The following description of German defensive tactics on the Eastern
Front is taken from an Allied source.
a. Selection of Defensive Positions
In wooded country a highly developed system of artificial obstacles was
usually constructed along the outer perimeter of a defended position and machine-gun
positions were sited in all defense areas and also along the perimeter.
Defense based on mutual fire support, as well as on the strong system of
obstacles covered by fire, allowed battalions to be dispersed over wide frontages
and thereby permitted stronger forces to be maintained for the defense of more
open country and for tactical reserve.
The Germans, when undertaking the defense of a thickly-wooded position
usually cut out of the wood a wide clearing in the shape of an obtuse angle, the
apex of which pointed inward towards the defense area. Both sides of the clearing
were covered by timber, obstacles, mines, fougasses* and wire (of from two to
four strands). These clearings were patrolled day and night.
The main lines of resistance were normally 150 to 200 yards in the rear
of the obstacles, their firing points being disposed in depth. Clearings in the form
of lanes leading to the flanks were cut out of the wood in order to allow the siting
of flanking machine-gun positions.
The forward defended zone was not organized in depth within 1,000 yards
of the obstacles. The regimental reserve line was constructed similar to the main
line of resistance but with fewer machine-gun positions. Between the main line of
resistance and the regimental reserve line, there were double-embrasured fire
positions sited in checker-board fashion.
The weakness of such a defensive system lies in the fact that the defender
depends entirely on a system of obstacles, whether natural or artificial, and fire
points, completely static and vulnerable to flank and night attacks. The Germans,
therefore, adopted this static form of defense only in wooded approaches to vital
In marshy areas the Germans selected the commanding knolls of dry
ground and turned them into defense areas forming a mutually supporting system
of such areas. If a knoll could not be incorporated within the defensive system it
might become an isolated post.
b. Organization of the Defense
(1) These defense areas might consist of two platoon areas disposed
along a front of 1,200 to 1,400 yards with a reserve platoon approximately 1,500
yards in the rear.
If the position of a platoon was not naturally strong, and lacked fire cover,
the weakness would be offset by a system of artificial obstacles designed to hinder
attack from the flank and rear. An outpost would be sited so as to protect the flank
of the position and the reserve position.
The ground between any two defense areas was covered by fire from both
positions forming a sort of pocket into which the Germans would attempt to entice
their opponents' advance.
(2) In the open parts of an area, as well as within inhabited places, the
German defensive positions were marked by the usual system of timber and earth
fortifications and considerable concentrations of fire power. Within 100 to 150 yards
of the main line of resistance pickets armed with sub-machine guns, were posted
in pairs. At night, the whole area was patrolled. The main line of resistence was
usually covered by wire placed between minefields. In the rear of the minefields
slit trenches were dug and. behind them were machine-gun emplacements. The
machine guns were sited in line or in checker-board fashion with heavy and light
machine guns alternating, the distance between them being 50 to 60 yards.
The above description is one of a normal type of defensive position. Such
positions were connected by crawl trenches sometimes over a mile long. This
permitted the enemy to manoeuver his forces and to bring up his ammunition
unobserved. In the event of artillery or mortar fire against his lines he often pulled
in the forward troops to shelters constructed in the rear. During the bombardment,
the trenches remained manned by observers and the Nos. 1 of the machine-gun
detachments. As soon as Russian troops moved forward to the attack the Germans
returned to their main line of resistance, using the crawl trenches.
c. Construction of Defensive Positions
(1) Emplacements for both heavy and light machine guns were usually
constructed in the shape of the letter W. The width of such an emplacement was
from three to four yards, the length four to five yards and few examples were
encountered on the northwestern Russian Front of the large quadruple-embrasured
machine-gun emplacement. The usual type was a two-embrasured emplacement of
light construction, used both for protecting the weapon and as a dug-out for housing
the detachment. The dug-out was normally covered by two or three layers of earth,
sod and timber, giving a thickness of 16 to 20 inches. Embrasures two feet long and
three to six inches deep in the emplacement were cut about 6 to 12 inches from
(2) Mortar emplacements sited in open areas were also of timber and
earth construction, similar to the machine-gun emplacements. In both cases
approaches on the forward side were mined.
(3) In wooded and swampy areas, unsuited to tank movement, the Germans
made use of shrapnel mines and booby traps, the mines being placed some two
The minefields usually were found to have one or two, but seldom three rows,
the rows being anywhere from 2 to 15 yards apart. They were found on occasions to
be laid without any regular system in order to make the finding and clearing of
them more difficult. Timber and wire obstacles were frequently found to have a
single row of mines on the forward side. Land mines and booby traps were often
placed in and around wire and felled timber. Antitank and shrapnel mines were
frequently found in the immediate vicinity of enemy defense areas. These were
arranged so that they could be blown up by the garrison when attacking troops
advanced over them. It was common to find that minefields were extended over the
front without much depth. German fire-plans often included lanes of some 150 to
250 yards width into which, by employing weak frontal fire, the Germans allowed
advance troops to penetrate, whereupon heavy enfilading fire with automatic weapons
was brought to bear. Mortars sited in groups of three or four were frequently used.
The use of single mortars was limited to roving weapons only. One of the tactics
employed was to abandon certain positions and emplacements with little resistance
and to enfilade the attacking troops as they approached.
The type of defense detailed above must not be considered as invariable,
in that the enemy changed his methods to suit topographical features and the
situation at the moment. This applied particularly to instances where the position
was known to have been patrolled by Russian troops and is a confirmation of the
necessity of carrying out never-ceasing reconnaissance in order to discover in
time any changes which have taken place in the defensive positions.
*Land mines loaded with broken stones.