Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Battle of the Bulge: German Medical Care

My main source is the German Infantry Handbook 1939-1945 by Alex Buchner (cheaper options available on Ebay, or at the Barnes and Noble marketplace).

The Handbook lacks Battle of the Bulge specific information but the Back-Line Services chapter has sections on medical and veterinary services. This chapter is very interesting as I have never thought about the need for a divisional butcher company ("capable of slaughtering 15 cattle, 120 hogs or 240 sheep and making up to 3000 kilograms of sausage daily").


Medical units were divided into troop and divisional services. Troop medical services began with a trained medic assigned to each platoon, and a medical NCO and soldier assigned to the company HQ. The company medics usually worked with the battalion surgeon during a battle and along with auxiliary stretcher bearers were responsible for taking the wounded from the battlefield.

In combat, the hope was that a wounded soldier could be taken off the battle field to a "nest" or collection point, immediately behind the front line. There first aid would be given and transportation to a troop dressing station (TVP) where the battalion surgeon provided "the first professional care" to include bone-setting, stopping of heavy bleeding, serums and other medicines, etc but not surgery.

Transition to divisional care took place at "wagon stops" where troops would be transported from TVPs to a main dressing station (HV-Platz), usually located three kilometers behind the front here.
Here we get our first insight into the difference between U.S. and German medical care.  The Americans relied on jeeps to transport the wounded off the battle field while the designation of "wagon stop" evokes a slower method.

Each division had a medical company, organized in three platoons and other units. All specifics on equipment and number of personnel have to be view as taken from the standard organizational chart and was probably the "best case" for actual medical support resources available:

  • 1st Platoon - Stretcher-bearer platoon. Led by a specialist. Collect troops from the battlefield and set up the wagon stops.
  • 2nd Platoon - Main dressing station platoon. Commanded by a surgeon. Responsible for setting up the HV-Platz. They had "a complete operating facility packed in portable containers, with full lighting and a light field X-ray machine". 
  • 3rd Platoon - Replacement platoon. Commanded by a surgeon (when possible). Helped the other two platoons and set up collecting stations for slightly wounded or sick men.
  • Field Pharmacy (transported in 3.5 ton truck). 
  • Dental Station (dentist and assistant)..
  • At least one cook capable of preparing special rations for patients.
  • Two ambulance columns. Each column had three platoons (40 men and 12 ambulances, two cars and 8 sidecar motorcycles). These columns were used to transport wounded from the Hv-Platzs to field hospitals or other medical facilities.
In addition, the motorized divisional field hospital was manned by five surgeons, assisted by 66 men. Transport included 6 cars, 11 trucks and two motorcycles with sidecars. This level of resources allowed for the care and treatment of up to 200 to 300 patients. The book describes how the field hospitals were usually insufficiently manned and could be ineffective in their mission due to the frequents moves required to stay out of danger. Under a reorganization for infantry divisions in 1943 section the book lists divisional medical services as:

  • 1 medical company, horse-drawn
  • 1 medical company, motorized
  • 1 ambulance company
Long term care and care for the severely wounded would be dependent on local medical infrastructure in the general vicinity or transport back to Germany. 

Veterinary Services

For an army dependent on horse drawn transport (each division had over 5000 saddle and draft horses), veterinary services were as vital to the mission as regular medical services for the humans. 

The veterinary organization consisted of regimental and battalion vets subordinate to the divisional staff. The regimental, battalion and unit vets were located "on the spot where the horses were" so they performed their duties in dangerous locations. .  

Each division had "about thirty" veterinary officers of different skill levels with a strong contingent of reservists called up from rural areas. 

The book doesn't make clear how a veterinary company related to the regimental and battalion veterinarians so I'm guessing it was a divisional asset.  The Veterinary Company consisted of:

  • Six vet officers
  • 24 NCOs
  • 203 enlisted
  • 88 horses
  • 21 wagons
  • 1 car 
  • 9 trucks
  • 1 solo and 2 sidecar motorcycles.
The Veterinary Company was responsible for setting up a collecting centers where wounded and sick animals would receive their "first adequate treatment", a small field hospital along with an area to quarantine horses suspected of contagious diseases and a supply section where healed horses were returned to service or new horses from army remount stations were cared for then distributed.

Hiwis (Soviet prisoners that volunteered to help the Germans) contributed greatly to the veterinarian services. Readers may remember this post in which a Hiwi reenactor is caring for a horse.

After years of reading military history, years of wargaming and knowledge of the vital role horse transport was to the German Army I never gave thought to the fact that:

"Normally every company, battery or unit had a blacksmith or blacksmith NCO.  In the battalions and similar units, and in the veterinary companies, there were master blacksmiths..". The blacksmiths often helped as veterinary assistant giving first aid and care of sick and wounded animals.

Impact of Allied Air Superiority

Foreign Military Studies  MS # B-048's titled Mission of the Chief Army Medical Officer of the Fifth Panzer Army reveals the impact of Allied air superiority towards German medical care:

- Throughout 5th Panzer Army's area of operations a significant portion of casualties, military and civilian, were caused by strafing airplanes, requiring an increased number of surgeons.

- River crossings for medical ferries were located away from troop ferries and marked by "appropriate flags".  River crossings and their associated traffic jams were prime targets for Allied aircraft.

- There were shortages of ambulances and gasoline and sometimes the shortages were exacerbated by air attacks on the ambulances ("frequent enemy air attacks, even on vehicles bearing the Red Cross emblem"). It seems that Allied aircraft attacks on medical installations were "probably unintentional" and "Generally, stations marked with Red Cross emblems were spared by the enemy" but the report states there were many cases aircraft attacking ambulances in broad daylight.

- Air attacks on transportation infrastructure (highways, ferries, overpasses, railways and rail stations) effected the evacuation of wounded to the rear and medical supplies to the front. 

Here is the final paragraph of the report:

"As a result of enemy air superiority, losses were particularly high, the performance of medical duties particularly difficult, and the conditions for adequate treatment of wounds and recovery particularly unfavorable. On the German side, there was no shortage of war-experienced medical officers, and to the end there generally was no lack of medical supplies, but circumstances beyond out control dealt the heaviest blows. Up to 500 casualties passed through collecting stations daily. The job done by the surgeons, who often kept on operating for 16-18 hours practically without pause, could not be surpassed". The same applies to the accomplishments of the medical officers and medical personnel, who worked day and night, and in particular to the performance of the courageous ambulance drivers".

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