German Rear-area Security in WWII
German rear-area security considerations were an ever-evolving process. When the war started in 1939, the Germans, like everyone else, implemented their rear-area security policies by doing it the way the pre-established security policy book required them to do it. As each German-occupied nation took on a life of its own, German rear-area security policies and strategies were amended to accommodate local variances.
For the purposes of this article, we shall focus on rear-area security issues of the eastern front; though in a theoretical sense, the German rear-area security problem was identical in nearly every other nation Germany occupied.
The following major points shall be reviewed – the technical components of German rear-area security issues and how the naive and short-sighted political policies of the nationalist socialists impacted on German rear-area security considerations.
One can also look at the German rear-area security situation from another vantage as well. In the Baltic States between 1940 and 1941, the Soviets (Russians) were the occupation forces and the natives of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania became the partisans. To a certain extent, during the years 1940 to 1941, the Germans and Soviets in all probability closely studied the rear-area disruption effectiveness of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian resistance efforts and using the Balts as somewhat of a (limited) model, both of the main antagonists then developed their own strategies and tactics as to how best to deal with similar situations should they encounter same in a future war. Similarly, both sides closely analyzed the capabilities and limitations of Polish resistance efforts.
The basic question the Germans asked themselves after invading the Soviet Union in 1941 was as follows. Which active and passive security precautions must the German command employ to deny the enemy the means to disrupt German rear-area activities, and how to eliminate/neutralize the enemy’s means to disrupt German rear-area activities.
The above-posed question was not limited to purely military issues. In many respects, the local military commander, the civilian regional civilian administrator and the local pro-German politicians also had to respond to this very pivotal question.
To implement German rear-area security policies, the Germans first had to analyze the country they planned to occupy, that is, to understanding its peoples, their cultures, their aspirations, their future hopes, etc. In short, the Germans had to do their homework prior to conquering a new territory. And for the most part, the Germans did do this. However, despite excellent analysis efforts, the Germans did not always draw the proper conclusions from their analysis efforts. And to make things worse, German civilian policies often undid the work of the military’s policies.
With the German rear-area security situation in the Soviet Union, without question, the most effective anti-German partisan formations were those operating within the rear-areas of Heeresgruppe Mitte (HGrM). This was primarily attributable to the fact that this was also traditional Russian land and this is where the Soviets anticipated the establishment of partisan activities well before the war began. In one respect, the Russians also had greater incentives to protect their land.
In Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Russians (Soviets) had few friends considering their treatment of the Baltics from 1939 to 1941. Bottom-line, just as the Germans mistreated their occupied nations/peoples, so did the Soviets mistreat the Balts (and the Poles and the Ukrainians and many other peoples as well). Things were analogous in Ukraine. The decimation and starvation of millions of Ukrainian nationals in the 1920’s and 1930’s by Russians certainly did little to aid in Ukraine supporting Moscow.
Heeresgruppe Nord (HGrN) probably had the easiest of times with regards to its rear-area security situation. Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian anti-German and anti-Soviet partisan elements wanted to see their nations’ freedoms restored while at the same time they did not wish to see a return of the Soviets to their lands. Thus, for the overwhelming majority of WWII, they really did not interfere with German military supply efforts. To do so would risk hastening a return of Soviet forces. Some actions were taken against German civilian administration interests though.
Similarly, Heeresgruppe Süd (HGrS) also did not encounter major partisan problems in Ukraine. This situation can be attributed to the well-known political conditions in existence in Ukraine at the time. This is not to say that partisan units did not operate in Ukraine – they certainly did. It is just that when viewed from the German perspective, the rear-area security problem in Ukraine was a far more manageable one for most of the German occupation period.
From the very beginning, the Germans divided their rear-area security concerns into two categories – active disruption measures and passive disruption measures.
Since the first military campaign in 1939, in a measure to counter active rear-area disruption efforts or measures, the Germans raised and deployed special rear-area security formations. For the most part, the German rear-area security units in western Europe were battalion-sized formations. In rarer circumstances, two or three security battalions might be combined and placed under the direct control of a security regiment headquarters for temporary periods of time to secure a more critical objective.
The personnel for the German rear-area security units consisted mostly of World War One veterans or individuals who had only a rudimentary exposure to military training. The leaders of these rear-area security battalions were mostly senior or already pensioned reserve duty officers who were now recalled into active service. Despite the apparent “aged” nature of many German rear-area security forces, they often performed their tasks surprisingly well.
To satisfy rear-area security issues on the eastern front, the initial German plan called for the redeployment of those security units which had already gained an optimal level of battle/combat experience in western Europe. But the sheer vastness of the Soviet Union made this ideal plan void very quickly. Less qualified resources would be needed.
In addition to the creation and utilization of German rear-area security battalions, ample use was also made of Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian Schuma (self defense) battalions on the eastern front. In a number of circumstances (and against the promises made to the members of these Baltic units), these Baltic Schuma formations were occasionally also placed into front-line positions to help stabilize a given critical situation. But for the most part, the Baltic Schuma unit supplemented the forces of German rear-area security units.
The arming of German rear-area security forces was also a great problem. Adequate supplies of standard German arms quickly dried up as more and more security detachments were needed and created. Fortunately in the Soviet Union, Soviet weapons were usually available in optimal quantities – though not always. Thus, it was not at all uncommon for German uniformed rear-area security forces to be armed with surplus Belgian, French, Italian or Polish weapons (or from some other obscure corner of German-controlled Europe).
It did not take the Germans long to figure out that the physical security needs alone on the eastern front would take on dimensions totally unheard of on Germany’s other fronts. To acknowledge this uniqueness and to more optimally manage same, the Germans designated the rear-areas behind each Heeresgruppe as a Rückwärtiges Heeresgebiet – a rear area army district. The commander of each Heeresgruppe rear-area was given full responsibility for all security concerns in this region and was designated as a KoRück – a Kommandeur Rückwärtiges Heeresgebiet, followed by a number identifying a given rear-area region.
To aid the rear-area commander in this task, Sicherheitsdivisionen (Security Divisions) were created. They were supposed to be equipped and organized similarly to German infantry divisions, but in reality this was often a function of the availability and quality of the existing resources. In general terms, a Sicherheitsdivision covered between five to 10 thousand square miles of territory behind the front.
The securing of territory behind the area of the Rückwärtiges Heeresgebiet was the direct responsibility of the German military occupation authorities and the forces available to them – not of the front-line commanders or combat units. The control hierarchy was as follows:
One of the key objectives the Ortskommandanturen were given was to ensure for the protection and security of German rail lines. Of note is that as the Germans initially moved into the Soviet Union, German security units were in fact exempted from securing Soviet rail lines in German rear areas. This was because the Germans knew that the Soviets would damage/destroy same and that the Germans would have to re-gauge all of the Soviet-wide gauge rail lines anyway. This was a task best suited for the railway troops of the Wehrmacht. As the rail lines were converted to standard gauge, German security units would add the securing of the rail lines to their assigned duties.
Countering active measures is much easier than devising and implementing optimal defenses against passive measures. In order for passive security precautions to be effective, one must start by having a fully sensitized and fully trained security force.
The passive security measure education system started with the actual front-line soldiers. They were advised that they were responsible for the security of their own immediate area. They were also ordered not to squander equipment and supplies needlessly. This way, when a critical situation arose, they would have all the needed supplies on hand – regardless of what was happening in the rear areas. These actions would also help stretch German equipment and supplies to their maximum potentials.
The next level of education fell upon the supply transportation network. To ensure their safety in rear-areas, German supply convoys were required to make non-stop journeys from one supply center to the next (from one security block to the next), especially if the region was unsecured or if the road conditions were excessively poor. Single vehicles were advised not to journey through partisan active areas. Unloaded supplies were to be dispersed as rapidly as possible and to secured from aerial observation/attack.
After 1943, most of the unloaded supply shipments were placed into ad-hoc or permanent underground structures. This was a precaution against aerial attacks and against setting off a chain reaction if the supplies were not properly dispersed.
Fuel was supposed to be stored in trenches or in ditches with oversized earthen walls. The ditches were supposed to be dug in such a fashion that if the enemy did score a direct hit against a fuel drum(s), the spilled fuel would channel itself out of harms way.
German front-line units traversing or resting or refitting in rear-areas were expected to supplement the regular German rear-area security units in their assigned tasks. Few actually wanted to do this.
In the occupied territories falling under the jurisdiction of German civilian administration officials, German rear-area security forces were to be considered an arm or extension of the regular police formations.
To increase the safety of German rail lines, German construction requirements stated that in forested/wooded areas, a clear swatch of land of at least 300 yards in width was to be cut on both sides of the rail line. This was to help ensure that partisans could not sneak up on a train undetected. Not in the early stages of the war, but certainly by the middle and the end, most German trains traveling in the Soviet Union (Baltics mostly excepted), most trains pushed at least one flat-car loaded with heavy rocks in front of the train as a defensive measure against Soviet pressure/vibration activated charges. In some cases, a totally empty train was sent ahead of the fully loaded train whereby the empty train became the proverbial Guinea Pig. Locomotives were often placed in the center of the train to maximize their protection against attack.
All along the German rail network, the Germans established and maintained small mobile construction units. In case of an outage of any type along any given rail line, these small outposts could rapidly respond and render first aid. Interestingly, German air-raid warning sirens were connected to train signals so that in case of an aerial attack, all of the trains in the local air-raid attack area would be given the closed track/stop signal and thus hopefully avoid damage/destruction.
German Panzer formations were highly mobile units. Thus, they required highly mobile supply centers, mostly in the form of motorized transportation. Slower moving infantry divisions were for the most part adequately served with horse-drawn supply wagons. German motorized transportation units (at least those serving the Panzer troops) were required to establish their rear-area supply depots approximately 50 to 70 miles apart and no more than 300 miles from the nearest railhead or major supply center. It was preferred that the motorized supply depots establish themselves in larger towns or villages and as close to a major railhead as possible.
These mobile supply centers now needed to be secured against rear-area disruption efforts. The larger the supply center, the larger the security detail it was assigned. The idea was to relieve as many front-line formations from having to perform rear-area security functions as possible. In reality, this ideal was never reached.
Larger sized German rear-area supply depots required extra amounts of protection. There were internal security issues, such as patrolling supply dumps and their supporting buildings/warehouses. Perimeter security concerns. Communications and (electrical) power security issues. And so on. In some cases, a rear-area supply depot could quickly grow to be the size of a large town or village if one counts the security forces, the admin staff, the laborers, the communicators/dispatchers, etc., who were running the place.
To get the needed supplies to the front lines from the larger rear-area supply centers, the German supply system called for the maintenance of numerous smaller more mobile supply depots. These mobile supply depots would then follow the main combat formation as closely behind and as best they could. That way, no matter in which direction the front-line combat unit has to move in, a German supply depot was always close at hand (which in turn was then fed by a larger rear-area supply depot and so on). To protect these forward area supply depots, a block system of protection forces was established.
Theoretically, as the rail line was converted to standard gauge, the main supply center would move with it. As it moved forward, so did every other level of supply. As the supply centers moved forward, so did their assigned security detachments.
FLAK units were placed not only near strategic combat facilities/units on the front-lines, they were also placed in rear-area locations such as key urban centers, railroad junctions, bridges, industrial facilities, power-plants, etc. In nearly every case, rear-area FLAK concerns were the responsibility of the Luftwaffe.
Every German supply train, troop train, medical evacuation train, etc., also received security units. In most cases, a flat-bed wagon (Niederbordwagen) mounted a 4 x 20mm FLAK gun. A small complement of security force riflemen accompanied each train. The security units assigned to protect German trains were normally placed under the command of the army group’s railway transportation officer.
From 22 June 1941 to 01 January 1942, the Germans encountered either no rear-area security problems or very few and isolated incidents of rear-area security problems (depending on the area of operation). In the isolated incidents of rear-area disruption, the Germans were usually on the losing end. This was because most of the Soviets they encountered were either fully armed units which had been cut off from their retreating main body or stragglers who were simply trying to band together for protection and work their way back to the Soviet lines. As the main German combat line had already moved on to another area further east, rear-area German supply troops often did not expect to be caught in the open by these wayward Soviet troops. All too often, the German truck drivers found themselves woefully under-armed to fight a fully armed Soviet front-line formation. In later years, the co-driver was usually armed with an MG or the like for added defensive firepower.
Contrary to the main image of German front-line troops, they generally behaved themselves quite correctly with the local population on the eastern front. German Wehrmacht “kindness” was often repaid by the locals as they in turn warned the front line troops of Soviet stragglers, regional Soviet troop movements, sharing of food and quarter, etc. In the early days, German rear-area supply troops could camp out in the open without fear of being in harms way. Of interest is too that for the most part, German front line combat formations often assisted the locals in repairing damaged facilities and generally trying to gain the confidence of the local people as best they could.
Towards the end of 1941 and well in to 1942, the Germans noticed a marked change in their rear-area security requirements. Partisan attacks against German rear-area units and institutions were now slowly increasing in both number and effectiveness. The Soviets carefully selected their targets to ensure maximum disruption effect. The Soviets were also very cunning with their infiltration techniques. Operating as helpless or brutally victimized civilians, Soviet partisan elements prayed on German “kindness” to help them return to their native villages now in German rear-areas. As the Soviet partisan elements grew in strength in German rear-areas – so did the behavior pattern change of the local nationals in same. It quickly became anti-German.
The Soviet partisan movement quickly exploited every economic, military, political and social error the Germans made. If one treats the locals well, that news will spread like a wild-fire and soon everyone will know it. Mess up and that too will travel to all corners of the land quickly. And people from all walks of life know exactly what type of life they wish to lead. In the long run, the abhorrent rear-area occupation policies of the German nationalist socialists negated any friendly feelings the local population in the east may have had towards the Germans. In many of the more passive regions of central and southern Russia and the Ukraine, the Germans noted that while the locals were not yet openly hostile to the Germans, neither were they friendly.
For the Soviets, the next step after halting all of the local “friendliness” towards the Germans, was to start the more formal creation of small units of guerrillas or partisans. Hiding places were erected and effective communications networks were established with the Soviet Partisan Command Center in Moscow and with other Soviet partisan elements. In this early 1942 period, Soviet partisan attack efforts were conducted mostly against German targets of opportunity or against inadequately guarded German rear-area facilities. In some instances, the Soviet partisan network reached all the way from the main combat line all the way to Poland. Soviet courier and transport aircraft increased their flights to and from partisan centers in German rear-area zones. These flights provided the partisans with military hardware, fuels, medical services, etc. Sometimes, the Soviet flights also returned with German POW’s – such as with Brigadier General Max Ilgen who was captured by Soviet partisans in a German rear-area and flown to Moscow the night he was captured.
As time went by, the Soviet partisan units began to increase in size and ineffectiveness. Regretfully for the Germans, as time went on, they increasingly alienated more and more locals because of their heavy-handed and totally misguided conceptions of German superiority, slave labor, wholesale deportations and mass murder of political, religious and social classes of people.
Try as they might, German rear-area radio detection efforts and German rear-area air defense programs never managed to gain the upper hand against these Soviet drop flights.
While Soviet partisan efforts were indeed causing great damage to German rear area interests, somehow the Germans were usually able keep the supply lines to the front lines rolling. Both the Germans and the Soviets knew that the key to the German supply network was the railroad system. The Soviet Union was not western Europe where one could supplement an extensive rail network with an equally extensive road network. Soviet roads were for the most part a non-starter. During this period, German supply columns could only travel through the Russian countryside in convoys and with proper escort.
By 1943, the Soviets had the German rear-area disruption game down to a science. Partisan attacks against key German rear-area supply interests were conducted in concert with Soviet aerial support. As they increased in confidence and in results, the Soviets started to attack German supply centers closer and closer to the main German battle lines.
In some cases, the Soviet partisans were even able to disguise themselves as German soldiers and using their German speakers, draw regular supplies from German rear-area supply depots. The situation was made very easy because in many cases, German rear-area supply centers used large numbers of Russian natives in their labor pool.
In many instances, fighting partisans was more hazardous that fighting front-line Soviet units. Many German front-line units who were temporally withdrawn from the line for rest or refit periods, quickly found themselves engaged in fighting Soviet partisans. It was not an uncommon request to ask for an immediate return to the front lines!
In the rear-area of HGrM, the Germans estimated that the Soviets had deployed 80.000 to 100.000 partisans. To counter them, the Germans fielded over 100.000 security and front-line troops. And that number was still not adequate to neutralize the Soviet partisan threats. The Bryansk forest anti-partisan sweep operation conducted by the Germans in 1943 for example, was a waste and a fiasco, even though it did have a temporary neutralizing effect.
In general terms, most of the local population in the German-controlled regions, at least in the very early days, were perfectly willing to work for and with the Germans. The German military authorities quickly re-opened many of the religious institutions the communists had shut down years earlier. This too was viewed with favor by the local population.
But as soon as the German military administration departed and turned over control to the civil administration – overt collaboration changed to overt/covert hostility within a short period of time. And this contributed greatly to the German demise on the eastern front.
The Soviet question to this overall problem was exactly the opposite of that of the Germans – which means of disruption will affect the most optimal disruption results (for any period of time) to the Germans, and whereby the disruption effort will have a direct impact on the troops fighting on the front lines.
The Soviets were keenly aware of the impact that rear-area partisan formations could have in combat. A key to this can be found in the publication “Russian Partisan Directive” which was published in 1933! The Soviets in fact were training future partisan leaders before the Germans even attacked Poland.
When the German attack came, the Soviets put their rear-area disruption plans into motion. At first their efforts were really not more than a nuisance. But they quickly developed their program into an effective tool which would ultimately lead to the expulsion of the German invader from the Soviet Union.
Rear-area disruption efforts can be in fact accomplished with a very small number of people possessing rather limited disruption means. Rear-area disruption efforts also increase the morale levels of the local population by showing them that the “enemy” of the “occupier” is not at all all-powerful. One can make the analogy that rear-area communications, supply and security issues are like the biological functions of a human being. One can have the intelligence of an Albert Einstein, the strength of a super wrestler and the cardiovascular fitness of an Olympic athlete – but it all does not matter if the optimal quantities of blood cannot get to the needed parts of the body at the right time. Bottom-line: No supply from the rear areas, no life at the front.
Combat forces fighting on the front-lines with their enemy counterparts should not have to deal with rear-area security issues. Those tasks are best left to rear-area security troops.