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Unequal Allies: Lessons from The German’s and Their Allies on the Eastern Front for Today

patton with french tankPatton with French Renault F1 Tank in WWI

One of the problems that any coalition of unequal partners as is the case in Afghanistan is the role of the lesser partners, their capabilities and limitations imposed on them by their own governments.  When NATO joined the US led effort in Afghanistan a number of NATO allies contributed troops to the effort.  The same was true of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.  While obviously the US appreciated and continues to appreciate the efforts of its allies in both theaters the unique problems associated with coalition warfare are often not appreciated until the strengths and weaknesses of each junior partner in the coalition are shown to include the effect of each nation’s choice of units sent, logistics capability and rules of engagement.  Thus when some Americans are critical of the contribution of some allies, or the limitations imposed by their governments they should remember that in the First World War the United States was dependant on France and Britain for the majority of the Artillery, all of the tanks and aircraft as well as instructors and training facilities for the rapidly recruited American Expeditionary Force.

RickenbackerUS Ace Eddie Rickenbacker with French Supplied Nieuport 28

Every nation works within its own national interests and domestic political situation as well as its military capabilities. Unfortunately many people do not look at history to see how a coalition of a major power allied with a number of minor powers each with their own limitations as well as motivations for entering the war execute that war after the initial plan is foiled.  This is something that has happened in Afghanistan after the initial success disappeared with the corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, the resurgent Taliban and the resiliency of Al Qaida in their bases in the remote border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

nato_france_a_0403French Troops in Afghanistan: The French, British and Canadians have the most Robust Rules of Engagement of Non US NATO Forces (Time Magazine Photo)

One of the best places to find such an example is the German relationship with their allies on the Eastern Front.  The question of the German dominated European Axis alliance in the Second World War is one of the more neglected subjects of World War Two II. In most accounts of the war, the relationship of the Germans to their coalition is minimal.  This includes the works of B.H. Liddell-Hart, Williamson Murray, Chester Wilmot and David M Glantz.   Italy usually receives some attention in the context of the campaign in North Africa and Mediterranean.  Hungary, Romania and Finland receive scant attention from anyone except as to how their armies were overrun during the Stalingrad campaign. Popular German memoirs provide little substantive help. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s memoirs and Erwin Rommel’s papers give some views of the Italian efforts in North Africa and the Mediterranean and Erich Manstein gives a limited amount of attention to the Italians, Finns, Hungarians and Rumanians in Russia.

Finland-HitlerConflicting War Aims: Hitler with Finland’s Field Marshal Von Mannerheim

In his essay The Dysfunctional Coalition Robert Di Nardo examines the relationship of Germany to her allies on the Eastern Front where the Germans due to their own limitations were forced into a coalition war with weak allies of uncertain reliability. This is a subject that Di Nardo expanded on in his book Germany and the Axis Powers: from Coalition to Collapse (University of Kansas Press, 2005).  Di Nardo believes that there are important lessons to be learned from the failure of Germany and its coalition. Unfortunately we in the west are more often than not content to judge coalitions by the success of the Allies in the Second World War.  Di Nardo’s work on the subject is something that the United States must learn from as it works with coalitions whose members have significant military weaknesses often magnified by the domestic political climates in their own country. The situation, especially in Afghanistan places he United States in a similar position to Germany in relation to the current wars on terror and campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

m 13-40 tankItalian M 13-40 tanks were the mainstays of Italian Armored Units, Slow, Undergunned and Poorly Armored they were No Match for Soviet T-34s

Di Nardo asserts “the way in which Germany conducted coalition warfare was reflective of the manner in which Hitler and the German military looked at the world, as well as the war in general.”  Germany often displayed a haughtiness toward its allies and even knowing their weaknesses was both unable and often unwilling to do much to strengthen them for the fight against the Soviet Union.  Di Nardo believes that the German attitudes were “a significant factor that contributed to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.” (p.712)  In the essay Di Nardo notes the few successes of the coalition. In particular he looks at the German work with Rumanian air defense around the Ploesti oil refineries and the German-Finnish Winter Warfare School.  Apart from these instances he characterizes Axis coalition warfare on the eastern front as “poor” with “failures at every level.” (p.713)

italian troops stalino

Di Nardo analyzes the problems with language barriers, the wide differences of modernity of the armies and levels of technology and training of the coalition partners many of which are common to the war in Afghanistan. Germany’s failure to become the “arsenal of Fascism” which the United States became “the Arsenal of Democracy” for its allies hindered the Germans in their relationship to their poorly equipped allies.  Likewise, the lack of understanding of all the partners regarding the “relationship between national objectives, strategy and the morale of soldiers of officers and soldiers alike”(p.713) was a major obstacle.

finnish at gun

Di Nardo provides a good description of the German liaison detachments allotted to the coalition armies.  These teams functioned as advisors to their allies as well as liaisons between the German army and the allies. These teams dealt with language, tactical communications weaknesses and often displayed the generally haughty attitude that the Germans displayed to their partners. There is an excellent illustration of this in dealing with the failure of XLVIII Panzer Corps at Stalingrad when the German Liaison to the Romanian 1st Panzer Division was wounded.  At the operational and strategic levels Di Nardo describes the German policies and attitudes toward their allies as “imperialist.” (p.718)

He examines the wide gap in transportation capabilities of the various armies and the failure of the Germans to better provide for the needs of their partners in contrast to the United States assistance to her allies.   Germany provided obsolete captured Czech and French weapons and vehicles to her allies.  They refused to supply the Romanians and Hungary with the plans to build German tank and aircraft in Romanian and Hungarian industrial concerns capable of their manufacture. (pp.718-719) Di Nardo notes how this lack of modern equipment impacted the allies operations against the Red Army and their defeat at the hands of the Soviets.  Although Di Nardo alludes to how even elite German formations had substandard equipment he does not explain principle reason for this.   This was due to the fact that the Germans did not go to a “total war” footing in regard to industrial production until Albert Speer took over as Armaments Minister in 1943.

spanish blue divsion

The number of troops contributed by the German Allies was substantial. Hungary began Barbarossa with two corps, including its Mobile Corps and in 1942 supplied their 2nd Army which was composed of 1 Armored and 9 Infantry Divisions. 2nd Army was crushed by the Soviet offensive against Stalingrad. The Italians began with an expeditionary corps of 2 Semi-Motorized and 1 Light Infantry Divisions. In early 1943 they added 4 Infantry and 3 Alpine Divisions and a number of other smaller formations. This force became the 8th Army. It fought well during the advance toward Stalingrad but spread out over a wide front with little armored or air support was decimated by the Soviet offense against the city.  The remnants were no longer battle worthy and were evacuated to Italy.  Most of the Finnish Army was engaged in the war but after September 1939 made no major offensive contribution to the war. In 1944 following a major Soviet offensive which forced them to withdraw from the territory that they had captured in 1941 the Finnish government sued for peace. The Russians occupied a number of border provinces and islands and Finland was obliged to expel German Forces.  This resulted in the “Lapland War” between the Finns and the Germans with the Germans adopting a scorched earth policy as they withdrew from the country. The quality of the Finnish forces was generally higher than that of Germany’s other Allies.

romanian r35Obsolete French Built Romanian R-35 Light Tank

The Romanians contributed 19 divisions organized into 3 Armies to Barbarossa. They were limited by their equipment and logistics. The 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies were shattered at Stalingrad forcing a major reorganization as they continued the war.  In August 1944 with the Soviets pressing their border King Michael led a coup to overthrow the Fascist dictatorship of Antonescu. The Germans elected to fight and the Romanians changed sides and joined the Russian advance to the end of the war with their 1st Army taking part in the Prague offensive. Another contributor of troops was Franco’s Spain although it was a neutral country. Spain provided a division of volunteers which became the famous “Spanish Blue Division” or the 250th Infantry Division. It was outfitted as a German unit and received additional training from the Germans before it went into action. The division fought near Leningrad and was engaged in many tough fights.  A Spanish “Blue” Fighter squadron allotted to and equipped by the Luftwaffe also distinguished itself. In October 1943 Spain under allied pressure withdrew the division from the front although many soldiers volunteered to remain and fight on as smaller units attached to German formations. One volunteer company became part of the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland at Berlin.  One thing that probably was a factor in the Spanish effectiveness as well as commitment to to German cause was their genuine loathing of the Soviets following the Spanish Civil War.

The final part of Di Nardo’s essay deals with the strategic goals and conflicts among the Axis coalition which were never worked out.  Examples of this include how the Finns never signed a formal alliance with Germany and how their national strategy did not allow them to deeper into the Soviet Union instead settling on recovering territory lost to the Soviets in 1939 with a few minor gains.  There was also the problem that the Romanians and Hungarians distrusted each other so much that they could not work together over their own territorial disputes.  The Italians joined the campaign late and their 8th Army participated in the German advance toward Stalingrad protecting the German flank.  While the Italians provided their own equipment including armor and aircraft they and their weapons were woefully suited for the war that they faced on the Eastern Front.  Di Nardo finishes his essay noting morale problems in the Hungarian, Italian and Romanian armies, the lack of understanding and general lack of motivation for the campaign.

Romanian_Me109-px800Romanian ME-109 E4, The Romanian Air Force Was One of the Axis Success Stories

This article is well sourced. Di Nardo uses histories, archival sources, operational orders and analysis by the various armies as well as interviews with participants. Of particular note is that he goes to sources of the coalition partners and not just German sources.  This allows him to be far more nuanced and detailed in his discussion as opposed to others who simply ignore the contributions of the Axis partners.  His footnotes provide added detail and provide and lend support to his arguments.

The importance of this essay is twofold.  First it provides a look at the relationship of German to her coalition partners on the Eastern Front.  This is important from a historic standpoint simply because it is such a neglected topic in most histories of the period and gives added depth to the reasons for Germany’s defeat.  One has to ask the “what if questions” in regard to had the Germans better treated, equipped and recognized their allies’ contributions to the war effort.

The second and probably more important for Afghanistan is that it provides lessons to any nation which has to engage in coalition warfare.  In particular it has lessons for the United States which has found itself as the senior and vastly superior partner in a war which has multiple coalition partners in several theaters of operations.  Each coalition partner has certain military strengths and weaknesses in relationship to the United States, national interests, geo-political and economic relationships with competitors to the United States and internal political realities which impact their cooperation in the war.  As such the United States cannot allow itself to be cast in the role of a haughty imperialistic senior partner as did Germany.  The US instead must cultivate an attitude of assistance, respect and trust among its partners to assure their full cooperation and assistance in relation to U.S. goals in the war. This is particularly important now was it appears that the Afghan war is reaching a point where the deteriorating situation on the ground could invite the early withdraw of allies and necessitate either the addition of more US troops or a strategic withdraw which would be for all intents and purposes a defeat for the US and NATO. The consequences would not be good and while the Taliban may be able to be contained they undoubtedly would invite Al Qaida back and provide them with a sanctuary just as Pakistan has stepped up its efforts on the border.

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Ein Volk Steht Auf: The German Volksturm, Ideology and late war Nazi Strategy

volksturm formationVolksturm Members

One of the more important but little understood parts of the German mobilization to defend the Reich, was the creation of the Volksturm. The Volksturm’s role in Nazi strategy and ideology is often misunderstood more than likely because on the Western Front the Volksturm was not much of a factor.  Of the major chroniclers of the war in Europe only Max Hastings in “Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945” [1] and John Erickson in “The Road to Berlin” [2] devote any attention to the subject.  Others, including B.H. Liddell-Hart’s History of the Second World War,” Chester Wilmont’s “The Struggle for Europe” and Russell Weigley’s “Eisenhower’s Lieutenants” devote no space whatsoever to the Volksturm. This is understandable. The Volksturm was far less effective than Nazi leaders would have hoped in fact militarily it was a failure because of the Nazi Party management of it.  Even German historian Walter Goerlitz’s “History of the German General Staff” devotes only one small passage to the Volksturm.[3] Other German Generals such as Generals Warlimont and Guderian and Field Marshal Kesselring mention the Volksturm but only Guderian goes into any detail about it.[4] Kesselring mentions its “propaganda value” and calls the Volksturm a “fiasco” [5] while limiting his other comments to specific uses of it.  In light of such limited analysis by leading historians David Yelton’s treatment in “Ein Volk Steht Auf”: The German Volksturm and Nazi Strategy, 1944-45 published in The Journal of Military History is highly important.

volksturm trainingVolksturm receiving training on Panzerfaust Anti-Tank Rocket

Yelton’s study is more than an analysis of military value and use of the Volksturm. The Volksturm was more than a military organization.  As a military organization it had many grave deficiencies as do all militias in a State where most able bodied men are already in the regular military components.  However, as an arm of the Nazi Party leadership’s defensive strategy to resist the allies, it played a key role.  It was a political militia designed for total war effort to defend the Germany against the advancing Allied armies in conjunction with the “miracle weapons” which were just beginning to be deployed.  Kesselring notes the propaganda value of the Volksturm, but to understand its place in Nazi strategic thinking, one has to look at the entirety of Nazi political, ideological and military thinking at this point in the war, something that Yelton does well.

Yelton makes an important point regarding Gerhard Weinberg’s assertion that most historians have neglected Germany’s late war strategy and that “Nazi Germany is viewed as having no real, coherent strategy” after 1943.[6] Yelton; like Weinberg shows how Nazi leaders believed in a reversal in the course of the war and how they “began implementing a broad and coherent strategy to this end.”[7] He discusses the influence of Nazi ideological preconceptions which impacted strategy[8] and notes the two primary purposes of the Volksturm were to stalemate the war by making the Allies fight for “every foot of German territory and maximize Allied casualties beyond which their morale…could tolerate”  and more importantly from the Nazi viewpoint to “fanaticize the civilian population ….”[9] From this point Yelton goes into a discussion of the beginnings of the Volksturm. He looks first to the mind of General Guderian[10] who advocated forming a militia to be activated when the Soviets threatened German soil. Guderian saw this in military terms. It was to be under Army Wehrkreis or Military District control on the Eastern Front and not civilian control.  It was the subsequent political machinations of Bormann, Himmler and others which expanded it to the entire nation, and placed it in the hands of Nazi Party Gauleiters who often were antagonistic to the Army.[11]

An important point is that the shift in control from the Wehrmacht Wehrkreis to Bormann’s Nazi Party control was related to the basic Nazi understanding of war, the understanding that the war was a “struggle for existence.”[12] Likewise it was a tenant of Nazi faith in racial ideology was since the the “Master Race” was being defeated by lesser races it had to be the result of “treason or sabotage in the officer corps.”[13] Thus many of the Reich’s political leaders believed that “the key to victory lay in generating a fanatical will to resist among all Germans both civilians and military.”[14] Of course this created more problems in terms of logistics and command and control for military commanders wherever the Volksturm was directed by the more paranoid of the Gauleiters.

The goal of the Volksturm was to maximize Allied casualties in the hope that one of the Allied nations would decide that the war was senseless and drop out.  The Nazis believed that this would take place while the new weapons, jet aircraft and new U-Boats wrested control of the air and sea from the Allies and the V weapons, rockets and missiles brought destruction to Britain.  A second goal was to strengthen the political will of the German population.   This goal included the political aspects of how the Party extended its influence over the military.  The Party gained control of the political indoctrination of recruits, the appointment of National Socialist Leadership Officers and increased roles for Gauleiters in preparing defenses at home and in the military chain of command.[15] Yelton’s study provides a detailed analysis of the psychological conditioning of the Volksturm instituted by Bormann including the use of propaganda and that all Volksturm training should “include some form of National Socialist “schooling.”[16] Bormann ensured that the Volksturm was made up of all components of the “racially superior” Nazi Volksgeimenschaft carefully excluding Jews, other “racially inferior” groups, as well as clergymen who might undermine the people with Christian ideas or were politically divisive or unreliable.[17] Yelton concludes by examining how the Nazi leadership attempted to raise the military value of the Volksturm by appointing Nazis who had military experience as officers. They believed that “the racial superiority of the German Volk would ultimately carry the day against their “inferior Jewish-Bolshevik-Slavic” enemies.[18]

volkssturm posterVolksturm Propaganda Poster

Yelton’s essay is important to the historian of the late war period to understand how Nazi ideology influenced the German war effort. Yelton does a commendable job in analyzing the Volksturm and its role in Nazi strategy in late 1944-45. He makes very good use of original sources as well as historic works and documents, including diaries and operations orders of Hitler, Himmler and others, correspondence between Bormann and Gauleiters.  His use of published and unpublished works dealing with the Volksturm and Nazi ideology, particularly letters and diaries serve as an important source of information about how the closely the Nazis linked ideology to the Volksturm..  Yelton’s conclusions that the Volksturm was a key component of what senior Nazis believed to be a coherent strategy to win the war are convincing.  Gerhard Weinberg also posits this view, and it gains credence when one studies other aspects of German racial war theories.

Yelton’s study shows that a more holistic approach to a military history needs to include political, ideological and other factors that lead to the formation of military strategy. In isolation the creation of the Volksturm makes little sense from a purely military point of view and most of the senior officers believed the Volksturm was a waste of manpower and weaponry.   However, if the Volksturm is viewed as part of Nazi political and racial theory it made perfect sense to Nazi leaders.

Thus, political ideologies are something to consider when one believes an opponent’s strategy is senseless or militarily suspect. Simply looking at the military side of the equation often leads to wrong answers about the nature of the conflict.  This has been the case more often than not in many ongoing conflicts today where religious and political ideology is at the center of the opponent’s resistance. It is understanding idea of the people’s war where the population is mobilized to fight the war even if militarily weak and is often related to defending one’s homeland such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or the Vietnamese who successfully opposed French, Japanese, American and Chinese efforts to subdue them.  Thus understanding helps the reader understand how a badly flawed organization can make perfect sense to the leaders employing it.   This is something that we in the Western World of the early 21st Century are not very good at doing and are currently failing at doing in Afghanistan.  The political or the political-religious ideology that drives people to fight for existence matters as much as the military understanding of the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses.  In World War Two Germany had lost most of the capacity to resist effective under the assault of the Allies and the people had become war weary.  Thus the Volksturm were doomed to fail.  However, had Germany been better organized to meet the Allied threat asymmetrically and not been so militarily defeated conventional sense, the effort of the Volksturm might have brought better results.


[1] Hastings, Max. Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 2004. Hastings’ discussion does not go into detail on the formation or organization of the Volksturm itself. He focuses more incidental aspects of training and employment as well as people’s feelings toward. He does make the connection between increasing Nazi fanaticism and the Volksturm. p.160

[2] Erickson, John. The Road to Berlin” Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, 1983.   Erickson’s best contribution is noting how Martin Bormann and the Party Gauleiters controlled the Volksturm and the turf war that Heinrich Himmler waged to ensure that his Waffen-SS formations would not be deprived of manpower by his erstwhile party comrades. p.399

[3] Goerlitz, Walter. History of the German General Staff,” translated by Brian Battershaw, Westview Press, Boulder and London, 1985. Originally published as Die Deutsche Generalstab Verlag der Frankfurter Hefte, Frankfur am Main, 1953. It is interesting to note that Goerlitz attributes the formation of the Volksturm to Himmler, p.483 something repudiated by General Heinz Guderian and Yelton in this reviewed essay.  At the same time it is understandable to see how Goerlitz reaches his conclusion in light of the fact that Himmler had some control as commander of the Replacement Army.

[4] Guderian, Heinz Panzer Leader translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Ballantine Books, New York, New York, 1957.  p. 288

[5] Kesselring, Albrecht. The Memoirs of Field-Marshal Kesselring. Greenhill Military Paperbacks, London, 1997. Originally published as Soldat bis zum letzen Tag Anthenum, Bonn, 1953 and translated by William Kimber, London 1953. p.73.  Kesselring’s comments here come in comparison to the British formation of a Home Guard in 1940. In general Kesselring found these types of units to be worthless and personnel, especially older soldiers brought back on duty with regular units.

[6] Yelton, David K. Ein Volk Steht Auf: The German Volksturm and Nazi Strategy 1944-1945 in The Journal of Military History, October 2000, 64, 4. Research Library p.1061.  Although he fits Weinberg’s thesis that the Germans believed that they could still win the war and developed a strategy to do so Weinberg does not mention the Volksturm in his book although it would be easy to extrapolate from his thesis Yelton’s assertion of the Volksturm being a part of that strategy.

[7] Ibid. p.1062.

[8] Ibid. This is important as the understanding of Nazi ideology in many decisions is downplayed by many purely “military” historians.”  However, Michael Geyer in his essay German Strategy, 1914-1945 in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, Peter Paret editor, Princeton University Press, 1986 p.582 talks about the rise of political-ideological strategy in Nazi Germany where Hitler “rejected the traditional analysis of military strengths of the opposing sides….” This could be part of the reason of why many military historians fail to distinguish a discernable strategy on the part of the Germans which the Volksturm was a key element. At the same time this ties in with other over arching aspects of the Nazi war effort going to early actions against the Poles and Russians.

[9] Ibid. Yelton. Pp.1063-1064.

[10] Ibid. Yelton. p.1068. The idea was actually that of Guderian’s Chief of Staff’s predecessor General Huesinger in 1943.

[11] Ibid. Yelton pp. 1065-1066. An interesting note to this discussion is Guderian’s comments that “the Party was less interested in the military qualifications than in the political fanaticism of the men that it appointed to fill the responsible posts.” Guderian, Heinz Panzer Leader translated by Constantine Fitzgibbon, Ballantine Books, New York, New York, 1957.  p. 288  Guderian’s comments are particularly relevant because he recognized that the political and ideological components of the organization outweighed the military.

[12] Ibid. Yelton p.1067  General Walter Warlimont notes that General Keitel countersigned the order forming the Volksturm with Bormann and that the order “charged the Party with the formation and leadership of this “last levy.” Warlimont, Walter. Inside Hitler’s Headquarters 1939-45 translated by R.H. Barry. Presidio Press, Novato CA. 1964. Originally published in Germany under the title Im Hauptquarier der Deutschen Wehrmacht 1939-1945 Bernard und Graefe Verlag. p.479  It is interesting to note that as such this was a political and ideological decision versus a purely military one.

[13] Ibid. Yelton p. 1068

[14] Ibid. Yelton p. 1069

[15] Ibid. Yelton. pp. 1071-1072. Guderian noted how the Gauleiters on the Eastern Front would go directly to Bormann when conflict arose with the Wehrmacht. Panzer Leader p. 289

[16] Ibid. Yelton. p. 1075

[17] Ibid. Yelton pp. 1077-1079

[18] Ibid. Yelton. p.1082

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