German Transport System WWII

German BR 52 locomotive, 1944 by Frédéric Mouchel

A BR 52 locomotive at work during war time

The defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945 was perhaps the most significant event in modern history. From the defeat of Germany, evolved the world we know today. Significantly the freedom we have to express our opinions and to debate topics such as this are the direct result of the actions of millions of brave men and women who fought to defeat Hitler’s regime. We owe a great debt to the many who paid the ultimate sacrifice for what we take for granted today.

As much as the defeat of Germany was achieved by force of arms from the Allied nations, defeat also came from within. Germany was not adequately prepared for war in 1939, and the early victories were achieved through the relatively new tactics of Blitzkrieg, modern equipment, superb training and leadership, ineptitude of the enemy and plain good luck.

Significantly Germany’s ill preparedness for war manifested itself in the first months of war and by December 1940 was readily apparent in the German transport system which was buckling under the demands of the German armed forces. This was no more apparent than with the Reichbahn, the German railways, an amalgamation of the former state railway systems.

The Reichbahn was forced to absorb a vast network of railways in varying condition, and locomotives and rolling stock that were often incompatible. As there were few common designs the new railway system was burdened by operational problems, increased and often duplicated costs and a maintenance headache of mammoth proportions.

Much of the plant and equipment was built in the late nineteenth century and the early 1900’s and had not been modernized because of the Great War, the chaos of the Weimar republic and the Depression. As much as a massive modernization programme was begun, with a view of upgrading track and other facilities, the construction of standardized locomotives and rolling stock, it was not complete by the beginning of war. This problem grew as the war progressed as they advanced deeper into the Soviet Union. Because of the restricted loading gauge and the increased demands of the German forces, the Reichbahn was forced into a never-ending cycle of building more locomotives and rolling stock to achieve the task.

With the invasion of the Soviet Union the demands on the railways reached crippling proportions, culminating in the coal shortage of winter 1941/1942. There was no shortage of coal, but a lack of coal wagons which had been appropriated by the Wehrmacht and due to the chaotic conditions at the railheads behind the front these wagons were simply tipped off the tracks to allow space for the following trains.

Equally problematic for the Germans were the loss of over 100,000 trucks and 200,000 horses between the opening of Barbarossa and March 1942. These losses were to have an impact against the chances of success some six months later at Stalingrad.

It was clear such a situation could not continue otherwise the rail system would soon collapse. Albert Speer (Minister for Armaments and Munitions Production) and Erhard Milch (Director of Air Armament & state secretary in the Air Ministry) were charged with setting the railways right, and with brutal efficiency they cleared out the railway administration, sacking the incompetent heads of the railways and throwing out the rule book. To alleviate some of the operational problems, longer and heavier trains were run at faster speeds. An accelerated programme of converting the Russian broad gauge system to the German standard gauge system, the construction of longer passing loops and new railway yards was set in motion.

Short term measures alleviated the crisis, but only a massive construction programme would provide a permanent solution. The effects of the enforced intervention were highly visible in 1943 with the construction of over 4,500 locomotives and nearly 52,000 freight wagons. As formidable as these figures may seem they were never enough to resolve the crisis that engulfed the Deutsche Reichsbahn from 1939 to 1945.

Rheinmetal Borsig were charged with building a family of Austerity class locomotives, all based on standardized designs. One of these locomotives was so successful over ten thousand were built and many remained in service until the end of steam operations in Europe.

All these measures were only partially or such successful as the demands from the various fronts, in particular the Eastern Front, continued to place undue strain on a system that was not designed for such traffic. To transport a fully equipped panzer division could require up to three hundred trains. Multiply that out over the entire Eastern front, coupled with the normal supply demands and it is easy to see why the German railways could not keep up with the demands of war.

In addition the railways had to compete for labour, cope with the burden of transporting Jews, which coincidentally often had priority over trains heading for the front. Until the bombing campaign against the railways intensified in 1943 the system held together. Most aiming points for these raids were on the town centres, where the central railway stations and yards were situated, so as the bombing tempo increased, so did the damage and disruption.

As much as the emergency measures freed up the traffic to and from the Eastern front it was obvious the chain of patched up railway lines leading to the railhead on the river Chir over 100 kilometers west of Stalingrad were incapable of supporting German forces. The track was not well ballasted or in good condition, slowing trains considerably. The Luftwaffe used four trains per day, but this was not enough and many supplies, especially fuel were flown into German held airbases. Further compounding the problems were a rail yard too small to cope with the traffic and the resulting congestion placed great strain on the largely horse drawn vehicles supplying German troops in Stalingrad.

This situation was compounded in late October 1942 when it was obvious the Soviets were preparing an offensive against the flanks of the German forces. To reinforce the 3rd Romanian army, Hitler ordered the 6th Panzer division with two infantry divisions to transfer from France on the 4th November. Nearly one thousand train loads were required for this move east and it was nearly one month later these forces arrived, long after the Soviet offensive had surrounded Paulus’ 6th army.

The situation was hardly better in the build-up for Operation Citadel, with lengthy delays of moving the troops and equipment forward. On a smaller scale the sheer difficulties in transporting the new Tiger tanks to the front caused delays, that were only resolved with a combination of ingenuity, skill and a lot of sweat.

By mid-1943 the Allied bomber offensive was causing very real disruption for the railways. Although damage could be repaired relatively quickly by experienced crews, damage was becoming cumulative in some areas where bombing was frequent. Of added concern were the rising casualties amongst train crews, mechanical and maintenance staff along with the various administrative branches that kept the trains running. While the personal strength reached over one and a half million by the end of 1943, the replacement of skilled personal was not easy, as a consequence the standard of maintenance gradually declined and the accident rate which had been on the rise since the beginning of the war, worsened.

This was compounded in early-1944 when after the defeat of the Jagdwaffe in February-March, American fighters after completing escort duties were allowed to attack targets of opportunity. They were so successful in shooting up anything that moved, the Deutsche Reichsbahn reported in June the daily average number of trains wrecked in May by marauding Allied fighters was over forty trains per day! This loss rate was outstripping German production of locomotives and rolling stock, already in decline to the increasing demands of the German armed forces. Now repair crews had to range far and wide over the German countryside, clearing train wrecks and repairing track. The destruction of railway bridges became a further dislocation as these were harder to repair. Another grave concern was the massive loss of experienced train crews, placing further strain on the overburdened system. A worse situation existed in the occupied countries, especially France where the railway system had been damaged beyond repair by Allied airpower in preparation for the D-Day landings. Without the railways the German army was forced to endure lengthy and dangerous road marches attempting to reach the battlefronts.

Fortunately for the Deutsche Reichsbahn Allied air support for the invading forces diverted much airpower away from German targets, however day and night bombing of German cities continued to pummel the railway system. Though the railways operated right till the collapse of the Third Reich, the ability to adequately supply German armed forces in the chaos of the collapse was no fault of the railway crews and staff who performed Herculean efforts to keep the trains running.

The German railways, like German industry was not prepared for war in 1939, and incompetence and poor planning led to the crisis of early-1942. The efforts to alleviate the situation, while tackled with vigour and considerable expense would never make up the shortfalls of the early war years, ensuring the German armed forces could never be adequately supplied to fight a protracted war.

A common factor soon appeared, especially on the Western front, where German armoured columns were forced to drive to the battlefronts because the railways were no longer operational.

By war’s end the German railways were a barely functioning shambles, though some services were still operating remarkably efficiently. With the flow of spare parts, replacement troops, fuel, munitions and rations slowed to a trickle by the collapse of the railways the effectiveness of German forces decreased dramatically.

Six years earlier the German railways were hard pressed to supply Germany’s war needs and they never were able to. Without an adequate supply chain, no nation can win a war.

The American railroad system

The American railroad system was blessed with a generous loading gauge and consequently with fewer train movements could move greater tonnage. Thus America won the tonnage per mile war, which was to be a critical factor in 1944.

Another factor was the wear and tear on track and equipment. All combatants during the war experienced a decline in the efficiency of their railway systems under the increased traffic demands, America included. By the end of the war, many US railroads were in a bad way from these demands. Consequently in the immediate post war period many railroads were forced to spend heavily on track and plant repairs, replacement of locomotives and rolling stock without any assistance from the US government which was spending its tax dollars on airports and highways.

Consequently some railroads went into insolvency or were forced to amalgamate with their competitors. The replacement of worn out engines was another problem and proved to be prohibitive. Companies were faced with replacing large numbers of steam locomotives, not a cheap option by any stretch of the imagination. Diesel locomotives were a cheap option and the railroads embarked on a massive dieselization programme. Unfortunately for the railroads a lot of the first-generation diesels weren’t much good and they were forced to replace them within ten years. This was an expense many companies could not afford, indirectly leading to more bankruptcies and forced amalgamation of some railroads.

In consequence the demands of America’s war effort had large scale and long terms effects on the US railroads and that was without the dropping of one bomb on the US mainland.

Road Transport

Equally problematic for the Germans were the loss of over 100,000 lorries and 200,000 horses between the opening of Barbarossa and March 1942. These losses were to have an impact against the chances of success some six months later at Stalingrad.

Some of the critical problems facing German forces in the east.

At Stalingrad the logistical nightmare proved fatal for the 6th Army. Firstly the railheads were some one hundred kilometers in the rear, this was even worse in the Caucasus where the distance from the railheads to the front was measured in hundreds of kilometers. Quite simply German forces could not rely on enough material reaching them at critical times. All this was due to poor planning in the early stages of Operation Blau. The original concepts were simple, go for the oil! But as the weeks of planning dragged by the operation grew more complex. An example of this was Stalingrad was not a priority target; in fact German forces were to cross the Volga north and south of the city in a massive encirclement similar to Kiev. By the time the preparation attacks for Blau began in May the whole offensive and its objectives rivalled Barbarossa in size. How were the Germans to succeed with forces less than was available twelve months earlier?

Soviet tactics in the latter stages of the battle negated German air superiority and of course the Luftwaffe never had enough aircraft to meet the ever-expanding demands of the army. Quite simply as the battle for Stalingrad progressed the Luftwaffe weakened by the attrition of months of campaigns could do little to halt the build-up of Soviet forces behind their lines.

The Soviet advantage of course was the fact they had a railhead on the eastern side of the Volga, which along with the massive concentration of Soviet artillery was a favourite target of German bombers. Along with the ferries across the Volga, the Luftwaffe pounded these targets, but never managed to eliminate them. As the battle progressed the Soviets were able to infest these targets with large numbers of AA guns making the Luftwaffe task much more difficult and deadly.

Often today the ramifications from the Soviet counter offensive at Moscow are discounted. Most markedly it convinced the Soviets it could defeat the Germans and while it did not achieve all objectives and proved to be most costly in the end the Soviets learned many valuable lessons.

The success of the Luftwaffe supplying trapped German garrisons was achieved at great cost and coupled with the heavy loss of transports over Crete earlier in the year, would have a fatal impact over Stalingrad. By the end of 1942 the transport arm was no longer strong enough to carry out such a task, a fact that had been long lost by Goring and Jeschonnek, despite warnings from Milch who was facing many hurdles in lifting German aircraft production just to replace losses, let alone expand the force.

The first time the Soviet air force attempted to directly challenge German air supremacy was in fact at the battle of Kursk. While the Germans did regain the advantage in the early stages of the battle the Soviet air attacks before Citadel kicked off, did disrupt German preparations.

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