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"Operations of Axis Mountain Troops" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A U.S. report on the operations of Axis mountain troops in WWII, from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 31, August 12, 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.]


Before the war comes to a close, squads of American troops may well be roping across Alpine glaciers, groping for hand-holds up Balkan rock pinnacles, or dodging ice falls on the bleak crags of Norway. A description of how Axis mountain troops operate, taken from German sources except where elsewhere noted, would therefore appear timely.

It must be remembered that many of the European mountains are, as a rule, higher, rockier, more jagged, and desolate than those with which most Americans are familiar. Like the Canadian Selkirks, the Alps culminate in such tremendous snow-capped peaks as Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn, rising from ice fields and glaciers, storm-swept and dangerous, with deep-cut, stony valleys between. Rockfalls and avalanches are the ordinary risks of the Alpine mountaineer.

Eastward in the Tyrol the peaks are lower, and in the Balkans they are not high enough to wear snow in summer. Only two Balkan summits rise over 9,000 feet. However, the jagged Tyrolese and Balkan crags and pinnacles spring from jumbled masses of huge mountains, especially in Albania. They are extremely rugged, often forest covered, and riven by terrific gorges. Passes are few, and like the men of that land, rough and hard.

The forbidding Norwegian ranges, many lying north of the parallel of Nome, Alaska, or Labrador, are chilled by gales that roar across the ice floes straight down from the Pole. While not more than a thousand feet loftier than our Great Smokies or White Mountains, these wild peaks, with their low snow-line, great ice fields that come almost down to salt water, and sub-arctic weather, make them similar in many respects to the Alps. A peculiarity of the Norwegian mountain terrain consists of innumerable long, narrow lakes.

In visualizing operations in such highlands, one basic factor must always be borne in mind--the slowness of all military movement due to terrain, cold, and exhaustion, and the difficulty of command and supply.

What follows is based on German sources, except as otherwise noted.

*          *          *

a. Marching

A time allowance of one hour per 1,000 feet of climb and 1,300 feet of descent must be made in addition to that called for by the map distance. Because of the limited number of trails and the slowing-down of both men and animals due to fatigue, troops should be marched in smaller units than is customary on lowland terrain. The maximum practical formation, is a company, reinforced by a battery, with a platoon of engineers pushed well forward to help clear the trail. [It may be noted here that our own Field Service Regulations suggest a reinforced battalion, which may be more practicable here than in Europe.]

This division into small Self-sustaining units minimizes the risk of ambush, and each column can fight independently. To prevent small bodies of snipers from holding up the advance, single guns are placed near the head of the column. Both stationary flank guards and mobile patrols should be thrown out to secure high positions to the flanks. These elements rejoin the column as it passes. Where the climbing is particularly stiff, the infantry mingles with the artillery and pack train to help when necessary. Pack artillery moves at a walking pace. Rest-halts of three or four hours to permit the unloading of both men and animals are required every six hours. Short rests without removing packs are of little use. [Our regulations suggest regular short rests as well, which would appear to be absolutely necessary.]

b. Command

Warfare among the peaks is a severe test of the skill and leadership of the junior officers, as the operations of these small groups call for a high standard of training and discipline. Communications between forces scattered over many square miles of forest, rock or ice is difficult to maintain, and command problems are far more complex than in the lowlands.

c. Supplies

While transport aircraft may sometimes be used, one- or two-ton trucks, horses and mules, aerial cableways, pack animals, and manpower may all be required. A man will pack from 45 to 75 pounds; horses and mules not over 200 pounds.* Man-packing cuts heavily into the effectiveness of a fighting unit, because of fatigue and the employment of men needed for other purposes. (In the landing on Attu, a caterpillar tractor hitched to a pulley made fast to a "dead man" at the top of a cliff was used to haul up supplies.) Care should be taken to see that supplies are packed at the base in containers suitable for such transport. Normally, supply columns are organized into valley and mountain columns, the former carrying supplies for two days, the latter for one or two days.

d. Weapons

Naturally greater reliance is placed on lighter weapons than in ordinary combat. Light machine guns, and an extensive use of mortars tend to replace heavy machine guns and light artillery. Antitank and heavy machine guns are usually sited to cover road blocks. The effectiveness of artillery fire from valleys depends on carefully selected observation posts in communication with single guns. How difficult it is for artillery to operate in mountainous country cannot be over-emphasized.

The Germans have several types of mountain guns. One is the 75-mm infantry howitzer (7.5-cm l. I.G. 18--leichtes Infanteriegeschutz--light infantry gun) without the shield. It is only 10 calibers long, horsedrawn, and capable of being broken down into six loads of 165 pounds, maximum, each, for pack transport. With a 12 degree traverse, it has an elevation of from minus 10 degrees to plus 73. The projectile is a 12-pound high explosive shell with a percussion or time fuze, the latter in British opinion much more effective against rocks, where the instantaneous fuze is of little value. Five different charges are used with the following ballistic performance:

 Charge    Muzzle Velocity (f/s)    Max. Range (yds) 
1310  930

This is probably the type of weapon most likely to be encountered.

A heavier gun, perhaps obsolescent, is the 75-mm mountain gun (7.5-cm Geb. K. 15--Gebirgskannone--mountain cannon). This 15.4-caliber gun weighs 1,380 pounds. The elevation varies from minus 9 degrees to plus 50 and the traverse is only 7 degrees. It is slightly more powerful than the weapon just described. The ballistics of the four charges with a 12-pound HE shell, with or without tracer, are:

 Charge    Muzzle Velocity (f/s)    Max. Range (yds) 
1  7704,280
2  8654,990

The gun breaks down into seven pack-loads, of which the heaviest, 330 pounds, would appear too heavy for packing by horse or mule.

Another gun is the 75-mm mountain gun (7.5 cm Geb. G. 36). Why it is called a "gun" ("G". is abbreviation for "Geschutz" meaning "gun") when the other is called a "cannon" is not obvious. The Germans, like ourselves, use the terms interchangeably. No details of the piece are available, but is reported to fire the same projectile (not "ammunition") as the airborne gun (7.5-cm LG 40) described in Tactical and Technical Trends No. 26, p. 15. That weapon is a 320-pound recoilless, rifled, breechloader, throwing a 12.56-pound HE shell or a 10.05-pound hollow-charge shell, with a velocity reported to be 1,197 f/s and a range of 7,410 yards. Such a gun might, due to its lightness, be used as a mountain gun. It also can be broken down into separate parts.

There is a report of a 105-mm mountain howitzer (10.5-cm Geb. H. 40) but no details are yet available.

In the weapons list, grenades are not mentioned - perhaps they are taken for granted. In the East African mountain campaign in Eritrea during 1940-41, the Italians used a very light hand grenade, which the British report, produced "devastating effect". The resourceful British countered them with corrugated iron shields, and fabricated slings and catapults which threw them back at the Italians "with considerable accuracy" at ranges up to 100 yards.

Recently, a German publication suggested a mountain tank capable of taking gradients up to 45 degrees, narrow enough to travel mountain trails and of such a construction as to make possible sharp turns. The engine would have to be capable of functioning at 12,000 feet. Nothing definite is known concerning such a tank.

e. Training

In general, German mountain units initially receive the same basic training as infantry, with specialized training afterward. Battalion officers must be trained army mountaineering guides and each year pass tests. All guides must be adept at map reading and familiar with the use of the altimeter, be able to judge the weather and recognize mountain dangers. They must be capable of reaching difficult observation posts. As sound travels farther in the mountains than across flat country, great emphasis is placed on movement without noise. Troops are trained to be most economical in their expenditure of ammunition. As troops may be away from their organizations for days at a time, a high standard of discipline and hardness is required.

f. Notes on Reconnaissance, Communication and Engineers

Aside from its usual functions, mountain reconnaissance calls for the marking of trails where pack transport must be used, where the path should be improved, where the path is under enemy observation, and where troops will have to be responsible for their own transport.

"In the valleys, motorcyclists may be used for communication; on the heights, wire laying is most difficult and radio is the primary means of communication. The above abridged quotation fails to mention the fact that among the peaks are many dead areas where radio, especially short range, is unreliable, and wire or visual signals must supplement the radio. Jamming is possible and was experienced in the Attu operation. Heliograph, blinker, rockets and smoke all appear practicable. In their East African warfare, the British made extensive use of visual signals, with a curious development--the sewing of colored patches on the backs of assault troops' uniforms, so that they may be identified at long range and not fired upon by their own supports.

Engineers must understand the bridging of torrents, the making of mule trails, and the construction of aerial cableways. The British in Africa report such other activities as road maintenance, mine laying and lifting, demolitions, reconnaissance, water supply, and when not otherwise usefully occupied, fighting. In Europe, protection against snow and the clearing of snowed-in roads and trails would be part of the engineers' work as well as the construction of defensive positions by blasting. In the more static phase of mountain warfare during World War I, a great deal of tunneling and underground warfare was waged on the Italian front, involving some blasts of the most gigantic proportions. An article on this subject appeared in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 29, p. 39.

g. Tactics

(1) Attack

The early possession of commanding heights is essential for the security of forces moving in the valleys. The main attack, generally, will have to follow the valleys, as they alone give freedom of movement to a strong force and its supply trains. In attacking uphill with artillery support, there is danger of rock slides caused by the shells of the covering fire. Downhill attack is easier for assault troops, but presents tactical and ballistic problems for artillery.

Ordinary artillery was found by the British in Eritrea to be of little value, but pack-howitzers with a very high trajectory, and medium howitzers, if they can be gotten up, were most effective. It is to be presumed that the Germans will make full use of this experience.

(2) Defense In defense it is better to have only the foremost defense areas on, or in front of, the crest, and to have the heavy weapons on the rear slope. This the British found to be the Italian method, augmented by machine-gun and mortar fire. The ancient, effective defense common to all primitive warfare, of rolling or blasting down rocks on attackers is not mentioned by either British or German sources used here, but the advantage of well-placed mines to start rock-slides is too obvious to be over-looked. In retreat, every single avenue of pursuit must, if possible, be blocked or mined, forcing the pursuers to storm high crags in the face of delaying fire. Demolition operations to blast roads or cover them with avalanches are particularly effective.

The British report frequent use of road-blocks covered by fire, and the use of intense defensive mortar and machine-gun fire by the Italians, together with very wasteful fire at night that gave away their positions. British troops that had attained their objective were subjected to violent fire and counterattack. In their withdrawal through the mountains toward Keren in Eritrea, the Italians made full use of demolition tactics to delay pursuit.

On Attu, where the terrain was mountainous, the Japs used fog as cover and followed the edge of it up the mountain side. However, among the high peaks, according to experienced mountaineers, fog is apt to be unreliable cover.

h. Combat in Extreme Cold

The following German memoranda appear to be of unusual practical value:

(1) Marching

(a) Weapons must be covered.
(b) It is emphasized that clothing must not be too warm.
(c) Plenty of towing ropes should be loaded on the trucks.
(d) Advance guards should be strong, with heavy weapons and artillery well forward.
(e) Antitank weapons are distributed along the column.
(f) Ski and sleigh-borne troops are deployed to guard the flanks.
(g) Horse-drawn sleighs and handsleds are valuable for the transport of weapons and supplies.

(2) Halts

As opposed to normal mountain practice, halts must be short when the temperature is low.

Here occurs a rather unusual direction, worth quoting in full. "Motor vehicles must be parked radiator to radiator, snow removed from under the vehicles and some sort of foundation placed under the wheels." Presumably, during a lengthy halt, the trucks are pulled off the road, into deeper snow, which obviously must be dug away from the wheel tracks to prevent possible stalling. Probably, they are parked in woods or under cover, or camouflaged. Placed radiator to radiator, a tarpaulin could be thrown over the hoods and the engines kept warm. The foundation under the wheels would give starting traction. A suggestion as to camouflaging wheel tracks with fresh snow might have been in order.

(3) Restrictions to Movement

At zero temperatures the use of tanks and motorized equipment is limited. Tractors can negotiate snow slightly over a foot deep, but motorcycles are useless at six or seven inches. Snow is a tank obstacle when higher than the ground clearance of the tank. Gas consumption at very low temperatures is calculated to be five times normal. "Snow over 16 inches is not passable for pack animals." [It is to be doubted if Custer, Miles, or some of the other generals of the Indian Wars would accept this limitation; but the reason, perhaps, may be that in the Alpine variety of mountains, 16 inches of snow or over on the level will drift and block the trails until it is impractical to attempt pack train transport.]

Here it should be noted, that during the Norwegian campaign in April and May of 1940, the Germans drove motorized spearheads, including tanks and motorcycles, eastward from the Osterdal (valley) north of Oslo toward Hjerkinn and Inset through high passes, over narrow, sharply twisting roads where the snow lay from six to ten feet deep. How it was done has not come to our knowledge, but neither the Norwegians, who certainly knew the country, nor the British, had considered it a possibility. The results would indicate that such snow-fighting equipment as bulldozers, rotary ploughs, and similar machinery were included in the German materiel.

(4) Weapons

Ranges are usually under-estimated in clear weather and over-estimated in fog. At low temperatures, weapons at first fire short. When visibility is bad, ammunition consumption rises.

(5) Reconnaissance, Communication, and Engineers

Among the extra tasks of reconnaissance caused by cold are, information as to the depth of snow, load capacity of iced streams, and danger of avalanches.

Scouts must remember that the enemy will use tracks in the snow to lead patrols into ambush.

Signs on stakes well above the snow or the marking of rocks or trees and the setting up of flags on poles are necessary to mark roads.

Line construction takes longer in extreme cold, and the cold and damp lower the efficiency of electrical equipment.

Engineers must understand the bridging of iced surfaces, bridge protection and maintenance against ice, and the blasting of the frozen surface of marshes.

(6) Tactics

(a) Attack

Assembly areas, in view of the difficulty of movement, must be farther forward than normal. Deployment must often be delayed till contact with the enemy is made. As a rule, limited objectives only are possible, but combined frontal and flank attacks will be made where possible. Commanding positions, which assume added value in cold weather, must be seized early in the action. To prevent surprise, or deal with surprise attacks, heavy weapons must be decentralized. In attack, ski troops are valuable.

(b) Defense

It must be remembered that obstacles take much longer to build in the cold. To make the enemy deploy early, strong outposts are required. The usefulness of snow as a protection against fire is often over estimated but ice fortifications and ice concrete can be employed as described in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 22, p. 20.

*U.S. Army load--no German figures given in source material.


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