Monthly Archives: January 2018

Germany’s Foreign Infantry in France

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 2095-2110, 4630-42:

France had been turned into a vast training-center, where divisions destroyed on other sectors could come for rest, refitting and reorganization. Thus, many of these divisions were more real on paper than they were on the ground. “Often I would be informed that a new division was to arrive in France,” said von Rundstedt, “direct from Russia or Norway or Central Germany. When it finally made its appearance in the West it would consist, in all, of a divisional commander, a medical officer and five bakers.”

To reform these shattered divisions which had left the bulk of their German personnel in Russian graves or Russian prisoner-of-war camps, the Supreme Command drafted so-called volunteers from amongst the peoples of the countries they occupied. There not being enough able-bodied Germans still capable of keeping a war machine and an industrial machine going at the same time, the infantry divisions in France were largely rebuilt by utilizing the huge reserve of non-Germanic manpower in Europe. Using this foreign element chiefly for supply and administrative duties, the infantry divisions in the West were liberally sprinkled with Poles, Hungarians, Yugoslavs, Roumanians, Czechs, Dutchmen, Alsatians, to mention but a few. These non-Germans usually made up at least ten per cent of a division’s strength and in some divisions comprised about twenty-five per cent of the formation’s personnel.

But the largest group of foreigners found in the Wehrmacht in the West were Russians. So many prisoners had been taken in the early victories in Russia, that it was decided in 1942 to make use of these troops rather than continue to feed them or exterminate them. Realizing that it might be dangerous to inject so large a foreign element into normal German divisions, the Supreme Command decided to form these Russian troops into separate units of their own which would be officered by Germans. With the aid of a Russian general, Vlassov, this huge recruiting drive was begun.

The causes that will lead a man to desert are many. But at the basis of them all is loss of faith in what one has been fighting for. It sometimes takes more courage to desert than it does to remain in the line. For a deserter voluntarily accepts the risk of death if he should fail, and the hatred and opprobrium of his countrymen if he should succeed. And when he has succeeded his only reward is the soul-destroying existence of a prisoner-of-war camp. Yet in World War II Germans frequently walked through unfamiliar minefields, swam wide rivers, traveled hundreds of miles on forged passes, and even killed their own sentries to enable them to desert.

The non-German element in the Wehrmacht provided the largest category of deserters. These Poles, Czechs, Russians, Alsatians and others were constantly on the look-out for an opportunity to cross over to Allied lines. But since they had little, or no, faith in the German cause their actions were understandable. With the Germans themselves, however, the circumstances leading to desertion were far more complex. They varied with the individual and his experiences. Inability to put up with conditions in the field, recognition of the fact that Germany had lost the war, dissatisfaction with their officers, ‘horror’ at finding their unit under S.S. command, long periods of unbroken fighting without rest, inadequate equipment, lack of news from home, personal resentment at some unfair treatment, were some of the long list of explanations advanced for the defection of Germans in the fall of 1944. Few deserters claimed that an ideological disagreement with Nazism had brought about their state of mind, and hardly any blamed Hitler personally, although, the S.S., the party and the Wehrmacht came in for their share of condemnation.

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Germany’s ‘White Bread Division’, 1944

From Defeat in the West, by Milton Shulman (Secker & Warburg, 1947; Dutton, 1948; Arcadia, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4344-67:

After five years of nervous tension, bad food, and hard living conditions, the Wehrmacht found itself swamped with soldiers complaining of internal gastric trouble. Some of these were real, others were feigned. It was difficult to check.

As defeat became more and more imminent and life at the front more dangerous and more uncomfortable, the rise in the number of men reporting themselves as chronic stomach sufferers became alarming. With the staggering losses in Russia and France, it was no longer possible to discharge this huge flood of groaning manpower from military service. On the other hand their presence in a unit of healthy men was a constant source of dissatisfaction and unrest, for they required special food, constantly asked to be sent on leave, continually reported themselves to the doctor, and grumbled unceasingly about their plight. It was thus decided by the Supreme Command to concentrate all these unfortunates into special Stomach (Magen) battalions where their food could be supervised and their tasks made lighter. It was originally intended to use these troops for rear-area duties only, but as the need for additional men became increasingly critical these units were sent forward for front-line duty as well.

On Walcheren Island, following the Allied invasion, it was decided to replace the previous normal infantry division with a complete division formed from these Stomach battalions. By the beginning of August 1944, the transformation was complete. Occupying the bunkers of the polderland of Walcheren Island and pledged to carry on to the very end were stomachs with chronic ulcers, stomachs with acute ulcers, wounded stomachs, nervous stomachs, sensitive stomachs, dyspeptic stomachs, inflamed stomachs — in fact the whole gamut of gastric ailments. Here in the rich garden country of Holland, where white bread, fresh vegetables, eggs and milk abounded, these men of 70 Infantry Division, soon nicknamed the ‘White Bread Division,’ awaited the impending Allied attack with their attention nervously divided between the threat of enemy action and the reality of their own internal disorders.

The man chosen to lead this formation of convalescents through their travail was the mild-looking, elderly Lieutenant General Wilhelm Daser. His small, peaked nose, his horn-rimmed glasses and his pink, bald head effectively hid his military identity. Only a firm, loud voice accustomed to giving orders betrayed it. Like the other fortress commanders he was chosen for his final military role because he could easily be spared, not because he had any particular qualifications for the task. The tremendous wastage of senior officers incurred by the Wehrmacht in Russia and North Africa was the prime reason for Daser’s being called out of semi-retirement in February 1944, to take over a static coastal division in Holland. His last active field command had been in 1941 when he had been sent back to Germany because of heart trouble. The years between had been spent as a military administrator of civilians in occupied territory. Now, at sixty years of age, he had neither the enthusiasm, the zeal nor the ability to make of Walcheren a memorable epic of German arms — but neither had most generals of the Wehrmacht in the declining months of 1944.

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Filed under Britain, Canada, disease, food, France, Germany, labor, military, Netherlands, USSR, war