Deutsche Reichsbahn – The German State Railway

WW2 German Railway - Deutsche ReichsbahnThe primary focus of this article will be to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the Deutsche Reichsbahn Gesellschaft (DRG, also DR for short). It need be noted that the DR was first and foremost a civilian or commercial organization, supporting the needs of the German Wehrmacht if and when ordered to do so. In times of war, the DR adhered to military regulations and as such was placed under the guidance of the German Army General Staff’s Transportation Division. Despite the military’s control of the DR during the war, the DR also continued to serve the needs of German or German-controlled economic entities (industry, civilian traffic, etc.). The DR was a separate entity from the German military’s rail arm.

Germany’s “Panzerzuege” (Armored Trains) were controlled and commanded directly by the German military at all times. Only in rare circumstances did they engage themselves in transporting goods or troops. In most of these circumstances, the Panzerzuege were called to assist another train to remove itself from harm’s way (breakdown, enemy action, etc.).

The DR’s last major peacetime assignment prior to the start of the Second World War was to transport all of the Wehrmacht’s (WH) 86 non-motorized divisions to their respective (offensive) staging positions along the Polish border and to their (defensive) positions along Germany’s western borders. This task was successfully accomplished by the DR prior to 01 September 1939.

Throughout the Polish campaign, the DR was able to satisfy all of the supply and movement needs of the German Army despite the fact that Polish military forces successfully disrupted, if not outrightly destroyed, large sections of the Polish railway network as they retreated inward. The Luftwaffe (LH) contributed to the damage inflicted onto the Polish rail lines by bombing numerous key Polish railway junctions and yards as they completed their interdiction assignments. At the conclusion of the Polish Campaign, all of the battles damaged Polish rail lines had to be repaired before the DR could gain unimpeded access to the entire Polish railway network in the new General-Government (GG). By the middle of October 1939, the DR and the WH had re-established full rail service between Berlin and Koenigsberg and Breslauto Oppeln, both via Warsaw.

During the Polish campaign, the DR not only played a key role in moving large numbers of German troops to their front-line positions, but the DR also evacuated wounded troops back to rear areas and often served as portable field kitchens for larger concentrations of troops.

On the negative side, the DR and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) quickly realized that the WH did not possess sufficient numbers of Eisenbahnpionier (railway engineer) troops. As a result of this deficit, many key sections of the Polishtrack remained unpassable for periods of time exceeding the desires of the OKW. Quickly, a crash training program was initiated for the creation of an additional railway engineer troops. Of note is that for this effort, not only did the DR and the Reichsarbeitsdienst (RAD) provided the needed personnel – (ethnic) Polish railroading companies or enterprises were also contracted (salaried) to support the German war effort. Thus, a large number of already trained and qualified former Polish railway personnel were pressed into German service. As the Germans occupied one nation after another, native nationals were also pressed into service as auxiliary railway personnel in their respective nations -this included many Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians as well as Slavic peoples on the eastern front. For the overwhelming number of cases, however, the DR performed its duties as expected using German forces as they were available.

On 26 October 1939, the “Gedob” (Generaldirektion der Ostbahn) was established with its headquarters in Warsaw. This was a separate entity from the DR and it was responsible for the administration of the railways in the GG (Poland). Within the Gedob structure, a number of sub-sections or sub-units were also created to better serve the needs of the German military. From 1939 to 1941, Gedob controlled only the rail lines in the GG. After 1941, the rail lines of ex-Austrian Galacia were added to the Gedob. Gedob had to start from scratch as Germany was not in a position at that time to redirect”surplus” rolling stock to the new entity. For example, Gedob was forced to requisition or refurbish all of the surviving rolling stock of the former Polish rail system. Regretfully, much of the Polish system was seriously damaged in the four weeks of fighting. The DR trains were naturally recalled to perform other duties in Germany proper and in other war theaters.

After the fall of Poland, the DR’s primary responsibilities were to ensure the fulfillment of the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed in August of 1939. Asmayberecalled, in return for Soviet “neutrality” during the German campaign against Poland, the Soviet Union was obliged to deliver large quantities of goods (primarily foodstuffs and raw materials) to Germany. Because Germany and Poland used standard gauge rail lines (1435mm) and the Soviets continued to use the Czarist era’s wide-gauge lines (1528mm) – Germany was obliged to construct two special gauge conversion yards on the German-Soviet border. One such yard was built in Malaszevica (Brest-Litovsk) and the other in Przemsyl. 66% of the required Soviet deliveries were trans-shipped through these two rail yards. Naturally, these two rail yards also became key rail centers once Germany began with Operation Barbarossa.

Starting in October of 1940, the DR and the Gedob were given orders to prepare and expand the existing German rail network in the east for a military campaign against the Soviet Union. The goal was to double the existing rail transportation capacities. This entire undertaking fell under the auspices of the “Otto” Program. Approximately 30.000 German and Polish railway employees worked for the program; 60% of the funding came from Germany and the remaining 40% from the GG. Despite losing 10.000 “Otto” program participants to the mandatory “Winterhilfe” duties in Poland during the winter of 1940/1941 and considering the sheer enormity of the project itself – the”Otto” program met its goals on 15 June 1941.

In 1939, 84 trains moved eastwards every day – by June of 1941, eight months after the start of the “Otto” program, 220 trains moved eastwards every day. Many of the DR trains serving the needs of the WH during this period were cleverly disguised as normal civilian trains. After all, the goal was to move 141 German divisions to the Soviet border without detection. During the first five months of 1941, nearly 34.000trainloads of supplies and troops were unloaded in the east. Remarkably, the German and Polish rail lines in the east were not used to their maximum capacities during the build-up period. This, in fact, benefited the civilian rail commerce greatly, and later, it allowed Germany to adjust to the realities of war faster than anticipated or originally planned for.

Without a doubt, the German railway transportation system played a far more strategic role on the eastern front than it did in any other German theater of war. With the exception of the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) and areas in close proximity to larger Soviet urban or industrial/production centers, the rail and ground transportation network of the Soviet Union was in a more primitive state of existence when compared to western Europe or the United States.

Military Railroads in the Baltic States 1940 to 1945

German military railroad planners made one critical error in their Barbarossa calculations- they did not take the primitiveness of the Soviet interior into account when planning for their attack. This would cost the Germans dearly later.

In the west, the problems encountered were minimal. All of the defeated nations used standard gauge rail lines. With little effort, these new networks were amalgamated into the German system. Only Spain used wide-gauge lines, but as long as Spain remained neutral, this really did not affect the German military situation any.

One of the first actions taken by the German Transportation Division to prepare itself for the upcoming war with the Soviet Union was to complete a preliminary analysis of the Soviet rail network. This effort highlighted the following – only four major east-west running trunk lines connected the western border regions of the Soviet Union (including the recently annexed regions of Poland and the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) with Soviet rear areas:

  • Niemen river to Leningrad (double track)
  • Bug river to Orsha to Moscow (double track)
  • Bug river to Kremenchug to the Donets basin (double track)
  • San river to Odessa (double track)

The four above named trunk-lines were intersected by only six major north-south running trunk lines:

  • Koeningsberg to Kremenchug (double track)
  • Riga to Orsha to Kharkov to the Donets basin (double track)
  • Odessa to Orsha to Leningrad (double track)
  • Sevastopol to Kharkov to Moscow to Archanglesk (double track)
  • Leningrad to Moscow to the Donets to the Caucasus (double track)
  • Leningrad to Moscow to the Caucasus (double track)

A vital rail line also extended from Leningrad to Murmansk (double track). From rear area cities such as Moscow and Leningrad, the main rail lines, in double track format, went further east into Siberia and on to Vladivostok. (However, for the purposes of their planning purposes, the Germans concentrated their planning efforts on the European portions of Russia.

This rather sparse network was fed by numerous smaller, single track, feeder lines whose transport capacities were far from optimal. In fact, the majority of the Soviet rail line network was the same as it had been for the Czars armies 20 years earlier. In some regions of the Soviet Union, single-track rail lines existed for no apparent reason.

Only three important industrial or urban centers contained a dense network of rail lines; the Donets industrial region, Leningrad, and Moscow. Moscow was, in fact, a key hub; cutoff Moscow and the entire Soviet rail network would be seriously crippled.

Signals and rail safety efforts were primitive when compared to German or western European standards. Except for large urban areas, few switches were electrically operated.

Shunting areas, turn-a-round loops (vice turntables), and yard areas covered large tracts of land. This was, in fact, good news since dispersing one’s locomotives and rolling-stock over large areas was a more optimal defense to aerial attacks.

Only the Kharkhov to Moscow double-track line was placed onto a proper bed. The rest of the Soviet rail network was placed onto sandy beds, or the ties were simply tapped lightly into the existing ground. The lower the engineering standard of the railway bed, the lower the amount of weight that could traverse the same.

Many of the existing railroad bridges of European Russia were in fact temporary structures. Most of the bridges were built during the First World War to satisfy the military needs of the Czars’ Army in 1914-1917. Some of these temporary bridges were in fact, manufactured of sheet steel and simply riveted together. By German and western European standards, these temporary bridges were of no value for the heavier trains (carrying heavier tanks and so on) of the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. There were also no double-track bridges, and no one in Germany knew why. All Soviet double-track lines which had to cross a river did so in a split fashion; that is, each line had its own bridge. The spacing of the two bridges was set at approximately 50 to 100 yards apart.

Soviet coal was not of optimal quality locomotives even by Soviet standards. A number of the larger Soviet rail yards contained coal-processing plants which soaked the Donets coal in (bunker) oil before it was suitable for use in locomotives. Frequently, wood was used as a substitute for coal, especially in the northern regions of the Soviet Union.

Soviet water for locomotives was also not of optimal value. For example, on the rail line between Dniepropetrovsk and Stalino, at each of the 11 water towers, a separate additive had to be mixed with the water to prevent boiler scales from forming in the locomotives.

All along the 1939-1941 Soviet-German border, the Soviets had re-built all of their border rail centers to only allow for through traffic. All marshaling yards and other major railroad transportation and workshop facilities near the western Soviet border areas were removed to prevent the Germans from making use of the same in case they attacked. This precaution, in fact, slowed the Germans down during their advance and it also created difficulties for them during the retreats of 1943, 1944, and 1945.

Since annexing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Soviet Union embarked on a program to convert all of the existing standard gauge lines of the Baltic States over to wide gauge. While a few key lines were converted (mostly in Lithuania and Latvia), the Soviets were slow to covert all of them over. By the time of the German invasion in 1941, most of the gauge conversion work still had to be done by the Soviet Union. This was a fortunate factor for the Germans in the north as they thus had fewer rail lines to convert in the Baltics.

Germany did not possess enough qualified personnel to manage the Soviet rail system effectively. She would have to supplement her forces with local nationals.

All of these points above were the primary factors, which the Germans had to tackle if they wished for success in their invasion bid.

For the attack on the Soviet Union, three Feldeisenbahndirektionen (FBD)(Military Railway Administrations) were established during the spring of 1941. These three FBD’s would serve as the main supply lifelines of the German invasion forces. The newly created entities were FBD 1, FBD, 2, and FBD 3. Each contained a full complement of administrative personnel, repair facilities, and construction work.

FBD 1 was quickly withdrawn and used for the Balkan campaign before Barbarossa began. FBD 4 was hastily erected in June of 1941 in Danzig as a replacement for FBD 1. FBD 2 was created during the month of April 1941, in Dresden. Within a month, the staff was relocated to Warsaw.FBD 3 was initially headquartered in Warsaw, then relocated to Cracow. During the spring of 1942, the FBD was redesignated as “Feldeisenbahnkommando”(FEKdo) (Field Railway Command). This designation was retained until the end of the war.Later; four Haupteisenbahndirektion(en) was established in Dniepropetrovsk, Kiev, Minsk and Riga.

As is well known, Heeresgruppe Nord (HGrN) was assigned to fight on the northern wing of the invasion front. Heeresgruppe Mitte (HGrM) formed the middle wing and Heeresgruppe Sued (HGrS) was in the south. All three were ordered to penetrate as far as they could and seize key Soviet railheads and bridges intact. Regretfully for the Germans, with a number of exceptions, the Soviets were able to destroy nearly every bridge the Germans needed as the Soviet forces retreated eastwards.

In the north, if Leningrad were to be seized, then all of the rail lines feeding into that city had first to be cut. (The Germans did not even think of the possibility that the Soviets could build a rail line over the ice in the winter to feed supplies into the besieged city -they thought that if the rail lines were cut, then the city would have to starve itself into submission.) However, before the Germans could begin their siege of the Leningrad metropolis, they had to get there as quickly as possible. For HGrN, the Germans were able to supplement the rail transportation network with sea-borne transportation and to a lesser degree, vehicular transportation modes as a result of the excellent maritime and road networks in existence in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Thus, fewer rail units would be needed in the north in the earlier days, the “surplus” could then be redirected towards the other two invasion groups.

The winter of 1941/1942 placed the German military transportation system into a most difficult predicament. By 01 January 1942, the German rail system was nearly paralyzed- nearly! Fortunately, for example with HGrN, the Germans were able to finish most of their gauge conversion efforts to such a degree that it was still possible to send supplies from Germany all the way to the Leningrad front on a one-track system. During these harsh winter months, the German conversion and supply shipment efforts could not have been as successful as they were had it not been for the willing assistance of former Estonian and Latvian railway personnel. They provided the Germans with invaluable service and technical expertise; doing so primarily because they were just liberated from the holocaust of the first Soviet occupation and did not wish to see the Soviets return anytime soon. Interestingly, the Soviet Air Force, the VVS, was strangely inactive in the Leningrad region during these critical months (though they did attack Estonia once). Had they been more aggressive, they could have played havoc with the German rail network in German rear areas.

The following gives an indication as to how quickly German railway repair forces were able to make a destroyed line operable again:

11 July 1941 – 4th Pz Group reaches Porkhov;
18 July 1941 – 1st DRG train arrives same
23 August 1941 – 4th Pz Group reaches Luga;
23 August 1941 – as above
08 August 1941 – 16th Armee reaches Staraya Russa;
29 September 1941 – as above

1942: The winter of 1941/1942 was one of the coldest on record in European Russia. From a military perspective, the severe weather conditions essentially neutralized all of Germany’s transportation system advantages all along the eastern front. Although the German rail network also suffered severely due to the extreme winter temperatures, it was also the one supply system, which was able to continue operating day and night(albeit with great difficulty). As of 12 December 1941, the German military authorities banned home leave for all troops in Russia. Every soldier was needed on the eastern front so as to avoid a defeat of epic proportions.

The severe winter of 1941/1942 also placed into question many of Germany’s military and technological advantages over their Soviet foe. As with many other German technologies, German locomotives contained greater quantities of precision-made parts than their Soviet counterparts. Due to the cold, these delicate parts often froze up or became inoperable during the winter of 1941/1942. Even German “winterized” locomotives broke down in the east – a winter in Russia is not the same as winter in Germany.

One consequence of this was that in the east, only 20% of all of Germany’s “winterized” locomotives were operationally available in late 1941. In total, between 70-80% of all German locomotives deployed on the eastern front became inoperable. Conversely, Soviet (and ex-Imperial Russian) locomotives seemed to be in their natural element during the winter months. The situation improved quite a bit when the Germans borrowed a page from Soviet construction techniques – they removed all of the precision parts and basically ran stripped-down locomotives until the severe weather receded.

For example, in February of 1942, only eight military supply trains per day ran from Brest to Minsk to Smolensk. Between January and February of 1942, only 19 military supply trains per day could be dispatched from Germany/Poland to serve the needs of the entire German Army on the eastern front. During January of 1942, HGrN needed 30 trainloads of supply, a day just to maintain minimum capabilities. Due to the cold, barely 10 trains a day could be dispatched. The rail system nearly broke down fully – nearly!

The spring thaw of 1942 was often just as bad as the winter had been. Severe floods frequently damaged or took out key bridges. While German rear-area and German construction troops were able to repair the weather caused damage relatively quickly, in the long run, this too slowed the German supply network to a dismal crawl during these spring months.

Despite the many setbacks attributed to the harsh winter, administratively and physically, the DR and the WH continued to expand and establish suitable standard gauge secondary trunk lines leading up to the front lines. By 01 February 1942, the following standard gauge rail supply and transportation network existed going towards the frontlines:

  • Haupteisenbahndirektion (HBD) (HGr Nord) in Riga, Latvia – 17 secondary lines
  • Feldeisenbahndirektion (FBD) Nr. 4 in Pskov, Russia – 14 secondary lines
  • Haupteisenbahndirektion (HBD) (HGr. Mitte) in Minsk, Byelorussia – 23 secondary lines
  • Feldeisenbahndirektion (FBD) Nr. 2 in Smolensk, Russia – 10 secondary lines
  • Haupteisenbahndirektion (HBD) (HGr. Sued) in Kiev, the Ukraine – 21 secondary lines
  • Haupteisenbahndirektion (HBD) (HGr. Ost) in Poltava, the Ukraine – 12 secondary lines
  • Feldeisenbahndirektion (FBD) Nr. 3 in Poltava, the Ukraine – 8 secondary lines

The German summer offensive of 1942 created a unique problem for the DR. While many miles of Russian rail lines were added to the existing German network, and while the conversion of the Soviet-wide gauge lines to standard gauge proceeded relatively effortlessly – the vast distances the German DR and armored trains now had to cover created numerous logistical bottlenecks in German rear areas. The creation of a new Feldeisenbahndirektion in Rostov and Feldeisenbahndirektion Nr. 5 inKaukaskayaon 10 October 1942 helped to alleviate a fair number of the bottleneck problems.

The assault on Moscow in 1942 failed primarily because the Germans were not able to extend their standard gauge line east of Smolensk fast enough. While ample quantities of supplies were available for the first two phases of the German attack against Moscow, the German rail transportation system was not able to sustain the shipment of needed military supplies for the third and final assault phase.

The Germans also made an error in deciding which wide-gauge lines running close to the German front lines should be converted to standard gauge. The German Military Transportation Department wanted the Nevel-Velikye Luki-Rzhev rail line converted. This would have greatly eased the supply problems of the eastern wing of HGrM. But a decision was made not to do the conversion. This caused the Germans many problems during the winter of 1942/1943.

On the other side of this coin was the fact that the Germans continued to operate wide gauge trains east of Vyazma to about Rzhev (on the rail line they wanted to convert to standard gauge). Despite the fact that this rail line could only accommodate no more than two trains a day to service the supply needs of HGrM in that area – it was miraculously sufficient for the Germans to hold their own and prevent a Soviet breakthrough.

1943-1945: Between 1943 and 1945, Germany was more and more in a defensivemode.No longer were the Germans concerned about converting Soviet wide-gauge lines to standard gauge – now they were concentrating on keeping their ever-shrinking network in operational condition.

The best year for the German rail system was during the summer of 1943. Nearly every important rail line in the Soviet Union had been converted to the standard gauge. Every day, over 200 trains departed Germany for the eastern front. HGrS took the lion’s share of the supplies for, during this period, 125 of the 200 trains were slated to support HGrS. Of note too is that despite an increase in Soviet partisan activities in central Russia, German train schedules were affected very little by the same. A prime reason for this can be attributed to the extensive network the Germans had built up in Russia. If the partisans did manage to knock out a particular line, the Germans were in an optimal position to re-route the trains through any number of sidelines.

In addition, during the long summer days, German supply and security trains were able to operate within visual sight of one another. This greatly increased their security factor and made it more difficult for Soviet partisans to conduct daylight attacks against the German trains.

For example, during the month of June 1943, the Germans counted over 840 partisan attacks against German rail lines in the sector controlled by HGrM. During that same time frame, the Germans were able to run over 860 troop trains. nearly 1.000 supply trains and over 700 other support trains in the same area.

HGrS, operating in Ukraine, did not have any major problems with Soviet partisan activities for most of its time in that area.

It need be noted that the Soviets were very familiar with the problems the German rail transportation system was encountering. Their partisan efforts were designed to wreak maximum disruption on the German rear area system.

One of the elder von Moltke’s axioms stated that military operations will suffer accordingly if the railhead is more than 60 miles/100 km from the front lines. If this held true for the first world war, it also held true for the second world war. However, due to the many circumstances beyond their control, German military rail planners were often hardpressed to maintain lesser distances from railhead to the front line -especially when German troops were on the attack in the first two to three years of the war. Given that motor transportation methods had now progressed to far greater levels, Moltke’s axiom was extended to about 180 miles/300 km. Whenever feasible, narrow-gauge “Feldeisenbahnen” were built to fill the many gaps.

Trains did have one advantage. They could operate day and night. They could also decrease and increase their speed to adjust to any problems in their respective time schedules. According to German calculations, on average, a supply or troop train could cover about 500 miles a day.

One of the biggest problems one can encounter in the railroading business is that of developing an optimal time schedule and being able to adhere to it in areas on able fashion. From the German perspective, the following types of trains (and in order of scheduling priority) had to be considered in German rear and front areas:

  • Troop transportation trains; their movement and special troop transfer requirements.
  • Supply trains
  • Empty trains which had just unloaded and were returning for a new run.
  • Military Post/military mail trains
  • Medical evacuation trains; hospital trains.
  • Rest and Relaxation trains.
  • POW trains
  • Construction and repair/workshop trains

Consideration also had to be made for “Special Purpose” or “Special Mission” trains, such as but not limited to military intelligence mission, covert infiltration, quick re-deployment of front-line troops, etc.

One result of German prioritization or scheduling efforts was that trains of a lower-ranking often had to wait on sidetracks or in yards until its movement priority level once again permitted it to proceed. The transferring of wounded, the re-loading, and off-loading of trains often also did not adhere to expected “down times”. This often delayed or altered existing schedules by quite a bit.

To the above “military” requirements, one also had to consider the civilian needs. Raw materials from the German occupation areas had to be brought back to Germany so that the German industry could make optimal use of them. Industry specialists had to travel from one city to another, families also had social obligations they wanted to be able to meet, etc.

In terms of supplementing German industrial needs, the following main requirements thus existed for this category of trains:

  • Coal from Ukraine (never shipped in satisfying quantities).
  • Manganese from Nikopol.
  • Iron ore from Krivoi-Rog.
  • Timber from the Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Pripet march regions.
  • Oil-shale from Estonia (a large percentage of the Kriegsmarine’s needs came from Estonian oil-shale).
  • Grains (foodstuffs) from Ukraine (this was always in surplus as Ukraine was/is a very fertile region).

To the above two lists, one must now add a third category of trains. Those serving administrative or construction needs:

  • Building supplies to rebuild or expand captured production centers.
  • Ancillary supply trains.
  • Repair and recovery trains.
  • Trains transporting workers, party officials, civilian administration units, etc.

As but one example of the volume of traffic, during the month of October of 1942, 300 empty goods-wagons departed from the greater Riga area bound for Ukraine – on a daily basis.

On 08 September 1942, a priority list was established for shipping goods from the Soviet Union to Germany:

1. Foodstuffs.
2. Manganese.
3. Coal.
4. Iron ore.
5. Timber.

To help alleviate some of the scheduling requirements, a priority “red-line” and a priority “green-line” were established for HGrN.

Another factor affecting military rail operations is of course the number of available locomotives and wagons. With respect to the railway wagons, the following figures represent the number of German and captured wagons available for use:

On 01 January 1942: 84.000 wagons.
On 01 June 1942: 142.000 wagons.
On 01 December 1942: 203.000 wagons.

Re-wheeling Soviet stock to German norms was not always an optimal solution. Although the wagon width itself remained unchanged, re-wheeling to German norms also altered-lowered payload allowances and balance requirements. Soviet wagons were not always the sturdiest of wagons.

Since taking the advice of an American railway engineer in the mid-1800’s, the rail gauge of Czarist Russia and its successor state, the Soviet Union, has been in the wide gauge. The theory was that an attacker would encounter more operational and supply problems if he was forced to convert a wider gauge rail line to “his” gauge (back in the mid-1800’s, it was assumed that Germany was going to be the aggressor). In 1939, only in Lithuania(and to a lesser degree in Latvia and Estonia) did one find larger concentrations of standard gauge rail lines which the Soviets had not yet converted to wide gauge after their occupation and annexation of the Baltic States in 1940. If the Germans wanted to make use of Soviet rail lines, they had to convert them to the standard gauge. However, this was not as easy as it might sound!

The 1938 Soviet five-year plan called for the Soviet rail line system to be expanded to approximately 62.000 miles (100.000km). For the most part, the Soviets were able to meet their construction goals. When the German attack began, most of the Soviet rail lines (and all of the important ones) were in wide gauge.

The Baltic States confronted the Germans with a unique situation. While most of the rail lines in Lithuania and western Latvia were in the standard gauge (and thus easy for the Germans to operate on them), a number of key rail lines in eastern Latvia and Estonia were still in the wide gauge. Because the Germans had advanced very rapidly into Lithuania and Latvia and because they were able to capture about 30 serviceable wide-gauge locomotives and close to 300 railroad wagons in eastern Latvia and a slightly lesser number of serviceable wide-gauge locomotives and wagons in Tallinn, Estonia -the Germans elected to temporarily use the available wide-gauge equipment toshuttleGerman troops and supplies from eastern Latvia and Estonia (as well as from the ports of Riga, Paldiski, and Tallinn) to the front lines of HGrN. The wide gauge line ended at Narva because the Soviets had blown up the bridge there as they retreated.

As of 01 January 1943, 22.000 miles (35.000km) of the Soviet rail network were under German control and the majority of that had already been converted to standard gauge by the Germans. Although the Germans were able to “capture” large quantities of Soviet rolling stock and railway construction materials, the captured items were for the most part substandard in quality or antiquated. In the overwhelming number of cases, wide-gauge rolling stock was re-wheeled to standard gauge by the Germans. Locomotives could not be converted to any degree of service reliability.

If the length of the track one has under one’s control is important, so too is the question of “how good is the rail line itself?” Again, poor Soviet construction standards played a key role in the German decision-making process. Whereas German and most western railbed construction methods contained multi-tiered rock and gravel foundations – Soviet rails were almost always sitting only on a bed of sand covered occasionally with rocks to minimize the inevitable dust clouds. The western regions of the Soviet Union suffered a great rock shortage. To make matters worse, the vast majority of the Soviet rail ties were made of untreated pine. This meant that their weight capacity fell way below German railway norms (38kg/m for Soviet lines vs. 49kg/m in Germany).

Soviet rail ties were also placed further apart than American and German norms(approximately 1,440 ties per km in the Soviet Union vs. 1,500 ties per km in Estonia,1,600 ties per km in Germany, and 2,000 ties per km in the United States). This too added to a lower overall transportation capacity of the Soviet rail line.

The way a rail is attached to a tie is also of great importance to speed limits and weight allowances. Soviet rails were attached to the tie with plain spikes. German norms called for the rails to be attached with an angled washer/base plate and screw-type tie-downs. Angled base plates allow one to increase load factors and rail speeds. Because of the Soviet rail line construction technique, Soviet cargo, and weight capacities were often reduced way below the official allowances. On many sections of track, German locomotives were proscribed from an operational activity because of their greater weight and stress factors per kg/m.

German rail conversion efforts were completed relatively quickly. In many cases, the Germans only had to remove one of the rails and move it closer in.

Damaged bridges took longer to repair. Portable bridges, ferries, or other trans-shipment methods were used until the bridges had been repaired. But with few exceptions, most of the bridges destroyed by the Soviets were quickly made operable again by the Germans. Some examples:

The bridge at Kaunas: was destroyed on 24 June 1941; repaired on 17 July 1941
The bridge at Riga: was destroyed on 02 July 1941; repaired on 12 July 1941
The bridge near Petseri: destroyed on 09 July 1941; repaired on 24 July 1941

The authors are not aware of the Germans adding a third rail to allow the use of standard and wide gauge on the same line. It takes more effort to produce a third rail than it does to simply move one rail line closer. However, limited uses of such a construction technique should not be viewed as surprising – especially near urban areas.)

As described above, another technical limitation was the use of Soviet coal. Because of its lower quality (at least that which was available to the Germans via the Donets region), Soviet coal, in worst operating conditions, had to be mixed with German coal at a ratio of 1:1. This meant that the Germans had to “import” coal into a region that they were also”exporting” coal from. Ideally, mixture ratios of 2(Ger):1(SU) or higher were desired to make the German locomotives run at peak performance.

In addition, Soviet yard and line switches had to be rebuilt, German signals and German traffic signals had to be installed, etc.

One of the biggest problems the Germans encountered was the fact that the larger Soviet trains could cover larger distances before they needed to re-water and re-coal. German trains required more frequent servicing in this respect. This problem was most acute in the more remote regions of the middle and southern fronts.

In the Soviet Union, railway personnel knew that they were a notch above the rest in terms of class and social standing. Not only were they very skilled and dedicated to their jobs, but they also knew how to mess things up for the Germans. However, once the Germans occupied a region, many “Soviet” railway experts stepped forward and willingly helped the German cause.

No discussion of German rail during WWII would be complete without a discussion of the impact Soviet Partisans had on German rear area rail lines.

The Partisan “problem” really started as soon as the German invasion began. In the early phases of this war, German anti-partisan efforts were relatively successful. German Police and rear area units usually were able to secure and neutralize the attackers quickly. As the war progressed, Partisan activities were more and more successful in disrupting German rail traffic – often with disastrous consequences for the Germans. For example, during the month of September 1943, an average of 64 attacks per day was taking place against German trains.

One of the consequences of the increased Partisan activities was that Germanarmoredtrains now found themselves more and more engaged in rear area security duties than in supporting frontline units and direct military operations.

German locomotive and wagon types used: In short if it ran on the tracks -it was put into service by the Germans – regardless of who the previous owner may have been or what shape the wagon in question was in. While this is clearly an over-generalization, it also is not that far from the truth. Germany was always short of rolling stock in the east. For the purposes of this article, we shall confine the discussions to a few of the major types of locomotives and wagons – a detailed listing would exceed the intent of this article.

In 1939, Germany possessed not only “German” designed locomotives and rolling stock, but she also had a number of excellently designed Bavarian, Prussian, and “empire era” equipment as well. A standardization effort was called for, but this would take years or decades to realize. Regardless of origin, all DR locomotives in operation in 1939, served for as long as they could or until they were destroyed as a result of military actions. All except for a few trials or evaluation models and a few armored trains were in the standard gauge. The more esoteric models were relegated to local duties in and around Germany while the more numerous production models were sent to the far corners of Europe.

With regard to the DR support to the eastern front (and as mentioned above), Germany realized that one of its shortcomings was that it did not possess a “German” locomotive suitable to cover the long distances between coaling stations. Designed in 1942/1943 by the Borsig Company, the type 53 “super locomotive” was to be the answer. This giant, 2-6-8-0 (U.S. nomenclature) configured, the 27m/81ft long locomotive was designed to use only a minimum of parts, but be flexible enough to operate on all standard gauge tracks and operate on really all curves. Its prime purpose was however to pull freight trains to and from the eastern regions. The tender too was of double length to accommodate more coal. For a myriad of reasons, the locomotive never entered production.

Another strong work-horse was the type 52 locomotive. Built from 1942 to 1950, this 2-10-2 (U.S. nomenclature) (1′ E ‘1 German nomenclature) wheeled locomotive was built primarily by the Floridsdorfer Werke in Vienna (they built 1168units). Henschel built another 1068. Total production was 6303 units. The Waffen und Maschinen-AG in Posen (in today’s Poland) was another manufacturing site for the type 52 locomotive. The Type 52 weighed in at 84 metric tons and had an output of 1620 horsepower.

The type 42 “Kriegslokomotive” was also a strong work-horse for the DR. First built in 1943, the last type 42 ran with the Austrian State Railways (OBB) in 1967. Clearly a well-designed locomotive for such a long service life. The type 42 was also designed to use only a minimum of parts and materials. For example, the pre-war type 50 locomotive used 900kg/1.984lbs of brass – the type 42 only 35kg/77lbs. Of 2-10-0 (U.S.nomenclature) (1′ E German nomenclature) configuration, 866 units were built in total.

Of the faster (express) locomotives, type 05 certainly can be placed in that group. This locomotive was designed in 1936 for rapid passenger service; the locomotive could boast 175 kmh / 108 mph. Of 4-6-4 (U.S. nomenclature) (2’ C ‘2 German nomenclature)configuration, it also boasted an output of 3400 horsepower. After 1944, nearly all 05’s received camouflage paint schemes.

The type 50 locomotive was originally intended to be a replacement for the aging Prussian G10 freight locomotive. Of 2-10-0 (U.S. nomenclature) (1’ E h2 German nomenclature) configuration, 3164 were built by 1943. Henschel was the primary producer. 1630 horsepower at approximately 80 kmh / 49 mph.

In terms of freight wagons, some of the more major German types were:

  • Type SS mys and Sa 705 six-axle heavy load wagon (for heavy tanks, etc)
  • Type SSy “Koeln” four axle medium to heavy load wagon
  • Type R10 two-axle, open stack wagon (about 9.400 kg/20723 lbs payload)
  • Type R10 “Stuttgart” two-axle, open stack wagon with a brake-house
  • Type Ommr “Dresden” and “Linz” two axle box cars; (these are they wagons seen in movies transporting the MG or light FLAK crews in some sort of sandbagged protective position)
  • “Villach” type two-axle open goods wagons (about 10.000 kg/22.246 lbs payload)
  • Type OOt “Saarbruecken” four axle coal transporter
  • Type Om “Breslau” two-axle, open goods wagon with a brake-house

For recovery purposes, one type that was available, the SSt 662 six axle heavy steam crane. German rail recovery teams were really no different from those of anyone else. A fully-equipped recovery unit counted at least one locomotive if not two; supply wagons, a security detail; a crane suitable for the load it would have to recover; etc.

In terms of rear-area construction or repair facilities, those in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania serve as a good background to detail examples. In 1898, the “Dvigatel” works were established in Tallinn. Working in concert with their Latvian counterparts, the Dvigatel works also produced a number of railway wagons for the Czar. After 1918, the Dvigatel works focused on the construction and refurbishing of Russian “Ow” class locomotives; in 1925, they also built a number of street cars for the city of Tallinn. In the 1930’s, the Estonian “Krull” machine works also got started in the rail business. It built a number of locomotives for the Eesti VR. During the second world war, the Krull works did not build any additional engines, but its facilities, as well as those of the Dvigatel site, and its personnel were put to use by the Germans to repair their regional fleet.

Between 26 October 1941 and 01 November 1943, 237 locomotives were transferred to the government of Finland to help replace those damaged by the Soviets. Most of the transferred locomotives were Soviet, but at least four were former Estonian ones.

During the war, one of the largest locomotive and rolling stock servicing facilities on the eastern front was in Riga, Latvia. Initially established as the Russian-Baltic Iron Wagon Factory (a.k.a. Baltic Wagon Works) by the German company of “van der Zypen & Charlier” from Cologne (Koeln), in 1869; the Baltic Wagon Works quickly rose to become one of the largest in the area. The “Phoenix” works were also erected near Riga; this was Igor Sikorsky’s giant aircraft manufacturing center which later also engaged itself in the railroad business. Both were evacuated during the first world war to Russian rear areas. The Sikorsky factory was relocated to Tver and to this day they still construct rail coaches.

After the first world war (1918), German bankers funded the rebuilding of the Phoenix, and Putilov works to build new railroads. The former Putilov factory now serviced primarily Russian “O” class locomotives in addition to building coaches and freight wagons.

As the Germans occupied Latvia in 1941, they were able to capture 91 Latvian wide-gauge locomotives. In total, the Germans captured 187 wide-gauge locomotives in Latvia. All, except 17, were converted to standard gauge.

Lithuania did not have any large locomotive or wagon production centers from the late 1800’s to 1940, but its rail yards could undertake any repair or servicing required. These two were put to use by the Germans in 1941. In 1942/1943, the Germans did erect a repair major rail facility in Palemonas at the rail yard there.