During World War II, soldiers were assigned to a unit within the Ersatzheer before moving on to the Feldheer. Training consisted of 16 weeks of physical fitness and basic command and fire and maneuver techniques. The soldier became familiar with a variety of weapons and was knowledgeable in field operations up to the platoon level. Harsh training and discipline were hallmarks of the Heer during World War II, and both OKW and the general staff approved of strict rules and regulations. As the war progressed, such measures were considered vital to maintaining discipline in the ranks and ensuring that soldiers would obey orders. Offenses such as disobedience or desertion were punishable by immediate execution. At times even officers who were perceived to have failed in their duties were summarily shot.
The training was rigorous, continuing a proven track that had been effective during the years of the interwar Reichswehr and the clandestine buildup of the German military. Lengthy forced marches with full combat loads, live fire drills, and relentless rounds of conditioning exercises resulted in some soldiers dying from sheer exhaustion. Injuries were common. The typical day lasted from sunrise until well after dark. Although the Heer was one of the most highly mechanized armies in the world, only about 20 percent of it was motorized during World War II. Soldiers who entered the artillery or supply branches were trained to care for their unit’s horses.
Infantry training was a requirement for all personnel regardless of intent to serve in other branches of the Heer. Basic artillery school, for example, included an additional three months of training once the compulsory infantry course was completed.
The Military Service Law
Published in 1945, the U.S. Army technical manual on the German military organization notes the opening clause of the Military Service Law issued by Hitler on May 21, 1935. “Military service is honorary service to the German people. Every German is liable to military service. In time of war, in addition to liability to military service, every German man and every German woman is liable to service to the Fatherland.”
From 1935 on, German men were subject to military service from their 18th birthday until the end of the month of March following their 45th birthday. Later, the age of conscription was extended from age 17 to 61, and during the last days of the Third Reich boys as young as 12 were defending the smoldering ruins of Berlin. Individuals deemed somewhat short of immediately fit for service were classified in one of several reserve components and subject to activation at any time.
Certain classes, such as Jews, were excluded from service. However, as the need for manpower increased the standards for physical fitness were lowered. Even convicts serving prison terms were pressed into the ranks, and convalescing soldiers who might have previously been furloughed were returned to their units.
10 Million Soldiers of the Heer
During the course of World War II, the strength of the Heer approached 10 million men at its peak. Between 1939 and 1945, the Heer suffered more than 4.2 million dead and nearly 400,000 taken prisoner, bearing by far the heaviest burden of the fight for Nazi Germany. The combat prowess of the German soldier in World War II was grudgingly acknowledged by his adversaries, and historians have noted that as a whole the Heer acquitted itself with tremendous courage in the face of a continually deteriorating strategic and tactical situation after 1942. Although some Heer units are known to have committed atrocities against prisoners and civilians, most common soldiers served with honor.
In his acclaimed book Frontsoldaten, Stephen G. Fritz comments, “As perpetrators, whether out of conviction or not, these common men existed as part of a great destructive machine, ready and willing to kill and destroy in order to achieve the goals of a murderous regime. In the role of victims, they lived daily with the physical hardships, the psychological burdens, and the often crushing anxieties of death and killing that constitute the everyday life of all combat soldiers.”
The Feldheer Fighting in Multiple Theaters
For all his ineptitude as a military strategist, particularly his strategic blunders committed in 1940 and later, Hitler was the catalyst for the growth and development of a fighting machine which was, up to that time, the most formidable in the world. The Heer was the premiere component of that machine, fighting across fronts that extended from the Caucasus to the desert of North Africa and from the English Channel to the Arctic Circle.
When the Feldheer deployed for combat, its strategic perspective was divided into theaters both large and small, created on the same basic principle of separating the frontline units and combat commands from support and administrative units to their rear. Division or corps formations were placed before the enemy on the strategic map with reserves drawn up to provide reinforcements. The frontline troops and reserves were grouped in an area designated as the combat zone. Directly behind, in the communications zone, were the rear areas of individual armies, while the rear area of an entire army group was still farther back. Collectively, the combat and communications zones were known as a theater of operations.
Behind the theater of operations was the occupied territory, or zone of military administration, which included ground under the control of the Heer ranging in size from a few square miles to an entire country. The German homeland was farthest from the combat front and divided into military districts that maintained direct communication with the Feldheer and the Ersatzheer to facilitate the transportation of supplies and troops to the front lines. The theater concept proved flexible and easily adapted to the size and strength of the forces available.
The organizational structure of the Feldheer changed continually during World War II as divisions, corps, and armies were realigned among commands, transferred from one operational area to another, or refitted as replacement troops to fill the depleted ranks of units that had taken combat losses. At times, some Heer units were so depleted that they retained their designation as divisions or regiments although their effective strength was far below the standard level.Heeresgruppen Nord
The largest operational unit within the Feldheer was the army group, which consisted of two or more armies with organic components of infantry, armor, artillery, and often a Luftwaffe air contingent operating cooperatively. The strength of an army group was usually several hundred thousand soldiers. Those that consisted entirely of German troops were known as Heeresgruppen.
One example of the evolving composition and deployment of Feldheer forces is Heeresgruppe Nord, Army Group North, which was nominally under the control of OKH throughout World War II. Army Group North was formed in September 1939 under the command of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock. During the invasion of Poland, its organic elements included the Third and Fourth Armies with the 10th Panzer Division and the 73rd, 206th, and 208th Infantry Divisions in reserve.
In October 1939, following the Polish campaign, Army Group North was transferred to the West, redesignated Army Group B, and included the Fourth and Sixth Armies. By the time the Heer executed Case Yellow, unleashing 136 divisions for the invasion of France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, Bock’s Army Group B included the three corps of General Georg von Kuchler’s Eighteenth Army and the six corps of the Sixth Army under General Walter von Reichenau. The total strength of Army Group B included 29 divisions in the spring and summer of 1940. Of these, 23 were infantry, three panzer, two motorized infantry, and one cavalry.
Army Group North on the Eastern Front
In preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union, a new Army Group North was constituted on the Eastern Front and consisted largely of units drawn from Army Group C. Under Field Marshal Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, Army Group North advanced on Leningrad and was poised to take the city when Hitler ordered the advance halted so that its civilian population could be starved into submission by siege. In the end, the 900-day siege of Leningrad was unsuccessful and tied down large numbers of German troops. During the opening months of Operation Barbarossa, this second incarnation of Army Group North included the Eighteenth Army, Sixteenth Army, Fourth Panzer Army, and specialized units.
Army Group North was deployed on the Eastern Front for the remainder of the war, and in October 1941 included the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies along with the troops of the Spanish Blue Division, Fascist soldiers from Franco’s Spain who volunteered to serve with the Feldheer. A year later, under the command of von Kuchler, Army Group North was augmented by the Eleventh Army. During seven months of combat along the Baltic in 1944, the army group was commanded by Field Marshal Walter Model, Col. Gen. Georg Lindemann, Col. Gen. Johannes Friessner, and Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner.
In the waning months of the war, Army Group North operated in Prussia with the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Armies reinforced by various detachments and battle groups. Fighting in Latvia in January 1945, it was renamed Army Group Courland, while the remnants of the former Army Group Center was renamed as yet another Army Group North.