By early 1945 Germany’s situation was desperate, with no real hope of victory left desperate holding actions became the order of the day. It was hoped by many in Hitler’s staff that if they could hold back the Russian’s long enough the Western Allies would reach Berlin first. This was no to be as the Red Army was making rapid progress into German territory, covering up to 35km a day by March 1945. Once the Soviets encircled Berlin on the 20th April there was no possibility of a surrender to the Western Allies who in reality had long since lost interest in the ‘Race to Berlin’.
While the war had seemed hopeless for many months the German High Command continued it’s efforts to construct a formidable defence against the oncoming Russian forces. This saw the activation of the German militias and the forming of a new corps, the Volkssturm or in English: “Storm of the People”. This optimistically named force made up of all men aged between 13 and 70 were called up and expected to defend their local areas, much like the British Home Guard formed in 1940.
(Above Volksstrum parade in their own clothes with their newly issued Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons and some older Mauser 98s. One man is lucky enough to have been issued a MG34.)
40,000 Volkssturm were available for the defence of Berlin with an unknown number deployed elsewhere throughout Germany with number perhaps approaching half a million men, on paper at least. In order to arm these men stores of older weapons were re-issued with Volkssturm being issued Mauser 98s, old Maxim guns and even ancient Mauser Model 1871s along with any captured foreign weapons which were in store. There were not enough modern weapons to equip the struggling regular forces let alone the newly improvised ‘volunteers’. As such Germany’s weapons factories looked to creating a series of budget firearms which could be made quickly. This spawned 4 such guns of varying sophistication, these Volks Gewehr or ‘people’s guns’ included:
Two simple rotating- bolt action rifles which used the Gewehr 43's 8mm Mauser 10-round box magazine were developed, the Volks Gewehr 1 (photo 1) and the Volks Gewehr 2 (see photo 2) which both has simple fixed sights which were zeroed for no further than 100m. The VG.2 featured an unusual modular design using a stamped steel receiver with a bolted wooden butt and front stock. While these rifles were simplistic they did offer magazine capacity and reasonable accuracy at short ranges as well as both having rudimentary safety mechanisms. A third bolt-action rifle, the VK-98 (see photo 4)used refurbished Mauser 98 or reclaimed machine gun barrels bolted to a very simple, rough wooden stock. The VK-98 really was a desperate measure, it was a single shot rifle with no magazine capacity and only the most primitive sights and no safety.
The most advanced of the Volkssturm weapons was the VG.1-5 or Gustloff Volkssturmgewehr (see photo 3). This weapon while being crudely made using the same stamped metal process used in the construction of the StG-44 has proved it’s ruggedness with examples still in working order 70 years on. The VG.1-5 used a delayed blow-back system not unlike that found in pistols with the gasses from 4 drilled gas ports near the muzzle being captured in a sliding gas tube which moved backwards under pressure working the bolt. It was capable of semi-automatic fire and was chambered in the new intermediate 7.92x33mm Kurz cartridge used by the Sturmgewehr-44.
While the VG.1-5 offered increased fire-power it did suffer from jamming if not maintained properly, which may have been a tall order for a Volkssturm trooper with little more than half a days practical training, and like its bolt action counterparts it only had fixed sights.
(A well equipped, uniformed Volkssturm unit defend the banks of the Oder in this propoganda photograph, the man in the foreground holds a VG.1-5)
The Volkssturm were a desperate measure for a desperate time, with little to no training - they were supposed to have a 2 days intensive weapons training but were often lucky to receive 2 hours. There were no uniforms to be issued so the men fought in their own clothes often with only an armband to denote they were members of the Volkssturm. Many of the men drafted into the Volkssturm fought until death, terrified of Russian retribution, it is unknown just how many died defending Berlin. While the Volkssturm’s efforts were forlorn the weapons they were issued give us a fascinating insight into the resourcefulness of a country on the verge of collapse.
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