*** World War II German Military Weaknesses

World War II: German Military Weaknesses

German World War II military weaknesses
Figure 1.-- The German Wehrmacht is often depicted as an entirely modern, fully mechanized force. There were indeed superbly trained mechanized Panzer forces. The Wehrmacht was not, however, fully mechanized. Germany did not have the industrial capacity to fully mechanize the Wehrmacht. Many units, especially the artillery required heavily on horse power. This weakness did not show in the quick German victories on the realtively small battlefelds of Western Europe. It did materialize, however, on the vast, trackless battlefields of the Soviet Union where huge numbers of horses died in the initial winter season.

The German Wehrmacht had major weaknesses which were not at first apparent as a result of the early spectacular victories. They would in the end would result in catastrophic defeat. As was the case of the Prussian Arny before it and the Imperial German Army in World War I, Hitler's strategic doctrine was premised on early victories against countries that were unprepared for War. This way Hitler believed he could defeat his enemies even though they had a greater industrial capacity and resource base. This would be possible only if Germany could defeat the countries targeted in quick, short wars. As in World War I, a long, protracted war would inevitably lead to Germany's defeat. The Wehrmacht achieved spectacular victories largely because of the perfection of modern tactical doctrine--Blitzkrieg. The fall of France stunned the world. The Panzers, however, were stopped by the Channel and the RAF stopped the Luftwaffe. When President Roosevelt underwrote the British war effort with Lend Lease, it meant that Germany would not have its quick short victory. As a result, as the War progressed the weaknesd inherent in the German war effort gradually became increasingly apparent. These weaknesses proved disastrous in World War II as they had in World War I. And they were magnified by Hitler's mishandling of the War effort.

Industrial Base

The industrial base of its targets, significantly increased that of Germany. Essentially the same sitation faced by the Great Elector and his descendants. Germany even after World War I had the largest industrial establishment in Europe. It was that industry that was the backbone of the Central Ppwers war effort. The War had not been fought on German territory and except for the Saarland and Rhineland, Germany was not occupied by the Allies. Germany did loose some territory as a result of the Versailles Peace Treaty, but the country's industrial complex was left largely intact. The country's scientific establishment supporting that industry was also intact. The strength of that establishment can be seen by the number of Noble Prizes Germn scientists were awarded, One loss to German's industrial capacity was the disolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This meant that the Skoda arms complex was now in Czechosolvakia, a new independent democratic country, orieted toward Britain and France. While Germany remained the most important industrial country in Europe, one area that Germany did not persue intensively was the automobile industry. Germany of course had some notable automobile manufacturers (Mercedes and Porch), they did not mass produce cars like American automobile companies (Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Stutabaker, and others). The average german worker could not afford cars, especially the expensive cars made by German manufactuers. There were also weaknesses in the German industrial economy, the need to import raw materials. The most notable being petroleum. Nor did Germany have anywhere near the capability to build aircraft that its poptential opponents have. Imperial Germany in World War I did not have the same indistrial capability of the Allies--even before America entered the War. The industrial balance of power was even less favorable for NAZI Germany as Hitler comtemplated another war. The Germany that the NAZIs seized control of was by any objective assessment not a country capable of wageing another world war. Only a leader patholically commotted to war would have contemplted such a decission. Germany would go to war with essentially the same industrial and scientific complex of Imperial Germany (the NAZIs did little to expand either). Yet the countries they would wage war against had greatly expanded their industrial and scientific complexes. The relative industrial ballance between Germany and the Allies (Britain and France) did not change appreciably in the inter-War era. What did change was the industrial capacity of the two European outriders--the Soviet Union and the United States. Tsarist Russia in World War I did not have the industrial capacity to properly equip its spldiers. The Soviet Union did. American had greatly expanded its industrial capacity. And one area that grew out of all prortion to Germany was the automoble industry--particularly important in a modern mechanized war.

Agricultural Base

One of the reasons Germany was defeated in World War I is that support for the War and the imperial government collapsed on the hime front. The Allies also cracked the Western Front, but the German Aemy could have continued the War for another year. The Rhine would have been a formidable natural barrier. It was the collapse of the home front tht ended the War in November. A major reason for the collapse of the home front was the substantial decline in agricultural production. It is interesting that Hitler after the War focused on the collapse of the home front and not the battlefield defeat of the German Army on the Western Front. (This was accomplished with an American Army of only about 1 million in France. (The United States was building an army of over 4 million at the time of the German requested Armistice.) As a result, the NAZIs in World War II gave considerable attention to supplying the home front with food. This was accomplished in a variety of ways. First, the Germans looted occupied countries of food. This was done rutlessy in the East and in a more civolized, but none the less efficent matter in the West. Little consideration was given to the civilians in the occupied countries. There was , for example, a dreadful famine in Greece. Second, the NAZIs used POWs as agricultural labor. Many Polish and Soviet POWs were essentiallu y killed by exposure and starvation. The French POWs were treated more correctly. Third, the HJ was used as a source of agricultural labor. This was done in a variety of ways. The children were set up in camps for this purpose. Some of the KLV camps were also used. Fourth, an effective rationing program was established. The efforts worked to supply both the military and civilians with food. Food began to become more scarce as German military defeats began to reduce the area in the East that could be pillaged. The system, however, began to collapse in late 1944 as the Allied air offensive began to destroy the German tranportation network.

Natural Resources

Strtegic materials played a critical role in World War II, in both the desire to launch the War and in the ability to wage an etended conflict. Only one country at the outbreak of World War II had the industrial and agricultural capacity as well as the resource base to wage world war and that was the United states which had no desire to participsate in another world war. The Soviet Union had significantly expanded the Russian indutrial base, but weakened the country's agricultural base through enducung the Ukranian famine and collectivzing agriculture. Like the United States, the Soviets posessed enormous natural resources and like Germany, they had designs on neigboring countries. Britain was less well situated. It had a substantial industrial and scientific base, but except for coal and iron, limited natural resources. And it had to import large quantities of food. Those resources, however, existed in the Empire and overseas trading partners like America. The Royal Navy existed to ensure access to those resources in time of war, but had been allowed to decline in strength during the inter-War period by budget-minded governments. France was better situated in terms of Britain as to food production and as aresult of its navy and alliance with Briain was guaranteed access to needed raw materials in its colonies and trading partners. The Axis powers were less favorably positioned for War in term of raw materials. Germany was an important industrial and scientific power, but could neither feed itself nor possessed the strategic resources needed for industrial world war. The one critical resource Germany possessed in abundance was coal. Other important strategic materials would have to be imported. This made Germany vulnerable to blockade and as in World War I, Germany did not have the naval power to contest a Royal Navy blockade. Germany was particularly defecient in access to petroleum, a necesity for the modern mechnized war it planned to wage. Germany's answer to this was a synthetic petroleum industry, but this did not even meet the country's need in peace time. The limited resource base was why Hitler in his strategic thinking from a very early stage looked east to the copious resources of the Soviet Union--resources that were not subject to a Royal Navy blockade. Italy was the least prepareed of all the major beligerants. Italy had neither the industrial base or the raw materials to wage a protracted war. Japan was the most industrialized country in Asia, but its industrial base was small in comparison to America. And the Home Islands had almost no natural resources. Japan had acquired some in Korea and Manchuria. Like Germany, Japan had virtually no petroleum and imported most of its needs from the United States, making it even more vulnerable than Germany.


One obvious element of national strength is population. Only countries with large populations had the manpower to build large armies. Germany was one of the principal countries of Europe, but there other countries with larhe populations, notably France and Britain. And while smaller than Germany, the other countries of Europe (Belgians, Czechs, Danes, Poles, Yugoslavs, and others) in total also outnumbered the Germans. And all of these countries were overshown with the population of the Soviet Union. For a country intent on conquering Europe, this constituted a very serious problem. The NAZIs even before the War were concerned about declining birthrates, the consequence of both irbanizatin and economic difficult times (inflation and drpression). The NAZIs attempted to increase the birth rate with only limited success. With the onset of the War they also attempted to recruit suppoters in countries with suitable Aryan populations, again with only limited success.

Racist Ideology

The NAZI racist idelogy was most obvious in their hsted of the Jews. It is not clear to what extent this affected their war effort. It did deny them the use of a small part of the German popuilation, about 0.5 million. One imact here was the impact on the American nuclear weapons program, but in the end this impacted Jpsn and not Germany. Probably the larger impact was that the 6 million Jew they mirdered was a large potential work force thzt could have been used in war industries. Probably more important than the Jewx were the Slavs. NAZI racial hatred of the Slavs turned potential allies against the Germans. Many Ukranians in particular were willing to welcome the Germans as liberators. There were also anti-Bolshevik Russians prepared to make common cause with the Germans. A Russian Liberation Army was eventually formed, but Hitler refused to arm it until Germany had already essentially lost the War. NAZI racism fed the brutality that fed the Resistance movement in every occupied country. The anti-German sentiment also complicated German efforts to harness the economies of conquered countries to the German war effort.

German Supermen

The NAZIs persued the principle that true Germans were Aryans and the Aryans were a superior race. The NAZIs made racial education an important part of the curriculum. Children learned in school that not only were Aryans superior, but they along produced civilizations of any cultural importance. Other races were seen as inferior. Jews were depicted as an actual threat to Aryans because they carried genetic diseases. Children learned in their biology classes that national conflicts was a struggle between races rather like the survival if the fitest in nature. Thus the early triumphs of German arms in Poland (October 1939), Denmark (April 1940), Norway (April 1940), the Netherlands (May 1940), Belgium (May 1940), France (June 1940), Yugoslavia (April 1941), Greece (April 1941), and the early phase of the Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union (June-November 1941) were used by German propaganda to bolster the argument that German Aryans were supermen, both in their fighting spirit and in their scientific ability to produce modern weapons. It is unclear to what extent the German commanders accepted the NAZI supermen propaganda. It is undeniable, however, that the Germans, including competent generals, were convinced that they were superior to their oppoonents. This was epecially the attitide toward the Soviets, but also included attitdes toward the Western Allies. And this was a factor in major defeats that sealed the fate of the Reich, including Dynkirk, th Battle of Britain, the Soviet counter offeniv before Mocow, Stalingrad and many others. And it alo affeted attotides toward their suposed allies (Croats, Hyngarians, Italy, Japanese, Romanians, and Slovaks). They did have some respect for the Finns. Tese were noy just attitudes at OKW, but officers in the field and left the Gerams incapable of waging coalition warfare. It is no accident that the disater at Stalingrand resulted from the German misuse of their Hungarian, Italian, and Romanian allies. Of course the claims were shown to be spurious when Russian and Allied soldiers armed with modern weapons and competent leadership began turning back the Germans. In this regard some of the soldiers that the NAZIs had labeled as inferiors--especially the Russians, but also Polish soldiers fighting with the Allies and Free French proved hightly effective combat soldiers.

Führer Principle

HBC agrees with Ambrose that the German F�hrer principle, embodied in the person of Adolf Hitler, was a critical weakness in the German war effort. Hitler is one of the most studied and wrote about individuals in modern history. The strange thing about Hitler is how after the failed Munich Beer Hall Putch (1924) that he led first the NAZI Party and then the German nation to a position of dominance in Europe. His judgement was almost flawless in the tactical scence (certainly not in the moral sence). Then beginning with the decission to stop the Panzers before Dunkirk he made a series of decissions that in effect ruined the NAZI war effort (directing the Luftwaffe at British cities rather than the RAF, failing to seek the support of anti-Bolshevik nationlist groups in the Soviet Union, directing the Weremacht away from Moscow in 1941, declaring war on the United States, postponing development of jet aircraft, failing to fully mobilize the economy for war in 1939-41, and many other decissions). I know of few other important leaders who in one phase of their career made so many astute decisions and in the other phase was so invariably wrong. Obviously it is a disaster in a totalitarian state if the leader is so terribly misdirected. We are less sure about Ambrose's claim that the F�hrer principle that adversely affected the performance of the Weremacht in the field. He claims that when a paln of operation conceived by the general staff went awry that field commanders were imobilized without instructions. This indeed was a principle drilled into German children in the Hitler Youth that boys followed the orders of their officers. Ambrose also claims than went the lieutenant in a combat unit was killed the entire unit was imobilized. Here HBC simply does not have adequate information to assess Ambrose's claims. We do agree that it was quite common in an American infantry platoon that if the lieutenant was killed or incapitated that non-commissioned officers replaced them and the platoon continued to function. Indeed individual actions by small units often cut off from command support played a key role in The American success both at Omaha Beach on D-Day (June 1944) and slowing the German advance in the Buldge (December 1944).

Air Power

Ironically the Luftwaffe which had struck fear throughout Europe and played a major fole in early victories was the first of three services to fail. The Luftwaffe's faulure over Britain (1940) should have been a signial that Germany's military capability was limited. The Luftwaffe in the end did not have the capability of winning the campaign in the East or defended the Reich after America entered the War. This was largely due to the grater industrial capability of the Allies. Not only were the British outbuilding the Germans by the time of the Battle of Britain, but both the Soviet Union and the United States had a much larger capability to build aircraft than Germany. And both Britain and America had the capability not only to build a tactical airforce, but a strategic air force as well. A strategic air force that would destroy Germany's ability to make war. Luftwaffe planners exacerbated the contraints imposed by German's limited industrial base. The Luftwaffe had a very active reseach and development program. But rather than concentrating resources on a few successful programs, the Luftwaffe expended resources on a wide range of weapns development project. The V-weapns program was an excellent example. The V-1 was a very inexpensive and effective weapon, the fore runner of the modern cruise missel. It could have if properly used disrupted the Allied D-Day preparations. The Germans, however, diverted respources to the V-2 program. The V-2 was a technological achievement of the first order. It was, however, a weapon of virtually no military value becuse of the cost and complexity of the weapon which meant that unlike the V-1 it could not be mass produced in large numbers. The Luftwaffe did develop a technology that could have affected the course of the War--jet propulsion. But here Hitler intervened twice to ensure that the Me-262 would be only a footnote in the air war. He first delayed the project and then insisted that it be used a bomber rather than a fighter.


Perhaps the most serious German military weakness was the lack of attention to logistics. German officers did not want to be in quatermaster service. That was not where careers and professional prestige were established. As a result the supply sections tended to atract aower quality of officers. This is perhaps true in other armies as well, but it was especially true in the German Army. And this was a traditional German tendency. Germany's limited industrial base was a factor in its weak logistical system. As a result, Hitler launched the War before the Whrmact was fully mobilized. The Heer still relived heavily on draft animals, both for supplies and artillery. There were in particular, not enough trucks. This was only partially resolved by seizing trucks in France and the other occupied countries. For a military committed to Blitzkrieg mean mobility and speed this was a very serious weakness. It mean that supplied coulkd not keep up with the advansing Panzers. It was an area of lesser importance to an army designed to win a war in a brief period, but was of vital importance to an army involved in a protacted war. [Citino, p. xiv.] The Wehrmacht over came this weakness in the short campaigns on relatively small battlefields in Poland and the West. The emense battlefield presented by the Soviet Union was a very different matter. Aeak logistical system proved to be a critical weakness on the Eastern Front where the Wehrmacht had to contend with huge distances, hostile weather, and a primitive transportation network. And the planning for Barbarossa did not address this potential problem. Hitler demanded an aggresive invasion plan and planners who raised possible problems were often criticized or removed. It is not true as often claimed that the Wehrmacht did not have winter uniforms. Warm clothing wasstocked at wearhouses in the Reich. What Germany did not have was a logistical train that to could get the warm clothing in the troops. The logigistical system was strained getting fuel, amunitiuoin, and other supplies to the troops and thus winter clothing was given low prioritybun a campaign that was suposed to be completed in a short summer campaign.

Military Intelligence

Another stark German weakness was military intelligence. [Citino, pp. xiv-xv.] This is less easy to understand than the inattention to logistics. The Germans began the War with probably the most professional military in the world. It was the German Wehrmacht which first conceotualized modern warfare--Blitkrieg. It is thus difficult to understand why German military intelligence was such a distater throughout the War. A factor of course was that the hrad of the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris, begining with the German attricities in Poland, begn to secretly oppose Hitler. Even so, he did not want Germany to lose on the Eastern Front. And he did not compromise German inteligence on the operational level. American readers are most aware of the failure of German intelligence to predict when and where the Allies would strike at the Atlantic Wall. Here the D-Day problem was realtively simple as there were so few real options. This was, however, only one such failure. Time and time agsin on the Eastern Front, the Germans failed to anticipate Red Army offensives with disterous results. Perhaps the central problem was the German tendency to underestimate their opponents, especially the professional capabilities of the Red Army. There seems to have also been a general failure on the part of the Germans to underestimte the importance of inteligence. The Wehrmacht seems to have been over confidant of their military superiority

Naval Power

A great German weakness was the lack of adequate naval power. This is particularly true because arguably the most important battle of the War was the Battle of the Atlantic. If Germany had been able to knock Britain and the Royal Navy out of the War, America would have had no way inserting its huge potential force into the European War. Britain was in fact a huge air craft carrier and staging area from which American industrial might could strike at Germany. Without Britain, Hitler could have focused all his might and the resources of conquered Europe on the Soviet Union. Germany of course did not build a huge navy that could compete with the Royal Navy and susequently the Canadian and American Navies because of its limited industrial capacity. But even the limited resources devoted to naval construction were mis-allocated. Germany attempted to build a substantial surface fleet. The surface vessels like Bismarck were magnificenly engeeered a and consructed, but the battleship proved to be an outmoded weapon system. And Germany's small fleet if capital ships could not compete with the Royal Navy. With the benefit of hindsite we can see today that if the huge resources devoted to Bismarck had been used to have build U-boats, Germany my well have suceeded in knocking Britain out of the War. As it was, the small U-boat fleet with which Döneitz's began the War nearly succeeded in doing just that. Once the War began, Germany significantly expanded U-boat construction, but was never able to over come the combined anti-submrine efforts of America, Brotain, and Canada.


Citino, Robert M. The German Way of War: From the Thirty Year's War to the Third Reich (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, 2005), 428p.


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Created: 8:49 PM 9/26/2008
Last updated: 6:52 PM 7/28/2019