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"Withdrawal and Delaying Actions" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following report on German infantry tactics in withdrawal and delaying actions was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 46, May 1, 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 tactics in withdrawal and delaying actions in Italy have followed, in general, the directions for the conduct of a delaying action as issued by General Heidrich, commanding the 1st Parachute Division, on 27 September 1943. A translation of General Heidrich's directive follows.

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a. Basic Principles

(1) Delaying action is a tactical concept for commanders. As far as the troops are concerned, they will fight in accordance with the general rules for a defensive battle. The purpose of the action is to delay an enemy's advance, to inflict casualties, and to deceive him in every possible manner. For this a commander with initiative and adaptability is essential.

(2) Delaying actions will not be fought on a main defensive line, but on successive lines of resistance. The distance between such lines will be great enough to prevent the enemy from engaging two of them from the same artillery positions. He must be obliged to move up his artillery to each line. The maximum range of British field and medium guns is 10 to 12 kilometers. It is best to site these lines of resistance along forward edges so that it is always possible to disengage and withdraw under cover.

(3) Where fighting occurs before lines of resistance, the ideal is to carry it out with mobile forces. In addition, battle outposts will be organized in front of each line. It is particularly important during the fighting of a delaying action to maintain intensive reconnaissance patrols and keep watch over a large area, so that the enemy's line of advance can be speedily noted.

(4) During a delaying action wide sectors will be allotted and covered by artillery units widely deployed; guns will be sited in sections if necessary, and heavy infantry weapons widely distributed. The defense will then be organized by setting up strong-points manned by small groups. As a general rule, a company will be responsible for double the front normally allocated in defensive fighting. Delaying actions are characterized by very slight depth.

(5) In a line of resistance it is most advisable to disengage from the enemy by night. If that is not possible, the following basic principles will be observed in detail by commanders: (a) a time limit, or (b) a distance will be laid down--i.e., I must not allow the enemy to come closer to me than I am to my next line of resistance. The troops must reach the new position before the enemy reaches the old one. The battle will be broken off and troops will retire to a new line of resistance when the enemy crosses the first line in force.

The troops will therefore not retire in the face of enemy patrols but only when the enemy really mounts an attack. If it can be ascertained that the enemy is preparing for a massed attack, the main consideration is to make a timely withdrawal, so that our troops will not be exposed to enemy artillery concentrations. Advance elements must have smoke candles to enable them to make a getaway in a critical situation. Riflemen will cover the disengagement of the heavy weapons. The aim should be to leapfrog the heavy weapons back. Every opportunity to inflict casualties on an enemy advancing recklessly must be taken by carrying out limited counterattacks.

Fire will be opened at extreme ranges on an enemy advancing for a major attack. Enemy reconnaissance will, however, be allowed to approach and then be destroyed.

(6) The area between the lines of resistance is called the intermediate area (Zwischenfeld). Explicit orders will be given whether the intermediate area will be covered in one bound or will be contested. The latter possibility arises especially when the next line of resistance has not been fully prepared and time must be gained. Detachments must reach the second line of resistance early enough to ensure that all the main positions are occupied in good time.

(7) The supply of ammunition must be carefully organized. A great deal of ammunition is required for delaying actions because a few weapons on a broad front must do as much as, or even more, than the firing done by the normal number of weapons in defense. When the supply of ammunition is limited it must be specified how much ammunition may be used by each position. All responsible ranks must plan in advance.

(8) In order to overcome subsequent difficulties, every commander must have some sort of reserve.

(9) It is especially important to deceive the enemy by every means. These include continual moving of artillery and heavy weapons, to give the impression of greater strength; dummy positions, camouflage, setting of booby traps, wide employment of all types of obstructions.

(10) So that individual units may be adequately directed, signal communications must receive special attention.

(11) Defensive actions must be completely understood in this type of warfare if literally all possibilities are to be exploited to inflict losses on the enemy.

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b. Conclusions From Above Directive

An Allied study of the above directive leads to the conclusion that in Allied operations against a German delaying action, contact is made, in general, with three main forms of German opposition: rear guard, battle-or-combat groups and strong-points or centers of resistance.

(1) Rear Guard

Where possible, a German divisional withdrawal takes place on two parallel lanes. A typical rear guard for each lane is one infantry battalion to which are normally attached elements of the reconnaissance and engineer units to watch the flanks and to prepare and execute demolitions. Self-propelled heavy infantry support guns and even howitzers are frequently employed in the rear guard, but generally the divisional field artillery withdraws with the main body.

The rear guard infantry battalion normally employs one of its rifle companies only on active rear guard tasks. The three rifle companies perform this function in turn as long as their strength remains approximately even. If the terrain demands it, two companies are employed at a time. In support of the company or companies acting as rear screen are two or more antitank guns from the battalion heavy company and half the self-propelled or heavy infantry support guns allotted to the full rear guard. The normal process when pressure becomes too strong is to withdraw the single rifle company through the two remaining rifle companies which are supported by the remainder of the weapons•, and the leap-frogging process is continued until darkness when a general disengagement takes place and the original formation is resumed.

Rear guards withdraw by bounds to selected but not to prepared positions. The extent to which positions can eventually be prepared depends on the proximity of the pursuit, the probable length of time each particular position is to be held, and on the decision of the individual company and platoon commanders. During each stage of the withdrawal, individual company commanders can order retirement to the main rear guard positions, but withdrawal from each main rear guard position to the next is ordered by the commander of the main body. Frequently the speed of withdrawal is on a time basis. During the withdrawal from Calabria, rear guards were instructed to retire not more than three kilometers a day.

Experience in Italy generally has shown that the reinforced rear guard company in certain types of country can hold up very superior forces on a front as wide as three miles. For example, on retiring from the Volturno River (see Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 45, p. 47), the Hermann Goring Division, which had one panzer grenadier battalion and attached elements as its rear guard, was covered by one rifle company reinforced by a squadron of tanks, four infantry guns (including two self-propelled), and a battery of medium howitzers. The tanks were mainly used to cover the withdrawal of the rifle elements. On another occasion a similar rear guard had a number of heavy mortars attached. These covered the infantry withdrawal together with four tanks which finally carried the mortars back to the next bound.

(2) Battle-Groups

Battle groups are normally organized for the execution of some specific task during the withdrawal, such as local counterattack or the defense of some particular feature the retention of which is necessary to the conduct of the main withdrawal.

The term battle-group is used by the Germans to designate any unit or group of units reinforced in such a way as to be as nearly as possible self-sufficient in combat, and placed under command of a single person or headquarters for carrying out specific combat missions. Battle-groups vary in size from a company with attached close-support weapons, to a regiment or several battalions reinforced with tanks, artillery, antiaircraft, engineers and reconnaissance elements. They may be organized for short or long or changing missions according to the prevailing battlefield conditions and the plans of the commanders.

The projected battle tasks having been taken into considerations, the composition of a new battle-group will directly depend upon the immediate tactical situation and the availability of troops. When available units are strong, and there is plenty of time for preparation, a new battle-group will be of a mobile and well-balanced character. In contrast, if time is pressing and available units are scattered and weak, the resulting group may be made up of normally disassociated units and sub-units quickly thrown together to save the situation or to gain a vital point.

In view of the varied and ever-changing determining factors, battle-groups seldom show any similarity to each other in composition or tactical employment. Nevertheless, most battle-groups have three elements in common, namely assault, holding, and support elements. Groups formed for purely defensive action, however, may lack the assault element.

In the case of battle-groups encountered in Italy, it has been observed that the composition has been dictated far less by the theory of what units should be put together to form a self-sufficient combat force than by the demands of an emergency situation which the commanders have been forced to meet with only insufficient troops at their disposal.

German battle-groups are usually known by the name of an individual commander.

(3) Strong-Points

The enemy covers the resistance or phase lines which mark the periodical stages in withdrawal from one defense line to another, by a system of strong-points or defense areas. Just as it is the function of the rear guards to prevent a pursuing force from making contact with the main body when on the move, so it is the function of strong-points to prevent the penetration of resistance or phase lines and to cover these until the main body has withdrawn to its next position.

As in the case of rear guards the enemy shows great economy of force in the composition of strong-points. Typical composition in close country has been one or two self-propelled guns, two heavy mortars and up to six M.G. 34's. In more open country one self-propelled gun has been encountered, supported by three tanks and a small party of infantry with mortars and machine guns in troop-carrying transports.

Strong-points are generally organized on the hedge-hog principle. Provision is made for all-around fire, but strong-points are not necessarily mutually supporting. They are normally located on commanding features and sometimes on the forward edges of villages or towns if these command bottle-necks. In flat country however, villages are normally not occupied except by snipers, but positions are occupied in the rear of such villages to engage our deploying vanguards. Positions are frequently changed and weapons are not dug in. Counterbattery work is thus rendered very difficult, as no prepared positions can be spotted from the air. In hilly country the enemy has succeeded in imposing protracted delays by strong-points. Further advance is made impossible without considerable deployment, and a full-scale attack has to be mounted with artillery support to dislodge the garrison of the strong-point which then normally withdraws just before an attack can materialize. Approaches to strong-point positions which cannot be covered by fire are frequently mined. Extensive minefields have often been encountered at the head of re-entrants in hilly terrain.

(4) General Conduct of Withdrawal and Delaying Actions

The security of the line of resistance and its retention until withdrawal to a similar line is ordered is the enemy's main concern during a delaying action. He normally seeks to ensure this by using his rear-guards, battle-groups, and strong-points to prevent the attack from actually contacting the line. Should these methods be unsuccessful and the line of resistance be penetrated, the enemy will then counterattack with his main forces and seek to restore the situation in order that the program of staged withdrawal may be continued.

In Italy, where the Allies have for the most part been forced to follow up the enemy's withdrawal on a limited number of routes in close mountainous terrain, the enemy has made greater use of his reconnaissance and engineer units than of any other component of his forces. Reconnaissance units have been in almost continuous contact with Allied advance and flanking elements and have participated in most rear guard and battle-group engagements. Maintenance of contact is a most conspicuous principle in the enemy's conduct of a withdrawal and delaying action. Only rarely has contact been altogether broken. The size, composition, direction, and intention of the attacking force is at all times observed.

While maintaining contact, however, the enemy employs all possible means to prevent the attacking columns from approaching sufficiently close to engage even his main rear guard elements. The engineer unit is thus continually employed in effecting demolitions and obstacles of all kinds. The thoroughness with which this was effected, increased progressively throughout the enemy's withdrawal from Salerno to the Winter Line. Culverts and bridges have been completely destroyed, roads and all natural detours mined, routes cratered and blocked by demolished trees and buildings in towns and villages, rail tracks broken and ties cut by means of a special track-destroyer (see Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 45, p. 21). The debris left to obstruct communications has often been mined to a depth of thirty yards. Wooden-box mines have been used to a large extent as demolition charges and aerial bombs and artillery shells on a number of occasions.

Frequently rear guards are committed to a delaying engagement in order to cover the preparation of demolitions immediately behind them. During static periods in the general withdrawal, when the enemy is standing on his line of resistance or phase line, engineer units prepare demolitions in the rear. After the withdrawal demolitions are covered by snipers, machine guns and self-propelled guns.

To summarize, great economy of force has been exercised. The enemy has avoided committing his main forces and has sought to prevent a close Allied follow-up by means of rear guards, special battle-groups, and strong-points, all of which have been characterized by economy in numerical strength, high automatic fire-power, and mobility. The main delaying weapons are machine guns, mortars and self-propelled guns and minefields. Tanks are used in small groups. Counterattack on a large scale has been avoided. Local counterattack has invariably been for the protection or retention of some feature essential to the safe conduct of the main withdrawal or to the preparation of the line of resistance or phase line. The enemy has only counterattacked on a major scale when his line of resistance has been threatened by penetration.


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