♦ Infantry Divisions 1939-45 ♦

The German Army in World War II
 

 

Soldiers of the 291. Infanterie-Division in Russia, June 1941 (Bundesarchiv)
 


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NOTE ON NOMENCLATURE

German infantry divisions were called just that: Infanterie-Division. Though all infantry regiments were retitled as grenadier regiments (Grenadier-Regiment) in 1942, their parent divisions retained the Infanterie designation. Mountain infantry divisions were called Gebirgsjäger-Division and the light infantry divisions raised in 1941 were called Jäger-Division. (Jäger is the traditional German term for light infantry.) The divisions of the 32nd Wave, raised in 1944-45, were called Volksgrenadier-Division. The second-line divisions raised for occupation duties and coastal defense bore the suffex (bo) for bodenständig (static), indicating that they lacked sufficient transport to move as a unit. The Sicherheits-Division (security division) was configured for security and anti-partisan operations in the rear areas of the armies, especially in the USSR.

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During World War Two the German Army and the Waffen-SS (the military branch of the SS) raised a total of 330 infantry divisions . There were in addition a number of Luftwaffe (Air Force) and Navy ground combat divisions, formed from surplus personnel. If this total seems impressive, it must be borne in mind that the German divisions were very variable in quality. Nor did all infantry divisions have an identical organization—this in sharp contrast to the highly standardized British and American infantry divisions.

When the war began, the German Type 1939 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. Additional infantry divisions were mobilized in “deployment waves” (Aufstellungswellen)and the divisions of each wave were structured according to the tables of organization in force at the time of their mobilization. The tables themselves were drawn up in accord with the manpower and equipment available at the time, and in addition there were several revisions to the standard authorized organization that were, in theory though not in practice, applicable to all divisions.

On 1 September 1939 the German Army had 85 infantry divisions available: those of the 1st through the 4th Waves. The 1st Wave embodied the 35 active infantry divisions of the peacetime Army. Their personnel consisted of 78% active soldiers, 12% Class I reservists (12-24 months training), 6% Class II reservists (2-3 months training) and 4% Landwehr (militia) soldiers (mostly World War I veterans). The 2nd Wave embodied the Army's sixteen first-line reserve divisions, manned in peacetime by cadres and brought up to strength on mobilization. Their personnel consisted of 6% active soldiers, 83% Class I reservists, 8% Class II reservists and 3% Landwehr soldiers. The 3rd Wave embodied the twenty Landwehr divisions, which were maintained in peacetime at approximately 50% strength and brought up to strength on mobilization. Their personnel consisted of 1% active soldiers, 12% Class I reservists, 46% Class II reservists and 42% Landwehr soldiers. The 4th Wave embodied the first fourteen war mobilization divisions (planned in 1938; mobilized on 31 August 1939). Almost half of their personnel were Class II reservists and a quarter of the rest were in formed Landwehr units, the precise breakdown being 8% active soldiers, 21% Class I reservists, 47% Class II reservists and 24% Landwehr soldiers.

Command pennant of the 86. Infanterie-Division. The divisional insignia was also painted on vehicles.

In terms of training, only the divisions of the 1st and 2nd Waves were considered fully fit for active service. The divisions of the 3rd Wave were considered to be ready for subsidiary missions only and those of the 4th Wave were judged to require further training before being committed to action. As for weapons, only the divisions of the 1st Wave were fully equipped. The other divisions lacked their authorized 150mm infantry guns, 20mm antiaircraft guns and 50mm and 81mm mortars. Particularly among the 4th Wave divisions, the weapons issued were often older models such as the MG 08/15 light machine gun of World War I vintage. Their field artillery battalions were mostly equipped with unmodernized World War I-vintage guns and howitzers, or with weapons taken over from the former Czech Army.

Though some of its elements, e.g. the antitank (AT) battalion, were motorized, the infantry division relied largely on horses to move guns and supplies. The artillery was horse drawn; the division trains (supply and transportation) had both motor vehicles and horses. The infantry marched on foot. Trucks were in short supply, a situation that got no better as the war progressed. Even in 1939 many divisions could not be provided with all the motor vehicles authorized by the official tables of organization. Extensive use was made of requisitioned civilian vehicles and captured enemy vehicles, notwithstanding the serviceability and maintenance problems this caused.

By May 1940 five more waves embodying 41 infantry divisions had been mobilized, and though they preserved the basic triangular configuration, they were not organized identically. This was due mostly to the equipment shortages that plagued the German Army throughout the war. The nine divisions of the 5th and 6th Waves received 81mm mortars but no 75mm or 150mm infantry guns; their artillery consisted entirely of former Czech Army howitzers and guns. Those of the 7th Wave had no mortars or 150mm infantry guns and only 24 x 105mm howitzers in their artillery regiments. In the 7th, 8th and 9th Waves, the separate AT and reconnaissance battalions were replaced by a composite battalion with one AT company and one bicycle infantry company. The 9th Wave divisions were mobilized initially with an artillery component consisting of a single battery: 6 x 75mm field guns captured from the Polish Army.

Some waves produced divisions for special purposes. Those of the 15th Wave, for example, were the first of the so-called static (bodenständig) infantry divisions. As the designation implies, these divisions were configured for occupation duties and static defense. As raised they had two regiments, each with three battalions, plus a single artillery battalion. Generally the static divisions received lower-quality manpower, were armed with older or captured weapons and lacked sufficient transport to move as a unit. The 16th Wave consisted of four security (Sicherungs) brigades, soon merged into two security divisions. Seven more such divisions were raised outside the wave system, mostly by converting existing infantry divisions. The security divisions embodied a “reaction group”—essentially an infantry regiment with an attached light artillery battalion—and a variable number of second-line militia (Landesschützen) battalions and military government units. Usually they also had an attached motorized battalion of the Order Police.
 

Troops of a security division in Russia, 1942 (Photo: World War Photos)

A serious problem for the German Army—increasingly so as the war dragged on—was the shortage of manpower. Thanks to this, the size of the standard infantry division had progressively to be reduced. Incremental cuts were made between 1941 and 1943, lowering the infantry division's authorized strength from around 17,500 to 15,000, but by late 1943 it was clear that much more drastic reductions were necessary. The result was the Type 1944 Infantry Division (Infanterie-Division Kriegestat 44). One battalion was removed from each infantry regiment, leaving the division with a total of six, and the platoons of the rifle companies were reduced from four squads to three. The reconnaissance battalion was eliminated, being replaced by a so-called fusilier battalion with heavy weapons. One infantry company of this battalion, mounted on bicycles, was the division's reconnaissance unit. The Type 1944 division's authorized strength was 12,772, representing an overall manpower cut of 27% and a 31% cut in infantry strength. The loss of manpower was partially offset by increasing the division’s firepower with more machine guns, heavy mortars and infantry antitank weapons.

In mid-1944, twin catastrophic defeats in Normandy and Byelorussia effectively destroyed  70 divisions. To replace them some 50 new infantry divisions were raised: the so-called People's Grenadier Division (Volksgrenadier-Division). Twenty-six VG divisions were new units of the 32nd Wave; the rest were rebuilt divisions that had been shattered in combat. Manpower was again cut, this time to 10,072, and though automatic weapons were issued on a big scale, the VG division's firepower was lower than that of the Type 1944 division. The quality of these hastily raised divisions was variable, the conscripts who filled out their ranks having received minimal training. VG divisions formed around a core of veterans tended to perform well; others were little better than armed mobs. the Type 1945 Infantry Division (Infanterie-Division Kriegestat 45) was similar to the VG division, albeit with a lesser allotment of automatic weapons; few if any were raised in time to see combat.
 

Sketch diagram, probably made by a staff officer, depicting the organization of the 361. Volksgrenadier-Division. (Bundesarchiv)

In all there were 38 waves of infantry divisions raised during the war—the last of them as late as April 1945. Additionally there were numerous infantry divisions and brigades raised outside the wave system on an emergency basis, usually by rebuilding divisions that had been destroyed in combat, filling them up with conscripts or drafting in personnel from other units, or by upgrading regiments and brigades. An example of the latter was the 1. Skijäger-Division, formed on the Eastern Front in 1944 by expanding the 1. Skijäger-Brigade to division strength. The infantry divisions of the Waffen-SS and the Luftwaffe were also raised outside the wave system, and usually their organization differed from that used by the Army at the time.

After a few weeks—sometimes just a few days—of service at the front, divisions were well below their authorized strength. Personnel killed, wounded or evacuated sick could seldom be replaced on a one-for-one basis and even when that was possible, divisions received sketchily trained conscripts in exchange for experienced veterans. When a division was "burned out," the usual practice was to withdraw it to some quiet area for rebuilding. Many exhausted divisions from the Eastern Front were sent to France for this purpose—before D-Day turned that country into an active theater of operations.

Toward the end of the war, with the enemy at the gates of the Reich, the Army's replacement, training and mobilization system broke down completely. Men were snatched from here, there and everywhere to bolster the ranks of skeleton divisions: from the Luftwaffe, the Navy, the Labor Service, the Hitler Youth. New divisions with sonorous titles like Scharnhorst and Ferdinand von Schill were thrown together and expended in a frantic, futile attempt to stem the tide. It was the culmination of a long process of decline, the last gasp of an army driven to the limit of its endurance.

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