♦ The High Command 1939-40 ♦

The German Army in World War II


Army commander Walther von Brauchitsch (right) and chief of staff Franz Halder at the map table, 1939 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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The German Army's highest field command was the Heeresgruppe (army group), here abbreviated to HG. They usually had a geographical designation, e.g. HG Nord (North) or an identifying letter, e.g. HG A. Then came the numbered field armies, e.g. 6. Armee (Sixth Army). The next echelon of command was the Armeekorps (corps), which were identified by Roman numerals, e.g. XXVI. Armeekorps. Corps commanding armored and motorized units included the designation motorisiert (motorized) in their titles, e.g. LVII Armeekorps (motorisiert). The Höhere Kommando (corps command) was a reduced-strength corps headquarters employed for special purposes; e.g. LXX Höhere Kommando. Sometimes the designation zur besonderer Verwendung (for special service) was included, e.g. LXV Höhere Kommando zbV. Divisions were numbered and bore functional titles, e.g. 35. Infanterie-Division, 4. Panzer-Division, etc.

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In the late summer of 1939, with war in sight, the German Army’s senior commanders were in no confident mood, the Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH or High Command of the Army) being all too well aware of the Army’s deficiencies. To be sure, the crash rearmament program embarked upon in 1935 had greatly increased the Army’s size. In 1933 the Reichwehr, as the Army was then titled, had just seven infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions. Now there were 85 infantry divisions, three mountain infantry divisions, four motorized infantry divisions, seven panzer (armored) divisions and four light mechanized divisions, plus various brigades and independent regiments.

But of the 85 infantry divisions, only those of the 1st Wave, thirty-five in number, were substantially up to strength. The other 50—those of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Waves—lacked many items of equipment. None had any 50mm or 81mm mortars, 20mm antiaircraft guns or 150mm heavy infantry guns. The divisional artillery regiments were mostly equipped with older or captured Czech weapons. In partial compensation for these deficiencies the 3rd Wave divisions did receive a higher allotment of machine guns but they too were often older or captured models. Due to a shortage of motor vehicles, the motorized elements of many infantry divisions were actually horse drawn.

As for manpower, the 1919 Peace Treaty’s prohibition of conscription had, as intended, prevented the buildup of fully trained military reserves. The 51 divisions of the 1st and 2nd Waves had the highest percentages of active soldiers and Class I Reservists, the latter being conscripts who’d served with the colors for one or two years after conscription was restarted in 1935. These divisions were considered fully trained and fit for active service but even so many of them were short of technical specialists and trained staff officers.

The twenty divisions of the 3rd Wave were the peacetime army’s Landwehr (militia) divisions. Their personnel were older men, many of them First World War veterans. Upon mobilization the Landwehr divisions were filled out with Class II Reservists. These men, born between 1901 and 1913, were too young to have served in the First World War, nor had they received any military training in the Weimar years. Beginning in 1935 they’d been called up for two or three months of basic military training—the bare minimum. The fourteen divisions of the 4th Wave were set up in early 1939. They also consisted mostly of Landwehr men and Class II reservists. To compensate for their lower state of training the 3rd and 4th Waves divisions were given a simplified organization and OKH planned to use them mainly for static defense in quiet sectors.

Command flag, Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres (Commander-in-Chief of the Army)

As for the mobile forces—the panzer divisions, light mechanized divisions and motorized infantry divisions—they too were beset by various equipment and manpower deficiencies. Many of the available tanks were Panzer Is, originally intended for training and armed only with machine guns, and Panzer IIs, armed with a 20mm gun. The two models intended to be the panzer divisions’ mainstays, the Panzer III (37mm gun) and the Panzer IV (75mm gun) were, due to production bottlenecks, in very short supply. Former Czech Army tanks—of sound design, armed with a 37mm gun—were therefore pressed into service. The panzer divisions’ motorized infantry regiments were supposed to be equipped with armored halftracks, but scarcely any were available and trucks were substituted. However, since, industry was unable to produce sufficient trucks to meet the Army’s needs, many civilian trucks had to be requisitioned. The mechanized divisions were also short of various specialized armored vehicles: command tanks, armored command cars, armored radio cars, etc.

The four light mechanized divisions had been conceived as the mechanized successors to horse cavalry formations. However, peacetime maneuvers revealed that with just one battalion of tanks they lacked hitting power. Plans were accordingly drawn up for their conversion to full-fledged panzer divisions, but this could not be completed before war broke out.

OKH judged that in the event of war it would be necessary to commit all the mechanized divisions and the bulk of the infantry divisions against Poland. Only 24 infantry divisions were allotted to HG C, defending Germany’s western frontier. Clearly, so meager a force could do little more than delay the prompt French offensive that OKH expected—though its anxieties on that score were somewhat eased by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which foreclosed the possibility of Red Army intervention in support of the Poles. It was hoped that the Polish campaign could be concluded quickly, so that forces could be released for HG C before the French Army opened its offensive.

The mobilized German Army was disposed in three army groups: HG C in the west, HG Nord (North) and HG Süd (South) against Poland. Each army group commanded a number of field armies and each field army commanded a number of corps. Divisions were assigned to the corps in accordance with the operational plan. In addition to their assigned divisions, corps had a variable number of non-divisional artillery, engineer other support units. Reserves were mostly held at army group level, AG South for example having eight divisions and two corps headquarters available. Further reserves were at the disposal of OKH. For example, eleven of the fourteen 4th Wave divisions were stationed in the HG C sector as OKH reserves.

September 1939: German troops demolish a Polish frontier barrier (Bundesarchiv)

At the beginning of the war, the Commander-in-Chief of the Army was Colonel-General Walther von Brauchitsch; the Chief of the General Staff was General of Artillery Franz Halder. Both men had been appointed in the wake of the Blomberg-Fitsch Affair, which Hitler had exploited to rid himself of critics in the senior ranks of the Army. Brauchitsch, a respected figure in Army circles, was beholden to Hitler for financial assistance given in the course of an acrimonious divorce. Halder was a competent staff officer, a Bavarian of middle-class background rather than a Prussian aristocrat, no great admirer of National Socialism, but a prey to indecision where political issues were concerned. Neither man was to prove himself capable of standing up to Hitler in the time of crisis now impending.

Even so, OKH could still claim a measure of autonomy. Case White (Fall Weiss), the operational plan for the invasion of Poland, was drawn up by OKH with little interference from Hitler or the Armed Forces High Command (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW). The actual conduct of operations also remained in OKH’s hands. And the rapid success gained against the gallant but outclassed Polish Army might have been thought to reinforce the prestige of the Army leadership.

But trouble lay on the horizon. The British and French declarations of war on Germany were a considerable shock to the generals, many of whom had shared Hitler’s hope that the Western Allies would flinch from the prospect of war. And they were dismayed when, with the conclusion of the Polish campaign, the Führer began pressing for an immediate attack in the West. As far as Brauchitsch and Halder were concerned, this was madness—and there were many other senior officers who shared their opinion. The fighting in Poland had revealed numerous defects in the organization and training of the German Army—the headlong pace of rearmament having been accompanied by many growing pains. Thus OKH argued that no attack in the West should be attempted before the spring of 1940 at the earliest. But Hitler insisted otherwise and this dispute poisoned his mind against the Generalität. He judged the Army's senior commanders to be unimaginative, timid and insubordinate, an attitude that was to develop into a mania as the war proceeded. Ultimately, however, it was the weather—the winter of 1939-40 was exceptionally severe—that settled the issue by compelling Hitler to put off the offensive until spring.

At this point there occurred a series of events that constituted, for OKH, an ominous portent of the future. In November 1939 the USSR launched an attack on Finland, and the subsequent Winter War disrupted the delicate network of relations between Germany and the neutral Scandinavian countries. The Nazi-Soviet Pact concluded just before the invasion of Poland excluded Finland from the German sphere of influence, thus requiring  Germany to maintain a neutral attitude toward the conflict. But this was ill received in the other Scandinavian countries, where public opinion strongly with the Finns—who stoutly and for a time successfully resisted Soviet aggression. Meanwhile Hitler began to grow fearful of a British and French incursion into northern Norway and Sweden, using assistance to Finland against the USSR as a pretext. The Allies' actual aim, he thought, would be to cut off Germany's vital supply of Swedish iron ore—much of which was transported by ship through Norwegian territorial waters. And in this he was not wrong, though the end of the Winter War scotched the Allied plan. Nevertheless, the Führer decided on preemptive action: a swift invasion and occupation of both Denmark and Norway.

This operation—Weserübung (Exercise Weser)—was launched in April 1940 and proved stunningly successful. But Hitler had short-circuited OKH entirely, allowing it no hand in the planning or conduct of the operation. He was probably right to conclude that Brauchitsch, Halder and company would make difficulties over such a high-risk venture, so he established a special cell within OKW to draw up the plan and supervise its execution. This was the first time that OKH had been definitely excluded from any role in a major military operation.

When the offensive in the West was finally launched in May 1940, it too was a stunning success—but once again OKH suffered a setback. The original operational plan for Fall Gelb (Operation Yellow) was thought by some to be unimaginative—virtually a rerun of the 1914 Schlieffen Plan—and unlikely to produce decisive results. The postponement of the attack gave time for the dissenters to make their case, ultimately to Hitler, and he sided with them. The Manstein Plan, as it came to be called after its primary author, exploited the capabilities of the airpower and panzer forces to defeat the French, British, Belgian and Dutch armies in less than two weeks. But in a sense it was also a defeat for OKH, whose credibility was further diminished in Hitler's eyes.

It was undeniably true that in 1939-40 the German Army was unprepared  for a general European war—a war that Hitler had assured the Generalität would not come before 1944-45. Its basic combat units, the infantry divisions, were variable in quality, its mobile units had not yet reached the desired standard of armament and organization, and industry was unprepared to meet the wartime needs of the armed forces. Nor were existing reserves of munitions, fuel and other supplies sufficient to support the armed forces for a prolonged period. Thus OKH felt justified in counseling caution. But the Army’s run of victories in 1939-41 papered over all these deficiencies, undermined the credibility of the senior generals, and further bolstered Hitler's confidence in his own military judgments—a combination of factors that in the long run proved fatal to Germany.

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Organizational Diagram

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