Saturday, July 27, 2019

For Want of a Horse

Recently, I read Hoger Eckhertz' excellent book, D Day Through German Eyes.  The book consists of interviews with German soldiers who were stationed on the Atlantic Wall when the Allies invaded Normandy on June 6, 1944.  Since the interviews were done just a few years after the end of the war, the memories of the soldiers were still fresh.

Already fairly familiar with the facts of the invasion, I did not expect to gather many new details about the invasion, but I was frequently surprised about the attitudes and beliefs of the German soldiers stationed along the French coast.  To a man, these soldiers believed they were defending a “United Europe”—an invention of NAZI propaganda—against outside aggression.  While most of the men had changed their opinions since the end of the war, all had previously felt justified in their roles of “defending” France, even as many admitted that the locals were less than jubilant at their presence.

Repeatedly, the Germans echoed a common idea:  Their astonishment at the complete mechanization of the Allied invasion.  Or to put it more simply, “Where were all the horses?”  The Allies had come ashore without a single horse or mule.

Not surprised?  Well, the Germans were.  Or as one soldat put it:

Yes, we found it astonishing. This huge army had brought with it not one single horse or pack-mule! All their transport was mechanized. It may sound bizarre today, but this impressed us greatly, showing that the Allies had no need of horses anymore, as they had such huge oil resources and production capacity. Because, of course, the German armies used horses for transport on quite a large scale right up until the end of the war, due to limited fuel and constraints on mechanized vehicle production. Every German unit had its stables and veterinarian officer, and here were these English without that need at all. For us, this symbolized the Allied capabilities.

Eckhertz, Holger. D DAY Through German Eyes - The Hidden Story of June 6th 1944 . DTZ History Publications.

The United States had decided to fully mechanize the military as early as 1940.  With abundant oil production and the factories in Detroit already turning out vehicles in record numbers, we had the luxury of completely modernizing our military—a process we had started shortly before World War I.  Though we were far from finished with the process when the war started, draft animals would be used only in the Pacific theater in locations too rugged or too remote for vehicles.

To give you an idea of the difference between Allied and Axis mobility, where the Japanese used one truck for roughly every fifty men in the Army, the United States had one for every dozen. 

Great Britain had largely mechanized when the war started, but for an entirely different reason.  After the Irish partition in 1920, England no longer had access to enough horses to support its army, so it had little choice but to mechanize.

Germany never really had a chance to mechanize before the war.  One of the provisions of the Versailles Treaty was a limit on both the number and types of units.  With a severe petroleum shortage, the automotive industry had a shaky foundation.  What industry was available, was producing advanced weaponry:  the factories that could have produced trucks were building tanks, instead.

At the start of the war, Germany had a superb internal transportation network, based on excellent railroads, and canals and rivers that were all interconnected.  By 1943, all of these transportation systems were suffering from Allied bombing.  By late 1944, Albert Speer (whose title had been changed to Reich Minister of Armaments and War Production), later wrote that the system was incapable of delivering raw materials fast enough for production to the meet the needs of the military.

When Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the world was astounded by the 3500 advanced tanks the Germans had.  Less noticed was that the invasion used 650,000 draft horses.  Only 20% of the units were mechanized:  almost all artillery was still pulled by draft horses.  By the end of the war, the number of mechanized units would drop to a mere 10%.

What few mechanized units that did exist were an amazing hodgepodge collection of assorted vehicles.  Not only had the German army practically stripped occupied Europe of almost anything with wheels—creating even more difficulties for the domestic economy—but the army that invaded Russia included more than 2000 different kinds of vehicles.  Maintaining supplies for all these vehicles was an impossibility, though the German army certainly tried.  Despite maintaining an inventory of over a million different parts for the assorted vehicles, you could follow the path from Germany into Russia by following the trail of abandoned and inoperative vehicles.

Note.  By comparison, the United States between 1939-1945 bought 2.4 million trucks, and fully a third of them were the 6x6 deuce-and-a-half that stayed with the military right through the first Gulf War.  There is probably not a man over the age of 30 in this country that hasn’t ridden in, worked on, or driven one of those trucks.  Among the “supplies” we shipped to Russia during the war were more than 150,000 additional of these trucks.  The Russians called them “Studers”, short for the Studebaker factory where they were built.  As late as the early 1980’s, I saw Chinese versions of those trucks on the roads in China.

One German division went into Germany with 96 types of personnel carriers, 111 different types of trucks, 37 different motorcycles.  Between the muddy quagmire roads of the fall and the frozen roads of the Russian winter, almost all of the vehicles were inoperative within a year.  Increasingly, the German Army had to resort to the use of draft animals, who were frequently overworked and died quickly.  As the horses died, their replacements were usually non-draft horses confiscated from occupied lands, rarely suited for the heavy work required of a draft horse.

The only benefit of using horses instead of vehicles that a starving German Army could eat the dead horses.  One German soldier wrote after the war that the clanging sound of an axe bouncing off the frozen corpse of a horse continued to haunt his nightmares.

Germany requisitioned almost all cars and trucks from Belgium and France early in the war.  From Yugoslavia, not only was virtually every vehicle removed, but in 1942, the Germans confiscated all the bicycles for use by the German infantry.

Even at the onset of the war, the majority of German provisions were moved by horse drawn wagons, which created even more logistical problems.  Draft horses eat 12 pounds of food a day, and after 10 days of heavy work, need weeks of recuperation.  At most, they can pull a wagon 20 miles a day with the load often determined by the road conditions, but at most it was roughly 1000 pounds of supplies per horse.  The use of horses required far more men than mechanized vehicles.  Besides veterinarians, stable men, and grooms, it takes six men an hour to harness the six horses necessary to pull an artillery wagon, and even more time to remove the harnesses and care for the exhausted animals at the end of the day.

The Germans used rails to move as much of their supplies as possible, but it was horses that provided transportation past the railhead.  Since the further you travel, the more provisions are required by the horses, there is an absolute limit to how far and how fast the German army could advance, based on the available transport.  Though the German Army never reached its objectives in the war, as it was, over half the tonnage its supply lines carried was fodder for the average 1.1 million horses being used to replace trucks.

Before the war started in 1939, part of Germany’s advance war planning was the creation of a vast fleet of transport trucks.  Just as Hitler had promised the German Navy more time to develop its fleets, he had promised the Army more time to develop its logistical infrastructure.  Unfortunately for Hitler, Germany was going to partner with Ford and General Motors to create the fleets of trucks necessary.  Naturally, when the war started prematurely, these plans were dropped.

Historians have used an ocean of ink explaining why Hitler lost the war.  To that, you can add a dependence on horses long after the time of the automobile and truck.  Or as Admiral King wrote to the Secretary of War in 1946, “The war has been variously termed a war of production and a war of machines.  Whatever else it is, so far as the United States is concerned, it was a 20th Century war logistics.”

Or to put it more simply, Hitler attempted to win a 20th Century War with 19th Century logistics.

1 comment:

  1. You know I've noticed that's one thing they don't account for in the various WWII board games I've played and that's the speed of the allied logistical train. We really did overwhelm our enemies with the sheer weight of men, supplies and equipment we were able to move at what must have seemed blinding speed to armies that couldn't move small loads more than 20 miles per day. They should correct for that in the game. Of course, if they did, the guy playing the Germans wouldn't be able to win unless the game also allowed for a leader a whole lot more careful than Herr Hitler. - Tom