The Volkssturm was a militia summoned in virtue of a decree of 25 September 1944 from all non-serving males aged sixteen to sixty. The relevant lists were compiled by the local Party organisation, and the officers were appointed (largely on grounds of political reliability) by the gauleiters and their subordinate kreisleiters. The size of the Volkssturm ultimately reached 1.5 million.
It is characteristic of the chaotic state of Germany at that time that nobody can establish the precise occasion of the founding of the Volkssturm. In September 1944 Guderian had to yield up most of the one hundred battalions of fortress infantry with which he had intended to hold the prepared positions behind the Eastern Front. He writes that he then fell back on a proposal by General Adolf Heusinger's Operations Branch of the OKH, to the effect that men should be withdrawn from hitherto reserved civilian occupations and formed into a levee en masse. This, according to Guderian, was the origin of the Volkssturm. In 1956 (two years after Guderian died) Guderian's account was contested by Heusinger, who pointed out that his proposal had just been to evacuate the population of East Prussia, for he was convinced that there was no place for armed civilians in modern warfare.
Veterans of the Grossdeutschland Panzer Corps saw one of the Volkssturm battalions spill into a factory yard:
Some of these troops with Mausers on their shoulders must have been at least sixty or sixty-five, to judge by their curved spines, bowed legs, and abundant wrinkles. But the young boys were even more astonishing. . . . They had been hastily dressed in worn uniforms cut for men, and were carrying guns which were often as big as they were. They looked both comic and horrifying, and their eyes were filled with unease, like the eyes of children at the reopening of school. Not one of them could have imagined the impossible ordeal which lay ahead. . . . We noticed some heart-wringing details about these children, who were beginning the first day of their tragedy. Several of them were carrying school satchels their mothers had packed with extra food and clothes, instead of schoolbooks. A few of the boys were trading their saccharine sweets which the ration allowed to children under thirteen. (Sajer, 1971, 395)
In fact, some of the baby-faced boys of the Volkssturm turned out to be its most effective elements, when they hailed from the Hitlerjugend and were armed with anti-tank Panzerfaust rocket launchers. The Mausers mentioned by our soldier were the standard service rifles, which were something of a rarity, and many of the Volkssturm had to be content with Russian or Italian rifles or the Carl Walther Volksmaschinenpistole, (a German version of the British Sten). Preparation was largely confined to drill, on account of the lack of proper materials or facilities, and the allowance of practice ammunition often consisted of a handful of cartridges.
The Volkssturm were not employed for local defence per se, let alone as guerrillas, but were formed into battalions which (however badly armed) found themselves holding gaps in the line, static positions and built-up areas. Those who fought on the Eastern Front usually stood their ground much better than those in the West, many of whom were concerned only about how to arrange to surrender to the Americans or the British.