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"German Habits in Defense and Attack" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. military report on German offensive and defensive tactics in WWII was published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 27, June 17, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



Obviously drawn from battle experience, a set of rough lecture notes entitled "The German Army and You," received from the British School of Infantry, has provided the source material for this article. It is stated in the introduction that enemy methods lack originality and, because of the tendency to repeat the same methods, repay study.

Part I - German Habits in Defense

a. Location of Positions

(1) Advanced positions

Advanced positions (Vorgeschobene Stellungen) are apt to be from 6,000 to 8,000 yards ahead of the main line of resistance. Always covered by German artillery fire, they are usually held by reconnaissance units, frequently motorized, including motorized machine-gun battalions, vehicles of which it is important to recognize. With antitank guns and fire power, units occupying these positions hold key points (railways, crossroads, and river crossings) and engage in demolition and patrolling operations. Their mission is to get early information as to the point to be attacked, and promptly pass it back. When attacked, they withdraw under the protection of their own artillery.

(2) Outposts

The outposts (Vorposten), in strength at least platoon groups, and perhaps companies, are pushed 3,000 to 4,000 yards in front of the main line of resistance. Outposts are well covered by artillery and are supplied with antitank guns. Liberal use is made of dummies. The outpost mission is to defend the forward observation posts and to deceive the enemy into making a large-scale attack. Such value is placed on forward observation posts that outposts, although they may withdraw under cover of artillery, put up a stubborn resistance.

(3) Main Battle Positions

Main battle positions (Hauptkampffeld Stutzpunkt) tend to be a line of hedgehogs (Igeln), which provide all-around resistance or support points composed of all arms. Sited on high ground for observation, they are likely to be found in triangular groups, two astride and one behind a vital point. Single companies usually occupy an area about 400 yards square. With highly developed arrangements for supply by air, such support points are often isolated, particularly in the case of defended villages. The nature of the ground and the width of the front held, naturally, are the determining factors.

(4) Doctrine of "Schwerpunkt' (Center of Gravity) in Defense

As in offense, where the utmost concentration of effort is applied to a narrow front to crash through all opposition, so in defense, the heaviest concentration of fire and other defensive measures is prepared in order to hold vital points at any cost--at the sacrifice, if necessary, of secondary positions. In country unsuited to tanks, the guiding principle of defense is the maximum use of terrain and mines, with a minimum use of antitank guns. Of course, the main antitank-gun defense is concentrated on terrain suitable to tank attack.

(5) The Doctrine of Mobility in Defense

The Germans base their defensive tactics on the accepted principle that provision should be made for a heavy mobile reserve which will counterattack with the utmost available power as soon as the attack is seen to be thoroughly committed to its plan of operation. This is the Schwerpunkt principle in reverse.

(6) Details of Defense

(a) General

Three antitank guns will probably be assigned to each company position, with three kept in mobile reserve with the battalion mobile guns. Particularly during the construction phase of the defense, camouflage is very thorough. Slit trenches are preferred to the more elaborate types. To dissipate the enemy's fire, considerable use is made of dummy and alternate positions. There are seldom many bursts of fire from the same position. Rather, the defenders move out of the alternate or dummy positions into the real positions.

(b) Heavy Machine Guns and Mortars

The locations of heavy machine guns and 3-inch mortars are not determined solely by range but rather by such considerations as:

i. Site of the observation point.

ii. Method of control. (There is little signal equipment in use; communication by wire is very limited, and there is no radio. Only 8 miles of cable are provided for both the battalion heavy weapons company and the infantry howitzer company.)

iii. Mortars are usually sited in pairs, from 30 to 50 yards apart.

(c) Siting of Heavy Infantry Howitzers

In the use of heavy infantry howitzers, it must always be borne in mind that the ammunition available to them is apt to be more limited than is the supply for field artillery batteries. Its expenditure must be economical, and the Germans place these weapons where the maximum use can be made of the available ammunition.

(d) Principles of Antitank Defense

i. Even at the risk of firing into supporting troops, the primary duty of all weapons is antitank fire.

ii. Extensive use of minefields--as many as 11,000 mines to a division front--is common German practice. Weight for weight, mines are preferred to artillery. Dummy minefields are a favorite device. [Other sources report that there are enough live mines in such fields to make them real obstacles.]

iii. Almost never are antitank guns placed singly, but rather, to prevent flanking, in pairs back to back. In order to impede armored reconnaissance, they may be expected in outpost positions.

iv. Never to fall back before a tank attack is a rule hammered into all German infantrymen. Instead, they are trained to stand fast, and to save their ammunition for use against the foot troops following in rear of the tanks.

(7) Features of Rommel's Retreat Orders

One of General Rommel's directives, which fell into British hands, featured the following principles:

i. Schwerpunkt (center of gravity doctrine, previously explained, which applies to all units regardless of size).

ii. A "main effort" was to be executed by not less than a complete company, heavily reinforced by supporting arms and directed at a point along the main axis of the German withdrawal. [The Schwerpunkt principle emphasizes concentration of force and discourages dispersion.]

iii. Careful flank protection; platoons designated for such missions were reinforced with supporting arms.

iv. Use of tanks, engineers, and scattered minefields.

Part II - German Habits in Attack

a. General

The German attack is likely to be stereotyped and fashioned after their instruction training combat exercises. This generalization applies from the highest to the lowest units. One document that came to British hands featured a "Battle Drill," and there are "drills" for assault troops. They emphasize organization and detailed execution. Surprise is sometimes achieved as a result of thoroughness in reconnaissance and the weight of the stunning blow. [Note: Frequent variations in methods are to be expected. The Germans simply emphasize teamwork -- not individual grandstand plays. This, the author has apparently mistaken for lack of brilliance in plan and originality.]

b. Thorough Reconnaissance

Special reconnaissance units cover relatively wide areas: in desert warfare and open terrain 12 x 12 miles for infantry, 60 x 60 for armored. Determined to get information at all costs, the German does not hesitate to employ on these missions tanks and antitank guns. German reconnaissance officers accept great personal risk, and the units themselves purposely offer tempting targets in order to uncover enemy gun positions. Patrols are equipped with special night-glasses and wire cutters. Except perhaps in pursuit, the attack is not launched until reconnaissance is complete, with both enemy flanks plotted and, if possible, the enemy rear as well.

c. Outflank, Encircle, Destroy

Capture of ground is not the object of German attack, but rather the total destruction of the enemy. Following upon a search for a point of penetration, the ultimate assault, even if by a company only, must be "frontal," but flanking operations, kept out of the line of the fire support, ensure the enemy's destruction.

d. The Application of "Schwerpunkt" Doctrine

First, a thorough reconnaissance is made of the selected point of attack. This point must be on a good route for the projected advance. A frontage of 400 to 600 yards is sufficient. At the expense of other sectors, an overwhelming force of all arms is assembled before such a thrust-point.

e. The Attack

As soon as sufficient information is at hand, and while reconnaissance is being continuously pushed, deployment and preparation for the attack are made.

(1) The "Break-In" (Einbruch)

(a) Methods

Five different methods of attack are prepared for by drill and exercises, depending on the nature and strength of the opposition as it is discovered. These are:

Opposition--strongly fortified. In the lead are special assault-troops (Stosstruppen) consisting of combat teams of infantry and engineers. They are followed by tanks and infantry on a very narrow front.

Opposition--well-prepared but not strongly fortified. Normal armored divisions attack with tanks massed in depth, followed by motorized infantry on a very narrow front.

Opposition--strongly-held river line (such as the Meuse, Marne, Rhine, Albert Canal). The infantry divisions, with engineer reinforcements, attack at different points to establish bridgeheads. Then follow the armored units and motorized infantry.

Opposition--lightly held river line. The mechanized reconnaissance units carrying bridging equipment boldly cross and establish bridgeheads. Armored divisions follow.

Opposition--enemy defenses incomplete. Armored divisions attack followed by motorized infantry.

(b) The Fire Fight

Against the selected thrust-point a violent fire is opened. On a battalion front of 600 yards, during a field exercise, were concentrated (as called for by smoke signal)--

6 heavy mortars from the battalion heavy weapons company;

12 machine guns, from the same;

4 light infantry howitzers (75-mm) of the regimental infantry gun company;

2 heavy infantry howitzers (150-mm).

All this, called the "concert," was exclusive of the light machine guns, submachine guns and the allotment of divisional artillery. A similar procedure was followed by the artillery. The slogan is: "Niederkampfen, niederhalten, und blinden"--beat down, hold down, and blind. Great stress is laid on sudden, intense concentrations of fire--not formal barrages--to stupefy the defense, and on the use of smoke. The use of smoke is highly developed.

Hard study has been devoted to the last hundred yards of the assault--books have been written about it--and the understanding of its significance was thoroughly indoctrinated into the German army by 1938. At very short range, close support is given by 50-mm mortars and smoke, grenades, as well as by light machine guns firing long bursts. Factors of noise, shock, fear, and ferocity are all exploited; dive-bombers and screaming bombs (what the Russians call "circus tactics") are piled on, if for no other purpose than to make the enemy fire inaccurate.

(2) The Breakthrough (Durchbruch)

Once the "break-in" has been accomplished, the time-table program of the assault is over. Now the initiative is handed over to the subordinate commanders. Their duty is to "tear the guts" out of the defense. For this purpose, close-support weapons are allotted to the subordinate commanders and their combat teams. As flanks of the attackers become exposed, the attack is not diverted, but the exposed flanks are covered with antitank guns and, if necessary, artillery. Tough localities, such as defended villages, are bypassed and taken care of by the reserve. Where possible, the gap is smashed open to a width of about 6 miles to permit the passage of pursuit troops without loss from rifle and machine-gun fire.

(3) The Pursuit (Aufrollen)

The object of the breakthrough is deep and rapid penetration. Combat teams relentlessly pursue and never lose contact. As a rule, the smallest pursuing unit is a company with supporting weapons. As in the breakthrough, centers of resistance are bypassed to carry on the pursuit, and flanks are protected by "fanning out" and by the use of defensive positions organized for both all-around and antitank defense.

Part III - Points to be Remembered When Germans Attack

a. Reconnaissance Practice

Signs of "a Schwerpunkt coming here" are: a thorough local air reconnaissance; deep patrolling or raids; and deployment of close-support weapons. Watch closely for--

(1) Mounted or horse-drawn troops: they are almost certain evidence of an infantry division.

(2) A mounted party of more than 32 indicates infantry regimental reconnaissance unit.

(3) Bicycle troops in large numbers indicate an infantry division reconnaissance unit. Motorcyclists alone, not accompanied by side-cars, are probably only dispatch riders, but side-cars suggest armored divisions or motorized infantry.

(4) Armored cars, of the lighter type, may be from an infantry division, which has three in the divisional reconnaissance unit, or they may equally well be from armored or motorized divisions. These latter divisions have mixed reconnaissance units of five light and some heavy cars, and a group of nine light armored cars.

(5) Horse-drawn artillery indicates an infantry division.

(6) Tanks. Armored divisions usually operate reconnaissance platoons of five tanks, moving fast and giving mutual support.

(7) Mine-lifting activity is apt to precede the approach of a Schwerpunkt attack, as are engineers in tanks, the operations of night patrols, and the presence of dive-bombers.

b. German Methods of Attack

(1) Opening Assault

Expect a combination of mass, speed, and momentum, concentrated on a narrow front. If held up, dive-bombers, machine guns, and other close-support weapons will be massed to form a "fire front." The Germans will then try to turn your flanks. NOW IS THE TIME TO LOOK OUT!

(2) Counterattack

Go for the light machine guns and light mortars. Three men lying close together means a light machine gun or mortar, and the mortar gives off a puff of pinkish smoke. To attack them successfully calls for two men working together, one covering the advance of the other until one is in position to use rifle or grenade. Go for the infantry guns, which can be identified by a loud report and a big flash. They are often pushed well forward.

(a) Watch for smoke signals. White smoke means probably "We are here" colored lights or smoke call for fire support. Turn the information to your own advantage.

(b) Mortars usually fire three ranging rounds, followed by groups of 10 bombs. Don't wait for the group. If you are in the middle of the bracket, MOVE. The 81-mm mortars are usually located in pairs, the 50-mm in threes.

(c) Antitank rifles are usually placed together in groups of three; antitank guns in pairs, or threes, sited back to back.


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