Military history of Germany during World War II

From Academic Kids

History of Germany
Holy Roman Empire
German Confederation
German Empire
Weimar Republic
Nazi Germany
World War II
Since 1945

This page is intended to serve as a focal point for information pertinent to understanding German military activity during World War II.



When in 1933 Hitler gained power, and set on a massive program of rearmament, no one could have predicted the scope, intensity, and duration of the armed conflict that would follow in just a few short years. The worst pessimists in the West predicted a fairly short war of extermination based on the use of poison gases, delivered by aerial bombardment or by other means. The optimists in the West also predicted a short war given what they thought to be the equality of forces of the nations surrounding Germany. When Panzer divisions struck out across the Polish frontier at dawn on September 1 1939, the German Army then was fresh, vigorous, expansive, and Nazi party members and sympathizers saw it as obviously superior to its contemporaries. The Western democracies were shocked at the speed at which Poland fell, given that they had seen the Polish army defeat the vast Soviet Union less than a generation before at the Battle of Warsaw (1920). The democracies were even more shocked some months later when France also fell despite its superior tanks and its Maginot Line. The front line weapons of the German army were new and shiny, with the old stocks being deployed in lesser positions. Many of the German army tactics and techniques were untried but the office corps and the general staff were vigilant and speedy in their adaptations. The officers and men were young and full of enthusiasm, with considerable numbers of veterans of World War I besides them to supply experience and wisdom. After the initial triumphs against Poland, The Low Countries and France a career of easy conquest seemed to open up before it. But by 1945, after five and a half years of ever growing battle against ever stronger and wiser enemies, the German Army was a shadow of its former self. Overwhelmed on all sides and short of everything, it suffered appalling casualties and had to resort to old men, boys, disabled, and unreliable foreigners for its cannon fodder and to prizes of war and the dregs of its World War I stocks for its weapons and munitions.

Start of the War

In September of 1939 Germany's invasion of Poland (see Polish September Campaign) led Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and France to declare war on Germany. After the end of the campaign in Poland the war entered a period of relative inactivity known as the Phony War. This ended when Germany invaded Denmark and Norway in April of 1940 (see Operation Weserübung) and the Netherlands, Belgium and France in May (see Battle of France). All of the invaded countries swiftly capitulated and the forces of Britain and its allies suffered a humiliating defeat in Norway (see British campaign in Norway) and a near-disastrous retreat from France (see Battle of Dunkirk). Britain was threatened with an amphibious invasion (see Operation Sealion) but during the Battle of Britain the Luftwaffe failed to achieve air superiority and the invasion was postponed indefinitely.

The western democracies had been so shocked at the fast victories of the German army because, on paper, the Germans had defeated opponents which were vastly superior to them in numbers and, in some cases in the quality of armements. The democracies slowly realized that German victory had come through what they termed Blitzkrieg, totally or partly mechanized warfare where logistics on trucks and decentralized control with radios counted as much as the number of tanks and men in the field. The Germans had been preparing for this type of war as early as the 1920s, when the Reichswehr under the command of general Hans von Seeckt recreated the forbidden German General Staff under the cover of the Truppenamt and began planning the complex interactions of mechanized warfare.

North Africa

After Italy's declaration of War on Britain and France in June of 1940 Italian forces in Libya came under punitive attack from the British in Egypt. The Italian forces soon took the initiative by occupying British Somaliland in August and invading Egypt in September. The British and Commonwealth forces initially lost ground but managed to turn the situation around after reinforcements were sent to the region in December. In February of 1941 the Afrika Korps were sent to the Libya to reinforce their Italian allies and a hard fought campaign ensued. This theatre of war is known as the North African Campaign

South Eastern Europe

The Italian invasion of Greece in December of 1940 was a disaster and Italian forces were driven back into Albania which Italy had occupied in 1939. Germany attacked Yugoslavia and Greece in May of 1941 to assist their allies and prevent any possibility of disruption to the production of oil from their oilfields of by hostile forces.

Soviet Union

The Soviet Union had in 1939 invaded Poland together with Nazi Germany in accordance with the secret part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Sources made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union reveals the Kremlin strategy to provoke Europe's capitalist powers into war against each other to facilitate Communist revolutions by their war-ravaged proletarians. Stalin counted on Hitler to avoid a two-front war. As long as the war with Britain wasn't concluded, Stalin was in no hurry to make defensive preparations, and was rather preparing his army for offensive to take over the wrecked Europe.

For the Nazis, however, the war in the West was seen as only the overture to the great operations against Communist Russia. The successful campaigns against Poland, Scandinavia and France, and the bad standing of the Red Army after the Great Purge in the 1930s, as indicated by the fiasco of the Winter War, made Hitler believe the power relations between Germany and Russia would not again become as favorable. The crusade against Bolshevism, codenamed Operation Barbarossa, was to be launched sooner rather than later. It was planned to unite Western Europe behind Nazi Germany's strong leadership behind the common goal to fight Communism.

The German campaigns in Greece and North Africa delayed the planned invasion by several weeks, and a great deal of the good summer weather was already lost by the time the invasion was launched on June 22 1941. The massive attack still turned out to be a success, conquering whole areas of the Soviet Union's western region. Their only significant strategic failure was the advance on Moscow, which was halted by stiff resistance and a very harsh winter. The following years, however, were less successful on the Eastern Front.

The first major defeats

Germany declared war on the United States immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941. The USA had been supplying and offering increasing non-combative support to the British since the outbreak of the war and now the full force of the American military and immense war production capability were brought to bear in the conflict against Germany. The first major defeat was in North Africa at the second Battle of El Alamein in 1942. Around about the same time the tide was turning for the Germans in Russia. The defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad shocked many in the German High Command and the realisation that the German forces were not invincible began to permeate through the minds of the German people.

Italian Armistice

The German and Italian defeat in North Africa allowed the Allied forces to contemplate opening up a new theatre of war in the south. Sicily was invaded in July of 1943 leading to the overthrow and imprisonment of Mussolini. In September the Italian mainland was invaded. Shortly afterwards an armistice was signed and Italian troops found themselves arrested and imprisoned by the Germans. The Germans fought on in Italy and in October the new Italian government declared war on Germany. The campaign in Italy eventually bogged down as the focus of attention for the Western allied was drawn to opening up a new front.

Defeat in the East, the Invasion of Normandy and final defeat

In the east the Germans had been steadily withdrawing in the face of increasingly capable Red Army offensives. While the Battle of Kursk in July 1943 was not an overwhelming victory for the Soviets it seriously depleted the Germans arsenal of much needed armoured vehicles and Germany was unable to launch another serious offensive in the east. By the time of D-Day invasion on 6 June 1944, German forces were stretched thinly on three fronts. By August, Soviet forces had crossed into eastern Germany. Allied forces crossed the Rhine a month later. In December of 1944 a last ditch effort to strike a blow to the western allies (the Ardennes Offensive) ground to a halt through to lack of fuel and supplies. By the beginning of 1945 the regime was beginning to disintegrate, and a feared last-ditch defense from a "National Redoubt" never happened. In April, Hitler committed suicide and Germany finally surrendered in the first week of May.

See also


  • WAR DEPARTMENT TECHNICAL MANUAL TM-E 30-451, Handbook on German Military Forces, US WAR DEPARTMENT, 15 MARCH 1945.
  • Calvocoressi, Peter and Guy Wint. Total War New York, New York Penguin press, 2001
  • Keegan, John. The Second World War. New York Penguin press, 1990


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