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German Rations During Offensive Operations
By Jim Pool (Lt.Col., Ret.)


Special thanks to Jim Pool for providing the article below.  Mr. Pool is a well known collector, historian, & author with focus on the topic of WWII German rations items .  He has contributed several articles to this site & we are always excited when we receive a new one as they are always full of great information and images. If you enjoy reading this article, then we highly recommend you pick up his new book, Rations of the German Wehrmacht in World War II.  It is definitely a "must have" for those of us interested in things like this.
 

Introduction
I was reading my copy of the book, “Deutsche Soldaten” by Agustín Sáiz the other day and came across this rather peculiar passage:

”Lack of food, or worse still, hunger, was one of the nightmare scenarios of a soldiers' existence. The Blitzkrieg, in spite of all its advantages in terms of warfare, meant an ongoing serious problem for the supply corps. Supplies had to be transported across un-surfaced roads and along trails, often under enemy fire and in all kinds of weather. Of course, ammunition that was essential for the development of the campaign and maintaining what could be a fluid front was given priority. In consequence, and more often than not, the troops suffered alarming ration shortages until positions were stabilized and supplies delivered regularly. Until that time, the men had to survive on combat rations, more popularly as 'iron rations' that-whenever possible-were swapped for fresh products with the local population.”

I'm not positive what the author was trying to convey, but the impression it gave me was that the German soldier on the offense had to sustain himself solely on a Half Iron Ration and by foraging. That's certainly not an accurate picture of how the German supply system operated. The German military conducted in depth staff work before conducting any type of operation. Several courses of action were developed along with the pro's and con's associated with each course. Logistic planning was just as thorough as the tactical planning. Rations were given equal priority in the planning process along with ammunition, fuel and lubricants, medical, postal etc. More often than not in the actual execution of operations, fuel and ammunition were given priority over rations as far as allocating transport.

Once a course of action was decided upon, the preparations began. In the ration arena that meant filling unit ration requirements and stocking depots. By the end of the war the German military kept 20 days of rations in the field. The troop units stocked 3 days of normal supplies and 2 days iron rations (1 half and 1 full). Corps and Division dumps stocked 5 days rations. The Army Depots stocked 10 days rations and the Army Group 5 days. Once operations began, rations were requisitioned as needed to keep the depots and units stocked. Local stores obtained by purchase or confiscation were not considered when conducting combat operations.

Doctrine
As mentioned at the troop level there were 3 days of normal rations and 2 days of iron rations on hand. I have decided to focus the rest of this discussion on infantry units. The reason is because the infantry made up the great majority of the German military and also because they were also the most difficult to supply. Unlike their mechanized comrades the infantryman had to carry everything with them. There are numerous types of offensive operations each having their own logistic challenges. I have chosen a breakthrough scenario, pursuing an enemy against light to moderate resistance in a air power neutral environment. The unit commander would assess his situation and determine the best options to keep his troops fed. Generally once the troops started pursuing the enemy it would be difficult for the field kitchens to move and set up in order to provide hot meals for the troops. In most cases the commander would try to feed his troops before an operation began, issue the half-iron ration as well as cold components of the normal rations to keep the soldiers fed until the field kitchens could get forward and established. The question is just how much of the normal ration should be issued? Remember the infantryman had to carry everything with him, food, ammunition, extra clothing, personal kit, field gear, weapon etc. At some point weight becomes an issue because it can impact the soldiers ability to function. This paragraph in Merkblatt 18a/17 Taschenbuch für den Winterkreig, dated 1942 shows a deep understanding of the common infantryman's plight: "If it is anticipated that serving from field kitchens will not be possible, powdered coffee, tea and other rations should be issued in advance, to enable the soldiers to prepare their own hot drinks and hot food. To prevent overloading the men, however, only essential rations should be issued. Otherwise they will throw away whatever seems unnecessary at the moment."

The daily allowance for the standard infantryman till the end of 1944 is shown below. I have not encountered a standardized list of cold components to be issued to the troops during offensive operations. It appears that decision fell on the unit commander or his chain of command.

700 grams of bread:

Fresh bread in loaves seems to be popular. However other bread products in cans, cartons, paper wrapping were also options.

173 grams of meats, soy bean flour, cheese fish or eggs:

Fresh sausage or salami seemed to be popular. However tube cheese, canned meat or fish were also options.

650 grams of vegetables:

Its possible that mixed canned meat/vegetables were issued.

45 grams of pudding powder or skim milk:

Its unlikely that pudding powder was issued. Small aluminum cans of milk were perfect in size and weight.

19 grams of spices, salt and other seasoning  
9 grams of coffee or tea  
60 grams of fat and bread spreads:

Butter, lard, marmalades, fats and bread spreads.

40 grams of sugar:

Units were ample supplied with a wide variety of chocolates and other sweets. These would have been perfect for troops on the offensive.

Ideally the commander would want the field kitchen to get in position to provide a hot meal within 24 hours of a start of operations or supply the cold components of the normal ration to sustain the troops until that occurred. Each soldier also carried a Half Iron Ration for emergency use, in the event food could not be provided within the 24 hour window. Only the commander, platoon leader or in special circumstances the squad leader could authorize the Half Iron Ration to be eaten.

At the unit level they would requisition, receive, stock, cook and distribute rations as required. Rations would be delivered to or picked up by the unit using available transportation. In extreme cases the Air Force would fly rations to forward airfields or utilize drop canisters to get rations to forward units. During combat operations the front line units would generally send troops back to a predetermined location to pick up rations for their units and take them forward.

Results
How well did this system work in practice? Jeff Johannes wrote an interesting article entitled German Rations at the Front: A snap of what the German Soldier consumed during the Battle of the Bulge. He concluded that "the real story is that the German Army could not even keep its own front line combat troops adequately fed during the campaign." I decided to examine his conclusions utilizing a number of references on the battle to include his primary source, The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg, Volume I: The Germans. I have restricted my research to the period 16 December to 25 December, 1944. Once the weather cleared on 25 December Allied air power came into play, denying the Germans any hope for victory.

At the strategic level rations appeared to have little impact on the final outcome of the battle. I think the following paragraph from the book The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge by Hugh M. Cole summarizes the food situation during the campaign:

” The Germans 'fueled' their horses with greater ease than their motor vehicles. Straw and hay were plentiful in the area, although an order had to be put out forbidding the use of straw as bedding material for the troops, and those units which came late into an area found foraging sparse. Potatoes and livestock were taken from the local population in large quantities, but the supply of bread stuff was barely adequate, chiefly because of troubles in transporting bulk flour to the field bakery units. It was necessary therefore to reduce the bread ration to all but front-line troops.”

Except for bread stuffs the German ration system didn't appear to suffer from any major shortages of food items during the Ardennes offensive. Even the lack of bread stuffs was not due to a shortage of flour, but rather a lack of transportation (which impacted all classes of supply) to carry it forward to the Field Bakeries.

Finally I searched through the The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg, Volume I: The Germans to get the soldiers perspective on how well the ration system worked during the campaign. Its important to remember that the book is not an analysis of the German Ration system, but personal recollections of veterans who participated in the battle.

Feldwebel Günter Münnich, I Bn. GR 914
 

Dec. 16 -

In the attack
 

Dec. 21 -

Acquired a lot of U.S. Rations and a ham.
     

Unteroffizier Wilhelm Stetter, 3rd Co. GR 915

 

Dec. 15 -

At noon he received rations and later given his march rations consisting of bread and honey.
  Dec. 16 -

In the attack.

  Dec. 17 -

Ate bread ration.

  Dec. 18 -

Shared his half iron ration with Naval personnel who had either eaten or thrown away their iron rations.

  Dec. 19 -

Got mail and rations to include hot coffee.

  Dec. 20 -

Found U.S. Rations and a jar of jam.

  Dec. 21 -

Got rations to include bread.

  Dec. 24 -

Order given to eat Iron Rations.

  Dec. 25 -

Found food in abandoned homes. Received a hot meal from the Field Kitchen.

     

 

Friedrich Schmäschke, 3rd Co. I Bn. GR 916

  Dec. 15 -

Iron rations distributed and checked. Got a hot meal.

  Dec. 16 -

In the attack. Captured U.S Rations. Field Kitchen arrives that evening.

  Dec. 17 -

Got hot meal from the Field Kitchen. Cold rations were not distributed.

  Dec. 18 -

Field Kitchen had moved and food was not received till noon. He went to stable where equipment from dead and wounded soldiers was stored and picked up three extra Iron Rations, bread, and Scho-ka-kola. Between 1400-1500 he received a hot meal. Was later wounded and evacuated.

     

Eduard Krüger, 5th Parachute Division

  Dec. 16 -

0530 issued Iron Rations and breakfast. Found some potatoes and bacon.

  Dec. 19 -

Hot food delivered from the Field Kitchen, but he had so many captured U.S. Rations that he and his comrades passed on the issue foods. He was captured sometime after this date.

     

Ulrich Krüger, 14th Co., Parachute Regiment 15, 5th Parachute Division

  Dec. 16 -

Issued cold rations which included bread, butter, sausage and soft cheese.

     

     
     

Paul Engelhardt, 276th VGD

  Dec. 16 -

In the attack.

  Dec. 20 -

0300 got a hot meal from the Field Kitchen. It consisted of a casserole with peas, beans, savory cabbage, carrots, potatoes, turnips or red cabbage with a lot of meat or fat. Now and then there were also baked potatoes, goulash or a piece of roast meat with vegetables, fruit and salad. The food was plentiful here, and each man received a mess kit with 1.5 to 2 liters of it. The cold rations were also distributed along with the Half Ration (The cold rations were given out when it was anticipated that the Field Kitchen would not be able to provide food in the course of the following day). The cold food consisted of Army Bread, various spreads like butter or margarine, sausages of various types, jelly, Ersatz Honey, hard cheese or cheese spread, sardines in oil, fish in tomato sauce and Scho-ka-kola. He later mentions receiving 3 cigarettes a day as the daily ration, plus 10 extra a day for being in the Front Lines.

  Dec. 25 -

Was issued the Front Line Assault Ration.


 

Conclusion
There were numerous other accounts in the book where no mention of rations. Many of the above accounts show periods of several days where nothing is said about the ration situation. The lack of comments is a pretty positive indication that the ration system was functioning. Providing rations to troops conducting offensive operations is difficult even under the best of conditions. As a member of the U.S. Army I remember fondly receiving the mornings hot breakfast at midnight, if at all, and this was during peacetime maneuvers. Throw in bad weather, a poor road network, a lack of transport vehicles and a determined enemy and it makes you wonder how the German Military was able to function as well as it did, after 5 years of almost continuous combat.

The following paragraphs in Alex Buchner's book The German Infantry Handbook 1939-1945 captures the essence of the Germans ration system during the war.

"The rations intended to be the morning, midday or evening meal could, naturally, not always be delivered at the regular times on account of the fighting. For this reason the field cooks had to be movable and able to improvise. While in times of quiet, every soldier in the assembled company came forward with his own utensils and field flask to get his food, in times of action the food was brought close to the front. In darkness the Field Kitchen was driven to a known, designated place, as protected as possible, to which the company's food gatherers (three to four men per group) came to get warm and cold food for the following day; one man per group took about six full cooking pots for his comrades, a second had the field flasks filled with coffee or tea and slung on himself, and a third carried the cold food in a tent square or sack. Such a distribution of food was not without danger. The clearly audible rattling of the utensils, the flashes of flashlights and such often drew enemy fire."

"Naturally, there were times of hunger and deprivation often enough, when supply problems or critical situations brought rations to a stop. But no soldier starved as long as he was with his troops (with the exception of the Sixth army's defeat in the Stalingrad basin). And it probably would have been impossible for half-starved German soldiers to have marched forward and back for thousands of kilometers through all of Europe in campaigns that went on for years."

 
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Sources:
 

Buckner, Alex, The German Infantry Handbook 1939-1945, Schiffer Military History, 1991

 

Cole, Hugh M., The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge,Office of the Chief of Military History, United States Army, Washington, D.C., 1965

 

Gaul, Roland, The Battle of the Bulge in Luxembourg, Volume I: The Germans, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 1995

 

Johannes, Jeff, Article for Der Erste Zug, German Rations at the Front: A snap of what the German Soldier consumed during the Battle of the Bulge.

 

Pool, Jim and Bock, Tom, Rations of the German Wehrmacht in WWII, Schiffer Military/Aviation History, 2010

 

Sáiz, Agustín, Deutsche Soldaten,Casemate Philadelphia and Newbury, 2008

 

Merkblatt 18a/17 Taschenbuch für den Winterkreig, dated 1942

    

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