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"German Combat in Woods" from Intelligence Bulletin, April 1943

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]  
The following report on German combat methods in wooded terrain during WWII was originally published in the Intelligence Bulletin, April 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department Intelligence Bulletin publication. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]



The following German document summarizes lessons learned by the German Army in Russia, with regard to combat in wooded terrain. It is of special interest to American troops, inasmuch as the Germans may reasonably be expected to utilize these lessons in other theaters in which large woods, often swampy and thick with underbrush, are to be found.


a. Principles of Leadership

(1) Wooded terrain often enables us [German forces] to advance within assault distance of the enemy, to bring up reserves, and to shift forces to the critical point of attack (Schwerpunkt). Wooded terrain also is favorable for coming to close grips with enemy tanks.

In woods, it is practicable to seize the initiative against an enemy who is superior in heavy weapons, artillery, and tanks. By using surprise attacks, it is possible to annihilate such an enemy, or at least to maintain a successful defense against him.

(2) Difficulty of movement through wooded terrain, and of observation over it, demands that heavy weapons and artillery be attached to the combat units they are to support.

(3) In woods fighting, observation difficulties and a general lack of knowledge of the situation call for courage, tenacity, and the ability to make quick decisions. Mobility, coupled with alert, cunning leadership on the part of all commanders, can play a decisive role.

(4) In this type of combat, everything depends on the concentrated energetic employment of the infantry strength with a view to annihilating the enemy. Systematic fire preparations and the development of protecting barrages are seldom possible. Also, there will usually be many blind spots in defensive fires.

Therefore, the number of rifles and machine guns is often the decisive factor in woods fighting.

(5) Surprise is even more important in woods fighting than in combat in open terrain. For this reason, woods fighting demands, above everything else, careful planning and silence during all movements.

(6) In woods fighting, the necessity for sending out strong patrols to the front, flanks, and rear can lead to a dangerous scattering of strength. In situations where there is danger of being cut off or surrounded, it is generally preferable for the commander to hold his strength together. Such situations arise frequently, especially with small units. This must not lead to hurried or ill-advised measures, or to panic. Caution, determination, and skillful employment of available forces will generally permit offensive actions in which the enemy can be defeated or annihilated.

(7) Movement and combat in woods demand formations in depth. This facilitates control of the forces, mobility of leadership, rapid transmission of orders, and readiness to deliver fire quickly when a flank is in danger.

(8) An advance based on gaining one intermediate objective after another, and on reorganizing the units after each objective has been reached, protects against surprise and makes control easier.

(9) To coordinate the effort in woods fighting, the commander must formulate a detailed plan of operation, and must give each subordinate unit a definite mission. Often he must prescribe in detail how the mission of a subordinate unit is to be accomplished.

(10) Combat in extensive woods, especially in enveloping movements and in encirclements, often consists of a series of small fights. The individual assault groups must act as a coordinated whole, despite difficulties in the transmission of orders and in communications between units. Commanders of participating units must understand both the mission and the situation.

(11) Any commander who is forced by the situation or the terrain to depart from the prescribed plan of operation must obtain beforehand the approval of his higher commander. This is necessary so that the latter can coordinate the proposed action with that of other units in the woods, and above all with the fire of the heavy infantry weapons, the artillery, and the German Air Force. Such coordination is necessary in order to avoid losses through the operation of friendly supporting fire.

(12) Since the German Air Force is often unable to obtain adequate information about the enemy, and since it is seldom practicable to employ the motorized and armored reconnaissance units on a large scale, the employment of numerous strong scout patrols on foot becomes highly important.

b. Reconnaissance, Observation, Orientation

(1) In operations in wooded terrain, all our [German] troop units must carry out ground reconnaissance continuously to avoid surprise attacks by the enemy.

In general, several patrols operating abreast of each other should be sent out to the front. Other patrols should operate along the flanks. In this connection, it is important to make the distance between adjacent patrols wide enough to avoid the danger of one patrol being confused by the noises made by a neighboring patrol. In woods with thick underbrush, this distance should be at least 160 yards.

(2) In line with the principle of silent movement, the equipment of patrols must be tested carefully, and anything which creates noise or which is too unwieldy must be left behind. The armament of patrols consists of machine pistols, rifles (if possible, automatic rifles equipped with telescopic sights), and many Eier (egg) grenades. Since the ear must be constantly alert, the steel helmet may be left behind.

(3) Patrols should obtain information which will answer such questions as the following: Where is the enemy, or where is he believed to be? Where are his left and right flanks? Where are his advance security elements? What are the habits of his patrols? Where are his fields of fire?

If contact with the enemy is effected, it is desirable to obtain early information regarding gaps or weak points in his positions. This provides a basis for quick tactical decisions by the commander.

It is especially necessary for reconnaissance missions to obtain information regarding existing roads, paths, and clearings; ditches, streams, and bridges; and such characteristics of woods as the thickness of underbrush, the height of trees, the location of high or low ground, and the location of swamps.

(4) The commanders of companies, platoons, sections, and squads must always detail special lookouts to protect against snipers in trees. Individuals who spot tree snipers are to dispose of them by aimed rifle fire. Sweeping the treetops with machine- gun fire will be resorted to only in cases where the enemy snipers cannot be located definitely.

(5) During halts, observation from treetops is profitable.

(6) Patrols in the woods must carefully observe paths and trails. Important conclusions concerning the position of the enemy can be drawn from the location and condition of these trails. It is important to note whether or not a trail has been used recently. One way of judging this is to inspect the morning dew for any unnatural disturbance.

(7) If there is no terrain feature on which the patrol can orient itself, the compass must be used. Each patrol must carry at least two compasses, one for the leader and one for his second-in-command. The leader is in front; the second-in-command brings up the rear, guarding against any deviation from the proper course.

c. On the March

(1) Our [German] troops must be prepared to erect short, strong bridges and to lay corduroy roads. Engineers must be placed well forward to clear the way and to remove obstacles. Also, many road-working details must be provided to assure mobility for all units.

(2) When paths and roads through swampy woods must be used, it is especially desirable to employ local inhabitants as guides. Routes of this type often are not shown on maps.

(3) In woods fighting, the increased length of time required for bringing forward various elements from the rear demands that the advance guard be made very strong. Heavy weapons and artillery, staffs, and signal detachments are to be placed well toward the front.

(4) All elements of the column must be prepared for instantaneous defensive action, and must expect surprise attacks against flanks and rear.

(5) As a rule, flank guards and rear guards must be used. The flank guards must be able to leave the roads and move across country. The strength of the flank guards, as well as the interval between them and the main body, depends on the strength of the main body, the character of the woods, and above all on the character of the roadnets. Lest the flank guards be cut off and destroyed, they must guard against operating too far from the main body.

(6) It is necessary to include, in all echelons of the column, detachments which have the mission of searching for enemy tanks.

(7) Strong air attacks, artillery fire, attacks by guerrillas, or attacks by enemy troop units may make it necessary to conduct the march off the roads while passing through woods.

(8) In clearing road blocks rapidly, it is advisable to attack the blocks frontally with fire delivered from units on each side of the road. This fire will pin the defenders to the ground. Meanwhile, other elements of the attacking force should envelop the road block from the rear.

d. Approaching the Enemy

(1) When our [German] reconnaissance has indicated that enemy resistance is to be expected on the route of march, and when contact with the enemy seems near at hand, it is often wise to abandon the march on the road fairly early, in order to gain surprise and launch an attack from a direction that is tactically favorable.

(2) If the woods are thin, the advance formation can be loose, with wide intervals. If the woods are thick and relatively impassable, the troops must be held close together, echeloned in depth.

(3) Units should move by bounds when advancing through woods. Orders issued in ample time should specify the successive objectives. These must be clearly defined features, such as roads, paths, creeks, and so on. After reaching an objective, the unit must halt long enough to reorganize and re-orient itself, to let the heavy weapons and artillery weapons catch up, and to take new security measures.

(4) It has proved a good idea to provide special close-in security elements between the main body and the normal security elements. The special elements consist of small groups of infantry, equipped with close-combat weapons--especially machine pistols.

The main body advances in deep formation, with security to the flanks and rear, as described above.

Mortars, antitank guns, and heavy infantry weapons should be placed well forward, immediately behind the leading infantry. This is done so that unexpected enemy resistance can be broken at once by heavy fire.

(5) Short halts should be called on reaching clearings, roads, and paths, and on leaving the cover of woods. Machine guns and heavy infantry weapons are brought up to cover an advance across open land. Patrols move through the woods to the right and left, so as to reconnoiter the edge of the woods on the opposite side of the clearing. When the advance is resumed, the open clearing is to be avoided even if the edge of the opposite woods is reported to be free of the enemy. Clearings which cannot be avoided are to be crossed in swift bounds.

(6) When German troops are within sight and range of the enemy, further advance is made by creeping and crawling so as to come within close combat distance. Even under strong enemy fire, creeping and crawling through woods can be accomplished successfully.

e. Attack (General)

(1) To achieve surprise, we [German forces] should employ all available weapons so that the enemy will be deceived as to our plan and strength and as to the time and place of our attack. Feint attacks may be made in the woods with weak forces. Noise alone may serve the purpose. These measures confuse the enemy, tempt him to employ his reserves prematurely, and therefore weaken his power of resistance. If possible, the attack should be made so that the enemy is enveloped from both flanks, or at least struck in one flank.

(An enveloping attack by the enemy can best be repulsed through the employment of forces brought up from the rear.)

(2) In thick woods, natural features which run perpendicular to the direction of the attack serve well as objectives. The stronger the expected enemy resistance, the shorter must be the distances between objectives.

(3) Surprise will be obtained chiefly by the manner in which fire is opened. Generally, the commander himself will give the order to open fire. Fire must be coordinated and delivered in short, heavy bursts; this has a useful psychological effect in the woods.

(4) The fire of the defender, which normally strikes the attacker at very short ranges, must be traversed rapidly, regardless of consequences. Experience has shown that this method results in fewer losses than if the attacker goes into position and overcomes the defender by fire power.

(5) In general, it is pointless to deliver fire on the enemy after he has abandoned his position. Through rapid, determined pursuit, he must be prevented from reorganizing and gaining time to launch a counterattack. However, if fighting has been heavy and has involved much man-to-man action, it is profitable to halt briefly after the enemy collapses so that we can reorganize and concentrate our strength.

(6) Since trees and underbrush reduce the effect of individual rounds, woods fighting calls for the use of more ammunition than does combat in open terrain. Therefore, the problem of ammunition supply requires special consideration.

(7) In woods it is usually impossible to carry on an attack after nightfall. For this reason, troops must break off the fighting in ample time to organize a defensive position for the night.

f. Attack against a Weak Enemy

(1) We [German forces] are most likely to succeed in an attack against a weak enemy if our approach is noiseless, and if the assault is launched from the closest possible distance on either enemy flank.

(2) When our patrols have developed the possibilities for an envelopment, troops are brought up from the rear. While they envelop the enemy flanks and rear, our forward elements attack energetically to the front.

Frequently the patrols sent out to locate the enemy flanks, or the messengers sent back by these patrols, can serve as guides for our enveloping forces.

The units assigned to the enveloping force will be controlled by their leaders through prearranged sound signals.

The attacking elements in front of the enemy positions open fire and launch their attack, with battle cries and with bugles blaring "the charge."

(3) In general, the commander belongs with the elements attacking to the front, since this enables him to judge the situation and make decisions regarding the employment of rear elements.

g. Attack against a Strong Enemy

(1) This type of attack follows our [German] principles of attack against organized positions. Assault detachments are formed, equipped with such weapons of close combat as hand grenades, smoke grenades, and Molotov cocktails. Flame throwers are especially effective in the woods.

(2) Assault detachments seek out the weak points in the enemy position, and try first to effect a small breach. If the woods are thick, and if gaps in the enemy positions are discovered, it is advisable to infiltrate silently into the position with small detachments. These detachments attack enemy centers of resistance and security posts, annihilate them, and attempt to throw the enemy into confusion. They prepare the way for the attack by the main body.

(3) Woods often prevent the opposition from detecting our advance. This makes possible the assembly of our attacking force at points closest to the enemy position, especially just before dawn.

(4) A sudden and determined surprise attack without preparation by fire is usually more effective than an attack preceded by fire preparation.

(5) The fields of fire prepared by the enemy must be avoided. Machine guns, antitank guns, and individual artillery pieces must be brought into position in these fields of fire and must silence the enemy guns.

(6) The spearhead of our attack must penetrate deep into the enemy position, despite all difficulties and lack of observation. The rear elements of the attacking force widen the penetration and mop up the position.

h. Support by Heavy Infantry Weapons and Artillery

(1) Since the ranges are usually very short, our [German] heavy machine guns will often be employed in the role of light machine guns. Light machine guns may be brought into action rapidly, and may be shifted from position to position very readily. Ammunition supply vehicles are brought forward by bounds.

Heavy infantry mortars are attached to the heavy infantry platoons. Use of smoke shells during siting has often proved profitable. Care must be taken to insure that the trajectory of the mortar shell will not be blocked by trees or foliage.

The mobility of light infantry weapons and light antitank guns makes them extremely useful; they will normally be attached to the infantry companies and will be employed in direct firing.

The use of armor-piercing shells by antitank guns is effective against targets of all kinds, since these shells are not easily deflected by trees or foliage. On the other hand, our "hollow-head" shell (Hohlkopfgeschosse) is less successful, because it is sensitive and explodes prematurely when it strikes a tree or bush.

(2) Because of observation difficulties in the woods, our artillery is likely to have great trouble with shells falling short of enemy positions.

Many advance observers must be attached to the leading companies. Whenever observation is possible, fire must be opened suddenly.

The laying of telephone wire takes time. Therefore, reconnaissance units with the leading elements must be equipped with other means of communication, preferably radio.

In favorable terrain it is often possible to make use of observation from high points outside the wood. Flares are used as signals between the observer and the infantry commander to indicate the location of the leading elements, to define the targets, and to control the fire.

To match the advance of the infantry, artillery fire is moved from objective to objective. Certain phase lines will be prescribed, and fire will be directed on these at the infantry's request. Short violent salvos are especially effective.

i. Mopping Up a Woods

(1) When we [German forces] attempt a rapid mopping up of a woods, we normally succeed only through the employment of forces moving in different directions to surround the enemy.

(2) The mopping up of woods by the "combing" method--in which our troops advance in a line along a broad front, with only a few yards between the individual soldiers--has proved ineffective. There is always a danger that the enemy will concentrate his forces at a given point and break through our own line. Therefore, we must keep our forces concentrated and, according to the situation, direct strong and compact assault detachments along the roads and paths--with all movement following a carefully prepared plan.

(3) To forestall enemy attempts to break out of the woods, we must cover the edges of the woods with infantry weapons and artillery, and must employ tanks and self-propelled artillery.

(4) Against an encircled enemy, harrassing fire in ever-increasing density and the employment of air power are especially effective.

Advance observers, attached to the assault detachments and equipped with individual radio sets, can direct the artillery fire and the air bombing so that there will be no danger to our own troops.

j. Defense

(1) When defending in a woods, the danger from surprise attacks is increased. We [German forces] must not wait until the enemy, taking advantage of the abundant cover, launches an attack from the immediate vicinity. We must seek out the enemy, attack him, and annihilate him.

(2) Mobility in the defense is the best means for deceiving the enemy as to our own strength and intentions. This mobility often leads to the defeat of a superior enemy force.

(3) It is especially important to build up centers of fire quickly and to employ reserve strength, even in small units, with a view to annihilating the enemy through counterattacks. Heavy infantry weapons, artillery, and reserves must be held close to the point of likely action.

(4) Organization in depth and complete cover of the front by fire are seldom possible, even when strong forces are available.

Woods enable a defender to erect many effective obstacles in great depth. These obstacles will often stop the enemy or canalize his attack in a direction favorable to the defender.

(5) The employment of tank-searching details close to the enemy's best routes for tank approach is highly profitable.

(6) When a complete defensive position cannot be organized due to lack of time or manpower, a continuous strong obstacle must be erected--and, if possible, many centers of resistance, capable of all-around defense and of holding under fire the enemy's avenues of approach.

(7) The edges of woods normally lie under enemy fire and therefore are not to be occupied. Our weapons must operate from within the woods. If observation permits, they should be at least 30 to 50 yards from the edge.

Each center of resistance must be protected all around by mine- fields. Within the center of resistance, an adequate supply of hand grenades must always be within reach.

Every effort must be made to clear fields of fire. These must be located so that our fire will strike the attacking enemy's flank.

(8) Camouflage of the position against observation by treetop observers is essential, but uniformity in the organization of positions and in methods of camouflage must be avoided.

Camouflage screens are to be used at all times. Branches and twigs used for camouflage must be renewed every morning. (Dry or withered foliage will betray even the best-located positions.)

(9) Paths and trails between individual centers of resistance, and to the rear, are to be provided and marked. These paths are necessary for mutual support by adjacent units and for quick employment of reserves.

Paths must be kept free of dry wood and foliage so that the patrols will not be betrayed by crackling and rustling noises. The tendency of soldiers to take short cuts, and therefore to make new paths, must not be tolerated.

Patrols must never operate on regular schedules or by identical paths. The enemy will soon discover the routine and will annihilate careless troops.

(10) Defense in the woods demands the employment of numerous observation posts for the artillery (3 to 4 per battery). For this purpose, signal equipment from the division signal company must be made available. Many heavy barrages must be provided in front of the main line of resistance, and especially between the gaps in the centers of resistance.

The gun positions of the artillery must be protected against close-in attack. To this end, the position must be surrounded with centers of resistance, especially to the flanks and rear, and with increased numbers of security patrols.

These provisions are especially important in cases where only weak infantry forces are available and where, therefore, the development of the defensive position in great depth is not possible.

(11) Obstacles must be erected in front of every position, especially along rivers and creeks. The enemy may use the latter as avenues of approach. All obstacles must be covered by fire, even if only by patrols. Wire and booby traps are to be used liberally. Alarm devices, which can be made from captured wire and cans partly filled with stones, should be installed in the wire and obstacles in front of a position. The response to alarms should be rapid. Indeed, each commander must realize that speed can be decisive in a counterattack.

(12) Listening posts and standing sentries are to be employed at all favorable approaches to a position. The hour of relief and the place of relief are to be changed frequently.

(13) The laying of telephone lines, even to the smallest advance unit and neighboring units, is important. (Captured matériel will often be useful in this connection.) Wires should be strung through the treetops.


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