Daniel Espinosa


The study of front-line and other Wehrmacht troops shows that units performed operations within a diversified and wide range of skill, age and race, creating a viable mosaic of soldiers the composition of the German army in France during World War II. In 1944, Germany was faced with the problem of too much land to hold and defend while being ordered to hold and defend all territory that was occupied. "To carry out such orders, the Wehrmacht relied on improvisations, of which the most important were conscripted foreign troops, school-age German youths and old men, and fixed defensive positions" (Ambrose 27).

Soldiers Characterized

During the period of the Third Reich, there were literally hundreds of types of civilian, para-military and military ID documents, passes, booklets and tags. A German soldier might be required to carry any number of these items during the time of WWII as it was often required that nearly every detail of a persons life be recorded and carried for identification purposes.

When recruiting men into the lines of battle, physical standards were relaxed. Men with stomach or lung ailments were being placed in the front lines. Younger and older men were called up; of an army of 4,270,000 men in December 1943, more than a million and a half were over thirty-four years old.

This situation could not produce substantial defenses in depth, based on counterattacks and counteroffensives. It lacked sufficient high-quality troops, it lacked sufficient mobility, and it lacked sufficient armor. "The old men, boys, and foreign troops were of value only if they were put into trenches or cement fortifications, with German NCOs standing behind them, pistol in hand, ready to shoot any man who left his post" (Ambrose 34-35).

In 1939 Hitler had characterized the Wehrmacht as "an army such as the world has never seen" (35). This description was far from reality, as the U.S. War Department described the German soldier as one of many different types of men, such as the aged and war weary veteran disillusioned and cynical. Either way, what was certain is that these soldiers performed their duties with the highest courage of despair.

Elite Troops

The elite units were almost entirely part of the Waffen-SS, or the combat troops of the SS. The German soldier in these units is in a preferred category and serves as the backbone of the German Armed Forces. "He is pledged never to surrender and has no moral code except allegiance to his organization. There is no limit to his ruthlessness" (35).

The Fallschirmjager (paratroop) and the panzer armored units contained the best of the young recruits following the Waffen-SS. These elite troops were given the best that Germany was producing - small arms, armored vehicles, artillery and first-class fighting outfits. Yet when in France, the elite of the Wehrmacht in Germany began to loose efficiency, growing soft and taking advantage of the plentiful life of fat cattle and fine apples. Staying vigilant was not easy. A panzer division, for example, was accustomed to a war of movement; the inactivity was wearisome and dangerous. For the ordinary soldier, whether a teenager from Berlin or a forty-year-old Pole or Russian in an Ost battalion, life consisted of boring work during the day, and enjoyment at night.

Composition of Panzers

After being destroyed in North Africa, the 21. Panzer was reformed in June 1943 in France. It remained stationed in France for the next year, being deemed unfit for service on the Eastern Front. The 21. Panzer was still in France when the Allies launched their invasion of Normandy in June of 1944, and the division was thrown into action against the Allied positions as the only Panzer unit to do so on the first day of the attack, June 6th. Most of its armor was lost early in the battles, but the Grenadiers of the Division fought in and around Caen for many weeks.

When the Allies began the massive breakout of the Normandy beach area, the division withdrew along with the rest of the German forces. Hitler was initially unwilling to release the armored divisions for a counter attack. When he relented after midday, elements of the 21. Panzer Division drove into the gap between the British 3rd and the Canadian 3rd divisions at Sword Beach and Juno Beach and almost reached the sea. Had they done so, the landings might have failed.

The 21. Panzer was then used in the Southern Sector of the Western Front until it was pulled out from the lines to refit and reform in Germany in August 1944. It was then rushed back to the Western Front to fight in defensive actions during the general withdrawal through France, mainly in the Saar and Alsace regions.

Accounts of Normandy Defenses

The half-dozen infantry divisions with which Friedrich Dollmann was to defend Normandy consisted mostly of second-rate, poorly equipped troops. The best German divisions in France had been allotted to defend the Pas de Calais sector, which seemed a more likely site for the Allies to invade. German tank commander Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg had been able to rush three panzer divisions northward to defend Caen against British and Canadian forces. These over stretched units were unable to stop the Allied landings on D-Day.

Foreign Soldiers in the Wehrmacht

Ost Battalions - Often men from the East like Poland, Russia or even Korea were conscripted into the Wehrmacht because the German army was constantly lacking sufficient men. By June 1944, one in six German riflemen in France was from an Ost battalion. Yet these battalions became increasingly unreliable. Their skill was not like that of elite SS troops, and the will to die for Germany was certainly not comparable to the nature of a native-German soldier's Blut und Boden. "In general, Ost soldiers in Wehrmacht uniforms tended to surrender as soon as GIs got near them. They were mainly in the trenches. Ethnic Germans inside concrete fortifications tended to fight on" (Ambrose 424-5).

When the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union, it prided itself on its "racial purity." The desperate need for replacements forced it to drastically modify and abandon that policy. The "racial Germans," or Volksdeutsche, from Poland and the Balkan countries were required to "volunteer."

Russian Volunteers - 
In 1942-43 recruiting in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union was aggressively pursued for the struggle against communism. Russian men enlisted in the Wehrmacht were designated as Freiwilligen, or volunteers, from the western republics. By the beginning of 1944, the Wehrmacht had "volunteers" from France, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Asian Russia, North Africa, Russia, Ukraine, Ruthenia, and even some Muslims and Indians.

Additional Information

German Divisional Staff Composition

Organization of the Heer

Works Cited

Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle
of World War II
. New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1994

Works Consulted

Knappe, Sigfried and Brusaw, Ted. Soldat: Reflections of a German Soldier 1936-1949. New York: Orion Books, 1992