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Horse Power: Horses and the German Army of World War II

Grenadiers rest while their horse-drawn supply train passes Horse Power
Horses and the German Army of World War II
by Tom Robertson

So you have just purchased a German Motorised Panzergrenadier Company or an Armoured Panzergrenadier Platoon and are getting ready to paint and base them.  Have you given any thought to just how representative your army really was of the typical German Army Group?  So was the German army some sort of mechanised juggernaut, the epitome of mechanical efficiency, combining lightening speed and awesome military power?

To some degree this was true. The German Panzer Divisions were formidable units, elite by anyone’s standard. Yet it is important to remember that these units, including the motorised infantry (Panzergrenadier) divisions and their SS counterparts, generally composed less than 25% of the divisions deployed by the German Wehrmacht.

Left: Grenadiers rest while their horse-drawn supply train passes.
By late 1944 when the numbers of these elite divisions numbered a high of 48, they only comprised 16% of the total number of German divisions. The majority of the Divisions therefore consisted of marching infantry and that great transportation known to all as a horse.

During the rapid development of the German army during the 1930s, Germany did not have a large number of people familiar with or know how to drive a car or truck (The United States had 1:5 ratio of cars to people, while the ratio in Germany was 1:89, the poorest ratio of Western Europe – except for Italy). Extensive programs were put in place to train drivers during this period but the fact remained Germany did not have a population conducive to the creation of a large motorised or mechanised force. This was further exacerbated by the fact that the German industry was incapable of providing the vehicles and fuel requisite to the creation of a modern, fully motorised force. Given these circumstances, horses had to be used for transportation.

Some Basic Facts About Horses
There are three types of horse.  Warm blooded, cold blooded and mixed blooded. Warm blooded vary in size and generally have a lively and excitable nature and make excellent riding horses and hence make excellent Cavalry horses. Cold Blooded are the descendants of the Great Horses of Medieval times, Draft horses, and bred for size and strength, and provide the key motive power for heavy haulage e.g. Artillery. They are characterised by a docile temperament, from which the term cold blooded is derived. Mixed blooded are the result of cross breeding and not relevant in the rest of this article.


Right: SS Cavalry on their mounts.

SS Cavalry on their mounts
A leFH18 10.5cm Howitzer being pulled by a horse limber Even the hardiest horse needs a minimum of about 12 pounds (about 5.5kg) of food per day and the large Draft horses could consume up to 20 pound (9kg) feed per day or about 8 hours of grazing on grass, assuming that was available.  Horses also sleep at night, but they can be made to change their sleeping habits but this takes time. There are also the wide variety of diseases to take into consideration, mange, pneumonia, frostbite for example of which many are highly contagious.

Left: A leFH18 10.5cm Howitzer being pulled by a horse limber.
Also of note is that horses still provided most of the tractive power on the farms so removing horses for army use impacted farm production.
German Horse Numbers
So how many horses did the Germans have? Between 1938 and 1939 they mobilised 400,000 horses and the infrastructure in 1939 to deal with this number of horses consisted of the Tenth Army had 541st, 542nd and 543rd Army Horse Hospitals (up to 550 horses), the 541st Army Horse Park and the 540th Veterinary Park, and each infantry division had its own divisional horse hospital (up to 500 horses).

Right: German horses rest by a 150mm Howitzer.
German horses rest by a 150mm Howitzer
A leFH18, limber and horse team cross a pontoon bridge

For Operation Barbarossa the Germans amassed some 3 million men, 600,000 vehicles, 3350 tanks and 2000 aircraft and an estimated 600,000 to 750,000 horses. Estimated one horse for every four men, and at 6 kg/day feed, 4500 tonne of feed required per day! And as the German Army drove deeper into Russia many of its vehicles broke down and could not be replaced, so it became steadily less motorised.

Left: A leFH18 10.5cm Howitzer, limber and horse team cross a pontoon bridge

Horses would eventually make up the difference. The diagram below shows the organisation of a four gun 10.5cm artillery unit and the number of horses required (one bullet shape = one horse).

Diagram from Engelmann, J. (1995), German Light Field Artillery, 1935 – 1945. Published by Schiffer Military/Aviation History, Atglen, PA.

The German Army’s reliance on horses in this campaign also presented a number of strategic, tactical and logistical problems. Strategically, the difference between the motorised and horse-drawn divisions led to immediate problems. Supplies could not get through to the motorised units due to roads clogged with horse-drawn divisions, and speed differences resulting in greater separation between the different Divisions.

Tactically, the Germans were having problems with the horses finding them very vulnerable to air attack and problems were encounter with high losses even during times of air superiority. An additional problem was the Horse hospitals being attacked by cut off Russian troops. Logistical problems occurred very early on, rail gauge differences, lack of trucks, and rail vehicles – resulted in replacement horses being marched to the front.

The most affected horses were the Cold bloods as these units suffered most of the air attacks, and they were very susceptible to extremes of temperature (hot and cold) and required more fodder and water, demands that could not be met during the advance. By November 1941, horse losses totolled 102,910 killed and 33,000 sick or unfit.

A look at March 1944, the total German strength OB West was 1.6 million men and 1.1 million horses.

Right: German wagons pass by marching infantry.

German wagons pass by marching infantry
The German Army requisitioned over 400,000 horses in 1944 alone and this did not meet the demand especially for the Cold bloods. During the D-Day invasions, a major problem encountered is that a horse-drawn infantry division took up much more road space than a motorised one.

In 1939, 17,734 officers and men manned a first wave infantry division. For support it relied on 48 artillery pieces (12 x 15cm and 36 x 10.5cm guns). The division’s transport was provided by some 615 trucks and 919 horse drawn vehicles, of which 196 were allocated to each of the three infantry regiments (a total of 588), while 240 were assigned to the divisional artillery. The division required 4,842 horses.

An old leFH16 10.cm Howitzer being pulled by a 6-horse team The 1944 division had a theoretically strength of 12,772 officers and men.  Its artillery had been reduced to 30 x 10.5cm and 9 x 15cm guns. The number of trucks was cut back to 370 (a 40% reduction). Although the number of horses was reduced to 3,177, the number of horse drawn vehicles had increased by over 30% to 1,375. It is important to remember that the standard German horse drawn vehicle took up more space than a truck. Thus the rear units of this unit took up considerable more road space making them very vulnerable to air attack

Left:
An old leFH16 10.cm Howitzer being pulled by a 6-horse team.
Another crucial difference between horses and motor vehicles, the latter maybe able to continue to function if slightly damaged, while if a horse was killed or disabled, then the horse drawn vehicle was lost as well.  A major problem in the retreat after the Allies broke through after Normandy.

Another problem encountered was truck production – German truck production hit a high in 1943 of 109,000 of which a little over half went to the Army. Losses in trucks from January to August 1944 alone equalled this number. Even at this late date many of the trucks used by the German army were really designed for commercial use and unsuited to military operations.

By February 1945 the Wehrmacht deployed some 1,198,724 horses; the army had 1,060,106, the Luftwaffe 37,072 and the Navy 1,566.  Thus by the end of the war even the most modern and mechanised elements of the German armed forces ran on oats as much as on gasoline.

Extracts from the book Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism? Horses and the German Army of World War II.
by R.L.DiNardo, published by Greenwood Press, New York, 1991.

~ Tom.


Last Updated On Friday, March 11, 2011 by Blake at Battlefront