Why the German Army wasn’t as mechanized as you may think —- Horses and the Wehrmacht, World War II.
When one thinks about the German Army during World War II, one usually imagines blitzkrieg assaults by highly mechanized forces, spearheaded by tanks and mobile infantry riding on halftracks. While the German Army of World War II certainly developed revolutionary tactics that depended on lighting assaults and mobility, it was not the grand mechanized force that one imagines in the movies. In fact in terms of transportation the Wehrmacht had more in common with Napoleon’s Grande Armee than it did with modern military forces today.
The German Army in World War II had a whole slew of motor vehicles to aid it in warfare including tanks, armored cars, halftracks, trucks, and motorcycles. However the backbone of the German transportation and logistical system relied on the tried and true horse, the main mode of transportation for armies going back thousands of years. During World War II, only 1/5 of the German Army was mechanized or motorized with the bulk of the army relying on horse drawn carriages and artillery. While newsreels showed German Panzers storming across Europe the truth is that most German soldiers were literally “hoofing it” across Europe. In 1943 a typical infantry division of the Wehrmacht had only 256 trucks for logistics but relied upon 2,652 horses. One division even made use of 6,000 horses, mainly using them to transport supplies and tow artillery. As the war progressed and the tide turned against Germany, the use of horses increased due to shortages of gasoline and vehicles.
While today we often scoff at the Polish Army in World War II and how it sported the best cavalry units in the world, the cavalry of the Wehrmacht has been forgotten to most. As the shortage of fuel and vehicles became more profound, the German Army turned to the cavalry to make up for the loss of mobility. At the beginning of the war the German Army had only 1 cavalry division. However when the war started to turn against Germany in 1942, this was increased to 6 cavalry divisions. Even the feared elite SS created their own cavalry division, called the 8th SS Cavalry. Unlike their counterparts during the Napoleonic Wars, the Cavalry of the Wehrmacht did not charge into battle but acted as mounted infantry, riding to the battlefield on horseback but dismounting and fighting as infantry once in combat.
Overall the German Army utilized over 2.75 Million horses during World War II, as well as thousands of other pack animals such as donkeys, mules, and oxen. They were second only to the Soviet Union, who used 3.5 million horses during the war.
Rather than the German Army being the great mechanized force of World War II, it was the Americans and the British who mastered the science of mechanized warfare. When both powers entered the war they sported armies and logistics systems that were almost 100% mechanized. Horses and cavalry were rarely used, and usually only used on terrain that could not support vehicles, such as in the jungles of Burma and New Guinea.