In the course of the Russian campaign night movements became increasingly important in planning and executing operations, since the German field commanders realized that marching units needed the protection of darkness if excessive losses were to be avoided. However, night marches were often hampered by the dearth of good roads and by sudden changes in the weather, which often made the existing roads impassable in the midst of a movement.
Careful preparation of all night marches was imperative. This included detailed advance road reconnaissance, establishment of traffic control posts, employment of engineers to repair defective portions of the roads, availability of recovery and evacuation crews, use of luminous road markers, and good camouflage of the marching units. In composing his march serial each commander had to anticipate possible interference by enemy air and ground forces, including partisans.
During a night motor march each serial was assigned phase lines, which facilitated proper movement control. Headlights were removed or painted blue, while blackout lights were carried in the rear. Traffic control personnel and unit commanders down to the squad leaders were equipped with red and blue flashlights.
Radio silence was observed during the march; however, stations in the various nets were standing by. Field switchboards tied in with existing lines were used in rear areas. During bright nights liaison planes were employed to good advantage for traffic control.
When motorized elements marched toward the front, they had a tendency to delay dismounting as they approached the enemy. This was particularly true during the early part of the campaign. An effective countermeasure was the setting up of phase lines, where the men were ordered to detruck. When motorized or armored units moved to assembly areas close to the front, it was found expedient to cover the noise of their motors by firing artillery and heavy weapons in their vicinity. During these movements in close proximity to the front, it was desirable to bypass road junctions and villages, as they were the favorite targets of Russian artillery. It should be noted, however, that an extensive movement control organization was required to effect such bypassing during darkness.
The German troops needed various aids to perform their duties during darkness; most soldiers had to be conditioned to being outdoors at night because their senses had been dulled by city life. It was particularly difficult for them to find their way in the generally monotonous Russian countryside, which contained very few good reference points.
Among the expedients used by reconnaissance units were the firing of tracer ammunition and of star shells, dropping of flares from planes, and the intermittent employment of searchlights in pairs behind the front. There was little motorized or armored night reconnaissance because vehicles are heard a long way off and attract attention. However, in situations where night reconnaissance elements had to cover long distances, motorized reconnaissance forces were sent out. As they approached the enemy, they dismounted and continued on foot.
Artillery night reconnaissance was mainly a function of the sound and flash ranging sections of the corps artillery observation battalions. Firing data were computed with the aid of the meteorological section whenever immediate fire was to be delivered. During completely dark nights German observation battalions tried to use captive balloons for detailed reconnaissance over wide areas, but this procedure was applied successfully only on a few occasions.
III. Offensive Operations
German units carried out night attacks to exploit successes achieved in daytime, as a prelude to major offensive operations, to restore the situation where the enemy had achieved a local success, and to camouflage the execution of other operations, such as a retrograde movement.
The starting time for night attacks was set with due regard for the inherent difficulties of fighting in the dark. Action at night was always time consuming; yet, it was usually desirable to conclude any operation before daybreak. The unit commander had to consider these two factors and evaluate his own and the enemy situation before he decided to launch a night attack.
The terrain in Russia was rarely ideal for night attack. In many instances there was good cover for the approach, but the enemy-held territory usually did not afford good visibility, so that the opponent's preparations for defense could not be observed. Whenever there was danger of encountering strong, well-prepared enemy forces, night attacks had to be launched in a direction from which they were not expected.
The success of a night attack depended on careful preparation, proper timing, and selection of favorable terrain. Detailed evaluation of information gathered by air and ground reconnaissance, thorough analysis of captured maps, study of the terrain by the maximum number of officers, road reconnaissance and marking, and provisions for adequate supplies were some of the preparatory measures. Before issuing the operation order the commander discussed his plan in detail and answered questions requiring clarification, so that every officer knew exactly what was expected of him and his men.
These careful preparations applied also to major attacks started before dawn and continued during daylight. Before such operations many nights were required to ready a large body of troops. Attacks scheduled to last but a single night were generally confined to a limited objective not too distant from the starting position. Even these relatively minor operations required thorough preparations to avoid enemy traps or other disagreeable surprises.
The following example shows how carefully LVI Panzer Corps prepared an attack during darkness in the area west of the Dnepr River in September 1941. The objective of the operation was Vyazma, about sixty miles to the east. The situation in the area had been static for several weeks with the 290th Infantry Division holding the front. (Map 4)
For the attack, which started on 2 October, three additional divisions were brought up from other areas-the 6th and 7th Panzer Divisions, and one armored infantry division. Improvement of the poor road net was begun as early as 20 September. Other preparations included the reinforcement of numerous bridges, aerial photography of enemy-held terrain, nuisance raids by a few planes to obscure the noise of traffic on the ground, and maintenance of traffic along the main north-south road to simulate normal supply activity.
On the night of D minus 3 the forward echelons of the two panzer divisions were moved to their assembly areas near the front, so that they could familiarize themselves with local conditions. This also gave the artillery units two days to determine their firing position and data, and to establish observation posts.
The next night the motorized infantry elements of the two panzer divisions were brought up to the area west of the major north-south road, where they detrucked. The vehicles were parked farther to the rear.
During the last night before the attack all assault troops were moved to the jump-off positions, where the forward echelons of their respective units awaited them. The 290th Infantry Division regrouped its forces for the impending attack, while the armored
infantry division was held back as corps reserve. At the same time the tanks and empty trucks of the two panzer divisions were moved up to the north-south road.
The operation itself started an hour after dawn and was successfully completed at H plus 30 hours when a bridgehead was firmly established east of the Dnepr near Cholm. No doubt the carefully camouflaged night preparations of the corps during the preceding weeks were a major factor, for the Russian troops apparently had not anticipated an attack by an entire corps.
In another instance the Germans launched a night attack on a smaller scale in the sector southeast of Mogilev in January 1944. (Map 5) Defensive positions were held by the German 56th Infantry Division, whose front had been pushed back along a 1,000-yard stretch to a maximum depth of approximately 500 yards. In the middle of this salient the Russians had established a strong point that afforded good observation of the German front and rear area.
On 10 January the German commander decided to launch a counterattack to wipe out the Russian salient. Reconnaissance had established that the Russian strong point contained at least one hundred men, equipped with six to eight heavy machine guns, several heavy mortars, and an antitank gun. In addition, it was known that the Russian position was heavily mined, so that it had to be attacked from the rear, where it was linked to the MLR by a communication trench. It was also realized that the German
force had to launch a surprise attack, since the Russian artillery, consisting of at least six batteries, would otherwise break up the attack. The best time for achieving surprises was during the hours of darkness.
The German night attack was to be carried out by an assault detachment composed of one officer and thirty-five men, and equipped with submachine guns and two flame throwers. A covering detachment of similar size was to follow the assault troops, cut the communication trench midway between the strong point and the Russian MLR, and protect the assault detachment against interference from the south. Reinforced infantry companies were to move to both shoulders of the Russian salient, ready to occupy the former German positions after the Russians evacuated. These two companies were to break up the expected Russian counterattack by flanking thrusts. Finally, as a deceptive measure the reinforced German artillery was to deliver intermittent fire on the strong point and on other parts of the Russian front for eight nights prior to the operation.
At 0230, 21 January, the assault detachment started to infiltrate from the flank of the salient, followed by the covering detachment. At 0320 a short artillery concentration was delivered on the strong point, followed by a feint from the west ten minutes later. At 0335 the assault detachment entered the strong point. Simultaneously, the entire German artillery shifted its fire to the southern part of the communication trench. Finally, at 0340 there was an air attack on the Russian division command post.
The operation was so successful that the assault detachment suffered only one casualty; heavier losses were sustained by the covering detachment. The success may be credited to the careful preparation of the assault on the Russian strong point. A relatively small and lightly armed force reached its objective and overwhelmed numerically superior elements because it achieved surprise by night. The Russian counterattack, launched about an hour after the loss of the position, was repulsed by the two German companies' thrusts into the flank of the Russian attack force.
IV. Defensive Operations
The Germans applied the same fundamental doctrines to defensive operations by day or night. Additional precautions taken during the hours of darkness included strengthening outposts, all of which were positioned as far forward as possible; moving local reserves close to the MLR; increasing reconnaissance activities to uncover enemy preparations for an attack; and employing search
lights and flares to light the terrain over which the attacking enemy had to advance.
Artillery and infantry heavy weapons played an important role on the defensive. Careful preparations for night fires had to be made in daytime, so that concentrations or counterbattery fire could be ordered during the night as soon as a worth-while target was detected. When sufficient ammunition was available, well-aimed artillery fire often forced the enemy to delay or cancel his planned attack, or at least to change its direction. Interrogation of prisoners revealed that accurate night fire had a particularly demoralizing effect on the Russians.
By massing overwhelming strength for night attacks the Russians frequently penetrated the German front positions, but the impetus of their attacks was usually lost as soon as they ran into infantry reserves that had been promptly moved up. The Germans therefore found it advisable to construct several positions in depth. In general the second line was 70 to 100 yards behind the MLR and was formed by a continuous trench with mortar and machine gun emplacements. About 700 yards to the rear were the heavy weapons, the company CP, and the company reserves. Barbed wire and mine fields protected the positions, and communication trenches connected the entire system. This disposition enabled the reserves to move up quickly to aid the forward elements or to seal off Russian penetrations. Mine fields were laid in front of the first and second lines, and a dense wire net connected the various positions with the CP.
When German manpower became depleted, continuous positions could no longer be maintained. The German forces relied instead on a system of widely separated strong points; however, Russian infiltration tactics were so effective that the Germans considered this defensive system merely an emergency improvisation, to be applied only when a continuous line could not be manned.
V. Retrograde Movements
Whenever possible German units were to take advantage of the hours of darkness to execute retrograde movements. Special pre, cautions against enveloping maneuvers and parallel pursuit were mandatory because the Russians with their uncanny ability to traverse seemingly impassable terrain usually pursued the withdrawing Germans relentlessly. One of the precautionary measures applied by the Germans was to occupy in advance all critical points behind the front line such as defiles, dominant hills, bridges, and road centers. Another measure was to organize all troops who could be spared at the front into independent combat forces that
could fight their way back if it became necessary. No more troops were to be left in contact with the enemy than could be adequately supplied: "Rather fewer men, and plenty of ammunition and gasoline" was the accepted maxim for organizing an effective covering force.
During large-scale retrograde movements, the Germans preferred to leave mobile units in contact with the enemy. Since minor technical defects were liable to lead to total loss, only tanks in perfect condition were to be employed to screen a withdrawal. The Germans also found it expedient to include in the covering force many maintenance and recovery crews as well as strong engineer units equipped to carry out extensive demolitions. Additional covering forces had to occupy the rear positions before the retrograde movement was initiated.
Having made preparations, a unit commander could evacuate the bulk of his troops to the rear under cover of darkness, while the covering force simulated normal activity at the front in order to conceal the withdrawal from the attacking Russians.
In the autumn of 1943, the 337th Infantry Division conducted a successful withdrawal in accordance with these principles. The operation started in the area north of Dorogobuzh and was to end with the occupation of the Panther position, which was under construction in the Dnepr bend east of Orsha. By the middle of September the 337th Division reached a point some twelve miles southwest of Smolensk, where for several days it repulsed attacks by superior enemy forces.
On the morning of 25 September the division received orders to break contact with the enemy, beginning at 2000 the following day, and to reach the Panther position by the morning of 28 September. Thus two nights and one day were available for a retrograde movement of about thirty-five miles. The following account covers only the first part of the withdrawal, from the morning of 25 September until the morning of 27 September, when an intermediate position was reached. (Map 6)
As soon as he received orders for the withdrawal, the division commander initiated the essential preparations. Reconnaissance detachments formed by division headquarters, the two infantry regiments, and the artillery battalion were given the mission of assigning sectors of the Panther position to each individual unit and of finding suitable terrain for an intermediate position where the pursuing Russian forces might be delayed west of Krasny. Advance detachments accompanying these elements were made responsible for marking the routes of withdrawal and for controlling the movement of the different columns to their destinations.
During the night of 25-26 September most of the service elements of the division were moved behind the Panther position. Along the routes of withdrawal they established fuel and ammunition dumps to meet the requirements of the combat elements. Most of the signal communication equipment was also moved behind the Panther position; only essential wire lines were left at the front, while reserve equipment was placed in the vicinity of Krasny. The reconnaissance battalion was moved to the same area.
To assure a smooth flowing movement, traffic was strictly regulated and towing vehicles were placed at crucial points. The use of alternate routes was explored. A number of footbridges were constructed across a brook three miles behind the front. Simultaneously, preparations were made to blow up these footbridges and the two road bridges east and northeast of Krasny after the last German troops had crossed. The local inhabitants were moved to wooded areas away from the indicated routes of withdrawal to prevent their interfering with the troop movements. Past experience had shown that many civilians would attempt to elude the onrushing Soviet Army by joining the German units. Finally, to protect the operation against interference from the air, the division requested the assistance of an antiaircraft unit, and one flak battalion with five batteries was made available on 26 September.
The withdrawal began after dusk on 26 September, but did not
take place entirely in accordance with the division's schedule. At H minus 30 minutes the commander was informed that the enemy had struck hard in the adjacent sector on the right. Accordingly, the reconnaissance battalion, reinforced by an 88-mm. battery, made a night march from Krasny southeastward to a bridge across the brook in the neighboring sector. The move was made to prevent a Russian flank thrust from the south. As an additional precaution reconnaissance detachments, composed of men from the division headquarters company and the division's military police detachment, were sent from Krasny to where the division boundary crossed roads leading south and southeast from there.
Starting at 2000 the main infantry and artillery components rapidly withdrew westward. Near the front only isolated Russian reconnaissance detachments were observed. Therefore, the division commander ordered his rear guard to withdraw ahead of schedule, at 2400.
The expected flanking thrusts from the south materialized at 2300, but, thanks to the timely measures taken, the Russians were held off at all points. Without interruption the division continued its movement and by 1000, 27 September, reached the intermediate position.
This example illustrates not only lessons learned by the German Army but also several peculiarities of Russian night combat. The Russians were hesitant in launching frontal pursuit. In general they preferred to envelop or thrust into the flanks. Therefore, a Russian penetration usually implied a threat to the adjacent unit, rather than to the one originally under attack. Russian night attacks were generally carried out by infantry and armor without artillery support. Toward the end of the war the Russians made increasing use of their air force, whose bombing attacks were directed against vulnerable fixed targets.
Withdrawing German troops adapted themselves to these peculiarities by certain countermeasures. Once a night withdrawal was under way, it had to be completed without delay so that the troops would be ready to offer renewed resistance in the next position, The command echelon of a major unit had to move to the rear position at an early time so that the unit commander could make appropriate dispositions to counter any possible threat to his flanks. Strong flak units had to be attached to the withdrawing troops to protect them against air attack.