ASSAULT-UNIT (STOSSTRUPP) TACTICS
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
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".
"THE GERMANS COUNTERATTACKED"
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
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
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
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
"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."