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
SOVIETS STRESS MOBILITY
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.|
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.
STRUCTURE OF DEFENSE SYSTEMS
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
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.|
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.
CONNECTING TRENCH NETWORK
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.|
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.
TRENCH FOR QUICK SHIFT
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.
TACTICS IN TRENCH WARFARE
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
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
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
SHIFT TO JUNCTURE
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
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
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.
THE FALSE FIRST LINE
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
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.
SOVIET OFFENSIVE TACTICS
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
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
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.