German Rations at the Front: A snap of what the German Soldier consumed during the Battle of the Bulge
By Jeff Johannes; editing and additional information provided by Doug Nash
Introduction: The purpose of this article is to examine what type of sustenance German soldiers ate while on the frontlines in WWII. Instead of giving a broad picture of what combat rations soldieers were supposed to be issued, this article will describe, in the words of Soldaten, what they actually ate to sustain themselves. To assist in further narrowing down this topic, this article will focus on one unit during one campaign the 352nd Volksgrenadier Division during the German's Ardennes Offensive, known in the United States as The Batttle of the Bulge.
Background: On December 16th, 1944, the Wehrmacht launched its great offensive, code-named Operation Wacht Am Rhein, against the U.S. First Army arrayed along the north-central German border. The focus of the campaign was the Ardennes Forest area along the German-Belgian border. An often overlooked aspect of the campaign was that of the offensive actions that took place in northern Luxembourg. To most students of WWII history, this was the area known as the southern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge.
One of the German divisions assigned to offensive operations in the southern flank was a veteran unit, the 352nd Volks-Grenadier Division (VGD). The 352nd VGD, formerly the 352nd Infantry Division, had been decimated during the Normandy Campaign and was eventually sent back to Germany to be reformed and rebuilt. In October 1944, the 352nd Infantry Division, per the new Kriegsstärkenachweisung, or KstN (table of organization) set forth by the German Army, was renamed the 352nd Volks-Grenadier Division. The division was rebuilt with recruits from the Kriegsmarine, Luftwaffe, and ethnic German conscripts from occupied lands, such as France, Poland, etc. The division’s main combat elements were its Grenadier Regiments (GR), which consisted of GR’s 914, 915, and 916. Interestingly enough, the 352nd VGDs individual combat units were upgraded and re-equipped to some extent with new state-of-the-art combat gear, to include reversible two-piece camouflage winter suits and MP-44 assault rifles, known as the Sturmgewehr.
One aspect of the division, and the German Army in general, that had not been improved upon or modernized was that of its ration, or food supply system. For the most part, the 352nd VGD supplied its regiments with combat rations and meals using the same system the German Army had used since the war the began six years earlier. The food supply system in December 1944 still consisted primarily of a company or battalion field kitchen section that prepared and cooked hot rations daily , which were then delivered to the front by various means, such as horse, truck, or foot.Once the rations arrived at the front, they were quickly doled out to Grenadiers detailed to go to the rear to pick them up, with the food usually being deposited into mess kits or canteens. Other items, such as chocolate, candy, bread, onions, coffee etc. were placed onto blankets and then rolled up for easier carrying. As one will read in this article, you will see that this system generally failed to deliver the required amount of food to the Landers on the front lines during the Battle of the Bulge, with the result that many of the men went hungry for days at a time. Another factor that determined when or how late combat troops drew their rations was distance – the farther ahead a unit moved as it attacked, the farther away it got from its supply section, including the field kitchen, making the trip for the ration party carrying the food to the front all that much longer. These ration parties often arrived late, if they could find their units, and when they did, the food was often cold.
The Germans also attempted to develop individual combat rations similar to those used by the U.S. Army, such as “C” and “K” rations, but they never reached the level of perfection of the American’s packaged rations.
This method of delivering individual rations was unsuccessful, due either to failures of the supply system to get these rations to the front, or that there simply were not enough on hand to issue to the troops on a regular basis when the normal method of issuing hot rations failed. Either way, the German food supply system was totally inadequate to properly sustain the fighting energy that the troops needed for this offensive campaign.
So, as the campaign began, the German food supply system, including that of the 352nd VGD, was already unable to keep its Grenadiers adequately fed. As the Battle of the Bulge dragged on into January, the lack of proper nutrition, made worse by having to live out in the open during an uncharacteristically cold winter, took its physical and mental toll on the average Grenadier. Tired, hungry, cold, and forced to forage for his food, only a superman could have continued fighting with the same enthusiasm and effectiveness that the German forces displayed at the beginning of the offensive.
The following is an outline, augmented by eyewitness accounts, of what the German soldiers ate during this campaign:
Grenadiers Ulrich Jonath and Horst Hennig, 2nd Battalion, GR 914, 352nd VGD, summarized the overall situation of the German Army's attempts to feed its men during this campaign, including how they were able to survive the campaign, “Our food supplies were unsatisfactory. Other than captured American chocolate and some preserves taken from civilian houses, there was nothing.” Jonath and Henning also commented on their inability to cook field rations themselves while on the line, “Cooking could be done only in rare cases because of the alert of American Artillery…” This more than likely referred to the German attempts to simply build a fire in a stove or fire to heat their rations. It is assumed that their Esbit Stoves were less noticeable than open fires, providing some measure of relief from Artillery fire. Unteroffizer Wilhelm Stetter, 3rd Company, 1st BN, GR915, also stated the following about receiving a much-need issue of soup, "We had our first warm food in ten days, pea soup on which the fat was swimming, for there was plenty of pork fat in the deserted houses. So we ate, no, we gobbled as much of the fatty broth as we could hold; serious digestive disturbances and stomach cramps were to follow two days later.”
Hebert Brach, 6th company, 2nd BN, GR916, had this to say after finally receiving his first German rations in days, “When we had reached the foot of the hill, there stood a soldier with a loaf of bread in his hand, cutting off slice after slice, which our men practically tore out of his hand, for we had waited six days for rations, since the supply train could not be brought closer because of enemy fire. And this slice of bread was welcome to us; we were practically starving, and this bread tasted wonderful.”
Friedrich Schmaschke, 3rd Company, 1st BN, GR 916, commented on what he was issued as cold rations, “The food service rolled in the next day, and we finally got warm food again, a welcome change, for in the last few days we had been given nothing but cold food, consisting of army bread, rancid butter or margarine, plus artificial honey and jam.” It appears Schmaschke fit the mold of a typical soldier, for he made several key observations concerning rations during the Battle of the Bulge. For example, Schmaschke also commented on being re-supplied, with not only rations, but also some sundry items, “The goods he (company Spiess) brought along were then distributed to the company. They were cigarettes, cigars, alcoholic beverages, soap, combs, razor blades, and chocolate.” At one point during the campaign, Schmaschke also managed to scrounge through the bread bags of German dead and wounded, as he recounted here, “So I went back to Longsdorf to try to find myself something to eat. A soldier who talked to me gave me some advice, go up the road to the farmhouse; all the equipment of the wounded and dead men is in the stable there. When I came out of the stable after finding a few pieces of bread, three iron rations, plus two packages of Schoka-Kola in the packs of the dead and wounded, one of the tank men who was looking out his turret hatch, asked, say, boy, are you hungry? And I said, “Yes, and how! He threw me a loaf of army bread.”
Captured Rations: The one food item in greatest demand by German soldiers during the Battle of the Bulge was captured American Rations. Prior to the Bulge, the Germans were amazed and awed by the quantity of American rations, and were equally satisfied by their quality when they opened them, finding a virtual treasure chest of nourishment. Hebert Brach, 6th company, 2nd BN, GR 916, was very well pleased upon finding US Rations, “In the village (Bettendorf) itself, we appropriated an American food and clothing storehouse in a convent. Now for a pleasant change we had enough to eat. Everybody feasted on the tasty U.S. field rations, and nobody asked where our field kitchen was.” Brach continued with another account of US rations, “In Bettendorf the grenadiers had stuffed their pockets, food bags and assault packs again with food from an undestroyed US ration dump. In fact, some of them had even rounded up old baby carriages and milk carts and filled them with food…That evening, after several days, the field kitchen finally came to Diekirch to supply us with hot food, but nobody was hungry, thanks to the tasty delicacies from much sought after-American rations. The supply chief himself came on the scene and was annoyed to have to take the watery stew away again.
The ever-hungry Friedrich Schmaschke, 3rd Company, 1st BN, GR 916 also had something to say about US Rations, "I discovered olive green packs, similar to naval packs, and I search them curiously. Out came small brown cartons that I had a hard time opening for they were coated with wax. They contained peanut butter, cookies, chocolate, tea, coffee in powdered form, chewing gum, soft drink powder, fruit bars, cigarettes, and other such things."
Water: For the men of the 352nd VGD and most likely for all German soldiers in the Ardennes Campaign, obtaining water and quenching thirst was not only necessary to survive, but could also be just as hard to obtain as food. Unteroffizer Wilhelm Stetter, 3rd Company, 1st BN, GR 915 spoke of simply obtaining water, “My thirst had become much greater; I imagined I heard a brook babbling….I climbed out of my hole and went in the direction where I thought I heard the sound. It was true; I came to a ravine at the bottom of which was a brook (the Suessebaach) flowed. I drank two mess kits full of the cold water.“
Friedrich Schmaschke, 3rd Company, 1st BN, GR 916, recalled that, at times, simply having water brought up was a dangerous mission. “The food bearers came every evening with hot food in thermos containers; our drinking water had to be fetched from a cistern up on the plateau. It had been shot up, and the water had sprayed out of it, gurgling. Since one had to run 150 meters across an open field to reach it, we could only fetch water at night.”
There were other ways to quench a thirst. Gunter Bach, 15th Company GR 916, attempted, through other means, to satisfy his need for water, however this lead to dire consequences for a soldier on the move, “I was constantly bothered by thirst. So I quickly picked up a couple of apples that were lying all over the place under the trees. Although they were covered with frost and partly frozen, I ate two or three of them quickly to quench my thirst. The result was that I had bad attacks of diarrhea shortly afterward.”
Locally Obtained Rations: During the Ardennes campaign, again particularly in Luxembourg, many civilians fled their homes to avoid another round of fighting in their area. These abandoned residences became the target of many a hungry Landser looking for something to eat. Ulrich Jonath and Horst Hennig, 2nd Battalion, GR 914, 352nd VGD, reports of searching abandoned houses for food, “The only food supplies that we still received came from the houses that the civilians had left, where we obtained food that included everything from preserves to potatoes and apples to dried and smoked meat. There was no bread and we got water by melting ice…”
Friedrich Schmaschke, 3rd Company, 1st BN, GR 916, also recalled a similar search for food, “In the kitchen of the farmhouse…Hunger slowly made itself known, and I got the idea of looking through the massive kitchen cupboard. I found coffee and, in the bottom drawer, a long loaf of white bread.”
As far as where or how the individual Landser carried his food, he usually stuffed it in his breadbag, the pockets of his uniform blouse and trousers, as well as this winter combat suit or greatcoat and perhaps in his rucksack if he had one. He was limited to what he could carry, because he still had to carry his ammunition, grenades, weapon, canteen, and other field equipment, as well as an additional ammunition can or two for the squad MG-42.
Conclusion: One of the myths of the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge was that they were a well-equipped war machine with multitudes of King Tiger tanks, ME-262 Jet Fighters, and legions of well equipped Waffen-SS and Panzergrenadiers out for blood. As this short article has proven, the real story is that the German Army could not even keep its own front line combat troops adequately fed during the campaign.
If doing a study or recreation of this campaign, based on a snapshot of the 352nd VGD, one can summarize the following of what a German soldier had to eat during the Battle of the Bulge:
|Issued Rations:||Bread, soup, margarine/butter, Schoko-Kola, 1 or 2 cans of Iron Ration meat (at the most).|
|Captured Rations:||Any type of US Rations that were issued in Northwest Europe in 1944, primarily “C” or “K” rations, plus cigarettes, coffee and hot chocolate mix.|
|Local Rations:||Bread, potatoes, dried meat, dried apples (This source of rations appears to be the rarity rather than the norm)|
One can only question about the overall outcome of this campaign, in which not only did improved weather conditions and reinforcements of US Armored and Infantry Divisions lead to an Allied victory, but could a lack of food for the average Lander assist in the defeat of this last great German offensive of WWII.