In Plauen, in south-east Germany, the men of Artillerie Regiment 24 heard the news of the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact on the evening of 21st August. ‘We were all startled,’ noted Leutnant Siegfried Knappe, ‘if not shocked. The government had always preached against the Soviet Union, and suddenly – overnight – the countries were friends.’ He and his fellow young officers felt troubled, but agreed that it was not their place to question such political decisions.
War with Poland had been clearly brewing and since they were close to the Polish border, it was obvious Artillerie Regiment 24 would be among the units involved. On 27th August, rationing was announced in Germany: of foodstuffs, soap, shoes, textiles and coal. In Britain, despite the approach of war, there was no rationing yet and even when it did come, it was comparatively mild, unlike in Germany.
On 28th August, the Plauen garrison was placed on war alert and all leave cancelled. Three days later, at 8.30am in the morning, Major Kordt, the regimental commander, gathered his officers from all three batteries and told them they would be loading onto trains that evening and heading to the Polish border. ‘I am sure I do not have to tell your what that means,’ he said. ‘Every officer, every man, and every horse has been trained for a specific function and has practiced that function until it is instinctive. I am confident that we shall acquit ourselves well in combat.’
Major Kordt may have been ‘confident’ but his artillery regiment was still going to war, in an age of mechnisation, equipped with horses. German propaganda had masked the truth: that far from being the most highly trained and modern army in the world, Germany was still under-prepared for war with such superpowers as Britain and France. She was stronger than Poland, perhaps, but the endless newsreels and film footage of rallies and of German troops marching unopposed into Austria and the Sudetenland had been carefully doctored. Both within Germany and elsewhere, people believed what they saw: endless tanks and trucks, and reams of bombers and fighter planes. In truth, Germany was only a partially modernised society, with some 15 million people still depending on traditional handicrafts and peasant farming. It was also one of the least mechanised nations in Europe, and that extended to her army too.
Even Siegfried Knappe had believed the spin. He had joined the artillery in October 1936, having read for the previous two years about the vast technological advances that had been achieved in mechanizing Nazi Germany’s new modern army. In volunteering for the artillery, he had done so with visions of driving tracked, self-propelled guns, which he had read about in magazines and newspapers.
It had been a shock to discover, on his arrival at training camp in Jena, stables rather than vehicle sheds.
“You mean they still pull the artillery with horses?” he said to his companion
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” came the response.
In that moment, the artillery lost all its glamour for Knappe. A few days later, having spent his pre-dawn hours mucking out the horses, he was reeling from the shock. ‘I still could not believe I was actually in the horse-drawn artillery. It all seemed so backward in this modern age!’
By August 1939, Knappe had accepted that most of the German army was horse-drawn or travelled by foot. He had, however, now learned to ride, had his own rather magnificent mount, Schwabenprinz, and was by now well trained in the art of handling horses. Indeed, care of horses was part of every German soldier’s training. In the infantryman’s bible, the Reibert – or Der Dienst-Unttericht im here – as it was more officially known, there was a large section on handling horses.
The problem was that Germany was not yet an automotive society. Hitler might have ordered the building of autobahns, yet the number of people with vehicles was surprisingly few – just 1.5% in 1935. Even following the Depression, the number of people owning vehicles in the United States in 1933 was 20% and was closer to a third of the population by 1939. In Germany, by 1937, vehicle ownership was a little over 2%. Other than Italy, it was still the worst percentage in Western Europe. In Britain, that figure was around fifteen percent in 1939.
The use of tanks, of course, relied upon having men who knew how to drive build, drive and repair them. Unfortunately, by the outbreak of war, there were still nowhere near enough Germans with the expertise to service vast numbers of armoured divisions, nor the factories to build them, and nor would there be for some years to come.
The German Wehrmacht – the combined armed services – of 1939 was a strange mixture, reflecting the muddled thinking and lack of practical common sense that was rife amongst Germany’s military at the time. The Luftwaffe, the Reich’s rapidly growing air force, had been developed to directly support the ground forces, rather than act independently, and so long as it could overwhelm an enemy’s air force –Poland’s air force, for instance, which was small and out of date – then it could harness devastating firepower, but it was in no position to act as a strategic air force, that is, independently; it was simply not structured or trained to do so.
Big plans had been developed for the Kriegsmarine, the navy, with the grandly named ‘Z-Plan,’ announced back in January. This had called for ten new battleships, four aircraft carriers, various other surface vessels, ninety Schnellboote torpedo boats and some 250 U-boat submarines. How this was going to be built when Germany lacked the shipyards, expertise, iron, and capital to create such a navy, was not clear. By the end of that August, there were still less than thirty U-boats in all and no aircraft carriers whatsoever.
By contrast, the Luftwaffe possessed the world’s best single-engine fighter plane in production in the Messerscmitt 109, although they could have had an even better one, however, had the Luftwaffe procured the He 112 in 1935. It was 50 mph faster than the Me 109, had very good manoeuvrability, was powerfully armed, and was far more stable than the 109. It was typical, though, that because Hitler personally knew and liked Professor Willi Messerschmitt, it was the latter that received the contract. Heinkel was allowed to produce a handful of He 112s for export, and when, in the summer of 1938, a dozen were impressed into the Luftwaffe, all those who flew them thought it substantially superior to the Me 109. No matter how good the Me 109 might have been, in turning down the Heinkel 112, the Luftwaffe passed over the opportunity to have a truly outstanding fighter plane.
There were great expectations for the Junkers 87 dive-bomber. Dive-bombing was seen by the Luftwaffe as something of a panacea: it was much more accurate than conventional bombing, which meant, in theory, that fewer bombs and aircraft were needed to achieve the same levels of destruction. The Junkers 87 ‘Stuka’ had been specifically designed as a dive-bomber, but the Luftwaffe general staff had become obsessed with dive-bombing, they had insisted on giving dive-bombing capabilities to their new, fast, long-distance two-engine conventional bomber, the Junkers 88. This had greatly delayed production and had left it neither as fast nor long-ranged as once it had been. This left Germany with the Heinkel 111 and Dornier 17, which were mid-1930s designs, comparatively slow and held an insufficient bomb load. Aircraft design was developing rapidly and these two work-horses were no longer quite so cutting edge as they had been when first produced.
The Germn army was equally at sixes and sevens. Its infantry were, on the face of it, equipped with decent weapons. The Mauser K. 98 rifles, were, like most armies of the day, were First World era, but were reliable and accurate. They also possessed a beautifully engineered light machine-gun, the MG 34, which had an impressive rate of fire of some 900 rounds per minute. The problem was that it was incredibly expensive to make, which each taking some 150 man- hours of labour to make. The Bren, by contrast, took just fifty-five.
Over-engineering was a feature of much of German kit. The men in Siegfried Knappe’s battery wore standard army uniforms, for instance, although with red cord around the shoulder tabs to denote artillery, rather than white for the army. Looking the part was a key part of the Nazi image; the fashion designer, Hugo Boss, had been asked to design the Allgemeine-SS uniforms, and very fetching they were too. Wearing smart black or grey uniforms with snappy breeches and shining polished boots, young German men felt a little bit taller, and a little more attractive to the opposite sex.
Prussia had been a militaristic state, and so too had the new Germany that had emerged in 1871. The Nazis continued that tradition. The field tunics of the ordinary German soldier were not quite so sartorially elegant as the SS outfits, but they were smart enough and certainly supremely well made. A private was not paid much, but he was certainly given decent kit. The jacket, the feld bluse, was lined in soft cotton or rayon, was thigh length with two generously large and pleated pockets on the chest and two on the waist; it was pleated at the back too, while the cuffs had buttons that could be undone and the waist four lots of eyelets through which metal belt clips could be thread. The buttons were all aluminium, rounded at the edges for easy use and with a dotted pattern; the British battle dress, by contrast, came with rough machine-stamped and thin yet sturdy metal buttons. The collar of the feldbluse was well stitched and around the inside were another row of buttons onto which a smart and comfortable collar liner could be attached. It was warm, comfortable and produced with the kind of attention to detail that would make a bespoke tailor smile with pleasure. In 1939, each soldier was given no less than seven uniforms: field, service, watch, parade, report, walking out and sport.
Most of the soldier’s webbing was made of black leather. British troops were given a light but roughly made canvas gas mask bag, but the German equivalents were each provided with an aluminium cylindrical gas mask tin, with lined grooves around it. It was fastened with a spring metal catch and inside, within the lid, was a further little compartment in which spare lenses for the mask were stored. The intricacy with which these millions of tins were manufactured – each some 25cms tall – was impressive; and they even came with a leather carrying strap. On their feet, they wore black leather boots that came up just below the knee. When all was done, the German soldier’s field dress cost around eight times as much as that of his British equivalent – and that did not include the price of the machine-gun.
As an officer, Siegfried Knappe’s uniforms were even more elaborate. His field dress was made of the same wool as those of his men, but his service dress was gabardine with silk or rayon lining and with a cuff that doubled back almost halfway to his elbow. Officers were given wool greatcoats or full-length leather versions, which were expensive to say the least. There were different uniforms for mountain troops, different uniforms for paratroopers, yet more uniforms for the Panzer Arm, and even more for the Luftwaffe. Pilots could choose from a staggering array of breeches, wool trousers, leather trousers, cotton, wool and leather jackets of differing shades of brown and black, some fur lined, others not. British pilots were given two blue suits and an Irvin sheepskin jacket. It was not unusual for British pilots to fly in bedroom slippers; in the Luftwaffe, that would have been unthinkable. Unpardonable.
Unlike Britain, however, Germany had few sheep farms and no dominions the far side of the world from where they could easily purchase what they lacked at home. In fact, Germany had very few natural resources of her own, imported almost all iron ore and, because so much of the economy was now devoted to war production, had little to export in return. And yet rather than watching the pfennigs in areas where costs could easily have been kept down, there was, in 1939, no army that was more expensively turned out. At the same time, there was also no army that was proportionally so under-mechanised.
The German uniforms were, however, distinctive, and their expense was, from the Nazi perspective, a small price to pay to make soldiers believe they were part of a modern and technologically advanced militarist society. One of the recurring grumbles of the men at the front in the previous war was the poor quality of their uniforms, which undermined morale. Hitler’s Nazis were not about to make the same mistake, even if there were considerably more horses in the army than motorised vehicles. The extravagance of the uniforms hid many other shortcomings.