A Critique of the Manpower Crisis of 1944

Western Allied infantry manpower shortages in the European Theatre in 1944

Much ink has been spilt about the apparent US and British manpower shortages in the European Theatre in 1944. There was indeed a planning headache caused by the US decision to maintain their 90 division Army ceiling, despite constant conflicting demands across theatres, and by British and Commonwealth sensitivity to infantry losses. However, I argue here that the actual significance of this problem may have been grossly overstated. I should probably stress that I have not by any means read all the literature on this topic, and I’m happy to be enlightened by more suggestions!

The US manpower balance was between the conflicting needs of the Army’s strategy, US production requirements and the demands of other services. For the strategy question, US planners estimated their manpower requirements for the Germany First policy in terms of how many divisions would be required to defeat Germany. One of the tools they used was to compare the number of US divisions with the number of German divisions as a rule of thumb. Simplistically, they calculated that they needed at least as many as the Germans, plus reserves, bearing in mind that the British had a large number available too, and the Allies had overwhelming air and naval power. The US planners major concern was that their reserve of 18 divisions (in fact, this was later increased to 25) would be insufficient, bearing in mind the German reserve of 11 divisions.

Unfortunately, this crude tool grossly distorted the actual position in terms of manpower and combat strength. Some distortions should possibly have been taken into account at the time, others only become visible with hindsight. I’ve used Niklas Zetterling’s Normandy 1944 for most of the figures here.

German infantry divisions in the West were comparatively small in numbers of men compared with US divisions. In addition they had grossly inferior combat strength, even taking into account their small size, owing to largely horse-drawn or immobile artillery. It is also worth noting that German mobile divisions were significantly below establishment in AT units, especially important in defence, especially at the start of the Normandy campaign.

The US and British command echelons often complained about their lack of infantry. Tanks were not generally a problem, because the reserve tank park was huge. As evidence of this infantry shortage, the British were forced to disband at least 1 division in order to redistribute men to other units. The US in turn, though later, professed a major shortage in December 1944 as a result of the requirements to repel the Ardennes Offensive. This soaked up their reserve divisions in the US. However, note that these reserves did exist and were used for their purpose. The concern was that a further major crisis after the Ardennes would be problematic.

The nature and relative importance of the Western Allied problem is revealed by looking elsewhere. In Normandy by the end of July, total German combat unit strength was somewhat under 400,000, taking into account casualties. The Germans received relatively few replacements for their frontline divisions – about 10,000 men by 23 July and maybe between 30,000 and 40,000 in total by the end of the campaign (Zetterling, Normandy 1944, p31-2). German casualties in Normandy had been nearly 120,000, reflecting a shortfall of around 100,000 in front-line divisions by the end of July. Mean infantry division strength at the start of June was around 10,500, with a divisional slice (average divisional strength plus a share of non-divisional manpower) of around 14,900. This compares to an average Western Allied slice of slightly greater than 40,000, and Allied combat unit numbers at the end of July of about 1.5 million.

As planned by the Allies, the Germans found it impossible to match the Allied force build-up in Normandy, partly because of their adherence to the Pas de Calais defence till July, partly due to Allied air power, and mostly because of the demands of the East. From the German perspective, the only way the Ardennes Offensive in December was possible was through denuding the East so much that it crippled defence against the invasion of East Prussia by the Soviets in early 1945; the defeat in Normandy and the loss of East Prussia due to the requirements of the Ardennes Offensive were prime examples of German manpower difficulties in the West.

German divisions were expected to fight on without replacements, and with virtually no time out of the front line for the entire Normandy campaign. Whole divisions were frequently disbanded and absorbed into other formations (for example, 16 Luftwaffe into 21st Panzer Division) or simply became a collection of flotsam and jetsam attached to kampfgruppe from other divisions (for example, 716 Infanterie), until withdrawn or disbanded.

The Soviets too, far from having a never-ending supply of manpower, were suffering. They were recruiting under 18s and possibly even under 17s by 1945. Their major difficulty all through the war was recruiting enough troops in order to train some of them adequately prior to commitment. Extensive losses forced them to commit significant quantities of troops whose training would, in the West, have rendered them unfit for commitment to combat, leading to even greater losses, in a cycle only ended by victory at horrendous manpower costs in 1945.

Japan, in contrast, despite commitment of over a million men to the China theatre, knew that its production capacity, not manpower, was the limiting factor in the Pacific Theatre. In fact, it proved to be shipping in particular that was critical, removing their ability to transfer troops and logistics to counter threats. So, despite no shortage of manpower, they were not able to deploy combat strength to resist allied amphibious attacks effectively. The US was able to exploit the Japanese lack of mobility once command of the air and sea had been established, negating Japanese manpower strength by bypassing and isolating powerful positions such as Rabaul. The Japanese expenditure of manpower was profligate, including the loss of around 180,000 army troops to sinkings by submarine, and further hundreds of thousands left stranded.

So, looking over the other side of the hill, Western Allied manpower shortages, though they were a planning headache, were as nothing compared to their enemies’, and arguably the Soviets too. When assessing combat strength, it’s also important to look beyond crude comparisons of numbers of divisions. A Western Allied division had about two-and-a-half times the divisional slice of a German one, so already represented a huge numerical superiority, even before we take into account the Western Allies massive preponderance in materiel and air power. Rough parity of divisions in Normandy represented a combat power superiority of at least 4 to 1 and very likely much much more. It may be that the US had reached its Army manpower limit by December 1944. It’s not difficult to argue that Germany had reached its effective manpower limit by the Spring of 1944. Some of the evidence for this was concealed from Allied planners, but there was significant intelligence about German divisional manpower totals and concomitant combat strengths that may have been missed.

Postscript: This blog post represents an idea that needs further investigation and research. It’s a starting point for a hypothesis. It suggests that realistic and hard-headed assessment of enemy strategic capabilities was either not attempted except at a very broad-brush level, or was very difficult to apply. Perhaps it was less important in Allied decision-making than the more straightforward application of our own resources and capabilities, and a more suck-it-and-see approach to strategy than might appear.

4 Responses to “A Critique of the Manpower Crisis of 1944”

  1. 1 Pete S/ SP February 18, 2021 at 15:53

    Great post. I remember reading somewhere that the Brits would often attack with tanks first as the causualties would be less than attacking with infantry even in situations wher attacvking with infantry made the most military sense. It must have been a product of the manpower shortage.



  2. 2 benthamfish February 18, 2021 at 17:10

    Thanks, Pete. Yes, Monty favoured using the large number of tanks they had to spare the infantry, particularly as there was a great fear of getting bogged down like in WW1. However, sometimes the caution got in the way of decisive results.

  3. 3 rmcarlysle February 19, 2021 at 16:14

    Interesting stuff as usual!

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