German Infantry Tactics, 1932–1945
The Truppführer (TrpFhr) and his LMG team of four men advancing across open ground in Schützenrudel formation, maintaining the required minimum distance of 5 paces between them during a wargame exercise in 1:72 scale. Schütze 1 is the l.M.G. gunner, Schütze 2 is his assistant, Schütze 3 and 4 carry additional boxes of belted ammunition for the MG 34 or MG 42 machine gun.
The rifle squad of seven Schützen and the assistant section leader are advancing along a parallel route, but maintaining visual contact with the section leader or a member of his squad.
Anschluss – The Lead
Schwerpunkt – Main Point of Attack
Gefechtsstreifen – Attack Corridor
Abschnitt – Defence Sector
Widerstandslinie – Line of Resistance
Hauptkampflinie – Main Line of Battle
Entfaltung – Operational Deployment
Entwicklung – Tactical Deployment
Ausdehnung – Dispersal
Schützenreihe – Single File
Schützenrudel – Pack/Swarm
Linear or Napoleonic
Many aspect of infantry combat have remained virtually unchanged since the days of Frederick the Great; the game is still one of pinning the defender frontally, manoeuvering against his flanks, and bringing overwhelming firepower to bear at the main point of attack. Battalions still deploy in line with other battalions from their division, they advance on a fixed frontage, and guide their forward movement on a designated lead formation. Like Frederick’s battalion guns, modern machine guns deploy forward of the line to soften up identified enemy formations until they are ready to be assaulted. The triangular formation of modern platoons, companies, battalions, and brigades is a Napoleonic improvement which provides excellent articulation on the battlefield.
Pre-war German infantry training stressed the importance of a methodical approach to small unit tactics. The infantry section used only two simple formations to manœuvre in battle, but it had a repertoire of choreographed tactical responses which produced predictable results in a given situation. Company and platoon commanders, section and squad leaders, even lead machine gunners were trained to recognize opportunity, and act on it. In theory, the tactical and operational concepts worked well, and they are valid today, but this kind of expertise is only one aspect of warfare. The Wehrmacht was a well-oiled machine involved in the wrong purpose, it had to fail.
1.) Organization and Articulation
Schützengruppe – Infantry Section: Infantry sections consisted of a leader and 12–14 men, who normally advanced into combat in two separate squads, using different routes of advance:
- Gruppenführer – Section Leader
- l.M.G.-Trupp – LMG Squad (4 gunners with 1 LMG)
- Truppführer – Squad Leader
- Schützentrupp – Rifle Squad (7–9 riflemen)
The section leader took command of the most important squad in his section, based on the tactical situation. If the entire section advanced, the section leader commanded the LMG squad. If an enemy position had been identified, the section leader would direct the fire of the LMG squad while the squad leader manœuvred the rifle squad into an assault position close to the enemy, but in cover. If the enemy position was to be assaulted, the section leader went forward and took command of the rifle squad, either keeping the squad leader by his side or sending him back to command the LMG squad. If both leaders accompanied the rifle squad in the assault, l.M.G.-Schütze 1 took command of the LMG squad temporarily.
Schützenreihe – Single File: The entire infantry section advanced in single file only at a safe distance from the enemy. If enemy contact was expected, the section split into its two component squads, and maintained a safe distance between them, either by advancing along parallel routes or by keeping up to 80 meters distance between squads. Unless otherwise instructed, the men would keep a distance of 5 paces between them in single file. LMG squad and rifle squad rarely deployed at the same time. Typically, the LMG squad might form Schützenrudel, while the rifle squad continued to advance in Schützenreihe.
Schützenrudel – Pack: Schützenrudel was used to cross open terrain. If ordered to deploy into a pack formation, the squad would dress on the Anschlussmann (lead man) and adopt a staggered formation. Unless otherwise instructed, pack frontage would be 15 paces, and the men kept a distance of 5 paces from each other. If the entire section or the LMG squad deployed, l.M.G.-Schütze 1 was the Anschlussmann. If only the rifle squad deployed, from single file, the lead rifleman had Anschluss. Otherwise, if the rifle squad deployed from line, the squad leader or section leader would designate the rifleman on the right or left flank as the Anschlussman.
Stellung! – Firing Position!: A verbal command or visual signal instructing the squad to adopt a firing position in the Feuerkette – Firing Line. "Stellung!" from single file or pack would require the squad to dress on the Anschlussmann, and form a firing line facing the enemy, keeping a distance of 5 paces between each man, unless otherwise instructed. The command would be followed by Feuer frei! – Open fire! followed by Stopfen! – Cease fire!, and Volle Deckung! – Take full cover!
Späher – Scouts: 2 or 3 riflemen per platoon acted as Sicherer – Security when the platoon advanced. The scouts would be 200–400 meters ahead of the platoon, and it was their job to uncover enemy positions in the attack corridor of their platoon, typically by drawing enemy fire.
Spähtrupp – Patrol: It was the company’s responsibility to patrol the corridor of the frontline assigned to it. One or several patrols might be sent out, depending on the terrain and the tactical situation. A patrol consisted of a Spähtruppführer and 3-6 riflemen. Individual riflemen would be sent back to company headquarters to report. These messengers were instructed to use the fastest communication method available to get the message through, even borrowing a company wireless or telephone operator they happened to run into on the return journey.
Gefechtsstreifen – Attack Corridor: Sections, platoons, companies, and battalions were assigned permanent corridors for attack, and they maintained fixed attack frontages based on the ordered Ausdehnung – Dispersal:
- Bataillon: 400–1000 m Angriffsbreite – Battalion Attack Frontage
- Kompanie: 200–400 m Angriffsbreite – Company Attack Frontage
- Zug 100–200 m Angriffsbreite – Platoon Attack Frontage
- Gruppe 50–100 m Angriffbreite – Section Attack Frontage
Squads and sections advanced inside their designated attack corridors, maintaining visual contact with each other and with their neighbours, but avoiding interpenetration with friendly platoons on either flank. LMG and attached HMG supporting the platoon from a rearward position had to be able to clearly identify the three sections operating inside their designated platoon corridor in order to avoid friendly fire casualties.
The actual attack frontage depended on the mission of the unit. Narrow frontages were used at the designated Schwerpunkt – Main Point of Attack, and wider frontages elsewhere. If an unanticipated Schwerpunkt developed in the course of an attack, reserves would be moved forward to increase the density of troops in that attack corridor, thereby reducing the attack frontage of the sub-units engaged in it. The unit which formed the Schwerpunkt received the most support weapons and the largest ammunition supply, its success was reinforced vigorously.
By definition, the Schwerpunkt had the deepest penetration of the enemy line, and it also had Anschluss – The Lead. A single man had the lead in a squad, everyone else guided their movement on the Anschlussmann. In a platoon attack corridor, one section had Anschluss and the others guided on it. Likewise, in larger attack corridors, one platoon had the lead in a company, one company had the Anschluss in the battalion, and the lead battalion had Anschluss in the brigade. The formation or subunit with the deepest penetration automatically had Anschluss and adjacent units guided on it. Anschluss avoided friendly fire casualties, because the borders of the assigned attack corridors were not to be crossed by friendly infantry.
Anschluss was an important concept in attack and defence, it prevented gaps in the line by mandating physical/visual contact between the lead unit and the units on its immediate flank. By definition, the unit with Anschluss had a deeper penetration than its neighbours, and it received the combined flank support from HMG and anti-tank guns firing parallel to the flank lines of its attack corridor. HMG and pooled LMG assigned to this corridor would be able to bypass identified enemy positions in adjacent corridors, and bring them under flanking fire. The constant chiseling at the enemy line would eventually lead to a significant Einbruch – Penetration. If the penetration was chosen as a Schwerpunkt, it would receive further support with which to effect a Durchbruch – Breakthrough. Exploitation of the breakthrough would allow reserves to roll up the front, and mobile formations might punch through to initiate a strategic encirclement.
Entfaltung – Operational Deployment: Depending on terrain, visibility, and enemy strength, formational attack corridors would be assigned. Company commanders would move into their sectors from march column formation, and order Kompanie-Keil – Wedge with one platoon forward and two in reserve, or Kompanie-Breitkeil – Inverted Wedge with two up and one in reserve. If Keil was used, the lead platoon automatically had Anschluss, whereas Anschluss had to be designated in Breitkeil formation. The company HQ section deployed immediately behind the Anschluss platoon. Similarly, platoons deployed their sections into platoon and section corridors, using Keil or Breitkeil.
Keil was considered the better formation in the opening stages of an engagement, because it gave the company commander the flexibility of deploying either one of the unengaged platoons forward, to flank an identified enemy position. In this case, the remaining platoon would move to the central reserve position. This manœuvre is a convenient formation change from Keil to Breitkeil in combination with a Flügelangriff – Wing attack or maybe even a Flankenangriff – Flank attack. The pinned, and pinning, lead platoon is the pivot.
Entwicklung – Tactical Deployment: Until enemy contact was made, infantry sections advanced in single file inside their assigned corridors, taking advantage of the command control and excellent articulation which this formation provided. Patrols and scouts operating well forward of the platoon and company would eventually flush out an enemy position, and individual squads would begin to deploy into combat formations. An Anschluss section leader might deploy the LMG squad from single file to Schützenrudel and advance to an advantageous firing position. The rifle squad from the same section might continue to advance until it reached an assault position immediately opposite the enemy position, but still in cover. Because of their different combat assignments, LMG squad and rifle squad rarely deployed at the same time. Depending on the importance of the identified enemy position, the platoon commander had the option of pooling the LMG squads of all three sections, and soften up the target. If HMG squads or sections were attached at platoon level, they might be pooled as well.
4.) Resistance and Defence
Hinhaltender Widerstand – Delaying Action: The purpose of the delaying action is to stall the strategic advance of an attacking army without fully engaging it. The attacker is compelled to deploy his formations and prepare a formal attack, a time-consuming process. When the prepared attack is ready to go in, the defender withdraws to the next Widerstandslinie – Line of Resistance and repeats the procedure. Consecutive lines of resistance were approximately 3000 meters apart, enough to compel the attacker to re-deploy his artillery forward in order to support an attack against the next line. A line of resistance had to provide a deep field of fire, with engagement ranges of 1000–1500 metres, in order to give defending units enough time to fight and disengage. Units on the 1st line of resitance would fall back to the 2nd Widerstandslinie if enemy pressure mounted. Unit frontage in delaying actions was twice that of defensive actions, up to 4000 meters for a battalion.
The area between two lines of resistance was known as the Zwischenfeld – Middle Ground. Inside the middle ground, and approximately 800 meters behind a line of restistance, was the Aufnahmelinie – Rally Position which was defended by reserve infantry sections, and heavy support weapons. Withdrawing units from the 1st line of resistance would fall back behind the rally position in one move. They typically pulled out of the 1st Widerstandslinie when the attacker was within 800 metres of it, less if the withdrawal route was well covered. The skirmish with enemy forward elements at the Aufnahmelinie would temporarily halt the attack, buying time for the continued withdrawal to the 2nd Widerstandslinie.
Verteidigung – Defence: If suitable defensive ground was found in the rear of a formation currently fighting a delaying action, the formation had opportunity to switch to defence, and attempt to stop the strategic attacker in his tracks. A Hauptkampffeld – Battlefield was chosen, and the definite forward line of that area became the Hauptkampflinie (HKL) – Main Line of Battle. Depending on the number of suitable lines of resistance which still separated the attacker from the HKL, the defending formation had more or less time to prepare fortified positions inside the Hauptkampffeld. The LMG squad of each infantry section prepared an MG-Nest on the HKL. The rifle squad prepared one or two nests well behind the HKL, covering the gaps between the adjacent LMG positions.
Surpise could be achieved by disguising the presence of the HKL, making the attacker believe he might be facing another line of resistance. Accordingly, Gefechtsvorposten – Combat Outposts were deployed up to 2500 m in front of the HKL, which made it difficult for enemy patrols to reconnoitre the line. Infantry sections and infantry support weapons deployed on the outpost line had prepared alternate positions to fall back to if enemy pressure mounted. In front of the outpost line were Vorgeschobene Stellungen – Forward Positions which engaged enemy formations in order to effect premature deployment and delays. Forward positions were also used by forward artillery observers, and they were sometimes held in strength to deny dominant terrain features to the attacker for a while.
Abschnitt – Defence Sector: In defence, battalions and companies were assigned permanent sectors, depending on the tactical situation, terrain and weather conditions:
- Bataillonsabschnitt: up to 2000 m frontage and 1000–1500 m depth in defence.
- Kompanieabschnitt: up to 700 m frontage and 400–600 m depth in defence.
LMG, HMG, and riflemen formed defensive nests inside the designated sector, making sure that all avenues of approach were covered with interlocking fire. Alternate anti-tank gun, and infantry gun positions were dug on the HKL, ready to be manned if the situation required it.