World War II: Age of Soldiers--Germany


Figure 1.--This 15-year old German boy surrendered to advancing American soldiers near Giessen. He was in the Luftwaffe. Source: U.S. Army.

German Führer Adolf Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations, denounced the Versailles Treaty, launched a massive rearmament program, and introduced conscription (March 16, 1935). Goering in the same month announces the creation of the Luftwaffe. Germany at the time was mired in the Depression an while some Germans had misgivings about their country's militarization, others saw it as a way of finding jobs for the unemployed. Hitler used the term “research for peaceful purposes". The widest age range was in Germany who began inducting youths and older men when the War turned against Germany. Most of the younger boys and older men were inducted into the Volksstrum created late in the War (1944). As a last ditch effort to stave off defeat in October 1944, all males aged 16 to 60 were required to join the Volkssturm, or Home Guard. The Wehrmacht now disgraced in Hitler's eyes. Thus command of the Volkssturm was given to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Many of the Volksstrum members were not given uniforms. but only arm bands. The Vollsstrum was sent into battle with little or no training. The Hitler Youth boys inducted into the Volksstrum had received some military training. Much of the defense of Berlin (April 1945) was conducted by the Volksstrum. While boys had to joint the Volkssturm at age 16 joined. We are not entirely sure with the crcumstance under which these younger children joined the Volksstrum. Many young children were caught up in the defense of Berlin. In some cases the Hitler Youth on a local level was involved in recruiting these boys. Many of these boys surrendered as soon as they encounteed Allied soldiers, especially on the western front. Others fought more tenaciously than regular Wehrmacht soldiers. We are are not entirely sure about the services in which these boys served.

Conscription Instituted (March 1935)

German Führer Adolf Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations, denounced the Versailles Treaty, launched a massive rearmament program, and introduced conscription (March 16, 1935). Göring in the same month announces the creation of the Luftwaffe. Germany at the time was mired in the Depression and while some Germans had misgivings about their country's militarization, others saw it as a way of finding jobs for the unemployed. Hitler used the term “research for peaceful purposes". Hitler knew that the great bulk of the German people did not want another war. For this reason and for diplomatic purposes he carefully justified these actions as steps needed to ensure peace. We do not yet have details on the German conscription law. Historians debate how the War could have been prevented and when the Allies should have intervened to stop Hitler. Surely the turning pont was when Hitler ordered conscription to expand the Wehrmacht in violation of the Versailles Treaty (1935). Without a large conscript army, Germanby coulkd not launch a major war. Thus this was the dcisive steo toward World war II.

Initial Mobilization (1939)

Hitler did not order the total mobilization of the German population when he launched the War (September 1939). Many workers were granted deferments. And the early victories in Poland (1939), France (1940), and the Balkans (1941) resulted in such limited losses that this did not change even at the time of Barbarossa (June 1941).

Red Army Offensive Before Moscow: German Losses (December 1941-April 1942)

The Soviet offensive before Moscow changed this (December 1941). The Whermacht suffered very serious losses in both material and manpower. The Wehrmacht was not destroyed, but it was substantially weakened and would never fully recover. Historians tend to focus on Stalingrad, in part because a German fiekd army actually surrenderdd, but it was the huges losses suffered with the Red Army offensive before Moscow that dramatically weakehned the Wehrmacht. The Soviets suffered even greater losses, but they were losses the Soviets could replace and the Germans could not.

Operation Blue: 18-Year Old Class (1942)

Historians often describe the desperate German defensive forces as 'scraping the bottom of the barrel'. In fact after the huge losses before Moscow (1941-42), the Wehrmmact was already doing this in 1942. Operation Blue, the German Summer Offensive in 1942, had to be limited to one sector of the front. Offensives of the scale of Barbarossa were no longer possible. Hitler chose the south because of the resources the German war economy needed, especially oil. This surprised the Soviets who were expecting another assault on Moscow. The 1942 Summer Offensive was largely fought by rushing the current year class of 18-year old conscripts to the front. These inexperienced youths would comprise a major proprtion of the rebuilt Ostheer (Eastern Army). Compared to Barbarossa, Operation Blue was an offensive on a shoe-string. Even so, it was surely the most complex Wehrmacht operation of the War. And because of the limited resources and complexity, there was a narrow margin of victory. With America now in the War, 1942 would be Germany's final opportunity to win the War before the United Staytes could mobilize its resources and bring them to bear on Germany. One of the several weaknesses of Blue was the large number of young, inexperienced troops. Hitler was well aware of this, he told his generals, "The operation must begin with success; young troops mustn't suffer any setbacks. Young troops need special support. Thevoperation must proceed in such a way that our young divisions get used to the enemy." (March 28, 1942). [Hadler, p. 3:420.] The resulting disaster at Stalingrad (January 1943), further weakened the Wehrmnacht and creating a massive manpower shortage, not only because of the buolding Red Army, but because the growing Allied strength in the West.

Total War

Hitler's concept of World War II involved short campaigns in which targeted counties would be knocked out individually or in small groups before they could adequately prepare. This was historically the way Prussia waged war. This pattern worked for the early campaigns. Everything changed when the Red Army held before Moscow. Goebbels declared Total War over the radio, Total War meant that the Germans began to mobilize virtually the entire male populstion netween 18 and 60. As a result, workers who had deferements were mobiized. They were increasingly replsaced by foreign workers, mostly forced labor from the occupied countries. Further disasters in 1944 would cause the NAZIs to turn to younger boys and older men with the creation of the Volksstrum.

Anti-aircraft Artillery: Fliegerabwehrkanone

Even before the Volkssturm was formed, Hitler Youth boys were assigned to mand anti-aircract batteries defending German cities. Luftwaffe chief Göring promised the German people that German cities would never be bombed. The British launched what were at first occassional night raids, but increased in intensity with the arriver al the Avro Stirling (1942). The Americans joined the strategic bombing campign whivch became around-the clock bombing. The result was the greatest air camoaign in history. Massive batteries of anti-aircraft guns were deployed around German cities. These batteries were at the beginning of the War manned by KLuftwaffe men. As the demsnd for front-line soldiers increased, these men were replaced by HJ boys and others. I do not believe that they were given uniforms. They just wore their Hitler Youth uniforms. I'm not sure what age boys were assigned to this duty. It was very dangerous work vecause it mwant that they were not in bomb shelters. With the defeat of the Luftwaffe (early 1944), these batteries became virtually the only meaningful defenses for German cities.

Motivations and Beliefs

One of the enduring questions of World war II is the motivations and values of the German soldier. Of course there were millions of Germans soldiers with eidely differing backgrounds and beliefs. This is thus a complicated question with no easy answers. Most soldiers were conscripted and fought for patriotic reasons to defend their country. (NAZI propaganda portrayed Germany as victimized country surrounded by enemies.) German soldiers were, however, involved in terrible attrocities. This was not just the murderous Einsatzgrupen and Waffen-SS, but the regular Wehrmacht as well. Here both youthful soldiers molded by the Hitler Youth as well as older married men with children of their own. I have always wondered how fmily men with children could murder women and children. One family man writing home describes killing Jews, adding that it is terrible, but that if it was not done the Jews would do the same in Germany. At this is what he told himself. One has to wonder how many really believed this. Most German soldiers if they got home alive wanted to forget the War and thus left no trace of their motives nd experiences. One youthful soldier was a bank clerk drafted at age 20 years in 1939 left a record of his beliefs and experiences on the Eastern Front. His initial patriotic feelings became cimplicated with the brutal fightings and attrocities he witnessed. [Reese] A further question is why the German soldier continued to fight even after there was no real hope of victory.

Volksstrum

The widest age range was in Germany who began inducting youths and older men when the War turned against Germany. Most of the younger boys and older men were inducted into the Volksstrum created late in the War (1944). As a last ditch effort to stave off defeat in October 1944, all males aged 16 to 60 were required to join the Volkssturm, or Home Guard. The Wehrmacht now disgraced in Hitler's eyes. Thus command of the Volkssturm was given to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Many of the Volksstrum members were not given uniforms. but only arm bands. The Vollsstrum was sent into battle with little or no training. The Hitler Youth boys inducted into the Volksstrum had received some military training. Much of the defense of Berlin (April 1945) was conducted by the Volksstrum.

Younger Boys

While boys had to joint the Volkssturm at age 16 joined. We are not entirely sure with the crcumstance under which these younger children joined the Volksstrum. Many young children were caught up in the defense of Berlin. In some cases the Hitler Youth on a local level was involved in recruiting these boys. Surely it was not the parents who encouraged their children to enlist. Even ardent NAZIs would have for the most part attempted to protect their children. We assume many of the young boys who enlisted were involved in Hitler Youth units run by die-hard NAIZs, perhaps SS soldiers. In many cases wouunded soldiers, incapicated for front-line service were assigned to the Hitler Youth movement as adult youth workers.

Performance

Many of these boys surrendered as soon as they encounteed Allied soldiers, especially on the western front. Others fought more tenaciously than regular Wehrmacht soldiers.

Services

We are are not entirely sure about the services in which these boys served. We believe that boys inducted in the Volksssturm went entirely or mostly into thh Wehrmacht. We have noted boys younger than 17 in other servives. The boy here wears a Luftwaffe uniform and he is only 15 years old. Presumably he voluntarily joined.

Werewolf

As Allied forces neared Germany, he NAZIs began training saboteurs and snipers to operate in occupied areas to disrupt occuption efforts. Some of the individuals trained were youth and children. Unlike the Volkssturm, these were not soldiers and did not wear uniforms, even arm bands.

Sources

Hadler, Franz. March 28 entry, Kriegstagebuck. Vol. III: Der Russlandfeldzug bis zum Marsch auf Stalingrad" (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer Verlag, 1964).

Reese, Willy Peter. A Stranger to Myself (2003). Reese served four tours of duties on the Eastern Front and kept a dairy. On home leave fter the fourth tour he used the diaries to write a memoir (1943). He was killed during his fifth tour. Mmoirs can not be taken at face value, but Reese's account has thge ring of truth about it.






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Created: 5:23 AM 9/2/2004
Last updated: 12:53 AM 4/30/2012