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The following article on the German Army WW2 is an excerpt from Barrett Tillman’ D-Day Encyclopedia. It is available for order now from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 

The German army was often misidentified in Anglo-American reports as the ‘‘Wehrmacht,’’ which in fact referred to the armed forces as a whole. The German word for ‘‘army’’ is Heer; the overall command of the army was OKH, or Oberkommando des Heeres, at Zossen near Berlin. Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), which essentially was Hitler’s domain from 1938, remained under his direct control. Because the Wehrmacht was composed of the army, navy, air force, and Waffen SS units, Hitler’s interest and therefore loyalties were divided—in favor of the army. With his World War I experience, he felt that he understood land warfare, whereas he largely left the navy to competent professionals. His political partners, Hermann Göering and Heinrich Himmler, operated the air force and SS, respectively, mostly as they saw fit, but neither was wholly immune to the Führer’s influence and meddling.


From an operating perspective, from 1941 onward OKW directed German fortunes in all fronts but Russia, which remained the special province of OKH. However, an organizational flaw limited the usefulness of the arrangement, because Hitler kept his army commanders focused on operational rather than strategic concerns. The situation further deteriorated after Hitler, technically a civilian, appointed himself commander in chief of the army, an act unprecedented in Prussian or German history.

The German army raised an incredible 315 infantry divisions during World War II—a stunning total, considering that America formed only sixty-six Army infantry divisions plus six for the Marine Corps. An additional eighteen or so Waffen SS infantry divisions augmented the Heer total.

In 1939 most divisions comprised three regiments, each of three battalions—the ‘‘triangular’’ format adopted by the U.S. Army in contrast to the previous ‘‘square’’ formations. Additionally German divisions had a reconnaissance squadron, an antitank and engineer battalion, and an artillery regiment totaling forty-eight guns of 105 and 155 mm.

In contrast, by 1944 a representative German infantry regiment had two battalions, and an artillery regiment thirty-two guns. The deficit was partly offset by improved antitank and antiaircraft capability. However, by D-Day there was no longer a ‘‘standard’’ German infantry division. Manpower had been stretched to the limit, and units generally were brought up to strength (or near to it) only for important operations. Otherwise, new units often were formed rather than sending replacements to older ones.

Germany also employed panzer grenadier divisions, which were essentially mechanized infantry. Each grenadier division nominally had adequate motor transport for the infantry and artillery, as well as an assigned tank battalion. However, even at its height the German army was approximately 50 percent horse drawn, and the practical difference between panzer grenadiers and ‘‘straight leg’’ infantry dwindled considerably over time.

Nowhere was the decline of the once invincible German army better illustrated than in its armored component. A 1940 panzer division fielded 328 tanks of all types, with five mechanized infantry battalions plus engineer, antitank, and reconnaissance battalions. By comparison, in 1944 a full-strength panzer division owned about 160 tanks—half the 1940 figure—and four mechanized infantry battalions. Additionally, in 1944 divisional artillery comprised six batteries, nominally with forty-two 105 mm howitzers, eighteen 75 mm guns, and a dozen 150 mm.

Despite an awesome numerical disparity in favor of both the Western and Soviet armies, the Heer often outfought its opponents. The primary reasons were threefold: a high degree of institutional experience; excellent leadership and training down to the unit level; and a combination of wellintegrated doctrine and first-class equipment. German tanks were technically superior to anything the United States or Britain fielded, and they could cope with the excellent Soviet T-34. Consequently, the numerical disadvantage faced by panzer units often was redressed by high-quality equipment and practiced skill.

The German army’s artillery was legendary, and though the dualpurpose 88 mm antiaircraft gun (equally successful against armor) got much of the attention, most German ‘‘tubes’’ were high quality and fired excellent ammunition. Eventually, however, the equally competent American and Russian artillery made their weight felt.

Germany’s small arms, especially automatic weapons, were world class and played a key role in battlefield success. But leadership counted for more than equipment. Time and again the German army was able to throw together elements of battered units from disparate sources and conduct surprisingly effective operations, usually holding or retrograde movements. The organization and conduct of such Kampfgruppen (battle groups) was so impressive that NATO commanders studied them during the Cold War.

German divisions were smaller than their U.S. counterparts (12,769 at full strength versus 14,037) and contained 2,500 fewer riflemen, though much of the deficit was made up in automatic weapons. The American units had twice as many mortars and antitank guns, but German divisions possessed more and often better artillery. However, the Americans were far more mobile. The Waffen SS generally comprised experienced, wellequipped divisions that operated separately from the army. SS divisions also were often larger than their Heer counterparts.

At the beginning of June 1944 the German army was thinly spread across the Eurasian landmass: 156 divisions deployed against Russia, twenty-seven in Italy, and fifty-four in the West. Overall, the German order of battle in Normandy involved nine infantry corps (one parachute) and five panzer corps. The following armored units were engaged during June:

Armored Divisions

Germany had ten panzer divisions in Normandy, including five from the Waffen SS. Most were experienced in the West and Russia. However, the average panzer division along the Atlantic Wall possessed merely seventy-five tanks. Owing to Allied deception measures, some German armored units failed to engage the Anglo-Americans until after D-Day.

First SS Panzer Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler

german soldier ww2

Hitler’s ‘‘bodyguard’’ was formed at Berlin in March 1933 with some 3,600 men but remained largely a political organization until the start of the war. Oberstgruppenfuhrer Josef Dietrich led the division as a panzer grenadier unit from 1 September 1939, attacking Poland, France, and the Low Countries. In April 1943 he was succeeded by Brigadeführer (brigadier general) Theodor Wisch, who remained until 20 August 1944. In October 1943, following combat in Russia and Italy, Leibstandarte was reorganized as a panzer unit. Wisch took First SS to Belgium during May 1944, bringing its strength up to 16,600 men.

Leibstandarte fought in Normandy, where it was badly mauled by Allied air and ground forces in a counterattack near Mortain. Brigadeführer Wilhelm Mohnke assumed command after Wisch was wounded in August, then withdrew and re-formed the division in time to participate in the Ardennes offensive that winter. Transferred to the East, the division attempted to raise the siege of Budapest but failed. It finished its fighting in Hungary and Austria in 1945, where Brigadeführer Otto Kumm surrendered on 8 May.

Second Panzer

One of the three oldest tank units in the German army, Second Panzer was formed at Wurzburg in 1935 under Generalmajor Heinz Guderian— one of the greatest armored commanders of all time. The division moved to Vienna following the Anschluss of 1938, and subsequently many Austrians were assigned.

Under General der Panzer Truppen Rudolf Veiel, Second Panzer fought in Poland in 1939 and France in 1940. Returning eastward, it was committed to the Balkans and Russia in 1941, seeing almost constant combat. The division survived the epic battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943 and was withdrawn for rest and recuperation in France in 1944.

Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Luttwitz took command of the division in February 1944. Soon after D-Day he launched an attack at Mortain; it failed against heavy opposition, and he withdrew. Part of the division escaped the Falaise pocket, regrouped in September, and participated in the Ardennes offensive that winter. By then Generalmajor Meinrad von Lauchert had taken over.

By the end the command, under Oberst (Col.) Carl Stollbrock, had withered to four tanks, three assault guns, and some two hundred men, who surrendered to Allied troops at Plauen in April 1945.

Second SS Panzer das Reich

The future Second SS Panzer Division was formed from three SS regiments in October 1939. Its title changed over the next three years, becoming Das Reich in May 1942. It became a panzer grenadier division in November 1942, drawing from the Second SS Motorized Division, which had fought in the Balkans and Russia 1941–42. The division participated in the occupation of Vichy in 1942, returning to the Eastern Front in early 1943.

Das Reich became a dedicated panzer division (the second in the SS) in October 1943 under Gruppenfuhrer (major general) Heinz Lammerding, who remained until July 1944. The division refitted in France beginning February 1944 and by June counted 20,100 troopers in its panzer regiment, two grenadier regiments, a self-propelled artillery regiment, and affiliated units. Standartenführer (colonel) Christian Tychsen briefly commanded until Brigadeführer Otto Baum took over on 28 July.

Das Reich opposed Overlord, earning lasting condemnation for an atrocity conducted en route. At Oradour sur Glane, 250 miles south of Normandy, a company of the Der Führer Regiment killed 642 civilians in reprisal for French Resistance attacks and abduction of a German officer in the area. The town remains unrestored, in tribute to the victims.

Withdrawn to Germany, Second SS played a leading role in the Ardennes offensive of late 1944, again under Lammerding. Subsequent operations were conducted in Hungary and Austria during 1945. Standartenfuhrer Karl Kreutz surrendered his command to the U.S. Army in May.

During the war Das Reich troopers received sixty-nine Knight’s Crosses, a record for Waffen SS units.

Ninth SS Panzer Hohenstaufen

Ninth SS Panzer’s honorific was selected to recognize the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire from 1138 to 1250. Notwithstanding its elite SS status, when formed in February 1943 it relied partly upon conscripts. Component units were the Ninth Panzer Regiment, Ninth and Twentieth Panzer Grenadiers, and Ninth Panzer Artillery.

The original commander was Obergruppenfuhrer (lieutenant general) Willi Bittrich, from February 1943 to 29 June 1944. Committed to Russia in March 1944, Hohenstaufen helped free German forces from the Kamenets-Podolsk pocket the following month.

As part of II SS Panzer Corps, the division was quickly transferred to the West in June, where Bittrich was succeeded by Oberfuhrer (between U.S. colonel and brigadier general) Thomas Muller who began a succession of short-lived leaders during July. Lacking 25 percent of its authorized strength in officers and noncoms, the division also faced a severe transport shortage— 345 cross-country trucks were on hand of the nearly 1,100 authorized. Road transport was somewhat more plentiful. No Mark V Panthers (Tanks, German) were available, so Hohenstaufen made do with Mark IVs.

Hohenstaufen’s final commander was Brigadeführer (brigadier general) Sylvester Stadler, who assumed command in October 1944 and remained for the final seven months of the war.

Tenth SS Panzer Frundsberg

Tenth SS Panzer was raised as a panzer grenadier division in January 1943 and was designated a tank unit in October under Gruppenführer (major general) Lothar Debes. The division was sent to Russia in March 1944 and, like its sister division Ninth SS, participated in the Kamenets breakout in April. However, it returned to France in mid-June in response to the crisis in Normandy. Somewhat understrength, it counted approximately 15,800 men at the time of D-Day. Under Gruppenführer Heinz Harmel, who was to command the division for all but the final month of the war, by 24 June the division staff and advance elements had reached the Normandy assembly area, preparing to give battle the next day.

Frundsberg fought at Arnhem (gaining a reputation for chivalry for its treatment of British POWs) and the West Wall. Returned eastward in February 1945, the division subsequently was withdrawn to Pomerania. In May, surrounded, it surrendered to the Soviets at Schonau in Saxony.

Twelfth SS Panzer Hitlerjugend

Formed as a panzer grenadier unit in June 1943, Hitlerjugend was composed in large part of recruits from the Hitler Youth organization, most of them born in 1926. Under Brigadeführer Fritz Witt, leadership and training were provided by combat veterans of First SS Panzer, the elite Leibstandarte, and it proved a formidable combination. ‘‘HJ’’ was converted to a panzer division in October, its units based in France and Belgium. By 1 June the component regiments were Twelfth Panzer, Twenty-fifth and Twenty-sixth Panzer Grenadier, Third Artillery, and the usual recon and support units totaling 17,800 personnel.

Witt was killed on 14 June, succeeded by the highly capable Sturmbannführer (Major) Kurt Meyer. Though relatively junior, Meyer was vastly experienced and was elevated to Brigadeführer upon assuming command of the division. He remained until November, when Brigadeführer Hugo Kraas received permanent command.

With a lethal mix of SS combat experience directing teenage Nazi enthusiasm, Twelfth SS Panzer became extraordinarily effective. The division gained a fearsome reputation against the Canadians in Normandy, fighting nearly to destruction. However, its reputation was badly marred by incidents in which Allied prisoners were murdered—often the acts of young soldiers imbued with nationalist fervor from age ten onward.

Hitlerjugend survivors were withdrawn to Bremen for recuperation and rebuilding, and HJ was ready for the Ardennes offensive in December. It finished the war fighting in Hungary and Austria. By then merely 450 youngsters of the original 21,300 remained in the division.

Twenty-first Panzer

Formed as the Fifth Light Division in early 1941, it became a tank unit in July. The Twenty-first fought in North Africa 1941–43 and was destroyed in the Tunisian collapse of May 1943. Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger reestablished the division in France in July of that year, but it saw no combat until June 1944.

Feuchtinger’s division had no Mark V Panther battalion, being wholly reliant upon Mark IVs, but possessed more than a hundred of the latter. Additional assets included an assault gun battalion and antitank battalion with towed 88 mm guns. Personnel had reached nearly full strength, with 16,300 officers, NCOs, and men.

The Twenty-first counterattacked against the British sector but sustained heavy losses, including fifty-four tanks. Throughout June the division sustained 1,250 killed or missing and 1,600 wounded.

Later combat occurred at the West Wall before transfer to the Eastern Front in January 1945. The last commander was Generalleutnant Werner Marcks, who surrendered in April.

116th Panzer.

A new unit, the 116th was raised in March 1944 by converting the Sixteenth Panzer Grenadier Division. Its first combat came in Normandy under General der Panzer Truppen Gerhard Graf (Count) von Schwerin, an Afrika Korps veteran. The division was based in western France but hastened to the Pas de Calais under the expectation that Normandy was a feint. Consequently, the 116th did not engage the Allies until July, in the massive tank battle for Mortain. The division withdrew with most other German units in August.

Generalmajor Siegfried von Waldenburg assumed command in September, remaining for the duration of the war. He directed subsequent operations in the Ardennes offensive. The division was trapped in the Ruhr pocket April 1945.

Panzer Lehr

One of the most formidable German armored formations was derived from training organizations and experienced tank-warfare instructors. The concept originated with Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, head of the Panzerwaffe, who gained the appointment for his colleague Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein. Formed at Potsdam on 10 January 1944, Panzer Lehr (Lehr is ‘‘instructor’’ in German) was composed of the 901st and 902d

Panzer Grenadier Lehr, 130th Panzer Lehr, and 130th Panzer Artillery Regiments, plus affiliated antitank, engineer, and reconnaissance battalions. However, many of the original units were transferred out or redesignated before D-Day.

Well supplied and manned, in May 1944 Lehr had 449 officers and 14,185 men, 183 tanks, 612 halftracks, 58 antitank guns, and 53 artillery pieces. The tanks were nearly all the excellent Mark V Panther, and Lehr was one of only two army divisions with a Mark VI Tiger battalion.

After assignment to Obergruppenführer (lieutenant general) Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzer Corps, Lehr was stationed in the Chartre-LeMansOrleans area. Consequently, the division was some eighty miles from the invasion beaches on 6 June; it was obliged to make a difficult and costly run to the coast. Though the division lost only five tanks on the way, it wrote off or abandoned eighty-four other armored vehicles and 130 trucks or transport vehicles. In subsequent combat against Allied forces west of Caen, notably against the British Seventh Armoured Division, Lehr inflicted losses on the enemy but withdrew to protect its flanks.

On 8 June Bayerlein was wounded in an air attack and turned over to a nobleman, Generalmajor Hyazinth Graf (Count) von Strachwitz. The aggressive Silesian attacked west of Caen on the morning of the ninth, in company with Twenty-first Panzer and Twelfth SS Panzer Divisions. The attack was unsuccessful owing to a British flanking movement, and another attempt the next day was countered by effective naval gunfire. Dietrich’s corps withdrew to defensive positions on the 11th.

Lehr suffered more at the hands of Allied airmen during Operation Cobra, when a massive Eighth Air Force bombing attack saturated the area on 25 July. Strachwitz estimated that 70 percent of his troops were killed, wounded, or stunned into ineffectiveness (the same attack, however, killed Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, commander of U.S. Army Ground Forces).

Count Strachwitz departed on 23 August, succeeded by three commanders during September before Bayerlein resumed command, to remain through the Ardennes offensive until January 1945. Oberst Paul Freiherr von Hauser was in command when Panzer Lehr was finally trapped in the Ruhr pocket in April 1945.

Panzer Grenadier Divisions

Seventeenth SS, Goetz von Berlichingen

Named for a sixteenth-century Teutonic baron, the division was established in October 1943 with many Volksdeutsche, or ethnic Germans. Its composition was two grenadier regiments and an artillery regiment; a tank component existed only in name. On D-Day the division was commanded by Russia veteran Oberführer Werner Ostendorff, who disposed of 17,300 men but possessed only 60 percent of the required officers and noncoms. There was precious little equipment and almost no transport. The panzer battalion had no tanks, and the division possessed only thirty-seven selfpropelled guns.

Advance elements clashed with the British Seventh Armoured Division near Littry shortly after D-Day, and the grenadiers fought an unsuccessful holding action for Carentan on D+6. Driven out with the Sixth Parachute Division, Ostendorff ’s troops unsuccessfully attempted to recapture the city from U.S. parachutists and elements of the Second Armored Division. (The action was well portrayed in Band of Brothers.) Ostendorff was badly wounded on 15 June, and the Seventeenth was steadily repulsed to Paris, then Metz, then through Alsace. On VE-Day most of the division surrendered near Achensee.

Infantry Divisions

Thirty-eight German infantry divisions were deployed in Normandy, including five static divisions for coastal defense. It is significant that among the ‘‘mobile’’ formations, authorized strength was 615 motor vehicles and 1,450 horse-drawn—70 percent operating on muscle power and 30 percent ‘‘horsepower’’! The infantry total included several Luftwaffe formations: parachute, field, and air-landing divisions.

Defending Normandy was the Seventh Army under Col. Gen. Friedrich Dollmann. He placed three divisions (243d Air Landing, 709th and 716th Infantry) on the Calvados coast and Cotentin Peninsula, backed by two counterattack units, the Ninety-first Air Landing and 352d Infantry Divisions.

Gen. Erich Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps defended a 250-mile coastal area with five divisions. The 716th covered fifty-five miles, backed by the 243d and 352d. The 319th Infantry Division was essentially idle on the Channel Islands.

The defenders of the landing beaches were, west to east:

709th Infantry Division

Deployed at the west end of the Utah Beach sector, the 709th was reasonably well staffed, with eleven battalions in three regiments: the 729th, 739th, and 919th. The first two included the 649th Ost Battalion and 795th Georgian Battalion, respectively, with conscripts from the East. The division also deployed the 1709th Artillery Regiment.

The 709th was formed in May 1941 but saw very little action until

D-Day. In December 1943 Generalleutnant (U.S. major general) KarlWilhelm von Schlieben assumed command and took the division to France. A company commander in the first war, he was twice wounded in action.

Between the wars he had served in infantry, cavalry, and staff positions. From 1940 onward he commanded infantry and armored formations, including the Eighteenth Panzer Division.

The 919th was the primary defender of Utah Beach, opposing the landing of the Fourth Infantry Division. On 23 June Field Marshal Erwin Rommel named von Schlieben commander of ‘‘Fortress Cherbourg,’’ and the division later capitulated there.

Ninety-first Air Landing Division

The area inland and northwest of Utah Beach was occupied by one of the numerous Luftwaffe formations. With the 243d Air Landing Division, the Ninety-first constituted part of the mobile reserve on the Cotentin Peninsula.

The division had been established under Generalleutnant Bruno Ortner in February 1944, but Generalmajor Wilhelm Falley assumed command on 25 April. He owned the 1057th and 1058th Grenadier Regiments with the Sixth Parachute Regiment attached, a well-equipped unit composed of troops averaging 17.5 years of age. Major Friedrich Freiherr von der Heydte, one of his subordinates, proved controversial, being criticized for excessively independent action (having taught law in New York, he treated captured GIs with remarkable civility).

On D-Day Falley was attending a planning meeting in Rennes; rushing back to his command he was killed by U.S. paratroopers. Command fell successively to Oberst Eugen Koenig and Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper. Released to Seventh Army, the division put up stiff resistance around Carentan but made slow progress in counterattacking elsewhere.

The division was disbanded in August.

352d Infantry Division

Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352d Division defended the Omaha Beach area. Kraiss was an experienced combat soldier; he had been a company commander in World War I and had led a division into Russia in 1941. The 352d had been formed at Hanover in November 1943 from veterans of three grenadier regiments and fleshed out with replacements, including some Czech conscripts.

Kraiss deployed the division’s own 914th, 915th, and 916th Regiments plus the 726th, attached from 716th Division, minus one battalion. He also possessed the 352d Artillery Regiment.

Though the 352d was one of the few full-strength divisions in France, its presence was not detected soon enough by Allied intelligence to benefit the assault divisions. The 352d had arrived in mid-March, and according to legend the one French carrier pigeon carrying a report of its arrival was shot by a German soldier.

Major Werner Pluskat, the division artillery officer, may have been the first German to sound the alarm on 6 June. He called his regimental commander and the 352d’s intelligence officer, describing hundreds of Allied aircraft passing overhead—a scene in The Longest Day. The First Battalion of the 914th attacked the Rangers and First Infantry Division at St. Pierre du Mont, southeast of the precipice at Pointe du Hoc. American mortars and naval gunfire repelled the 352d’s soldiers, though the Rangers sustained heavy casualties.

Kraiss withdrew his division the next day, counting some 1,200 casualties. The 352d effectively ceased to exist in July, though Kraiss commanded until 2 August. He died of wounds near Saint Lo.

716th Infantry Division

Based around Caen, opposing the British and Canadian landings at Juno and Sword beaches. In April 1943 Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter assumed command as a static division comprised of replacement units. He was succeeded by Generalmajor Ludwig Krug in May, before Richter returned on 10 June 1944.

This article is part of our larger selection of posts about the Normandy Invasion. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to D-Day.

This article is also part of our larger selection of posts about the history of the Army Air Corps. To learn more, click here for our comprehensive guide to the history of the Army Air Corps.

This article on the topic of the German Army in World War Two (German Army WW2) is from the book D-Day Encyclopedia, © 2014 by Barrett Tillman. Please use this data for any reference citations. To order this book, please visit its online sales page at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

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