Grossdeutschland: From Ceremonial Guard to Panzer Corps
Despite misconceptions, Grossdeutschland (Greater Germany) was neither a Waffen SS unit nor (officially anyway) a panzer unit, although later on as a supposed panzergrenadier division, was broadly organised as one. Very possibly the German Army's premier formation of World War II, Grossdeutschland grew from a ceremonial guard detachment in Berlin, to become a panzer corps. In many ways it mirrors that of another elite ground formation, the Luftwaffe's Hermann Göring Fallschirmpanzerkorps, which also started out as a small Berlin unit (only in this case, a Police detachment) and ended up a corps-sized unit.
November 1920 – Wach-Regiment Berlin created
June 1921 – Wach-Regiment Berlin disbanded, a smaller unit is then formed, known as the Kommando der Wachtruppe
August 1934 – The Kommando der Wachtruppe is renamed Wachtruppe Berlin
June 1937 - Wachtruppe Berlin expands and is renamed Wach-Regiment Berlin
October 1938 – Elements of Wach-Regiment Berlin are transferred to form Wach-Batallion Wein
June 1939 - Wach-Regiment Berlin is redesignated Infanterie Regiment (Mot) Grossdeutschland
April 1942 – Infanterie Regiment (Mot) Grossdeutschland expands to become Infanterie Division (Mot) Grossdeutschland
June 1943 - Infanterie Division (Mot) Grossdeutschland is redesignated Panzergrenadier-Division Grossdeutschland
November 1944 – Panzer-Korps Grossdeutschland created
The unit can trace its origins back to the creation of Wach-Regiment Berlin, part of the newly forming Reichswehr in late 1920 (after Germany's defeat at the end of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles limited the German Armed Forces to a professional force of 100,000 personnel). Germany, now under a new democratic system of government known as the Weimar Republic, was still relatively unstable after the turmoil at the end of the war. The Government was concerned about possible coup attempts and wanted to create a guard unit for security purposes. Each of the seven divisions of the new Reichswehr would send a company to be part of the guard. However, political tension within the government quickly brought about the disbanding of Wach-Regiment Berlin, which was replaced by the more politically acceptable Kommando der Wachtruppe in mid-1921, which consisted of seven infantry companies and an artillery battery.
After Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power in Germany, the Kommando der Wachtruppe was renamed Wachtruppe Berlin in mid-1934 and then expanded by adding an eighth infantry company and a headquarters in 1936. Generaloberst Werner von Fritsch, then Commander-in-Chief of the Army (Der Heer), then decreed that every unit of the army should send their best drilled soldiers for service (on a rotating basis) with the unit. This expansion continued in mid-1937 when the unit was redesignated Wach-Regiment Berlin, while in late 1938, small numbers of officers and men were transferred to Vienna to help form a new guard unit, Wach-Batallion Wein. In April 1939, in recognition that its troops were drawn not from a particular area as most army units were but from right across Germany, Wach-Regiment Berlin was expanded to a full regiment of four motorised battalions and shortly thereafter, renamed Infanterie-Regiment (Mot) Grossdeutschland. Again, small numbers of officers and men were used to form another guard unit, Wach-Kompanie Berlin, in September 1939.
Following the formation of Wach-Kompanie Berlin in September 1939 under Hauptmann von Bölkow, the unit expanded in April 1940 to become Wach-Batallion Berlin. It was renamed Wach-Batallion Grossdeutschland in October 1942. In late 1943, a detachment under Leutnant Görlitz was sent to act as a guard to King Leopold III of Belgium at the Royal Castle of Laeken. In July 1944, the unit played an important role in preventing the group behind Operation Valkyrie (the coup attempt against Hitler) taking control of several important buildings. In recognition, the unit's commander (Otto Ernst Remer) was promoted to Oberst and in November 1944, the unit expanded to become Wach-Regiment Grossdeutschland. Along with two regiments from the 166th Reserve Division, Wach-Regiment Grossdeutschland helped form the 309th Infantry Division on 1 February 1945, which was redesignated Infanterie-Division Berlin on 7 February 1945. It was destroyed in the battle around Küstrin in April 1945.
Operational History of Grossdeutschland
Sent to the Grafenwöhr Exercise Area and trained as a motorised infantry formation, Grossdeutschland missed the Polish campaign, although a small detachment was formed into a personal bodyguard for the Fuhrer under the unit title of Führer-Begleit-Battalion and saw some service (non-combat) in Poland. The regiment took part in the invasion of France and the Low Countries as part of Guderian's XIX Corps, having the 43rd Engineer Battalion and the 640th Assault Gun Battalion attached. It saw action against both French and British forces and occupied Lyon on 19 June 1940. Reinforced by the 17th Motorcycle Battalion in July, it was stationed in Alsace while training for the planned invasion of the UK, Operation Sealion. After that failed to take place, the unit was reinforced by several artillery and flak units, formed into a regimental combat group and then sent to take part in the invasion of Yugoslavia (April 1941), where it captured the Belgrade radio station. Soon after, it was transferred north to take part in Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR) on 22 June 1941 supporting the 7th Panzer Division. It fought in the battles for Bialystok and Minsk (24 June – 6 July), the breakthrough on the Dniepr River (7-10 July), the capture of Smolensk (14-20 July) and overrunning Soviet positions around Desna (18-30 August). It was then involved in defence operations around Jelnja (24 July – 22 August) and Desna (18-30 August), involved in the Battle for Kiev (much of September 1941), heavy fighting east of Romny (26 September – 3 October), the double battle of encirclement of Vyasma-Bryansk (10-20 October) and the fighting around Tula (21 October – 5 December). With the Soviet counteroffensive, Grossdeutschland suffered heavy casualties firstly around Tula (where the motorcycle battalion was virtually wiped out) and then near Orel (where it's II Battalion had to be disbanded). By 6 January 1942, Grossdeutschland's casualties on the Eastern Front totalled 900 killed, 3,056 wounded and 114 missing.
Meanwhile, several new GD battalions had been raised, and the decision was taken to upgrade the unit to a full motorised infantry division, which started forming on 3 March 1942 in the Wandern Training Area near Berlin. The original regiment was withdrawn from the line, joining the rest of the division at Rjetschiza on the Dnieper and on 17 April 1942 was redesignated Infantrie-Division (Mot) Grossdeutschland. Initially sent south to support 4th Panzer Army, it attacked eastwards towards Kursk reaching Voronezh on 6 July and then southwards, reaching the junction of the Rivers Don and Donetz by the end of the month. It was then moved into reserve near Smolensk but only a week later was sent north again to join Army Group Centre and fought a number of defensive actions around Rzhev (10 September 1942 – 10 January 1943), including being encircled by several Soviet armoured units in the Lutschessa Valley during November and suffering heavy casualties. It was then in action around Kharkov (19 January – 31 March 1943) and helped to retake the city. It was then pulled out of the line and placed in reserve near Poltava. The division was hastily rebuilt, receiving Staff, GD Panzer Regiment (formerly Staff, 203rd Panzer Regiment) and II / GD Panzer Regiment (formerly II / 203rd Panzer Regiment, 23rd Panzer Division). The motorcycle battalion was reorganised as a panzer reconnaissance unit, a fourth artillery battalion was added and the GD Panzer Battalion became I / GD Panzer Regiment. On 1 July 1943, a Tiger battalion joined the division as III / GD Panzer Regiment, a clear indication of its elite status as these tanks were usually formed into independent units held as corps or army assets. The Grossdeutschland Division had now become a panzer division in everything but name and at around 300 tanks, was stronger than many of the panzer divisions then stationed on the Eastern Front. Despite this, it was redesignated as Panzergrenadier-Division Grossdeutschland on 23 June 1943.
The division then participated in Operation Citadel and the subsequent Battle for Kursk (5-12 July) as part of the 4th Panzer Army. After that it fought in defence of Kharkov, Orel and Bryansk (18 July – 5 August) and then took part in defensive fighting to the west of Kharkov (6 August – 14 September) and the retreat behind the Dnieper (15-28 September). By the end of September, the division only had one operational tank left. It spent the rest of 1943 manning a section of the frontline near Kremenchug. The new year brought more engagements. It fought at Kirovograd (5-18 January 1944), on the Dnieper (29 January – 6 March), Nikolayev and during the retreat to the River Bug (7-27 March). Meanwhile, the division was reinforced with a new panzer regiment (the 26th) equipped with new PzKw V Panther tanks. However, the unit was badly mauled in the fighting around Cherkassy in February and sent to Normandy to rebuild, where it was caught up in the invasion of Normandy (D-Day) and did not re-join the division until October. Fortunately, the division also received enough replacement equipment to re-fit the division's organic tank regiment, which by then consisted of I Battalion (five companies of Panthers), II Battalion (five companies of PzKw IVs) and III Battalion (four companies of Tigers). It also received the 1029th GD Grenadier Regiment (Reinforced) formed from the division's reserves, which included two battalions of motorised infantry, an artillery battalion and two antitank companies.
Spring 1944 saw Grossdeutschland having retreated out of the USSR into Romania. It saw action in northern Bessarabia and the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains (27 March – 25 April), the upper Moldau River (26 April – 31 May) and near Jassy (2-6 June). It was during a lull in the fighting in May, that the GD Fusilier Regiment was returned to Germany and entirely re-equipped with half-tracks. However, both it and the GD Panzer Grenadier Regiment had suffered so many casualties, that the IV Battalion in both regiments had to be disbanded. The GD Fusilier Regiment managed to return to the division just in time to take part in the fighting near Jassy, but it suffered so many casualties that its I Battalion had to be disbanded temporarily, although the 1029th GD Panzer Grenadier Regiment was disbanded soon after, and its survivors used to reconstitute I / GD Fusilier Regiment. On a more positive note, the GD Panzer Engineer Battalion was expanded to almost regimental strength.
Late summer saw the division sent to East Prussia. Army Group North had been trapped in the Baltic States and Grossdeutschland was among the forces tasked with opening a corridor, which was accomplished by 25 August. There was then a lull in the fighting in that sector for over a month but Hitler did not take advantage of the opportunity to extricate the 16th and 18th Armies from Courland. On 5 October, the Red Army again attacked and sealed off Army Group North. The division was pushed back into the Memel pocket and evacuated by the Kriegsmarine back to East Prussia in late 1944. In November, Panzer-Korps Grossdeutschland was created, consisting of Panzergrenadier-Division Grossdeutschland and Panzer-Grenadier Division Brandenburg. In line with this, December saw Grossdeutschland undergo its final major reorganisation. Its panzer and panzer grenadier regiments were reduced to two battalions each, the artillery regiment was reduced to three battalions and the assault gun battalion was transferred to the Brandenburg Division as II / Brandenburg Panzer Regiment. The III / GD Panzer Regiment became the GD Heavy Panzer Battalion and became part of the corps troops, which is what happened to the other battalions the division lost (except for the assault gun battalion).
In January 1945, the GD division was in the Willenberg area of East Prussia. Back in action on the 15 January against two Soviet Fronts who were approaching Königsberg (now Kaliningrad, which belongs to Russia), it fought a long defensive battle before conducting a counterattack in early March that re-established a communication route between the city and Ermland. However, Red Army pressure was just too strong and the GD division was forced to retreat through Ermland, over the Frisches Haff into Samland. From there it retreated through Samland, fought in the Battle of Pillau and the defence of the Frisches Nehrung (12-30 April) – it was still fighting when Hitler committed suicide. The exhausted remnants, some 4,000 personnel, were evacuated by the Kriegsmarine to Schleswig-Holstein where they surrendered to British forces.
1934 – October 1935 Eric von Keiser
Oct 1935 – Oct 1936 Werner Freiherr von and zu Gildsa
Oct 1936 – June 1939 Oberst Hans von Alten
June 1939 – Aug 1941 Oberstleutnant (then Oberst) Wilhelm-Humold von Stockhausen
Aug 1941 – April 1943 Oberst (then Generalmajor, then Generalleutnant) Walter Hörnlein
April – June 1943 General der Panzertruppen Hermann Balck
June 1943 – Jan 1944 Generalleutnant Walter Hörnlein
Feb 1944 – Sept 1944 Generalleutnant Hasso von Manteuffel
Sept 1944 – Feb 1945 Generalmajor Karl Lorenz
February – May 1945 Generalmajor Hellmuth Mäder
Order of Battle
Component Units (May 1942):
1st Grossdeutschland Infantry Regiment (three battalions from the original GD Regiment)
2nd Grossdeutschland Infantry (later Fusilier) Regiment (three battalions)
Grossdeutschland Panzer Battalion (formerly I / 100th Panzer Regiment)
Grossdeutschland Motorcycle Battalion
Grossdeutschland Tank Destroyer Battalion (formerly 643rd Tank Destroyer Battalion)
Grossdeutschland Panzer Artillery Regiment (three battalions)
Grossdeutschland Army Flak Artillery Battalion (formerly 285th Army Flak Artillery Battalion)
Grossdeutschland Assault Gun Battalion (formerly 192nd Assault Gun Battalion)
Grossdeutschland Panzer Engineer Battalion (formerly 43rd Engineer Battalion)
Grossdeutschland Panzer Signal Battalion (formerly 309th Signal Battalion)
Special Insignia and Uniforms
Grossdeutschland utilised all the standard uniforms and equipment found in the rest of the German Army. One item of insignia unique to Grossdeutschland was the use of a cuffband, first authorised in June 1939 and positioned on the lower right sleeve, fifteen centimetres from the edge of the cuff. It was 32mm wide and had the legend Grossdeutschland machine-woven in metallic aluminium thread and Gothic-script characters, on a dark green rayon backing with woven aluminium edge stripes. In the summer of 1940, a new version was produced which had Inf. Regt. Grossdeutschland as an inscription but by far the most widely seen is a third variant, introduced in late 1939, again with the single word Grossdeutschland as an inscription. This inscription was hand-woven in aluminium bullion thread in the old German Sütterlin script on a black (rather than dark green) band with edging in aluminium 'Russia' braid. In mid-1944, attempts were made to standardise the manufacture of cuffbands in the interests of economy and so the cuffbands after this time are machine-embroidered in silver-grey yarn on a black wool cloth band with edging in silver-grey 'Russia' braid. In November, the length of the cuffband was limited to twenty-five centimetres, so it did not reach all the way round the sleeve. In addition, a special shoulder strap cipher were used, initially being a 'W' when the unit was known as the Wach-Regiment Berlin, but later being changed to 'GD' when it became Grossdeutschland. The unit motif placed on vehicles was a white, left-facing Stahlhelm (helmet).
In terms of miniature figure wargaming, there are a number of scales available, depending on what the player’s requirements are. These range from 1/285 or 1/300 scale micro armour (where each tank is only 10-15mm long) to individual figures up to around 32mm or higher, with three of the more popular scales being 15mm, 20mm and 28mm. Many wargames rules will cater for different scales. With regard to the 28mm scale (the author’s preferred choice), several wargames figure manufacturers, including Black Tree Design, Artizan Design, Crusader Miniatures and Warlord Games, produce extensive ranges of 28mm figures in both metal and plastic covering the German Army during the Second World War, while some (Warlord Games and Rubicon Models for example) do equipment and vehicles. These are available as individual figures, vehicles or pieces of equipment (such as an anti-tank gun or artillery piece) but also in larger units. This includes sets that can form the basis of a particular unit for example, Warlord Games produces the 'German Pioneers' or the 'Blitzkrieg German Infantry' sets which contain around thirty figures as part of their Bolt Action range. They also have many of the major items of equipment that Grossdeutschland utilised, as do Rubicon:
- PzKw III, IV, V and VI tanks;
- StuG III, Marder II and III, Hummel and Wespe self-propelled guns;
- Hetzer tank destroyer;
- SdKfz 7, 250 and 251 halftracks;
- PaK 36, 38 and 40 anti-tank guns.
Bellis, M. (1988) German Tanks and Formations 1939-45, Crewe: Self-Published.
Lucas, J. (1979) Germany's Elite Panzer Force: Grossdeutschland, Tonbridge: BCA (by arrangement with Macdonald and Jane's Publishers).
Marcus. (2018) Axis History website, located at https://www.axishistory.com, as of 6 September 2018.
Metapedia. (2015) Wach-Regiment Berlin (Reichswehr) webpage, last modified 14 August 2015, located at https://de.metapedia.org/wiki/Wach-Regiment_Berlin_(Reichswehr), as of 11 September 2018.
Mitcham, S. (2001) The Panzer Legions: A Guide to the German Army Tank Divisions of World War II and Their Commanders, London: Greenwood Press.
Nafziger, G. (2011) Organizational History of the German Armoured Formations 1939-1945, Combined Arms Research Library (Digital Library), archived from the original 8 December 2011, located at https://web.archive.org/web/20111208094147/http://www.cgsc.edu/CARL/nafziger/939GXPZ.PDF, as of 17 July 2018.
Quarrie, B. (1977) Panzer-Grenadier Division 'Grossdeutschland', London: Osprey Publishing, Vanguard Series No. 2.
Spaeter, H. (1990) Panzerkorps Grossdeutschland – A Pictoral History, West Chester, PA: Schiffer Publishing.
Williamson, G. (2002) German Army Elite Units 1939-45, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, Men-at-Arms Series No. 380.
Satellite units of Grossdeutschland included:
Wach-Kompanie Berlin (was eventually expanded to regiment status and helped form the 309th Infantry Division in early 1945)
Fuhrer-Grenadier Brigade (formed in July 1944, it was expanded to divisional status in early 1945)
Fuhrer-Begleit Brigade (formed in November 1944, was expanded to divisional status in early 1945)
Panzergrenadier-Division Kurmark (formed in January 1945)