9: Practice


How did the Reichswehr prepare for war? How did they train and practice? How did they try to get around the fact that they could not have airplanes, tanks, or heavy artillery?

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Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Members Episode 9. Last episode we talked about some of the leaders of the Reichswehr and how they thought the limited resources of the Reichswehr should be used from a theoretical perspective, this time we will dive a bit deeper into the details. We are going to discuss how the Reichswehr adapted to the new technologies that were being introduced, and the battlefield lessons from the First World War. We will also look at the plans and regulations of the army into the 1930s as it tried to plan for a war with what was available at that time. Because of the time period we will be entering, with this episode containing discussions about Reichswehr policies right up to 1933 when Hitler took power, it can be tempting to try and search out and find things that explain the successes that the the Wehrmacht would see in the early years of the war. It is like searching for the root of some revolutionary new idea that explains the events of 1939 and 1940. I think the interesting development during this time period during the 1920s and early 1930s is that in fact it doesn’t feel like the Reichswehr is trying to find that revolutionary idea, or feels that it really needs to, instead it is taking what was pre-1914 German doctrine and trying to marry it with new technology that can solve a few problems and to lessons from the First World War, but always within the same framework. While the defeat during the First World War gave the Reichswehr the opportunity to re-evaluate every area of military tradition, the results would not really be radical shifts. That does not meant that things were not evolving though, but during this time period the doctrinal anchors of what would eventually become known as Blitzkrieg were laid down, but it was more about marrying new technologies to older concepts. Also as Gil-li Vardi would say in The Enigma of German Operational Theory “[Blitzkrieg] has no objective meaning. The German army did not invent it, rarely used it outside of quotation marks, and would never use it to describe either a general operational doctrine or a specific historical operation.”, which is a quote I will probably repeat many times over the course of the few, probably years, in this podcast. All of that is to say, German military thought and doctrine during this period absolutely would influence ideas later in the 1930s, but the roots of those ideas were not in revolution, but evolution.

One of the themes that gets discussed pretty often during this period is how foreign military thinking was perceived and used within Germany. Due to the limitations placed on its capabilities, the Reichswehr put a lot of man hours into learning about and understanding foreign tactics, technology, and experimentation that was happening during these years. This is where names like JFC Fuller and Liddell Hart start coming into play. Fuller was one of the early incredibly strong advocates of armor theory, often at times complaining about the conservative nature of officers within the military that he felt were holding back innovation due to outdated views on war. However, usually the officers within the military which Fuller liked to complain about were generally not as blind as he liked to claim. Hart was similar in content, if a bit more reasonable in his conclusions and approach. During the 1920s these two men and others caused British armor theory to be created that was new and innovative. In 1927 the Experimental mechanized force was created to perform a series of exercises to test some of these theories, becoming possibly the first fully mechanized formation in military history, although I can’t really confirm that. Basically what the British army did was take all of its mechanized assets and put them all in one formation to what what would happen. This allowed them to work with these larger formation and find issues, especially around communication and supply, that were written about and read about outside of Britain. While this allowed the British to learn some of the lessons of mechanized warfare earlier than others, they generally squandered this lead during the 1930s. There were huge budget cuts due to the Depression, and then other military theories were able to gain the ascendency on the other side of those cuts. This prevented the British army from forming a kind of coherent structure and doctrine around their use of armored forces. They then got stuck in the same arguments that, as far as I can tell, every other military in the world did at this time. Cavalry wanted light tanks and infantry wanted heavy tanks, some officers thought all armor assets should be grouped together and others wanted to distribute them among all units. Every military would have these discussions during the 1920s and 1930s, and the British and the Reichswehr were no different. Over in Germany there was, overall, a real willingness to adopt new technology, to take technology and work it into the existing doctrines without drastic changes to what the army was trying to accomplish. This had its benefits and downsides. It allowed for quicker adoption of these new technologies, but it also hindered the ability to use them at their maximum potential. It would take a long time for the German army to begin to fully understand and work with mechanized units outside of the confines of the pre-existing force structures and doctrines, and it would not fully happen within the Reichswehr period. Instead technologies were shoved into existing forces, forcing tactical progress, without necessitating wider revolution. Or as Dennis Showalter would say “Tanks and motor vehicles were added to existing doctrines and force structures, not the other way around.”

Just like every other army the Reichswehr also had to deal with trying to build the bone structures of a future army that would be much larger and with many more resources than the army at the current period. We discussed last episode some of the ways that they tried to do this from a theoretical level, but from a practical level. Or at Robert Citino would say in The Path tp Blitzkrieg: “The attempt to build an “army of the future” required a great deal of military imagination from all concerned. Staff, officers, and men all had to assume the presence of weapons the Reichswehr did not, in fact, possess. Plans had to be made for campaigns that the current army would never be able to fight.” The Reichswehr was also limited in how many officers could bein the army at any given time, given the time it takes to turn a raw recruit into a proficient officer this was a problem that they tried to work with as much as possible, but the biggest problem was that there simply was no way for officers to be provided with the required staff experience that would be needed once the army began to expand quickly, this lack of experience at higher levels of staff work would be a problem well into the Wehrmacht years. To the officers that were in the ranks they were trained in a way to foster initiative and flexibility. This was really just an expansion upon the type of training and tactics that were used in the latter stages of the First World War. Seeckt would take the system a bit further, codifying the flexible system in the hopes of providing the future army with greater mobility. The easiest way to summarize this structure was that the commander would provide a mission that would be put into order, and then the way in which it was carried out was delegated to the officers at the front. This delegation would happen all the way down the chain of command. Seeckt, along with others, believed that this was the only way to fight a modern or future war, which they believed would require far more mobility. Or, to quote German infantry regulations “In the changing situations of war, however, a strict adherence to a decision can lead to error. The art of leadership is recognizing when a new decision is required.” While the idea was good, there would be problems trying to make this kind of flexibility a normal expectation within the Reichswehr. Even into the early 1930s there were still constant comments and feedback given after exercises that the orders provided to subordinates were too detailed and just too long, but this did not prevent a continued chase of the goal of delegation down to the smallest of units. During this period the smallest standard combat unit was a squad of 7 riflemen who were armed with weapons that were very similar to those used during the First World War. This was often a K08b, which was a modified and renamed version of the Gewehr 98, the standard issue bolt action rifle from the First World War. There were discussions about replacing this weapon with something newer, but given budgetary concerns and the fact that there were no shortage of these weapons, they were retained. Along with these rifles light machine guns were seen as critical as a way of providing mobile fire support in a flexible and maneuverable fashion. The squad leader was tasked with getting his squad to their objective as quickly and easily as possible, and was trained to use terrain and covering fire to make this happen. These early regulations also contained discussions about how to best utilize combined arm resources, even though they were not available in any meaningful way during the Reichswehr years.

To practice their craft the Reichswehr held many different types of maneuvers and exercises. Some of these exercises were strictly theoretical, often involving sand tables and other means of modelling the scenario. During these exercises two or three groups of officers would work in turns on a scenario with umpires involved to try and keep things moving along and also to make decisions about the outcome of certain action. There were also more specific types of exercises, an interesting one was held in 1922 and was strictly devoted to signaling and communications between units. It was based around the idea of a Polish invasion of Eastern Germany and allowed units to work on how radios and other modern communications tech advancements could be used in such situations. Other maneuvers would focus on specific types of troops, for example in 1927 the large fall maneuvers would feature cavalry troops as the leading units, again as a way of testing and refining ideas and concepts. There were also unit maneuvers at varying scales. Generally during the spring smaller units, regiments and divisions mostly, would carry out maneuvers, and then in the autumn larger actions would take place. These maneuvers were done on an annual basis and often involved several divisions worth of troops. Looking at these maneuvers is a great way to determine the type of war that the Reichswehr planned to fight. They generally rejected any return to trench warfare as seen on the Western Front during the First World War. Instead they planned for a war that would be fought by large and mobile forces in a war of maneuver. These maneuvers often involved phantom units and phantom equipment which presented some problems. Because of its limits size and other obligations the Reichswehr often had to have a large percentage of the forces involved in these large exercises as strictly phantom or paper units. This caused all kinds of possible problems because assumptions had to be made about those units, and how those units would interact with the supply and logistical setup along with how they would synchronize with other units. Armor and aircraft also had to be part of this imaginary setup, which would lead the American military attache Colonel H.H. Zornig to say that they “had a great unreality attached to them, more so than any maneuvers held anywhere else in the world.” However, Zornig also believed that the Germans were doing quite well in these maneuvers, and had probably taken them as far as possible given the fact that so much of the maneuver had to be strictly theoretical. 1930 would see the largest of these maneuvers with a scenario for a French attack across the Rhine river. A defense of a French attack into Western Germany had been a core part of Reichswehr planning all the way back to 1919, but it had never been practiced on this scale. The goal of the defense was just to slow a French attack as much as possible, inflict maximum casualties, and then depend on other strategic or political developments of some kind of resolve what would almost certainly be a very unfavorable situation. This was much the same in 1930, and even really for most of the 1930s as well. The 1930 exercise was also combined with a paper mobilization wargame, the speed of which would be a critical piece if the Reichswehr had any hope of stopping or even slowing a French attack.

One of the many ideas that were refined during these exercises was the usage of motorized troops. These were often limited in nature, again due to restrictions, but that did not prevent them from being studied and for rudimentary motorized forces from being used during exercises. Oswald Lutz, who at the time was a Colonel, would play an important role in these maneuvers, and he would always push for them to be as large as possible. His belief that this was the only way for motorized training to be effective because smaller exercises had a tendency to produce an incorrect picture of the capabilities provided by and the problems inherent with motorized units. A great example of this, which would come a bit later, was an exercise done in 1932 which was put in place to test the German radio networks and communication capabilities. The units used were all motorized, were as complete as possible, and they would attempt to recreate the demands of a large wartime operation. In the analysis of the results it was found that the troops by and large were very technically proficient, but when their actions were scaled up and the demands of a large operation were placed upon the commanders, there were serious problems. These were the types of lessons that Lutz was looking at when raising concerns about smaller exercises. 1932 would end up being a pretty important turning point, because before that year large mobile formations were never used in maneuvers, but they would be a fixture in the years after 1932.

The evolution of German air doctrine during this period is somewhat interesting. They were not allowed to have military aircraft due to the Treaty of Versailles, but this did not prevent a new Air Service from being created in 1919 with the purpose of studying the experiences from the war. This Air Service would be disbanded in May 1920 after pressure mounted from the Western powers, who saw it as a breach of the Versailles agreement. During its existence much of the work that was done focused on how the German Air Service provided tactical support to the army during the war, and some of the problems they had found and improvements that could be made. In contrast to many other air forces at this point, there was not a huge amount of emphasis placed on how to conduct strategic air operations. Heavy bombers were a feature of the studies but these were always looked at in the role of army support weapons, generally targeting strictly military targets behind the lines like communication and transportation hubs. After the Air Service was disbanded, a small group of air officers would be absorbed into the Reichswehr, which would allow for a foundation to be retained for future expansion. One of these officers was Helmut Wilberg, who would go on to become one of the leading German air theorists of the interwar years. He would write a series of tactical manuals during the 1920s and 30s, and then would write The Conduct of Air Operations in 1935. Before 1935 all of this work had to be done secretly, as it was technically against the provisions of the Treaty. A far more serious breach of the spirit of the treaty, although not necessarily technically a breach of it, were the actions that the Germans were taking in Russia. After the Rapallo Treaty was signed in 1922 the Germans would have an air complex available to them about 200 miles outside of Moscow. Here German pilots could train on military aircraft that were assembled in Russia. Several hundred Germans were stationed at the air field from 1925 to 1933, and it provided experience for all types of not just pilots but also ground crew and other supporting staff. This also provided a way to test new aircraft in a way that was simply impossible in Germany. The technical way that the Reichswehr tried to avoid a breach of the treaty, or that would have been used as an excuse should it ever have been discussed, was that before the officers went to the Soviet Union they retired from the Reichswehr. Therefore when they did travel to the Soviet Union they were just normal German citizens, you know that just so happened to be spending some time in Soviet aircraft after they arrived. Then when they returned to Germany the German citizens who used to be military officers were readmitted to the Reichswehr, and wouldn’t you know it they kept their rank and seniority. All joking aside, the setup in the Soviet Union was valuable to both sides. The Soviet Union received technical knowledge, industrial assistance, financial investment, and the latest German aircraft designs while the Germans were allowed to test and train what would become the foundations of the Luftwaffe in the 1930s. There was a similar arrangement for German armor forces which we will discuss next episode.

In 1930 a new set of regulations would be written by General Richard Schurmann named ‘Considerations on War Leadership and Command.’ He would attempt to take the experiences of the First World War and apply them to the situation of the Reichswehr at that point, instead of looking far into the future like most of the Reichswehr planning during the 1920s. During the 20s most of the study of the First World War had resulted in a lot of discussions about how to fight a war, but without a wider reconsideration of the strategic and operational context. Instead planning was approached from the idea of establishing goals for the military, and then assuming that the political goals would follow along. The problem with this was that it put political considerations, and most importantly political restraints, in a secondary role. It also placed the non-operational pieces of war plans in a distant second to whatever was required to achieve the goal, event if what was needed was not even yet available. Schurmann’s work in 1930 tried to change this by putting some emphasis on the political calculations needed in such a war. “With the commencement of hostilities the greatest measure of responsibility falls upon the supreme leader of the armed forces, the Feldherr, who must fit his campaign plan (plan of operations) into the framework [established by] the state leadership toward the strategic goals, [which is] the overthrow of the enemy forces and the annihilation of the enemy’s military resources.” Schurmann believed that as technology advanced, industrial capabilities became more important, and the ability to strike deep behind enemy lines became more practical the political dimension of a future war would be ever more important. This also represented a great distillation of the Reichswehr’s generally held belief that the best path to victory was to remove as many political constraints as possible from the equation, saying “the uniting of state leadership and supreme military command in a single individual is thus ideal, if [that individual] is equally blessed with statecraft and the talent of military command.” This type of thinking, of fitting German military planning into political constraints by removing those constraints altogether, would obviously set the stage for later developments.