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"In Brief" from Intelligence Bulletin, April 1945

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]   An article on assault-unit (Stosstrupp) tactics, German counterattacks, and Field Marshal Model's methods, from the Intelligence Bulletin, April 1945.

[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 principle of active defense has been the key to German tactics on the Western Front. An important aspect of this principle is well illustrated by a memorandum on assault-unit (Stosstrupp) tactics, issued early in 1945 by the German High Command.

The purpose of assault-unit operations is to place an Allied force on the defensive, if only temporarily, and during this period to subject it to losses of men and materiel which must be compensated for at the expense of its attacking units. Moreover, the High Command observes, such operations raise the morale of troops and increase their confidence in their "unquestioned superiority over the enemy."

Using information obtained from reconnaissance, from captured maps, weapons, and other materiel, and—if possible—from Allied prisoners, German intelligence informs the commander of an assault unit about the intentions, strength, organization, composition, and fighting quality of the opposition.

Basically, two types of missions are prescribed for assault units: destruction of specially selected Allied positions and the personnel occupying them, and destruction of Allied units which have penetrated German defensive positions. However, it is pointed out that there always are opportunities for assault-unit operations. In each instance, careful consideration is given to the question of whether the expected success is worth the commitment of trained assault troops. "Weak points in the enemy front always can be found, and these must be exploited for assault-unit operations," declares the High Command.

In laying down certain basic guiding principles for assault-unit operations, the High Command orders that qualified men be organized into assault-unit detachments (Stosstruppabteilungen) and be trained in the light of past experiences. No standard organization is prescribed, but it is mentioned that each detachment should contain a balanced complement of infantrymen, engineers, scouts, signal personnel, and medical personnel. (Litter bearers are included, not only to take back the dead and wounded, but to carry captured equipment.) It is pointed out that heavy infantry weapons may cooperate to advantage, as may artillery. The following equipment is suggested: trench knives, sharp spades, hand grenades, pistols with extra magazines, machine pistols (the clips containing 24 rounds only), Very pistols (for dazzling and confusing the opposition), charges to be used in demolishing pillboxes, Tellermines, pole charges, Molotov cocktails, smoke grenades to be used in routing Allied soldiers out of fortifications, and ashes or scraps of paper for marking paths. Raiding parties are made up of as many assault-unit detachments as may be necessary. ("Possibly several," the High Command says, vaguely.) However, the Germans emphasize that the mission of such a party must not be too ambitious. "Opportunities that arise in the course of the venture may be exploited to a limited extent by the assault-unit commander," concedes the High Command. Then follows this very significant observation: "Feints launched at the time of the main breakthrough distract the enemy and cause him to take wrong countermeasures."

Before assault-unit operations, Allied positions are constantly observed and continually reconnoitered.

In deciding upon a mission, the Germans not only take into account the Allied strength and armament in individual sectors, but are strongly influenced by what German intelligence has reported regarding the state of Allied morale in the various sectors. Terrain estimates are studied carefully. Finally, a decision is reached as to whether the assault unit will make a sudden attack, purely infantry in character, based on surprise, speed, and the exploitation of darkness or fog; or whether the unit will try to penetrate Allied positions with the assistance of heavy weapons. The choice between the latter two types determines the tactics and timing of the operation.

An infantry assault based on surprise, and not employing artillery support, is regarded as the most practical way to capture prisoners. The High Command remarks that Allied guards frequently are caught sleeping, "because they believe that the Germans avoid night ventures." The first few hours after midnight are recommended as the best for an assault of this type. When Allied forces are alert because of actions on preceding nights, a different time should be chosen for the attack, the Germans add.

On the other hand, the Germans point out, when an assault unit has the mission of penetrating Allied positions, and destroying the positions and their occupants, the cooperation of heavy weapons generally will be needed. An undertaking of this sort usually takes place during the daytime, and the late afternoon hours are regarded as the most favorable. As soon as the objective has been decided upon, detailed reconnaissance is carried out and constant observation is maintained. This work is performed by members of the raiding party themselves so that they may learn as much as possible about the opposing Allied force, its positions, and the terrain. In all communications the operation is identified by a code name, the day is called "X", and the hour, "Y".


U.S. troops who have fought the German enemy have learned that the German defensive doctrine is built chiefly upon the counterattack. This principle of active defense at times has reached the scale of a counteroffensive; however, it is best illustrated in the persistent local counterattacks staged so often by units deployed on a regimental, battalion, or company front.

Two examples of what might be expected from an aggressive defender occurred late last year when U.S. troops were attacking the Siegfried Line near Aachen.

A U.S. division, engaged in breaking through the fortified area, sustained a German counterattack launched by two battalions of infantry, seven tanks, and from 15 to 20 assault guns. The counterattack fell upon the division's left flank, and came shortly after the morning fog had lifted. There was no heavy artillery preparation, and the Germans hit the most vulnerable spot at their most opportune time. The German infantry was stopped by U.S. artillery and infantry action before the counterattack objective—a village in rear of the American line—was reached. However, some tanks and assault guns did get into the village and caused some trouble before they were eliminated.

This counterattack was one of 17 such assaults the Germans launched during an 11-day period. The units staging these attacks varied in strength from a company to a battalion. Tanks, closely coordinated with the infantry, were used in 13 of the actions.

On another occasion a U.S. division was conducting a successful attack until it was hit hard from two directions by two counterattacking forces, each composed of two German infantry battalions supported by tanks.

The counterattack was conducted by troops from a German division which had been believed to be far in the enemy rear, and was launched without warning at first light. There were no feints and no artillery preparation, other than what seemed to be a normal shelling of the American positions. However, the American salient in that area was ringed with a horseshoe of German artillery fire, which maintained an effective fire screen both before and during the counterattack.

As a result of these aggressive defensive moves on the part of the enemy, the Allied commanders in that area reached the following conclusions:

With the lengthening nights, and with limited air observation and photography during the day, the enemy has demonstrated that he can mass a large force—two divisions with as many as 50 tanks—in an assembly area close to our lines without any of our forces becoming aware of it.

Then, taking advantage of the morning fog or haze, he can attack and be on us with less than a half-hour's notice. These conditions and the proximity of wooded areas greatly increase the necessity for alert observation posts, listening posts, air observation posts, aggressive patrolling and defensive preparation for a variety of eventualities. Rapid, complete dissemination of each bit of information to the next higher echelon frequently can produce the picture of lurking dangers, and disaster may be avoided.

The increase in enemy artillery fire is the most significant change since the Normandy operations. Decreased aerial observation and photography makes it more difficult for our artillery to locate and thus neutralize the enemy's guns. So, greater emphasis on accurate shell reports, and pointed interrogation of prisoners of war as an aid to location of batteries, is needed.

The Germans' selection of the swamps west of the Meuse as a spot to employ two of their best mobile divisions is a startling reminder that the enemy cannot be trusted always to attack according to the "book." They remain clever, aggressive foes.


After the first day of the Ardennes counteroffensive, Field Marshal Model issued an order analyzing the U.S. defenses and setting forth certain attack principles to be followed by the German forces.

Quick exploitation of the successes of the first day of attack was urged. Model regarded such exploitation as decisive. The first objective, he said, was to achieve freedom of movement for the mobile units.

To this end, the U.S. main zone of resistance was to be broken through at its weakest points. These points were to be discovered by reconnaissance in force along the entire front.

The weakest strongpoints were to be taken by encirclement, with simultaneous concentration of fire by artillery and heavy infantry weapons, and by the use of tanks or assault guns. The neighboring strongpoints were to be neutralized by fire or by smokescreens.

Wherever possible, strongpoints were to be bypassed, and left for the reserves to deal with. "Exaggerated attention should not be paid to temporary threats to our flanks." Model said.

The main effort in antitank defense was to be undertaken by the leading units. The units were to be in a position to defeat U.S. reserve units quickly. The remaining antitank weapons were to be distributed in depth throughout the attacking or advancing units.

"Artillery preparation for the attack must not be handled in a shortsighted manner," Model declared. "If, for some reason, the infantry is delayed and cannot break in after the last round of a period of fire has been delivered, observed fire must be continued until the infantry is ready to break in."

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