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"Artillery in Combat in Wooded Areas" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A report on German artillery tactics in wooded areas in WWII, from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 33, September 9, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. 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 personal critique by a German artillery officer on artillery in combat in wooded areas is taken from a translated German document.

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a. Example 1

An infantry regiment, reinforced by my light field-howitzer battery (probably 105's) horse-drawn, received orders, late in the afternoon, to push forward toward the east through extensive forest region, turn off to the right at a crossroad, and relieve the left flank of the neighboring division by making an attack.

It was nearly dark before the column of march advanced. The deep sand of the road and the necessary reconnaissance, caused the column to halt more than once. Tall trees alternated with those of recent growth. There were a few small clearings along the roadside but no large, completely cleared areas. The battalion to which the light field-howitzer battery was attached marched close behind the battalion forming the advance guard.

In the meantime, it had grown dark. The first shells burst over the point, more than a mile from the crossroad. Everyone halted and then the order rang out: "Antitank troops forward!" and "Artillery will fire!" The commander of the infantry regiment, who marched behind the point, turned to me and asked "Can you fire?" A fire mission! thought I. In a forest! At night! The enemy red-green map on a scale of 1:100,000! Our own position? The enemy? "Can you fire?"

One must try anything.

I hastened back and found a partially cleared place where one could fire fairly well between the trees. A gun commander was instructed to place at least one gun in position as quickly as possible. This took some time, for the infantry's moving of baggage and supply trains with the advance guard battalion barred the way of the guns. The din of battle grew ever stronger. While we were searching for gun positions, the gun commander asked me somewhat diffidently how he should lay and fire the gun with the map he had. I asked him in return, "Where is the most combat noise?" "There", he said. "Then aim your guns at that place! I estimate that the distance to our point is 800 yards. For safety's sake, begin to fire at 1,200, and fire two high bursts, then lower your gun and begin to use percussion fuzes. Bring your fire back to the target. Establish a forward observation post near the infantry."

"If things only go well," the expression on the lieutenant's face seemed to say.

And things did go well. We saw the third burst against the background of the evening sky. We fired shells equipped with percussion fuzes by ear (it had grown quite dark in the meantime) and brought the fire back to the target. The infantry was happy. It repulsed two attacks by the enemy.

We had not hit anything--the shots had gone over--and as the lines were only 30 yards in front of us, we couldn't bring the fire any closer. The infantry, however, swore by their artillery battalion, and the moral value of the fire, completely offset its lack of material effect.

b. Example 2

We, that is, our division and my light horse-drawn field howitzer battalion, relieved an armored division that had pressed forward to the western border of a strongly defended city but could get no farther because of deep minefields, tank traps, and the river. The period of position warfare lasted a month. We were at first provided with poor maps, but finally obtained captured maps on a scale of 1:50,000. The observation posts and command post were necessarily located at the edge of the wood 300 yards behind the front line. Only from the observation posts was it possible to get a fairly good view of the city and of the slowly rising open hinterland behind it. These posts were fitted up at night and carefully camouflaged. As we learned later from the enemy's position, these posts could not be seen. The flying bullets of the enemy infantry, however, constantly whined among the trees and made our stay there very unpleasant. The enemy artillery likewise beat the edge of the wood with a brisk fire. The fire-control wires were destroyed many times every day. Even the radio often failed us, largely because of the difficulty of supplying the anode batteries. The observation posts were connected with one another as well as with the battalion command post, and the battery positions were also connected with one another. Subdivisions of the battalion were interconnected; thus, for example, on a day when the enemy attacked and all the wires were destroyed by artillery fire, the fire of the entire battalion was controlled by the one remaining radio circuit of the battery within calling distance of the observation post.

c. Example 3

The enemy had pushed forward a salient in wooded and swampy terrain. The division, to which my mountain artillery battalion belonged at this time, was driven from the railway during the combat.

The infantry of both sides lay in the dense wood with lines not more than 50 yards apart. There were no elevated observation posts, consequently, our OPs were located in the front line. The longest view - 80 yards - was in a sparsely wooded area. In view of the dispersion, the center of impact of the barrage fire was 300 yards in front of the main line of resistance and consequently failed to accomplish its purpose. The fire was adjusted only by ear. It was necessary to adjust separately the fire of each of the guns laying the barrage and to check their adjustment separately twice a day. When our battery positions were surveyed in, we used map data to fire upon enemy positions, supply lines, and concentrations, deep within his combat zone (map on a scale of 1:50,000 and 1:25,000) and the fire was checked from time to time by aviators.

If the enemy was finally annihilated solely by artillery fire, this was due exclusively to the continuous bursts and harassing fire of the entire regiment. The expenditure of ammunition was heavy. My battalion (2 batteries) fired 17,500 shells during the 28 days. This method is really not "elegant", but it is impossible to do otherwise when fighting in wooded country.

d. Examples Compared

In example No. 1 there was no data relating to the position. The observation posts did not have a good view. Rough aiming in azimuth by ear, laying on any point, range estimated. In example No. 2 the positions were surveyed, the batteries interconnected, but only a small sector of terrain two miles deep could be seen from the observation posts. The laying was in the grid direction, ranges were obtained from the map. The regular firing method was used; smoke shells fired on a terrain, parts of which were not clearly visible. In example No. 3 the positions were surveyed but the observation posts did not have a good view. Laying was in grid direction, ranges obtained from map, fire brought back to the target by ear.

e. The Work in the Observation Post

In cases 1 and 3, the observation posts were located far forward. The lack of vision and the fact that the posts were located in the front line permitted the performance of only the most essential tasks. It was obviously impossible to employ the observation posts on a large scale. Radio, communication, supplemented by wire, and binoculars were the means used by the battery commander's representative. Corrections in azimuth and range, given in meters with respect to the line of sighting, were supplied to the battery. In case 3, the battery commander's representative was expressly forbidden to give ranges over the telephone or radio, as the interception service of the enemy was working well and could easily draw correct conclusions concerning the location of the battery positions from the ranges given.

In case 2, the fire was also affected by the "front-line influences", although an ordinary observation-post service could be maintained. Command posts A and B (instrument section) and the observation post, situated within call of its battery, were actually in communication because within calling distance. Moreover, it was possible to reach the other observation posts through the infantry command post; the battery positions could also be reached by means both of an infantry wire and that of an artillery group. The supplementary radio connections also permitted communication, but were less used, as the enemy located them by means of a radio direction-finder. The great importance of having as many lateral radio and telephone lines as possible was plainly indicated. The control of fire by the battalion was always assured. The observation posts in trees were occupied only in the most urgent cases. The observers, who wore safety belts, occupied positions in the forks of branches rather high up in the trees. One observation post could use the battery commander's telescope, but the others were restricted to binoculars.

With respect to camouflage, it should be mentioned that it is more important to have a good background, that is, trees with thick foliage, than to use camouflage on the side toward the enemy. The branches must be changed frequently and must be cut from trees of the same species.

f. Possibilities of Barrage Defense Against Enemy Attack

The event which causes the artilleryman the most pain is when a shell falls short and drops in his own lines. Artillery fire in forest combat reaches a decisive stage at just this point.

The barrage fire, whose center of impact was between 200 and 300 yards in front of our own front line, was adjusted by ear! No rule gives any information as to how the distance of detonations is to be estimated in a wood, without interrupting fire if possible, as in case 3. Nor can one decrease the range until the shells begin to fall in our own lines, when one learns that it would have been better to keep it at a distance. Moreover, sound is deceptive. Many bursts that sound far, away actually occur in the nearby underbrush, while many that sound near at hand result from detonation on distant trees. Here the difficulties begin.

Can we call fire directed behind the enemy's front line a barrage fire? In case 3, the enemy had always prepared for an attack in his front line, because he was safest from artillery fire there (according to the statements of prisoners). At most, the barrage blocks the second or third wave of attack and the supply lines. Our own infantry must always be apprised of this fact, for they must lay the barrage themselves.

Harassing fire and concentrations of fire on rear areas proved very effective, especially in case 3. This, in my opinion, is absolutely the only way in which artillery support can be useful in an engagement in the woods. If one has enough ammunition, the enemy can be driven out of the woods. There is little prospect, however, that artillery can be successful in supporting troops attacking in a forest. Enemy positions, supporting points, and bunkers can, at most, be recognized at a distance of 100 yards, a range at which the artillery can no longer fire upon them. Antitank guns, and particularly assault guns, on the contrary, have proven their usefulness. The forward artillery observer can at best only direct a scattering fire toward the rear. Attempts to measure the positions of tracer ammunition fired by forward observers have been useful in locating the position of the forward observer and the course of the front line. However, I would hardly recommend that fire be based on these measurements when all the tracer ammunition is not plainly recognized.

g. Conclusions

The lessons taught concerning artillery in a combat in the forest may therefore be summarized as follows:

(1) It is usually possible to fire only by ear in dense wood;

(2) The barrage as such is ineffective and constitutes a fire barrier only in front of the rear areas;

(3) The artillery cannot support attacking troops, for it can fire only from clearings in the forest and areas containing scattered trees;

(4) The main value of artillery in a forest combat is in firing upon routes over which the enemy approaches and areas in which he assembles;

(5) It is suicide to observe from trees in a dense forest, owing to the proximity of the enemy's front line;

(6) As far as possible, only forward observers should be employed in a combat in the woods; to establish a larger "command mechanism" in the front line will cost many casualties;

(7) The nearer the front line and the denser the forest, the more facilities for communication should be established. It is sometimes impossible to find wires that have been cut by artillery fire in a dense wood;

(8) Interconnection is of value only when the observation posts have more or less view or no firing maps are available. It seems useless in a dense wood unless air observation is available for adjusting the fire. No liaison plane is needed when the target is shown on the map;

(9) Under certain circumstances, however, artillery should fire during an engagement in a forest even when its "material" ineffectiveness is obvious, for its "moral" effect is always obtained;

(10) The artilleryman must never forget to explain in detail to the infantry the artillery's role in a combat in the woods, so that the former will have no expectations that the latter cannot fulfill.


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