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"German Employment of Strategic Reserves: A Soviet View" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A WWII U.S. intelligence report on German use of strategic reserves on the Eastern Front during WWII, from Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 51, October 1944.

[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.]


Soviet opinion on the German employment of the strategic reserves—Red Army comment based upon long experience and wide observation of enemy practice—has particular importance at this time. The following presentation of the Soviet point of view is drawn from an article in the recent issue of Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), the Soviet Army newspaper. The authors, Colonels Loschchagin and Molnikov, based their comment on German documents and German practice on the Eastern front.

It is the German view that strategic reserves are the principal striking force in defense, and the determining factor in developing offensive successes. On the Soviet-German front, strategic reserves consist of divisions and units stationed on that front and subordinated to the command of an army or army group. Newly formed or reorganized units are are also used as strategic reserves. As a rule, these reserves consist of mobile units possessing great striking power and include armored, motorized, and reinforced infantry divisions. Their principal task is to assure successes already achieved.

The number of units included in the strategic reserve of an army or army group depends on conditions prevailing on the front and on the availability of troops. Ordinarily the German High Command aims at creating strong reserve forces, even if this leads to the weakening of first-line troops. Experience on the Soviet-German front indicates the following average strength of strategic reserves: In an army, one to three divisions; in an army group, two to five divisions.

Depending on circumstances and the nature of anticipated operations, the headquarters of the army group or the High Command retains control of the strategic reserves, concentrating their action on one decisive sector with the purpose of delivering a mighty striking blow. Thus, in preparing for the Kursk offensive in the summer of 1943, the German High Command reorganized the central group of armies and moved strategic reserves from other fronts to this sector. This enabled them to concentrate in the Orel-Belgorod area 17 Panzer, 3 motorized, and 18 infantry divisions.

Strategic reserves intended for defensive operations are formed preferably from armored and motorized divisions. Their task is liquidation of enemy break-throughs and restoration of the former line of defense. Counteroffensives, with limited objectives, are also undertaken when conditions are favorable.


On the subject of utilization of mobile troops for counteroffensive purposes, there exist special instructions based on the experience of recent combat operations on the Soviet-German front. Entitled "Instructions for the Utilization of Panzer Formations," and issued by the German High Command, they categorically prohibit dispersion of strategic reserves and direct their undivided utilization in the sector of the main attack.

These Instructions continue: "If an army has in reserve several tank formations, these should be used as a unified force. In the event the enemy breaks through the defensive front at several points simultaneously, all tanks held as strategic reserve must be employed as a unit in liquidating the breakthrough in one sector first, before proceeding to deal with the other sectors. When only parts of an armored division go into action, they are in most cases seriously hampered by dangers arising on the flanks."

In spite of these Instructions, however, the Germans often were forced to use their strategic reserves piecemeal and prematurely. To seal the many breaches made by Soviet forces in their defense lines, the Germans often employed not only their tactical reserves, but also the strategic reserves intended for mass action against Soviet troops.

A good illustration of this is afforded by the defensive operations of the German Sixth Army in the Nikopol area early in February 1944. Here the command of the Sixth Army had formed in good time a strategic reserve composed of the Ninth and Twenty-fourth Panzer Divisions which were concentrated in the vicinity of the anticipated main line of advance of Soviet troops. Unfavorable conditions on the front forced the German command, toward the end of January, to transfer the Twenty-fourth Panzer Division to the Kirovograd sector and the Ninth Panzer Division to the city of Krivoi-Rog.

Thus, at the time of the Red Army's offensive northwest of Nikopol, headquarters of the Sixth Army had no strategic reserve. A belated attempt to recall the Ninth Panzer Division proved disastrous. This division arrived late on the battlefield and was badly defeated as soon as it went into action.

There have been instances when armored and motorized divisions designated as strategic reserves were used as replacements for defeated units. Thus the infantry divisions of the German XI Army Corps, retreating toward Kremenchug in September 1943, were so badly shaken up that they were incapable of any organized resistance. The corps command was forced to send to the first line of defense the SS-Panzer Divisions Das Reich, Totenkopf, and Grossdeutschland—units taken from strategic reserves—under cover of which the remnants of the defeated divisions were withdrawn.


In the fall of 1943, when the Germans were trying to fortify themselves on the western bank of the Dnepr River, Fieldmarshal von Mannstein, commander of the Southern Army Group, issued a directive ordering the reinforcement of infantry divisions stationed on the first line of defense and the formation of a strategic reserve. Believing, however, that during the autumn season of bad roads the Red Army would be unable to undertake large-scale offensive operations, he charged the strategic reserve with minor tasks, such as reenforcement of threatened sectors or relief of front-line units. "During the season of bad roads." the German directive stated, "location of reserves must be different than in dry and freezing weather. They should be placed closer to the first line of defense and at points near the river where enemy crossings may be anticipated."

But the Red Army was able to upset the calculations of the German High Command and deliver a decisive blow at a time when it was least expected by the enemy.

The view of the German High Command on the question of surprise in the transition from defensive to offensive warfare is of interest. It believes that achievement of strategic surprise through employment of armored and mechanized reserves is highly problematic, if it requires the bringing up and concentration of large forces from the rear. This view is stressed in the following instructions:

"Arrival of panzer divisions from the rear cannot, as a rule, be concealed from enemy reconnaissance. Strategic surprise, if at all possible, can be attained only be undetected concentration of large forces. Therefore, the aim of the High Command is to create conditions for tactical surprise."

The first prerequisite of tactical surprise, according to the Germans, is retention at any cost of positions considered important for future counterattacks. If this is not possible, an orderly retreat to advantageous positions from which counterattacks can be organized is recommended. In launching a tank counteroffensive the Germans aim at delivering not frontal but flank blows.

When the Soviets attack in superior force the Germans halt their counteroffensive and organize for defense. The German High Command permits resumption of the counteroffensive only after the Soviet attack has exhausted itself and the Germans again enjoy superiority. It is strictly forbidden to throw strategic reserves, particularly panzer divisions, into counteroffensive action immediately on arrival in the sector and without preliminary preparations. [Editor's Note.—Soviet communiques in August 1944, however, reported at least one instance in which these instructions were violated by the Germans in a critical situation. A panzer division was rushed from the march directly into action and completely destroyed by Soviet forces.]


Mss employment by the Germans of armored formations belonging to strategic reserves took place during the counteroffensive in the direction of Zhitomir in November 1943, at Korsun-Shevchenkovsky in 1944, and quite recently in the area northwest of Iassy, Romania. In each of these operations an average of 3 to 6 armored divisions and up to 7 infantry divisions were employed. Their action was under the protection of aviation which made about 1,500 sorties daily. In addition, the enemy employed a large number of artillery and rocket units of the GHQ reserve. The Germans failed in all these counteroffensives. Meeting stubborn resistance of Soviet troops, the enemy was forced to terminate the operation after sustaining heavy losses in men and equipment.

It is worth noting certain characteristics of German tactics during a counteroffensive having a limited objective. As a preliminary to active operations, the enemy conducts combat reconnaissance along the entire sector of the intended break-through. Ground troops, supported by air units operating in groups of about 120 planes, methodically attack the opponent's defense lines, particularly his artillery firing points. The Germans are given to mass employment of artillery and 6-barrel rocket launchers. The infantry acts with great circumspection, only after extensive aviation and artillery preparation, and with the immediate support of large numbers of tanks. Especially noteworthy is the enemy's rapid regrouping of troops with the object of diverting the opponent's forces from the direction of the principal blow. Finally, the Germans have recently intensified their activity in night operations.

The German High Command appears to be preoccupied with the task of reinforcing the tactical reserves of first-line divisions and creating strategic reserves. However, the shortage of manpower and armament, and general conditions on the Soviet-German front and in the west, make the accomplishment of this task extremely difficult.


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