The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man… Thomas Robert MALTHUS

The Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39 (‘Tank-hunter battalion 39’, part of „Kampfgruppe Gräf”, part of the 21. Panzer Division) of the Afrika Korps on the move…

War years…


A Heeresadler („Army Eagle”) decal for the helmets of the Wehrmacht Heer (model 1942).

The German Army furthered concepts pioneered during World War I, combining ground (Heer) and Air Force (Luftwaffe) assets into combined arms teams. Coupled with traditional war fighting methods such as encirclements and the „battle of annihilation”, the German military managed many lightning quick victories in the first year of World War II, prompting foreign journalists to create a new word for what they witnessed: Blitzkrieg.


The Heer entered the war with a minority of its formations motorized; infantry remained approximately 90% foot-borne throughout the war, and artillery primarily horse-drawn. The motorized formations received much attention in the world press in the opening years of the war, and were cited as the reason for the success of the German invasions of Poland (September 1939), Norway and Denmark (April 1940), Belgium, France and Netherlands (May 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941) and the early campaigns in the Soviet Union (June 1941).

With the entry of the United States in December 1941, Germany and other Axis powers found themselves engaged in campaigns against three major industrial powers. At this critical juncture, Hitler assumed personal control of the Wehrmacht high command, and his personal failings as a military commander arguably contributed to major defeats in early 1943, at Stalingrad and Tunis in North Africa.

The Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39 (‘Tank-hunter battalion 39’, part of „Kampfgruppe Gräf„, part of the 21. Panzer Division) of the Afrika Korps on the move.

The Germans’ military strength was managed through mission-based tactics (rather than order-based tactics) and an almost proverbial discipline. In public opinion, the German Army was, and sometimes still is, seen as a high-tech army. However, such advanced equipment, while featured much in propaganda, was often only available in small numbers or late in the war, as overall supplies of raw materials and armaments ran low. For example, only 40% of all units were motorized, baggage trains often relied on horse-drawn trailers and many soldiers went by foot or used bicycles (Radfahrtruppen).


Some historians, such as British author and ex-newspaper editor Max Hastings, consider that ” … there’s no doubt that man for man, the German army was the greatest fighting force of the second world war”. Similar views were also explained in his book „Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy”, while in the book World War II : An Illustrated Miscellany, Anthony Evans writes: ‘The German soldier was very professional and well trained, aggressive in attack and stubborn in defence. He was always adaptable, particularly in the later years when shortages of equipment were being felt’. However, their integrity was compromised by war crimes, especially those committed on the eastern front. They were over-extended and out-maneuvered before Moscow in 1941, and in North Africa and Stalingrad in 1942, and from 1942/3 onwards, were in constant retreat. Other Axis powers fought with them, especially Hungary and Romania, as well as many volunteers from other nations.

Among the foreign volunteers who served in the Heer during World War II were ethnic Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians along with people from the Baltic states and the Balkans. Russians fought in the Russian Liberation Army or as Hilfswilliger. Non-Russians from the Soviet Union formed the Ostlegionen. These units were all commanded by General Ernst August Köstring and represented about five percent of the forces under the OKH.

Air Force…

The German Air Force, led by Hermann Göring, contributed many units of ground forces to the war in Russia as well as the Normandy front. In 1940, the Fallschirmjäger paratroops conquered the vital Belgian Fort Eben-Emael and took part in the airborne invasion of Norway, but after suffering heavy losses in the Battle of Crete, large scale airdrops were discontinued. Operating as crack infantry, the 1st Fallschirmjäger Division fought in all the theatres of the war. Notable actions include the bloody Monte Cassino, the last ditch defense of Tunisia and numerous key battles on the eastern front. A Fallschirmjäger armored division, the Fallschirm-Panzer Division 1 Hermann Göring, was also formed and was heavily engaged in Sicily and at Salerno.

Separate from the elite Fallschirmjäger, the Luftwaffe also fielded regular infantry in the Luftwaffe Field Divisions. These units were basic infantry formations formed from Luftwaffe personnel. Lacking competent officers and composed in the main of recruits for the air-force unhappy with their unexpected use as infantry, they understandably lacked in morale. By Göring’s personal order they were intended to be restricted to defensive duties in quieter sectors to free up front line troops for combat. The Luftwaffe, being in charge of Germany’s anti-aircraft warfare, also used thousands of teenage Luftwaffenhelfer to support the Flak units.


The German Navy (Kriegsmarine) played a major role in World War II as control over the commerce routes in the Atlantic was crucial for Germany, Britain and later the Soviet Union. In the Battle of the Atlantic, the initially successful German U-boat fleet arm was eventually defeated due to Allied technological innovations like sonar, radar, and the breaking of the Enigma code. Large surface vessels were few in number due to construction limitations by international treaties prior to 1935. The „pocket battleships” Admiral Graf Spee and Admiral Scheer were important as commerce raiders only in the opening year of the war. No aircraft carrier was operational, as German leadership lost interest in the Graf Zeppelin which had been launched in 1938. Following the loss of the Bismarck in 1941, with Allied air superiority threatening the remaining battlecruisers in French Atlantic harbours, the ships were ordered to make the Channel Dash back to German ports. Operating from fjords of Norway, which had been occupied in 1940, convoys from the USA to the Soviet port of Murmansk could be intercepted even though the Tirpitz spent most of her career as Fleet in being. After the appointment of Karl Doenitz as Grand Admiral of the Kriegsmarine, Germany stopped constructing battleships and cruisers in favour of U-boats.

Theaters and campaigns…

German cavalry and motorized units entering Poland from East Prussia during the Invasion of Poland of 1939.

The Wehrmacht directed combat operations during World War II (from 1 September 1939 to 8 May 1945) as the German Reich’s Armed Forces umbrella command organization. After 1941 the OKH became the de facto Eastern Theatre higher echelon command organization for the Wehrmacht, excluding Waffen-SS except for operational and tactical combat purposes. The OKW conducted operations in the Western Theatre.

For a time the Axis Mediterranean Theatre and the North African Campaign was conducted as a joint campaign with the Italian Army, and may be considered a separate theatre.

  • North African Campaign in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt between the U.K. and Commonwealth (and later, US) forces and the Axis forces.
  • The Italian „Theatre” (1943–45) was in fact a continuation of the Axis defeat in North Africa, and was a Campaign for defence of Italy.

The operations by the Kriegsmarine in the North and Mid-Atlantic can also be considered as separate Theatres considering the size of the area of operations and their remoteness from other Theatres.

Eastern theatre…

The Eastern Wehrmacht campaigns included:

  • Czechoslovakian campaign
  • Austrian Anschluss campaign
  • Battle of Poland campaign (Fall Weiss)—a joint invasion of Germany, Soviet Union and Slovakia.
  • Balkans and Greece (Operation Marita)
  • Operation Barbarossa Campaign, also known as the Eastern Front, was the largest and most lethal campaign that the Wehrmacht Heer fought in during World War II. The Campaign against the Soviet Union was strategically the most crucial for Germany and its allies during World War II because of the economic and political repercussions defeat of the Soviet Union would have had on the outcome of the war, including that of the conflict with the United Kingdom and the United States in the Western Theatre. The Eastern Front was also the Theater that demanded more resources than any other Theater throughout the war. The large area covered by the Eastern Front necessitated the division of the Theatre in to four separate Strategic Directions overseen by the Army Group North, Army Group Centre, Army Group South, and the Norwegian Army. These commands would conduct their own interdependent strategic campaigns within the Theater.
  • Battle of the Caucasus.
  • A subset of the Eastern Front was a number of anti-partisan operations against guerrilla units and counter-insurgency operations largely by Waffen-SS units behind Axis lines.

However, Hitler demanded that the Wehrmacht had to fight on other fronts, sometimes three simultaneously, thus stretching its resources too thin. By 1944, even the defense of Germany became impossible.

Western theatre…

Soldiers of German Wehrmacht in front of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the occupied Paris, 1940.
  • Phony War (Sitzkrieg).
  • The Denmark campaign as Operation Weserübung
  • The Norwegian Campaign.
  • The largest campaign in the Western Theatre involving combat was conducted against the Netherlands, Belgium, etc. and France (Fall Gelb) in 1940. This predominantly land campaign evolved into two subsequent campaigns, one by the Luftwaffe against the United Kingdom, and the other by the Kriegsmarine against the strategic supply routes linking the United Kingdom to the rest of the World.
  • The Western Front resumed in 1944 against the Allied forces with the Battle of Normandy.
  • The strategic air campaigns the Luftwaffe won in 1939 and 1940 in Poland and France ended with the Battle of Britain. From 1941 to the end of 1943, the Luftwaffe entered a long and bloody air battle with the Red Air Force that affected its participation in the campaign against the RAF. Allied air forces enjoyed aerial superiority on all three Theatres by the summer of 1944. In respect to the Battle of Britain, had the Luftwaffe pursued its early goal of bombing the RAF airfields and fighting a war of attrition, it is likely they would have been victorious. However, in response to a string of events beginning with a small-scale air raid on Berlin by British bombers, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe bomber forces to attack British cities. These reprisal attacks shifted the weight of the Luftwaffe away from the RAF and onto British civilians, allowing the RAF to rebuild its fighting strength and, within a few short months, turn the tide against the Luftwaffe in the skies above England.
  • The Battle of the Atlantic resulted in early Kriegsmarine successes that forced Winston Churchill to confide after the war that the only real threat he felt to Britain’s survival was the „U-Boat peril.”


Approximately 5,533,000 German soldiers and from other nationalities fighting for the German army are considered killed or MIA in World War II. The number of wounded surpasses 6,000,000, and the number of prisoners of war reaches 11,000,000, making a total of 22 million casualties from all causes during that conflict.


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