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"The German Soldier in Defense" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A report on German WWII defense tactics based on a German military article, from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 28, July 1, 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 is a translation of an unsigned article which appeared in the semi-official German Army journal Militaer Wochenblatt. The fact that it appears in this normally authoritative and apparently widely read Army journal, and the critical tone in which it is written, show that the conclusions drawn are regarded in army circles as of some importance.

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The attack, and only the attack, will make for victory. For this reason our Field Service Regulations rightly state that only offensive conclusion of defensive operations can bring off a decisive victory. But, on the other hand, in the course of any long war, no army is likely to escape defensive operations; no army is strong enough to be attacking everywhere and all the time. Moreover, there are times when it is better to allow the enemy to attack and only go over to the attack yourself when the enemy has thoroughly tied himself up. If the campaigns of 1939, 1940, and early 1941 found the German Army on the defensive only in a very few areas and only for a very short space of time, this was because of the extraordinarily fast tempo of events up to the complete conclusion of the fighting. The importance of defense and its significance in the education and training of troops is not diminished by these facts. In fact, no body of troops knows during its training what tasks it may be called upon to perform. During a war the tactical situations change so quickly, suddenly, and unpredictably that all troops must be educated and trained for defensive as well as for offensive action.

It was quite correct for our military education to lay the chief stress on the attack, as it still does. Moreover, in the past, there was very little time to teach defensive action. But this must not make us fail to recognize, with even more reason, that in concentrated wartime training some subjects are more neglected than others, and in our opinion this applies especially to defense. This article, therefore, will attempt to outline a few points, the teaching of which might well increase the defensive capabilities of the German infantryman, and, moreover, save lives.

The first essential is a sure and ready sense for ground. As is well known, the Higher Command lays down the main battle zone on the map, taking into consideration only major factors, e.g., the siting of artillery, observation posts, and antitank defense, while subordinate commanders subsequently reconnoiter the main defensive line on the ground, taking into consideration, above all, the siting of the infantry support weapons. If junior commanders have time for ground reconnaissance, they will normally find the right position. But if defense is taken up hastily, as is very often the case, then there is a noticeable lack of good judgment. Officers and men, in our opinion, have much too great a tendency to stick to the ground they have first settled on. Judgment of ground in the long run only means, in essentials, getting all the advantages for yourself and giving the enemy all the difficult ground. Naturally, that's easier said than done. But even if, as is usually the case, unfavorable ground has also to be occupied, it is important to recognize this fact and to take the proper tactical measures to make up for it, e.g., siting reserves behind the probable danger area, thickening up antitank defense where the danger from tanks is greatest, etc. Training of this kind can only be carried out on the ground, both with troops and without, by means of a series of very small-scale exercises calling for ground evaluation. In these exercises all units down to the very smallest must be considered in detail. Any high-and-mighty treatment of this subject is out of place. There seems to be by no means the universal recognition that there ought to be, for example, that edges of woods and landmarks, lone trees, etc., are not really suitable for machine-gun positions or observation posts.

The second point where improvement is necessary is camouflage. One has very often the impression that people just haven't grasped the meaning of the word. Camouflage means fitting troops, weapons, equipment, and positions into the landscape. Camouflage that suits one type of ground and one season is nonsense in another type of ground and at another time of year--think of wearing a white snowcoat in the summer. Camouflage is also a matter of time. Positions must be camouflaged before you begin to dig them; observation posts must be camouflaged before you man them; approach roads must be camouflaged or masked before you use them. The basic principle is therefore: camouflage first and dig after, but not vice-versa. People often say: "The enemy isn't firing." Certainly, but he is looking. And as we note down everything we see and plot it on maps giving time and place, and take it to heart, it is clear that the enemy does it just as much. Hence the loss of the most important observation posts at the most critical moment, and the snapping up of runners or reserves on routes which have become known to the enemy. Our troops must have this hammered into them day by day and hour after hour, because such mistakes, though they may not have immediate repercussions, come home to roost sooner or later. In this connection senior officers must set a good example. Well may a brass hat, visiting a front line, expose himself to a little danger to cheer up the troops; in point of fact such conduct seldom draws enemy fire. But if senior officers give away an observation post by their visits, by even so much as one incautious visit, enemy fire is likely to come down later on that observation post and knock it out just when it is needed, which was certainly not the original intention. Don't say that this precaution is exaggerated and unworthy of senior officers. In our opinion everything is wrong which hands it to the enemy on a plate, and everything right which increases defensive capabilities. Our people often lack a sense for little finesses, e.g., use of light and shadow, wariness as regards background. Some time ago we were shown a so-called camouflage suit in use by our enemies, extremely well-made, although to use it ourselves would load our infantry overmuch; but this type of camouflage suit might well be used for training in our reserve battalions. Our people are extremely inventive when they once have something to go on and, having been trained in this way, they might well start making themselves similar suits.

The third essential is a clear recognition of the value of digging. The German soldier does not like to dig; that is a fact we have to recognize and take measures against in our theoretical and practical training. The Russians are extremely clever in their field fortifications. This dislike of digging comes from the German soldier's innate desire to attack. "We're going forward again soon, what's the point of digging?" Nevertheless our regulations, based on the experience of the last war, emphasize at a number of points the necessity for digging, including during the attack. The regulations say that the troops must so "settle themselves in" in the ground during breathing spaces in the attack that they are exposed as little as possible to enemy fire. In other words: dig in. To say that digging blunts the "edge" of the attack is wrong, because those troops who save their skins in a hole can and will carry forward the attack when the time comes; whereas those who have been killed or wounded in the open are out of it. Hence the prime necessity for convincing junior commanders and troops of the value of digging. But no amount of sticking spades into the ground to "show where the trench should be" will get you there. We must have more, much more, digging. It may cost time and sweat, but it will save lives later. There is no necessity to insist on a regular trench-system in all its ramifications. What is necessary is to teach a man during his training to dig in sufficiently to disappear as soon as possible from the surface in a hole or hollow. We do find in fact that our people recognize this, but unfortunately often only late, after they have had personal experience of men dying because they hadn't dug while men in shallow holes remained alive. A thousand unnecessary fox-holes do less harm than one hole dug too late. Only a cat has more than one life.

The construction of obstacles of all kinds and the laying of wire, etc., should also be very much emphasized. Preparing a village for defense is an art; but we have now learned the proper obstacles to use, and our troops in training should be given the chance to practice with these in a practical manner.

The fourth essential is the recognition of correct behavior, even in quiet periods. We pointed out above what happens to an observation post which is given away, but there are many other instances of this kind. Machine-gun positions are built which stand out like haystacks. They get beautifully camouflaged, but then someone forgets to shut the back, so that the enemy looks straight through them. A CP is set up and becomes the center of footpaths coming in from all sides--which, of course, immediately gives it away. Or you see signs "Look out! Ground covered by enemy!" Now you would think that people would take some notice of this and use the little detour which perhaps takes a quarter of an hour longer.--Nothing of the sort! "The enemy isn't firing and, if he does fire, he won't hit me." This is wrong, of course. Why the sign in the first place, if it isn't? Under this heading also falls the mobile conduct of defense, by which we mean the system of defense in depth introduced after 1916. This means that the main battle zone is a belt in depth. But we have many people who say that the German soldier stays where he has dug himself in. This is naturally correct in so far as it implies that the way through the zone only goes over his dead body. But does this mean that the man has to remain in one spot once the enemy has seen him? Certainly not. In other words, firing positions intended for defense must remain as far as possible unrecognized, which they will only be if no one uses them. We also speak generally of "silent"* machine guns. What happens in practice? Our people are too tired to take their machine gun to an alternative position, saying, "They won't spot us--not at once anyway." This is sheer wishful thinking, and leads sooner or later to a catastrophe. The same may be said of observation posts, many artillery positions, CPs, and other military localities. Variety in the siting of outposts, in the routing of patrols and supply convoys is also very much neglected through laziness.

The last point is a purely tactical question. Field Service Regulations speak of a main battle zone whose forward edge is the main line of resistance, i.e., a line which is to be marked out on the ground. But we do hear talk today that the main line of resistance does not suit modern conditions and that positions must be manned by "strongpoints." Apart from the fact that we have not yet seen any official amendment to Field Service Regulations to this effect, we cannot approve this view. Field Service Regulations talk about positions to be sited irregularly and in great depth; it goes on: "At particularly important points, strongpoints containing a number of different types of weapons may be made; neighboring positions must be able to give each other mutual support; eventually, covered communications between all defensive positions must be provided." A difference is obviously made between "positions" and "strongpoints," but only insofar as a "strongpoint" is a "larger position containing a number of different types of weapons." Now if you say that defense is to be "by strongpoints" inasmuch as a number of strongpoints are set up and sited for all-around defense ("hedgehogged off," as the pedants say) and that by reason of this there is no necessity for mutual communication or support, that is a false conclusion. No enemy is going to be so foolish as to attack these so-called strongpoints from the front; he will infiltrate in between them and eventually break in and finally through; these islands of defense, cut off from one another and from any supply from the rear, can and have held for some time, but are sooner or later bound to capitulate unless relieved by a really strong immediate or planned counterattack. But if such strong reserves as those counterattacking were there from the first, one is led to ask why they weren't used from the first in the forward positions. No sensible person lets a burglar inside his house for the purpose of throwing him out again; you make sure from the start that he doesn't get in. In the tactical sense you do that by manning the main battle zone in breadth without any gaps, i.e., by keeping contact to the flanks and also in depth so far as the forces are available, and by giving units regulation frontages.

*"Silent" machine guns are set up in the main defensive position out of sight of the enemy and do not participate initially in the combat; they overwhelm the enemy at close range with surprise fire just before he penetrates the position, or after he has already broken into it.


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