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"Tactics of Individual German Arms in Italy" from Intelligence Bulletin, Aug. 1944

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]   A brief article describing tactics of the German Wehrmacht in Italy, from the Intelligence Bulletin, August 1944.

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


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 antitank guns.)

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 German soldier.

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, 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.

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