Thursday, September 29, 2016
Hitlerjugend training in what was known as the Marine-HJ, the naval Hitlerjugend. In northern Germany, it was very popular for the Hitlerjugend to join the Marine-HJ, which reached a total membership of nearly 62,000 boys. As in the case of other special formations of the Hitlerjugend, the Marine-HJ demanded great mental and physical accomplishment. Before the war, all the necessary sailing certificates could be obtained, and each member had the opportunity to sail on vessels used by the German Navy for the training of its naval cadets.
Adolf Hitler was obsessed with youth as a political force, and the creation of the Hitler Youth or Hitlerjugend enabled him to meet this goal. He was able to use this uniformed army of teenagers not only for promoting the myth of his own ‘invincible genius’ but also in war. The Hitlerjugend had been for a number of years trained in diverse para-military skills. The most elite formations were the boys who served in the special units of the Hitlerjugend. In the Flieger-HJ or air training Hitlerjugend, there were more than 78,000 boys alone that had joined during the 1930s. Wearing their distinctive Luftwaffe blue uniforms with light blue piping and the armlet of the Hitlerjugend, they were trained in almost all aspects of aviation. Most members, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen in the Flieger-HJ, tried to obtain his ‘wings’: the A, B and C certificates in gliding.
Another special formation of the Hitlerjugend was the Motorized-HJ. Nearly every teenager from the age of sixteen onwards obtained his first driving licence for a motor cycle. But driving was only one part of the training. Not only did they learn a sound knowledge of both German and international traffic codes, but they also expertly trained in motor mechanics. The ultimate purpose of this training was self evident, as it would later serve in the motorized units of the Wehrmacht.
In northern Germany, it was very popular for the Hitlerjugend to join the Marine-HJ, the naval Hitlerjugend, which reached a total membership of nearly 62,000 boys. As in the case of other special formations of the Hitlerjugend, the Marine-HJ also demanded great mental and physical accomplishment. Before the war, all the necessary sailing certificates could be obtained, and each member had the opportunity to sail on vessels used by the German Navy for the training of its naval cadets.
Apart from the main formations of the Hitlerjugend, there were also a number of smaller components, including a signalling unit which did not commence until during the war. Another group formed was the Reiter-HJ, a cavalry unit which attracted mainly boys in rural areas.
When war broke out in 1939, a special unit of teenagers was created to be Hitlerjugend air-raid wardens. During these first months of war, about 1,091,000 Hitlerjugend were deployed for the war effort. Most of them were given meaningful tasks to help the German war economy. They were asked to collect from house to house scrap metal, copper, brass, razor blades, paper and bottles. And while one group collected, another stood in the background and sang German folk songs.
While the majority of the Hitlerjugend participated in the collection drive towards strengthening Germany's war machine, other parts, notably the para-military wing of the movement, were in full training. By the time Poland was defeated at the end of September 1939, vigorous military training was intensified. The intensification of their training was to gear Hitler's youth movement for fighting on the battlefield. Initially, those being recruited were expected to meet very stringent criteria. Every volunteer had to be fit with excellent racial features and produce a certificate of good behaviour from the Police. During their training programme new recruits were indoctrinated into an almost fanatical determination to obey the Führer, even if it meant shedding one's own blood on the battlefield. Though many did not know it, Hitler was already planning to create a military force out of the Youth.
Out on the battlefield the war had not gone to plan and many thousands of soldiers had perished as a consequence. The failure to capture Moscow in late December 1941 had been a complete disaster for the Germans on the Eastern Front. Germany's forces had altered out of recognition from its victorious summer operations. Due to the considerable recuperative powers of the Heer, in June 1942 another German summer offensive was launched. However, instead of attacking Moscow again Hitler ordered Army Group Centre to consolidate its positions whilst Army Group South advanced to the Caucasus and the Volga. The outcome of this grand manoeuvre saw the loss of Stalingrad and German forces being pushed back westward.
By July 1943 when the Germans unleashed their long awaited summer offensive codenamed ‘Operation Zitadelle’, the war in the East changed forever. Within two weeks of the attack, the offensive was abandoned, primarily due to a shortage of infantry replacements, the Allied invasion of Sicily and the heroic but costly Soviet defence. With stalemate on the Eastern Front, in the West the Allied bombing campaign over Germany intensified. In late 1943 Hitler began suspecting that there would soon be an Allied invasion of France and this would plunge Germany tactically into fighting a three-front war. With manpower at its lowest ebb Hitler was determined more than ever to try to relieve the problem by turning to his youth movement. In his eyes they had been prepared for war with extensive military training. Now he was determined not only to see them fight on the battlefield, but to see them serve in an elite Waffen-SS formation. This would be alluring for the young recruits. By fighting in the realms of the SS order they would not only follow his orders to the letter but would not be afraid to shed their blood on the battlefield.
By late 1944 much of the war was being fought on the German frontier, the army had to cooperate with the Nazi Party’s civilian agencies in defending the homeland. In theory, this cooperation should have proceeded smoothly. OKH guidelines from August 1944 directed that civilian agencies such as the police, medical services and economic bodies advise their own personnel about what to do in case of enemy attack. In turn, those personnel were to coordinate with local Wehrmacht commandants in the preparation of defences. In reality, however, such joined-up thinking was often sorely lacking. Army officers were especially frustrated when the party’s own Reich defence commissars had primary responsibility for building defences, for many of these officials were incompetent. In Aachen in western Germany, for instance, they threw wild parties for themselves while defensive ditches were being dug in front of the city. They also failed to evacuate Aachen’s civilian population before the area became a war zone.
But the failure of the bomb plot undoubtedly eroded the army’s remaining power over military policy. Above all, it ushered in structural changes that further benefited the SS at the army’s expense. By February 1944, Waffen-SS generals were already being appointed to high positions in several areas of military administration, and a few days before 20 July, Hitler decided to award Himmler control of fifteen new Volksgrenadier (People’s Grenadier) divisions. Now, in the aftermath of the plot, Hitler hailed the Volksgrenadier divisions as the vanguard of the new, fanatical National Socialist people’s army that would emerge following the purging of the July traitors.
In the event, the mainstay of the Volksgrenadier divisions consisted of hastily trained, patchily equipped and poorly officered youngsters from the 1926 and 1927 intakes. Himmler had to press-gang much of their manpower, throwing in ethnic Germans, returning convalescents, Luftwaffe and navy personnel, sixteen-year-old boys and German railworkers to plug the gaps. General Balck’s memoirs describe the condition of the Volksgrenadier divisions as ‘abominable for the most part’. Rundstedt was particularly scathing after the war about the decision to conscript non-Reich ethnic Germans into the divisions: ‘We expected a so-called Volksdeutscher soldier to give his life and blood whilst his relatives were in a concentration camp in Poland.’ Nevertheless, Volksgrenadier units led by experienced officers and NCOs would come to give a better account of themselves, at least until those leaders were killed, wounded, or captured. The regime would raise a great many such divisions – forty-nine in total – and Himmler’s control over them constituted a major incursion into the military sphere. Hitler also implemented a massive SS power grab against the army’s own existing remit; now that the Replacement Army had proved itself a subversive cesspit in Hitler’s eyes, he placed Himmler in charge of it, and appointed SS men to key positions within it.
Himmler was also placed in charge of the new German ‘home guard’, the Volkssturm. Volkssturm units were inferior even to Volksgrenadier divisions; they could include virtually any man aged between eighteen and fifty-five who was not yet in uniform, and in time, Hitler Youth units comprising boys as young as fourteen would be incorporated into them as well. Regular army soldiers viewed the Volkssturm with a mixture of puzzlement (‘I don’t know, this Volkssturm business is all strange to me,’ wrote Lance Corporal Hans B. from his barracks in Landsberg), derision (they often mocked the Volkssturm men as Opas or grandpas), and sympathy. ‘Were the authorities going to stop the Red Army with them?’ wrote Guy Sajer after the war. ‘The comparison seemed tragic and ludicrous.’ But Volkssturm units at least freed up regular army troops from non-combat duties. And, as their performance at the front would later show, although they were deficient militarily, they were by no means useless if deployed in the right way.
In the straitened circumstances of the autumn of 1944, Hitler saw the Volkssturm, like the Volksgrenadiers, as a vital addition to German military manpower. Indeed, as many as 650,000 Volkssturm men may eventually have ended up fighting on the eastern front alone. Moreover, Hitler and the Nazi leadership, particularly Bormann, saw the Volkssturm as anything but an exercise in barrel-scraping. In their belief that, with the ‘traitors’ out of the way, they had an opportunity to renew and fanaticize the German war effort, they saw the Volkssturm as a further means of indoctrinating and mobilizing the entire German people. Hitler also believed that the existence of the Volkssturm, like that of the Volksgrenadiers, would enable the Reich to face the invading Allies with a true people’s army, one whose sheer size, determination and fanaticism would grind the Allies down. With deep defences capable of sustaining a First World War-style stalemate, German willpower and fanaticism would best Allied mechanization and resources. In Guderian’s words, the Volkssturm would show the Allies that there were ‘85 million National Socialists who stand behind Adolf Hitler’.
The fact that Hitler entrusted overall control of the Volksgrenadier divisions and the Volkssturm to Himmler highlighted his belief not only that fanaticism could stop the enemy, but also that the SS could be far more trusted than the army to harness it. Hitler restricted the army’s own control over Volksgrenadier and Volkssturm formations to matters of tactical deployment. As it was, Himmler’s control of the Volkssturm soon brought him into a turf war with Bormann. Now that the Reich had lost most of its occupied territory and the war was coming to Germany itself, the guileful Bormann believed that Himmler’s influence had peaked and that the time was ripe for the Nazi Party to strengthen its control over the German people. But this particular turf war excluded the army; indeed, when General Burgdorf tried to increase the army’s influence over the Volkssturm, Bormann was able to frustrate his efforts.
One of the most famously poignant images of the war’s final months is that of barely trained, Panzerfaust-armed fourteen-year-old Hitler Youth boys being sent to die against Allied tanks. But with its replacement system now collapsing rapidly, the army’s own final levy comprised schoolboys who were little older, recruited well before their studies had ended and given perfunctory training at best. So-called infantry and Panzer divisions were raised from local schools and garrisons. At the end of February, six thousand boys born in 1929 were called up to strengthen rear defence lines. A measure of how far desperation was breaking all taboos was that there were even calls for a women’s battalion.
Volkssturm units brought some benefit, as long as they were used for static, particularly urban defence, and properly incorporated into the wider plans of the local Wehrmacht and party authorities. Too often, however, the party authorities would shift Volkssturm units without Wehrmacht consent and leave them dangerously exposed. Wehrmacht commanders themselves often failed to inform Volkssturm units about their plans, and at times sacrificed them as a rearguard while they got their own men out. Volkssturm units in the east sometimes fought fanatically, partly because of inherent anti-Slavism, partly to avoid being captured. For Army did not kill them on capture, as older men they were less likely to survive Soviet captivity. The OKH also made reasonable efforts to integrate Volkssturm units into its plans. Conditions in the west were often the polar opposite: the OKW overlooked the Volkssturm, and Volkssturm men did not particularly fear the prospect of capture by the Western Allies, save by potentially vengeful French troops. Volkssturm units in the west, then, often performed poorly or disintegrated entirely. And sometimes army units dissolved Volkssturm units themselves, palming off the better personnel to replace their own losses before sending the rest home.