When the invasion of the Soviet Union commenced on June 22, 1941, Hitler interfered with operations from the beginning. He accomplished this through orders issued by OKW. Just as he had done in France weeks earlier, ordering his ground troops to halt and allowing thousands of British and French soldiers to escape from Dunkirk, he grew restless as German forces neared the Soviet capital of Moscow.
Hitler diverted troops of Field Marshal Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Center to the north and south of the Soviet capital, rendering Bock’s planned armored offensive to capture Moscow impossible to execute and depriving Bock of the initiative to potentially win the war in the East.
From the autumn of 1940 until the end of the war, the Feldheer (Field Army) in the West, also known as the Westheer, was under the control of Oberfelshaber West, or OB West, which answered directly to OKW. OB West was responsible for the implementation of orders issued by Hitler and transmitted through OKW. The OB West area of operations included the coastal defenses of the Atlantic Wall and the occupied territories of the Low Countries. At the end of the war, the remnants of OB West command were located in Bavaria.
Hitler’s continuing suspicions of the general staff and the high-ranking commanders whose careers were traced to the officer elite of the Junker class, is evidenced by the Führer’s replacement of the commander of OB West no fewer than six times. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt was appointed and then sacked on three occasions. He commanded OB West from October 1940 to April 1941 and was replaced by Field Marshal Erwin von Witzleben from May 1941 to March 1942. Rundstedt was reinstated and commanded OB West from March 1942 to July 1944 and was followed by Field Marshal Günther von Kluge from early July to mid-August of that year. Field Marshal Walter Model held the post for two weeks in August and September 1944, and Rundstedt again commanded OB West from September 1944 until March 1945. The final commander of OB West was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who served for the remaining weeks of the war.
“Hitler’s distrust of the generals caused him to interfere extensively in the conduct of operations,” wrote author Walter Goerlitz in History of the German General Staff. “The policy … which left the subordinate commander freedom for individual decisions within the framework of general directives, and which had become an essential part of Germany’s traditional military method, was particularly in place in those great Russian spaces. Hitler, however, a victim of the illusion that he could move armies around as though they were battalions on parade, now adopted the practice of leaving commanders virtually no latitude at all. There was already a severe difference of opinion between General Staff and Supreme War Lord as to the real objectives of the campaign. Hitler … introduced into it a further element of disastrous uncertainty.”
Officers of the Heer
The German soldier was, without question, part of a great war machine, trained, organized, and intended for conquest. Quite a small percentage of those who wore the uniform of the Heer were officers.
While the Heer grew exponentially during the 1930s, the character of its officer corps evolved markedly. The tradition of Prussian and then German aristocratic senior commanders began to fade for several reasons, including Hitler’s mistrust of the elite old-line officers, the expansion itself which demanded larger numbers of officers to lead growing military units, and the indoctrination of Nazi ideology throughout the ranks of the Heer, which eventually subordinated itself to the Führer. As the war progressed, individuals who might not otherwise have been able to achieve officer rank did actually do so, either based on merit, heroism on the battlefield, or due to attrition as casualties mounted.
Officers of the Heer were grouped into three classifications based upon experience and particularly the circumstances under which the individual had risen to officer rank. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the reserve officer corps consisted primarily of noncommissioned officers who had served with distinction and were commissioned as reserve officers when they were discharged from active duty or men who had been conscripted and carried out their duties capably during their first year of service, showing promise as officers. A sufficient level of education was required for the second group, and such qualified reservists were designated as officer cadets, who received extensive training as infantry platoon leaders during their second year of service. Reservists were required to participate in yearly training exercises.
The other two groups of officers were within the framework of the standing Heer or had retired from it. General staff corps officers included those who were considered capable of high command and were chosen for specialized training to fill such roles. The regular officers were active with the Heer and held various command and staff positions throughout the hierarchy. As the war progressed, the number of regular officers was increased via the recall of many who had retired prior to 1939 and the permanent commissioning of some noncommissioned officers promoted in the field.
The Wartime Officer Corps
The requirement for manpower led to conscripts being retained for service following the end of their initial required enlistment period. A few of these men volunteered or were recognized as having the necessary qualities to become reserve officers. These conscripts were trained as officers, received reserve commissions, and pledged to serve through the end of the war.
During wartime, soldiers were regularly promoted to officer rank following a few months of specific training based on their combat experience and leadership capabilities. The standard training period for officer candidates remained lengthy, up to 20 months. Some officer candidates received credit for active duty regardless of combat experience because of the increasing need for field officers as casualty rates climbed.
Four Sections of Rank
The officer corps of the Heer was divided into four sections based on rank, one consisting of junior officers such as lieutenants, another of all captains, and a third of field grade officers that included majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels. The fourth group encompassed all general officers, who, along with lower ranking officers of the general staff, were distinguished easily by wide red stripes running the length of their uniform trousers.
Although the elite status of the German officer corps was eroded somewhat during the Nazi era, the prewar life of an officer included good pay, accommodations, and food. Officers were given a uniform allowance upon commissioning but afterward were required to purchase their own uniforms.
Offensive Actions and Leading From the Front
While wartime training periods were frequently shortened due to the need for officers in combat zones, the standard regular officer training regimen included 10 months of basic infantry and noncommissioned officer schooling under the direction of the Ersatzheer (Replacement Army), seven months in the field to include affiliation with an actively serving unit, training in an appropriate staff setting or combat arms school, and three months of advanced, specialized training in infantry, armor, artillery, or support branches. The training curriculum for reserve officer candidates was similar, although it involved more extensive supervision by the Ersatzheer.
Continually favoring offensive action, the training regimen of the Heer stressed the concept of leading from the front. In doing so, it paid a terrible price. By the end of World War II, at least 80 German generals had been killed in action, while dozens more had suffered wounds. From September 1939 through March 1942, more than 16,000 German officers died, the majority of them in action on the Eastern Front.
NCOs of the German Army
The noncommissioned officer was the backbone of the Army in the field and included career soldiers or those identified from the ranks of draftees who completed training and chose to apply for noncommissioned officer rank. The latter were designated as a reserve component to differentiate them from those who had chosen a military career rather than been conscripted. Divided into two groups, senior and junior, noncommissioned officers were distinguished as one or the other by the presence of a cord worn on the soldier’s sidearm. Junior noncommissioned officers did not wear cords.
Young men over 16 years of age were allowed to apply for noncommissioned officer training and to enter the Army at the age of 17, while those active soldiers who applied for noncommissioned officer training were required to have served at least a year from the date of their conscription. Service terms of four years and six months or of 12 years were initially available depending upon the age of the soldier, and training included four months of basic instruction followed by six months of specific training for infantry, artillery, armor, mountain troops, or other service.
Late in the war, the training regimen was modified, accelerating the basic period to take place within an active arm of the Heer rather than in a school setting. This was followed by five months as a squad commander or possibly a shorter period for other specialized assignments. Eventually, the exigencies of war reduced the training of some noncommissioned officers to less than three months, particularly for soldiers who had already served for long periods and experienced combat.