A companion volume to the very successful In a Raging Inferno—Combat Units of the Hitler Youth, Hans Kissel’s study offers a highly detailed account of the German Volkssturm, or Home Guard. Formed from men unfit for military service, the young, and the old, this ad-hoc formation saw extensive combat during the desperate defense of the Reich, 1944–45.
The author describes the Volkssturm’s training, leadership, organization, armament, and equipment, in addition to its active service on both the Eastern and Western fronts. The text is supported by an extensive selection of appendices, including translations of documents and many fascinating eyewitness combat reports. This edition also includes over 150 previously unpublished black-and-white photos, and four pages of specially commissioned color uniform plates by Stephen Andrew.
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The past provides countless examples of militia armies. Examples of these should serve as an introduction, and in the following brief sections of the many sided forms of such military units are examined.
In 1806 the surrender of the Prussian fortresses without a fight had "much embittered the population and caused the great mass of them to be deeply suspicious." The population's attitude allows one to understand why in Kolberg Joachim Nettelbeck, acting as representative of the town's population, turned to the military commander of the town, 65 year-old Colonel von Lucadou, and instructed "that the Commandant should come to an understanding with them over the defences of the town." The townsmen had resolved that the fortress would not be handed over, especially as they had been, "from time immemorial, the natural and lawful defenders of the town."
The Colonel, who until then "had no visible belief that a successful defence of the town was possible", and who "lacked the power to take steps necessary for such a defence" eventually, albeit unhappily, placed the fortress in a state of defence, following the intervention of the townsmen.
However, Nettelbeck failed to receive any intimation of the role to be fulfilled by the five companies of townsmen available to him. Lucadou was completely imbued with the spirit of the Ancién Regime, and believed that the defence of the town was solely a matter for the military. "I do not wish to utilise the citizens." He merely allowed the townspeople to lay out, on their own initiative, some defensive works outside the town, to prepare the flooding of selected areas, to improve the provision of firefighting equipment, and to stockpile supplies. At the end of March 1807, some months later, he finally approved their participation in 'inner fortress duties', by which the townsmen served as sentries and guards on the inner walls and towers, as well as replacing fallen artillerymen. It was not until Gneisenau replaced Lucadou at the end of April that the wishes of Nettelbeck were realised, and the citizens were planned to be deployed as soldiers. However, such a deployment was not carried out as the changing circumstances did not allow it. It was scarcely possible to continue to hold the fortress, and when the surrender was signed their besiegers did not have to take weapons out of their hands.
In Imperial Austria stood the so-called military border, in which volunteer formations in the Tyrol, militia from the earliest times, held the first line of defence of the homeland, and thereby considerably increased the fighting strength of the regular army without demanding too much financial or personnel support from the state.
Thus in 1805 the Tyrolean militia, throughout the year, carried the burden in battle of the membership of their land as part of Austria. The first battle at the beginning of November 1805 for the Scharnitz defile on the Bavarian-Tyrolean border affords an illustrative example.
The Austrian commander occupied not only the Scharnitz defile with militia, but also fieldworks at Leutsach, which lay to the northwest of it. The men fought courageously. In addition he protected his right flank with a levy of women and girls, as well as older members of the militia, utilising the steeply overhanging precipices below the Brunnstein to employ prepared avalanches of stones to halt the enemy advance decisively. With the Imperial Commission of 8 June 1808 the Landwehr, an institution aimed at strengthening the regular army, was called into being throughout all Habsburg lands. In the main its organisation remained restricted to battalion-sized formations. Training occurred on Sundays and holidays, as well as once a month when larger manoeuvres took place, during which locations were selected on the basis that no man should have to march more than three miles to return home. In 1809 the Austrian Landwehr, with 153 battalions, finally came into action, and acquitted itself very well.
The Tyrol and Vorarlberg 1915
A particularly noteworthy territorial militia was created in the Austrian territories of the Tyrol and Vorarlberg as soon as the First World War broke out, the so-called Standschützen. In late 1914, when signs of the breakdown in the alliance with Italy began to manifest themselves, and regular defences were deemed insufficient to defend the land borders with Italy, the Standschützen was created from members of the traditional Schützen groups. Membership was on a voluntary basis, and in consideration of the conditions of the territories in question, the troops were organised by valleys and districts into companies and battalions. The volunteers belonged to various age groups – from 15 years of age to more than 70 – and degrees of fitness for service. Officers and NCOs were, in the old Tyrolean custom, chosen by the Standschützen themselves.
On 18 May 1915, only six days before Italy's declaration of war, an Imperial decree called the Standschützen to the colours. They hurried to their shooting galleries, where, so far as this had not yet happened, the battalions were formed, and the elections of the officers and NCOs were undertaken. Within 24 hours the battalions were transported to the border area, although many of the men were still attired in national dress. In this manner 53 battalions containing about 40,000 volunteers were called up and sent to the border.
On 23 May the commander of the Tyrol's defence could thus send the battalions into their improvised positions. A shortfall in military training, in particular the instruction in the use of machine guns of mainly Russian origin, would have to take place in situ. Above the actions of many other brave soldiers shone the unforgettable iron determination of the Dreizinner, Sepp Innerkofler, who hastened tirelessly through positions and appeared on the most difficult peaks, his paths and footprints giving the enemy the impression that the positions were defended by much larger numbers of men than was the case. Innerkofler finally met a brave death on his mountain.
The army commanders were full of the highest praise for these militia units and their men. Their readiness for action, founded on their love for their homeland and the Emperor, combined of course with their abilities as marksman, meant that on the Tyrolean front during the first crisis-filled months of the war, they halted the Italian army and retained their positions, sometimes even being able to launch attacks themselves.
In mid-June 1940 Britain found itself in a very serious situation, following the overthrow of France, possessing only relatively few badly-equipped divisions for the defence the country. Thus it was convenient that as early as 14 May 1940 Britain had begun to organise Local Defence Volunteers, who later received the designation the Home Guard.
By September 1940 one million men had been enrolled, men who were either too old or too unfit for service in the regular armed forces, or men in reserved civilian occupations, or who were too young for active service. The officers were mainly retired regular officers or Territorial Army officers. When men of such experience were not available, other men with suitable military experience were employed.
The principal weapon was the rifle. However if in short supply other weapons were utilised – sports or hunting rifles, pikes, lances, swords or even golf clubs. Uniforms were initially unavailable, so only armbands were worn. By mid-1941 all members of the Home Guard were uniformed and mostly armed with rifles, many units also possessing light machine guns.
Normally the members of these units continued in their civilian occupations. Their military duties and training were fulfilled in their spare time or when an alarm was raised. They did not receive any wages.
One of the basic tenets of the Home Guard was that in every street of every town, in every factory or school, in every village or industrial complex, a group of local men would stand resolutely in defence, killing or otherwise disabling all enemies that appeared to them. Enemy movements would be impeded by road blocks, barricades, craters, ditches filled with burning oil, or mines. The tactics of these groups was defensive – they were trained in the art of delaying tactics, sabotaging equipment and particularly in the destruction of enemy transport. Special units would operate in woodland or other isolated spots where the enemy may bivouac or spend the night.
Britain was not invaded, and the Home Guard was not seriously tested; however, their training exhibited two principal purposes – to fight with the greatest determination, causing the attacker's heavy casualties, and to cause confusion amongst the enemy.
Soviet Union 1941
In the summer of 1941 the Soviet Union created a 'People's Army', alongside the mobilisation of its regular armed forces. These militia divisions were aimed at supporting the Red Army in their fight against the advancing Germans. As in the 17th Century, when militia units under the command of Minin and Posharskij fought against Russia's enemies, and as in 1812, when formed in response to Napoleon's invasion, so also in 1941 the entire population was mobilised in a defensive role.
20 divisions of Red Militia were created from 300,000 workers, in order to prevent the entry of the enemy into the city. At the same time workers in the factories were organised in such a way that at any time the maximum number of troops could be employed in the defence of the city, without the rhythm of armaments production being interrupted.
In Moscow 11 militia divisions were created, although they were sent into action against the German tanks with little more than mess tins on them at times. Workers militia units were sent into battle in many other places as well.
The divisions of the People's Army fully and completely fulfilled our hopes, and courageously and steadfastly fought the enemy. Some divisions formed from Moscow workers were rewarded with the title 'Guards Division' for their bravery.
Based on these various examples we should now finally propose a definition of the term 'Territorial Militia'. In all cases were available regular forces too weak for an adequate defence of their homeland, so that supplementary militia formations were required to reinforce them.
'Militia army' and 'regular army' are alternatives. When units of the regular army are available under arms, even during peacetime, units of the militia are normally only available latently, really only existing on paper. Militia units normally only assemble in peacetime for training purposes or in a state of emergency, taking up arms, so long as due notice is given, in time of war.
The distinguishing features of the two forms of an army, militia army and regular army, are defined by the terms 'temporary' and 'standing under arms'. Both can be recruited via conscription or on a voluntary basis. Similarly, the length of training required is without importance; a militia army can be assembled for specific training or merely on a transitory basis due to the situation prevailing at that time.
So-called enlisted cadres, which usually only retains small cadres of command and specialist troops permanently under arms, and whose units only increase to full strength in time of war following a levy or call-up, thus belong to the category of militia units.
Finally, the localised purpose of most militia forces awards them the character of a 'Territorial Militia'.CHAPTER 2
Following the successful offensives of the Soviet armies during the spring and summer of 1944, combined with the invasion of France by the Western Allies, the problem of the defence of the Reich's borders had to be considered.
The events of 20 July 1944 had shown that not only was there a civilian opposition to the Nazi regime, but that one also existed in the senior ranks of the Army's officer corps; one which "considered the overthrow of the catastrophic leadership of Hitler and the termination of the senselessly continuing war necessary", and was prepared to remove the Führer, whom the majority of the population in 1933 had voted into office. However, the bitter consequences following the Armistice of 1918, the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 with its demand for "unconditional surrender", the Quebec Conference with the Morgenthau Plan, and not least the failure of the Allies to fully cooperate with the German resistance movement, in combination with the German people's lack of expectation that the Nazi regime could be successfully overthrown and a bearable peace concluded, meant that the German population felt itself 'cast adrift in a boat'. "Unconditional surrender," said the US General Wedemeyer in the Wedemeyer Reports, meant that, "significantly, both the Germans who opposed Hitler and the vast majority of the population had no choice but to continue fighting to the end." If one did not wish for unconditional surrender, then one must continue to fight. There were at least two reasons for believing that to continue fighting was not hopeless. Firstly, people placed great hope in the announcement of secret 'wonder weapons'. Based on the albeit limited evidence seen, it was not believed that such weapons were simply propaganda and lies. Secondly, it was perceived that the relationship between the Western Allied democracies and the Communist military autocracy was strained to say the least, and that one had only to hold on long enough in order for this alliance to fall apart. The serious differences of opinion over the Balkans between London and Moscow were evidence of the strained relationship.
Consequently, if the senior military command busied itself with the problem of the defence of 'Fortress Germany', despite the hopeless situation, then they will fulfilling their duties as soldiers.
From a military point of view it was evident that there was a question as to whether the availability of personnel and materiél made it possible to form a front beyond the borders of the Reich, in addition to defending the Reich itself, particularly due to the weakness of the infantry arm. Should such an eventuality come to pass, it was hoped that the enemy penetration into the Reich could be delayed as long as possible in order to allow sufficient time for the deployment of the 'new weapons' or for political developments to take place.
It is now unfortunately impossible to say whether the consideration of such military possibilities was discussed in the highest levels of command, because the relevant documents are lost, and the people in question are no longer alive. The following picture emerges from documentation still available, including literature produced since the end of the war as well as questions asked of the various people 'in the know'.
Generaloberst Guderian's book Erinnerungen eines Soldaten reveals that as soon as he took over the office of Chief of General Staff of the Army following 20 July 1944, approval was received from Hitler for the restoration of the German defensive fortifications in the East. These included the so-called Heilsberg Triangle, the fortifications in Pomerania, the fortified front of the Oder-Warthe bend, and permanent positions along the Oder.
Together with the General of Engineers at OKH, General Jacob, I provided a construction plan. I ordered the reformation of my former disbanded Fortress Detachment of the General Staff under Oberstleutnant Thilo to oversee the construction.
Alongside the repair and renewal of the existing fortifications along the western and eastern borders being carried out by trained personnel – which by the sixth year of the war naturally moved along at a very slow pace, and whose armament could only be regarded as inadequate – the land lying between the permanent fortifications where no kinds of defensive positions existed had to be prepared for defence. To oversee the construction of such defensive measures – in the East the construction of the so so-called East Wall – Hitler nominated the Party Gauleiters, who at the same time became 'Reich Defence Commissioners', responsible for the area of a Gau. The Gauleiters, who were entrusted with making defensive measures, and accordingly could call up personnel to support their work, had received an order to "give the necessary instructions" from the leader of the Party Chancellery, Martin Bormann, acting on a directive from Hitler of 1 September 1944 (see Appendix I).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Hitler's Last Levy"
Copyright © 2019 Hans Kissel.
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Table of Contents
Creation & Organisation of the Volkssturm,
1 Territorial Militias,
4 Military Organisation,
5 Registration and Recruitment,
6 Armament and Equipment,
8 Legal Status of members of the Volkssturm,
9 Tasks carried out by the Volkssturm within the framework of the Wehrmacht,
The Volkssturm in Action,
10 Border areas of Silesia (December 1944-January 1945),
11 Security garrisons along the Austrian border (December 1944-March 1945),
12 East Prussia (October 1944-April 1945),
13 The Wartheland, east of the Oder and the Oder Front (January-April 1945),
14 Pomerania (February-March 1945),
15 The Neiße Stellung (February-April 1945),
16 Breslau (January–6 May 1945),
17 Western Front ( January-April 1945),
18 Fighting spirit, combat value, casualties,
Volkssturm Uniforms & Equipment,
I Instruction to the Party Chancellery 1 September 1944; Directive issued by the Party Chancellery 27 September 1944,
II Decree of the Führer 25 September 1944 concerning the formation of the Volkssturm,
III Instructions for implementation relating to the Führer Decree concerning the formation of the Volkssturm 27 September 1944,
IV Instructions for implementation relating to the Führer Decree concerning the formation of the Volkssturm 10 October 1944,
V Instructions for implementation relating to the Führer Decree concerning the formation of the Volkssturm 3 November 1944,
VI Telegram from Reichsleiter Bormann 1 October 1944,
VII Circular regarding the Volkssturm 23 February 1945,
VIII The numbers of the Gaue,
IX Incorporation of various groups and workers into the Volkssturm,
X Volkssturm weapon requirements 30 November 1944,
XI Armament of the Volkssturm 8 December 1944,
XII Order for the formation of the Volkssturm 16 October 1944,
XIII Directive of 1 December 1944 concerning the status of members of the Volkssturm,
XIV Legal directives of 24 February 1945 concerning the Volkssturm,
XV Directive of 16 March 1945 concerning service penal code for the Volkssturm,
XVI Announcement regarding enlistment in the Volkssturm,
XVII Recollections of Rudolf Pietsch regarding the Volkssturm in Oppeln, Upper Silesia,
XVIII Account of Paul Flegel, former commander of Volkssturm Battalion Habelschwerdt,
XIX Report of a meeting of Defence District XVII, Vienna, 25 March 1945,
XX Report of Waldemar Magunia regarding the Volkssturm in East Prussia 1944/45,
XXI Documents relating to the Volkssturm of the Wartheland,
XXII Extracts from the account of Friedrich Helmigk relating to the fighting in the Obrastellung between Schwerin/Warthe and Schwiebus, 21 January–28 February 1945,
XXIII History of Volkssturm Battalion 22/I 'Oberdonau',
XXIV Memoir of Rudolf Hönicka, Volkssturmmann in Volkssturmbataillon z. b. V. Hessen II,
XXV Actions of the Volkssturm in the Neisse Stellung near Guben,
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