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"German Combat Experiences in Russian Wooded Country" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following U.S. military report on German experiences in fighting in wooded country in Russia was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 26, June 3, 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.]


In many respects, combat in woods is similar to that in towns. Some woods, owing to their location and size, are naturally strong defensive areas. The Germans, it is supposed, derived considerable experience in this kind of warfare during the fighting on the Eastern front. Some of these experiences, based on German sources, are recounted in the following paragraphs.

a. Characteristics

Training for fighting in wooded country not only improves sell-confidence and ability for decisive action, but is at the same time good practice for fighting in darkness and smoke.

The Russians show extraordinary powers of resistance when fighting in marshy and wooded country. They make full use of their exceptional sense of direction and masterly camouflage. They use woods to a large extent, not only for approach, but also in defense, tending, in that latter case, to defend the edges of the wood strongly. The Russian does not give up easily, and therefore the attack in woods must be systematically carried out section by section. The enemy will cover trail crossings with heavy weapons. The difficulty of movement necessitates the allotment of heavy weapons and artillery to units at the start of an operation in order to avoid delays later on.

A coordinated fire plan for attack and defense is often impossible, and reliance must be put on coordinated infantry thrusts. Surprise is a more decisive factor in woods than in open country, and systematic preparation and silence in all movement are essentials.

It is easy in wood fighting to allow one's forces to be split up, especially when patrols, and flank and rear guards, have been detached. Every effort must therefore be made to keep one's forces intact. Movement should be made in deep formations.

A detailed plan must be drawn up, and when a departure from the original plan seems inevitable, permission from the next senior commander must be sought so that he can inform the supporting elements of the changed conditions and avoid any possible danger from one's own fire. (This departs from the modern practice in German tactics, which encourages flexibility of action among junior commanders, and must presumably apply only to the specific conditions of wood fighting).

The results of air reconnaissance are often inadequate, and the employment of numerous and strong fighting patrols is of increasing importance. Efficient signal communication cannot be too strongly stressed.

b. Reconnaissance

Surprise by the enemy must be countered by continual ground reconnaissance. Patrols should be sent to the flanks. Intervals should be sufficiently great (in thick woods, 150 yards) to prevent a patrol from hearing the noise of neighboring patrols, which might often lead to confusion and loss of direction. The arms carried should include submachine guns, rifles (preferably automatic with telescopic sights), and plenty of egg grenades; machine guns are cumbersome. Stick grenades are unsuitable as they easily become lodged in branches. Egg grenades, on the other hand, break their way through. Steel helmets should be left behind; they impair hearing.

Tasks of patrols must include the following objectives:

Where is the enemy expected to appear?
Where is he?
Where are his flanks?
How far is he each side of the trails?
Where is his main line of resistance?
Which trails and roads does he use?

Ground reconnaissance must clarify the following:

Existing roads, trails and clearings, ditches, rivers, and bridges;
Condition of the woods and their undergrowth, such as thickness and height of trees, marshy ground, rises and dips in the ground;
Location of tree snipers.

Trails give valuable information as to the direction the enemy has taken. Branches broken off at about head height, axe marks on tree trunks, and bundles of leaves hanging in branches might be used to show the route taken by the enemy.

c. The March

Under difficult conditions the rate of march is sometimes as low as 2 to 3 miles a day. Engineers must be well forward, and special units for clearing and improving routes must be formed. The help of the local inhabitants as guides must be obtained when possible. Advance guards must be strong enough to envelop enemy forces which are likely to offer resistance along the line of march. Heavy weapons, artillery, headquarters, and signal detachments should also be well forward. Mechanized vehicles with infantry support will be used as protection where possible. Flank and rear guards must be lightly equipped to give them mobility. Antitank weapons and tank-destroying sections must be distributed along the column.

d. Approach

Leave the roads as soon as possible. The thicker the woods, the closer should be the formations. Moves must be made in bounds and covered as far as practicable by heavy weapons and artillery. It has proved worth while to have single rifle squads distributed forward and to the flanks for close-in security. When reaching clearings, trails, etc., and also when leaving woods, a halt should be made to enable patrols to make a careful reconnaissance in order to avoid surprise by ambush and tree snipers. Rifles, submachine guns, and machine guns must not be carried slung, but must be ready for immediate use.

e. Attack

(1) General

In order to effect surprise, feint attacks can often be usefully carried out in woods. Every effort must be made to effect a flanking movement, the enemy being held down frontally by the fire of heavy weapons while strong forces envelop the flanks.

Fire discipline is very important in wood fighting. Irregular, single bursts of rifle and machine-gun fire are of little use. The fire must be controlled in short and heavy bursts. A strong burst of fire has a big moral effect. When the attackers come under fire from the enemy, which will be at quite short range, it has been proved less costly if the attackers rush the intervening ground than if they take up positions and exchange fire. It is no use, after breaking into the enemy's position, to follow up with fire alone, as a withdrawal can easily be made under cover.

The enemy must be speedily reengaged, and given no respite. It must always be remembered that ammunition consumption in wood fighting is heavier than in the open.

(2) Attack against a Weak Opponent

Flanking movement is generally easily accomplished without great loss. Sound signals are best used, as visual signals are readily missed.

(3) Attack against a Strong Opponent

Assault troops armed with close combat weapons and supported by flamethrowers must break into the enemy's position and effect a narrow penetration. It will often pay to make a surprise breakthrough without first opening fire. Heavy mortars and single light infantry and antitank guns will generally be allotted to the rifle companies. Antitank shells can be used very effectively in woods. Numerous observers must be placed well forward to direct the artillery.

f. Clearing a Wood

Combing through woods over a wide area with intervals of a few yards between each man has been proved ineffectual, because there is always the risk that the enemy having concentrated his forces can easily break through the weak line. The rule must be to keep one's forces together and send in strong assault support from various directions with the aim of encircling the enemy. This must be the subject of very careful and coordinated planning on a time basis. Attempts to break out of the wood must be countered by covering the edges with fire from heavy weapons and artillery, as well as by the employment of tanks and assault guns.

g. Defense

To avoid being surprised there must be constant reconnaissance; it is wrong to wait for the enemy to approach under cover; it is right to search him out and destroy him wherever he is. The very mobility of the defense deceives the enemy as to one's strength and intentions. Reserves must be ready to make counterattacks. Woods offer numerous possibilities for obstacles in depth; these hold up the enemy or divert him to routes favoring defensive fire. If time is too short for construction of continuous defensive positions, every effort must be made to arrange strongpoints of resistance, with all-around defense if possible. These should be surrounded by mines. Weapons should be placed 30 to 50 yards behind the edge of the woods, so long as visibility is not impaired. Wood defense requires a large number of observation posts, and signal equipment must be obtained from the division signal unit for the necessary links. Trails must be cleared of dry wood and other material which causes noise. Wire must be anchored to the ground; otherwise, its removal with implements such as hay-forks is possible. Listening posts must be changed daily.

h. Training

The following points in training are particularly important:

(1) Individual

Silent movement; working forward in thick undergrowth; crawling in various types of woods; visual training and indication of targets; finding direction; marking routes, and recognition of enemy markings of routes; cover and camouflage; close combat and engaging tree snipers; antitank close combat in woods; tree observers; patrols; pickets; firing in woods.

(2) Heavy Weapons

Transporting heavy weapons; rapid emplacement; creating fields of fire; observation and keeping contact; reporting targets; fire coordination.

(3) Engineers

Building bridges and dams, and clearing paths and trails in marshy ground; rapid removal of tree obstacles in depth; building wire and tree obstacles; building observation posts; preparing gun positions and making clearances in the field of fire.

(4) Formations

Formations for movement and fighting in woods; marching to the sides of trails and by night; movement by bounds; quick deployment; surprise with light and heavy weapons; attack on limited objectives; coming under enemy fire; break into enemy position, and quick exploitation of success; defense alarms; reserves counterattack; security at night.


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