. The Germans raised several Grenzshutz Regiments (Border Guard Regiments) in February 1944. Six of these 2,700 man strong Latvian regiments were sent to the front immediately, at first as a battle group and later parcelled out to German divisions. They were horribly mauled and disbanded between July and September 1944, some survivors going to the 19th SS Division mentioned above.
In all some 450,000 Latvians died in the Second World War, and 175,000 more would die or be deported in the four years following the war, and the return to Stalinist rule.
Lithuania, who had also been annexed by the Soviet Union in the same fashion as Estonia and Latvia, made no direct contribution to the ground war against the Soviet Union other than the formation of construction battalions.
Serbia was officially an occupied zone, but did raise a limited number of security troops. The only reliable anti-partisan force, the "Serbian Volunteer Command", was absorbed en masse into the Waffen SS in October 1944. Other forces raised in Serbia only saw limited duty in guard and security roles.
Slovakia had belonged to Hungary before 1918; after Hitler took control of Czechoslovakia, he forced the Slovaks to split from the Czechs by threatening to turn them back to the Hungarians. On 14 March 1939, Slovakia officially split from Czechoslovakia, to enjoy the only real period of independence in their history. The Premier of the new state, a Catholic priest and fascist named Jozef Tiso, set up a model satellite patterned after their German masters, with a fascist government ruled by one party, and a state militia modelled after Germany's SA (Sturm Abteilung - Storm Troopers). Slovakia's army inherited Czech equipment and Czech officers, and by the time war erupted in Poland in 1939, the fledgling army assisted Germany, with two divisions occupying territory they claimed was theirs.
Slovakia, still mindful of Hungarian take over, were among the first to join what Tiso called "the crusade against Bolshevism." A Slovak Army Corps of two divisions joined the German Army Group South in the earliest days of the invasion of the Soviet Union. In August 1941, Slovak forces were reorganized, with the two divisions going on to serve seperately under German operational control in different regions of the southern front. The year 1943 saw more reorganizations, and as morale among the Slovaks began to wane, requests to relocate to the west were refused. After throwing Slovak units into the line after a breakthrough, without first getting approval from higher Slovak headquarters, the reliability of Slovak troops plunged, and in 1944 they were disarmed and converted into Construction Brigades, serving in Romania, Hungary and Italy. Two other divisions organizing to defend the Carpathians in light of Russian advances westward were disbanded by the Germans after an uprising in August 1944. The uprising was put down by the Germans, with 3,000 resistance fighters killed and 10,000 more captured. In early 1945, with Tiso still in power supported by the state militia, all ethnic Germans serving in the Slovak Army were transferred to the Wehrmacht in exchange for German troops of Slovak ethnicity.
Life in the Soviet Union was notably hard, with various ethnic groups being treated especially poorly by the Stalin government in Moscow. The Soviet Union was not an ethnically homogenous peoples and many large groups such as the Ukrainians actually felt the Soviet government (dominated by the Russians) to be an occupying power, and that they were living under occupation by foreigners. For that reason, many so called "Soviets" actually looked upon the German invaders in June of 1941 as liberators. Also, many people in disputed border areas felt more allegiance to Poland, Romania or other nations rather than to either the Soviets or the Germans. If a person from Poland is different historically and ethnically from a person in Spain, the difference is just as great between a Russian from Moscow and a Ukrainian from Kiev.
The Germans were unprepared for the number of willing volunteers they would encounter in the East; some estimates cite a number of 1.5 million people working for the Germans in some capacity (enough to fill the ranks of three Army Groups) though other sources say only 800,000. Many of these served in local security or police formations, but two important categories of volunteers are relevant to this discussion.
Hilfswilliger (Auxiliary Volunteers)
The first category is only of passing interest - the Hilfswilliger (Volunteer Helper, or Auxiliary Volunteer) also known as "Hiws" were numerically very important to the day to day operations of the vast German armies in the Soviet Union, though their direct influence on combat operations was minimal. Nonetheless, several hundred thousand Soviet soldiers (and beginning in October 1944, officially, Polish volunteers as well) came to serve with the Germans. Initially they were not to be given weapons or uniforms, and they performed mostly service functions such as driving, cooking, or as medical orderlies - though by providing these services many Germans were freed for combat roles. The official sanction bestowed by Hitler in 1942 to the use of Hiwis also gave rise to better conditions of pay, uniform and treatment. Hiwis were eventually granted permission to wear German uniform, and some small numbers of Hiwis may even have been employed in combat roles - some Divisions began using entire Hiwi companies in the front line. Mainly, however, the Hiwis served in impressive numbers throughout the German Army in the east, but they performed these roles as individuals, not as formed units. As such, their impact on the fighting in any tactical sense was negligible.
Ostruppen (Eastern Troops)
Germany had committed troops and equipment to the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, and the victor of that war - Francisco Franco - was sympathetic to the Axis cause. While not in a position to provide military guarantees to Germany, especially given the economic condition of Spain and its recovery from the civil war, Franco nonetheless was able to help Germany and maintain neutrality by allowing Spanish volunteers to fight alongside Germany. On the same day that Germany launched Barbarossa, Spain offered help and on 24 June 1941, Hitler approved the commitment of Spanish volunteers to the fighting in the East. In this way, Spain repayed Germany for her support by recruiting over 18,000 men for the 250th Infantry Division (dubbed The Blue Division). At first only 4,000 men were required, but the overwhelming response prompted the raising of an entire division.
Three regiments were formed (the 262nd from Barcelona recruits, the 263rd from Valencia and the 269th from Seville), as well as an artillery regiment, and enough pilots were present to form a squadron of fighters. Flying Me 109s and later Fw 190s, this Blue Squadron accounted for 156 Soviet kills during its service on the Russian Front.
The Spanish volunteers were mainly inexperienced other ranks with a core of NCOs and officers who were veterans of the Civil War and of fighting in Morocco in the 1920s; the men trained briefly in Germany, swore an oath before Hitler, and then marched to the front near Smolensk, where they were rerouted to the Leningrad front. The march to the front lasted from 29 August 1941 and ended on October 6th, with the division moving some 780 km in 24 march days (the division rested on the other days), or some 32.5 km a day average; on 9 September alone the division marched a total of 51 km. They first saw action in October 1941 when the II Battalion of the 269th Regiment relieved units of the German 126th Infantry Division. The division stayed on the Volkhov Front until relieved and transferred to the Leningrad Front in August 1942 (though the same II/269 remained on the front until September, attached to 20th Motorized Division. The Division remained on the Leningrad front for the remainder of their time in Russia. Reinforcements were volunteers until late 1943 when limited conscription may have provided some small numbers of "guripas" (the contemporary Spanish word for soldiers, used as the American "GI" or German "Landser") ; it is possible that as many as 45,000 men rotated through the division, with 4,500 of them being killed.
Allied pressure compelled Franco to withdraw the division, and this occurred in October 1943 with the majority of the Division being repatriated. A Blue Legion remained in the Soviet Union, attached to the German 121st Infantry Division. This small force of over 2100 men consisted of two infantry battalions and a mixed battalion; numbering fewer than the 4,500 men desired by the Germans and more than the 1,500 favoured by the Spanish government, and consisted of many men from the 27th March Battalion which had arrived in Russia too late to serve with the Blue Division, though many veterans were also in the ranks. This Legion was also withdrawn in March 1944. Some individuals refused to leave, and small Spanish subunits were attached to several German formations of both the Waffen SS and Army.
While Sweden was officially neutral, its neutrality was rather anti-Allied at the start of Barbarossa, and Swedish iron ore still fuelled the German war armaments industry, in addition to other business dealings. Sweden permitted the movement of the German 163rd Infantry Division through its territory, enroute to Finland from Norway, fully realizing the division would probably be employed against the USSR. Some 10 percent of the Finnish Army, moreover, spoke Swedish, and though officially the Swedish government was not happy about the situation, one battalion of Swedish nationals actually served as a volunteer unit of the Finnish Army, opposite the Soviet base at Hangö.
Despite recruiting efforts among tens of thousands of British and Commonwealth prisoners of war, only a handful of men - some devoted Fascists, some opportunists, and others near-idiots - volunteered for the Waffen SS. Never numbering more than a few dozen men, some 20 men were actually attached to 11 SS Division in March and April of 1945, while the division was posted to a quiet section of the Eastern Front. One or two men of the British Free Corps, as the English SS unit was known, may have fought and died as individual combatants in Berlin. However, when the 11 SS Division was ordered to the capital, the BFC as a unit was deliberately excluded, and saw no action by the time the war ended. Some ringleaders were hanged by the British after the war, others pardoned, with the majority serving prison terms. By way of comparison, SS records only list five Americans as having served with the Waffen SS, and despite myths to the contrary, no formed unit of American SS men was ever created.