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"Combat in High Mountains, Snow, and Extreme Cold" from Intelligence Bulletin

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]   German tactics when fighting in high mountains, snow, and extreme cold, from the Intelligence Bulletin, July 1943.

[Editor's Note: The following article is wartime information on enemy tactics and equipment published for Allied soldiers. In most cases, more accurate data is available in postwar publications.]



Official German military doctrine dealing with the tactics to be used in high mountains and under conditions of extreme cold is summarized in this section. The information has been extracted from German Army documents.


a. Command

The German Army emphasizes that the skill and leadership of junior commanders are severely tested in mountain warfare inasmuch as forces will generally be split into relatively small groups. The efficient handling of these groups demands a high standard of training and discipline. Columns will often be separated by wide areas of difficult country, and, since lateral communication is often very difficult, command of deployed units becomes much more complicated than during operations over ordinary terrain.

b. Movement

(1) The Germans recognize that the limited number of trails and the tendency of men and animals to become exhausted have a decisive influence on movement.

(2) Units are divided into numerous marching groups, none of which is larger than a reinforced company, a gun battery, or an engineer platoon. The Germans maintain that in this way the danger of ambush can be overcome, and each group can fight independently.

(3) Engineers are well forward (with protective patrols) to help repair roads.

(4) Aware that small enemy forces can hold up the advance of a whole column, the Germans consider it necessary to have single guns well forward. They also regard flank protection as very important; for this reason stationary, as well as mobile, patrols are used.

(5) When unusually steep stretches are encountered, infantry troops [probably reserves] move forward and disperse themselves among the pack animals of the artillery, for the purpose of helping the artillery in an emergency.

(6) Pack artillery moves at march pace (2 1/2 miles per hour) and after marches of over 6 hours, 3 to 4 hours rest is necessary. Short halts are considered useless, because men and animals must be able to unload.

(7) The Germans stipulate that for every 325 yards ascent or 550 yards descent, 1 hour should be added to the time which would be estimated necessary to cover the same map distance on ordinary terrain.

c. Supplies

(1) The supply echelon may include some, or all, of the following means of transport: motor vehicles (with preference given to vehicles of from 1 to 2 tons), horse- and mule-drawn vehicles, rope railways, pack animals, and manpower. Transport aviation may also be used if the terrain permits.

(2) The Germans have found that a cart drawn by two small horses can be highly practical in mountainous country.

(3) The German Army stresses that supplies must initially be packed in containers suitable for pack transport, in order to avoid a waste of time in repacking en route.

(4) Man loads vary from 45 to 75 pounds.

(5) In general, supplies are organized into valley columns and mountain columns. Valley columns carry supplies for 2 days, and mountain columns carry supplies for 1 to 2 days.

d. Weapons

(1) Light machine guns are used more often than heavy machine guns.

(2) Mortars are used extensively, and often replace light artillery.

(3) Antitank guns and heavy machine guns are mostly used for covering road blocks.

(4) It is a German principle that effectiveness of artillery fire from valleys depends on the careful selection of observation posts, and on efficient communication between these posts and single gun positions. "It cannot be overemphasized," the Germans say, "how difficult it is for artillery to leave the roads or level ground."

(5) In general, the emphasis is on the lighter weapons.

e. Reconnaissance

Apart from normal reconnaissance tasks, it is considered important to mark trails to show: which areas can be observed by the opposition, how far pack transport can be used, where trails need improving, and where troops must assume the responsibility of carrying everything themselves.

f. Signals

(1) The Germans use radio as the primary means of communication, because of the great difficulty of laying lines.

(2) Motorcycles and bicycles are used in the valleys.

(3) The Germans take into account the fact that lateral communication is often very difficult and sometimes impossible.

g. Engineers

German engineers in mountain units are assigned the following tasks in addition to their normal duties: bridging swift mountain streams, clearing mule trails, and constructing rope and cable railways.

h. Attack Tactics

(1) Attacks across mountains usually have the subsidiary missions of protecting the flanks of the main attack (usually made through a valley), working around the rear of the opposition, or providing flanking fire for the main attack.

(2) It is a German axiom that the early possession of commanding heights is essential to the success of forces moving along the valleys.

(3) Generally, the German main attack follows the line of valleys, which alone gives a certain freedom of movement to a strong force and the necessary supply echelons.

(4) German troops attacking uphill are always on guard against falling rocks and possible landslides caused by supporting artillery fire.

(5) The Germans have found that attacking downhill, while easier for forward troops, often presents tactical and ballistic problems for the artillery.

i. Defense Tactics

(1) German officers are reminded that defense of any large area of mountainous country ties down a very considerable number of troops.

(2) The Germans believe that if a crest is to be defended, it is better to have only the outpost position on the crest or forward slope and to have the main line of resistance, with heavy weapons, on the reverse slope.


(1) In general, the basic training of German mountain troops is that of normal infantry units. Specialized training comes later.

(2) Battalion officers are trained mountain guides, and must pass tests annually.

(3) All guides are required to be expert at map reading and the use of altimeters, at judging weather conditions, at recognizing dangers peculiar to mountainous country, and at overcoming great terrain difficulties in order to reach observation posts.

(4) The necessity for noiseless movement is emphasized, inasmuch as under certain conditions sound may travel farther in mountainous terrain than in open country.

(5) It is stressed that ammunition must be used economically.

(6) Since troops are likely to be separated from their units for a number of days, the Germans require a high standard of discipline and physical toughness.


a. Movement

(1) Marching.—The Germans consider it important that clothing should not be too warm. Weapons are covered. Advance guards are strong, and heavy weapons and artillery are well forward. Antitank weapons are distributed along the column. Ski and sleigh troops may be sent out to guard the flanks. Plenty of towing ropes are loaded on motor transport, and horse-drawn and hand-drawn sleighs are considered very useful for transporting weapons and supplies.

(2) Halts.—In contrast with normal German practice in mountains, halts are short when the temperature is very low. Motor transport vehicles are placed radiator to radiator. Snow is cleared under the vehicles, and some sort of foundation is provided for the wheels.

(3) Restrictions.—The Germans limit the use of the tanks and motorized units when the temperature is lower than 5 degrees above zero (Fahrenheit). Motorcycles are considered useless when the snow is more than 8 inches deep. Snow is regarded as a tank obstacle when it is higher than the ground clearance of the tank's belly. German tractors can negotiate snow up to 1 foot in depth; at 1 foot the use of snow-clearing apparatus becomes necessary. At very low temperatures, gasoline consumption is reckoned at five times the normal rate. Snow deeper than 1 foot 4 inches is considered impassable for pack animals.

b. Weapons

The German Army warns its mountain troops that:

(1) Distances are usually underestimated in clear weather and overestimated in fog and mist.

(2) At low temperatures weapons often fire short at first.

(3) Ammunition expenditure tends to rise very sharply when visibility is bad.

c. Reconnaissance

When German reconnaissance units are operating in mountains under conditions of extreme cold, extra tasks include obtaining information about the depth of snow, the load capacity of ice surfaces, and the danger of landslides and avalanches.

Regarding direction signs, the Germans warn that the opposition will use every possible form of deception, and that great care must be taken in interpreting the direction of trails correctly. It is acknowledged that there is an ever-present danger of being diverted into an ambush or a strongly defended position.

The usual German methods of indicating trails are to mark trees and rocks, erect poles, and set up flags on staffs. Stakes are used to denote the shoulders of roads.

d. Signals

It is noted that a greater length of time is needed for laying communication wire under mountain conditions, and that cold and dampness lowers the efficiency of a great deal of signal equipment.

e. Attack Tactics

(1) Because of the difficulty of movement, assembly areas are nearer the opposition than is normally the case.

(2) Limited objectives are the rule.

(3) Because deployment is so difficult, it is often delayed until contact has been made.

(4) Combined frontal and flank attacks are used wherever possible.

(5) Commanding positions are considered of added value and are occupied by mobile troops as quickly as possible.

(6) Decentralization of weapons is authorized so that units can deal with surprise attacks without delay.

(7) Attacks are often made by ski troops.

f. Defense Tactics

German mountain troops are taught that under conditions of snow and extreme cold:

(1) Obstacles take much longer to build.

(2) Strong outposts are highly valuable because they force the opposition to undertake an early deployment.

(3) The usefulness of snow as protection against fire is often overestimated.

(4) Heavy snowfalls render mines useless.

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