The Myths of the Wehrmacht
Ever since its establishment as a conscript army in 1935 and long after its destruction ten years later, the Wehrmacht has been the source of an array of myths concerning its military capacities, its political role within the Third Reich, its involvement in the criminal policies of the Nazi regime and, not least, its ideological make-up. But how many of these stand up on examination? And what motivated the ordinary soldier in Hitler's armies in the Second World War?
Exaggerations regarding the military strength of the Wehrmacht were common as early as the Rhineland crisis of 1936, when the French generals claimed that only by fully mobilising their reserves could they expel what amounted to merely a few German battalions, representing an army still in its initial stages of reorganisation and far inferior to their own. The debacle of May-June 1940 greatly increased the tendency to exaggerate the technological and numerical might of the Wehrmacht as an excuse for a defeat caused mainly by the incompetence of the French commanders and their stubborn insistence on preparing for the kind of war they had won in 1914-18 rather than for the Blitzkrieg tactics already demonstrated in Poland. But while long after the war the generals tried to save their reputation by quoting highly inflated figures of German war machines and greatly underplaying the strength of their own forces, the fact is that on May 10th, 1940, the Wehrmacht sent into action 2,445 of its 3,505 available tanks, whereas France and its allies had a total of no less than 3,383 tanks. Moreover, only 725 German tanks were of the advanced Panzer III and IV models, and even they found it difficult to confront the excellent heavy French tanks. However, while German armour was grouped together in Panzer divisions, which at the crucial stage of the campaign were almost all concentrated on the same front, French armour was scattered among infantry units and never managed to launch more than a few weak, hesitant, and badly organised raids. Even in the case of aircraft, though the Luftwaffe had 4,020 operational machines (of which 1,559 were bombers), as opposed to 3,099 Allied airplanes (with only 708 bombers), it is clear that much better use could have been made of the available machines had they too not been scattered along the whole front, badly commanded, and extremely hesitantly used. The fact that the French air force had more planes on the ground at the end of the fighting than on the day of the attack testifies to its potential of inflicting much greater damage on the enemy than it had.
This article is available to History Today online subscribers only. If you are a subscriber, please log in.
Please choose one of these options to access this article:
- Purchase an online subscription
- Purchase a print and online subscription
- If you are already a print subscriber, purchase the online archive upgrade
Call our Subscriptions department on +44 (0)20 3219 7813 for more information.
If you are logged in but still cannot access the article, please contact us
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology