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Notable Problems in Determining World War II Era German Divisional Strength Returns

on Wed, 09/27/2017 - 19:21

For over a decade now, I have sought, via my professionally published work and at this website, to drill down into exactly how and why the Second World War in Europe ended as it did. To that end, the major component of my research has focused on the war fought between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. More specifically, I have sought to show that qualitative elements proved more instructive in determining the outcome of Germany and the Soviet Union's struggle in comparison to other theories that mass/quantitative factors proved decisive in the Red Army's victory.

However, when examining the war on Germany's Eastern Front, mass seems to be the order of the day and in every conceivable way - from weapons and munitions output, to the size of the battlefields, to the numbers of those killed or miamed. However, one must be exceedingly careful. These numbers must be treated as approximate estimations subject to change as new information comes to light, and not as concrete facts set in stone for all time. When it comes to the Wehrmacht this is doubly so, as even the German war machine's own accounting methodology proved highly convoluted.

Though each of the several hundred German divisions formed during World War II submitted monthly strength returns to the OKH (German army high command) historians still face a situation whereby identifying authorized versus actual strength, losses versus replacements, and the division's equipment returns (or TO&E) at any given time remains a byzantine research nightmare - such that even in examining a single battle we find multiple sources producing at times wildly varied estimates as to the composition of a German division or its losses. There are a number of factors that make establishing the actual strength of a given German division, corps, or army difficult beyond even those created by the inconsistencies of the Wehrmacht's reporting system. For instance, we have the destruction or loss of key documents at the war's end.

More importantly, there were different departments, even within the OKH itself, employing unique accounting methods that at times helped create operationally significant issues. As it was the Organization Department of the German Army's General Staff contributed to this mess by using dubious methods for assessing the German army's strength at any particular moment in the war. They ideally would have based strength returns on the authorized (Sollstarke) and actual (Iststarke) strengths of field divisions but often took instead the ten day casualty reports from the field armies which, though containing losses from combat, did not contain losses due to sickness, personnel transfers, and other such causes. All of which produced numbers made even more inaccurate by the fact that there was no consistent organizational framework for evaluating German divisional TO&E in large part becuase each mobilization wave (Welle) produced unique divisions to such an extant that the wartime KStN (Kriegsstarkenachweisungen - or table of organization - see picture accompanying this post of a KStN from the staffs of an infantry, mountain and jager division), featured thousands of changes. The takeaway here is that no two German divisions (even if both were panzer or infantry for instance) were alike.

Attempting to get the numbers as close to right as possible is a crucial task. It's importance is doubly so if we are going to fully weigh the different impacts produced by qualitative or quantitative elements in assessing the reasons for the war's outcome. Second World War era German military terminology makes this all the more difficult. For instance the Germans used eight different military terms to designate unit personnel strength returns at a given point and time. To say these are convoluted, regardless of issues with translation, is understating the magnitude of the issue. Even equipment losses are divided into two terms. The first of these being Ausfalle (loss - meaning equipment damaged or broken down but repairable and possible to return to service). The second being Totalausfalle (total loss - meaning exactly what one would think: destroyed or permanently lost like when retreating and equipment is abandoned and then subsequently captured by the enemy). This distinction is as important as that of determining between a tank "knocked out" and one destroyed. Casual Second World War enthusiasts often mistake the term "knocking out" as meaning the destruction of a tank when nothing could be further from the truth. Sadly, professional historians often make the same mistakes with serious consequences for those trying to understand and assess the costs of victory or defeat in any number of Second World War battles, operations, or campaigns.

To once again highlight all of this, let's get back to the terminology used by the German army to describe personnel strength returns. From there one can easily see how historians failing to cite where they are getting their numbers often contribute to confusion. For example, if one historian quotes a unit's Sollstarke at the start of a campaign then he/she would be describing the number of personnel authorized by a unit's TO&E (or KStN in German terms). Or, one may reference the unit's Tagesstarke (daily strength) while another may describe a unit's total strength (Gesamtstarke). This may be done even though the unit's Iststarke may be a far more accurate measure - as that number would provide the actual strength at any given moment (including not only those men available in the given unit but those on leave or temporarily absent perhaps due to sickness or wounds that would allow the soldier to return to the ranks within two months or less). Needless to say, one can already see the problems with these terms.

To get a better feel of a given unit's combat readiness on any given day and thus operational capabilities one should refer to the Gefechtsstarke (the term Einsatzstarke is also used at times in the same capacity as Gefechtsstarke) or Kampfstarke of the unit. The former is the fighting strength (from the literal translation) and gives us a look at the actual total number of combat available personnel from all combat arms plus headquarters staff and supply/administrative personnel. The latter means combat strength minus the administrative or supply personnel, and is perhaps the best available number for measuring a unit's potential combat capability at a given point and time. Knowing the difference between the two, or trusting that the author/historian whose scholarship you are reading knows these differences, is key in understanding where and when any given analytical framework proves more accurate in enhancing our knowledge of how and why the Second Word War ended in Allied victory.


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