The Battle of Italy has been primarily an infantry battle for the Germans. The
machine gun, the mortar, and the mine have played parts of the greatest
importance, chiefly because of the nature of the terrain, while the tank
and the self-propelled gun have been obliged to undertake subordinate missions. This
stress on the infantry arm, combined with a frequent need for the services of every
available man, often has compelled the enemy to put men in the front line, regardless
of branch. Engineers and reconnaissance units at times have been thrown into combat
as ordinary infantry.
It has been a general German policy to commit only enough troops on the Italian front
to block or delay the Allied advance. As a result, German commanders have had to use
their strength very economically. After the Allied victory at Salerno, the Germans
avoided committing a main force until the Winter Line had been reached. Instead, they
used highly mobile rear guards, flexible combat teams, and well situated defense
areas — all of which were characterized by economy of numerical strength
and by generous allotments of automatic fire power. Counterattack on a large scale
has been avoided, except to repulse penetration of a main line of resistance, and
local counterattack usually has been undertaken only for the sake of delaying the
Allied advance to some extent. This is the picture in brief. However, the work of
individual arms warrants description in greater detail.
In the early stages of the campaign, when the German withdrawal was conducted
without much contact with Allied forces, German infantry was organized in
small, mobile rear-guard groups. The composition and strength of these groups
naturally varied considerably, according to the speed of the withdrawal, the
extent of the delay that the Germans wished to impose, and the terrain. In
general, however, the groups consisted of motorized infantry or infantry in
half-track vehicles — equipped with a high proportion of light machine
guns, in either case — and often included support by tanks or self-propelled
guns. Each rear guard included an engineer component, and sometimes a battery from
the divisional artillery regiment. The basis of the rear guard is an infantry
company. An infantry battalion fighting a rear-guard action normally sends only
one of its rifle companies at a time on active missions. The three rifle companies
are used in rotation, as long as their strength remains approximately equal. The
following elements support the company (or companies, if the terrain makes it
necessary to employ more than one): two or more antitank guns from the regimental
antitank company, and half the heavy support weapons allotted to the entire rear
guard — that is, tanks, self-propelled guns, infantry guns, and gun
howitzers. In country favorable to them, these reinforced infantry companies
have proved capable of holding up a sizable Allied force on a fairly wide front.
When Allied pressure becomes strong, and disengagement consequently becomes more
difficult, the single rifle company withdraws through the two remaining companies, which
are supported by the remainder of the rear guard's heavy weapons. This leapfrogging
procedure is continued until darkness approaches, when thinning-out takes place
prior to a general disengagement. The withdrawal from one main position to the
next, under cover of darkness, is an almost invariable procedure.
German rear guards in Italy withdraw by bounds to selected, but unprepared,
positions. If it is the German intention to hold a line for some time,
positions eventually are prepared.
During each stage of the withdrawal, individual company commanders can order
retirement to the main rear-guard position, but only the commander of the main
body can order withdrawal from one such position to the next. In the meantime
the Germans make an effort to hold ground or to launch counterattacks to regain
vital features essential to an orderly retirement; inasmuch as withdrawal often
must be conducted on a time basis, the enemy cannot afford premature
retirement. The Germans launch large-scale counterattacks only when there
is a threat to the main withdrawal or to the preparation of a main line of
resistance, or when an established main line of resistance is in danger
of being penetrated.
When a line is to be held for an extended period, German infantrymen take up a
series of positions screening the main line and covering a network of observation
posts. As far as possible, these positions are situated on forward slopes. Indirect
fire is considered wasteful. Listening posts and outposts usually are established,
to give warning of the approach of hostile forces. In the early stages of holding
a line, wire and mines are not used. However, if further withdrawal seems
unlikely — for a time, at least — mines and wire are used to give
the forward positions additional protection. In such cases, the mines and wire
are situated from 50 to 150 yards in front of the positions. Each of these
positions, which are distributed fairly evenly over the company or platoon
front, invariably holds two riflemen or two men and a light machine gun.
Heavy weapons, heavy machine guns, and mortars are sited behind the line of
forward weapon positions. As a rule, the mortars are sited in pairs in the
center — on reverse slopes, if possible — while the heavy machine
guns are sited on the flanks. Where the field of fire permits, a mortar section
may be strengthened by a pair of heavy machine guns. The heavy weapons remain
under the battalion or company commander, depending on whether the battalion
is Panzer Grenadier or Grenadier.
Dugouts for personnel and supplies are constructed to the rear of the forward
positions, and are connected with the positions by communication trenches. (Whenever
possible, the dugouts, too, are on reverse slopes.) It is interesting to note that
the positions themselves generally are not connected with each other. Positions
are lightly manned during the day — with the machine gunners usually carrying
the burden of defense, while the remainder of the personnel rest in dugouts. At
night, forward positions are fully manned.
The screening positions are likely to be only a few hundred yards in front of
what the German soldiers themselves regard as their main line of
resistance (Hauptkampflinie). In static defense the distances between
the forward positions, combat outposts, and the so-called "main line of
resistance" are greatly shortened. However, with the construction of switch
lines (Auffangstellungen) to the rear, the main line of resistance tends
to perform the work of combat outposts — that is, to blunt the attack, while
mobile elements, operating within the framework of the switch lines, counterattack
and try to liquidate penetration.
In the beginning of the Italian campaign, German artillery was principally
engaged in covering infantry withdrawals and in delaying the Allied advance. For
this function the Germans made extensive use of their self-propelled guns, which
were employed so flexibly that they could be detached and assigned to
rear-guard groups. The self-propelled guns had the mission of denying the use
of roads, bridges, defiles, and so on to Allied forward units, so that the
infantry would be given a chance to retire to new positions. For this purpose
the Germans made extensive use of 20-mm antiaircraft-antitank machine
guns. Moreover, self-propelled guns were employed to cover road demolitions, and,
in flat terrain, to form a mobile line of defense so that the infantry they
supported could be concentrated on the main approaches. The self-propelled
guns were committed in small numbers, often singly; they were well concealed
behind walls or foliage, and frequently engaged targets at very close range. They
were provided with infantry protection up to the time the infantry had to
withdraw, and sometimes were employed to withdraw the infantry's heavy
weapons, machine guns, and mortars, thus permitting the latter to fire
until the last possible moment. When withdrawing as a battery, sections
of self-propelled guns leapfrogged each other. As a result, one section
always was ready for action while the others were on the move.
When the Italian front became stabilized, the self-propelled gun tended to fade
out of the picture, except in support of raids and in local fighting, when it
followed infantrymen and engaged strongpoints, machine-gun nests, observation
posts, and other objectives.
The field gun, on the other hand, played an increasingly important part in the
campaign — but not until after the early days of swift, evasive
withdrawal, when tractor- or horse-drawn artillery had to move out well
ahead of the infantry so as to have the use of the roads.
Basically, there has been no important change in German artillery tactics, although
the current trends of the war, such as Allied air and materiel superiority, have
brought about certain minor modifications. Targets are engaged in the customary
ways. However, observation post officers often have to obtain the approval of
battalion headquarters before firing, and barrages in the accepted sense of the
term seldom are fired — perhaps to economize on ammunition. The Germans are
sensitive to Allied movement, and employ interdiction fire readily; but there
seems to be no standard enemy thought as to which targets are the most
profitable. At critical moments the main target is the attacking infantry, and
the Allied artillery receives only occasional fire.
Harassing fire is placed on areas affording defilade, and wherever the enemy has
seen, or suspects, considerable grouping or movement. German harassing fire usually
is carried out with a small number of shells of various calibers, and may be employed
either by day or at night. Identification of Allied tanks or self-propelled artillery
is likely to draw this type of fire.
Counterbattery work is left to medium and heavy units, because of their range and
the destructive area of their projectiles. Long-range firing sometimes is carried
out without any attempt at precision adjustment. On the lower Garigliano and Anzio
fronts, for example, shells were directed into fairly large areas known to contain
guns and other targets.
The nature of the present campaign — a planned withdrawal — has enabled
the Germans to register on all natural routes of advance and communication, as well
as the most suitable sites for weapons, before their use by the Allies.
Allied air and artillery superiority, as well as effective counterbattery fire, has
compelled the Germans to adopt several ruses to avoid disclosing their positions. They
cease firing and halt all movement around their guns when hostile aircraft approach. To
mislead attacking bombers, smoke shells are fired at short range when Allied smoke shells
are indicating the positions to these bombers. Also, smoke is laid around the positions
to obstruct observation by hostile observation posts. Dummy flashes are set off to
confuse flash spotting. Single guns or roving batteries are employed to fire from
positions away from the normal battery sites, or to fire from the forward areas.
The excellent German camouflage shows that the enemy recognizes the need for
concealment and deception.
Rocket projectors have been used, but only to a slight extent; the ammunition is
almost invariably high-explosive. Smoke shells occasionally are fired from these
projectors for screening purposes, but seldom are used for range estimation. Firing
is chiefly indirect, involving the normal system for observation posts and forward
observers. Positions are carefully camouflaged at all times, but are dug in only when the
flash is hidden behind a crest and there is no need for an immediate move after firing.
Antitank guns assigned to support rear-guard infantry companies are sited well
forward and are employed with determination. As a rule, they are sited to the
flank of good approaches and are concealed with great care. They tend to open
fire at rather long ranges. Guns towed by half-track vehicles have taken part
in infantry and tank attacks, in which they have supported the advance of the
tanks. (The tanks have concerned themselves solely with the engagement of resistance
holding up the infantrymen, and have left the neutralization of Allied armor to the
The chief development has been the introduction of the antitank rocket launcher
and the hollow-charge antitank grenade. Both are infantry antitank weapons for
use by company antitank sections in forward areas, either on approaches that
tanks are expected to use or in the protection of headquarters. Ordinary weapon
positions are dug on each side of an approach; the rocket-launcher crew uses one
side, and the section leader with the grenade launcher uses the other. If the
rocket fails to stop the tank, engaged at ranges of from 120 yards down to
60 yards, the grenade is brought into action at a range of about 35 yards.
Antitank sections of three rocket launchers sometimes are employed ahead of the
forward infantry foxholes at such points as road junctions, and are sited so as
to place fire on both approaches.
Because of the pronounced flash of the rocket launcher, which makes firing from a
prepared position dangerous, and because of the splinter effect and flash of the
antitank grenade, neither weapon appears to be too well liked by the individual
As a result of the introduction of these weapons, there is a trend toward reorganizing
the tank-hunting units in infantry companies.
The subordination of tanks to infantry has been brought about by the nature of
the terrain in Italy and by the general withdrawal plan adopted by the
Germans. Also, the relatively small number of tanks available for combat
in Italy has been a contributing factor. Tactics have been influenced by
Allied air superiority. At Salerno, this air superiority forced the Germans
to undertake tank attacks at night. Tank units were assigned sectors to which
they were to confine themselves, unless they were heavily hit; when this happened, they
chose their own avenues of escape. (Air superiority also has forced the Germans
to make all their movements at night, under cover of darkness.)
Operating exclusively in support of infantry, and with good coordination, tanks
have been employed either in moderate strength, as at Anzio, or in twos and threes
in rear-guard actions. The tanks move with the infantry, providing overhead covering
fire for the
troops in front, and protecting fire for the troops to the rear.
In open terrain German tanks often operate near buildings which offer the
best — sometimes the only — concealment, as well as a certain
amount of protection. In such circumstances they are likely to operate in
pairs, to cover each other's movements.
Flame-throwing tanks have been used in close support of raids on
strongpoints. These tanks have directed their primary weapon at
personnel trying to withdraw from a position after it has received fire
from other weapons. Regardless of whether the targets are personnel in
woods, blockhouses, trenches, or ditches, the German intention is to
drive them out into the open, where they will be more vulnerable to
small-arms fire. Normally, the flame-throwing tank operates with other
tanks, but does not join in the action until the later stages. However, it
may be used under conditions of poor visibility, when it tries to work its
way close to a target without being detected.
As the Intelligence Bulletin has noted before, German minefields in Italy
have been laid without much regard for definite patterns. Scattered mines are
common. The intensity of antipersonnel mining is increasing, and so is the use
of wooden-box mines.
Putting their knowledge of the terrain to good use, the Germans lay mines and set
booby traps wherever the attackers are expected to advance or bivouac. Mines and
booby traps have been found on beaches, at beach exits, in towns and villages, across
roads and railways, in detours around demolitions, in road shoulders, in the spoil
of craters, and under vehicle tracks; they have been found beside streams and along
river banks, especially on the German side and near suitable crossings.
Antipersonnel mines have been discovered along hedges and walls, and various types
of booby traps have been found in haystacks, ravines, and olive groves, on hillsides
and terraces, and in valleys.
A wide variety of mines has been encountered, including Tellermines of all
types, S-mines, Schumines, wooden box mines, concrete mines,
and improvised mines.
The nature of the terrain has enabled the Germans to prepare many demolitions, which
have been an essential part of the delaying actions and which have been executed with
great thoroughness. Culverts and bridges have been destroyed completely. Roads and
all suitable detours have been pockmarked with craters, blocked with abatis in the
country, and blocked with the debris of buildings in towns and villages. Railway
tracks have been blown up and ties cut. The debris left to obstruct movement often
is mined. During periods when the front is relatively stable, German engineer units
prepare demolitions to the rear. After a withdrawal, demolitions frequently are
covered by snipers, machine guns, and self-propelled guns.
FLEXIBLE COMBAT TEAMS
Flexible combat teams, or "battle groups" (Kampfgruppen) have been prominent
in the Italian campaign. Usually they are organized to perform some specific mission
during the withdrawal; this mission may be to undertake a local counterattack or to
defend a particular feature, the retention of which is necessary to an orderly
execution of the movement. Such teams also have been used to plug gaps, to
bolster sectors in which a threatening situation has developed, and to oppose
Allied landings until a major force could be brought forward to counterattack.
The combat teams have varied in size from a company or two, with weapons attached
for close support, to a regiment or several battalions, reinforced with tanks,
artillery, engineers, and reconnaissance elements. Whereas the strength has
varied, the types of elements have remained fairly constant. A combat team
charged with conducting a rear-guard action is built around the infantry
component, to which are added heavy infantry weapons from regimental
companies, self-propelled artillery or a small number of tanks, and
engineers. Antitank guns, antiaircraft guns, and — less often — field
guns from division artillery also may be added.
Every effort is made to produce a balanced force. All combat teams include
holding and support elements. Assault elements are added if an offensive
action is contemplated.
The Germans cover the lines of resistance or phase lines, marking the
successive stages in withdrawal from one defense line to another, with
a system of defense areas, or strongpoints. Just as it was the mission
of the rearguards to prevent the pursuing Allies from making contact with
a main German force and pinning it down, so the defense areas were established
to prevent an Allied advance while a main German force was retiring from one
position to another.
The German defense areas, like the rearguards, represent an effort to economize
on strength. The typical composition in close country has been one or two
self-propelled guns, a few heavy mortars, and as many as six machine guns. In
more open country, small groups consisting of a self-propelled gun, two or
three tanks, and a party of infantry (with machine guns) riding in personnel
carriers have been encountered.
Defense areas usually are organized on the hedgehog principle. Although provision
for all-around fire is made, defense areas are not necessarily mutually
supporting. They generally are established on commanding features — and
sometimes on the forward edges of villages, if these command defiles. However,
the Germans seem to feel that villages in flat terrain are too susceptible to
artillery fire; for this reason, the enemy is more likely to establish defense
areas to the rear of such villages, to engage the advancing forces as they
debouch. Positions are changed frequently. In hilly country the Germans have
used these defense areas extensively to force considerable deployment and
subsequent full-scale attacks; however, it is a favorite enemy tactic to slip
away just before the attack materializes.