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Thursday, July 07, 2016


Steve Cole's thoughts on military history.
1. In August and September of 1944, Hitler ordered that all new tank production be diverted from replacing lost vehicles in existing divisions to form 13 new Panzer brigades, all but one of which were destroyed in their first battles. The reality is that an existing division fights better than a new brigade because it is a cohesive unit accustomed to working together. The officers of a new brigade were spending too much time trying to figure out how the other officers in the brigade thought and fought. This amounted to 16 battalions of tanks and 16 battalions of mechanized infantry. Hitler felt himself compelled to do this because spread out to all of the existing Panzer divisions, those 32 battalions would have been frittered away in continuing defensive battles.
2. In the US Army if you do something brave you get one of several possible medals based on just exactly how brave the thing you did was. In the German Army in World War I and World War II, you got the Iron Cross 2nd Class if you did something brave, no matter how brave it was. To get the next higher medal (Iron Cross First Class) you had to do several additional brave things. After that, to get the next medal up the chain (German Cross, Knight's Cross, Knight's Cross with oak leaves, Knight's Cross with swords, and Knight's Cross with diamonds) you had to do something else brave, but from that point no ordinary act of courage would do, you had to do something spectacular.
3. Adolf Hitler's favorite dessert was chocolate cake.
4. During World War II the US Army experimented with the first armored cavalry units, the forerunners of today's armored cavalry regiments. The World War II units had some similarities but were very different in many aspects. For one thing, they had two battalions in World War II rather than the current three and had no organic artillery. While the 2000 version of armored cavalry is made up of tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles, the World War II versions had a few armored cars, a lot of jeeps with machineguns, and some light tanks and "assault guns" (light tanks armed with low-velocity howitzers). They had virtually no tank-killing weapons and very few infantrymen. (Modern armored cavalry is awash with tank-killers and is more deadly than a tank brigade.) Each corps in World War II (which had two or more divisions) had one of these "cavalry groups" to use for recon work. In theory they could screen an open sector (a flank, or a part of the front where nobody expected to attack or be attacked). In a very real sense, they were denied heavy firepower because they were not supposed to fight (or to be assigned defensive combat duty by higher commanders). The thinkers in the Pentagon were convinced that if the cavalry regiments were given Shermans and halftracks they would just become armored brigades and would be used as sledgehammer attack groups and to hold sectors of the front line. Actual corps commanders in actual combat tended to assigned tank destroyers to the group to turn it into a real regiment able to hold a sector of the front line. There was only about a month (August 1944) when American armored cavalry did the primary role it was designed to do (run forward quickly and find out where the enemy has set up a defense line).
5. During the months of August-September-October of 1944 the Germans managed to create 43 entirely new divisions out of thin air. (They had to; the Russians had destroyed at least that many during June and July and the Western allies had wiped out at least as many more when the German front line at Normandy collapsed and the shattered remnants ran for the West Wall.) Even at 10,000 men per new division (400,000 troops), and given that 200,000 men were given to existing units as replacements or used to form new artillery and tank brigades, this was an extraordinary accomplishment for the Replacement Army that had been training 60,000 trainees per month for years. How did Heinrich Himmler (who took over the Replacement Army after the attempt on Hitler's life) do it? First, he transferred 100,000 men out of the Luftwaffe and another 100,000 out of the Navy and put them into Army units with almost no Army training. He called up all 17-year-olds and threw them directly into new divisions instead of cycling them through the training system. He drafted any able-bodied adult male of German heritage from conquered nations still under German control. He cut training time from 18 weeks to 12, so the training units released many more men than normal for a couple of weeks. He cut the amount of time that wounded men were allowed to recover in a hospital or rest camp by a third. He "combed out" the Nazi bureaucracy and the Replacement Army of "surplus" men who were not usefully employed. More men were pulled out of the Luftwaffe home defense anti-aircraft units and replaced by boys of 15 and girls of 18 (known as "flakhelfren" or "anti-aircraft helpers"). The divisions weren't that good (the German Army called them "half soldiers") but they were better than nothing. Posted to existing defensive sectors and not asked to do much more than stay in a foxhole or bunker and fire their weapons on command, they were of some use. These new divisions probably made the war last another month or two longer than it would have without them.