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"Construction of a German Battalion Defense Area in North Africa" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A report on WWII German defense areas in North Africa, 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.]


As stated in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 27, p. 21, the German doctrine as applied to defense calls for the concentration of the available forces in a few, very strong islands of resistance. In contrast to the pre-1940 French "linear" practice of setting up the defense in platoon "strong-points" supported by field artillery in the rear, Major F. O. Miksche a well known Czech military writer, pointed out in "Blitzkrieg" published in 1942 that the Germans favor the use of defense areas containing at least a rifle company, reinforced by appropriate supporting weapons, organized for all-around defense, wired-in behind mine fields, and provided with their own infantry artillery. Even a battalion may be employed in one of these positions, which, when developed to their fullest extent, are self-sustaining defense areas, capable of resisting armored attack. An example of such an island of resistance will be found in the following translation of a German document entitled "Training Publication for the Installation of Battalion Defense Areas" issued by the Commander-in-Chief of the Panzer Army in Africa. A combat officer very recently returned from southern Tunisia reports that defenses of this type were met with there.

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In order to strengthen the power of defense, the troops will organize defense areas which they can hold against attacks coming from any direction.

a. Dimensions

The normal battalion front in a defensive position may be from 3,500 to 4,000 yards; company defense areas (see figure 1) are some 700 yards wide by 300 in depth, and spaced about 500 yards apart.

b. Garrison of Company Positions

A battalion sector is divided into several company defense areas. In general, a rifle company with infantry heavy weapons attached occupies each of the four sub-defense areas. The unit command posts are also to be installed within these defense areas. Artillery is stationed behind the forward company defense areas on terrain protected by the rear company defense area of the battalion sector.

[Note: Whether this artillery is composed of the infantry guns, or attached field artillery is not clear but field artillery was found in such defense areas in Tunisia. Obviously, while the lay-out is such that infantry guns could cover the forward company positions, some field guns of greater range could be used, if available.]

c. Weapons

Weapons are distributed so as to give mutual supporting fire. Every company defense area is provided with infantry light and heavy weapons. Armor-piercing weapons, and antiaircraft guns are attached.

d. Defenses

The company defense area is to be fenced in with wire. However, platoon areas within such company areas are not to be inclosed by wire. [Note: Perhaps sufficient wire for both inside and outside entanglements was not available as wired-in platoon areas have been encountered.] The distance of the wire entanglements from the most forward weapons is about 50 to 100 yards.

To facilitate reconnaissance activity, narrow lanes through the wire entanglements are to be laid out on the enemy side. Wide lanes are permitted only on the flanks.

To defend the protective minefields, and wire entanglements, rifle pits, listening posts, observation posts, and weapon emplacements are installed. Dug-outs are constructed for the garrison of the area.

Communication trenches are to be dug only between the firing positions or observation posts and nearby dugouts. Extensive communication trenches give the attacking enemy a chance to gain a foothold inside. In stony terrain the parapet is to be made of sandbags or stone, but trenches must first be dug deep enough into the ground (by blasting, if necessary) to prevent the position from showing above the surface.

As a matter of principle, no installations, as seen from the enemy side, must stand out above the surface of the grounds. Defended areas are not to be laid out on the crests of ridges but on the slopes [whether forward or reverse slopes, is not made clear]. Although the highest positions are normally the most desirable for observation and antiaircraft purposes, such installations must not be placed on forward slopes in view of the enemy, but somewhat further to the rear, masked by the crest.

Dummy positions (also for artillery and antiaircraft) are to be used for the purpose of diverting enemy artillery fire. Distance from the other positions must be great enough to protect the latter from the natural dispersion of artillery fire.

The sections of trenches inside a position must have frequent traverses or angles to reduce the splintering effect (see figure 2). Good camouflage is the best protection against enemy fire.

e. Transport

In rolling country, vehicles must be completely hidden from the view of the enemy. In level country, this result is obtained by keeping the vehicles well to the rear of the combat positions, and by using camouflage with nets. These nets can be improvised with open mesh wire covered with any sort of brush or camel thorn.

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Comment: Figure 1 indicates in diagramatic form the lay-out for a battalion defense area on more or less level ground. In actual practice, of course, natural defense positions would be entrenched. The front-line wire, naturally, would scarcely be laid out in a straight line. Both diagrams are based on German sketches, and are notable for their simplicity.

[WWII German Defense Area]

The three forward company defense areas are composed of several platoon strong-points subdivided into squad positions like the ones illustrated in figure 2. The large number of heavy and automatic weapons is worth noting. A squad area provided with an AA/AT gun, a mortar, a Hv MG, a LMG all well dug in and mutually supporting, flanked by similar squad areas and reinforced with the fire of infantry cannon from the support position, make a defensive position of great power, entirely aside from the garrison's rifle and grenade fire. Such a defense area could, if necessary, be supplied from the air if ground communications were cut off.

By necessity, the plan here outlined bears a superficial similarity to defensive layouts found in our own field manuals, but it should be noted that the method prescribed in the above document is based on the German theory of defense against the principal effort in a German armored attack. Such an attack combines overwhelming local superiority in men and equipment, the onset of tanks with motorized infantry and artillery following, combined with a fire from massed artillery, mortar and heavy weapons of the utmost possible violence, supported by dive-bombing. All is concentrated on a narrow front of perhaps 1,500 yards. The theory of defense assumes that the islands of resistance must allow the tanks to pass through since they can not prevent it, but do endeavor to stop by fire especially from the flank, the motorized infantry and artillery which follow behind. Cut off from their supporting infantry, the tanks are expected to be stopped by the rear elements of the defense and destroyed. A counterattack launched by the rear elements follows to eject any remaining enemy forces that retain a foothold in the defense system.

The extraordinarily wide frontage, 3,500 yards, is remarkable, as well as the wide spaces between the company defense areas - 500 yards. One commentator suggested that this defense would be far easier to pierce than our own more closely-knit system, but it must be remembered that the German plan here outlined is based on no theoretical study but upon the hardest possible school of African battle.

Another interesting feature is the concentration of heavy weapons entirely within the company defense areas.

A third feature is in the extensive use of minefields. Whether these minefields are laid by the garrison or by engineers is not made clear in the instructions, but as each German infantry company contains a group of men trained to lay and lift mines, it seems reasonable to suppose that the minefield in front of the battalion area was to be laid by the garrison. The absence of any indication of mines between the company defense areas is rather odd. It would seem logical to mine these avenues rather heavily. The failure to indicate such mining should, however, not necessarily preclude the possibility that mines might be found there. The system here illustrated would appear vulnerable to infantry attack. This, in fact, was the method used by Montgomery at Alamein, where, reversing the German practice, infantry and engineers equipped with mine detectors led the assault, behind a devastating artillery barrage. It is understood, however, that the British had a substantial superiority in both guns and tanks.

In southern Tunisia was found a rather unusual lay-out for a German platoon on the defensive. American officers report that inside the wired-in company defense areas, were wired-in platoon defense areas, laid out in a more or less Y shape. The accompanying sketch is schematic, and not to any scale, but illustrates the plan of such a position.

[German Platoon Defense Area, Tunisia, WWII]

One branch of the Y, or the broad angle might be pointed forward, or occasionally, one branch ran over a crest with the other two limbs on the reverse slope. Automatic weapons were placed at the ends of the trenches; the trenches themselves were sometimes blasted out of the rock. Mutually supporting crossfire, of course, was provided throughout the company area.


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