The Manpower Problem
I. The Situation at the Outbreak of War
Improvisations in the field of manpower were rarely necessary as long as the war took a normal course and the nation was capable of providing the men needed for new combat units and as replacements. The situation changed when the manpower reserves at home began to run low and special measures had to be taken to make up for the serious shortage of replacements. Even at the beginning of the war, the Germans had to resort to some organizational improvisations, particularly to strengthen the defenses in the West.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, the frontier defense command of St. Wendel in the Saar was ordered to defend that sector of the West Wall which extended from Mettlach to Saarbruecken. Only a very small force of regular troops was available. It consisted of frontier guard units stationed in the Saar prior to the war. To a frontage of seventy-five miles there were altogether two battalions of medium artillery, with one infantry or machine gun battalion to every twelve miles. Reinforcement by secondwave divisions could not be expected for about fourteen days, whereas first-wave divisions were to be made available later on after the conclusion of the Polish Campaign. The number of available antitank guns and artillery pieces of every caliber was ample but there were no gun crews. To form these crews, conscripts from near-by towns who were in the older age groups were to be drafted directly instead of being inducted through regular channels. No preparations of any kind could be made because the frontier defense command was not notified before mobilization. Consequently quite a few of the men had received different mobilization orders and had already left to join their units. Others had been removed from their homes during the evacuation of those districts of the Saar territory that were closest to the front. Nevertheless, crews for the antitank guns were formed without delay and given hasty two-day instruction
courses at their gun positions. Sufficient personnel could be found even for the artillery guns which were organized to form reserve batteries, although the men drafted for this purpose had been trained with entirely different guns.
On the other hand it was impossible to find suitable battery commanders or technical specialists. These reserve batteries were therefore attached to batteries of regular artillery battalions which were part of the frontier defense command. Local border patrol personnel were organized into a regiment with four battalions in order to increase the defensive strength of the infantry and, above all, to obtain personnel acquainted with terrain conditions. Each battalion was assigned to one of the four subsectors along the Saar River. This measure alone amounted to a doubling of the infantry forces and meant the addition of particularly qualified personnel since all the border patrolmen were former noncommissioned officers of the 100,000-man Army.
Even the second-wave divisions activated at the outbreak of the war might be termed improvisations. In addition to a certain number of reservists, many other men had been called up to fill the divisions' ranks. Some of these men had merely undergone a short, eight-week basic training course during the last few years. Others had served during World War I and had never since taken part in any military exercise; their average age was around forty-five. During the winter of 1939-40 the enemy granted the Germans sufficient time for further preparations during which these divisions were consolidated and trained and the men belonging to older age groups were reassigned to service units.
II. The Luftwaffe Field Divisions
The Luftwaffe was still in the development stage when the war began and was experimenting with various forms of aerial warfare. During the course of its operations it was often faced with missions that could only be solved by improvisations. This study describes only those major improvisations in which the Luftwaffe was closely connected with ground operations.
One of the best known Luftwaffe improvisations was the creation of Luftwaffe field divisions. In 1941 the Luftwaffe was at full personnel strength as it was to be greatly expanded after the anticipated rapid conclusion of the Russian campaign. Not only did these plans fail to materialize but, during the winter of 1941-42, the Army was faced with the first major manpower shortage when it ran out of combat troops. On various sectors of the Eastern Front local commanders took the initiative of
quickly organizing and committing provisional units composed of Luftwaffe ground personnel, construction battalions, and signal communication units in ground combat. Shoulder to shoulder with Army units, most of them gave a good account of themselves.
As a further step in this direction, Adolf Hitler ordered the transfer of seven divisions from the Luftwaffe to the Army. Goering, the commander in chief of the Luftwaffe, always jealously concerned with his prestige and possibly hoping for a more favorable turn in events, suggested that these divisions remain under the jurisdiction of the Luftwaffe and be subordinated to the Army only in tactical matters. This suggestion was adopted and the Luftwaffe organized ground combat divisions under its own jurisdiction. The personnel of these divisions met with the highest physical standards but the training of the commissioned and noncommissioned officers was totally inadequate for the purposes of ground fighting. The care of weapons and horses left much to be desired. Since the Army was taxed to the utmost, it could provide few instructors and little equipment. Consequently these divisions were sent into combat after receiving only superficial training. They fought as bravely as most other units but their casualty rate was above normal. To the very end of the war, these divisions continued to present a never-ending series of problems to both the Army and the Luftwaffe with the latter obliged to provide a continuous flow of replacements. Time and again the Army had to transfer commissioned and noncommissioned officers to these divisions and provide additional instruction and training so they could serve their purpose.
The consensus is that this improvisation was ineffectual. Despite great devotion and heroism displayed by individual divisions, it would have been preferable to ignore prestige matters and place this valuable personnel at the disposal of the Army without attaching any strings. The policy was not reversed until the last stage of the war when transfers of personnel from the Luftwaffe to the Army finally became unconditional.
III. Maintenance of Combat Efficiency
Delays in the arrival of replacements occurred very early in the Russian campaign. The combat strength of some infantry companies often dropped to an unbearably low level. The first stop-gap measure to be introduced was to screen all supply and service units for men who were fit for front-line duty. When these units were no longer in a position to provide suitable men, others with little or no training were called upon. They were transferred to the infantry as long as they could somehow
meet the physical requirements. Since proper training facilities were rarely available, the combat efficiency of the front-line units suffered considerably by the employment of such replacements. Another expedient was to form rifle companies with surplus personnel from artillery, antitank, or armored units that had lost their equipment and to commit them as infantry.
Many artillery and signal units were forced to release commissioned and noncommissioned officer personnel to the infantry and these arms were soon short of technicians and leaders. Any further transfers were therefore out of the question. In such instances the infantry units short of the minimum number of leaders had to be merged. The personnel and training situation of the field forces improved only after each division was assigned its own field replacement training battalion which guaranteed a satisfactory flow of replacements. During position warfare the divisions in the field were then able to raise the training standards by organizing a variety of courses, but the shortage of combat units frequently forced the command to commit these training battalions as temporary combat units. During the last stage of the war, training and replacement divisions of the various armies as well as Army service schools were often called into action in emergencies. As a result, training organizations that had been built up under great difficulties were repeatedly torn apart and destroyed.
Maintaining the combat efficiency of the infantry divisions despite their continuous commitment and the impossibility of relieving entire divisions presented a special problem. When the fighting raged with full fury for several consecutive weeks, it was impossible to relieve the front-line units by reserves because the situation usually was too critical. Only too often the troops were forced to continue fighting until they were completely exhausted. In order to have at least some small but well-rested assault detachment available, the units alternated in withdrawing a small number of soldiers from the thick of the fighting to give them two or three days' rest behind the lines. For the same purpose headquarters and higher echelon supply personnel up to and including army staffs were committed at the front in rotation.
Since transportation to and from Germany was often disrupted, leaves and furloughs had to be frozen for long periods. Whenever the situation permitted, armies, corps, and divisions therefore established rest camps for the men who were due furloughs. These camps were invaluable in maintaining the combat efficiency and morale of the troops. Another improvisation was the introduction of so-called sponsorships at higher
headquarters. Certain staff officers maintained constant personal contact with specific combat units and took them under their wings. Moreover, up to 10 percent of the personnel assigned to headquarters staffs rotated with their comrades at the front to allow them to go on leave or to a rest camp. These measures were of benefit to the troops and improved the relationship between headquarters staffs and combat units.
A very successful improvisation was the introduction of rehabilitation units. Soldiers who had been sentenced to serve extended prison terms but who showed promise of reforming were not relieved of front-line duty but put on parole and transferred to improvised rehabilitation platoons, companies, or battalions. These were committed at critical points of the front. The rehabilitation units had particularly efficient commissioned and noncommissioned officers and gave a good account of themselves. This very effective improvisation soon became a permanent institution which received unanimous approval and was accepted as a good solution not only by the prisoners but also by the officers to whose units they were assigned. In 1944 one of these rehabilitation battalions fought exceptionally well in the encircled fortress of Ternopol in eastern Galicia. When the town fell a number of noncommissioned officers and men of this battalion fought their way back to their own lines under great hazards and hardships.
The organization of indigenous units was another improvisation designed to strengthen German fighting power. Such units were organized in occupied territories and friendly countries, especially by the Waffen-SS [Ed: combat arm of the SS; in effect a partial duplication of the German Army]. They relieved German units of minor duties and were also frequently committed as combat units. Their performance at the front was far below the standard of German troops. For this reason the front-line troops usually objected to the employment of indigenous units. On the other hand, many volunteers from prisoner-of-war camps were employed as auxiliaries to replace soldiers transferred from supply and service units. In general they were quite dependable and useful.
Late in the war, when few or no replacements were available, all divisions in the field had to use some of their service troops to form emergency alert units. These were originally intended for the defense of strong points or towns in their rear areas or as security detachments for rear positions; but frequently they had to be committed in the front lines to close a gap and sometimes even for the purpose of local counterattacks.
As another emergency measure, convalescent furloughs granted to sick or wounded soldiers were severely curtailed in order to shorten all periods of absence from the front. But, since it was obvious that combat units could only use fully recovered men, most local military authorities failed to comply with these regulations. They also showed great reluctance in carrying out another order which pertained to the induction of men in advanced age groups who were also affected by the draft because the age limit had been raised. It was felt that these older men ought to remain in their civilian occupations where they would be able to serve the nation much better than as soldiers.
IV. The Employment of Women in the Armed Forces
The employment of women with the German field forces was not as widespread as among enemy armed forces. During the latter part of the war women were used as clerical and signal communication auxiliaries at German forward headquarters. They took over these duties from men who were thereby released for combat. These women soon became familiar with living conditions at the front and settled down to do an excellent job. In the arctic the possibilities for employing women were very limited. In that region army headquarters was the lowest echelon to which the auxiliaries were ever assigned. The Russians on the Kandalaksha front, however, had divisional signal battalions exclusively composed of female personnel. Female radio operators were frequently identified as members of small Russian commando and sabotage teams dropped by parachute in the arctic. Generally these detachments consisted of one female radio operator and eight men.
In Germany proper the program of substituting female for male military personnel met with a great deal of opposition because it ran counter to well-established military traditions. The responsible administrative officials were very hesitant in introducing this new program but as the war progressed the increasing manpower shortage imposed the extensive utilization of women in a variety of military jobs.
One of the first measures was to employ women as instructors at riding and driving schools and as grooms at remount depots. They were also used as maintenance crews for aircraft at training centers, as parachute riggers, and as refueling personnel at airfields. A great number of women were employed as antiaircraft auxiliaries at fixed Flak installations throughout Germany. Toward the end of the war the percentage of female personnel in several searchlight units rose to 90 percent.
The Russians often used women to work as laborers on construction projects. In one instance some women captured near Orel told the story of a Russian improvisation to provide urgently needed laborers for work on fortifications. The impending German advance on Bryansk in 1941 was to be stopped by a strong belt of fortifications at the approaches to the city. For this purpose 100,000 laborers had to be recruited without delay. Among them were women from the Caucasus who had been hotel employees. One day the entire personnel of the hotel were suddenly ordered to assemble in the backyard. Not allowed to return to their rooms, they were marched to the railroad station where a train was waiting to take them to Bryansk. The work on the fortifications around the city took four weeks. At the end of that period all laborers were released on the spot and left to their fate.
The organization of the Finnish Lottas shows how the employment of women can raise a country's fighting power by releasing men. The Lotta-Svaerd, a sister organization of the Finnish security corps, had a membership of over 100,000 women and girls. During the war they performed all military duties which could possibly be taken over by a woman, regardless of the proximity of the enemy. Lottas were encountered in field kitchens of companies in the front lines. The commander of a Finnish border infantry battalion in a very exposed sector of the arctic front used a Lotta as battalion clerk and interpreter. The Finns also employed young boys in army uniforms as messengers and for similar duties.
page created 4 September 2002
Return to the Table of Contents
Return to CMH Online