German Soldiers of World War II: Why They Were the Best, and Why They Still Lost

The German soldiers of World War II have often been portrayed, both during the war and in the decades since, as simple-minded, unimaginative and brutish.

Trevor N. Dupuy, a noted American military analyst, US Army Colonel, and author of numerous books and articles, studied the comparative performance of the soldiers of World War II. On average, he concluded, 100 German soldiers were the equivalent of 120 American, British or French soldiers, or 200 Soviet soldiers. “On a man for man basis,” Dupuy wrote, “German ground soldiers consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50 percent higher rate than they incurred from the opposing British and American troops under all circumstances [emphasis in original]. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending, when they had a local numerical superiority and when, as was usually the case, they were outnumbered, when they had air superiority and when they did not, when they won and when they lost.”

Another scholar who has written about this is Ben H. Shepherd, an author of several books who teaches history at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland. In a recent detailed work, Hitler’s Soldiers: The German Army in the Third Reich, he dismantles the image of “zombie-like obedience popularly ascribed to the German military.” In fact, the Wehrmacht “stressed qualities such as flexibility, daring and independent thinking,” and “Nazi ideology placed great importance upon qualities such as courage, endurance, resourcefulness and strength of character, as well as upon comradeship.” He also takes note of “the stress that the German army placed on superior organization. At all levels, the German army was more effectively organized than all the opposing armies it faced …”

Looking at the 1940 campaign in France, Shepherd writes: “… It was the Germans’ own strength that enabled them to triumph so spectacularly. Among other things, they profited from an imaginative and daring operational plan. But if one single, overall reason for the German army’s triumph in the west can be pinpointed, it is that its doctrinal approach to tactics and operations far outclassed that of its opponents. At all levels, it possessed qualities of daring and adaptability, and a capacity to react to the rapidly changing battlefield situation … The qualities of the German soldier, and the ability of commanders at all levels to think and act independently and effectively, were indeed key to German victory …”

Even after the tide of war had turned, he writes, German troops fought well. “The army sustained its initial success thanks to high levels of training, cohesion and morale among its troops, and thanks also to excellent coordination with the Luftwaffe [air force] … Much has been made of the German soldier’s qualitative superiority in the [June-July 1944] Normandy campaign, and there is indeed much to be said in this. One especially exhaustive study of the [German] Westheer in Normandy concludes that, all other things being equal, a hundred Germans soldiers would have made an even fight against 150 Allied soldiers.”

“As a result of all this,” says Shepherd, “German army units exhibited great staying power in defense [that is, especially during the final year of the war]. They also exhibited great resourcefulness and flexibility … From 1943 onwards, the German army executed a fighting retreat of unparalleled tenacity, against an increasingly formidable Red Army in the east, and a Western Allied coalition powered increasingly by the economic and military might of the United Sates.”

Throughout the Second World War, wherever British or American troops met the Germans in anything like equal strength, the Germans prevailed. They possessed an historic reputation as formidable soldiers

However better the training, dedication and resourcefulness of Germany’s fighting men may have been, and however higher the quality of their tanks, machine guns and other equipment, none of that was enough to offset the great quantitative superiority of their enemies.

Despite limited resources, and especially a persistent shortage of petroleum, as well as other formidable challenges, the German nation and their leaders showed extraordinary organizational ability, inventiveness and adaptability in 1942, 1943 and 1944 in utilizing the available human and materiel resources to dramatically increase production of high-quality weapons and equipment. But during that same period, the Soviet Union and the United States harnessed their much more abundant natural resources and manpower reserves to turn out far greater quantities of weapons, ships, bombers, fighter planes, tanks and artillery.

Above all, the major Allied powers had vastly larger numbers of men to send into battle, and many more people to deploy at home to support the war effort.

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17 comments

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  7. vikinglifeblog · October 24, 2019

    The English historian Max Hastings noted of the Germans,

    “Their tactics were masterly… Their junior leadership was much superior to that of the Americans, perhaps also to that of the British. Throughout the Second World War, wherever British or American troops met the Germans in anything like equal strength, the Germans prevailed”.

    Hastings’ observations are supported by other scholars, and even by political figures like Winston Churchill, who wrote that,

    “The superiority of the Germans in design, management and energy were plain… At Narvik a mixed and improvised German force, barely 6,000 strong, held at bay for six weeks some 20,000 Allied troops… some of our finest troops, the Scots and Irish Guards, were baffled by the vigour, enterprise and training of Hitler’s young men”.

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