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On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler dismantled the Weimar Republic and established the Third Reich, with himself as Fükrer (leader) and head of state. On 15 March 1935 he abolished Weimar's armed forces, the Reichswehr, and replaced them with the Wehrmacht. Hitler announced that the Wehrmacht would not be bound by the restrictions imposed on the Reichswehr by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which limited it to 100,000 volunteers with no tanks, heavy artillery, submarines or aircraft.

The Wehrmacht expanded rapidly. On 1 September 1939, when Germany attacked Poland, it numbered 3,180,000 men. It eventually expanded to 9,500,000, and on 8/9 May 1945, the date of its unconditional surrender on the Western and Eastern Fronts, it still numbered 7,800,000. The Blitzkrieg period, from 1 September 1939 to 25 June 1940, was 10 months of almost total triumph for the Wehrmacht, as it defeated every country, except Great Britain, that took the field against it.

Germany, April 1934. An Obergefreiter, Oberschütze, Schütze and Gefreiter, all NCO candidates in service uniform, show the new Wehrmacht eagle on their M1916 helmets. They wear M1920 (eight-button) and M1928 (six-button) service tunics, M1920 rank insignia and M1928 marksmanship awards. (Brian Davis Collection)


Hitler believed, incorrectly as events were to prove, that his political skills were matched by a unique ability as a strategic commander. His increasing influence on the Wehrmacht's conduct of the Second World War eventually proved to be disastrous.

As head of state, Hitler occupied the nominal position of Oberster Befehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces), and on 4 February 1938 he took over the most important professional position of Oberbefehlshaber der Wehrmacht (Commander of the Armed Forces), having forced his former protégé, Generalfeld-marschall Werner von Blomberg, to retire. Hitler held this post until his suicide on 30 April 1945, assisted by the subservient Generaloberst (later Generalfeldmarschall) Wilhelm von Keitel as Chef des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht (Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces). Real power rested with Generalmajor (eventually Generaloberst) Alfred Jodl, technically Keitel's assistant as Chef der Wehrmacht-führungsamt (Chief of the Operations Staff).

10th Infantry Division in parade uniforms march past German officers, and Austrian officers absorbed into the German Army. The Austrian officers are wearing their M1933 Bundesheer uniforms with German breast eagles, and the characteristic Austrian képi. Vienna, March 1938. (Brian Davis Collection)

The Wehrmacht was divided into three arms - the Army (Heer), Navy (Kriegsmarine) and Air Force (Luftwaffe). The Army was the largest arm, averaging about 75% of total Wehrmacht strength, with 2,700,000 troops in September 1939, reaching a maximum strength of about 5,500,000, with 5,300,000 in May 1945.

Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres (Chief of the Army High Command) until 19 December 1941, when Hitler dismissed him and took over his post, was Generaloberst (later Generalfeldmarschall) Walther von Brauchitsch, assisted by General der Artillerie (later Generaloberst) Franz Haider as Chef des Generalstabes des Heeres (Chief of the Army General Staff). The Waffen-SS, formally established on 1 December 1939, was never technically part of the Wehrmacht, but it came under the control of the Army High Command.

The branches of the Army

On mobilisation on 26 August 1939 the Army was divided into the Feldheer (Field Army), advancing to attack the enemy, and the Ersatzheer (Replacement Army), remaining in Germany in support. The Field Army constituted three types of troops. Firstly, Fechtende Truppen, or combat troops, comprised Staffs (Armed Forces and Army High Commands; General Staff; Army Group, Army and Corps Staffs), Infantry (line, motorised, light and mountain), commando and penal units; Mobile Troops (cavalry, armour, mechanised infantry, reconnaissance and anti-tank units), Artillery, Engineers, Signals and Field Security Police Officials. Secondly, Versorgungstruppen, or Supply Troops, included Transport, Medical, Veterin#228;ry and Guard units, Military Police and Field Post Officials. Thirdly, Sicherungstruppen - Security Troops - were composed of Rear-Area commanders, second-line 'territorial rifle' (Landeschützen) battalions and prisoner-of-war camps. There were also Army Officials (including Chaplains), Bandmaster-Officers and Specialists (Sonderführer).

An Unteroffizier of the 67th Infantry Regiment in Ruhleben, near Berlin, 1938 wearing the M1935 undress uniform, with the peaked cap usually worn by NCOs, with this uniform. He is instructing recruits, dressed in M1933 fatigue uniforms, in rifle drill with Karabiner 98k rifles. Note the typical soiled and crumpled appearance of the fatigue uniforms. (Brian Davis Collection)

The organisation of the Field and Replacement Armies

The largest wartime Field Army units had no fixed organisation. There were five army groups: two (Nord and Süd) for the Polish campaign, and three more (A-C) for the Western campaigns. Each Army Group (Heeresgruppe) was composed of two or three armies with perhaps 400,000 men. There were 14 armies, each Army (Armee) comprising three or four corps with about 200,000 men, and, from June 1940, two reinforced Armoured Corps, called Panzergruppe or Armoured Groups (von Kleist and Guderian) each one controlling three motorised corps. There were 33 corps (1-13, 17, 21, 23-30, 38, 40, 42-4, 46-9), each Corps (Korps) with two to five infantry divisions and perhaps 60,000 men; and seven motorised corps, each Motorised Corps (Korps(mot.)) with two or three armoured and motorised divisions, and one (XV) with three light divisions. One cavalry division and the four mountain divisions came directly under the control of their respective armies.

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