The post-WW2 infantry weakness in (Central) Europe

Back in 1944/45 the German army used infantry supported by many more or less heavy weapons (huge quantities of machineguns, whenever possible much artillery) to "hold the ground"on the Eastern Front. It lacked the infantry numbers to occupy all the ground it needed be held, thus Soviet offensive actions succeeded in many places until the Red Army was past its culminating point again and had to recover strength for the next offensive. By that time, the German lines were usually restored to some degree of order and fortified.
The Red Army's recipe for breakthroughs through such defences included huge quantities of artillery and mortar fires, and a ground attack of infantry and (heavy) tank assault waves.
The German doctrine required a defence in depth (10 km or so) and reserves for counterattacks to counter a breakthrough attempt, but both were rare and thus most Soviet breakthrough attempts succeeded post-1942.

wray.pdf, see page 15
There were some confusions about concepts about all-nuclear warfare in the late 1940's with ground forces acting as a kind of distant security force for nuclear bomber bases, but by the early 1950's when plans for West German rearmament were made the importance of conventional forces was largely reaffirmed.

One initial West German idea of an army among the planners of Amt Blank was about a large quantity of Grenadierdivisionen (= in this case motorised infantry divisions) with few Panzerdivisionen as reserves for operational manoeuvre and local counterattacks. This mirrored the structure of the Wehrmacht's Heer of 1944/45; most troops in the line, few armoured forces for manoeuvre. The returning economic strength (1936 industrial output was regained by the early 1950's) and increasingly obvious role of full motorization made this anachronistic (more armoured forces became affordable and manpower was increasingly scarce for the economy and thus not to be wasted in a personnel-inefficient army structure). More importantly; nuclear munitions made this anachronistic. A front line formed by badly stretched infantry divisions would be penetrated just as predictably as in 1945 irrespective of the quantity of machineguns, artillery pieces and anti-tank weapons per kilometre of front line.
By the mid-1950's this penetration wouldn't have required days or weeks of preparations any more, but a few hours; for the employment of "tactical" nuclear munitions in the 1-100 kt TNTeq range.

The only approaches that protects against nuclear munitions well and for long are dispersion and hiding. Infantry was better capable of this than armoured troops, but further dispersion would dilute its firepower and make it even more dependent on (nuclear) artillery support. Dispersion also required great depth for the desired defensive effect, preferably more than 50 km. Offensive action of such infantry would be very slow-moving in face of even light resistance.

In the end (by the 1960's to the 1980's), many military theoreticians trended towards one of several concepts that agreed on one thing: Much infantry, highly dispersed in great depth, fighting in platoons or even squads, and more reminiscent of very active guerillas than infantry during the World Wars or Western infantry in Korea. 

click this for a whole website full of similar maps
This was never really done in NATO. One reason was probably that the West German army covered but a few sectors, and it was never the intention of the West German government to provide 'cannon fodder' infantry to support the allied sectors in Central Europe. Yet keeping much infantry personnel in Central Europe was unaffordable for the Western allies, to whom such distant basing of forces was very expensive.
Another one was an old 1950's promise of Western Germany to provide 12 divisions for the defence of the West in Central Europe. This was already expensive in itself, to add a million or so of light infantry militia would have caused excessive expenses in a country that only began to fully meet civilian demands when economic growth slowed due to the exhaustion of the labour pool (mid-1960's) and soon thereafter economic crisis and structural changes did begin (post-1973).*

The concept pursued instead was a different one; save for 2nd rate territorial army units (almost all reserve personnel and equipment one generation older than the field army's) the West Germany army consisted of its dozen divisions, which varied in their composition to suit the terrain in their sectors. The divisions had more infantry in the southern sectors where hilly terrain with woodland on hill crests and hilltops and settlements in valleys was dominant.
These divisions lacked a substitute for a proper front line entirely. There was neither a strong nor a weak screen of infantry even in theory. Weak armoured reconnaissance units had to substitute for it somehow.

Badly stretched forces depend on long-range fires and air support against attacking (thus usually superior) forces. Tactical nukes were available to boost this support, but their employment was quite impractical actually:
Forces can and should move divided (dispersion), then unite for the fight. A 20 kt TNTeq nuke would hit a battalion on the march badly, but not even knock it out for good. That's how well dispersion helps against nukes. You couldn't drop hundreds and thousands of nukes without risking that the German troops just go home, seeing their country destroyed by "allies" - which would have made further resistance futile if not counter-productive (reds rushing through Germany would have reduced the nuclear damage done to Germany in such a scenario). Furthermore, hitting the opposing forces when they're united for a close fight would only allow for a tiny window of opportunity before they are too close to friendly forces for nuclear strikes in a fluid and seemingly chaotic battlefield situation.
So there was no proper screen practical for want of forces and nuclear firepower was of somewhat dubious utility. The German divisions' brigades were fully motorised and had to act and react with nervous manoeuvring, never truly holding much terrain in order to avoid being a worthwhile target for red nukes. This all but guaranteed the dominance of tank warfare since tanks were best-suited to mobile warfare.

The manoeuvring promised to mitigate much of the hostile nuclear firepower by 'hugging' the enemy (being too close to Red Army or Polish troops for employment of large yield nuclear munitions) and providing fleeting targets only (be gone and dispersed by the time a nuclear munition would explode).
Both this manoeuvring and the intensity of combat (as demonstrated by the appallingly high attrition tank warfare around Israel in 1967 and 1973) guaranteed a super-rapid exhaustion of the army in the event of conventional or mixed conventional/nuclear warfare in Central Europe. The army would have been wasted in a few days, and this was probably why the ammunition stock sizes never met the ambitions known from the 1930's and early 1940's (albeit largely meeting allied HQ demands).

Path dependency, economic (fiscal) restrictions and political commitments conspired to keep the conventional defence of NATO in Central Europe rather short winded and brittle, as well as dependent on air power (and nuclear munitions) for the defeat of the later "waves" of Warsaw Pact divisions. 
This wasn't unavoidable; it was the consequence of neglecting the (light) infantry approach to area defence. Austria did implement an infantry-based defence in depth backed up by (light) armoured forces in the 80's, and Switzerland showed how extraordinarily many men can be kept available as militiamen at bearable fiscal expenses and little manpower drain to the economy.

This path dependency is still in force, and we still have doctrines that keep brigades floating freely in the theatre of war without the benefit of either a front line or a net of light infantry that can shape the battlefield in our favour by reconnaissance, raids, delaying actions and counter-reconnaissance. Germany isn't at NATO's frontier any more, though: Nowadays Lithuania, Poland and Romania ought to provide this support, since the idea of raising and maintaining such infantry or militia forces far from the frontier for employment at the frontier is unrealistic.

This (hi)story is in part interesting because ground forces budgets that spent much on rather defensive militia forces would not have signalled aggressive capability (and unintentionally implied; aggressive intent) as did the fully motorised formations with their focus on mobile, possibly operational-level, warfare. Maybe we wouldn't have been close to a Third World War in 1983 twice if NATO's ground forces had looked less optimised for a strategic surprise attack past Warsaw and more suitable for slowing and tactically defeating a conventional Warsaw Pact attack.

Infantry suffers greatly from artillery fires, and is badly disadvantaged against massed tank forces and air attack. It's still much less brittle and short winded than mounted combat forces (armoured battalion battlegroups, tank brigades or mechanised infantry brigades) when employed as light infantry with dispersion over a large and suitable area instead of in rather predictable, stubborn ways (static defensive positions, long or repeated assaults at the same spot). The fundamental imbalance in favour of armoured forces for short and incredibly high attrition battles as 1967, 1973 and 1991 persists and constitutes probably the greatest doctrinal and force structure shortfall in Europe.

We could be just as safe with less spending if we had smarter doctrines and force structures AND these were recognised by relevant threats as smarter, thus yielding a sufficient deterrence effect.
It's up to the reader to form (or maintain) an opinion about whether the reasoning above describes room for improvement towards such smarter land forces. I surely didn't describe much original thought here; in fact, I merely picked up where military theory advances stopped at the end of the Cold War. Afterwards it largely turned towards the incorporation of ever more electronic gadgets (as begun with the Air-Land Battle doctrine and "Assault Breaker" concepts of the early 1980's).

*: It looks much more affordable once one takes Switzerland as benchmark, though.


  1. Given the modern penetration of women in to the workforce I wonder how valid the manpower concerns remain.
    A nation could probably structure itself around a hugely partialy mobilised male population.

    Rhodesia eventually mobilised practically its entire white male population on alternating 6 week blocks, a situation they were unable to maintain, but I wonder if an EU state today would have the same difficulty.

    1. The industry captains and associations lobbied against a manpower-intensive military. About half a million was the limit of the political freedom of action in West Germany during the Cold War.

      A soldier doesn't only cost his direct personnel costs and overhead, but is also a loss to the economy, costing the government lost revenue.
      That's why small countries with a disproportionally large military (Switzerland, Israel) tend to emphasize the reserve forces and their training.

      Approximately correct figures of the manpower potential today are given in the CIA World Factbook:


  2. Thanks for the thread! Very good summary of the contradictions of our recent German military history.
    However, what I miss is an outlook for the Bundeswehr , more exactly the army, which IMHO is caught in an interesting situation:

    1)Germany is NATO hinterland, not any longer border country, i.e. a substantial part of our army should be mounted units.

    2)The German Bundeswehr is permitted to a maximum size of 320.000 soldiers.

    3)The army has problems to attract enough recruits to get 180.000 soldiers, this issue will increase in future, i.e. a volunteer force is very likely restricted to 150.000 soldiers.

    4)We have a domestic birth rate of around 600.000 kids per year, with 80% fit for service around 480.000 recruits (or Zivildiener) per year.

    Which kind of politically and socially acceptable army could be formed within these restrictions?

    1. The problem is not about maximising military power, but about meeting the deterrence (and conventional defence) needs, which are small.

      The terrain in Poland and Lithuania offers less opportunities for light infantry than terrain in most of Central Europe, and I suppose the Eastern Europe (Poland, Romania) should provide much cost-efficient part-time (reserves) infantry itself.
      I'm thus not really calling for a German militia as the one that would have been a good idea during the Cold War.

      Instead, I suppose we need a really quick reaction army corps backed up by a volunteer short time service scheme that provides the basic (and NCO) training organisation and a personnel pool for a possible quick (2 years) army buildup.