Sunday, March 3, 2013


I've been reading volume two, The Day of Battle, of Rick Atkinson's "Liberation Trilogy".

Atkinson writes well and has done his research; his Army at Dawn was a good summary of the U.S. North Africa campaign. The second volume is equally comprehensive on the campaigns for Sicily and Italy. Makes for a terrible story; you have to wonder what the hell the Allied leaders were thinking ("soft underbelly"? My ass). It's popular history, yes, but well-drawn and (so far as I can tell) sound on the major events and controversies of the place and time.

But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. It's these guys:

You can't make your way around North Africa, Sicily, and Italy between 1942 and 1944 without stumbling over this outfit, perhaps one of the oddest in military history; an entire armored division owned by an air force.

The Hermann Göring armored division was probably the strangest end-member of the Nazi penchant for empire-building, internal as well as external. The capability of the German ground forces in WW2 - and even the most Allied-biased have to admit that on the tactical level the German armed forces were largely better at their work than pretty much any of their enemies - is fairly remarkable given the almost-Byzantine-level of complexity of the Wehrmacht. Alongside the Heer, the regular Army, you had a completely parallel Nazi Party army in the "armed" or Waffen SS.

And beside them, you had damn near an entire freaking air force army.

You could say that the German military of the Forties did it exactly backwards from the way the U.S. did it; in the U.S. of 1943 the air force belonged to the army. In Germany, the air force HAD an army; 22 Luftwaffe feldivisionen, or "Air Force Field Divisions" That's not even counting the fallschirmjäger; the eleven divisions of German paratroops came under Air Force command (as did everything else that flew than that the Reichsmarschall could get his pudgy fingers on).

But you can make kind of a case for the paratroops (the Soviet paras were part of their air force, and even the early U.S. Army experiments with airborne troops flirted with the notion of slotting them into the USAAF), and the feldivisionen were flat-out a mid-war expedient forced on the Wehrmacht by Der Dicke's political pull and greed for power.

But the Hermann Göring was a whole different critter; a created-from-the-treads-up armored division for the German air force.

And the other odd thing is that, like the paratroopers and very unlike the felddivisionen (which were disasters and probably killed more Germans that their enemies...) the HG turned out to be an excellent combat outfit. Several commentators such as Martin Blumenson have rated it among the best of the German WW2 armored formations. That's pretty high praise, given the competition.

But...I'm sorry; the whole idea is just fucking weird.

There are lots of things about the Nazi period in Germany that are fascinating in a horrible way. But there are some things about that period that are fascinating just because they're...odd. And the notion of an air force wanting their own tank division?

To me, that's just odd. I get it, I understand WHY Fatso wanted one - hard to be a soldier without understanding power bases and military empire-building - but letting him have one?


But perhaps I should be careful about name-calling other militaries; at least the Kriegsmarine resisted the impulse to voluntarily form it's own infantry brigade.

Go figure.


  1. The Germans had about 300,000 personnel in the air surveillance units in France during early 1944 alone. They supported less than 200 fighters and a few dozen Atlantic bombers.

    This incredibly bloated organisation was but one example of general Luftwaffe squandering of personnel resources.
    The army was so short of combat troops that it repeatedly transferred lots of support troops (young and healthy enough or not) to combat units, especially after the winter of '42/'43 when its recruits allotment couldn't cope with Eastern Front losses any more.

    It was inevitable that the Luftwaffe had to transfer troops to ground combat units, but Hitler was childishly loyal to Göring even after the Battle of Britain disaster (which was admittedly much smaller than the early Barbarossa triumphs). Göring was the No.2 in the Nazi hierarchy between Hess' flight to Scotland in '41 and spring '45 when Dönitz was designated as Hitler's successor instead.

    So basically Göring's position kept the Luftwaffe from doing the obvious thing; transferring hundreds of thousands of excess personnel selected by the army to the army for basic Eastern front combat training in Eastern front divisions being refreshed behind the front (or being rebuilt or even newly raised based on some skeleton units in Central Europe).

    The Hermann Göring division was a prestige division and got preferred supply of material and personnel because of its naming, so it's not surprising it did rather well.
    Also keep in mind that many Luftwaffe senior officers and all of its generals had been army personnel until 1935.
    This was also the explanation for how the Luftwaffe officer Kesselring was able to lead the defensive campaign in Italy quite convincingly: He had been an army man 1914-1935.

  2. Yeah, Kesselring comes off as a pretty shrewd guy in the Atkinson book; certainly with a clearer understanding of the strategic setting of the Italian campaign than his Allied counterparts, who seem to be drawn up the peninsula like basset hounds after a strip of bacon. They never seem to "get" (at least the way he does) that the terrain gives the 10th and 14th Armies an advantage that lets them pin down more Allied divisions attacking than the Wehrmacht had to devote to defending the place.

    But the thing that I kept thinking about reading Day of Battle was how the Luftwaffe ground troops were just weirdly bipolar; the fallschirmjäger and the HG are among the better of the infantry and armored outfits Germany fielded in WW2. But as you point out, the real downside of Adolf's affection for his pal wasn't the HG and the paratroops, it was the poor sad bastards in the felddivisionen; these outfits are invariably described as just sad; small, short of artillery and about everything else, and led by galvanized flying or flight-support officers. They were slotted into "quiet" sectors, but, let's face it - in 1944 and 1945 no Eastern Front sector was "quiet" for long. Every time the Soviets geared up and hit them the poor Luftwaffe ground-pounders got flattened.

    I guess finally the survivors DID get transferred over to the Army. But it was too late for thousands of guys, all because Adolf's pal Hermann had to have his little army. Sheesh...

    1. The entire German military was very much graded in its quality.
      The army which invaded France and Benelux in 1940 had 16 elite armoured or motorised divisions, 61 fine infantry divisions (conceptually close to 1918), 29 infantry divisions of limited readiness, 28 only suitable for the defence, 9 hardly suitable for defence and 14 crap divisions.

      The army overall was conceptually divided into the elite armour/motorised/mountain troops and the vast majority of line troops which were merely improved 1918 divisions.

      The Luftwaffe was similarly graded, with Zerstörer pilots being the best, followed by fighter and Stuka pilots and the leaders of the other units.
      Their paras were chosen, while their security troops were hardly meant for combat (and I have yet to see a photo showing anyone with a carbine on a Luftwaffe wartime airfield).

      The weaponry of the Wehrmacht was also varying in quality. New production (post-'37) weapons and the best captured weapons (ZIS-3, for example) were vastly better than the gazillions of captured weapons. Wehrmacht rear area troops wear K98 carbines in movies, but in reality they were using rifles of different calibres from all over Europe. The situation was most extreme in 1945, when 1870's blackpowder rifles were used alongside StG 44 assault rifles and WWI field guns served alongside the most powerful full calibre AT guns ever made.

  3. Chief,
    Why is it weird for the Germans to do the things that you mention, but yet don't we do the same???!
    Didn't they get it right to have the Luftwaffe support the ground commander directly?
    That was their brilliance and no other army duplicated that wizardry. I don't think that any does so today as successfully as they did. Screw the Blitz, it was the Stuka.
    What do we do that's dumb?
    Seals and socom/jsoc commands that violate the concept of unity of command, and that never facilitate a maneuver commanders concept of opn.
    Reliance on J level ops that never do anything of merit.
    Invade counties and we don't even have target lists or order of battle data.? Or even a TV guide.
    Rely on tac air in lieu of organic fire support.?
    Have airmobile divisions that haven't done a major successful airmobile misn in the last 40 years? Same for Airborne units.
    Last but not least SEALS. Why do we need Seals.? Isn't that a stupid Naval Infantry concept? Why have any Naval or USMC unit that operates outside the range of naval gun fire.?
    Screw the Germans(except SO)let's think of the same junk that we do that is stupid.
    BTW- Nice article.
    I'm thinking of rereading THE FORGOTTEN SOLDIER for my night time fare.
    For shit's and grins you must read the Combat in Russia DA Pam series. It's right up your alley.

    1. "Didn't they get it right to have the Luftwaffe support the ground commander directly?
      That was their brilliance and no other army duplicated that wizardry. I don't think that any does so today as successfully as they did. Screw the Blitz, it was the Stuka."

      This was rather the exception, reserved mostly for crisis situations.
      The real superiority in 40-42 laid in the fact that the Luftwaffe supported the operational plan of the army group(s).
      Back in May'40 the Luftwaffe helped to fake the right wing Schwerpunkt right until the Meuse was reached at Sedan - then it switched its focus on supporting the actual Schwerpunkt at Sedan and the later spearheads moving out of it.
      Meanwhile, the British and French bombers dissipated their power into aimless and incoherent actions of no lasting value.

      Luftwaffe CAS was the red-headed stepchild, early on equipped with a handful of Hs 123 biplanes only.
      Ju 87 units usually even hadn't radio connection to the armoured spearheads. It took high level interventions or the army group's operational plan to force Stukas or level bombers into CAS (examples Sedan, Arras).

      The West Allies did actually a much better job at CAS in '44 when armoured spearhead commanders knew there were fighter bombers circling overhead, waiting only for his call as long as his combat team wasn't in bivouac.

  4. I tend to go with Sven on this one, Jim, with the caveat that I think the big difference between the Heer and the Allied armies from '39 to about '42 was that the German commanders thought about CAS and incorporated it into their tactical plans, as he notes. The Poles, Brits, French, and the early Soviets didn't, either their own, or "solving" the problem of dealing with German CAS.

    But the Brits and the USAAF pretty much figured out the Forward Air Control system by 1944. Nobody else had anything nearly as sophisticated at the time.

    And IMO the answer to the SEALS is essentially the same as the HG; the Navy is turf-building and nobody at the joint/Chiefs/DoD level is willing to tell them no any more than Adolf could deny his buddy Hermann his little toy soldiers. Unlike Nazi Germany the U.S. @ 2013 has no genuine peer foe or anything close, so we're not paying any sort of price for this organizational incoherence; unlike the poor bastards in the felddivisionen no U.S. troop is likely to pay with his life.

    The overall price for our strategic inability to figure out that fighting land wars in Asia is an overall money-loser is while 'nother fucking story but kinda beyond the scope of this post...

  5. Chief& SO,
    Let me crab a little.
    The coord that i speak of was in the invasion phases and not evident later.
    The Brits and French didn't use their tac air as did the Germans. The Polish AF was largely destroyed before they could react.
    The German air facilitated the ground commanders maneuver plan.Of course this implied air superiority.
    Later in the war the allies used strategic air/bombers to do what tac air did in the German scenario.
    Or so it seems to me.
    After 43 every thing looks like improvisation to me.
    Thanks for the thoughtful discourse.

  6. Chief,
    I press my point to link to US today.
    The Seals are a given. We agree, i hope.
    The major SOF cmds seem to disengage the SOF from the maneuver cdr and simply allow random swanning around the battle area.
    I ask why in the IRQ invasion were there no deep Airborne objectives, NOR were there any Airmobile ops of note?
    Why would Marines ever take a beach head when airheads are our best option these days. Also the Army could do beach heads if req'd. Think D Day.
    Are these forces no longer relevant as maneuver elements on the battle field? Why do we have conventional ABN /Airmobile/Marine divisions? I doubt that any could survive on the modern battle space.Imagine an old Guards army division/corps /army on the offensive with all forces forward. Of all describe all light infantry is questionable.
    How would these troops survive even if we had air parity? The AA available to the old Warsaw forces was tremendous.
    Yet we still keep this idea alive although in a low intensity environment like RVN helos were routinely shot down with small arms.
    Think of Roberts Ridge in AFGH where specops birds were shot down with 50's.
    My position is that our Army is a convoluted AS WERE THE GERMANS, as you point out.
    Why do we see this in them , but we fail to look in the mirror?

  7. I think that's kind of what was on my mind as I was reading this, jim.

    The freedom from peer foes has enabled us to ignore some tactical issues that IMO are likely to cost lives on some future battlefield, such as the increased vulnerability of helicopters and other STOL aircraft to ground fire. The notion of needing an entire airborne division complete with jump-qualified PAC clerks seems kind of ridiculous given that we will probably never see another brigade-size combat jump in our lifetimes; the chances of a $400 SAM taking down an entire C-17 and all the troopers onboard is just too high. Plus the ability of U.S. mechanized forces to push through any potential conventional enemy is so great that it seems hard to imagine a tactical setting that would require a big mass-tac jump...

    So I think the problem here is, as always, that it's always easier to see the mote in someone else's eye. We look at the German example and say, gee, why the hell didn't they just do this? Well, for the same reason that we don't rein in the SOF; power politics, turf wars, interservice rivalry, lobbying by the individual arms...

    And, I think, the other lesson is that even when your lives and the life of your country depend on working together many people will choose instead to squat on their own little patch and give you the finger; they would rather die "right" than compromise and live. So imagine how that translates into our own fat, dumb, and happy little military world...

  8. Sorry Ranger, you fell for a few Nazi propaganda lies.

    "The Polish AF was largely destroyed before they could react.
    The German air facilitated the ground commanders maneuver plan.Of course this implied air superiority."

    a) The bulk of the Polish air force escaped to Romania at the end of the campaign. Almost nothing of it was destroyed early on because they deployed to secondary airfields in time.
    The Polish air force's quick destruction is a Nazi lie.

    b) The German air force did not enjoy actual air superiority over France. It was merely able to use its air power in a way that made a bigger impact. The losses of the Luftwaffe in face of French and British fighters were horrible. I recommend Frieser's book "Blitzkieg Legend" as a summary:

    Aircraft losses
    German 1236
    France 892
    UK 1029
    Belgians and Dutch: together less than 200 afaik

    Keep in mind many allied aircraft were lost to advancing ground troops, not due to air warfare itself.
    ~300 German pilots (or air crew, dunno) including some later famous experts were freed by the armistice.

    The Polish air force also kept attacking German columns till late '39. Their fighters (first generation all-metal monoplanes) were so slow and manoeuvrable that German fighter pilots had difficulties with them. Vertical air combat tactics were not yet fully developed, and aerial gunnery when closing in on a small target with 200 kph net speed is tricky.

    The story of the Luftwaffe's contribution to the ground campaigns in 1939-1941 was really all about
    (1) purposeful integration into the land-air campaign plan
    (2) good enough personnel, material, supply and organisation

    They fell much short of really overpowering their major enemies until the red air force's disaster in June 1941. Even the small Dutch and Yugoslavian fighter forces resisted quite skilfully and successfully. The Dutch massacred airborne troops in transport aircraft and the Yugoslavians offered an impressive air battle over Belgrade.

  9. The odd thing I noticed about both Axis powers Germany and Japan, Sven, is that while both were early proponents of air power and both developed their air arms in the Thirties while the eventual Allied powers were sort of idling along on the legacy-strains of the aircraft of WW1, they never really did develop good air-ground coordination along the lines of the FAC system the US/UK eventually worked out by 1944.

    From what I can tell the German ground force commanders did liase with the Luftwaffe counterparts in the sense that they communicated a general "commander's intent" of where and when they wanted airstrikes, but after that all the tactical mission planning, operational orders, and C3I for the air missions went from the Luftflotte commander to the squadrons and back.

    The Japanese seem, if anything, to have been even less tactically flexible than that; airstrikes were despatched based on whatever tactical intel made it up to the Air Army; there seems to have been almost no coordination between the maneuver commanders on the ground in the target area and the aircraft. The bombers flew in, bombed and strafed, left and that was that.

    I can sort of get how the disconnect happens between the Heer and the Luftwaffe, given the nature of Nazi turf-guarding and internal empire-building. But the Japanese were organized like the U.S., with an Air Force at least officially owned by the Army. Why the hell weren't they better at CAS? Why didn't they develop it sooner than the Allies?

  10. FDChief, the problem was the survivability of the forward observer aircraft.

    All armies had "army cooperation" and "observer" aircraft in the 1930's; most of them two-seat biplanes. They were the flying FOs who could have linked CAS to ground efforts in 1940-1945.
    They looked like this
    and the most elaborate one was this

    It took such a persistent eye in the air to make good use of CAS unless you want to add dedicated fire support coordinators to the ground units or even train combat troops officers in CAS methods.

    The problem was that these aircraft proved to be survivable only when they were either covered by AAA (37 or 40 mm) batteries or if friendly fighters ruled the skies.

    Such aircraft only had a comeback when STOL aircraft like Fi 156 or Stinson Sentinel were used. They were so extremely slow and agile and difficult to spot and capable of emergency landing next to friendlies that hostile fighters in the air were more often acceptable.
    Fw190F groups often cooperated with Fi 156, in addition to a flight of their own flying morning recce along roads.

    The Japanese were hampered by the fact that the Chinese opponents were mostly light infantry - a most difficult target. The Allied ground forces on battlefields had usually foliage concealment, so they were no easy targets either.

  11. The Luftwaffe subordinated 88mm flak gun battalions assigned at Army Corps level were used in many cases as tank killers and direct fire artillery. They were not as effective in Italy as they were in North Africa and Russia. But they were still feared at Salerno and Anzio per Atkinson's book you mention. He did a good job I thought but glossed over the Brit, Canuck, and Free French actions. Good to read it side by side with Kesselring's memoirs.

    BTW, Atkinson's long awaited third volume "The Guns at Last Light" is due out in mid-May.

  12. Slightly related to the Göring thing; there's an article in the Spiegel about the younger brother of Göring (Albert), who apparently got away with lots of sabotaging against the Nazis including helping lots of Jews. Arrested three times, always freed quickly. Göring (the fat guy) had told the Gestapo that family was off limits.
    They didn't even meet each other much and Albert was probably only a half-brother, but family ties were still too powerful for the Gestapo to crack.

    Kinda amazing how much personalities influenced what the Nazi regime did.

  13. thanks Svenn - good catch, and amazing that an Aussie brought it to international attention.

  14. ...unless you want to add dedicated fire support coordinators to the ground units..."

    Which is what the Forward Air Controllers evolved into. FAC parties were co-located with the maneuver commanders and called in the CAS as needed, similar to the artillery FOs. The light aircraft WERE used a lot in WW2, but the real "breakthrough" seems to have been the idea of getting the controllers with there with the maneuver commander to shorten response time and improve delivery.

    Interestingly, tho, those little hedge-hoppers, the L5s and Storchs, were sort of re-invented by the aerial drones; most deep-strike FA/CAS is now either directed or often done by the drones.

    1. The real replacement for them were the helicopters in my opinion.

      Thousands of Shilkas kept all this stuff in check for decades, but now even drones flying at the speed of a 1930's biplane can be used since we're essentially again where 'we' were in the 1920's; punishing tribes which resist our political designs with air strikes.

  15. I'm not convinced a drone is an exact 100% replacement for a light observation aircraft. Hard to imagine replicating the situational awareness of the M1A1 Eyeball group and MK1 Mod 2 Brain Assembly being on the spot.

    And a helo, with 2 1/2 hours fuel is no substitute for a light fixed wing with 4 1/2 hours fuel. Having done some FAC and AO flying in O-1s as well OH23's, OH58s and OH6's, this dyed in the wool helo driver will take the O-1 any day, landing strip availability providing.

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