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

The German Soldiers of World War II: Why They Were the Best, and Why They Still Lost. By Mark Weber.

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. Hollywood movies and popular U.S. television shows have for years contrasted confident, able and “cool” American GIs with slow-witted, cynical and cruel Germans. …

Like so much else that the public has been told about the Second World War, this demeaning image bore little relation to reality. As specialists of military history who have looked into the matter agree, the men of Germany’s armed forces — the Wehrmacht — performed with unmatched ability and resourcefulness throughout the nearly six years of conflict.

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. 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. … 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 …” …

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.” …

Max Hastings, a respected and widely read British historian, is the author of more than a dozen books, including several about World War II. … Hastings points out, the German military fought with equipment and weapons that were usually better than those of their adversaries. “Weapon for weapon and tank for tank, even in 1944, its equipment decisively outclassed that of the Allies in every category save artillery and transport,” he writes. Even during the war’s final years, “the Allied leaders invited their ground troops to fight the Wehrmacht with equipment inferior in every category save artillery and transport. German machine-guns, mortars, machine-pistols, antitank weapons and armored personnel carriers were all superior to those of Britain and America. Above all, Germany possessed better tanks.” …

A US Army officer who fought in Belgium in late 1944, Lt. Tony Moody, later spoke about how he and other American GIs had regarded their adversaries: “We felt the Germans were much better trained, better equipped, a better fighting machine than us.” …

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. … It was the superiority of numbers that was ultimately decisive. The Second World War in Europe was a victory of quantity over quality.