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"German Field Defenses" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A U.S. intelligence report on German defensive methods and field defenses in WWII, from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 39, December 2, 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 in the case of attack, the final goal of defense is victory -- the destruction of the enemy. One of Germany's great military writers states the following: "A fundamental principle is never to remain completely passive . . . the act of entrenchment shall serve the defender not to defend himself more securely but to attack the enemy more successfully."

Tactical and Technical Trends has already included previous references to German defensive methods in various theaters of war. However, it is thought that the following summary of Russian experience, particularly concerning enemy troop dispositions and the use of appropriate fire power, which appeared in an allied publication, may provide interesting material at this time.

*         *         *

a. General

The Germans base their defensive systems on inhabited localities, on commanding heights and on the exploitation to the uttermost of tactically advantageous types of terrain. The German principle of basing defenses on inhabited localities is particularly strongly marked during the winter.

The Germans' defensive system is principally formed of separate zones of resistance laid out for all-around defense with mutually supporting fire. The ground between the defense areas is covered by fire, often protected by obstacles and invariably patrolled.

However, it has been noted recently that at some points on the Eastern front the Germans are endeavoring to create a continuous defensive belt by filling in the gaps between defense areas with several lines of communication trenches, extended along the whole length of the front.

When organizing a defensive system the Germans attach great importance to the nature of the ground. Weapons are located after consideration of the possibilities of camouflage and enfilading fire.

Tactically speaking, the German defense zone generally consists of two defensive areas with a total depth of from 5 to 10 miles. The main elements of the defense are concentrated in the first defense zone, which the Germans term the "main defensive belt". On an average this zone is from 4,000 to 6,000 yards deep, and includes the artillery positions. The second defense zone gives added depth but, as a rule, is thinly held. Under certain conditions it is occupied by reserves who prepare it in advance should it seem that the defense will be forced to withdraw.

According to the Germans, the defense will be withdrawn from the first to the second zone when the resistance of the troops in the "main defensive belt" is broken and when the bringing up of reserves to the "main defensive belt" is likely to lead to disproportionately heavy losses.

Individual defense areas and fortified positions are set up in the area between the two defense zones; their purpose is to safeguard the rear of divisions and headquarters against the attacks of Russian guerillas and of the Red Army units which have penetrated to the rear. In addition, the two defense zones are connected by switch lines.

Experience has shown that whenever the Germans decide to put up a stiff resistance on a given sector, they put all their forces, including army reserves, in the "main defensive belt" and that they even transfer units from other sectors for the purpose.

German strategic defense includes defensive areas in depth; these are generally prepared in advance by forced labor. The defenses are finally completed by the troops themselves, as soon as it seems imperative to withdraw to the new areas.

In addition antiaircraft artillery in separate zones of resistance for the protection of important military objectives - bridges, railway junctions, communication zones - is situated within the depth of the German strategic defense. The frequent attacks by Russian guerillas on important military objectives in the rear of the enemy have forced the Germans to provide strong protective forces and often to put up special field fortifications for the protection of these objectives.

b. "Main Defensive Belt"

The German main zone of defense is generally selected on the basis of the terrain advantages and invariably includes inhabited localities. The immediate front of the main zone of defense must be easy to cover by observation and crossfire.

The main zone of defense consists of the company defense areas incorporated into the battalion defense areas. The ground between these defense areas is covered by a system of enfilading cross-fire from automatic weapons and, if time permits, by artificial obstacles. In addition, this ground is kept under the fire of artillery and mortars, located in the defense zone.

The foundation of the "main defensive belt" is the battalion defense area. The battalion defense area can fight independently and is prepared for prolonged, all-around defense.

A company defense area includes two or three platoon defense areas, and in addition to automatic infantry weapons, antitank guns and mortars.

The German army considers the principal weapons of the defense to be LMGs, HMGs, mortars and antitank guns. Artillery fire is also used extensively. The Germans prefer the following ranges in defense:

       Rifles and LMGs   400 yds or under;
       HMGs              1,000 yds or under;
       Mortars           1,000 to 3,000 yds.

As a general rule, firing points are located in buildings adapted for defense; sometimes timber and earth firing points are built. Machine guns are frequently found in trenches, covered over with camouflage. Obstacles, and mines if available, are located in accordance with the fire-plans of adjacent defense areas, and are invariably kept covered by fire from the defense areas.

Roads and approaches to defense areas are carefully mined. A system of barbed wire entanglements, up to four poles wide, [probably 30 to 40 feet] concertina wire, etc., is put up forward of the front line. A less developed system of wire entanglements (up to 20 feet) is put between defense areas. Within the system of defense areas, besides the antitank weapons, antitank minefields are laid on corridors of approach which tanks are likely to use; antitank ditches and other static antitank obstacles are less frequently employed.

It should be noted, however, that the German command realizes the value of antitank ditches. Referring to the instructions of the Führer, an order dated 8 Sept. 1942 from the Inspector General of Engineers, points nut the necessity of digging ditches one behind the other. It is indicated that these ditches should be dug sufficiently deep to make them effective in winter also.

The antitank defense of the German "main defensive belt" is based on the fire of:

(1) supporting artillery, intended to block the approach of attacking tanks, opening at from 3,000 to 4,000 yards (this is principally armor-piercing shell);

(2) antitank guns in the defense areas, and brought forward to form "antitank islands";

(3) antitank rifles, large caliber machine guns and also machine guns and rifles using armor-piercing ammunition against vision slits.

Attacking tanks, which have penetrated deep into the defenses (according to German instructions, those which have penetrated the "main defensive belt") are counterattacked from ambushes by tank destroyer detachments.

The Germans believe every infantry company should include one tank destroyer detachment, consisting of a sergeant, 4 privates and 2 snipers. This detachment is equipped with five 3-kg explosive charges, 4 antitank mines, 6 smoke and incendiary grenades. The detachments operate in the company sectors, co-operate with the antitank guns and generally take up their positions forward of the latter.

The defenders try to prevent penetration of their front line by concentra- ted fire and counterattacks.

When laying out the defense, the Germans generally create "fire-pockets", the purpose of which is to give the impression of a weak defense in a certain sector, encourage the attacking units to penetrate into that sector and then, having cut off their lines of withdrawal to destroy them.

"Fire-pockets" are generally located between defense areas, in flat open country bordered by woods, heights or buildings.

German fire-plans are normally based on the principle of concentration of fire; cross-fire in enfilade from automatic weapons; concentrated fire of mortars (see Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 38, p. 47); fire of antitank weapons; artillery fire from deep within the position. The average weight of fire-power per thousand yards of front is up to 5 infantry and antitank guns and 1 to 2 divisional artillery pieces.

It may be concluded from an evaluation of a number of translated German documents that German defensive positions are laid out on the following principles:

(1) The object of the position is to attain maximum results with minimum expenditure of manpower and weapons;

(2) Each defense area and each position should have all-around defense. No standard model of layout should be followed; close attention should be given to choice of ground for location of defensive positions;

(3) The guiding principle in the location of defense areas should be mutual support by infantry support weapons;

(4) The fire-power of defense areas should be reinforced by the laying of antipersonnel and antitank mines;

(5) All positions built should at least protect those inside against shell and mine splinters; whenever possible they should be capable of supporting the weight of tanks; shelters and command posts should be laid out for all-around defense; observation posts should be set up on ground covered by fire from the various positions; the separate positions should be welded into fire-units of at least a reinforced battalion in strength;

(6) Company defense areas should be combined into battalion defense areas. The distance between company defense areas depends on the ground and the situation;

(7) In the initial stages simplified constructions should be built; these can be strengthened later as time and resources permit;

(8) Existing buildings and local materials should be used as much as possible in setting up defensive positions; special consideration should be given to the use of cellars in houses and barns as shelters;

(9) Concealed positions (on reverse slopes behind buildings) should be selected for mortars which should be dug in; the positions should be changed frequently; roving guns and mortars should be employed;

(10) Special attention should be given to the selection of artillery positions, and to the protection of gun detachments and ammunition;

(11) Camouflage screens should be provided to enable the troops to occupy their positions quickly when alerted.

c. Field Engineering

The German engineers make extensive use of existing houses and industrial buildings, road embankments and fences. For heavy and light machine guns, automatic weapons, and artillery, special positions are built or existing ones adapted, where available. The Germans build dugouts for sections (seldom for platoons) on reverse slopes; some of the dugouts are given a field of fire; entrances are constructed on the side facing the enemy so as to get the infantry into action quickly. The Germans favor the construction of a very dense network of communication trenches, if time is available and ground suitable. A frequent German device to reinforce the defense is to dig in tanks, thus turning them into virtual pillboxes.

Many German field fortifications are built of timber and earth and in the majority of cases, are of a light type. Heavy works are very seldom encountered. They use such types of obstacles as wire barricades, wire entanglements stretched between trees, houses and fences, knife-rests, concertina wire, trip-wires.

They also use barricades in woods and on roads. In the winter they may resort to icing slopes. As a rule they mine their wire entanglements and barricades with trip-mines, booby traps, antipersonnel mines, and less frequently with antitank mines. In addition the Germans lay antipersonnel mines to protect their antitank minefields; minefields containing only antipersonnel mines have also been noted.

As antitank obstacles the Germans make wide use of various odd antitank mines and explosive devices, locating minefields at points threatened by tank attack. It should be noted that the Germans lay minefields not only in defense but also in attack for the rapid consolidation of an occupied area.

The scale of German mining operations may be judged from the fact that on the front of one army up to 15,000 mines and explosive devices were cleared in the course of three months.

An order issued to one German infantry division defense sector, stated that not less than three mines should be laid per yard of front.

All obstacles both infantry and antitank are covered by fire. Minefields are generally laid 200 to 500 yards from the forward edge of the forward defense line. There seems to be no systematic method of laying mines within the minefields.

The Germans, as is well-known, make extensive use of booby traps, setting them up in dugouts, houses, abandoned equipment of all kinds and even mine the corpses of their own men.

As has been pointed out above, the local population is pressed into service in the construction of their [German] defenses; their engineers are employed as fighting soldiers in cooperation with infantry and at critical moments even instead of infantry.

Special attention should be paid to the way in which the Germans adapt inhabited localities for defense (see Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 37, p. 36). As a rule the forward edge of the defenses does not run along the outskirts of the inhabited locality but is pushed forward about 150 to 200 yards. Projecting salients in inhabited localities are used for enfilading fire.

In addition to putting up the usual field works the enemy turns all the houses, barns and other buildings he needs into firing-points; all remaining buildings blocking the field of fire are burnt down.

The most common method of adapting houses for defense is to deepen the basement for use as a dugout, cut embrasures in the basement and reinforce the roof by means of logs and earth. In houses, especially of stone, the embrasures are generally cut in the walls; windows and doors are also made into embrasures. Barns and dwelling houses are likewise adapted for gun positions. For this the Germans generally pull down one wall and then place the gun inside. Attics are frequently used for machine guns and automatic weapons. Wire entanglements (knife-rests) are put up in the streets; sometimes these entanglements are intersected by deep ditches. Mortars are generally put up in open positions behind buildings in the outskirts in the rear of inhabited localities.


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