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"German Position Warfare Reverts to Trench Lines in the East" from Tactical and Technical Trends

A WWII U.S. intelligence report on German trench warfare and defensive positions 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.]


German defensive tactics in position warfare, hitherto subordinated to offensive principles in modern German military thought, have undergone considerable change on the Eastern front under the stress of a shortage of manpower. the mounting pressure of United Nations offensives, and superior Soviet mobility and massed artillery fire.

The familiar German hedgehog systems of mutually supporting strongpoints have been replaced on the long Soviet front with extensive field fortifications laid out in continuous lines. These lines of trenches, reminiscent of World War I, are reinforced with barrier systems of wire, ditches, and mines for protection against infantry and tanks. Deep shelters are integrated in the trench systems to provide cover for personnel and matériel. Dense networks of fire from automatic weapons and infantry mortars cover the field works. The fire plans of these weapons are coordinated with local counterattacks of small units and the direct fire of mobile antitank guns and infantry howitzers, employed singly or in small groups.

Success of the hedgehog system depended upon adequate reserves and sufficient mobility and firepower to launch decisive counterattacks. In Russia, these hedgehogs were based on fortified centers, usually a town or village, and included mutually supporting strong points, intermediate areas under light control, and strong patrols of tanks, self-propelled guns, and motorized infantry (see fig. 1).

German manpower difficulties, coupled with superior Soviet mobility and firepower, brought about the radical change in German defensive tactics, and in 1943 there began a trend that has developed into a defense based on lines of trenches. Difficulties experienced by the Germans in the transition to linear defenses have been reflected recently in the sharp criticism by German commanders of defense methods and of individual and unit training of German forces on the Eastern front.


The Soviets coped effectively with the hedgehogs and with the defensive tactics employed with such a system, by achieving extreme mobility with both infantry and cavalry, not only in winter but also in other seasons. Effective strategic and tactical massing, especially of artillery, was correlated with the movements of mobile forces. Furthermore, Soviet designers developed highly maneuverable tanks that were "good mudders", so that Russian armored forces were a threat at times when German armor bogged down. The Germans, excessively roadbound on the Russian terrain, could match the Soviet forces neither in mobility nor in massed firepower. The result was that, with the hedgehog system of defense, German mobile reserves were seriously hampered in their mission of supporting threatened centers of resistance and strong points by the interdiction fire of massed artillery and by swift penetrations of mobile forces.

[Figure 1. Typical German hedgehog used in elastic defense system.]
Figure 1. Typical German hedgehog used in elastic defense system.

According to recent Soviet analyses of German tactics in Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star). official newspaper of the Soviet Army, the aim of the German High Command is now to construct linear defenses of comparatively shallow depth and compactness to cover the entire length of the Soviet-German front.

Although the Germans still show adaptability in their use of the means of positional warfare, an ability to learn from the methods of their opponents. and aggressiveness in counterattack, their present defense system is an admission of inferior means, lesser mobility, lesser fire power, and loss of air supremacy. Their defense has become one of delaying action and attrition rather than bold, decisive action, and in many ways is a reversion to the positional warfare of World War I.


German General of Artillery Sinnhuber reviewed the 1943 campaign in a memorandum "Our Fundamental Weaknesses in Dealing with Russian Tactics" in which he attributed German defeats chiefly to the absence of strongly fortified defensive positions capable of withstanding Soviet artillery and tanks. He recommendeded—

1. Shortening defensive sectors of the principal fronts with the view of building a more compact system of defense, particularly in depth.

2. Building modern defenses, using as much concrete and timber as possible.

3. Using more mechanized equipment to replace men.

4. Achieving artillery supremacy.

Current German defenses rely primarily on trenches and continuous antitank obstacles, in combination with strong points and centers of resistance. This system of defense, according to the German High Command, makes it possible to economize in manpower and to reduce casualties from artillery and mortars. It also aids in concealing the movement of men and light infantry equipment. (See fig. 2.)

The Germans believe, however, that trench defenses have many imperfections, the principal one being their vulnerability to flank attacks after a wedge has been driven into the line by enemy forces.

[Figure 2. Continuous trenches used as a basis of German defense, with strong points and resistance centers disposed in depth.]
Figure 2. Continuous trenches used as a basis of German defense, with strong points and resistance centers disposed in depth.

Last year the German High Command issued a "Manual for the Construction of Positions on the Eastern Front" in which the continuous trench is taken as the basis of defense construction. The manual provides for the building of continuous trenches in the forward edge and along the main line of resistance, to a depth of 1 to 2 miles, connected with a series of strong points located in the forward edge and with resistance centers placed in depth. (See fig. 2.) The Germans follow this scheme as a model, altering it to fit special conditions of terrain and other circumstances.

In important sectors the Germans have built a compact, many-echeloned, continuous defense system. The central defensive zone usually has seven or more lines of continuous trenches. Rear areas also have continuous defenses with a large number of trenches and communication passages. Steel and concrete structures reinforce sectors considered especially critical. Secondary front sectors are defended by scattered centers of resistance and strong points.


As a rule, all the engineering structures within a defense area are connected by a dense network of trenches and communication passages. Quite often the Germans build antitank ditches in connection with resistance centers and strong points. These antitank ditches are constructed both in front of the first line of defense and in depth. At important sectors of defense the antitank ditches are dug in three or four rows.

During offensive operations in the spring of 1944, in the Crimea and other sectors, the Red Army encountered a new type of defense construction—a combination of strung points in the forward edge, trenches, and antitank ditches disposed in depth. (See fig. 3.) The Germans employ this defense scheme when conditions do not permit construction of a series of continuous trenches, and when it is possible to build antitank ditches in the forward edge.

The strong points are built for one infantry squad and consist of dugouts, fire trenches, and machine-gun platforms. They are surrounded by barbed-wire entanglements, and are so constructed that they can defend themselves from all sides. In front of these, strong points, at a distance of 30 to 40 yards, the Germans erect two or three unbroken rows of barbed-wire entanglements with concertinas. Within the entanglements are individual firing pits, occupied at night by double sentry posts. Antitank and antipersonnel mine fields fill the area between the entanglements and the squad strong points.

About 50 to 60 yards to the rear of the squad strong points there is a continuous lateral trench, 6 feet deep and 2 1/2 feet wide, connected with the strong points by communication trenches. Six or seven hundred yards to the rear of this forward lateral trench is a continuous antitank ditch behind which, at a distance of 200 to 300 yards, are switch positions for battalion reserves.

[Figure 3. Where continuous-trench systems are not possible, the Germans place strong points in the forward edge of the position.]
Figure 3. Where continuous-trench systems are not possible, the Germans place strong points in the forward edge of the position.

In especially critical sectors the Germans build a special type of trench. It is about 6 feet wide and from 7 to 10 feet deep. The walls are almost perpendicular and are constructed in unusually straight and long sections, about 100 yards or longer. At every angle in the trench a concealed machine-gun nest is constructed, making it possible to direct fire lengthwise along the straight trench sector.


The forward lateral trench is carefully camouflaged to make it invisible to ground and air reconnaissance. Its principal use is to make possible the shifting of men and equipment along the forward edge of defense. In case the Soviets gain possession of a strong point, the Germans who survive the attack move into the trench where they join the reserves and continue their resistance.

Light machine guns and antitank rifles are emplaced in the squad strong points; heavy machine gums are at emplacements at a distance of about 150 to 200 yards behind the continuous trench. The latter direct fire toward the intervals between strong points and over the heads of their own troops.

Mortars are placed 400 to 500 yards behind the continuous trench, usually on reverse slopes. Antitank guns are 200 to 400 yards from the forward edge. Heavy antitank guns, infantry howitzers, and supporting artillery are placed behind the antitank ditch at about 800 to 1,000 yards from the forward lateral trench.

Command posts of platoon leaders are, as a rule, along the line of the continuous trench; company command posts are 200 to 300 yards behind the continuous trench; battalion command posts are in the zone of switch positions from battalion reserves. Both command posts and firing positions of antitank guns, heavy infantry weapons, and artillery are so constructed that they can defend themselves from all sides. They are also connected with the continuous trench.

Command posts of regiments and divisions, regimental and division reserves, and division artillery have the same positions as in the ordinary continuous system of defense shown in figure 2.

To decrease their losses from Soviet artillery, mortars, and tanks, the Germans prefer to build their defenses on reverse slopes, construction and layout being essentially the same as previously outlined. However, the outpost line and advance artillery observation points are placed on the forward slope facing the attacking forces. The outpost line is in most cases constructed as a false line. (See the following section on "The False First Line".) The real outpost line is located on the reverse slope about 300 to 400 yards from the crest.

Battalion and regimental command posts, as well as artillery observation points, are located on the crest of the second row of hills, to make possible observation of both German and Soviet positions.

It is the opinion of the German High Command that reverse slope positions have many advantages over positions built on forward slopes. The attacking side has difficulty in organizing ground reconnaissance and in delivering direct artillery fire on such positions. Furthermore, the commander of the attacking forces finds it hard to direct operations, especially after his forces have gone over the crest and entered combat on the reverse slope.


In their endeavor to make use of the advantages, and to reduce the disadvantages, of trench warfare, the Germans have been giving particular attention to defensive tactics and to the organization of counterattacks.

The break-through of their forward line is viewed by the Germans as the most critical moment for defensive action. They therefore make every effort to reestablish the former position as quickly as possible. According to instructions issued to the 270th Grenadier Regiment, units occupying the trenches must immediately launch a counterattack, even with small forces. It is pointed out that the slightest delay will enable the opponent to consolidate his gain and develop it in depth. The initial counterattack is conducted by personnel in first-line trenches.

The Germans counterattack simultaneously in a number of directions (not less than two). The self-propelled guns or tanks, awaiting the signal for counterattack, are usually concealed in a forest—at the crossing of lanes within or at the edge of the forest. Where there is no forest, the tanks or guns stand concealed behind a hill.

In this connection it is interesting to note new employment of self-propelled guns, such as the Ferdinand. The Germans have been using these guns to fire from fixed positions. To protect them from Soviet fire, the Germans prepare tank trenches which the guns occupy as soon as the counterattack starts. These trenches afford protection against artillery fire, since only the gun barrel is exposed; the mount is masked by an earth breastwork. Not always, however, is this protective device employed. In open terrain the Ferdinands merely come out of their hiding places and open fire. When they cease firing, they back into their hiding places and thus avoid open maneuver on the battlefield.

To reduce vulnerability of trench defenses after a penetration has taken place, the Germans endeavor to convert communication trenches into switch positions running at right angles to the front line. Instructions to the 270th Grenadier Regiment included the following comments:

"When the enemy succeeds in driving a wedge into our defenses and occupies a section of the trenches, he immediately tries to spread over that section and attack our firing points with the aid of deeply echeloned shock groups. In this case the enemy will gain an advantage in relation to our machine-gun points, automatic arms, and rifles. Under these conditions trenches offer no opportunity for deployment, since anyone trying to come out will be shot down. This danger is greater when the trenches are not continuous. Furthermore, a trench protects the attacker from his own fire, either flat or high trajectory."


When a trench system is endangered by an enemy penetration, the Germans rapidly shift all soldiers in the first line trench to the juncture of the communication trench and the main trench. Here they deploy and make themselves ready to meet the attack. Earth barricades are erected in the main trench close to the communication trench, and from them fire is directed on the abandoned positions to prevent new enemy troops front entering. If the Germans are able to prevent penetration into the second and third line of trenches, and succeed in arresting the Soviet advance on the flanks, they then endeavor to regain the first trench. With this in view they employ the communication trench as a switch position and from it launch a flanking counterattack.

Prior to the arrival of company and battalion reserves, the counterattack is usually conducted by the infantry units posted in the front line. These forces are divided into two groups: A storm group consisting of the unit leader and two soldiers armed with automatic weapons and hand grenades; and a group of grenade throwers consisting of four soldiers, of whom three are armed with hand grenades and one with a rifle-grenade thrower. At a given command the grenades are thrown into the first bend of the trench. Following the explosion, the storms group rushes forward, firing its automatic weapons. This group is followed by the grenade throwers. The team occupies the trench bend and makes preparations for repeating the maneuver to take the next section of the trench. If successful in capturing a large portion of the first trench, the Germans then endeavor to extend their defensive action to prevent further penetration of the Soviets into the second and third line of the defenses.

In these operations local counterattacks are conducted by company reserves posted in the second line of trenches and battalion reserves brought up from the rear. The principal blow during these counterattacks is delivered by way of communications trenches leading to the front line. This is done with the purpose of driving wedges into time enemy's formations occupying the captured positions. If the counterattack is successful in disrupting the line of troops occupying the first trench, the subsequent clean-up is accomplished by the methods described above.

While engaged in trench combat, the German infantry offers no opposition to the opponent's tanks, letting them pass to the rear defenses where they are met by the cannon and antitank guns sited in depth. At the same time artillery, mortars, and heavy infantry weapons direct their fire beyond the first trench line to prevent the enemy infantry from reaching the trench.


A German attempt at new methods of surprise and deception is revealed by use of a false first line of defense in trench warfare. At one time, while waiting for the termination of Soviet artillery preparation, the Germans took cover behind earthworks or moved to the second or third line of trenches. With the shift of the Soviet artillery fire to the depth of their position, the Germans rapidly moved back to the first line of trenches and met the attacking infantry with concentrated fire. This procedure, however, lost its effectiveness as soon as the Soviet soldiers and officers discovered the ruse. Orders were then given to Soviet artillery to shell the front line of German trenches a second time, following the firing in depth.

The Germans then adopted new tactics. They left the first line of trenches unmanned by infantry, posting there only a number of observers with flares and a few roving machine-gunners. In this way they hoped to deceive the Soviet observers by giving the impression that a large number of firing positions were to be found in the most advanced trenches. The Soviets then discovered that their artillery preparation directed toward the first trench line failed of its purpose, as the main German forces were located at the second or third line of trenches. Frequently the Soviet infantry would attack and occupy the first system of trenches, to discover that this was only a trap. (In some instances the bottom of the trench was mined.)

With these tactical measures, the Germans used new methods of counterattack. In a recent order to the German troops the following instructions were given: "The main line of defense should be occupied by as small a number of infantry as possible: reserves will be located in the rear and used for relieving front-line units and delivering counter blows. . . . In this way losses can be avoided from excessive massing of troops at the front line during an expected attack by the enemy."

Accordingly, the battle formation in a sector defended by a battalion was as follows: One company distributed in small groups along the second line of trenches; the other two companies kept farther in the rear, reserved primarily for counterattack and acting, as a rule, in small mobile groups (one or two platoons). Each group had from two to five tanks or self-propelled guns attached.


In trench warfare Soviet officers emphasize the importance of reconnaissance, aggressive attacks rapidly followed through, and concentration of fire on vital points. Their views are summarized herewith:

The account of the structure of German defenses makes clear how important it is for the attacking side to maintain adequate reconnaissance. The attacker must know in advance the structure of the enemy's defenses and discover its vulnerable points. Among such points are the firing positions of artillery and heavy infantry support weapons, the areas of tactical reserve concentrations, the command posts, and the main communication centers leading from the centers of resistance and switch positions to the trenches.

Attacking troops must take into account the enemy's tactics, to meet his tricks with their own devices. Before infantry goes into action, artillery must concentrate its blows on the areas where the enemy's most important firing positions are located. Artillery and mortar fire, and infantry and tank attacks, must be so directed as to paralyze the defense, disrupt it into isolated parts, and effect a break-through in the entire depth.

Of particular importance is the fight against German artillery observers located in first-line trenches. To eliminate enemy observation points must be the task of artillery, infantry, and particularly of snipers.

Combat experience has demonstrated that best results are attained by attacking trench sectors where communications trenches connect with the first trench line. In such cases Soviet troops, after capturing the first trench, spread through the communication trenches to the second and third line, disrupting the entire defense system and destroying its defenders in hand-to-hand combat.

Rapid and decisive action is essential to success. The enemy must be prevented from retreating and erecting a defense at the junction of communication trenches and the first trench line. These areas should be attacked immediately by infantry using large quantities of hand grenades. While fighting is going on in the first trench line, artillery and mortars direct their fire upon the second trench, aiming particularly at the intersection points of the communication and main trenches in order to disrupt reserve formations and prevent a counterattack.

In attacking enemy positions, infantry should never stop at the first line of trenches but should break through to the enemy's main positions. Experience has shown that it is important to assign small groups to exterminate German machine gunners stationed at the first line of trenches—ordinarily in flanking positions and at angles of trenches—as well as to protect against possible ambushes. (Ambushing has been practiced by the Germans on a large scale.)

In the break-through of reverse-slope defenses it is especially important to determine the character of the forward edge and to eliminate the enemy's firing points in that edge. Observation points must be placed on the slope facing the enemy as soon as the attack begins. This will enable the attacking side to give effective artillery support to infantry units and tanks after they have entered the enemy's defenses in depth. It will also make possible effective direction of the attack. It has been found that the greatest success in overcoming German defenses was achieved by Red Army units which learned to attack violently without stopping at the forward edge. They break through in depth at once, leaving it to specially designated groups to handle such enemy resistance points which remain intact.


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