Germany scrapes together manpower for the front

Recruits for the Großdeutschland Division are kitted out with uniform in  1944.

Recruits for the Großdeutschland Division are kitted out with uniform in 1944.

"The unshakable confidence in victory of the German people cannot be better characterized than by the fact of the incessant flow of volunteers,

“The unshakable confidence in victory of the German people cannot be better characterized than by the incessant flow of volunteers, even in the 6th year of the war….Trained by experienced instructors, with the latest and best weapons, they will soon stand at the front.” November 1944

The scale of casualties was causing concern amongst the Allies, with the British in particular now running out of men to replace losses. Yet the circumstances in Germany were becoming ever more desperate.

In October the Nazis had announced the creation of the Volkssturm, a militia force outside the main Wehrmacht, for men and boys from 13 to 60 not yet serving in the armed forces. Now boys of 16 and 17 were being called up into the Wehrmacht and receiving only the most basic training before being sent to the front.

Erwin Bartmann was a veteran of the Eastern Front, who had spent the last eighteen months recovering from wounds. In late November 1944 he found himself pressed back into service to oversee basic training:

I shared a billet with a fellow Unterscharfuhrer in the house of a local farmer who treated him as if he were a long lost Joseph, newly found. He worked in the Kompanie office and somehow managed to supply our hosts with little gifts of cake or wine but they looked at me with different eyes, making it very clear that I was not a welcome guest.

They even filed a false complaint against me for messing the outside toilet during a party in the run up to Christmas. Hardly a pleasant word passed between us and, despite the onset of winter, I was always relieved to get out of that house in the morning.

The accommodation provided for the recruits — mostly young lads of sixteen or seventeen — was rather more primitive.

They were crowded into bunkers half buried in a nearby field. My squad occupied four of these bunkers, each one accommodating fifteen recruits. Their toilet was nothing more than a pit scraped in the sandy soil found in that area of Germany. Above the pit, a wooden batten with holes cut out – a Donnerbalken (thunderboard) — served as a communal toilet seat.

With no hot water available, washing was a brief and uncomfortable experience for the youngsters. To enable them to bathe properly I took them to the nearby Oder-Spree canal when weather conditions allowed.

They collected their meals — often no more than a slice of bread and boiled potatoes with the skins still on — from the field kitchen and took them back to the bunkers to eat.

In just six weeks, the recruits would have to learn the tips that might help them survive at least their first day fighting the Russians. Field training and weapons practice were the chief activities. At night, and in the thick mists that settled over the wintery countryside, they practised map reading and navigation.

Life was hard for the recruits who until then had enjoyed all the comforts of a home life such as they were in these difficult times. Still, their living conditions were no worse than those I experienced during two cruel winters on the Ostfront.

See Erwin Bartmann: Für Volk and Führer. The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler

A march off the Volkssturm - the 'people's storm' - in Berlin in November 1944, part of Goebbels commitment to "Total War" involving every German.

A march of the Volkssturm – the ‘People’s storm’ – in Berlin in November 1944, part of Goebbels commitment to “Total War” involving every German.

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