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From Reichswehr to Wehrmacht

on Mon, 10/09/2017 - 20:59

Though it is popular to think of the 1939-1941 "Blitzkrieg" era Wehrmacht as a near unstoppable war machine, reality is far different. Material shortages similar to those afflicting the German army in the years 1944-1945 were all too apparent during the Third Reich's early war march across Europe and the Mediterranean littoral. Ironically, however these shortages had far more to do with German decision making than the commonly held view that Germany didn't have enough economic resources capable of being converted into military strength. For instance, by September of 1939 the Germany army (Heer) had long since been forced to compete with the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe (and to a certain extent with the Waffen-SS's small pre-war contingent) for resources. This being done rather than the German high command integrating military and economic assets into a cohesive plan to execute Hitler's political and strategic goals of first attaining hegemony over continental Europe and, second - using that base of strength to challenge the U.S. for global supremacy.

It is important to understand why these material and personnel shortages existed throughout the Wehrmacht's existence in spite of Germany possessing access to most of the material and manpower resources it needed (and ended up producing wildly disparate results in terms of initial German success and then catastrophic failure). In doing so it greatly informs as to the need to comprehend how much quantitative measures mattered versus qualitative in deciding the Second World War's outcome. Let's begin this analysis with the Wehrmacht's material and manpower roots. That means looking at the size and composition of the interwar Reichswehr as it had been shaped by the Treaty of Versailles.

Following the First World War the Versailles Treaty limited the size and capabilities of the German armed forces (Reichswehr). Among the most important treaty aims included making it difficult for Germany to quickly grow it's military strength for aggressive purposes. To that end Versailles abolished the General Staff, closed the Kriegsakademie, forbade conscription, and only allowed long term volunteers to serve (thereby excluding Germany from drawing upon a cadre of trained conscripts to quickly expand the ranks). From there, the Reichswehr's total size was limited to 100,000 men (only 4,000 of whom could be officers) - with the army able to field only seven infantry and three cavalry divisions.

Now, the Germans got around some of the limitations on trained manpower through techniques such as having men "retire" early from the army, increasing the border quard into a paramilitary force (the Grenzshutz) providing a small reserve of trained manpower, and doing the same with the national police (Schutzpolizei). This meant that throughout the Second World War the reality was that, yes, trained manpower would be a problem as the techniques mentioned above couldn't make up the difference (lost in for example the huge pool of trained reservists the First World War German army could draw upon compared to that which the Wehrmacht could pull from in World War Two). However, poor decisions in allocating existing manpower and a larger lack of long-term strategic planning and thinking proved more problematic for the Wehrmacht - and did so throughout the Second World War.

As for equipment stocks, the Treaty of Versailles allowed the Reichswehr a mere 252 mortars, 204 7.7 cm and 84 10.5 cm guns, and 105 armored cars (with the German police granted 150 armored cars). Coupled with stocks of hardly more than 100,000 rifles and carbines along with 1,926 machine guns this left the Reichswehr not much better equipped than a militia. As is typically true when it comes to punitive terms imposed by one party upon the other, the weaker side quickly set up a number of ways to circumvent the treaty limitations. For example, the German Transport Ministry subsidized clandestine research and development programs involving aircraft as well as the training of aircrew (otherwise forbidden by Versailles). In addition, German private sector manufacturers invested not inconsiderable sums in further R&D work on key weapons systems such as tanks and aircraft such that in aircraft development and related industrial infrastructure Germany was actually coming close to matching French and U.S. spending. In April of 1922 Germany signed the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. This gave the Germans the chance to set up a number of secret testing and training facilities within the Soviet Union. By 1933 Germany would have a cadre of trained combat pilots for the soon to be birthed Luftwaffe. In addition, German military spending covertly doubled between 1924 and 1928.

As early as 1927 the Reichswehr had secretly socked away three times as many rifles, mortars, and artillery pieces allowed under Versailles as well as six times as many machine guns. However, after Hitler's election to power early in 1933 rearmament still proved problematic. A shortage of foreign capital (part of the larger economic crisis gripping the capitalist nations in the 1930s) and investment (due in part to Germany's worsening reputation as the Nazi's took power) hindered the German economy. As a result of a lack of foreign investment and trade Germany had to build up its industries and transportation infrastructure domestically. Though the Nazi's embraced autarky, this need to build from the bottom up hindered the Wehrmacht's ability to begin rearming in depth. As a result the German war machine took shape almost in outline - with a variety of modern weapons systems developed but fielded in small numbers across the board. Of course the Third Reich's management style, emphasizing competition, meant the Luftwaffe, Heer, and Kriegsmarine didn't work nearly as cooperatively as they should have; instead each branch of the armed forces fought for a larger share of a very limited pie. This negatively impacted the Third Reich's ability to meet Hitler's clearest and most consistently stated strategic goal - obtaining Lebensraum (living space) at the expense of Eastern Europe's Jewish and Slavic populations via a full-scale war against the Soviet Union.

The German army and the Luftwaffe should have received the lion's share of the available resources. To a certain extant they did, but not to nearly the extent required. Though the Luftwaffe made out quite well for itself, the army was forced to plan in two four-year increments. The first phase was to be defensive and carry into 1941 and only then would the German army be able to conduct large scale operations. Nevertheless, during the summer of 1934 Generalleutnant Oswald Lutz's Inspecktion der Kraftfahrkampftruppen (Mechanized Troops Inspectorate) had been set up to coordinate the training and forming of armored units. In July 1934 the first Panzerkampfwagen Model 1 tanks (Panzer I - pictured here) began rolling off Krupp's assembly lines to equip the initial armored training units. By 1935 Hitler had also abrogated the Versailles armaments restrictions, reopened the Kriegsakademie, reintroduced mandatory conscription, and officially transitioned the Reichswehr to the Wehrmacht (with the renaming effective July 1, 1935). Meanwhile the German army grew, reaching 350,000 men in August 1935, but officer shortages remained rampant. That said, the army could also field 353 operational Panzers, and in October 1935 formed the first of three panzer divisions with three leichte (light mechanized) divisions added in December. Now, all of this sounded like things were moving on schedule - with the Germans envisioning an army of 102 divisions and 3.6 million men by 1940. However, keep in mind that the plan was to have by 1940 panzer divisions equipped with, among other things, nearly 2,000 of the medium Panzer III and Panzer IV models that were true main battle tanks for that era (versus the tankette like Panzer I and lightly armed Panzer II light tank more fitted for a reconnaisance role at best). Enter the Kriegsmarine.

In 1934 the Kriegsmarine's Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Erich Raeder, proposed building by 1949 a fleet that included three aircraft carriers, eight battleships, eight cruisers, 48 destroyers, and only 72 U-boats. In spite of Hitler's frequently stated goals that included first defeating the Soviet Union, he agreed. In 1935 construction began on the 32,000 ton Scharnhorst class battlecruisers, first of four Hipper class heavy cruisers, and 13 destroyers. More promisingly the first U-boat was commissioned in June 1935 with eleven more to come that year. Regrettably however, in 1936 German shipyards began work on the large 40,000 plus ton Bismarck and Tirpitz battleships as well as the Graf Spee (first of the planned aircraft carriers). In addition, Raeder expanded his goals for the Kriegsmarine in 1938 via the infamous Plan Z - seeking to build up a far larger navy. In January 1939 Hitler approved Raeder's plan and that year German spending on naval construction reached nearly three quarters of the level of two of the three top naval powers in the world (Great Britain and the United States). Raeder never stopped to consider that his plan would do nothing to bring Germany any closer to defeating the Soviet Union no less Germany's most immediate rivals - France and Poland. Nor was it feasible without Soviet oil from the Caucuses. The nearly 800 ship fleet Plan Z entailed would have required eight million tons of diesel fuel and oil against anticipated German domestic production of only about half that figure by 1948.

What's more, and as Raeder's fantastical planning consumed an ever larger share of the Wehrmacht's resources the results of his efforts would prove desultory at best. During World War II the two German battleships, two battlecruisers, and half dozen pocket battleships/heavy cruisers hardly did better in terms of sinking Allied shipping than did inexpensively produced anti-shipping mines. From September 1939 to March 1941 mines sank only 70,000 tons less of Allied merchant shipping than all German surface warships (897,971 tons). Furthermore, the vast majority of the damage done by the German surface fleet was done by nine auxiliary cruisers (heavily armed disguised merchantmen) which sank 857,533 tons of Allied merchant shipping by October 1943. For that matter, German naval aircraft sank another 864,239 tons of merchant shiping during the war's first eighteen months.

Worse yet, the most potent weapons in the German navy's inventory, the U-boats, had been just as shortchanged as the remainder of the Wehrmacht by Raeder's short-sighted goals to build an expensive surface fleet. When German invaded Poland in September of 1939 and went to war with Great Britain and France it did so deploying only 57 operational U-boats with a mere 32 of these capable of operating in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, these few U-boats put down 3,453,394 tons of Allied merchant shipping by March of 1941. For the price of the battleship Bismarck alone (which only managed to sink a first world war-era battlecruiser before itself being sent to the bottom in the spring of 1941) the German navy could have more than doubled the number of operational blue water U-boats. This would have potentially crippled the British war effort (given that early in 1941 the Allies were managing to only sink one U-boat for every 148,032 tons of merchant shipping lost) months before beginning the invasion of the Soviet Union.

Regardless of Raeder's neglect of the U-boat arm, his capital ship construction program meant even more dire results for the German army. During the war's first eighteen months the majority of Germany's operational tank fleet consisted of largely obsolete light tanks. The plan to have 1,200 Panzer III and IV medium tanks filling out panzer divisons by the fall of 1940 went by the wayside, cut in half on the altar of Raeder's marginal surface fleet (a significant percentage of which was lost during the spring of 1940 and naval operations off the Norwegian coast). The German army also had to compete for resources with the Luftwaffe, which managed to suck up over one third the entire Wermacht's budget from 1934-1939. By 1939 more than a quarter million men and women worked in an aircraft industry cranking out 10,000 machines per year with combat aircraft consisting of 400 planes per month including the Bf-109 single-engine fighter, Ju-87 dive-bomber, He-111 medium bomber, and Ju-88 multi-role aircaft. However, given the Luftwaffe's role in primarily assisting the German ground forces this wasn't nearly as problematic as the diversion of resources to constructing a German surface fleet that at it's peak and in spite of the massive cost that went into it couldn't come close to matching the assymetric capabilities of German U-boats and mine warfare.

Where the Luftwaffe did hurt the army was in the March 1935 decision to transfer flak batteries from army to Luftwaffe control, as did the decision to put Germany's nascent para and glider borne infantry force in Lufwaffe hands. Thus began a problematic foundation that would see utlimately see considerable amounts of manpower and motor vehicles diverted to Luftwaffe infantry and even panzer divisions by the most critical period of the war. Regardless, the army grew and by 1938 could deploy 42 combat divisions and field 2,608 tanks (albeit mostly Panzer I and II light tanks). However, it was when the German army went to war in September of 1939 that we see the worst impact of the decisions from five years prior to allocate such heavy resources into constructing big gunned capital ships. 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. That said, the German army itself was not blameless. Only about five percent of the army's 1937-1941 procurement budget went to armored fighting vehicles. In contrast the building of fixed fortifications like the Seigfried line (opposing France's Maginot line) sucked up nearly nine percent of such expenditures.

As for manpower, though Germany had far from limitless manpower there were were just enough men and women that if their employment was managed properly it could enable Nazi Germany to field an extremely large and capable war machine while staffing the factories capable of arming it. For instance, by the spring of 1939 the German workforce included 24.5 million men, 14.6 million women, and 300,000 foreign laborers or Jews of both sexes. Note that this workforce was already as close to full employment as possible (with only 293,327 of eligible workers unemployed in all of Germany), including a third of married women and half of every single woman of working age (a better rate of women in the workforce than in Great Britain). However, one year later foreign labor had already potentially alleviated this strain with 350,000 mostly Polish prisoners of war and 800,000 mostly Polish foreign workers working in Germany. This mean the Wermacht had grown to 4.4 million men by the spring of 1940. Moreover, though military call-ups meant that the German work force had contracted, increased rationalization and efficiency measures (including the use of foreign labor, increasing overall hours, and closing non-essential production facilities) meant that the hit to the German workforce was the equivalent of roughly just over two million men lost to the armed forces.

The ultimate result is that 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, four motorized infantry, three Gebirgs, one improvised panzer division (Kempf), four motorized Waffen-SS regiments, two Fallshirmjager regiments, and one cavalry brigade. In terms of equipment it was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the Panzer force was nothing like having been planned five years prior, and in addition there were not nearly enough half-tracks along with minor shortages of anti-tank guns (Pak) and infantry guns. Otherwise, the German army had considerable surplus stocks of machine guns, mortars, flak guns, and artillery pieces. However, not only had the decision to build up capital ships hurt the army's ability to field the array of planned for armored fighting vehicles, but almost equally as crucial was the inadequate totals of U-boats equipping the German navy.

Though Germany's political, economic, and military leaders had done impressive work in building up the German armaments industry and Wehrmacht the evolution from the Reichswehr to the Wehrmacht had not proceeded nearly as smoothly as easily could have been possible. Had Germany's leaders worked even slightly more efficiently and strategically to incorporate existing assets into Hitler's clearest expressed goals to first dominate continental Europe via a war against the Soviet Union (done so via constraining the Kriegsmarine's enormous wastage of resources) and second, using Europe's resources to challenge the U.S. for global supremacy (the time when the Kriegsmarine should have received greater priority) - then more than enough manpower and material were ready and available for accomplishing the Third Reich's goals. Point being, as early as 1939 one can already see that quantitative measures were proving less important in comparison to the qualitative (in this instance the marriage of Germany's strategic goals to the construction of the Wehrmacht and prioritization of resources) in deciding the coming world war.

 

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