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The Not-So-Secret Way Hitler Conquered Europe During World War II

September 8, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Military HistoryWWII HistoryNazi GermanyGerman ArmyWWII

The Not-So-Secret Way Hitler Conquered Europe During World War II

But it didn't work.

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.

The Three Army Group Bs

Army Group B was actually the designation of three different formations during the war. In addition to Bock’s command of 300,000 troops that fought in Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940, a second Army Group B was formed in the East prior to the Wehrmacht offensive against the Red Army in the summer of 1942. This command consisted primarily of troops of the former Army Group South and included the ill-fated Sixth Army under Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus, which was annihilated by the Red Army during the six-month Battle of Stalingrad. After the Stalingrad debacle, this Army Group B was combined with Army Group Don to form another Army Group South.

The third incarnation of Army Group B took shape in northern Italy in 1943 under Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. The army group was transferred to France after D-Day, and command passed to Field Marshal Günther von Kluge and later to Field Marshal Model. Elements of Army Group B participated in the fighting in Normandy, Operation Market-Garden, the Allied airborne and ground offensive in the Netherlands in the autumn of 1944, and the Ardennes offensive, which is popularly known as the Battle of the Bulge.

While in Italy, Army Group B included at various times the German Second Army, the Italian Eighth Army, the Hungarian Second Army, and for a time the II SS Panzer Corps. Its composition on the Western Front included Panzer Group West, the First Army, Seventh Army, Fifteenth Army, the Fifth and Sixth Panzer Armies, and the First Parachute Army.

The Armeegruppe

Axis army groups that included German formations along with those of other nations, particularly the Italian Army in North Africa and the Romanian and Hungarian Armies on the Eastern Front, were often designated as Armeegruppen. Prior to 1943, the term Armeegruppe was more loosely defined and included reinforced formations or even large groupings of particular divisions. Later, when Axis forces of more than one nation operated cooperatively, the headquarters of the German component of the Armeegruppe was usually in overall command.

Armies, Corps, and Divisions of the Heer

A standard army-sized unit within the Heer numbered from 60,000 to 100,000 troops formed in one or more corps and including attached specialized units. An army corps consisted of one or more divisions along with attached units, reserves, and any additional support troops assigned. Corps headquarters served as “bridge” command structure between the strategic direction of armies and the tactical deployment of smaller units such as divisions or battle groups. The corps generally consisted of 40,000 to 60,000 soldiers including both combat and support troops.

The composition of Feldheer divisions during World War II depended on their type and purpose. Infantry divisions were comprised of different units than panzer divisions. Therefore, an infantry division most often consisted of up to four regiments along with attached units totaling of 10,000 to 20,000 men. Its headquarters provided tactical field direction for fighting regiments under its command.

The 1st Infantry Division

Activated in October 1934, during the early phase of the Heer’s growth under the Nazi regime, the 1st Infantry Division traced its beginning to the prewar Reichswehr and was originally known by a series of euphemistic names to camouflage its true purpose as an infantry formation, which violated the terms of the Versailles Treaty. A “Wave One” unit, the 1st Division included soldiers who were called up in the first wave of German military conscription prior to World War II.

The 1st Division participated in the Polish campaign as a component of the XXVI Corps and Third Army commanded by General von Küchler. The division transferred to France briefly and then returned to the Eastern Front for the rest of the war. Participating in the advance of the Eighteenth Army on Leningrad, the division fought in the area of Lake Ladoga and transferred to the First Panzer Army in the winter of 1943. Later operating with the Third and Fourth Armies, the 1st Division fought the Soviet Red Army in the vicinity of Königsberg in East Prussia until the end of the war.

The exigencies of combat influenced the composition of the 1st Division significantly. During the Polish campaign, it consisted of three infantry regiments, the 1st, 22nd, and 43rd, an artillery regiment with an attached battalion, machine-gun, antitank, pioneer, reconnaissance, signals, and medical battalions. By 1944, the division included Füsilier Regiment 22, which combined the capabilities of heavy infantry and reconnaissance troops; Grenadier Regiments 22 and 43, comprised of ordinary foot soldiers; Artillery Regiment 1 with an additional artillery battalion; and various support formations. From its inception through the end of the war, the 1st Division was led by no fewer than 12 different commanders.

Organizing Regiments and Companies

Below the division level, the regiment consisted of 2,000 to 6,000 soldiers, who engaged in direct combat with the enemy and deployed organic units along with attached formations as necessary. At times, the regiment included independent battalions or abteilungen. In theory, the 500- to 1,000-man abteilung was the smallest unit in the Heer that was capable of sustained combat operations without the direct support of other units. An operational abteilung regularly included infantry, artillery, armor, and pioneer formations, along with heavy weapons support such as machine-gun and mortar units, to accomplish an assigned tactical mission.

The 100- to 200-man company served at the tactical level and usually included four or five platoons, which were the primary combat formations of the Heer infantry. Each platoon was initially divided into squads of 13 soldiers. Later, when the 13-man configuration proved unwieldy on the battlefield, the size of the squad was decreased to 10 men. Although Hitler controlled the highest levels of command through OKW, subordinate commanders in the field were often allowed considerable independence. Junior officers and noncommissioned officers of the Heer gained a reputation for independent combat initiative.

Kampfgruppen: Germany’s Combat Command Structure

Combat operations often involved the formation of self-contained units known as battle groups, or kampfgruppen. These were combinations of units that provided comprehensive ground capabilities and ranged in size from corps to battalion or company level. Each kampfgruppe usually included infantry, armor, artillery, and antitank elements along with support troops such as pioneers and medical detachments.

Formed in the field and comprised of the units at hand, the kampfgruppe was often a temporary organization that bore the name of its commanding officer and was ordered to carry out a specific mission. A standard formation of Heer tactical guidelines and field operations, the kampfgruppe was somewhat similar to the combat command structure employed by the U.S. Army during World War II.

The Kampfgruppe in Action

During the retreat of Axis forces across North Africa following their defeat at El Alamein in the autumn of 1942, German and Italian troops were pushed across hundreds of miles of desert. With Allied forces advancing from east and west, Axis troops under Generals Erwin Rommel and Hans-Jürgen von Arnim were in danger of being cut off from one another during their fighting withdrawal toward the Tunisian coast. Several kampfgruppe were dispatched to hold vital mountain passes against the advancing Allies.

One such battle group was Kampfgruppe Fullriede, formed in February 1943 under the command of Lt. Col. Fritz Fullriede. Defending the Fondouk passes along a front of 65 kilometers, Fullriede had 12 infantry companies, nine German and three Italian, 14 Italian field guns, three small German artillery pieces, and the 334th Armored Car Battalion, which fielded several light antiaircraft guns and two 88mm cannons originally intended for antiaircraft use but deadly in an antitank role. Augmented by a platoon of special forces from the famed Brandenburg Regiment, Kampfgruppe Fullriede launched a successful counterattack against U.S. forces that had previously driven his forward elements from defensive positions and captured a nearby village.

Further reinforced by the 190th Reconnaissance Battalion, Fullriede deployed a pair of self-propelled 75mm guns and cleared another mountain pass. Holding these routes open for days with little replenishment of supplies or reinforcements, Kampfgruppe Fullriede was retired on April 9, 1943, after nearly two months of steady combat.

The combat formations of the Feldheer proved adept at swift movement and exploitation of breakthroughs in enemy lines during offensive operations, particularly the Blitzkrieg, which combined air, armor, infantry, and artillery in the swift conquest of Poland, vast territory of the Soviet Union, and much of Western Europe from 1939 to 1941.

Once on the defensive, the Feldheer was resilient, its tactical commanders resourceful, and its soldiers battle hardened and grimly determined to defend the Fatherland.

This article by Michael E. Haskew originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons