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"German Horse Cavalry and Transport" from Intelligence Bulletin

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]   Intelligence report on the German use of cavalry and horse transport in WWII including Waffen-SS, from the Intelligence Bulletin, March 1946.

[Editor's Note: The following article is wartime information on foreign units and tactics published for Allied soldiers. In many cases, more accurate data on the German military is available in later postwar publications.]



[German Horse Cavalry and Transport]

Despite highly ballyhooed emphasis on employment of mechanized forces and on rapid movement, the bulk of German combat divisions were horse drawn throughout World War II. Early in the war it was the common belief of the American public that the German Siegfrieds of Hitler's Blitz rode forth to battle on swift tanks and motor vehicles. But the notion of the mechanized might of the German Wehrmacht was largely a glamorized myth born in the fertile brains of newspapermen. Actually, the lowly horse played a most important part in enabling the German Army to move about Europe.

Public opinion to the contrary, so great was the dependence of the Nazi Blitzkrieg upon the horse that the numerical strength of German Army horses maintained during the entire war period averaged around 1,100,000. Of the 322 German Army and SS divisions extant in November 1943, only 52 were armored or motorized. Of the November 1944 total of 264 combat divisions, only 42 were armored or motorized. The great bulk of the German combat strength—the old-type infantry divisions—marched into battle on foot, with their weapons and supply trains propelled almost entirely by four-legged horsepower. The light and mountain divisions had an even greater proportion of animals, and the cavalry divisions were naturally mainly dependent on the horse.

The old-type German infantry division had approximately 5,300 horses, 1,100 horse-drawn vehicles, 950 motor vehicles, and 430 motorcycles. In 1943, due to the great difficulties in supply and upkeep of motor vehicles in the wide stretches of the Eastern Front, the allotment to divisions in that theater was reduced to approximately 400 motor vehicles and 400 motorcycles, and the number of horses was increased to some 6,300. The 1944-type divisions had about 4,600 horses, 1,400 horse-drawn vehicles, 600 motor vehicles, and 150 motorcycles.

The only fully motorized unit in the old-type infantry division was the antitank battalion. Most of the divisional supply trains were horse drawn, motor vehicles being used chiefly to transport fuel and for the workshop company. A far greater degree of motorization existed among German GHQ troops, the supply units of which were mostly motorized. Motorization of GHQ troops was to a large degree a necessity, since these units included such types of outfits as heavy artillery, for which horse draft would have been a practical impossibility. These motorized GHQ units were assigned to armies, corps, and divisions as originally required.


While the horse played a big role in the average infantry division, the Germans placed no complete confidence in cavalry itself as an arm of extensive usefulness and dependability.

The extent of use of independent horse cavalry units by the Germans varied inversely with German fortunes. During the first 3 years of the war, when Germany was ascendant, such units were almost abandoned completely; they never exceeded one division. From 1943, new cavalry units were formed, and by early 1945 there were six cavalry divisions and two cavalry corps.

The marked growth of independent cavalry toward the end of the war is not to be interpreted as signifying a basic change in German military theory. The new units were required primarily to protect communication lines in the Balkans, where they operated in small independent groups, or to cover the flanks of armies during large-scale withdrawals on the Eastern Front. In both cases, the use of cavalry was largely dictated by lack of motor transport. In late 1943 and early 1944 German military requirements began seriously to exceed production capacities. This was also the period in which strategic bombardment began to cripple the ability of German factories to meet established production targets. The great East Prussian horse-breeding farms not being affected by B-17's and Lancasters, the availability of horseflesh continued undiminished.

[The bulk of the German Army—the dough feet of the normal infantry divisions—moved on shank's mare.]
The bulk of the German Army—the dough feet of the normal infantry divisions—moved on shank's mare. The rifle companies' transport consisted of three-horse wagons, on which the troops loaded their packs, as did this outfit on campaign in Russia in the summer of 1941.

The later use of cavalry units also was necessary from a military standpoint. Balkan and Russian terrain conditions favored the use of mounted units. The Balkans were mountainous, while the trackless wastes of Russia had few roads and many swamps and forests. The steppes, which might be flat and smooth for cross-country motor travel in summer, became morasses after heavy rains. Most roads were almost bottomless in spring and fall. But the Germans had numbers of light (Jäger) and mountain (Gebirgsjäger) divisions to cope with such conditions, so that cavalry units were not the only element of the German Army useful in mud and difficult terrain.

The employment of horse cavalry in an old-fashioned offensive role was confined to the early campaigns, when Germany enjoyed overwhelming air superiority. Even then, cavalry operations were on a small scale. Indications are that the German High Command had no intention of reviving the offensive use of large numbers of mounted units in normal terrain, but that it did intend, in the event of victory, to organize such units on a considerable scale for screening and reconnaissance activities in Eastern Europe and the Near East. Questions of expense and materials involved in the provision of motorized and armored equipment probably played a part in this decision, as did the ability of cavalry to live off the country, especially in agricultural areas.


A review of the tradition-studded history of German cavalry provides significant background for a study of World War II experience. Prussian cavalry, which grew from less than 1,000 sabers in the early 17th century to some 6,000 by 1740, reached the peak of its fame and its most extensive and successful employment under Frederick the Great. During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) it was decisive in a number of victorious battles, both by bold charges and enveloping operations, and on several occasions it prevented disaster by covering infantry retreats. Prussian cavalry made a relatively poor showing in the war with Austria in 1866 when the cavalry corps (copied from Napoleon) was found unwieldy. It was then reorganized with greater fire power and played an important part, under brilliant tactical leadership, in the Franco-Prussian War.

In the early 20th century the German Army included 46 cavalry brigades, each consisting of two regiments of five troops each, with a total of 69,000 men. By 1914 there were 110 regiments with 87,000 men, but there was no further expansion during World War I. German cavalry was used successfully in World War I during the advances in the West, in Poland, and in Rumania; in these campaigns it was employed principally for reconnaissance and screening. To a lesser extent, it was also useful in conjunction with trench warfare and for covering operations during the German retreats in 1918. Occasionally, after using their horses for swift movement to critical sectors, cavalrymen went into action dismounted.

[Light and mountain divisions, of which the Germans had many, used great numbers of animals for transport.]
Light and mountain divisions, of which the Germans had many, used great numbers of animals for transport. Their employment of footsoldiers and animals made them useful on the trackless Russian steppes as well as in difficult and mountainous terrain.

Following the World War I defeat, the German General Staff organized the new Reichswehr so that it would be capable of rapid conversion into a large and powerful modern army when the Treaty of Versailles restrictions were relaxed or abrogated. The 100,000-man army consisted of seven infantry divisions and three cavalry divisions. Each of the latter had 5,500 men and included six regiments of five troops each and one battalion of horse artillery. This cavalry strength was envisaged to be quickly adaptable to the formation of armored and motorized units. Between 1934 and 1939 the German Army expanded to a total of 52 divisions: 35 infantry, 5 Panzer, 4 light (mechanized cavalry), 4 motorized, and 4 mountain.

The only independent cavalry unit with which Germany started World War II was the 1st Cavalry Brigade. On 19 September 1939 the cavalry arm was abolished and the "mobile troops" (Schnelle Truppen) were created to embrace all GHQ cavalry, reconnaissance, tank, antitank, bicycle, motorcycle, and armored infantry units. In April 1943 the term "mobile troops" was abandoned and a new arm known as "Panzer troops" was created to embrace tank and antitank, heavy assault gun, armored reconnaissance, armored infantry, and motorized infantry units. The cavalry, instead of being restored to its former status as an independent arm, was absorbed into the infantry, but members of former cavalry units were still permitted to wear their traditional golden yellow piping, and original cavalry officers were still allowed to call themselves cavalrymen.


Development of independent, cavalry units during World War II is best described by surveying the operations of the four following classifications: early army units (1939-41), Waffen-SS units (1941-45), Cossack units (1943-45), and later army units (1944-45).

The 1st Cavalry Brigade with which Germany started the war included two horse cavalry regiments, one mixed (partly mechanized) cavalry regiment, a horse artillery battalion, a mechanized reconnaissance battalion, and a bicycle battalion. Its T/O strength was 6,200 men and 4,200 horses. This unit participated in the Polish campaign from the first day with considerable distinction, though its exploits were almost unnoticed among the more spectacular and novel operations of the new Panzer divisions. Under the Third Army, but not subordinated to a corps, the brigade moved rapidly from the assembly area in Prussia north of Mlawa to the Narew River, took part in the crossings of that river and the Bug against strong resistance, and reached the area east of Warsaw on the 12th day. As part of one wing of a huge enveloping movement against the Polish capital it attacked both frontally and from the flanks and at times pushed far ahead of the main forces to disrupt enemy communications. This was the only time during the war that a German horse cavalry unit operated successfully against a determined enemy, in the "traditional" offensive role of cavalry.

After the Polish campaign, the brigade was expanded into the 1st Cavalry Division. The 1st Cavalry Division was an orthodox-type cavalry division, with motorized or semi-motorized reconnaissance, signal, engineer, and antitank battalions. It started the Western Campaign in May 1940 in the Aachen sector under the Eighteenth Army. The cavalrymen were on the right flank of the initial drive through northern and western Belgium and into northern France. The division did not see much action at the front, however, until the second phase of the campaign, when it took part with armored forces in the crossing of the Somme and Seine, and later reached the Loire near Saumur. In these operations it played an important part in beating the enemy to vital river crossings, thus isolating large bodies of demoralized French troops. The division was able to travel 45 to 60 miles a day, and on one occasion it was credited (in a German report) with destroying 34 out of 40 attacking tanks.

In the first 2 months of the Russian campaign, when the German armies were advancing rapidly, the 1st Cavalry Division was almost continuously in action in the central sector. It had been expanded further to a total of six regiments, probably organized under three brigades. But the tactics it had mastered in Poland and France, where Germany controlled the air and enjoyed fire power and mobility superiority, were apparently not too successful when applied to the conditions in Russia. The division was withdrawn at the height of German success, sent to occupied France, and converted into the 24th Panzer Division (later to be destroyed at Stalingrad, though subsequently reformed in France). No more cavalry units above squadron size were formed until the latter part of 1943.


The Waffen-SS, recognized as Himmler's "elite" military organization in competition with the army, took an early interest in horse cavalry. By 1941 the General SS (the "non-military" part time branch of the SS) had 23 cavalry regiments of from five to eight troops each. These were intended for equitation training and policing purposes. Shortly after the beginning of the Russian campaign, an SS brigade of two regiments was sent to the front. It operated largely in the front line of the central and southern sectors; it also fought partisans behind the lines. In mid-1942 it had expanded and been converted into the SS Cavalry Division. A high-caliber division, it was part of the force which tried unsuccessfully to relieve the Sixth Army at Stalingrad, and besides engaging in several severe flank-covering retreats it fought in the losing battles for Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk. Late in 1943 it was withdrawn first to Poland and then to Yugoslavia. In March 1944 it entered Hungary as the principal part of the coercive force sent there to insure that country's continued collaboration. While there, it furnished one full regiment and cadres for two additional horse cavalry regiments to form the 22d SS Cavalry Division.

[The Waffen-SS cavalry brigade which served in Russian in 1941 was an elite unit, and like other Waffen-SS outfits had special clothing and equipment.]
The Waffen-SS cavalry brigade which served in Russian in 1941 was an elite unit, and like other Waffen-SS outfits had special clothing and equipment.

Both original SS cavalry divisions were organized along identical lines, each with three horse cavalry regiments, a machine gun troop, a heavy weapons troop, and a headquarters troop; a horse artillery regiment, of three light battalions; a bicycle battalion; an antitank battalion; partly motorized signal and engineer battalions; and a motorized supply regiment. T/O strength was about 10,000 men. While it operated in small groups against Yugoslav partisans, the first SS cavalry division nevertheless retained its supporting arms. These included field artillery with thirty-two 105-mm gun-howitzers and four 150-mm howitzers; antiaircraft, with 20-mm and 37-mm gun; and thirty-five 75-mm or 88-mm antitank guns. Infantry weapons included thirty 81-mm mortars, 4 Russian-type 120-mm mortars, 213 light machine guns, and 42 heavy machine guns.

The two SS cavalry divisions operated together in the defensive battles in the difficult terrain of Transylvania. The Germans probably intended to organize them into a cavalry corps, but due to the exigencies of the campaign this was never accomplished and they came under the control of the IX SS Mountain Corps. The two SS cavalry divisions fell back on Budapest and were among the German units which were encircled in that city and finally destroyed in January 1945. Remnants which escaped combined with replacements to form the new 37th SS Cavalry Division, but this unit never reached full strength and did not distinguish itself in the final confused battles against the Russians in Austria.

[SS cavalry divisions were characterized by good armament, and had a full quota of supporting arms.]
SS cavalry divisions were characterized by good armament, and had a full quota of supporting arms. This photo shows part of a machine gun troop of the original SS cavalry brigade in Russia in '41, and demonstrates the ability of horse transport to negotiate obstacles uncrossable by motors without engineer aid.


Beginning in the summer of 1942, as a part of the German policy of employing ex-Soviet personnel (prisoners of war and deserters), a number of independent Cossack cavalry squadrons and troops were formed under the First Panzer Army in southern Russia. Under German commanders, these units successfully performed long-range reconnaissance and staged raids behind enemy lines in the steppes beyond the lower Don and in the northern Caucasus. In general, however, it was found that foreign units were unreliable in the German retreats during the winter of 1942-43, and all such units were transferred to Poland.

The 1st Cossack Division was officially formed on 1 May 1943. This division was transferred to Yugoslavia in October for protection of German lines of communication, especially the vital stretch of railway between Sisak and Brod.

[Cossack cavalry units in German service were weak in supporting arms, and relied upon cavalry proper for strength.]
Cossack cavalry units in German service were weak in supporting arms, and relied upon cavalry proper for strength. These men are armed with the standard German rifle, but German Cossacks also used captured Soviet arms.

Its strength lay in cavalry proper, for it was very weak in supporting arms. Originally provided with two brigades and later with three, the 1st Cossack Division had two regiments per brigade. One of a regiment's two squadrons could have been bicycle mounted. Each squadron had three or four horse or cycle troops and machine gun troops. The regiment had a heavy weapons troop. Although the German commander complained to his superiors of difficulties in maintaining discipline and loyalty, and the Yugoslav population complained of atrocities committed by the division, this unit performed its specialized mission with success until the Germans began withdrawing from the Balkans in the latter part of 1944. The division was split into the 1st and 2d Cossack Cavalry Divisions. These were absorbed into the Waffen-SS, and the XV SS Cossack Cavalry Corps was set up to control them. By March 1945 the corps was in Slavonia with the new mission of protecting the left flank of Army Group E against Russian attacks.

Late in April the army group swung back rapidly to the north-west against the Austrian frontier, with this Cossack corps at the pivot. In those last hectic days of the war, the cavalry corps was characterized not only by its superior mobility, but by the intense fear on the part of its personnel of being captured by the Russians. Thus it was among the first units to reach Austria and surrender to the western Allies—only to be turned over to the Red Army.


Early in 1944 the German Army decided to revive the use of independent cavalry units as a means of covering withdrawals on the long Eastern Front. The initial brigades were upgraded into "divisions" in February 1945 and a cavalry corps established. Each new cavalry "division" consisted of two horse cavalry regiments of two squadrons each, a horse artillery regiment of three battalions, a partly motorized signal battalion, an armored reconnaissance battalion, and an engineer troop. The artillery armament was weaker than that of the SS cavalry divisions, since only twenty-four 105-mm were allotted. The number of 120-mm mortars was increased to 24, with thirty 81-mm mortars, 72 bazookas. thirty-nine 75-mm or 88-mm antitank guns, 347 light machine guns, 29 heavy machine guns, and nineteen 20-mm antiaircraft or automatic cannon.

The cavalry corps controlled mechanized as well as horse cavalry units. It fought severe defensive battles throughout the summer and fall of 1944 on the Eastern Front. Its principal achievement was successfully covering the northern flank of the Second Army, which was occupying an important salient in the area of Brest-Litovsk. Subsequently the corps was shifted to a relatively quiet sector farther north under the Fourth Army and then, at the beginning of 1945, to western Hungary. The corps ended the war in the vicinity of Graz, controlling the 2d and 4th Cavalry Divisions, the 23rd Panzer Division, and the 16th SS Panzer Grenadier Division.


German doctrine has always laid great emphasis on strong and aggressive reconnaissance at all echelons as a basis for dispositions and operations. This ranged from distant strategic reconnaissance by air forces and by large cavalry or motorized units to constant local patrolling by groups of four or five men from a rifle platoon.

In planning for World War II, the German High Command allotted a full, organic reconnaissance battalion to each division, except for coast defense and other static divisions. The organization of the battalion was identical in virtually all German infantry divisions and was retained without any essential change until 1943, except that there was a tendency in some units to replace the horses by bicycles. Basically, the battalion consisted of one horse troop, one bicycle troop, a heavy weapons troop, and a communications platoon. The horse troop had three platoons (each of three squads) and a heavy machine gun section. The heavy machine gun section had 21 heavy machine guns; each squad had one light machine gun. The troop's strength was 205 men, 213 horses, and 3 horse-drawn wagons.

[Organic cavalry included mounted troops in both the reconnaissance battalion and infantry regiment of the normal infantry division.]
Organic cavalry included mounted troops in both the reconnaissance battalion and infantry regiment of the normal infantry division. These men wore the normal infantry uniform, except for breeches and high boots.

In 1943 a new and smaller type of infantry division was introduced in which the reconnaissance battalion was replaced by a shock infantry unit known as the Fusilier battalion. One company of this unit was mounted on bicycles while the rest were horse mounted. It had to serve both as the divisional reconnaissance element and as the reserve battalion for all three infantry regiments, which had been reduced to two battalions each. The Germans experimented with even smaller divisional setups, but this Fusilier battalion was restored in the 1945-type division, with the horses eliminated and the entire battalion (except heavy weapons elements) mounted on bicycles. The employment of divisional reconnaissance battalions adhered to the usual principles of modern cavalry tactics. The units were used aggressively and skillfully for counterreconnaissance, screening, flank protection, and covering withdrawals.

[Towards the end of the war the bicycle replaced the horse to an increasing extent in organic German infantry reconnaissance units.]
Towards the end of the war the bicycle replaced the horse to an increasing extent in organic German infantry reconnaissance units. This view shows one of the earlier bicycle troops operating in the Arctic. Note the terrain.

Though not strictly a part of the cavalry arm, the mounted platoon in the headquarters company of each infantry regiment in the German Army was used to spearhead regimental movements, for reconnaissance before and during action, and for screening and covering purposes. It consisted of three squads, a headquarters section, and a train, totaling 31 men and 31 horses. In later war operations some horses of the platoon were replaced by bicycles. This replacement was true of all divisions of the Volksgrenadier and 1945 types.


It is clear that the bulk of the German Army would have continued to be horse drawn unless much more bountiful sources of liquid fuel had become available than the Germans expected, even with full control of the Caucasus oil fields. Automotive production capacity would also have affected the degree of German motorization, even without the impact of war to complicate the procurement picture. Certainly, in an economy like the German, provision of motor vehicles on a U.S. scale was impossible. Extensive mass production of vehicles—with its corollary rapid quantity production at low unit cost—did not exist in Germany to the extent common in the United States.

Economic factors, aggravated by the effects of air bombardment, also played a part in the revival of independent horse cavalry toward the end of the war. The horse re-entered the picture, if for no other reason than that he provided a mode of transport not suffering from related procurement shortages other than that of fodder.

Just how largely tactical usefulness weighed in the decision to re-emphasize cavalry remains an open question. The dissolution of the cavalry school, the failure to train new cavalry officers to any significant extent, and the virtual abandonment of GHQ horse cavalry during Germany's victorious surge—all suggest the trend at that time to drop the independent unit altogether. Later developments may have caused the Germans to reconsider their position. Soviet cavalry, which had suffered from some initial reverses during the early campaigns, quickly adjusted its doctrine, tactics, and technique to warfare as fought on the Eastern Front. German forces also found advantages in the employment of independent cavalry, particularly in rough terrain where partisans usually operated.

Himmler, in a confidential speech in October 1943, implied that "mobile frontier" would be established as far cast as possible at the cessation of open hostilities, German youth was to be trained and toughened in policing the native population and the "barbarians beyond." Such a situation might call for the extensive use of cavalry on the enormous trackless wastes of the steppes: Himmler probably believed, also, that the horse was a better "youth-toughener" than the effete motor vehicle. Evidently, Himmler intended to use cavalry for pacification purposes, as opposed to cavalry in full-scale combat against units comprising all arms and services.

The German lesson on the horse in transport and in cavalry units appears to be simple. If horsed units exist, they form a nucleus which can be rapidly expanded should economic and terrain conditions call for extensive use of animals. There seems to be no hard and set rule as to when an army is likely to feel the need for horsed units, since that need is based upon estimates of economic and terrain conditions and of the capabilities of the troops. From the experience of the Germans and of other foreign armies, it is evident that the horse has yet to be supplanted under all conditions.

Should Germany ever be permitted to build up any army of its own again, it is probable that it would include a horse cavalry element—if only to preserve the proud tradition of German cavalry with its motto "Paradise on earth is on the backs of horses" (Das Paradies der Erde liegt auf den Rucken der Pferda).

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