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The Air Force's Army
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
July 2014

The Army is not increasing in combat service and support so I see our Airmen as doing this.
— Air Force Secretary Michael W. Wynne, 1 October 2007

By late 1941, the German Army had suffered enormous losses in its attempt to conquer the Soviet Union — over 160,000 killed and 570,000 wounded. Divisions had become shadows of their original strength, numbering at best a few hundred infantrymen. And a Soviet counter-offensive threatened to destroy these pitiful remnants if they were not reinforced quickly.

Into the breach stepped Hermann Göring, commander of the German Air Force. Göring had opposed the invasion, predicting disaster, but now saw an opportunity to re-assert some of his waning influence. The Air Force, he promised, would provide the necessary reinforcements — as Air Force units, wearing Air Force uniforms under Air Force command. With 1.6 million men under its colors, the Air Force had the surplus personnel available and Göring was determined to keep them under his command. National Socialist ardor would make up for the lack of training and experience. Adolf Hitler asked for 50,000 men, and Göring eventually delivered several times that number.


Unknown soldier of an unknown Air Force Field Division.

 
Seven hastily organized regiments entered combat in January and February. Most of the personnel came from the small Air Force security detachments that had already been sent to the front's rear area. Each had four infantry battalions, a company-strength mortar battalion and a battery of 88mm anti-aircraft guns. Five of them fought in the Demyansk sector as an ad-hoc division commanded by Air Force Gen. Eugen Meindl, an experienced paratroop leader. Meindl's division staff had been formed around that of the crack independent Airborne Assault Regiment, but the positives ended there. He added a battalion of Air Force skiers, formed by combing the service for young men with ski experience — infantry experience, however, was not a requirement. But Meindl had no artillery beyond the 88mm guns of his regiments, and no engineers or other support services beyond a signals unit.

The "division" went into the front lines outside the "Demyansk Pocket" soon after its arrival, and suffered enormous casualties. Though formed from young and physically fit recruits, those officers who had any infantry experience were older men who had gained it during the First World War. The Air Force had elite parachute regiments, but these units released very few of their officers and, most importantly, non-commissioned officers. Lacking this backbone, the field regiments performed poorly.

While often described as "lacking infantry training," this is not exactly accurate. Like the German Navy, the Air Force retained many of the basic training regimens of its Imperial predecessor. New recruits entered "Flieger Regiments" for basic training, where they learned to march and also the basics of infantry combat. All of the Air Force's clerks, mechanics and even pilots had started their military careers by learning to handle a rifle.

Battlefield performance had no impact on the Air Force's next step: to organize "Air Force Field Divisions" for frontline service. The Flieger Regiments formed the basis of most of these new divisions, with their instructors giving them a small cadre of experienced officers and NCOs. By October 1942, eleven such divisions had been formed, with seven more joining them by the end of the year. Two more were formed in the early months of 1943, giving Göring an army of 20 such divisions, and Meindl's unit was re-formed into two more.

The new divisions were smaller than their Army counterparts, though the Army's divisions would soon shrink in size to match them. Each had two infantry regiments (styled "Air Force Light Infantry"), each of three battalions. Each was to have a four-battalion artillery regiment armed in the same manner as an Army regiment, with three battalions of 105mm howitzers and one of 150mm guns, but few of them met this standard. Most had fewer battalions, and some had 75mm mountain guns or former French or Polish pieces in place of the German-made weapons specified in the order of battle.

 


Air Force infantrymen on a training march near Dijon, France, 1942.

 
Support units were on a much lower scale than in Army formations. Most had a full-sized anti-tank battalion, but only a company of engineers. Some had a bicycle company in place of the reconnaissance battalions found in Army divisions; others did without recon troops at all.

Ten of the divisions were rushed to the front at the end of 1942, with results even worse than those of Meindl's division. The 8th Field Division was sent to join the attempted relief of Stalingrad in November 1942, less than a month after it had been officially formed. It still lacked two of its infantry battalions and most of its artillery when it blundered into a Soviet tank column in the middle of a blinding snowstorm.

The 2nd Field Division went to 9th Army, where it was flung into the line to hold against the Soviet "Operation Mars," subject of our Red God of War game. It took the first brunt of combat surprisingly well, but as days went by the unit's initial enthusiasm ebbed and casualties mounted. Soon it was completely shattered, while nearby Army units continued to fight.


Air Force infantry board a train for Russia, late 1942.

 
As pawns in the complex internal politics of the Nazi state's feudal organization, it's difficult to assess the combat performance of the Air Force divisions. As in latter-day imperial states, the criticism had to be parsed very carefully. The troops were often praised for their enthusiasm and physical fitness, with Army generals pointing out that many enlisted men "wasted" there would make fine NCOs and junior officers if only given the benefits of Army training and leadership. Never were they compared to allied formations like the Italian and Romanian divisions often fighting alongside them, even though these units usually did much better in combat especially when their outdated weaponry and lack of motor transport is taken into account.

But their troops were not Aryan, and in the Third Reich race came first, followed by class. By praising the troops but damning their officers, the Army played to Hitler's race and class prejudices very effectively. In the fall of 1943 he finally gave in to their intrigues, ordering all the Field Divisions transferred to the Army. While most generals hoped to disband the units and send the manpower into the general replacement pool, as a sop to Göring's pride Hitler ordered that the divisions be maintained intact. A large-scale swap of officers took place, with the Air Force re-claiming its best personnel and the Army sending new leaders. The Air Force also re-claimed its anti-aircraft gunners and weapons from the divisional flak battalions.


And the present: U.S. Air Force airmen train for infantry combat. U.S. Air Force photo.

 
Four divisions had not survived to be transferred, and a fifth was disbanded. The remaining divisions kept their designations, but continued to suffer heavy losses. As they became run down, the Army did not send them home for rebuilding — the practice with its other divisions — but instead disbanded them. Only one seems to have survived until the end of the war.

Regardless of the truth behind the performance of the Air Force troops, the Army was correct in its criticism of the wasted effort. The Air Force had to re-create an entire supply, training and logistical system that already existed. But bureaucratic empires by their nature are inefficient, and none yield turf without a death struggle. To transfer manpower to another service risks the appearance that the service is less relevant, risking future funding.

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