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On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler dismantled the Weimar Republic and established the Third Reich, with himself as Fükrer (leader) and head of state. On 15 March 1935 he abolished Weimar's armed forces, the Reichswehr, and replaced them with the Wehrmacht. Hitler announced that the Wehrmacht would not be bound by the restrictions imposed on the Reichswehr by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which limited it to 100,000 volunteers with no tanks, heavy artillery, submarines or aircraft.

The Wehrmacht expanded rapidly. On 1 September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, it numbered 3,180,000 men. It eventually expanded to 9,500,000, and on 8/9 May 1945, the date of its unconditional surrender on the Western and Eastern Fronts, it still numbered 7,800,000. The Blitzkrieg period, from 1 September 1939 to 25 June 1940, was 10 months of almost total triumph for the Wehrmacht, as it defeated every country, except Great Britain, that took the field against it.

Germany, April 1934. An Obergefreiter, Oberschütze, Schütze and Gefreiter, all NCO candidates in service uniform, show the new Wehrmacht eagle on their M1916 helmets. They wear M1920 (eight-button) and M1928 (six-button) service tunics, M1920 rank insignia and M1928 marksmanship awards. (Brian Davis Collection)


Hitler believed, incorrectly as events were to prove, that his political skills were matched by a unique ability as a strategic commander. His increasing influence on the Wehrmacht's conduct of the Second World War eventually proved to be disastrous.

As head of state, Hitler occupied the nominal position of Oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces), and on 4 February 1938 he took over the most important professional position of Oberbefehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Commander of the Armed Forces), having forced his former protégé, Generalfeld-marschall Werner von Blomberg, to retire. Hitler held this post until his suicide on 30 April 1945, assisted by the subservient Generaloberst (later Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm von Keitel as Chef des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht (Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces). Real power rested with Generalmajor (eventually Generaloberst) Alfred Jodl, technically Keitel's assistant as Chef der Wehrmacht-führungsamt (Chief of the Operations Staff).

10th Infantry Division in parade uniforms march past German officers, and Austrian officers absorbed into the German Army. The Austrian officers are wearing their M1933 Bundesheer uniforms with German breast eagles, and the characteristic Austrian képi. Vienna, March 1938. (Brian Davis Collection)

The Wehrmacht was divided into three arms - the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine) and Air Force (Luftwaffe). The Army was the largest arm, averaging about 75% of total Wehrmacht strength, with 2,700,000 troops in September 1939, reaching a maximum strength of about 5,500,000, with 5,300,000 in May 1945.

Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres (Chief of the Army High Command) until 19 December 1941, when Hitler dismissed him and took over his post, was Generaloberst (later Generalfeldmarschall) Walther von Brauchitsch, assisted by General der Artillerie (later Generaloberst) Franz Haider as Chef des Generalstabes des Heeres (Chief of the Army General Staff). The Waffen-SS, formally established on 1 December 1939, was never technically part of the Wehrmacht, but it came under the control of the Army High Command.

The branches of the Army

On mobilisation on 26 August 1939 the Army was divided into the Feldheer (Field Army), advancing to attack the enemy, and the Ersatzheer (Replacement Army), remaining in Germany in support. The Field Army constituted three types of troops. Firstly, Fechtende Truppen, or combat troops, comprised Staffs (Armed Forces and Army High Commands; General Staff; Army Group, Army and Corps Staffs), Infantry (line, motorised, light and mountain), commando and penal units; Mobile Troops (cavalry, armour, mechanised infantry, reconnaissance and anti-tank units), Artillery, Engineers, Signals and Field Security Police Officials. Secondly, Versorgungstruppen, or Supply Troops, included Transport, Medical, Veterin#228;ry and Guard units, Military Police and Field Post Officials. Thirdly, Sicherungstruppen - Security Troops - were composed of Rear-Area commanders, second-line 'territorial rifle' (Landeschützen) battalions and prisoner-of-war camps. There were also Army Officials (including Chaplains), Bandmaster-Officers and Specialists (Sonderführer).

An Unteroffizier of the 67th Infantry Regiment in Ruhleben, near Berlin, 1938 wearing the M1935 undress uniform, with the peaked cap usually worn by NCOs, with this uniform. He is instructing recruits, dressed in M1933 fatigue uniforms, in rifle drill with Karabiner 98k rifles. Note the typical soiled and crumpled appearance of the fatigue uniforms. (Brian Davis Collection)

The organisation of the Field and Replacement Armies

The largest wartime Field Army units had no fixed organisation. There were five army groups: two (Nord and Süd) for the Polish campaign, and three more (A-C) for the Western campaigns. Each Army Group (Heeresgruppe) was composed of two or three armies with perhaps 400,000 men. There were 14 armies, each Army (Armee) comprising three or four corps with about 200,000 men, and, from June 1940, two reinforced Armoured Corps, called Panzergruppe or Armoured Groups (von Kleist and Guderian) each one controlling three motorised corps. There were 33 corps (1-13, 17, 21, 23-30, 38, 40, 42-4, 46-9), each Corps (Korps) with two to five infantry divisions and perhaps 60,000 men; and seven motorised corps, each Motorised Corps (Korps(mot.)) with two or three armoured and motorised divisions, and one (XV) with three light divisions. One cavalry division and the four mountain divisions came directly under the control of their respective armies.

During the Blitzkrieg period 143 infantry divisions were formed, their quality depending on the 'Wave' (Welle), to which they belonged. In addition to the 35 well-established peacetime 1st Wave divisions (1-46 series), there were divisions of elderly veterans or untrained reservists or recruits hastily assembled from occupied Poland and Czechoslovakia, as well as the nine Replacement Divisions (Ersatzdivisionen) of the 10th Wave (270-280 series). Each infantry division (Infanteriedivision) of 16,977 men was made up of three infantry regiments plus divisional support units: one four-battalion artillery regiment; a reconnaissance battalion, with mounted, bicycle and support squadrons; an anti-tank battalion; an engineer battalion; a signals battalion; and divisional services - up to ten motorised and horsedrawn transport columns; a medical company, a motorised field hospital and veterinary company; a Military Police Troop and a Field Post Office.

Guderian on the day of his promotion to General der Panzertruppen and his appointment as Commander of Mobile Troops, 20 November 1938. He is wearing the M1935 officers' service uniform with a particularly good example of the M1935 peaked cap. Note the First World War bravery and Wehrmacht long-service awards. (Brian Davis Collection)

An infantry regiment with 3,049 men (Infanterieregiment) had three infantry battalions, a 180-strong infantry gun company and a 170-strong anti-tank company. A battalion (Bataillon) of 860 men had three rifle companies and a 190-strong machine gun (actually a support) company. A 201-strong rifle company (Schützenkompanie) had three rifle platoons, and each 50-strong rifle platoon (Schützenzug) was composed of a platoon staff, a light-grenade-launcher team and four rifle sections, each section (Schützengruppe) having ten men.

All units of a motorised division (Infanleriedivision(mot.)) were armoured or motorised, and in early 1940 motorised divisions were reduced to two motorised regiments, giving a divisional total of 14,319 men. A mountain division (Gebirgsdivision) had 14,131 men with two 6,506-strong mountain regiments, plus support units and services, all with mountain capability.

A 14,373-strong armoured division (Panzerdivision) had an armoured brigade (two regiments of 1,700 men divided into two battalions) and a 4,409-strong motorised rifle brigade (rifle regiment and motorcycle battalion), the remaining support units and the services being armoured or motorised.

A 10-11,000-strong light division (Leichte Division) had between one and four 638-strong armoured battalions and one or two 2,295-strong motorised cavalry regiments, before reorganising as Panzer Divisions 6-9 in October 1939 - January 1940. The 16,000-strong 1 Cavalry Division (1.Kavalleriedivision) had four 1,440-strong mounted (Reiter) regiments (each with two mounted battalions), a cavalry (Kavallerie) regiment (one mounted, one bicycle battalion) and a bicycle battalion, other support units and services being mounted or motorised.

15 March 1939. Reconnaissance troops in field uniform, wearing the regulation M1934 rubberised greatcoats, ride a BMW R12 745cc motorcycle combination through the streets of the conquered city of Prague. They carry minimal field equipment appropriate for this unopposed invasion. Note the dejected appearance of the local citizens. (Brian Davis Collection)

In 1937 Germany was divided into 13 military districts, numbered I-XIII, and from 1939 these were the bases of the Replacement Army. The depots, schools and training units of a Wehrkreis (district), manned and equipped initially one, and later as many as five, corps, for the Field Army, keeping them supplied with a continuous stream of reinforcements. As Germany expanded its territory at its neighbours' expense to form Groβdeutschland (Greater Germany) the existing districts were expanded and six new ones formed from August 1938 - October 1942. They provided conscripts for the war-effort, many of whom were not ethnic Germans or even sympathetic to the German cause.

An Oberst im Generalstab relaxes in his garden. He is wearing undress uniform with Kolben collar-patches and M1935 adjutants' aiguillettes for General Staff officers, the M1935 field tunic and the M1938 field cap. Germany, 1939. (Brian Davis Collection)


German strategy combined two concepts: the traditional 'Decisive Manoeuvre', developed by Prussian General von Moltke in the 1850s, and the 'Armoured Concept', usually known as Blitzkrieg, proposed by Heinz Guderian in the late 1920s. Both required rapidly mobilised forces to attack on consecutive fronts, mounting a concentrated surprise attack on one front, defeating the enemy in a few days or weeks, before regrouping to attack on the second front, thus avoiding a costly defensive two-front war which Germany would inevitably lose.

'Decisive Manoeuvre', used infantry to attack the enemy's line of retreat, trapping it in pockets. Blitzkrieg, however used concentrations of tanks, mechanised infantry and Luftwaffe dive-bombers to punch a hole in the enemy line, and penetrate into rear areas to destroy the enemy command centre, forcing a total collapse in enemy morale. The Polish and Scandinavian campaigns were conducted according to the principles of 'Decisive Manoeuvre', while the Western Offensive was Blitzkrieg.

Both strategies demanded that Germany be the aggressor, a position in line with the Third Reich's xenophobic and expansionist ideology. Germany had the vital advantages of surprise and of choosing the time, place and conditions of the battles. Its opponents pinned their hopes on neutrality, diplomatic skills and static frontier defences. They were psychologically unwilling to fight, and reluctant to prepare for war.

The Flower Wars

Hitler's political manoeuvrings, and Franco-British reluctance to risk war, gave the German Army five bloodless victories before September 1939. Hitler's troops annexed neighbouring territories in operations known as the Blumenkriege, or Flower Wars, a reference to the flowers often thrown by local ethnic Germans to welcome German forces.

On 7 March 1936 30,000 troops from the 5th, 9th, 15th and 16th Infantry Divisions marched across the Rhine and occupied the demilitarised Saar region on the west bank. On 12 March 1938 200,000 troops of the 8th Army (VII and XIII Corps, and 2.Panzerdivision) invaded Austria, annexing it, dividing it into Wehrkreise XVII and XVIII in April 1938, and absorbing the Austrian Army as 44th and 45th Infantry, 4th Light and 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions.

The Army had originally expected to deploy 39 divisions in five armies (numbers 2, 8, 10, 12, 14) against Czechoslovakia in 'Operation Green', but following the Munich Agreement in September 1938, it occupied the Südetenland border areas without bloodshed from 1 to 10 October 1938 with elements of the five neighbouring German corps - IV, VII, VIII, XIII, XVII, XVIII. The Südetenland was incorporated into Wehrkreise IV, VII, VIII, XIII and XVII. On 15 March 1939 these units occupied the rest of Bohemia-Moravia, designated Wehrkreis Böhmen und Mähren in October 1942. Finally, on 23 March 1939 elements of I Corps annexed the Memel district of Western Lithuania to Wehrkreis I.

The 600-man volunteer Gruppe Imker, consisting of the Panzergruppe Drohne armoured unit with two signals companies and anti-tank, supply and repair elements, saw limited combat in the Spanish Civil War from July 1936 to May 1939 as part of the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion.

Troops of the Artillery Instruction Regiment in Jütebog, responsible for training artillery officer cadets in Germany, 1939. Wearing the M1935 field uniform, they demonstrate firing a 3.7cm Pak 35/36 L/45 anti-tank gun. Note the Karabiner 98k rifles and the minimal field equipment - M1931 canvas bread-bags and M1938 gas mask canisters, but no Y-straps. (Brian Davis Collection)

The Polish campaign and the Phoney War

On 26 August 1939 the Wehrmacht began a secret partial mobilisation for 'Operation White', the invasion of Poland, leading to full mobilisation on 3 September. On 1 September the army attacked, joining up with Bau-Lehr Bataillon zbV 800 commandos and other Army Intelligence (Abwehr) units who had already infiltrated the region to secure vital bridges.

The invasion force, consisting of 1,512,000 men, was organised in two army groups totalling 53 divisions (37 infantry, four motorised, three mountain, three light, six Panzer). It attacked on three fronts. Army Group Nord, under Generaloberst Fedor von Bock with 3rd and 4th Armies, attacked from north-east Germany and East Prussia. Süd, commanded by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt with 8th, 10th and 14th Armies, advanced from south-east Germany and northern Slovakia, supported by 1st and 2nd Slovak divisions. The 1,100,000-strong Polish Army, organised in 40 infantry divisions, two mechanised and 11 mounted cavalry brigades, and deployed too close to the German frontier, was already being outflanked when, on 17 September, seven armies (41 divisions and equivalents) of the Soviet Red Army attacked them in the rear. Threatened on four fronts, the heavily outnumbered Polish Army officially surrendered on 27 September, and had ceased all hostilities on 6 October. Occupied Poland came under military control - Ciechanòw and Suwalki districts were incorporated in Wehrkreis I in September 1939, Bialystok in August 1941; Danzig and north-west Poland as XX and western Poland as XXI in September 1939; and southeast Poland as General-Gouvernement in September 1942.

During the eight-month 'Phoney War', Anglo-French forces massed on the western German frontier, briefly occupying the Saar District in September 1939, giving the Wehrmacht a free hand in Poland and Scandinavia, and allowing it to choose the conditions of the Western Offensive in May 1940.

Denmark and Norway

Anxious that the Anglo-French forces might attack Germany through Norway and Denmark, Hitler decided to invade these militarily weak neutral states in a pre-emptive strike called 'Operation Weserübung', commanded by General der Infanterie Nikolaus von Falkenhorst.

On 9 April 1940 Höheres Kommando z.b.V. XXXI (XXXI Special Corps), with the 170th and 198th Infantry Divisions, 11th Motorised Rifle Brigade and 40th Special Panzer Battalion, attacked Denmark. The inexperienced Danish Army, with 6,600 troops organised in two infantry divisions, its strategic position hopeless, was forced to surrender after four hours' limited resistance.

On the same day XXI Corps, with 3rd Mountain, 69th and 163rd Infantry Divisions, disembarked in Norway, later reinforced by 2nd

A signalman of the Signal Instruction Battalion in Halle, Germany 1939, responsible for training artillery officer cadets. He wears standard M1935 field uniform and, for the purposes of the gas exercise, a M1938 gas mask, whilst operating a M1933 field telephone. His unit letter is shown on his M1933 pointed shoulder-straps without piping. (Brian Davis Collection)

Mountain, 181st, 196th and 214th Infantry Divisions, with 40th Special Panzer Battalion providing token armour. They totalled some 100,000 men. They engaged six infantry divisions of the Norwegian Army, (with only 25,000 of its 90,000 men mobilised), backed up by the Allied Expeditionary Force with the equivalent of two infantry divisions, and forced an Allied evacuation and a Norwegian surrender on 9 June 1940.

The Low Countries

For 'Operation Yellow', the Western Offensive, the German Army assembled 2,750,000 men in 91 divisions, divided among three army groups. 4A' under Generaloberst von Rundstedt with 4th, 12th and 16th Armies, including Panzergruppe von Kleist, was to advance through Belgium into France. 'B' commanded by Generaloberst von Bock with 6th and 18th Armies, would attack the Netherlands and Belgium, whilst Cy under Generaloberst Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, with 1st and 7th Armies, would pin down French forces on the Maginot Line. These forces totalled 75 infantry divisions (including 22nd Airlanding Division), one Luftwaffe airborne division, four motorised, one mountain, one cavalry and ten Panzer divisions, with a further 42 divisions in reserve.

The offensive began on 10 May 1940, with commandos and Abwehr already active in the Netherlands and Belgium. Army Group B's 18th Army, with nine divisions plus airportable and parachute troops, attacked the neutral Netherlands, rapidly overwhelming the inexperienced Dutch Army. With 250,000 men organised in ten poorly trained infantry divisions, the Dutch put up an unexpectedly spirited defence, but surrendered on 15 May following the bombing of Rotterdam.

Germany, 1939. A Sanitätsunteroffizier in M1935 undress uniform with the M1935 other ranks' field cap and Medical Corps red-cross armband, instructs in first-aid infantry stretcher-bearers, who wear black on white Hilfskrankenträger armbands. (Brian Davis Collection)

Luxembourg fell on 10 May to 16th Army, its 82-man 'Volunteer Company' offering only token resistance. The same day Army Group A, joined by 6th Army from Army Group B, began its advance through neutral Belgium, spearheaded by an airborne attack on Fort Eben-Emael. The 600,000-strong Belgian Army, organised in 18 infantry, two mountain and two cavalry divisions, supported by British and French troops, initially resisted strongly. Its morale declined as it retreated before the relentless German advance, led by the powerful Panzergruppe von Kleist's surprise outflanking attack through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes hill country. On 28 May the Belgian Army surrendered.

Two NCOs in undress uniform with M1935 field greatcoats having field rations in Germany, September 1939. Note the NCOs sword-knot attached to the bayonet of the Feldwebel (right), the absence of shoulder-strap numbers, and the regulation mess-tins. (ECPA)

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