German Horses in World War II

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Horses in World War II were used by the belligerent nations for transportation of troops, artillery, materiel, and, to a lesser extent, in mobile cavalry troops. The role of horses for each nation depended on its military strategy and state of economy and was most pronounced in German and Soviet ground forces. Over the course of the war both Germany and the Soviet Union employed more than six million horses.

Most British regular cavalry regiments were mechanised between 1928 and the outbreak of World War II. The United States retained a single horse cavalry regiment stationed in the Philippines, and the German Army retained a single brigade. The French Army of 1939–1940 blended horse regiments into their mobile divisions, while the Red Army of 1941 had thirteen cavalry divisions. Italian, Japanese, Polish and Romanian armies employed substantial cavalry formations.

Horse-drawn transportation was most important for Germany, as it was relatively lacking in natural oil resources. Infantry and horse-drawn artillery formed the bulk of the German Army throughout the war; only one-fifth of the Army belonged to mobile panzer and mechanized divisions. Each German infantry division employed thousands of horses and thousands of men taking care of them. Despite losses of horses to enemy action, exposure and disease, Germany maintained a steady supply of work and saddle horses until 1945. Cavalry in the Army and the Waffen-SS gradually increased in size, peaking at six cavalry divisions in February 1945.

The Red Army was substantially motorized from 1939–1941 but lost most of its war equipment in Operation Barbarossa. These losses were temporarily remedied by forming masses of mounted infantry which were used as strike forces in the Battle of Moscow. Heavy casualties and a shortage of horses soon compelled the Soviet Russians to reduce the number of cavalry divisions. As tank production and Allied supplies made up for the losses of 1941, the cavalry was merged with tank units, forming more effective strike groups. From 1943–1944, cavalry gradually became the mobile infantry component of the tank armies. By the end of the war, Soviet cavalry was reduced to its pre-war strength. The logistical role of horses in the Red Army was not as high as it was in the German Army due to Soviet domestic oil reserves and U.S. truck supplies.

German soldier and his horse in the Russian SFSR, 1941. In two months, December 1941 and January 1942, the German Army on the Eastern Front lost 179,000 horses.

The German Army entered World War II with 514,000 horses, and over the course of the war employed, in total, 2.75 million horses and mules; the average number of horses in the Army reached 1.1 million.

Most of these horses were employed by foot infantry and horse-drawn artillery troops that formed the bulk of the German Army throughout the war. Of 264 divisions active in November 1944, only 42 were armored or mechanized (November 1943: 52 of 322). In addition to work horses each infantry division possessed a reconnaissance battalion with 216 cavalrymen – the legacy of disbanded cavalry regiments. They wore cavalry insignia until September 1943. Over the course of the war these horse elements were reduced, and the 1945 divisions lacked horsemen altogether. Reconnaissance and antitank battalions were the only mobile elements in a German infantry division. 

The organization of infantry troops and the mindset of their commanders were radically different from those of advance panzer forces. Mechanization of the German Army substantially lagged behind the Red Army, although the blitzkrieg of 1941 temporarily reversed the tables: the Germans captured tanks, trucks and tractors but were losing horses: 179,000 died in December 1941 and January 1942 alone. A German soldier wrote: “A curious odor will stick to this campaign, this mixture of fire, sweat and horse corpses.”

A German division was supposed to be logistically self-sufficient, providing its own men, horses and equipment to haul its own supplies from an Army level railhead. Soviet divisions, on the contrary, relied on the Army level transports. The supply train of a 1943 German infantry division employed 256 trucks and 2,652 horses attended by 4,047 men, while other divisional configurations had up to 6,300 horses. The supply train of a lean 1943 Soviet infantry division, in comparison, had only 91 trucks and 556 horses attended by 879 men. Luftwaffe Field Divisions were designed to be lean and rely on trucks and halftracks but in real life these were substituted with horses and mules. Incidentally, psychotherapist Ernst Göring, nephew of Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring, used therapeutic horseback riding to rehabilitate wounded pilots, but in 1942 the program was shut down as too expensive. 

Horse logistics slowed down the German advance. The 6th Army, engaged in urban warfare in Stalingrad, was unable to feed or graze their horses and sent them to the rear. When the Soviets enveloped the 6th Army in November 1942, the German troops were cut off from their horse transport and would have been unable to move their artillery had they tried to evacuate the city. In an earlier envelopment, the Demyansk Pocket, 20,000 horses were trapped together with 95,000 men and airlifting fodder drained precious air transport capacity. However these horses also provided food for soldiers in an environment where the “axe rebounds as a stone from a frozen horse corpse.” 

Cavalry troops 

During the war German cavalry units increased in numbers from a single brigade to a larger but still limited force of six cavalry divisions and two corps HQ. All regular cavalry troops served on the Eastern Front and the Balkans and a few Cossack battalions served on the Western Front. 

German and Polish mounted troops fought one of the last significant cavalry vs cavalry clashes, during the Battle of Krasnobród in 1939.

The German Army of 1941 had a single cavalry division assigned to Heinz Guderian‘s panzer group. Continuously engaged against Soviet troops, it increased in size to six regiments and in the beginning of 1942 was reformed into the 24th Panzer Division that later perished in the Battle of Stalingrad. In April–June 1943 the Germans set up three separate cavalry regiments (Nord, Mitte, Süd) – horse units reinforced with tanks and halftrack-mounted infantry. In August 1944 these regiments were reformed into two brigades and a division forming, together with the Hungarian 1st Cavalry Division, Gustav Harteneck’s Cavalry Corps that operated in Belorussia. In February 1945 the brigades were reformed into cavalry divisions (German stud farms in East Prussia were not affected by the Allied air raids that crippled German industry).

The SS operated both paramilitary horse units (23 cavalry regiments in 1941) and military Waffen SS cavalry. The SS Cavalry Brigade, formed in 1940, was engaged against civilians and guerrillas in the occupied territories and then severely checked by the Soviet Rzhev-Sychevka offensive. In 1942 the SS reformed the brigade into the 8th SS Cavalry Division manned by volksdeutsche, which operated on the Eastern Front until October 1943. In December 1943 the 8th Cavalry spun off the 22nd SS Cavalry Division manned with Hungarian Germans. These divisions were properly augmented with heavy, field and anti-aircraft artillery. Another SS cavalry division, the 33rd Cavalry, was formed in 1944 but never deployed to full strength.

The Germans recruited anti-Soviet cossacks since the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, although Hitler did not approve the practice until April 1942. Army Cossacks of 1942 formed four regiments and in August 1943 were merged into the 1st Cossack Cavalry Division (six regiments, up to 13,000 men) trained in Poland and deployed in Yugoslavia. In November 1944 the division was split in two and reformed into the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps. The Kalmyks formed the Kalmykian Cavalry Corps, employed in rear guard duties. 

In February 1945 German and Hungarian cavalry divisions were thrown into the Lake Balaton offensive; after a limited success, German forces were ground down by the Soviet counteroffensive. Remnants of Army cavalry fell back into Austria; 22,000 men surrendered to the Western allies, bringing with them 16,000 horses. Remnants of SS cavalry, merged into the 37th SS Division, followed the same route.


From Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt.

German horses stuck in Rasputitsa

Read about WWII here

Circus Elephants used to clear bomb damage, Hamburg, November 1945

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