World War II: German Military Strengths and Weaknesses


Figure 1.-- Here boys look over a VW Kübelsitzwagen--the German equivalent of the American Jeep. Kübelsitzwagen meant bucket-seat car. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche and built by Volkswagen, a company created by the NAZIs to build low-cost cars for German workers. The Kübelsitzwagen was largely based on the pre-War Volkswagen Beetle. VW beginning in 1940 built over 50,000 Kübelsitzwagen. The Kübelsitzwagen compared very favorably to the jeep. It's chief disadvantage was thsat it was diffiult to start in low temperatures. The problem for the Germans was that the Americans maufactured about 650,000 jeeps. Similar disparities in production occurred in most other areas of productioj during the war. The only country with a fully mechanized army was the British when Hitler launched World War II. Hitler's military concept was to overwealm his adversaries before the great material and industrial power of the Allies could be brought to bear.

German Führer Adolf Hitler, along with his Soviet ally Joseph Stalin, launched World War II with the most profesional, competent military officer corps in the world. The NAZIs embarkened on a program to train boys to be warriors beginning with the Hitler Youth (HJ). This would take some time. The HJ was not at first compulsory. Thus when Hitler launched the War, many of the young recruits had some HJ experiences, but the officer corps of the German military had been trained in the military schools of Imperial Germany and the Weimar Republic. It was still hevily influenced by the the Prussian military tradition. And since the creation of the Prussian state, here was a warrior tradition that remained remarkably consistent over four centuries. The founder of that martial state was the Great Elector--Friderich-Wilhelm I (1640-88). He inherited a minor, rather poor and discontinguous principality in northern Germany--Brandenburg-Prussia. He turned his realm into a state with one purpose, to fund and support his army. The army he created was not a large one. His realm could not support a massive army on the level of the great powers like Austria, France, Russia, and Sweden. His solution to this problem was to create a small, but well-drilled and equipped standing army which could defeat a larger opponent before they could marshal their forces. [Citino, pp. xiii-xiv.] This was the only way a small power could defeat a larger power. And this was the policy that the Great Elector and his Hohenzollern's descendants followed and used sucessfully to turn Prussia into a major power. This was the tradition with which Hitler's Wehrmacht launched World War II. And Hitler had turned Germany into a state with a single purpose--to support a modern military machine that could expand the Reich. The Wehrmact had many strengths. Great attention was given to speed and mobility. These were capabilities that the Great Elector himself had emphasized. Blitzkrieg was in fact a modern version of the Great Elector's tactics with industrial weaponry. The Wehrmacht also had some major weakenesses. The industrial base of its targets, significantly increased that of Germany. Essentially the same sitation faced by the Great Elector and his descendants. German military strengths brough great victories at the beginning of World War II as they had at the start of World War I. A major strength was the support of the Luftwaffe in the early years. Perhaps the most serious Geman military weakness was the lack of attention to logistics. This was an area of lesser importance to an army designed to win a war in a brief period, but was of vital importance in a protacted war. [Citino, p. xiv.] Another weakness was military intelligence. [Citino, pp. xiv-xv.] This is less easy to understand, but may lie a tendency to underestimate their importance and an over confidence in their military superiority. These weakenes proved disastrous in World War II as they had in World War I. A great weakness was the lack of adequate naval power.

Historical Background

And since the creation of the Prussian state, here was a warrior tradition that remained remarkably consistent over four centuries. The founder of that martial state was the Great Elector--Friderich-Wilhelm I (1640-88). He inherited a minor, rather poor and discontinguous principality in northern Germany--Brandenburg-Prussia. He turned his realm into a state with one purpose, to fund and support his army. The army he created was not a large one. His realm could not support a massive army on the level of the great powers like Austria, France, Russia, and Sweden. His solution to this problem was to create a small, but well-drilled and equipped standing army which could defeat a larger opponent before they could marshal their forces. [Citino, pp. xiii-xiv.] This was the only way a small power could defeat a larger power. And this was the policy that the Great Elector and his Hohenzollern's descendants followed and used sucessfully to turn Prussia into a major power. This was the tradition with which Hitler's Wehrmacht launched World War II.

German Strengths

The Wehrmact had many strengths which were on display from the first day of the War (September 1, 1939). German military strengths brought great victories at the beginning of World War II as they had at the start of World War I. The Germans had the most competent officer corps in the world. The Großer Generalstab (Great General Staff) was a key element in the strnth of the Garman Army. Erwin Rommel got a lot of attention becauses of his successes in the West. There were a substantial number of German commanders in the East of comparable skillm byr did not get the attention Rommel got, not only because they were not facing the Western Allies, but because the Soviets neither allowed Western journalists to report on military campigns or released much detail about the fighting on the Eastern Front. This level of skill was the work of the work Großer Generalstab. The Germans were well armed thanks to the massive NAZI rearmameht porogram. The Germans were better prepared because other countries were trying to avoid fighting another war and limited military spending. The Großer Generalstab had also developed the highly effectivectactical battle doctrine known as Blitzkrieg--combined mixed arms tactics, essentially modern warfare. It would take the British nearly 4 years tomadopt thee tactics. The Soviets and Americans were faster learners. And if all of this was not enough, the NAZIs added an ideological construct that appsaled to many Germans and was imposed on those who did not share their values. The Hitler Youth (HJ) program was very effective in preparing German youth for the War, both ideologically and the skills needed.

Mixed Factors


Political leadership

Some have assumed that thec single-mindedness of the Führer state was an advantage in waging war. Germany's political ledership, however, proved to be a mixed blessings to the Wehrmacht. The German Army was by 1934 the only important German institution capable of yielding force that Hitler had not managed to dominate. He had support within the miitary, but did not yet dominate it. And the military was woried. It was still as a result of the Versailles Treaty limitatiins, a relatively small force. And it faced the massive 3 million-strong SA--the NAZI Party para-mikitary force. And SA leader Röhm was seeking to replace the Heer with the SA as Germany's principal military force. The Night of the Long Knives carried out by the SS changed that, killing Röhm and the SA top leadership. The military in graditude aggreed to pledge itself personally to Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. From that point on, Hitler steadily increased his control of the new Whermacht. His massive armaments program permitted the rapidy remilitarization of Germany with modrn weaponry. Support from the top was at firt a strength of the Wehrmacht. This included both expansion and weapons development. But it committed the Wehrmacct which was a relatively small force backed by a country with a limited industrial base and acces to raw materials against an incresingly massive coalition of enemies that Hitler made. Hitler's support continued to be an advantage in the first 2 years of the War when he still listened to his very competent military commanders. This begn to change after the victory in France. Hitler never liked bring aolitican and having to compromise. He always wanted to be areat war leader. And after France he began he begn to increasingly intrfeare in milkitary matters as well as appoint political hacks because of their loyalty. The turning point was in the Soviet Union when the generals advised pressing on to Moscow, but Hitler ordered the Panzers south to Kiev. Shortly afterwards mired deep in the Soviet Union and still at war with Britain, he declred war on the United States creating a coaltion with far greater war-making caoabilities. From that point he begn to interfere more and more. And when his interference led to military disasters he simply removed competent commanders like Guderian and injected himself more amd more to the management of the campaign in the East.

Industry


German Weaknesses

The German military also had some major weakenesses which were not at first apparent. They would in the end would result in catrostrophic defeat. As was the case of the Prussian Arny before it and the Imperial German Army in World War I, Hitler's strategic doctrince was premised on early victories against countries that were unprepared for War. This way Hitler believed he could defeat his enemies even though they had a greater industrial capacity and resource base. This would be possible only if Germany could defeat the countries targeted in quick, short wars. As in World War I, a long, proteacted war would inevitably lead to Germany's defeat. The Wehrmacht achieved spectacular victories largely because of the perfection of modern tactical doctrine--Blitzkrieg. The fall of France stunned the world. The Panzers, however, were stopped by the Channel and rhe RAF stopped the Luftwaffe. When President Roosevelt underwrote the British war effort with Lend Lease, it meant that Germany would not have its quick short victory. As a result, as the War progressed the weakenes inherent in the German war effort gradually became increasingly apparent. These weaknesses proved disastrous in World War II as they had in World War I. And they were magnified by Hitler's mishandling of the War effort.

Dogged Defense of the Reich

The German victories in the early phase of the War can be explained by their superior weapons and tactical doctrine. Less understable is the dogged German defense in the later years of the War. The Germans invaded many small countries, but aftr they invaded the Soviet Union the Germans always faced superior numbers of increasingly well-supplied adversaries. By 1943, the Germans were as well supplied as their adversaries and often faced staggering numbers of opponents. During the War, the only defeat the Germans suffered at the hands of a numerically weaker adversary was the Battle of Britain. As mentioned above, superior weaponry and tactical doctrine ws part of the reason. Another part was the fighting spirit of the German soldier. The War was lost for Germany once it became a War of attrition with the Soviet Union and America--a war with which Germany with its more limited resources could not win. It was the spirit and ability of the German soldier that enabled Germany to continue the War. German veterans complain that in American movies that the Germans are commonly portrayed as stupid. The Germams military, as compared to their commande, were never stupid. They were highly competent and professional. The Germans were outnumbered and over powered, not defeated through superior battlefield tactics. The strategic decisins that brought defeat were imposed by the political leadership--the German FührerAdolf Hitler. The German soldier continued figting even against staggering odds. One rason was that after 1942 they wee fighting to protect Germany. Many believed in the NAZI cause. Many also realized what Germany had done in the occupied countries and fully expected the Allies to do the same when they reached the borders of the Reich. Another factor ws the bond developed in the Wehrmacht and Wafen-SS, Luftwaffe, and Kiegsmarine among individual soldiers, airmen, and sailors. Given the odds, the Germen servicemen knew that their only chance of surviving was to depend on their Komrads. There was a community esprit decorps that was more typical of elite formations in the Allied armies. This was a spirit that had been enculcated in the Hitler Youth. Most German soldiers under 28 had been Hitler Youth boys. German soldiers were convince they had a duty to Germany and each other. This in itself ws not unique, but the strength of the bond was the a key factor in the abilitiy of Hitler and the NAZIs to continue a dogged resisance in 1944 and early 1945. They fought more for each other than their Führer.

Sources

Citino, Robert M. The German Way of War: From the Thirty Year's War to the Third Reich (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 2005), 428p.





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Created: 4:54 AM 5/13/2008
Last updated: 8:02 AM 7/28/2019