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German Draft Horses in the Russian Winter

On June 22nd, the vaunted German Army invaded the Soviet Union. With 150 front line divisions advancing on three different axes, they caught the unsuspecting Soviets completely by surprise. On the first few weeks of Operation Barbarrosa, the Germans ran over any Red Army position. In some instances, with such an ease that by early August there were talk inside the German High Command structure of destroying what remained of the Soviet army west of the Dniepr River. Accordingly, they did not prepared for any kind of winter warfare. They were sadly mistaken. By late September it was becoming clear that the Wehrmacht would had to fight in the harsh Russian winter.

The Russian winter is famous for its uneven snow showers, dry cold wind shield and terrible low temperatures. On the European part of the country, winter conditions could last up to six months. The same apply to the Soviet Arctic area. Snow depths in much of the northern section of the country were of three to four feet making mechanized movement extremely difficult. Temperatures there can dip as low as -40 degrees F from mid November onward. Meanwhile, on the Leningrad area, the mercury would drop up to -30 degrees F. The rest of the country possessed almost the same winter profile. Add to these factors that the winter of 1941-42 was the one of the most severe in European Russia history and this expelled trouble for the invaders.

When Barbarrosa was launched, the mechanized German army was mostly a horse-drawn fighting machine. Although is true that in Barbarrosa the Germans deployed the greatest concentration of tanks, armor personal carriers and trucks in warfare history, they were not enough to carry their artillery pieces, combat rations and others supporting supplies. Therefore the role of the horse in the Easter Front warfare was equally, if not bigger, than the one they played more than twenty years ago. Thus when war began on the Eastern Front, most of Germany’s artillery and others systems were horse-drawn.

As the fighting began to decent into a somewhat stalemate, most of the Germans horses that were drafted for service on the Easter Front became accustomed to the harsh Russian winter with relative ease, although they did needed some emergency shelters, specialty in December and January of the first combat year. In the open area, German horses would experienced temperatures as low as -40 degrees F. Russian horses, blessed with a thick, shaggy winter-type of coat were able to withstand temperatures as low as -58 degrees F if they were properly sheltered against the wind. But German horses, mainly the heavy cold blooded breeds, particularly those that came from mild weather occupy nations such as France and the Low Countries; were unable to stand the harsh winter conditions and they perish by the thousands.

Adding to the horse’s sad state was the fact that as more and more German supply vehicles were destroyed, they were asked to pull more and more loads. Thus the horse became prematurely spent. Meanwhile, the German lighter breeds were better equipped to stand the cold winter temperatures, but they were not strong enough to carry the ever increasing load require by the by-then over stretched German army. Nevertheless, the German used them and as expected, most of them became exhausted, collapsing and dying while performing combat missions on the snow covered fields of northern Soviet Russia.

During those first winter months of 1941-42, German drafted horses lacked basic winter fighting equipment. In this respect they were almost equally unprepared as their human handlers. Lack of shoeing, a factor that lessened the horse’s draft ability on icy roads, caused them to easy felt and once they felt, most of them were not able to recover, thus they eventually died on the spot. Many other horses perished for lack of adequate forage. A curious fact, there were almost no animal death by diseases which can be accurately traced to the winter conditions. A remarkable thing given the massive use of the animal on such a large front.

Overall, the Germans lost about 1.5 million horses during the four bloody years of fighting in the Eastern Front. The vast majority of them died on the winter months. The majority perish, not only because of combat-inflicted injuries, but victims of overexpending, forage shortages and extremely cold temperatures.@


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