The Germans were very sophisticated in "combined" operations, that is, in using airpower and tanks to attack behind the Soviet lines. That's what gave them the advantage in the early part of the war.

Ultimately, their mobile advantages could only be fully exploited by infantry And here, the Germans had far fewer advantages. For instance, during the 1944 counterattack of Operation Bagration, the Soviets enjoyed U.S. "Lend Lease" trucks to take maximum advantage of their breakthroughs. But apparently, the Germans had far fewer trucks, or other motorized transport, and relied on, yes, horses. As a result, during the early days of the war, large numbers of Soviet troops escaped from "pockets" because the Germans could not close the gaps between fast-moving armor and slow moving infantry.

Likewise, the Germans had major supply problems. There were trunk rail lines through the Soviet Union to only parts the front, and from what I understand, "lateral" communications were quite poor. These gaps were largely filled by horse transport, with the Germans being "glad" to capture U.S. Lend Lease trucks because their own were inferior in quality and quantity.

So how dependent were the Germans on horse transport? (My understanding was that the Germans were actually quite "primitive" in this regard compared to the Americans, British, and (later) Soviet armies which is one reason why they lost the war.) And given constraints on fuel and manufacturing capacities, did the Germans have any choice but to be so highly dependent on horses?

  • 1
    I think this is spot on. One thing to remember however is that the 3rd Reich had nothing but Allies in the East and West going into June, 1941 and Barbarossa. Because of their conquest of Czechoslovakia in 1938 they obtained the very valuable manufacturing of the Skoda p38(T) tank..which was an amazing machine though primitive by "German" standards. This simple machine had an outsized roll in the conquests of Poland, France and opening surprise attacks that were 100% motorized against Russia initially. The vast quantity of prisoners became a huge work force to produce even better and even more – user14394 Jun 30 '16 at 3:19
  • 4
    There's a whole book on the subject, Horses of the German Army in World War II. See also Horses in World War II on Wikipedia. – Schwern Jun 30 '16 at 3:56
  • One point to note is that, right from the onset of World War II, fuel was a scarce ressource. Even if the German army had all those trucks, it would just have made the fuel shortage worse. – DevSolar Dec 19 '16 at 13:46

The 2011 TV documentary by Radio Berlin-Brandenburg "Das preussische Gestüt, Neustadt/Dosse" (The Prussian Stud in Neustadt on the Dosse) about one of the oldest still existing main breeding studs and riding schools in Germany has a segment on horses during WW2:

Ab 1937 bestimmen die Kriegsvorbereitungen auch die Zucht in Neustadt/Dosse. [Zitat] Verlangt wird ein Warmblut Pferd mit breiter Brust, dass trabend und als Reitpferd, Marschleistungen von 70-150km volbringen kann. Die Wehrmacht ist in grossen Teilen beritten und bespannt. Da die Industrie zu keiner Zeit ausreichend Fahrzeuge produzieren kann bleibt das Pferd ein vertrautes Fortbewegungsmittel der kämpfenden Armee. Mit der Wehrmacht ziehen fast 3 Millionen Pferde in den zweiten Weltkrieg. Zwei Millionen kommen um. Auf die Dauer des Krieges umgerechnet, sind es täglich 860 Pferde.


From 1937 onward, war preparations drove the breeding program [at the stud] in Neustadt/Dosse. [The official military guidelines] demand a broad-chested warmblood horse that, while ridden in trot can achieve 70-150km [per day]. The Wehrmacht is largely dependent on horse mounts and horse-drawn wagons. As the [German] industry could never provide sufficient numbers of motorised vehicles, the horse remained a familiar means of transportation with the combat troops. Together with the Wehrmacht, nearly 3 million horses participate in the second world war. Two million perish. Over the duration of the war, this amounts to 860 horses every day.

What jumps out, apart from the appalling statistic, is that there were 3 million horses capable of being "drafted" into service. For comparison, the same program mentions that in World War One, the numbers were 1.5 million horses on the German side, of which also about 2/3 die. This at a time when the horse was still far more common and the country (and world) less motorised.

Also, the performance demands are stunning to any equestrian - which would have contributed to the death toll: 70-150km a day is something even modern endurance horses have to work up to - with lightweight riders, super-modern light tack and saddles. Not with a heavy armed soldier on their back. Compare also cowboys and stockmen driving herds all day long, but wouldn't maintain this for long if they had to trot and canter non-stop (contrary to the Hollywood images - See also the TV trope Somewhere an equestrian is crying).

  • yes, and those 3 million were just the ones available at the start of the war. I've heard figures as high as 7 million for the total number of horses the German military used during WW2. A staggering number, especially if you consider that most didn't survive. – jwenting Nov 1 '18 at 5:18
  • Do you have a source for the 7 million? The source I had used 3 million as the overall number over the course of the war. – Marakai Nov 3 '18 at 23:51


Up until 1943 the Wermacht was only 20% motorized. However, this understates the importance of mechanized transport. Consider that a significant fraction of forces were held back for defending and occupying territory, and you'll see that the percentage of forces actually in combat or leading important offensives at any given moment had a greater mechanized component.

Generally, motorized forces led the advance. Infantry units stayed behind to encircle and mop up behind the spearhead. Thus the percent of divisions motorized, or even the total volume of cargo moved by horses, doesn't capture the importance of the motorized forces.

There is no absolute answer to your question but it's clear that the early German offensives relied heavily on armored spearheads and both mechanized and non-mechanized transport played different but important roles.

  • 5
    Only the Panzer divisions were highly mobile and they only comprised a small percentage of the total force. The rest was infantry and lacked mobility, and Germany had trouble producing the hundreds of thousands of trucks it would have needed. The North African campaign was helped by many captured British lorries. The Soviets were in an even worse state, although they compensated by having low logistics requirements for their forces and building up American Lend-Lease truck fleets. – Smith Jun 30 '16 at 13:47
  • The Germans also had Motorized Infantry, later Panzergrenadier divisions, which were as mobile as the Panzer divisions. The rest of the infantry was as you say. – David Thornley Nov 1 '18 at 15:21

Horses in the German Army (1941-1945) from the Combined Arms Research Library Digital Collection http://cgsc.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/compoundobject/collection/p4013coll8/id/2495/rec/1

In seven downloadable parts. Everything you’d ever want to know about the Heer’s use of horses.

  • 1
    Hello and welcome to History.SE! Since content on the Internet might be transient, we have a rule that at least a short summary of relevant information from the linked document should be included in the post. Could you include that, please? – Danila Smirnov Nov 1 '18 at 3:03
  • Thank you so much for this! This is an amazing resource! I've downloaded all 7 parts and am just dipping my toes in. – Marakai Nov 3 '18 at 23:58

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.