“… the German Army was the outstanding fighting force of the Second World War and … could be defeated by Allied soldiers only under the most overwhelmingly favorable conditions.”
Sir Max Hastings writing in his book Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy.
Members of an American landing party assist troops whose landing craft was sunk by enemy fire off Omaha beach, near Colleville sur Mer, on June 6, 1944. (Photo courtesy of US National Archives)
Like any institution, an army is a reflection of the society which produces it. In Germany, the infantry had always been the dominant arm of the fighting forces. The German Army in World War Two was deeply influenced by the culture and traditions of the Prussian Army. The unitary state of Germany was established under the leadership of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1871 after the Prussians defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71.
The Kingdom of Prussia comprised over 60% of the new German state or empire and the King of Prussia became German Emperor or Kaiser which translates as “Caesar.” Even after leading the Germans to victory, Prussia still did not have the political strength to abolish the other kingdoms which only came into the Empire because they were acknowledged as separate entities within the empire.
Thus, from its creation in 1871 to its collapse in 1918, the German Empire contained within it four kingdoms: Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria and Württemberg. Each had a king and an army and in certain areas their own laws. Confusing? Yes, it was.
Map of the German Empire showing the many bits and pieces which maintained a certain distinctive place and the four kingdoms which remained completely separate.
In Prussia, the army, which was mainly composed of infantry, was the core institution of the Kingdom. In the 1700s it was often said that Prussia was simply an army which controlled a kingdom rather than the other way around.
The best and the brightest went into the infantry and infantry service was seen as a duty to the state. In Prussia, the army was known as “the school of the nation.”
To be an infantry officer in Prussia, and later Imperial Germany, and later in Nazi Germany, was to hold a position of great prestige. And the Prussian (later German) Army always had a much smaller ratio of officers to men than other armies – less than 3% in 1939 compared to more than 8% in the US Army. In the US in World War Two, the smartest men were creamed off for the artillery, air force, staff, and planning leaving the infantry with what was left. The US Army gave an exam to each recruit equivalent to an IQ test and the lowest scoring men were sent to the infantry.
D-Day, the invasion of France, June 6, 1944. American craft of all styles at Omaha Beach, Normandy, during the first stages of the Allied invasion. Click to fade to a view of Omaha Beach on May 7, 2014, near Colleville sur Mer, France. (Photo courtesy of US National Archives)
When the American infantry met the German infantry, we were putting the least skilled and least intelligent of our men against their most skilled and most intelligent men. The results can been seen in the campaign for Western Europe. Time and again major Allied attacks were stopped by a handful of decimated German divisions.
A crashed U.S. fighter plane on the waterfront some time after Canadian forces came ashore on a Juno Beach D-Day landing zone in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, France, in June 1944
Of the ground forces available to American commanders, the US Field Artillery was by far and away the most outstanding arm of of the US Army ground forces. Approximately 2% of artillerymen were killed in action. For American infantry, it was far, far higher. Most infantry units routinely lost half or almost all of their front line or “bayonet strength” every few weeks during heavy fighting. Young infantry officers who had never been in combat rarely survived more than a few weeks.
Because the KIA rate in the Field Artillery was so low, and because these men had scored higher on the aptitude and intelligence tests given by the army, they were put through rigorous technical training to master the complexities of their weaponry. So they knew what they were doing, became highly experienced, and most important, fought together in their same units for most of the war. There is an inestimable value of having experienced troops who have fought together for a long time in your army. It is worth noting that in World War Two, over 50% of men killed in action were killed by artillery and we had more artillery than anyone on the Western front.
In an emergency, perhaps a front line unit in danger of being overrun, an American Army corps, which consisted of three divisions, could immediately muster as many as 400 barrels of artillery, bring them all under one command and fire a “serenade.” This meant that each battery of artillery, no matter where they were, fired in the their own “time on target” so that all 400 artillery shells would arrive at the same place at the same time. You can imagine the effect this had.
US Army Field Artillery firing in support of ground troops, France 1944.
Unfortunately, the US Army in World War Two treated its infantry worse than any other arm of the service. Men lived on canned food for weeks. In the winter of 44/45, most front-line US infantry did not have winter boots while all the rear services had them. I could go on and on but to read about the suffering the US Infantry in WW II went through just because no one would pay attention is sickening.
“the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life…” said the Duke of Wellington after his great victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.