The Peoples' Infantry Divisions
Due to severe losses in manpower on the Eastern and Western Fronts during the summer of 1944, Germany was now forced to scrape the bottom on the manpower barrel. Also the aftermath of the 20th July attempt on Hitler's life had a large effect on the Army reorganisations in the fall of 1944.
The largest reorganisation was the conversion of several standard Grenadier Divisions into “Volksgrenadier-Divisions” (Peoples Infantry Division). The choice of title, 'Volksgrenadier' had also a political meaning, blurring the distinction between citizens and soldiers, “the peoples and thus stressing the emergency of the fatherland”.
The Volksgrenadier-Divisions were formed from broken or destroyed Infantry Divisions. To fill the ranks of these new divisions, Himmler, as the new command in chief of the Ersatzheer (replacement army), initiated a series of unscrupulous measures: re-activating convalescent soldiers discharged from hospitals as no longer fit for frontline service, converting Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine personnel to infantrymen, shortening the soldier's recuperation time in hospital, conscripting boys of sixteen and seventeen years old and taking workers from the industry or railways and replacing them by women and forced laborers. In addition, many new recruits were obtained by conscripting large numbers of Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) from the Volksliste 3 like Poles, Ukrainians, Rumanians and Yugoslavs which all spoke little or no German.
In theory, the Volksgrenadier-Divisions were to incorporate the new generation of weapons deployed by the German Army and eventually all German infantry formations were to have adopted their organisation and equipment. In reality however, the Volksgrenadiere suffered from equipment shortages and a lack of vital training.
From the organisation point of view, the significance of the Volksgrenadier-Division lies in its decrease of personnel and increase of automatic weapons (submachine guns). The three Grenadier Regiments of each two Battalions and a seperate Fuselier company that stood under direct command of the Division staff, formed the infantry component of a Volksgrenadier-Division. The biggest difference could be found in the Companies, containing one Rifle Platoon and two Machine Pistol Platoons ("Sturmzug") armed with the Sturmgewehr 44. The platoon contained the Platoon Headquarters and three squads with 9 men each. Panzerschreck (bazooka) and Panzerfaust weapons replaced all antitank guns in the infantry regiments.
The Maschinenpistole 44 or MP44 was to become the trademark weapon of the new Volksgrenadier-Divisions and many of the newly formed units appear to have been equipped with it. The MP44 was a gas-operated weapon that fired a shortened 7.92 x 33 mm "Kurz" cartridge that retained the hitting power of the longer infantry cartridge at close range, but lacked the accuracy at ranges of 500 metres and more. It has a maximum effective range of 400 meters in the single-shot mode and 150 meters in the full-automatic mode. The weapon is fed from a curved thirty-round magazine.
Initial production was delayed because Hitler forbade its manufacture, believing the weapon would lead to a wasteful expenditure of ammunition. But the manufacturers were so convinced the superiority of the weapon, production began surreptitiousley. When Hitler finaly discovered during an inspection in the fall of 1944 that the weapon was already in wide use, he was so impressed that he immediately approved the weapon's continued production and in Oktober 1944 directed that its name be changed to "Sturmgewehr 44".
It was intended that the Stg44 would go on to replace both the Mauser rifle and the MP40 machine pistol, according to the new Machine Pistol Platoon organisation.
Clothing and equipment
In the place of the stylish early war Feldgrau uniform, the Volksgrenadier now wore the simplified Model 1942 or 1943 uniforms. Due to shortages and economical use of materials, wool was increasingly replaced by synthetic fibers. A further economical shortcut regarding the clothing was the introduction from september 1944 on of the short M44 field jacket. This was inspired on the design of the popular pre-war civilian ski blouses. But they were never issued in large ammounts as stated by some veterans of the 277. VGD. The reversible winter uniforms in Splittertarn, Sumpftarn or grey were largely spread among the Volksgrenadier soldiers. During the campaign in the Ardennes and Eifel, they were at least better equiped with winter clothing than the Waffen-SS Divisions on the same front.
Shortages had also an effect on the equipment, leather had been replaced more and more by subtitute materials like canvas or pressed cardboard. Several soldiers only got one MP44 ammo pouch, had to use the K98 pouches despite firing the MP44 or even had to carry loose rounds in the pockets!