The Wehrmacht: A Glorious Myth?

 

When the German army rolled into Paris on the 14th June 1940, the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since Napoleon’s Grande Armée . After all, the German army had rendered the Maginot Line redundant, a set of fortifications so modern that it was said to be of better living conditions than a modern city. The Wehrmacht bypassed it through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest in 5 days. It is perhaps unsurprising after so much hope and resources had been invested into this state-of-the-art defense, that contemporaries saw the German army as something hereto unseen before – a truly unstoppable force.

the people of France could be forgiven for thinking they were witnessing one of the greatest armies since their very own Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

There is an idealized vision of the Wehrmacht: as an ultra-mobile, ruthless and highly motivated force, a view that does not lack justification. Although Germany lost the war, is it really credible to blame the Wehrmacht for this? To talk of the Wehrmacht one cannot avoid talking of ‘Blitzkrieg’, a concept so fundamental to early German successes. There is a commonly held image of ‘Blitzkrieg’, one that is often portrayed as relentless waves of tanks steamrolling through inferior opposition. This was not certainly not the case in France. French tanks were better armoured, better equipped and more numerous than their German opposition. General Auchinleck in the defense of Norway, commented that the German forces had much greater morale as a result of their superior training. Therefore, can we call an army that defeated superior opposition on numerous occasions an incapable one?  The early victories in Europe, particularly France, certainly vindicate the superiority of the German military doctrine, however, a fully functioning modern state-of-the-art  force they were not.

The Maginot line was a modern and complex hive of defences.  Entrusted with defending France.
Entrusted with defending France was the Maginot line,  a modern and complex hive of defences.

In so far as the battle for France was concerned, the numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe was certainly pivotal. The German army itself had only mechanized 10% of its ground forces by this point. This was as a result of a production deficit from the pre-war years, one that Nazi industrialists had predicted would only be remedied by 1945 – a fact that was to be ignored by Hitler at great cost. The ramshackle fashion of which the Wehrmacht retreated from Russia in 1943 is perhaps its most ignominious moment. A rapid German army, with its immaculate coordination and communication is a vision that is hugely undermined by this campaign. Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to make up for the lack of modernization that beset the Wehrmacht at this time. Some 148 divisions were expected to fight across a front of almost 2,000-kilometers. It is clear that the Wehrmacht was not as polished a force as it has often been seen as being.

Russland, bei Targowi Sawod, deutsche Truppen
Some 40,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front to support the Wehrmacht.

At times the Wehrmacht was an unstoppable force, one that laid the way for modern day warfare – where mobility and inter-service cooperation were the order of the day. The Eastern Front may have been calamitous for a whole host of reasons other than just the frailties of the Wehrmacht.  However, there is no ignoring the deaths of 4 million men and boys, soldiers that made up what had proven to be an undefeatable army. Maybe Nazi Germany would have succeeded in winning the war if it had the industrial capacity of the USA or Russia, but does this really restore the image of the Wehrmacht? There is no hiding from how fragile the Wehrmacht proved to be. A one dimensional force unable to adapt in the face of a resilient opponent. It had succeeded against weak and disorganized opposition in the past, but as its enemies learned from its mistakes, the Wehrmacht stuck to its principles, even though to follow such principles was no longer possible.

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