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"German Antitank Units and Tactics" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following WWII military report on German antitank units and tactics was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 10, Oct. 22, 1942.

[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.]



Successful offensive and defensive action against mechanized forces demands specialized equipment. The principal weapons employed by the Germans against opposing armor are guns of various calibers, mines, obstacles, and grenades. This materiel has been developed over a period of several years and has withstood the test of combat.

A list of the standard German antitank guns has been given in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 5, p. 9.

An obstacle is any object or device capable of halting a tank or of impeding its progress. Some of the more common forms of obstacles used by the Germans are minefields, road blocks, antitank ditches, and concrete barriers. Obstacles are also constructed from damaged vehicles, trees cut and placed across an avenue of approach, explosive charges which make craters in a roadway, coils of wire disposed in depth to foul the tracks of tanks, and mines suspended from the branches of trees. Antipersonnel mines and booby traps are often used to make obstacles more difficult to remove. Obstacles and barriers are habitually covered with fire to insure their continued effectiveness.

The pole charge consists of a small explosive charge attached to the end of a fairly long pole. The most effective explosive used by the Germans for this purpose is a prepared demolition called the Pionier-Sprengbüchse. It contains slightly more than 2 pounds of explosive and can disable most tanks. Other kinds of explosives are used in makeshift pole charges with almost equal effectiveness.

The "Molotov cocktail," which proved its effectiveness during the Spanish Civil War, has been adopted and used by the German Army. It consists in essence of a quart bottle of gasoline with a gasoline-soaked rag attached to its base. The infantryman lights the rag and throws the bottle at the tank. When the bottle breaks, the tank is immediately engulfed in flame. Improved models of this bomb have been used in which the gasoline is ignited by a substance which explodes on contact with a hard surface. The bottle is sometimes filled with smoke-producing materials to blind the tank crew or with slow-burning combustible oils.

The stick or "potato-masher" grenade (M24) normally contains 1 1/4 pounds of explosive and has a 5 1/2-second time fuze. For use against tanks, the heads of five or six grenades are tied in a bunch around a seventh.

The grenade PH 39 is newer than the M24 and is said to have from six to eight times greater effect. It contains 1 5/16 pounds of explosive and has a 4 1/2 second time fuze. One of these grenades is usually sufficient to put a light or medium tank out of action if it strikes a vital spot.


Small antitank units such as the platoon and company are organic parts of larger organizations (regiments and battalions), and their mission is to provide these organizations with defense from armored attack. Large antitank units such as battalions and GHQ forces are used as general reserves, and either allotted according to the requirements of lower units or committed at critical points during an action. Normally, the antitank units which are employed as reserve forces are given a large number of sell-propelled guns to provide the mobility essential to their missions.

Flexibility, which is a characteristic of all German organization, is especially apparent in the makeup of antitank units. This is partly because antimechanized forces are employed in support of other arms and change their composition according to the task, and partly because of the shift from 37-mm to 50-mm AT guns. As units have their armament and number of guns changed, they have a corresponding change in personnel and services.

At present it is difficult to say with any exactness what type of guns any given antitank unit will have. Weapons are issued to units from the available supply, and the newer types are being allotted as rapidly as they are produced. The unit organizations given below are standard, but not necessarily the only types which the German Army will employ.

The GHQ reserve pool contains heavy antitank battalions, antitank battalions, and probably some self-propelled tank-hunter battalions.

The infantry division's antitank units include one antitank battalion; in addition, each of its three infantry regiments has an antitank company.

The armored division has one antitank battalion, in addition, in each heavy weapons company of its reconnaissance battalion, motorcycle battalion, and two motorized rifle regiments, there is an antitank platoon.

Both the mountain division and the motorized infantry division each have one antitank battalion. The latter also may have one tank-hunter battalion for each of its three motorized rifle regiments.


The antitank battalion comprises headquarters and staff; three companies, each with four 37-mm AT guns, six 50-mm AT guns, six machine guns, organic transportation, and a maintenance section; and a signal section with 6 pack radios, 2 armored radios, and a lineman's section.

Arms carried in the antitank battalion are twelve 37-mm AT guns, eighteen 50-mm AT guns, 18 machine guns, 315 rifles, 204 pistols, and 13 machine pistols (submachine guns). Accompanying the guns at all times are 180 rounds of 37-mm ammunition per gun, 38 to 72 rounds of 50-mm ammunition per gun, and 1,000 rounds of machine-gun ammunition per gun.

The heavy antitank battalion is a GHQ unit made up of 88-mm and 50-mm guns. Its exact composition is not known, but is believed to vary widely according to the number of weapons available.

The tank-hunter battalion contains two companies of 47-mm antitank guns on self-propelled mounts (Mark I tank chassis), or as a variation, one company of 47-mm AT guns and one company of 37-mm AT guns. These tank-destroyer units may also be organized as GHQ troops.

The antitank company of an infantry regiment is fully mechanized, and consists of headquarters and four platoons. Each of the platoons consists of three sections, each armed with a 37-mm AT gun, and one light machine-gun section. Some 50-mm guns have replaced the 37-mm guns which have formerly made up this company's armament.

The antitank platoon of the heavy weapons company is thought to be the same as a platoon of an infantry antitank company.

Barrier detachments are not part of the antitank forces, but their approximate makeup is given here because of their important tactical mission of constructing antimechanized obstacles. Since barrier detachments are engineer task forces constituted for specific missions, no definite organization exists. A typical barrier detachment (Sperr Abteilung) for a corps would comprise an engineer battalion; a mechanized column (Sperr Kollone) equipped with explosives; one or more bicycle companies; one or more battalions of artillery; and a signal platoon. Such a unit organized to assist division antitank forces would include the following: The division engineer battalion (or part of it); elements of the antitank battalion; one or more bicycle companies; one or more batteries of artillery; and some infantry elements.

All of these forces are supplied with large numbers of motor vehicles, giving them the increased mobility necessary for the rapid performance of their tasks.


When entering the German military service all soldiers take a basic training course of 6 weeks prior to being assigned to permanent units. For the men of antitank units, this period consists of: intensive training in basic infantry subjects; recognition of enemy and friendly armored vehicles; laying and firing antitank weapons and small arms; and handling antitank vehicles and guns. Along with their technical training, they learn something of the theory of the employment of antitank forces and get a course of physical toughening.

In addition to these basic training courses, there are courses designed to make soldiers antitank specialists. A document captured from a German prisoner in Libya gives a good idea of the content of such a course. A translation of his account follows:

"The course lasted from 8 to 10 weeks. During the mornings of the first 2 weeks, we learned the principles of gun laying and aiming, with considerable practice in aiming at the 'snake' target, which is 10 feet high and placed at a distance of 35 feet. The gun must be brought into position and correct aim taken in 60 seconds. The snake target can be given both vertical and horizontal movement.

"The afternoons were spent in manhandling the gun at double time. The 37-mm gun was drawn by two men with ropes, with two men pushing behind. Each gun had a commander. After every 20 minutes there was a 10-minute break. The whole distance to be covered was about 5 miles. The last stretch of more than 2 miles rose about 330 feet and included several hollows. This distance was crosscountry and had to be covered in an hour. On arrival at the top of the hill there was a further 10-minute break which was followed by training in judging distances to farmhouses, trees, etc. The distances were checked and corrected with a rangefinder.

"Aiming and firing with dummy cartridges were then practiced on moving targets of cars camouflaged as tanks. These cars moved at the same speed as tanks. They were at ranges of from 450 to 1,350 yards and in a field of vision 350 yards wide. During this practice the gun positions were moved as much as 100 yards.

"The return journey, mostly downhill, had to be covered in 70 minutes. For the last 10 minutes before arrival at barracks, the crews marched along, ropes over their shoulders, singing lustily. The whole exercise was carried out in full kit--steel helmet, rifle, gas mask, pack canteen, and cartridge belts filled with old iron.

"Fifteen minutes was allowed for changing into fatigue clothes; then followed a 30-minute period of instruction in gun cleaning, followed by theoretical instruction in gun parts.

"The third, fourth, and fifth weeks were spent mainly in theoretical instruction and firing practice with a detachable sub-caliber barrel liner. Ammunition fired was the same as used in the service rifle, and the range was about 10 yards. The size of the figures on the target was about 2 inches square. On the targets were four squares, each with five figures, which were fired upon in any order in accordance with the instructions of the gun leader. The time allowed for sighting, loading, and firing was 35 seconds, and the standard to be attained was four hits and one near miss. In addition, there was 45 minutes daily of double-time gun drill in which turning, stopping, crosscountry movement, and getting the weapon into firing position were practiced.

"The remainder of the course included further gun drill--laying, sighting, and loading with dummy cartridges. All of the exercises were aimed at inculcating speed. The first gun set the pace and the other three guns had to keep up with it. Toward the end of the course there was some field firing. For snap shooting, each gunner was allowed five rounds.

"Wooden practice tanks of the same size as normal tanks were pulled along at a speed of 6 miles per hour. These practice tanks were suspended from overhead ropes, and rollers were used to make them turn corners. The five rounds were to be fired at 1,350, 1,100, 880, 660, and 440 yards, respectively. The qualifying score was 80 percent. Afterwards, there was firing practice at cardboard figures representing machine-gun nests. These figures were life-sized, and represented the personnel as either prone or kneeling. The qualifying score in this exercise was 100 percent. Five rounds were fired on this range, one at 440 yards, one at 660, and the other three at 880. Gunners who made the best records were rewarded by being allowed to fire 10 extra rounds.

"Instruction both practical and theoretical, was also given in fighting British incendiary bombs and land mines. There were occasionally exercises with rubber boats, in which the antitank guns were to be transported across rivers. At the end of the period of training there were maneuvers for 3 days."

After his preliminary work, the German antitank soldier goes into unit training. The primary objective of unit training in the German Army is teamwork. Since soldiers come to antitank companies and battalions with a good knowledge of their weapons, the first lesson that they learn is the employment of these weapons in a closely coordinated team. Most of this instruction is by platoons, as the platoon is the antitank unit most frequently used in actual combat.

A great deal of the instruction is in the movement and emplacement of the guns, and gun crews are taught rapid and effective means of selecting and camouflaging positions. Gunnery, however, is not neglected, for there is frequent practice in laying and firing weapons. As in the basic courses, great stress is laid on the manhandling of guns, and there are frequent company and platoon exercises in which guns are put into position, moved to new positions, and fired without the use of prime movers.

Officers of antitank units are trained to exercise a great amount of initiative in the disposition of their guns and in coping with unexpected conditions. Speed in making decisions is emphasized.


As German pre-war military philosophy worked out a theory of combat emphasizing movement, armor, and air support, one fact became apparent: the development of the armored and air arms had swung the balance of power in battle heavily in favor of the offense. More specifically, the Germans calculated that each antitank gun attacked by compact tank units could hardly destroy more than three tanks before being submerged by the advance. On this basis, they decided that to reestablish the equality between attack and defense it would be necessary to protect antitank weapons effectively by camouflage, concealment, and armor, and to oppose tank attacks with a flexible and mobile mass of guns on self-propelled mounts, capable of strengthening defense in depth.

Another development in the theory of antimechanized tactics, the offensive attitude, has been equally important in the evolution of the present German system. With the development of a large number of mobile guns, giving antimechanized units more mobility than tanks, it was realized that guns need no longer lie in wait for the armored attack, but could seek combat with enemy armored vehicles. Every soldier was impressed with the ability of new weapons and methods to destroy tanks, and the names of units were changed from Panzerabwehr (antitank defense) to Panzerjäger (tank hunter). (It is interesting to compare this German change in attitude with a similar change in the U.S. Army, where "antitank" battalions have been changed to "tank destroyer" battalions and the offensive character of antimechanized operations emphasized.)

A captured German training manual emphasizes the offensive role of the division antitank battalion and the GHQ antitank units, saying:

"As a result of its speed, mobility, crosscountry performance, and protection against tanks, the antitank battalion can attack enemy armored vehicles. Its object is to engage and destroy enemy tanks by surprise attacks from unexpected directions with concentrated fire. In addition to engaging enemy tanks, the antitank unit has the task of neutralizing antitank defenses, thereby supporting its own tanks."

The only real protective missions which are now assigned to antimechanized units are those of the antitank companies of infantry regiments and the antitank platoons of heavy weapons companies. Division antitank battalions and GHQ antitank units are always considered as reserve forces or as offensive elements. The organic companies are used for local protection, but are not expected to repel tank attacks in force; for this purpose the more mobile battalions are committed at the point where the main force of the armored attack strikes.

The actual proportion of self-propelled guns in the German Army at present is not known, but it is believed that the objective is for all GHQ units to be self-propelled throughout, and for division antitank battalions and regimental antitank companies to be two-thirds self-propelled. This would provide a high degree of mobility, while retaining a few easily camouflaged towed guns, which could be used well forward to protect avenues of tank attack.

In battle, emphasis is place on antitank units moving rapidly in and out of position. All of the personnel and installations of antitank units are required to be prepared for tank attack at all times. Careful and continuous reconnaissance is deemed a necessity, as each unit must be familiar with the most likely routes of tank approach and be prepared to defend these routes.

Special emphasis is laid on reports by all subordinate units on the approach of tanks. These reports, combined with the reports of reconnaissance agencies, permit the timely and coordinated organization of defensive measures.

The antitank battalion of an armored division goes into the attack with the tanks, following them from objective to objective, and engages all tanks threatening them from the flanks and rear. Some detachments of the antitank battalion may also be allotted to the infantry following the tanks if this is necessary for security.

If infantry is attacking without tanks, the antitank battalion accompanies it in the same manner as when accompanying the tank attack, except that the main body of the battalion is kept behind the infantry flanks to repulse enemy counterattacks or overcome unexpectedly strong enemy resistance. Units of the antitank battalion are not usually attached to larger units of the attacking force, but furnish independent support.

Platoon commanders are instructed to display a great amount of initiative in engaging targets. If there are no enemy armored vehicles encountered on one platoon sector, the platoon gives necessary assistance to the guns of neighboring sectors. Camouflage of guns in successive attack positions is not required, but platoon leaders are cautioned to use the greatest care in the proper selection of positions which command important terrain.

In a pursuit, antitank units are attached to the most advanced elements, usually by platoons. They have the mission of giving protection to the flanks of the most advanced elements and of destroying armored elements in the enemy rearguard, thus breaking the backbone of the enemy delaying action.

In a withdrawal, regimental antitank units normally defend their regimental units along the line of advance of enemy tanks. Part of the division antitank battalion may be used to strengthen this defense. In the case of an exterior division or of a division operating alone, some of the antitank battalion may be employed for the protection of flanks.

The remainder of the division antitank battalion is divided into two parts. One reconnoiters and prepares positions for the next delaying action, while the other acts as a mobile reserve for the immediate use of the division commander.

In spite of the offensive emphasis given to the antitank units of the German Army, their primary mission remains defensive. In performing this defensive mission, however, these units may use some of their offensive tactics with great success.

The terrain plays an important part in plans for the defense of a sector against mechanized attack. After thorough reconnaissance of the defensive sector assigned to a division, the plan for antitank defense is perfected. The principles of this plan are, generally, to deny the best avenues of tank approach to the enemy by covering them with liberal antitank fire, while the less likely avenues of approach are denied to the enemy by obstacles. The antitank units organic in regiments are used well to the front and are emplaced in camouflaged positions; the division antitank battalion on its mobile mounts is kept in the rear, ready to lend support where needed and to give depth to the defense.

Typical German procedure* for the preparation of antitank defense in a defensive situation is as follows:

(a) Assume that the division is defending a sector 9,000 yards wide, regiments abreast. The terrain is diversified, offering some tank obstacles, such as canals, thick woods, and a stream, and also offering open, rolling corridors which are excellent avenues of approach for tanks.

(b) Reconnaissance and map study are made to determine two important locations along the front: one, the engineer center of resistance (Pionier Schwerpunkt) and the other, the antitank-gun center of resistance (Panzer Abwehrgeschutz Schwerpunkt).

(c) The engineer center of resistance is located in that section of the front where natural obstacles contribute defensive strength. Engineer troops improve and expand the natural defensive features found in this section.

(d) The antitank-gun center of resistance is located in that section of the front where the ground is open and rolling, ideal terrain for tank operations. The regimental antitank company's guns are emplaced in concealed positions 200 to 400 yards in rear of the main line of resistance, while the antitank battalion is farther to the rear, with gun positions echeloned in depth. The battalion gun positions are selected, and positions leading thereto carefully reconnoitered, but they are not usually occupied until the warning of a hostile attack is received. The guns remain under cover in positions of readiness, conveniently located to permit rapid movement to any threatened area.

Antitank defense on the march follows the same general principles as in a static situation--that is, the regimental antitank companies provide defense for their units, and the division antitank battalion acts as a general reserve to be used against a concentrated tank attack.

Within the regimental march column, the antitank company is employed in units of full platoons. The four platoons are usually disposed as follows: one platoon has one gun with the point and the remaining two guns at the rear of the advance party; one platoon is placed at the head and one at the rear of the reserve; and the last platoon marches with the combat trains. If, however, the regiment is marching in the division's main body, one platoon marches at the head of the regiment, one at the rear of the foot elements, and the other two platoons with the combat trains.

The location of the division on the march is the determining factor in the disposition of the division antitank battalion. When the division has both flanks covered, the battalion marches with the combat trains; when there is an exposed flank and a strong tank attack is possible, the battalion protects the exposed flank, moving from position to position by bounds, the companies leap-frogging each other so that two companies are always in position to fire.

The division commander determines the tank-warning system prior to the start of the march, reconnaissance elements being marshalled to insure early intelligence of the approach of hostile armored elements.


German engineers cooperate closely with antimechanized units in defense against tanks. As previously stated, engineers reinforce by obstacles and mines the terrain less favorable for tank attack, whereas the antitank guns are massed in those areas not easily defended by artificial barriers. Both obstacles and minefields are always covered by the fire of antitank weapons and small arms. As a matter of fact, the Germans often use these antimechanized obstacles to slow or halt tanks and make them good targets.

The Germans make every effort to slow or halt pursuing hostile forces by mining roads and bridges. Mines are buried under the earth or in snow, and may often be detected by the presence of small mounds.

The Germans employ antitank minefields extensively, finding them particularly valuable in the desert, where flat terrain and hard soil makes the construction of artificial obstacles quite difficult. These fields are often laid in complicated patterns. As a result their removal is difficult and hazardous, since the uncovering of a small portion of the field usually does not give the key to the remainder. The hazard of clearing these fields is increased by the liberal use of antipersonnel mines scattered among the antitank mines.

German minefields are usually very plainly marked, to warn friendly vehicles. The Germans consider safety in this respect more important than deception. In the rear areas they often string a low wire fence around the fields, or dig a shallow ditch. In some cases guards are placed at the gaps in the minefields to see friendly vehicles through safely.

Minefields are employed with great care, as the Germans appreciate that it is possible for them to be turned to the disadvantage of the unit that lays them. The object is to construct an obstacle that will block enemy vehicles without hampering the maneuver of German forces.

Antimechanized obstacles are built by special engineer task forces (Sperrabteilung) who must have great mobility. Their personnel is taught the necessity for the rapid performance of their jobs.

The cardinal principle of the location of antimechanized barriers is that they are placed in such a manner as to cause tanks and other vehicles to appear at practically point-blank range in fields of fire of the weapons covering them.


In the German Army it is emphasized that antiaircraft and antitank guns have the same general characteristics--high muzzle velocity, mobility, wide traverse, and rapid rate of fire--and therefore antiaircraft guns should be used to assist in defense against tank attack. This role is generally regarded as secondary, but on occasion part of the German antiaircraft weapons have been employed against armor during a simultaneous air and tank attack. In some cases antiaircraft units have been assigned to higher units with the primary mission of furnishing additional antitank protection.


German training and operations have both emphasized the importance of aggressive action against tanks by dismounted infantry personnel. All tanks, they teach, have certain vulnerable points which make them easy prey for close-combat weapons specially designed for the purpose and employed by aggressive, trained soldiers. The chief weaknesses of tanks are their relatively poor visibility, their inability to defend themselves within a close radius of the vehicle (dead space), and the time lag in shifting guns from target to target. They also need certain times, usually at night or in rear areas, to carry out maintenance and repairs. This is always a favorable time for the dismounted tank hunter.

Tank hunters, acting alone or in pairs, are also taught to use smoke candles, smoke grenades, and smudges to produce films on the vision slits of the tanks. By using these methods they can get within close enough range to employ hand weapons.

A German training instruction, issued to an infantry unit shortly after it had successfully repelled a British attack, sets forth the basic technique of infantry tank hunting. A translation of the document follows:

"The construction of our defensive areas has proved extremely effective, particularly the provision of antitank trenches. No casualties were sustained when British armored fighting vehicles penetrated our position. The troops were protected by antitank trenches and could employ their weapons on the infantry following the tanks, while the tanks were being engaged by antitank weapons.

"The lesson to be drawn is that the infantryman should allow the tank to pass overhead while he is in his antitank trench. If he attempts to jump clear, he draws fire on himself from the tank, whose field of fire is extremely limited. The infantryman's main task remains the repulsing of the assaulting infantry. In addition to this, however, enemy tanks can be knocked out by courageous action with close-combat weapons.

"The most important weapons for this purpose are the Molotov cocktail and the pole charge. The most convenient charge is the prepared charge (Pionier Sprengbüchse), which contains 2.2 pounds of explosive. Its strength is such that it can knock out a British infantry tank without unduly endangering its user by the explosion. The drag-mine is also highly successful.

"Molotov cocktails are most effective if they burst on the ribs of the engine cover. The flaming contents envelop the motor, which is usually set afire.

"The tank is particularly sensitive to the prepared charge in three places--on the tracks, the engine cover, and the horizontal armor near the turret. If a prepared charge bursts in close proximity to the tracks, the chain is damaged to such an extent that it breaks when the tank moves forward. A charge placed on the reinforcing ribs penetrates them and the engine cover, damaging the engine. The horizontal armor near the turret is weak in the English infantry tank, and the detonation of a charge there causes complete penetration and great blast effect within the tank. The drag mine can be effectively used by an infantryman in his antitank trench.

"In order to employ the close-combat weapons mentioned above, the infantryman must at least be within throwing range of the tank. He must, therefore, wait in his cover for the tank to approach. But this cover is useful only when it has been specifically constructed as an antitank ditch--that is, it must be level with the ground, well camouflaged, and not more than 40 inches wide, so that the tank can pass overhead without endangering the infantryman.

"The danger to the infantryman who finds himself close to a tank is slight. An infantryman in his antitank trench is always superior to an enemy tank that is within throwing range if he is properly equipped. The periscope of the British tanks is inadequate, allowing the driver to see straight ahead only, and the gunner can only see in the line of his gun. Because of the limited play of the weapons' mountings, they cannot be depressed sufficiently to cover the immediate vicinity of the tank. An infantryman in this dead area must inevitably use his close-combat weapons effectively."

* This account is based on a problem given at the Kriegsakademie, the German equivalent of the U.S. Command and General Staff School.


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