by Douglas E. Nash
Philadelphia: Casemate, 2015. Pp. xxxviii, 374.
Illus., maps, appends., notes, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN:1612003052
Hitler's Last Division
When it comes to studying the German Army of World War II, one notes that there are gaps in the record. These gaps get bigger the lower one goes in the military hierarchy, and one can see this at the National Archives II at College Park, Maryland. The German records on microfilm there are extensive for the Wehrmacht high command (OKW) and the army high command (OKH). The same can be said for army groups, armies, and corps. Records for divisions get spotty. There are, for example, no extant records for the 352nd Infantry Division for June 1944. Below that, records are almost non-existent. One might find regimental reports occasionally nested within division records, but that is about it.
In 1994 Douglas Nash, a retired army officer who now works at Quantico for the Marine Corps History Division, acquired a suitcase with a most interesting set of contents, namely the records of the 272nd Fusilier Company, part of the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division. Once armed with these records, Nash very carefully supplemented this source with other German records at College Park and the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv at Freiburg, the captured German officer manuscript series, extensive American records of the units facing the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division and the secondary literature. The result is a fascinating study.
Nash provides some extensive background on the creation of the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division. Its immediate antecedent, the 272nd Infantry Division, had been badly mauled in the Normandy. Enough of the division had survived, however, so that it could be reconstituted, although this involved drawing elements from other divisions that had been too severely damaged to reconstitute. With the old territorial system of generating replacements destroyed, the new creation had to incorporate replacements drawn from excess Luftwaffe and Navy personnel. Nash provides some detailed analysis of the volks-grenadier division as an organization. Its slightly smaller size in relation to the older infantry division was offset by the improvements in firepower, particularly in the infantry elements.
Having covered the creation of the division, Nash follows the division from its initial commitment in the latter stages of the fighting in the Hürtgen Forest to the division’s surrender in the Ruhr pocket, while some elements were able to retreat to the Harz Mountains before surrendering. A trained field grade officer with long service, Nash has an excellent eye for tactical situations, describing and analyzing them clearly throughout the work. However, some broader conclusions about the volks-grenadier division within the German Army context, perhaps in a short chapter, would have been beneficial.
Given that the volks-grenadier division was created largely for defensive purposes, having the records of the 272nd Fusilier Company is a major asset, as the company was the division’s counterattack unit, in effect its fire brigade. The company was fortunate to have a cadre of able and experiemced officers and NCOs. Nash’s description of events illustrates the combat philosophy of the German Army which believed that the outcome of tactical battles often depended upon the actions of one or two individuals. Thus, having an experienced officer or NCO was critical to maintaining the tactical combat effectiveness of a company.
Nash illustrates clearly the late 1944 situation of the German Army in the west in ways not always considered. While it was well known that the German Army was short of artillery ammunition, there were also a shortages of small arms ammunition, especially for some of the more modern weapons fielded by the German Army, such as the MP-44.
One negative aspect of Nash’s work is due to a factor beyond his control. The 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division played a relatively minor role in the campaign. It was scheduled to play a role in the forthcoming Ardennes offensive, but instead got sucked into the fighting in the Hürtgen Forest, where a temporary commitment became a long term one. Nonetheless, the story of the 272nd Volks-Grenadier Division is an excellent illustration of how the enemy often gets a vote in operations.
To be sure, the book does assume that the reader is familiar with the 1944 campaign in the west. Even the novice, however, would profit from Nash’s knowledge of the German Army, its men and equipment at that stage of the war. Thus, for both students of the German Army in World War II as well as those interested in the late 1944 campaign, this is a must-read.
Note: Victory was Beyond Their Grasp is also available in pdf, $20.99, ISBN 978-1-6120-0306-1, and as an e-book, $20.99, ISBN 978-1-6120-0306-1
Our Reviewer: Prof. DiNardo teaches at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, in Quantico, is the author or editor of several works in military history, among them Breakthrough: The Gorlice-Tarnow Campaign, 1915, Germany and the Axis Powers: From Coalition to Collapse, and James Longstreet: The Man, The Soldier, The Controversy. His most recent reviews for StrateyPage were Unholy Sabbath: The Battle of South Mountain in History and Memory, September 14, 1862 and The Schlieffen Plan: International Perspectives on the German Strategy for World War I