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.
For millions of men the war meant Training Camp as every nation turned civilians into soldiers. The expansion of the United States Army was especially remarkable, from 200,000 men in 1939 to over 8 million in 1945, with 4 million more in the Navy and Marines.
The process of instilling discipline and developing physical fitness was well developed and fairly similar between armies. That did not make the personal experience of every individual going through this rite of passage any easier. None of them knew it yet but many of the men in the U.S. training camps of 1943 were destined for the beaches of Normandy and the subsequent battles in Europe.
Private Melvin W. Johnson had arrived at his training camp on the 30th October 1943:
51 miles west of Fort Worth. It’s an Infantry Replacement Training Center. … This is the wildest, loneliest, most isolated, and most barren land I ever saw.
A week later he was beginning to get a measure of the place:
7th November 1943
They go at this training like killing snakes. The calisthenics, often twice a day, are routines in muscular anguish. The stories I’ve heard about some of the longer hikes – that men fall flat on their face, unconscious, from exhaustion. We jump from one session to the next, running on the double, over rocks and sand. Everything is strict discipline. The officers bawl hell out of you for the slightest mistake.
We’ll learn to use the Garand rifle, a Browning Automatic Rifle, a 50-caliber machine gun, mortars, and to thrown grenades. The camp covers, in all, 16,000 acres, and is made up mostly of sand, rock, and scrub oak. The camp area proper has thousands of men – the number I’ve forgotten. It’s a sad, hard life. But don’t worry. I’m getting along all right. The war won’t last forever.
Also, there’s something about it that gets in your blood a little. Don’t let anyone underrate the Infantry. They’re the toughest, proudest branch of the service. When I finish the other 16 weeks of this, I will have done something. I will be tougher than ever, even though I think I’m already in pretty good shape. I never dreamed a few calistenics this past week would make my legs and shoulders as sore as they did. This Texas sun will make me more tanned than ever. The food is rather poor – nothing like at Ft. L. – and sometimes the things you really like is in small amounts; but we go at it like pigs; our appetites are voracious.
14th November 1943
Saw the town of Mineral Wells (Home of Crazy Water Crystals) for the first time last night. First time we were allowed to leave the camp area. Not a whole lot there. Had 2 beers. The Baker Hotel, built in 1929, is the most famous landmark of Mineral Wells, TX sporting Mineral Hot Springs that brought both the ill and the elite from around the nation. First for a month or two (it seems anyway).
Brother, this camp is tough. I get along all right. But it’s really almost Mineral Wells, TX a form of slavery here. No let-up in the constant pressure of work, drill, practice, run, hike, climb, exercise, etc. Yesterday, practiced climbing down 40 feet of rope nets off side of ship (debarkation exercises).
Went through tear gas chamber twice; once with mask on and then without mask, at slow walk, to get discipline in gas conditions. Following that, we walked (without masks) through explosions of small gas charges to learn to recognize their smell. They were chloropicrin, phosgene – lung irritants – and mustard and lewisite – vesicants (burning gases).
They do everything here. And the non-coms are really tough. In fact, I don’t think I would have the necessary mental makeup to fill the position of many of these non-coms. They’re unduly rough in their treatment and Camp Wolters Ship Drill language, and I don’t quite see it that way: However, don’t misunderstand me; I’m getting along fine. I generally know what to do and keep pretty well out of trouble.
You may not be able to realize what a hard life a soldier has – or maybe you can.
WWII US Army Training Film: “Baptism of Fire” (1943)
Baptism of Fire is an US Army documentary that shows the anxiety associated with going into combat for the first time. This 1943 Army training film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1944, it sometimes possible to find it online.
The U.S. Army went from 189,839 men and women in 1939 to 3,075,608 in 1942 and up to 8,267,958 in 1945. [Figures courtesy National WWII Museum.] Everyone was on a huge learning curve throughout every level of the organisation.
Part of this proces was the interviewing of a wide range of personnel in the field. The views of all ranks of men who had been involved in front line fighting were actively sought out. They were presented, largely unedited, in booklet form for the benefit of men in training:
LIEUTENANT COLONEL RINGSOK, 6th Armored Infantry, and members of his Battalion, 14 April 1943….
The Germans will infiltrate into our line and stay there all day, firing the machine-pistol indiscriminately. He may not have a target but he does it for the nervous effect it produces on us. Our defense for that is to have each platoon do a mopping up job until it contacts the adjacent units and the area is cleared of such people. We use the self-propelled 37-mm gun on the carrier to do this and take in prisoners. We back it up and fire canister into the holes when we find the Germans.
The Germans will become discouraged by continuous firing of weapons. It is terribly annoying to them. So now, throughout the night, we have members of the squads take turns at firing the machine guns. It also helps keep the men awake and on the jobs. At no set time, but off and on and many times during the night, the guns are fired.
Something else to consider is the ease with which you can use indirect firing with the machine gun. Indirect firing can be most advantageously used and it does not need to be made complicated. We simply go out where we can see, and fire, and make records of it on stakes, and at night when we wish to fire a certain distance, we just elevate to the desired height as shown on the stake. We were using indirect firing one night to good advantage when we were firing on a road. Evidence was seen the next morning when we saw a truck burning on the road. The firing cut a supply road three miles away.
The German flares and night signals gave my battalion a lot of trouble at first. The Germans fire flares continuously all night long, mostly to annoy and disturb troops. My troops, at first, would cease firing and attempt to guess what the enemy meant. But really, in most instances, it didn’t mean anything but was meant to distract the troops. And it will distract them unless you teach them to pay no attention to it, but to continue the battle and fire flares in return. After all, you can’t do anything after the flare is fired.
We fire lots of flares in the battalion now, and when Jerry fires at us, we fire in return.
I got my men used to the German flares by getting all I could, including those I could borrow from the British, and we fired them all night at Jerry. Now we take flares with us and fire them at Jerry at night. We do this on all the nights that we don’t use them for signals, then we use them only for signals. But my men now pay no attention to the enemy flares.
We were taught to fire the ground signal projector and white illuminating flares to mark front lines, but they will light up our area 200 yards square and will show the enemy our position rather than show us his. They should be shot out in advance of our positions and fired so that we are in the dark and the enemy is illuminated.
SERGEANT GEORGE CLELAND, Company “D”, 6th Armored Infantry, near Sidi bou Zid, 14 April 1943.
When you push the enemy back the ground between your position and the enemy’s position should be checked for snipers. I think patrols should be equipped with additional fire power.
The hardest thing for my squad to do is stay together.
Men in the States should be trained to dig foxholes. It will save lives. Foxholes are better than slit trenches because they protect a man more and you can fire out of a foxhole and you can’t very well out of a slit trench.
If I went to the States to train men, the first thing I would stress to a new man is leadership. I would make the man have confidence in his leader, and train him in every weapon, camouflage, and to dig foxholes; also to cover up tin cans. (Tin cans reflect light and give away positions.)
If you are going to harden a soldier up, keep him hardened up and don’t let him get soft. Start hard training and keep it up. Men should be hardened before they go into combat. Physical training on a boat is fine, but weapon training is wasted.
Flares should be used at night to confuse the enemy. They are very effective. You should also fire machine guns at night even if you don’t see the enemy. It has a very effective demoralizing effect on the enemy.
In the States we didn’t have enough night training. Men should be trained in the use of stars for navigation. All men should be trained to know organization in the States. The half-tracks carry enough ammunition. Jeeps should have trailers to carry ammunition from half-tracks to the guns.
‘Tankers in Tunisia’ was a manual prepared for men training at the Armored Replacement Training Center at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The manual consisted of interviews with officers and enlisted men in Tunisia during April 1943. The interviews were compiled by Brig. Gen. T. J. Camp in North Africa. The whole booklet can be found at Lone Sentry.
Contemporary U.S. Army Signal Corps colour film, including footage of low level Luftwaffe raids on U.S positions – and a frontline battle when U.S. troops and British artillery take on a Panzer attack:
The Casablanca Conference had resolved that Northern Europe would be invaded by the Allies in the Spring of 1944. Hopes that it might be possible to move sooner had evaporated following detailed studies about how many troops and how much shipping would be needed. It was still thought there might be a chance of moving sooner if there were signs of a collapse in the Nazi regime.
Now the Combined Chiefs of Staff of America and Britain moved to establish much more concrete plans. There was much left to consider, not least who the Supreme Allied Commander would be. Even without a Commander it was decided to appoint a Chief of Staff. For the moment what would become ‘Operation Overlord’ went without a codename. General Frederic Morgan received these orders:
12th April 1943
The CCS have decided to undertake preparations for operations against Europe;
The object is to defeat German fighting forces in Northwest Europe;
The CCS have decided to appoint a Supreme Allied Commander (SAC) in the future;
They have decided to appoint you Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander (COSSAC) pending SAC’s appointment;
You will prepare plans in the following order of priority:
1. For a return to the Continent with such forces as are available in the event of a German collapse, weakening, or withdrawal. i.e. Operation RANKIN.
2. For a limited cross-channel assault with a target date of 1 August 1943, to seize and hold a bridgehead such as the Cotentin Peninsula, in case the CCS decide at a later date to execute such an operation.
3. For a full-scale invasion of northwest Europe in the Spring of 1944.
Small-scale amphibious operations (COMMANDO raids) will be dealt with by the Chief of Combined Operations consulting you;
You will be provided with monthly forecasts of forces likely to be available for RANKIN and other operations;
When you have completed your plans you will report to the CCS.
You will be provided with a staff drawn from the British and U.S. Navies, Armies, and Air Forces.
Service Ministries and ETOUSA will assist on administration and logistic aspects of your plans.
Controlling Security Officer will be consulted for coordination of cover plans and deception.
Plans for the invasion of occupied Europe were now advancing in Britain. Although much remained to be decided, the long term objective of the Allies was to strike, over land, at the heart of Germany itself.
In preparation for this the largest offensive military exercise ever undertaken in Britain was mounted in the first half of March 1943. Large numbers of tanks were involved in making an ‘armoured thrust’ across the south of England. Bridges that had been ‘destroyed by the the enemy’ were replaced with temporary military structures.
In ‘Spartan’, Headquarters First Canadian Army (styled for exercise purposes Headquarters Second Army) functioned for the first time in the field:
Only the highlights of the exercise can be given here. In the opening phase G.H.Q. Home Forces, which was directing the exercise, made things hard for the Second Army by allowing the “German” army to advance twenty-four hours before the time (first light on 5 March) previously notified to General McNaughton for the beginning of his operations.
The “British” force was not permitted to move until the Germans had been on their way for some hours. This enabled Gammell’s units to make contact with McNaughton’s farther south than the latter had appreciated to be probable, and incidentally they were able to “demolish” a great number of bridges.
In spite of these initial disadvantages, General Crerar’s well-trained Corps in the centre got forward rapidly and on 5 March smashed the “hinge” in the Reading area on which General Gammell had planned to pivot his defence. The 2nd Canadian Corps was held back until 7 March, when General McNaughton ordered it to make a wide enveloping sweep to the westward.
The armoured divisions’ progress, however, was disappointingly slow; there were bad traffic jams and petrol shortages; and for a time there was a complete breakdown in communications between Corps and Army Headquarters. This last was not surprising, since 2nd Canadian Corps Signals was neither fully equipped nor fully trained. It should moreover be remembered that this was the first occasion on which the whole of the 5th Division was actually exercised together as a formation.
See the Canadian Official History Six Years of War. The results of the Exercise were closely scrutinised and ‘lessons learnt’ but the outcome for some of the senior officers involved was not always positive.
General McNaughton was criticised by the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Sir Alan Brooke recorded in his diary that McNaughton was ‘quite incompetent to command an army. He does not know how to begin the job and was tying up his forces in the most awful muddle’. By contrast he was complimentary about General Crerar. McNaughton was quietly sidelined later in 1943 whilst General Crerar went on to command the First Canadian Army in Normandy. See Alanbrooke War Diaries.
Millions of men went through military training during the war. Their stories, from whatever army or nationality, all have familiar themes. The loss of privacy, the petty discipline, the arduous chores, the exhausting physical exercise, the lack of sleep.
Ivan Yakushin endured all of these things and more. As an officer cadet for the artillery in the Soviet Army he found himself in Tomsk in Siberia. Here there was one additional factor adding to the rigours of training:
It was better to be on guard duty, as the times for rest and sleep were strictly defined in the manual. The food was also better there. When we were on outdoor guard duty, in winter, we were issued with fur hats, felt boots, and sheepskin overcoats.
We would stand with our collars turned up, warm and snug, even in temperatures of minus 50 degrees Celsius. But there was a danger of falling asleep. Court martial and duty at the Front in a penal battalion would be the best scenario for anyone who fell asleep on guard duty. So we walked back and forth to stay awake.
The Siberian winter came with its famous frosts. The temperature was sometimes as low as minus 50 degrees Celsius. We were rolling 122 millimetre howitzers back and forth on the drill square in front of our barracks. It was difficult to assemble and disassemble the heavy guns in the cold: the heavy breech block of a 152 millimetre howitzer could freeze onto the bare skin of one’s hands.
We also had a hard time during tactical training. We were freezing to our bones in the open Siberian fields in our thin English greatcoats. Only our legs stayed warm, in huge valenki felt boots. When frozen, these felt boots were so heavy one could easily kill a person with them. You could literally take them off and use them as a weapon in a hand-to-hand fight instead of a rifle.
During a tactical training session we were ordered to build, equip, and camouflage a battery observation post in one night. The place for the post was on the slope of a hill, some 6 or 7 kilometres from the town.
The frost was quite Siberian, about minus 40. We took all sorts of entrenching tools – pickaxes, spades, shovels – and as darkness fell, we began work. We removed a 1 metre layer of snow and started hacking into the frozen soil with pickaxes. When we reached soft, unfrozen soil, we were sweaty and exhausted.
We fell down on this soft soil and rested for fifteen minutes. But within this short time, the soil began to freeze, and we had to take up our pick-axes again. We repeated this operation several times before the depth of the dugout reached about 2 metres.
Then we sawed logs, planned the location of the observation post, built a roof for it and placed a field artillery periscope inside. At dawn we covered the roof with soil, fir branches, and snow. Exhausted but satisfied with the work we had done, we dropped to the floor of the post and fell asleep.
But a bitter disappointment awaited us in the morning. Our battalion commander arrived and informed us our post had been spotted, and we had to build a new one in another place, with even stricter camouflage measures.
At the end of 1942 Denis Forman was a Major in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, posted to the Shetland Isles, in the far north of Great Britain, closer to Norway than to London. He had developed an interest in the new ‘battle school’ training methods and was intent upon developing his command of men with them.
He had an uneasy relationship with some of his senior officers over the issue:
With this body of men I began to amass ammunition, weapons, a demonstration platoon and NCO instructors, and to work out the first essential of any battle school, the assault course.
Our assault course was formidable, starting with an ascent up a naked cliff, passing through all manner of obstacles, including a pool of liquid mud, and ending with a three-hundred-yard walk through the freezing water of the voe or fjord, chest-high, weapons carried above the head and live .303 bullets whipping up the sea all around.
Brigadier Fraser was delighted. He came to see us often and asked innumerable questions. We found this a bit of a drag so when he visited us on the great opening day to see the demonstration platoon go round the completed assault course, we stood him on a knoll in the centre of a meticulously calculated fire plan.
First a burst of bren gun fire whipped through the heather in front of him and when he instinctively drew back a second burst struck some rocks just behind his head. Then, while the firing continued on fixed lines, down came the two-inch mortar bombs, smoke, very close, and clearly visible through the earlier patches of smoke, high-explosive bombs perhaps one hundred yards away all round.
But as the smoke engulfed the whole party, the explosions came nearer and nearer and thick and fast until some of the bangs seemed to be only twenty yards away, as indeed they were: not caused by mortar fire, but by half-pound slabs of guncotton which Sapper Fleming had buried in the peat and was now detonating with relish from his hideout a quarter of a mile away.
By now we could see through the writhing smoke that most of the HQ party were on their knees protecting their faces from flying shrapnel, which was in fact nothing more than heather roots and peat.
As the smoke cleared the brigadier drew himself up to his full height. He rocked backwards and forwards for a few moments ‘Urrgumph,’ he said, and again ‘Urrgumph Good show, Forman. Good – urrgumph – show.’
As he hobbled to his staff car, his GSO II drew me aside. ‘Don’t … do … that … again,’ he said.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if the brig wants to know what we are doing, we have to let him see it, don’t we? And if he continues to visit us daily, he is bound to get involved in live ammunition exercises from time to time. Indeed I did want to warn you to give us previous notice of his movements, otherwise it’s quite likely that his car coming up one of these roads may …’
‘Don’t … do … it … again,’ said the GSO II.
After that the brigadier visited us less frequently and always gave us two days’ notice.
The journalist Alan Moorehead who had been covering the Desert campaign found himself back in England in November 1942, a brief stay before his next overseas trip. He occupied himself by visiting Army training establishments up and down the country. It seems he was genuinely impressed by what he saw, his account was not written for propaganda purposes:
Another day I joined a battle school. The idea of the battle school was General Alexander’s. After their normal training, as many N.C.O.‘s and officers as possible went off on three weeks’ special training which duplicates war as nearly as possible. On this wet moming the men made a landing before dawn. With smoke bombs and hand grenades falling around them, they rushed the beach.
Then they fought their way inland across streams and through hedgerows and farmyards. I can hardly say I enjoyed that day. Once I went down to my thighs in icy mud. Once I was covered with muck from a nearby grenade-burst. When the troops wanted to go through a ten-foot hawthorn hedge they did not hunt for gaps, they walked straight through the thorns.
All day until dusk they were at it without food, without rest. They ran and shot and climbed walls with their full equipment until they were tired into speechlessness. At the end of each stage they were called together, told what they had done wrong and then two new students were ordered to lead the next assault.
They would simply be given a reference on the map, told roughly what resistance was there and ordered to take the place. Crawling on their bellies, they reconnoitred the farmhouses and the barns. Dropping into ditches and swanning over brick walls, they went in for the mopping-up.
Normally there is something phoney, amateurish and childish about army field exercises, a sort of boy scoutery that sits oddly upon grown men. But not here. This was tough and uncomfortable and extraordinarily real. It was a tremendous advance since the days of the crushing boredom of route marches and parade-ground drill.
The enthusiasm was the surprising thing. By some chemistry these youths had been taken from the suburban milk rounds and the city shops and made physically bigger and mentally much more alert. They clutched at any information.
I once casually said something about the dispersal of vehicles on convoy. A colonel at once shoved me into an aircraft and, piloting the thing himself, swept me back and forth over his battalion for half an hour to have my opinion on whether they were correctly spaced apart or not. Feeling giddy and far from expert, I shouted that it was first-class, but he continued tree-hopping for another ten minutes before he was satisfied.
Clearly these troops were fit for the conquest of Africa and the invasion of Europe.
Across the country tens of thousands of men were adjusting to military life, many volunteering but most following conscription.
David Fraser, later to become General Sir David Fraser, had enlisted at the earliest opportunity but had had to wait some time before he could join his chosen regiment, the Grenadier Guards, which his father had served in. In October 1940, not yet even an officer, he describes his experiences at the Guards Depot at Caterham, where recruits for the Guards Regiments received their training separately from the rest of the Army. He was part of a distinct squad who would all later go to on to Sandhurst for officer training. But initially they got no special treatment:
It was a tonic, and a much needed tonic because now, at last, I was part of an organization with really high standards, really strict discipline and really good morale.
From the moment a recruit arrived at the Caterham barrack gate and was marched off by a picquet sentry to join his squad, feet moving so fast that he seemed to be flying, there was not a moment to relax: through the first haircut (a shaven head) to the first and subsequent drill parades; through the sound of reveille blown by bugle at six o’clock, with all recruits tumbled out and standing at attention by beds one minute later; through the occasions when it was decided (on principle) that we had been ‘idle’ and needed sharpening up – HALT! Stand at ease! ‘GAS’! (old-style respirators on – most uncomfortable from a respiratory point of view) – Squad shun! Squad will fix bayonets – FIX! (this was the old, long sword- bayonet, with a tricky fitment to the rifle for the inexperienced or maladroit) – BAYONETS! Slope Arms! Quick March! Left – right – (what seemed thirty miles an hour) – Break into double time, Double MARCH! Mark TIME! Lift Knees, Up, Up, Up!
Through the shining parades, when we sat astride our beds in the evening, a tin of boot polish and duster in hand, and answered questions on Regimental history, Regimental personalities and so on – the progress of shine on boots was a matter of unceasing anxiety. ‘Those boots are below standard! Unless you get a move on them you’ll find yourself back-squadded, lad!’ Official shining parade only lasted an hour but we kept at it until lights out.
And it was in the unofficial parts of it that we could wander a little, laugh, gossip, make friends. Smoke.
Although if a matchstick fell to the floor at the wrong moment – March down the barrackroom. Stamp to attention. ‘Leave to fall out, Trained Soldier.’ A nod. A turn to the right, a march back, a retrieved match stick, its disposal, another march down the barrackroom. ‘Leave to fall in, Trained Soldier.’ Another nod.
The bugle for Lights out. Sleep on three wooden trestles placed on two wooden stretchers and surmounted by three ‘Biscuits’, square mattress-like objects. Two blankets. Through all these experiences the impression was indelible. We were in a bit of the Army quite unlike any other. And it worked.