Monday, February 10, 2020

German Success Relied on Trains and Horses During World War II

The Wehrmacht Advanced with Panzers and Armored Cars? No, Horses and Trains

German train
A German train of the World War II era.
The German Army (Heer) acquired a fearsome reputation during the early years of World War II. It conquered numerous countries in lightning campaigns (Blitzkrieg) and then valiantly defended the Reich as the world turned on it.

This reputation, however, was based on a secret that all the flashy tanks and artillery pieces camouflaged. The secret was that the Heer was, at its core, a 19th-Century army whose mobility was based upon trains and horses. It was lacking in virtually every material necessary to equip a modern army. It made do with what it had to the best of its ability while the Allies had enough oil and steel to make trucks in abundance. So, German troops relied on railroads and horses.

German horses hauled supplies, artillery, and other equipment

Germany's Strengths and Weaknesses

Germany had very few sources of oil, steel, rubber, and numerous other commodities that a military that is based around the internal combustion engine requires. Rubber was scarce because trade to its sources was cut off by the Royal Navy. There were simply inadequate sources of the other commodities (and the Reich had to import a lot of steel from “neutral” countries like Switzerland and Sweden). The Wehrmacht had to work within these limitations, and it did so by prioritizing systems that used materials that it had in abundance while limiting its scarce commodities to systems that absolutely required them.

German relied on their horses and wagons
A common scene in the Wehrmacht: men tending to their horses and wagons.
What did Germany have in abundance? Besides millions of men willing to fight and die for the Fatherland, it had some excellent infrastructure, efficient farming communities with lots of horses, and an abundance of coal. Each of these was used to its maximum degree in the service of the Wehrmacht transport network.

Understanding the Reich’s infrastructure is absolutely critical to understanding the strengths and limitations of the Wehrmacht. Everyone knows about Hitler’s autobahns, and they were certainly extremely useful to his armies as they marched outward (and later to the Allies as they marched inward). However, what many people miss is the importance of the highly developed rail network of the Reichsbahn.

German train

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the railways for the Wehrmacht. Coal was plentiful, one of the few things in relative abundance, and that was ideal for the use of trains. They carried virtually everything of importance: freight, soldiers, products and supplies. If you look carefully at maps of the Wehrmacht’s front lines in the Soviet Union, you may notice a curious aspect: the front often bulged outward along rail lines. This especially was the case during the retreat in 1943–45 as oil supplies ran tight. This is not a coincidence.

German armored train
A German armored train. All those vital railway lines had to be protected.

German Strategy Revolved Around Rail Lines and Horses

German armies were absolutely dependent upon supplies and reinforcements brought to them by rail. Troops transferring from Germany to the front usually were brought to a railhead as close to the front as the lines ran and then got out and walked. Sure, the Germans had motor transport, but it was usually reserved for headquarters troops and the like.

German horses could haul in the depths of winter when motor vehicles without antifreeze had issues
If there were no trains available, horses and wagons were the only options even in the dead of winter.
Once in place, the troops still had to be supplied. This was done using a tried and true method. Weapons, ammunition, and other supplies would be brought to the railhead and then they would be loaded into horse-drawn wagons., The number of horses was larger than the number of vehicles. They did not require scarce commodities like oil and rubber. The Wehrmacht began Operation Barbarossa with 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses. That gives you an idea of the importance of horses.

German railroad track destroyer Schienenwolf
Realizing the critical importance of railroads to their own war effort, the Germans developed ways of denying those benefits to their enemies. Here, troops use the specially designed railroad track destroyer ("Schienenwolf") to rip up tracks in Italy during their retreat (Fraß, Federal Archive Bild 101I-308-0799R-11). 
It is easy to point to this military weakness or that of the Western European countries that the Wehrmacht subdued in its Blitzkrieg assaults as the cause of their defeats. However, their main vulnerability lay in their well-developed rail lines that interconnected with the German lines. This made them relatively easy places for the Wehrmacht to supply its troops with whatever they needed. The rail lines led directly into Belgium and the Netherlands and then south into France, past the Maginot Line. Given proper supply networks, the Wehrmacht supply network could operate efficiently and supply the rapidly advancing panzers and infantry with everything that they needed. However, the situation was much different in the Soviet Union, where often a single rail line serviced a huge swathe of territory.

Without available rail lines and horses, the Wehrmacht was immobile. That had a very big impact on the course of World War II.

Site of the bridge at Kalach then and now
The site of the bridge at Kalach then (below) and now.

The Bridge at Kalach

Let me give you an example of how important the railroad-and-horse system was. When Stalingrad was surrounded, the Soviet objective in Operation Uranus was not Stalingrad itself. That could wait for later. The objective was the bridge at Kalach. Why was this bridge so important? Because it was over that one bridge that all the supplies for the Sixth Army and 3rd Romanian Army passed over.

However, if you know a great deal about the Stalingrad battle, you know that wasn’t a railroad bridge. So, what gives? Well, the rail line from the West stopped at the Don River. Then, all supplies for the German Sixth Army and Romanian 3rd Army had to be loaded to vehicles, which then crossed the bridge at Kalach. The supplies were then re-loaded onto captured Russian trains on the other side of the river. Those trains then carried everything - men, food, ammunition, cigars, Schnapps - the remaining 64 km (40 miles) to Stalingrad.

Germans using camels as pack animals at Stalingrad
The Germans even resorted to using local camels as pack animals at Stalingrad as shown here. Yes, there were camels on the steppe.
The reason why the nondescript bridge at Kalach was so important was that the rail line that had been converted to the German railway line gauge from the West that ran Gorlovka-Likhovskoy-Morozovsk-Tchir-Gumrak stopped at the Don. This was the only rail line in operation that could supply Stalingrad. At the Don, the supplies had to be loaded onto horse-drawn carts, taken across the bridge at Kalach. Then, they had to be reloaded onto Russian trains that could run on the slightly wider Russian railway line gauge for the final run into Stalingrad. Without the supplies crossing that bridge, those armies were helpless. The bridge was taken in a lightning assault on 23 November. Regardless of what happened elsewhere on the perimeter, once the bridge at Kalach fell, time was beginning to run out for the 300,000 men trapped in Stalingrad.

Soviet tanks and horses advancing during Operation Uranus
Camouflaged Soviet tanks, accompanied by pack horses, advancing during Operation Uranus.
The Red Army Army did not direct Operation Uranus at Stalingrad itself because every German in Stalingrad was completely dependent on the bridge at Kalach. This was the weak link in the German position there. The standard tactic by both sides during World War II was the pincer movement where you bypass the enemy's strongholds and simply cut their lines of communication. This sometimes worked and sometimes it did not, but that was the objective behind Operation Uranus.

Germans marching toward Stalingrad with their horses and wagons
Germans marching toward Stalingrad with their horses carrying their supplies. When the soldiers later had to eat the horses after the Soviets took the bridge at Kalach, they lost their mobility and were doomed.
If that sounds like a crazy supply system, well, then you and I are seeing the same thing. The weak link was the bridge. What carried all of the supplies across that one bridge? Well, you probably guessed it: horse-drawn carts, for the most part. It was hard enough getting oil for the troops that far east, let alone even more oil for trucks to cross a bridge. To keep tanks and other motor vehicles from freezing up in sub-zero weather, they had to be run throughout the day and night at intervals of at most a few hours. This burned up even more of the scarce gasoline and oil. Trucks and tanks also were difficult to use in the Russian winter due to the lack of antifreeze. Imagine trying to start your car in the dead of winter if it did not have anti-freeze and only used water in its radiator and you begin to understand the depth of the German supply problems. Using trains and horses was the only solution to this problem.

German train

German operations usually depended on two critical factors: the availability of rail lines and of horses. The OKH worried a great deal about the lack of horses by 1942 and they had to be prioritized to Army Group South to support Case Blue, the advance toward Stalingrad. This helps to explain why the line in the Army Group North and Army Group Center sectors of the front barely moved that year.

I talk more about the use of horses during World War II here and the Battle of Stalingrad here.

German train with antiaircraft guns


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