James F. Slaughter, The ‘Grossdeutschland’ Division in World War II (Osprey, 2024)
Over 18 million men joined the German Army in World War II. Some of them fought in units that became almost legendary in military history; units that saw intense combat or fought against terrible odds and survived. One of those was the Grossdeutschland division that operated mostly on the Eastern Front and blunted many Soviet attacks. In this book in Osprey’s Elite series, James F. Slaughter tells that story.
Slaughter traces the Grossdeutschland division to 1921 as a short-lived ceremonial force. Fast forward eighteen years to the invasion of Poland, and we find the Grossdeutschland not yet involved in combat but preparing to fight. It was ready in March 1940. Slaughter here provides the first of many sit-reps on how the regiment, as it was then, was organised and armed. He then narrates combat operations, beginning in Belgium in May 1940. He incorporates casualty statistics into his overview and biographical information on many of the officers. The first of the division’s war crimes, the massacre of French-African prisoners, does not go unnoticed either. The Grossdeutschland earned its combat reputation in Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Officially a division before the summer offensive of 1942, and after a period or rest, the Grossdeutschland took the field from June to October, suffering heavy casualties in the process. The following year found the division still on the Eastern Front, where in a period of refit, it was restyled as a panzergrenadier division. That meant a considerable improvement in equipment and armour support.
The upgraded division took part in the massive Battle of Kursk and all that entailed, which drained the division’s combat effectiveness. Slaughter notes that this battle was the division’s high tide as they fell back against the Soviet onslaught. That continued in 1944 with the Grossdeutschland withdrawing to cover Rumania, striking the Soviets with counter-attacks along the way. In July, the division moved to Lithuania, while other elements moved west and took part in the Battle of the Bulge. Also in December, the division became a Panzerkorps, which it would remain until the end of the war. The scattering of the division across numerous fronts gained pace in 1945 as the Reich collapsed, though most of the division remained in the east. Slaughter concludes that while the Grossdeutschland had ‘dirty hands’, its reputation as an effective combat organisation outlived its physical existence.
It is not clear from this book that the Grossdeutschland deserves a place in the pantheon of elite units, but it was certainly a German mainstay in the thickest actions, particularly on the Eastern Front. Slaughter writes well, never letting technical information bog down his narrative. Along the way, he highlights the stories of some of the courageous soldiers who earned their medals, though quite a few did so posthumously. Slaughter’s text is accompanied throughout by excellent photographs and colour illustrations. Students of the German army and general military history readers will enjoy this book.