♦ The German Army in World War II ♦


Defending the West 1944: The Order of Battle



Achtung! Jabo! German infantry in Normandy, on the alert for Allied fighter-bombers (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), and the panzer armies, e.g. 5. Panzerarmee (Fifth Panzer Army). At the next lower echelon of command were found the Armeekorps (corps), and Panzerkorps (armored corps) which were identified by Roman numerals, e.g. XXVI. Armeekorps, XXXXVII. Panzerkorps. 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. 4. Infanterie-Division, 12. Panzer-Division, etc. If necessary an additional designation was added, such as bodenständig (static) for coastal defense divisions, e.g. 716. Infanterie-Division (bo). Units of the Waffen-SS followed the same naming conventions with SS included, e.g. II. SS-Panzerkorps. There were also two temporary command arrangements for special missions or emergencies. The Armeeabteilung (AA; army detachment) placed one corps in command of a second corps; the Armeegruppe (AG) placed one field army in command of another.

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Of the armies under the command of Oberbefehlshaber West (Commander-in-Chief West or OB West) two were to be closely involved in the Battle of Normandy. For the defense of the Channel coast, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s HG B controlled some ten corps and 45 divisions in the 7. Armee (Normandy) and the 15. Armee (Pas de Calais). If this total seems impressive, it must be borne in mind that the German divisions were variable in quality. Nor did divisions of the same type all have an identical organization.

When the war began, the German infantry division was similar in structure to its American and British counterparts, consisting of three infantry regiments with three battalions each: the so-called triangular organization. But faced with an increasingly acute manpower crisis as the war dragged on, the Army found itself compelled to reduce the size of the infantry division. Usually one battalion was removed from each infantry regiment, leaving the division with a total of six (plus a so-called fusilier battalion with heavy weapons). This reorganization, carried out in late 1943-early 1944, produced the Type 1944 Infanterie-Division. The loss of manpower was partly offset by increasing the division’s firepower with more machine guns, mortars and infantry antitank weapons. The 352. Infanterie-Division, defending Omaha Beach on D-Day, was organized in this manner.

Many of the divisions assigned to HG B were so-called static (bodenständig) infantry divisions. Of the fourteen 7. Armee infantry divisions, half were bodenständig types. As the designation implies, these divisions were configured for static defense. Generally they received lower-quality manpower, were armed with captured weapons and lacked sufficient transport to move as a unit. The 709. Infanterie-Division (bo), defending Utah Beach, was a unit of this type, its artillery regiment being equipped with captured French and Russian artillery. The bodenständig divisions were structured like the Type 1944 division, with three two-battalion infantry regiments. Many, however, had additional units attached.

A number of HG B's bodenständig divisions were former Luftwaffe field divisions, formed from surplus Air Force personnel. By 1944 these divisions had been transferred to the Army, albeit retaining their original numbers with the designation (L). There were also two Luftwaffe parachute divisions and a separate parachute regiment in the Seventh Army sector. Neither of these divisions was up to strength at the time of D-Day but organizationally they were similar to the prewar Army infantry division.

150mm self-propelled howitzers of the 12th SS Panzer division in action (World War Photos)

Some of the German divisions present in France on D-Day had been raised specifically for the defense of the West but most were divisions that had been redeployed from other fronts, often after suffering high losses in combat. In France they were reorganized and rebuilt with fresh drafts. Essentially these were new divisions, though they bore the numbers of preexisting formations. Their combat effectiveness was variable, depending mostly on the size and experience of the surviving cadres.

The Army’s panzer divisions had been been cut down in size since 1939, partly because of the manpower crisis and partly because their original organization had proved too unwieldy. The 1944 panzer division consisted of a panzer regiment of two battalions with about 150 tanks, two panzer grenadier regiments each with two motorized infantry battalions, an artillery regiment with one motorized and one self-propelled battalion, an armored reconnaissance battalion, and various supporting units. But no two were exactly alike, being equipped with whatever happened to be available at the time they were raised or rebuilt. The panzer divisions of the Waffen-SS were similar to the Army panzer divisions but larger, and they usually had the latest equipment. In all there were nine Army and Waffen- SS panzer divisions and one Waffen-SS panzer grenadier division assigned to OB West, with six panzer divisions in the HG B zone.

The 21. Panzer- Division, which bore the identity of the Afrika Korps division lost in North Africa, was reformed in France with a few veterans of the old division and a large contingent of conscripts. But despite its famous identity it was a new and largely inexperienced unit. The division was equipped with captured French vehicles, this thanks to the work of an innovative officer, Major Alfred Becker, a Great War veteran recalled to active duty in 1939. In 1942 he set up three workshops near Paris for the conversion of captured armored tractors, halftracks and other equipment for service with the German Army. Thus by 1944 the self-propelled artillery, infantry guns, assault guns and tank destroyers of  21. Panzer-Division  consisted of German weapons mounted on modified French vehicles, while the panzer grenadier battalions and the reconnaissance battalion were equipped with French halftracks. During the Battle of Normandy Becker himself commanded the division's assault gun battalion, which was equipped with 75mm guns and 105mm howitzers mounted on the chassis of French H35 and H38 light tanks.

Major Alfred Becker (left) with Rommel and the commander of the 21st Panzer Division, Major-General Edgar Feuchtinger (Bundesarchiv)

Most divisions were under a corps headquarters, but some were held as reserves under army or army group command. The 91. Luftlande-Infanterie-Division, for instance, was one of two reserve divisions of the 7. Armee. The other was the 21. Panzer-Division, which though it remained under XXXXVII Panzer Corps, was earmarked for 7. Armee. XXXXVII Panzercorps with its three divisions was itself the HG B reserve. Corps were variable in strength, with from two to four divisions plus assorted nondivisional combat units under command.

HG B had a large number of such separate brigades, battalions and static coast artillery batteries. Among them were the so-called Ost battalions, whose personnel were drawn from various ethnic groups in occupied Russia: Ukrainians, Georgians, Lithuanians, Cossacks, etc. Their officers and most NCOs were German. Overall the Ost battalions were lightly armed, sketchily trained and of low combat value. Most of them were attached to the bodenständig divisions in the coastal zone. As for the coast artillery, both the Army and the Navy contributed units, many of them armed with captured weapons. For example, Marine-Artillerie-Abteilung (Naval Artillery Battalion) 608 had four batteries armed with a miscellany of German, French, Belgian and Russian guns.

Thus the German forces defending Normandy in June and July 1944 ranged from elite units like the 12. SS-Panzer-Division Hitlerjugend to bodenständig divisions of indifferent quality and Ost battalions of doubtful reliability. Despite this, the Germans put up a stout defense, and it was only the Allies' overwhelming material superiority, particularly in the air, that brought them victory.

(See Dr. Leo Niehorster's outstanding website, World War II Armed Forces, for detailed D-Day orders of battle, both German and Allied.)

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Organizational Diagrams


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