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Evaluating The German Army and Luftwaffe's Growth From September of 1939 to June of 1941

on Mon, 10/23/2017 - 19:41

In a previous article I detailed why as early as 1939 one could see that at least in terms of the equpping and manning of Nazi Germany's Wehrmacht (armed forces) that quantitative measures were proving less important in comparison to the qualitative in deciding the size and shape of Germany's military machine. In addition, in the months leading up to Germany's invasion of Poland we could see that Germany had all the human and material resources needed to build up a powerful army capable of accomplishing Hitler's most important goal of obtaining complete hegemony over continental Europe via wrenching Lebensraum from the Soviet Union. In this article we shall further drill down into these ideas by examining the German army (Heer) and Luftwaffe's evolution in terms of material and manpower stocks as they absorbed the losses from the Polish and French campaigns and regrouped leading up to the eve of the June 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation Barbarossa). Our hope is to get a better understanding as to whether Germany was by the summer of 1941 in a hopelessly outnumbered situation versus it's enemies and because of that reason destined to lose the Second World War (this theory is most prominently advanced today by David Stahel). Alternatively, we can get a better idea as to whether poor decision making on the part of German political and military leaders had needlessly crimped German manpower and material reserves during the war's first ten months (and thus whether qualitative measures held sway over the quantitative in this aspect of explaining the war's ultimate outcome).

The German army of September 1939 totalled 3,706,104 men and 105,394 officers in 103 divisions (86 infantry, six full Panzer, four leichte (light), four motorized infantry, three Gebirgs (mountain), one improvised panzer division (Kempf), four motorized Waffen-SS regiments, two Fallshirmjager (paratrooper) regiments, and one cavalry brigade. Though the German army that invaded Poland could field 3,195 panzers in 33 panzer battalions only 98 of these were Panzer III medium tanks, and a further 211 Panzer IV medium tanks. Thus, the Panzer force was nothing like that which had been planned five years prior. In addition, the German army lacked an adequate number of half-tracks (Schutzenpanzerwagen or SPW) along with minor shortages of anti-tank guns (Pak) and infantry guns. On the other hand, the German army held considerable surplus stocks of machine guns, mortars, flak guns, and artillery pieces.

Though the decision to build up the Kriesgmarine's stock of capital ships had hurt the army's ability to field the array of planned for armored fighting vehicles, the Wehrmacht's strength proved more than enough to handle Poland in five short weeks - albeit while suffering stiff losses. The Polish campaign is often portrayed as a cakewalk. Nevertheless Poland's armed forces fought hard - inflicting roughly 45,000 German casualties (depending upon the source). German panzer divisions deployed 2,675 tanks during the campaign and 218 of these were totally destroyed (albeit, with two thirds being obsolete Panzer I and II models). For it's part the Polish aircrews and anti-aircraft batteries destroyed 330 German aircraft with another 280 badly damaged by the campaign's end.

That said, the Heer and Luftwaffe easily replaced those equipment losses with 253 new tanks rolling out of German factories from September to November. The majority were Panzer III and IV medium tanks. Thus, though the German tank park didn't grow much at all during the fall of 1939 - by the end of the year it was qualitatively stronger than it had been prior to the war's beginning. For that matter, the Luftwaffe took delivery of 640 replacement aircraft in September 1939 alone and thus easily shrugged off its losses in machines - though the loss of 539 well trained aircrew certainly had hurt. As it turned out and during the winter of 1939-1940 the German army and air force gained considerable striking power. For instance, the Luftwaffe's frontline aircraft strength had climbed twenty percent by March of 1940 (from September 1, 1939). In the months following the Polish campaign the German army raised 45 infantry divisions and all four light divisions were converted to full panzer divisions. In addition, the Waffen-SS brigades formed the nucleus of two new motorized divisions.

Regardless, the May-June 1940 German assault on France and the Low Countries inflicted considerable losses on the Wehrmacht. For instance, the German army alone lost 154,754 men as casualties  (including 26,455 killed). Of the 2,580 tanks and assault guns the Germans threw at the Allied army's nearly thirty percent were totally destroyed (753 tanks and assault guns in total). The vast majority of these losses occurred during the fighting in May, albeit though partially mitigated by the arrival of 217 replacement panzers from Germany that same month. Moreover, though the Germans lost 636 standard 37mm anti-tank guns, 177 infantry guns, and 258 field artillery pieces during the campaign - German factories had more than replaced these losses by the end of June. All of which shows that in spite of fighting from a position of being largely outnumbered, outgunned, and outproduced throughout the war's first year the Third Reich had nevertheless more than enough resources on hand to enter into a two-front war against Poland in the east and the Western Allies on the Siegfried Line and in Scandinavia and still defeat it's most powerful immediate foes all while driving the British from continental Europe. Moreover, stiff losses had not only been overcome, but as we will see in the preparation for Operation Barbarossa (Germany's planned invasion of the Soviet Union) the German economy armed the Wehrmacht with the weapons and munitions it needed to wage mobile warfare on the largest battlefields in military history.

With France's June 1940 defeat Germany dominated much of Europe with only Great Britain and it's Commonwealth allied nations hanging on in opposition. It is for this reason that many historians have long since decried Hitler's July 1940 decision to prepare to invade his erstwhile Soviet partner (by August 1939 treaty) thus condemning Germany to a two-front war. However as the Battle of Britain showed as early as September of 1940 (by which time it had become obvious that the Luftwaffe's softening up efforts had failed) invading the British isles would be no easy task. In my 2012 book Why Germany Nearly Won I have previously argued this point via largely focusing on Britain's overwhelming naval superiority against the Kriegsmarine. However, there is something else that is often forgotten.

Though Germany had ample raw materials for equipping it's army and fighting a land-based campaign this was far from true in regards to building up sufficient naval and maritime airborne power needed to wear down Britain and force it to the peace table no less wage warfare across the Mediterranean littoral and into the Middle East. Moreover, in 1940-1941 Germany in particular and Western/Central Europe in general were facing significant food shortages due to poor harvests caused by the redirection of significant economic assets and manpower to war production. The Soviet Union was meeting its treaty obligations and sending significant quantities of grain and other such supplies to Germany. Nonetheless there was no way Hitler could allow Germany to be dependent upon Soviet largesse while tied down in an attritional economic war with Britain - which would of course in short order put Stalin in the European driver's seat. Events in the war's first year were already proving this out as Stalin took territory from Poland, Finland, and Romania (with Romania at that time the key source of Germany's oil) while outright seizing the Baltic States all while doubling the Red Army's size in the western Soviet Union. In August of 1940 Stalin even temporarily suspended exports over German foot-dragging regarding meeting their side of the August 1939 treaty.

The flip side of all of this is that the only place on the planet easily accessible for Germany to mitigate shortages in grain, oil, and other key economic resources was in the Ukraine and Southern Russia. Given this reality closely aligned with Hitler's ideological beliefs, planning began for Barbarossa. Therefore, in August of 1940, little more than a month after a June order to reduce the army's size to 120 divisions, it began a period of enormous growth toward a goal of 180 divisions. In particular the armored and motorized units were to be doubled. By as early as November of 1940 eight infantry divisions had been reformed as motorized divisions. In the meantime, on August 1st the army formed the 11th panzer division followed by nine more panzer divisions between August 1940 and January 1941 with the total number new panzer/motorized divisions reaching 19 by June of 1941. To be fair, expansion came at a price. Each panzer division saw it's tank complement sharply reduced from an average of nearly 260 tans each down to about 210 tanks mostly grouped into a single panzer regiment of two-three panzer battalions.

However, the quality of the German armored park took a quantum leap by June of 1941 over that of the previous year. Whereas more than half the panzers deployed in France in May 1940 were light Panzer I and II variants, by June of 1941 less than a third of the panzer division's tank strength were in these largely obsolete vehicles with fully two thirds of each division's panzer complement comprised of the far more capable Pz 35/38t, Panzer III/IV, and StuG (assault guns). Most importantly, the Panzer III, arguably the main battle tank (MBT) of the German army in 1941, had been significantly improved by the summer of 1941. The Panzer III Ausf G to J series ended up comprising the overwhelming majority of such tanks in Germany's inventory (1,090 of 1,440 Panzer III) by June of 1941.These upgraded Panzer III's featured 30mm thicker frontal armor than their predecessors for greater protection. In terms of hitting power the 50mm L/42 represented a huge improvement over the old 37mm guns while the 50mm L/60 main gun equipping the J model Panzer III's that went into production in April 1941 had twice the muzzle velocity and thus penetrating power of even the L/42 gun.

In addition, each panzer division gained a motorized infantry regiment vastly increasing each such division's ability to operate in built up urban areas, guard it's flanks, sweep up bypassed centers of resistance, hold terrain, and ward off counterattacks. Off-road mobility also improved as the number of half-tracks increased as did firepower further supplemented by the addition of assault guns and anti-aircraft battalions to the panzer divisions. Moreover, previous TO&E calling for two light artillery battalions had been upgraded so that each panzer division also deployed a heavy artillery battalion including a dozen 100mm cannons and 150mm howitzers. As such the June 1941 Barbarrosa era panzer divisions represented a far better balance of infantry, armor, artillery, supporting arms,and thus combined arms strength than did the Polish/French campaign vintage panzer divisions. Moreover, the panzer divisions were not the only part of the Wehrmacht enjoying a qualitative surge in equipment.

The German economy was beset by a number of challenges in the year leading up to Barbarossa, not least of which being raw material and labor resulting shortages afflicting key aspects of the armaments industry. However, for the most part German factories produced the weaponry it's war machine needed. We will discuss labor shortages in just a bit. First however it's important to also understand that the German transportation network, in particular the Reichsbahn, was still not prepared for moving war material to where it was needed. This is a key point to remember as commentators such as David Stahel often argue that the German situation would be hopeless by the summer of 1941 largely because it could not produce enough material to keep up with war demand when in reality it was more often the decisions of German leadership hamstringing their own war effort. For instance, by the start of Barbarossa the German army's combat divisions were far from lacking in weapons.

In the year leading up to Barbarossa German factories produced 2,122 panzers, 353 StuG, 268 armored cars, 138,806 trucks, towing vehicles, staff cars and other such soft-skinned vehicles, 3,649 anti-tank guns, 1,475 infantry guns, 781 light and 361 heavy field howitzers, 6,754 anti-aircraft guns, 12,471 mortars, and could rely upon massive stocks of captured war material from Czechoslovakia, France, Britain, and the like - most of which was as good as German weaponry. This represented enough war booty alone to equip 40 of Barbarossa's divisions, with German factory output more than enough for the rest. Now, to be sure spare parts quickly became an issue with such varied equipment in stock but given much of the captured equipment was meant to be used up in the Blitz into Russia this was considered acceptable. As for what German factories were accomplishing the reality was that by June of 1941 the German army actually held surpluses of 81,460 machine-guns, 5,968 mortars, 4,132 anti-tank guns, 2,066 artillery pieces, 742 light 20mm anti-aircraft guns, 386 infantry guns, and 678 rocket launchers (Nebelwerfers). As for tanks, by the spring of 1941 and even with Rommel's Afrika Corps taking 314 panzers, the German army still held a surplus of 974 panzers and assault guns (including 490 Pz 35/38t, Panzer III/IV, and StuG) and this doesn't include the 312 armored fighting vehicles produced in June 1941.

One more note on the Afrika Corps, even though the German tank park contained 1,256 armored vehicles (with 756 being either Czech built, medium tanks, or assault guns) in reserve at the onset of Barbarossa one can as early as June 1941 see how much the Afrika Corps would become the drain that it would on German operations in Russia. For instance, in terms of high quality Panzer III/IV's the Afrika Corps averaged 91 such apiece between it's two armored heavy units (at that time the 15th panzer and 5th leichte divisions). However, of the seventeen panzer divisions initially committed to Barbarossa each could field only 66 such tanks on average, with the bulk of the remaining armor comprised of obsolete light tanks.

Nevertheless, and regardless of the already dubious use of German men and machines to support Mussolini's Libyan colony between October 1940 and May 1941 the German army added a total of 65 brand-new infantry (49 infantry and four light infantry), mountain (3), and security (9) divisions. This wasn't an absolute gain as the summer of 1940 saw 26 infantry divisions disbanded (divisions with a combination of poorly trained older soldiers, border guards, police, and other such second-tier personnel). Moreover, during the summer of 1940 the bulk of the personnel from 18 infantry divisions had been dispatched to work in the armaments factories. Fifteen of these divisions would be reformed in the spring of 1941 while the rest of the men fleshed out the nine security divisions. The overall result was that the 162 division strong German army of May 1940 had grown to 203 divisions by June 1941 (along with one new army group and four new panzer group headquarters).

While this sounds impressive the German army could have been even stronger yet in June of 1941 had not the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine not sucked up increasing amounts of manpower. For instance, by June of 1941 the Kriegsmarine had 404,000 men - or more than twice the 189,000 personnel as in June 1940. The Luftwaffe went from 1,104,000 men to 1,545,000 men and the Waffen-SS went from 125,000 to 160,000 men. The Kriegsmarine's increase in size was particularly eggregious. The surface fleet had been largely decimated during the Norwegian campaign and though the U-boat fleet was finally and rightfully growing - this was not to the tune of 215,000 men! As for the Luftwaffe some of this increase has to be considered appropriate considering that in the year leading up to Barbarossa not only did the Luftwaffe fight the costly Battle of Britain but operations in the Mediterranean and Balkans during the spring of 1941 had destroyed a further 466 aircraft. Nevertheless, German factory output had been such that the Luftwaffe was still able to amass 3,904 aircraft for Barbarossa (with 1,766 aircraft in the Mediterranean and elsewhere) while Germany's Axis allies deployed another 1,025 aircraft. Time and again Germany's allies are ignored when playing the Barbarossa numbers game. This is a huge mistake as in this case most accounts of the Axis airpower amassed for Barbarossa virtually ignore over twenty percent of the assembled machines and aircrews. Moreover, the Luftwaffe had built up a huge network of bases in Eastern Europe as well as moved large numbers of anti-aircraft artillery east to support Barbarossa, including 956 of the potent dual-threat 88mm guns, and roughly 1,375 light 20mm and 37mm anti-aircraft guns.

On the other hand, in spite of the fact the Third Reich had forced 1.2 million prisoners of war and 1.3 million foreign workers into work as laborers within Germany there were still 4.8 million military age and eligible German men working outside the military in the spring of 1941. Only 1.5 million of these men worked in armaments. What's more these 4.8 million deferments was more than double those granted in 1918 during the First World War while in a 1941 population a mere ten percent larger.  Thus even though the German army increased from 4,347,000 men on June 15, 1940 to 5,200,000 men exactly one year later (with the overall Wehrmacht reaching 7,309,000 men in June 1941 and more than 1.5 million men larger than the year before) there were still significant inefficiencies in terms of how Germany's leadership allocated resources. Nevertheless, by the time Barbarossa would begin the front-line German divisions assigned to fight in the East not only were largely fully staffed but could rely upon 471,000 fully trained men in reserve with the Ersatzheer. Furthermore, over two thirds of the 151 divisions assigned to Barbarossa possessed a Fledersatz battalion (field replacement battalion) with nearly 800 men in each battalion and thus a further 90,000 men in reserve (with such battalions assigned to 114 Barbarossa divisions). Finally, OKH held an additional 12 divisions in reserve explicitly for backing up Barbarossa (with most of these being divisions that had participated in the Balkan campaign of April/May 1941).

This was not a military and economic machine lacking enough manpower to complete it's assigned goals, but instead one where poor decision making (and not quantitative reasons) were proving the biggest impediments to constructing a military best capable of making the pending Barbarossa a success. What is most striking about all of this is that it amply illustrates that the German Ostheer (army in the east) was quite ready to do battle with an even larger Red Army. Moreover, it shows how that contrary to assertions made by those such as David Stahel the Ostheer would be anything but on the verge of worn out by August 1941. In fact, it shows that quantity wasn't really the issue but qualitative matters that would prove more significant in deciding the titanic clash of arms in Eastern Europe, and thus the Second World War's outcome.


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