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NIGEL THOMAS, colour plates by STEPHEN ANDREW
Hitler's political manoeuvrings, and Franco-British reluctance to risk war, gave the German Army five bloodless victories before September 1939. Hitler's troops annexed neighbouring territories in operations known as the Blumenkriege, or Flower Wars, a reference to the flowers often thrown by local ethnic Germans to welcome German forces.
On 7 March 1936 30,000 troops from the 5th, 9th, 15th and 16th Infantry Divisions marched across the Rhine and occupied the demilitarised Saar region on the west bank. On 12 March 1938 200,000 troops of the 8th Army (VII and XIII Corps, and 2.Panzerdivision) invaded Austria, annexing it, dividing it into Wehrkreise XVII and XVIII in April 1938, and absorbing the Austrian Army as 44th and 45th Infantry, 4th Light and 2nd and 3rd Mountain Divisions.
The Army had originally expected to deploy 39 divisions in five armies (numbers 2, 8, 10, 12, 14) against Czechoslovakia in 'Operation Green', but following the Munich Agreement in September 1938, it occupied the Südetenland border areas without bloodshed from 1 to 10 October 1938 with elements of the five neighbouring German corps - IV, VII, VIII, XIII, XVII, XVIII. The Südetenland was incorporated into Wehrkreise IV, VII, VIII, XIII and XVII. On 15 March 1939 these units occupied the rest of Bohemia-Moravia, designated Wehrkreis Böhmen und Mähren in October 1942. Finally, on 23 March 1939 elements of I Corps annexed the Memel district of Western Lithuania to Wehrkreis I.
The 600-man volunteer Gruppe Imker, consisting of the Panzergruppe Drohne armoured unit with two signals companies and anti-tank, supply and repair elements, saw limited combat in the Spanish Civil War from July 1936 to May 1939 as part of the Luftwaffe's Condor Legion.
Troops of the Artillery Instruction Regiment in Jütebog, responsible for training artillery officer cadets in Germany, 1939. Wearing the M1935 field uniform, they demonstrate firing a 3.7cm Pak 35/36 L/45 anti-tank gun. Note the Karabiner 98k rifles and the minimal field equipment - M1931 canvas bread-bags and M1938 gas mask canisters, but no Y-straps. (Brian Davis Collection)
On 26 August 1939 the Wehrmacht began a secret partial mobilisation for 'Operation White', the invasion of Poland, leading to full mobilisation on 3 September. On 1 September the army attacked, joining up with Bau-Lehr Bataillon zbV 800 commandos and other Army Intelligence (Abwehr) units who had already infiltrated the region to secure vital bridges.
The invasion force, consisting of 1,512,000 men, was organised in two army groups totalling 53 divisions (37 infantry, four motorised, three mountain, three light, six Panzer). It attacked on three fronts. Army Group Nord, under Generaloberst Fedor von Bock with 3rd and 4th Armies, attacked from north-east Germany and East Prussia. Süd, commanded by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt with 8th, 10th and 14th Armies, advanced from south-east Germany and northern Slovakia, supported by 1st and 2nd Slovak divisions. The 1,100,000-strong Polish Army, organised in 40 infantry divisions, two mechanised and 11 mounted cavalry brigades, and deployed too close to the German frontier, was already being outflanked when, on 17 September, seven armies (41 divisions and equivalents) of the Soviet Red Army attacked them in the rear. Threatened on four fronts, the heavily outnumbered Polish Army officially surrendered on 27 September, and had ceased all hostilities on 6 October. Occupied Poland came under military control - Ciechanòw and Suwalki districts were incorporated in Wehrkreis I in September 1939, Bialystok in August 1941; Danzig and north-west Poland as XX and western Poland as XXI in September 1939; and southeast Poland as General-Gouvernement in September 1942.
During the eight-month 'Phoney War', Anglo-French forces massed on the western German frontier, briefly occupying the Saar District in September 1939, giving the Wehrmacht a free hand in Poland and Scandinavia, and allowing it to choose the conditions of the Western Offensive in May 1940.
Anxious that the Anglo-French forces might attack Germany through Norway and Denmark, Hitler decided to invade these militarily weak neutral states in a pre-emptive strike called 'Operation Weserübung', commanded by General der Infanterie Nikolaus von Falkenhorst.
On 9 April 1940 Höheres Kommando z.b.V. XXXI (XXXI Special Corps), with the 170th and 198th Infantry Divisions, 11th Motorised Rifle Brigade and 40th Special Panzer Battalion, attacked Denmark. The inexperienced Danish Army, with 6,600 troops organised in two infantry divisions, its strategic position hopeless, was forced to surrender after four hours' limited resistance.
On the same day XXI Corps, with 3rd Mountain, 69th and 163rd Infantry Divisions, disembarked in Norway, later reinforced by 2nd
A signalman of the Signal Instruction Battalion in Halle, Germany 1939, responsible for training artillery officer cadets. He wears standard M1935 field uniform and, for the purposes of the gas exercise, a M1938 gas mask, whilst operating a M1933 field telephone. His unit letter is shown on his M1933 pointed shoulder-straps without piping. (Brian Davis Collection)
Mountain, 181st, 196th and 214th Infantry Divisions, with 40th Special Panzer Battalion providing token armour. They totalled some 100,000 men. They engaged six infantry divisions of the Norwegian Army, (with only 25,000 of its 90,000 men mobilised), backed up by the Allied Expeditionary Force with the equivalent of two infantry divisions, and forced an Allied evacuation and a Norwegian surrender on 9 June 1940.
For 'Operation Yellow', the Western Offensive, the German Army assembled 2,750,000 men in 91 divisions, divided among three army groups. 4A' under Generaloberst von Rundstedt with 4th, 12th and 16th Armies, including Panzergruppe von Kleist, was to advance through Belgium into France. 'B' commanded by Generaloberst von Bock with 6th and 18th Armies, would attack the Netherlands and Belgium, whilst Cy under Generaloberst Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, with 1st and 7th Armies, would pin down French forces on the Maginot Line. These forces totalled 75 infantry divisions (including 22nd Airlanding Division), one Luftwaffe airborne division, four motorised, one mountain, one cavalry and ten Panzer divisions, with a further 42 divisions in reserve.