The art of war involves the correct estimation and careful weighing of one's own as well as the enemy's capabilities and is marked by the conduct of military operations in a manner promising the highest degree of success. Success in war can be achieved only if the military commander employs his resources with correct timing in suitable terrain and in a way that guarantees maximum effect.
The conduct of war is subject to the same imperfections and frailties as any other field of human endeavor; for this reason emergencies, which, of necessity, lead to improvisations, arise from time to time in every war and in every army. Faulty planning, unsatisfactory performance of materiel, and violations of basic principles of warfare cause deficiencies which can be alleviated through improvisation but can only be overcome by sacrificing time, space, and strength. Blunders are made in every military sphere, in all places, and on the highest as well as on the lowest level. No wonder that such blunders, oversights, and frictions entail improvisations of all types, from the simplest to the most elaborate, from the strictly temporary to the chronic.
By dint of its long duration and ever-widening scope, World War II created a persistent state of deficiencies in the German Army which forced the military agencies to introduce a multitude of improvisations of all types. Insufficiently prepared for the campaign in the East, for example, the Army was faced with a great calamity as early as the muddy period and winter of 194142. Top-level staffs and field forces alike were forced to improvise extensively. As the campaign wore on and the German military potential continued to decline, improvisations of the widest variety became increasingly prevalent. Toward the end of the war the ratio of strength between the German and Russian Armies became so disproportionate that improvisations, especially in combat operations, were rampant. Finally, the entire conduct of war was one great improvisation.
This publication replaces DA Pam 20-201, August 1951.
The present study lays no claim to comprehensiveness, but even this fragmentary account may show the main characteristics of German improvisations and the part they played in military operations. The many separate examples are presented along functional lines, and the material is subdivided into tactical, logistical, technical, and organizational improvisations. Other bases could have been adopted. Some readers may be interested in analyzing the German improvisations in terms of their causes, or of their inevitability, or even chronologically as indicators of the extremes to which an army fighting Soviet Russia was put.
As the pillar of Germany's military might, the Army had to bear the brunt of the fighting during World War II. The heartbeat of the Army was at the front, where deficiencies and shortages of any kind were immediately felt. Improvisations and expedients introduced at the front had to show quick results because, in the face of the enemy, time was of the essence. With the territorial expansion of the war, tactical commanders frequently became responsible for areas that they were unable to control with the troops and materiel at their disposal. Resources were particularly taxed whenever the forces suffered heavy casualties for which replacements could not be expected to arrive for a long time. High and low echelons alike were therefore very often forced to introduce improvisations to solve their problems as well as possible. Their efforts were concentrated on three types of tactical improvisations- the formation and commitment of combat staffs and units in sudden critical situations, the employment of units for missions outside their normal scope, and the adaptation of tactics to unexpected situations. A combination of two or more tactical improvisations had to be introduced in many cases.
I. The Elimination of Russian Forces in a German Rear Area
1. The Blitzkrieg Bogged Down in Mud (Map 1)
On 22 June 1941 the 6th Panzer Division moved out of the Tilsit area as part of a provisional panzer army. In true blitzkrieg manner it rolled across Lithuania and Latvia within a few days, overran every enemy position in its way, broke through the Stalin Line, crossed the Dvina River, and opened the gateway to Leningrad on the Luga River- all within three weeks from its day of departure. This 500-mile trip led through dust and sand, woods and swamps, and across rivers and antitank ditches. Leningrad was within sight.
At this very time the division was called upon to assume the leading part in the German attack on the central front. Once again the division moved with lightning speed and covered 600 miles to join Army Group Center. On 10 October 1941, the first day of the offensive, its 260 tanks made a deep penetration into the enemy lines near Vyazma. Ten days later the Russians were encircled and the mission was accomplished.
The 6th Panzer Division was then to lead the attack on Moscow and take the city. Its spearheads were approaching the objective when nature suddenly put a protective wall around the Russian capital. The autumn mud brought the blitzkrieg to a sudden end. It swallowed the most valuable equipment. The cold winter continued the terrible destruction. Then came the German withdrawal during which every tank, every antitank gun, and almost every artillery piece of the division had to be sacrificed. Enemy attacks and cold weather caused innumerable casualties during rear guard actions. When the once-proud 6th Panzer Division finally assembled its forces in January 1942, all that remained were 57 riflemen, 20 engineers, and 3 guns.
After this terrible hemorrhage the remaining staffs and the supply and rear elements were assembled forty miles behind the front line for the purpose of reorganizing the division. Every day a few tankers, artillerymen, and others who had escaped the carnage trickled back to the divisional area. As soon as they arrived they had to help guard the highway and railroad between Smolensk and Vyazma, the life lines of Fourth and Ninth Armies, against attacks by Russian cavalry, parachute troops, and partisans who had penetrated deep into the rear areas. The enemy first advanced southward and then turned east toward the railroad and highway connecting Vyazma with Rzhev in order to cut off the supply of Ninth Army. The field hospitals and motor pools of several divisions were under attack, and two airfields were in immediate danger. Far and wide no combat troops were available. The over-all situation did not permit the release of even the few remnants of 6th Panzer Division to serve as cadre for an alert unit, which was to be improvised in the rear. By the end of January 1942 the situation was so tense that Marshal Stalin felt justified in announcing the impending annihilation of two German armies in the biggest battle of encirclement in history. But events were to develop differently.
2. Desperate Improvisations
Emergency alert units had to be improvised and committed immediately even though no combat cadres were available. Actually the 6th Panzer Division had not the necessary service personnel to organize even one such unit. Ninth Army therefore issued
orders that the division assemble immediately all the service and supply units, as well as construction and roadbuilding battalions in the army rear area, and intercept all stragglers. Between Sychevka and Vyazma a defensive front was to be built up in the most expeditious manner. (Map 2) Even the Luftwaffe units at the Novo-Dugino airfield were subordinated to the division commander for use in ground combat.
Within twenty-four hours the staffs of all units now subordinate to 6th Panzer Division were busy intercepting every available officer and man in their respective areas and forming emergency alert units of varied strength and composition. Special care was taken that men from the same unit remained together. Depending on their number, they formed squads, platoons, or companies under the command of their former officers. Whenever possible emergency alert units of similar composition were organized into battalions and two or more battalions were placed under the command of one of the previously mentioned staffs. Each unit was to keep the weapons and supplies it had salvaged from its parent unit. This procedure was a guarantee against unnecessary splitting up of available manpower and resources. It seemed a better policy to commit units of differing strength and composition rather than to destroy unit integrity by equalizing numbers. The strength and composition of individual units was taken into account in the assignment of defense sectors.
Most men were armed with rifles. Each company had one or two machine guns, and some of the battalions had a few mortars and small antitank guns which had been procured from ordnance shops in the vicinity. Initially only one recently repaired artillery piece was available, but the flow of weapons and equipment improved daily because the maintenance and repair shops made a maximum effort to send materiel to the front. Numerous convalescents and men returning from furlough were employed along the rapidly forming front facing west.
The newly formed units had to be committed without delay wherever the danger was greatest. Frequently this baptism occurred on the very day of their initial organization. If possible, the alert units were committed in a sector where they could protect their own service and rear installations, a task with which they were only too glad to comply. For the same reason Luftwaffe units were assigned to the defense sectors that covered their own airfields. The remaining gaps were closed by alert units which had their assembly area farther away from the new front.
The most important sectors of the forty-mile front were occupied on the first day, gaps were filled in on the following day, and by the third a continuous though thinly-occupied line was formed.
By the end of the first week it was held by 35,000 men. Small general reserve units were improvised by that time, including one platoon of five damaged tanks with limited mobility.
By the tenth day the division had improvised a full-strength, completely equipped motorcycle company utilizing men returning from furlough and convalescents. Several armored reconnaissance cars were turned over to this mobile reserve which could be moved to any danger spot along the Rollbahn [Ed: road designated as a main axis of motorized transportation] that ran parallel to and closely behind the front. This force was also versed in skiing and carried skis on the motorcycles in order to have cross-country mobility even though the snow was three feet deep in some places. This was a crack unit especially suited for local attacks and commanded by battle-tested officers.
The Luftwaffe signal battalion of VIII Air Corps at Novo-Dugino laid the necessary telephone lines and connected them with the airfield switchboard. During the organization of the new front enemy attacks on the airfield and the adjacent sector to the north were repelled by alert units. In the central sector the enemy occupied several villages before the arrival of alert units. On the southern wing he occupied other villages and stood only a half to one mile from the highway, which he interdicted with his mortars. At night enemy ski units infiltrated through the German lines, which initially were not continuous, and disrupted the supply of Ninth Army at several points between Vyazma and Rzhev. In view of the extreme cold and deep snow, the front line was almost exclusively a line of strong points based on villages. Although repeatedly under attack, the center of this line held from the outset.
Thus, the improvised front facing west served its initial purpose. Within a few days the whole sector threatened from the west was protected by alert units. Moreover, contact was established with the forces that fought in an arc around Rzhev to the north and with similarly improvised Fourth Army units in the south. However, the Rollbahn and the railroad were so close behind the front line that the continuous disruptions became unbearable. Furthermore, the slightest setback of the improvised units could result in the complete blocking of the traffic arteries by the enemy. This handicap could only be remedied by advancing the German outposts farther to the west. This involved a winter offensive in extreme cold and deep snow with improvised units, which were without training in offensive operations. Yet, it had to be done. The operation could not be an offensive in the usual sense, let alone a blitzkrieg. The tactics to be used necessarily deviated from the
conventional pattern and had to be especially suited to the peculiarities of the prevailing situation and the forces available.
3. The Snail Offensive (Map 2)
At the beginning of February 1942, on the eighth day after the initial formation of the new front, the sector commanders were called to a meeting, informed of the necessity of an offensive, and indoctrinated in the combat methods to be used. The mere thought of starting an offensive with their motley units caused all commanders to raise serious objections which could be fully expressed by one single word: impossible. Only a detailed explanation of the tactics to be employed, for which the division commander coined the term "snail offensive," gradually dispelled the numerous objections, which were perfectly valid from the conventional military standpoint.
First of all, it was pointed out to the commanders that time was not an important factor in this offensive. The speed of a snail would be sufficient. In selecting the place of attack they were to proceed like a snail, which would move only to a place where it could find a worthwhile objective without incurring any danger. The method of advance was to resemble that of a snail slowly groping its way and immediately retracting its feelers or changing its direction whenever faced by an obstacle. Any setback must be avoided because it would discourage the weak German forces and tie them up for a long time just as a snail withdraws into its shell in a dangerous situation and does not dare continue on its way for quite a while. Nor were the commanders to forget the shell of the snail, which affords safety and shelter in case of danger. Despite all precautions, however, the sector commanders had to keep in mind the rewarding objective at all times, exactly as a snail would do in the same situation.
This comparison served to illustrate the basic idea of the combat methods to be employed in the snail offensive. The practical application of this doctrine was subsequently explained at the site where the first offensive actions were to be launched. The objective of the snail offensive was to push back the Russians far enough to place the supply lines of Ninth Army beyond their reach. This meant that a line favorable for defense was to be reached which followed the edge of the vast wooded marshes. All villages in the fertile region to the east of it therefore had to be taken from the enemy. A secondary but important intention was to deprive the enemy of valuable shelter and sources of supply and to make these villages available to the German troops. This would be a hard blow to the enemy since there were only a few small, poor
villages in the marshy forests, and the entire enemy force in the rear of Ninth Army was beginning to suffer from supply difficulties. After the Germans launched a successful panzer attack on Bely, the Russian force was practically surrounded by German units except for a narrow pathless strip across the front.
The final objective of the 6th Panzer Division was to roll back the enemy to a distance of ten to twenty miles from the Rollbahn, but this plan was at first not revealed to the commanders of the various sectors. The success of the initial operations was of paramount importance.
First of all, the central forces were ordered to eliminate the deep enemy wedge in the German lines. The enemy salient included three villages held by Russian security detachments. (See Map 2, Arrows 1.) There an initial victory should be easy to obtain. The attack was not to start until everything had been so well prepared that success could be expected with certainty. The three villages could be observed from the high German positions and dominated by cross fire from two sides. The enemy dispositions were under constant observation. The foremost village was held by the strongest enemy detachment, the two farther to the rear by smaller ones. A platoon of volunteers, led by an experienced officer was to sneak up at night on each of the small villages, effect a penetration from the rear, make a surprise raid at dawn, and annihilate the enemy. Surprise was achieved, two villages were taken and the large one in front was cut off. Enemy attempts to break out during daytime were stopped by fire. At dusk the German forces in both villages were reinforced, the large village was surrounded, and the enemy force which attempted to break out under cover of darkness was captured. When all three villages were in German hands, they were immediately prepared for defense. Farther to the south another Russian strong point was taken by similar tactics. A strong covering force with heavy weapons remained in the old main line of resistance to stop any possible reverses. The main line of resistance was moved forward only after positions had been constructed in the frozen ground and supply and communication routes cleared of snow. As long as the enemy showed intentions of counterattacking, strong reserves were positioned behind the danger points and no further moves were initiated.
Similarly the initial operations in other sectors were adapted to local conditions and carried out at irregular intervals. The first week of the snail offensive resulted in the occupation of fourteen villages and the capture of numerous prisoners.
Losses on the German side were negligible. Most important was the confidence the German units gained in this combat method.
Gradually more complicated missions could be undertaken. However it remained essential to attack in the most effective manner and to reach the objective without becoming involved in a heavy engagement. Although the Russian forces in this sector were better trained and equipped, their supply of ammunition was limited and they were numerically too weak to organize a continuous line of defense. Their strong points were secured by outpost lines. The best method of overcoming these obstacles was to capture the villages where the outposts were located in order to isolate each main strong point until its encirclement was almost completed. Then the enemy troops usually abandoned their strong points voluntarily.
Bogdanovo, a village situated in dominating terrain on the southern wing, was one of the most important enemy strong points. From here the Russians frequently made thrusts into the adjacent sector to the south, penetrated to the Rollbahn, and stopped all traffic. In order to eliminate these inconvenient disruptions, the Fuehrer Escort Battalion, a crack SS unit which normally served as Hitler's personal bodyguard, was reinforced with heavy weapons and artillery and moved into the adjacent sector to take this enemy defense anchor by assault. After a short briefing and hasty preparations the battalion launched a frontal attack in the orthodox manner, forced the weak outposts to withdraw, and advanced almost to the edge of the main strong point. There the enemy, counterattacking from all sides and inflicting considerable losses, pushed back the battalion and encircled one company. The company was finally liberated under great difficulties, but the attack was not repeated because of the heavy casualties.
After this failure Ninth Army shifted the boundaries to include Bogdanovo in the 6th Panzer Division sector and ordered the division to capture it. Within a few days the snail offensive procedure scored another success by almost completely isolating the enemy strong point. When the divisional reserves attempted to close the ring, the Russians, though raked by heavy German fire, hastily evacuated the strong point in a daylight withdrawal. The village was immediately occupied and held against all later counterattacks.
In one month the snail offensive achieved the capture of eighty villages, and advanced the front line from five to eight miles. The principal effect, however, was to put the enemy on the defensive along the entire front, making thrusts in the
direction of the Rollbahn and railroad out of the question. More and more battle-tested soldiers and reconditioned weapons had meanwhile been made available and supplied to the front. The number of tanks increased to eight, the artillery pieces to twelve. By then the operations of all units were well coordinated and the commanders had full confidence in the new combat tactics; thorough preparations and careful implementation of all instructions had prevented the slightest failure.
The subordinate commanders could now be granted much greater freedom for the continuation of the offensive. Division headquarters no longer interfered with details. Each sector was assigned a weekly phase line that was to be reached under optimum conditions. This line was not to be crossed without approval from division because safety considerations outweighed those of speed. Whenever the alert units ran into particular difficulties, they called upon divisional reserves which by now included a few tanks and dive bombers. All enemy attempts failed to halt the slow but steady advance of the improvised front. The snail offensive only paused in places where the enemy committed strong reserves; it started to move again immediately after these were transferred to another danger point. Since the enemy did not have sufficient forces and materiel to appear in strength in several places at the same time, he lost ground slowly but steadily. By the end of March 1942, two months after the start of the snail offensive, the Russians had been pushed back into the marshy forests and forced to relinquish more than two hundred villages.
This tactical, organizational, and logistical improvisation, a product of extreme emergency, had reached its intended objective. To go farther would have been impossible at this time because the two adjacent units had not joined the division in the offensive. The 6th Panzer Division units on the extreme ends of the sector had remained in their initial positions in order to prevent the opening of gaps in the flanks, which would have permitted the enemy to infiltrate into the rear of the snail-offensive front. Ninth Army then widened the sector of 6th Panzer Division with orders to eliminate enemy interference in the adjacent areas by similar offensive action.
4. The Scorpion Offensive
Despite the successes obtained by the use of snail-offensive tactics in the central zone, the Germans holding the entire front facing west were still inferior to the opposing Russian forces, which included some first-rate Guards units around Rzhev. It was the mission of the 6th Panzer Division to launch another offensive to push back the enemy from the only German highway
and railroad line leading from Sychevka to Rzhev. (Map 3) The Russian outposts were located one to three miles from these essential supply routes and disrupted the traffic on many occasions.
The available forces and materiel were still inadequate for an offensive in the conventional manner. Once again it became necessary to improvise tactics. Only successive surprise attacks with limited objectives plus close coordination of all arms had any chance of success. Free choice of time and place for each intended thrust was another prerequisite since the issue would be in doubt if the enemy recognized the German intentions and took countermeasures. Whenever the element of surprise was lost, the objective had to be changed and the blow delivered at some distant vulnerable point. All this had to be achieved with a relatively weak striking force, which was to be shifted to a different sector of the front immediately after each thrust. The tactics to be employed thus consisted of a well coordinated but flexible system of limited objective attacks. They could best be compared to a series of paralyzing stings a scorpion would inflict in a life-and-death struggle against a physically superior opponent.
Taken individually, the various lunges were not novel. A frontal break-through thrust in the center was followed by a double envelopment farther to the south. Only a few days later the same combat forces attacked through a deep forest to the north, accomplished their mission, and were immediately replaced by reserve units. Before the enemy had caught his breath, he was surprised by a deceptive thrust into his flank. Diagonal jabs at the northern and southern ends of the front consolidated the territorial gains achieved by the preceding operations. While the German forces suffered only slight losses, the enemy was prevented from seizing the initiative during the spring of 1942. He was dislodged from the favorable terrain he held and was forced to withdraw his forces approximately 12 miles along a 75-mile front. The German supply lines from Vyazma to Rzhev were finally secure, and a base of operations was acquired for the summer offensive which led to the annihilation of all Russian units holding out in the rear of Ninth Army.
5. Cavalry Brigade Model in Operation SEYDLITZ (Map 3)
The Russian elements that had broken through the German lines during the winter of 1941-42 and threatened the German supply lines during the spring, succeeded in gaining a foothold in the extensive, impassable, primeval forest swamps between Rzhev and Bely. Constantly receiving reinforcements of infantry, cavalry, and armored units, the Russians assembled a force of
60,000 men in the rear of Ninth Army and forced the Germans to fight on two fronts. They tied down strong forces and increasingly menaced the army rear. Russian supply arrived by a road leading via Poselok Nelidovo toward Bely.
In order to eliminate this danger and regain full freedom of action, General Model, commanding the Ninth Army, planned Operation SEYDLITZ, a concentric counterattack which started on 2 July 1942. During the first stage of the operation the Germans, in difficult forest fighting, dislodged the Soviet forces from their deeply-echeloned positions and hemmed them into a narrow area. A quick German thrust into the Obsha valley anticipated the apparent enemy intention of breaking through the newly-formed German switch position northeast of Bely. The Russians attacked simultaneously from the inside and the outside and attempted to escape through the breach thus made. The enemy units were split along the Obsha River and encircled in two pockets. All Russian attempts to break out were frustrated. Russian forces northeast of Bely directed relief attacks from the outside toward the pockets. These attacks were also repulsed. Strong tactical reserves, which the enemy brought in by forced marches via Poselok Nelidovo, arrived too late. After a battle lasting eleven days Operation SEYDLITZ ended with a complete German victory.
An improvised cavalry brigade, the formation of which General Model had ordered when Operation SEYDLITZ was still in the planning stage, played a major role in this success. Its organization was unique in many ways. Since most of the terrain was very swampy or covered with extensive marshy forests, the brigade was to be organized in such a manner that it would be able to fight in any terrain and under any weather conditions. It was even to be mobile in mud.
The first organizational problem was the procurement of men and equipment. Obviously only officers and enlisted men with combat experience in the East could be selected for such a specialized unit. Moreover they had to be trained cavalrymen. None but tough, healthy, brave men who were in no way pampered and who felt a close kinship with nature could be used. Replacements from the western theater or the zone of the interior were therefore out of the question because the troops from the West were softened by the easy ways of occupation life, and the recruits from the training camps at home lacked combat experience. Even though the latter had received a certain amount of specialized training for the eastern front, these recently inducted soldiers were incapable of enduring the physical hardships which the Russian theater imposed on the
individual. There was not a commander in the field who was not aware that the difference between war in the East and war in the West was the difference between day and night.
General Model therefore decided to pull out the reconnaissance battalion from each of the eight divisions under his command and place them at the disposal of the newly appointed brigade commander. This was a very favorable solution for the brigade but hard on the infantry divisions, for the reconnaissance battalions were valuable combat units and were greatly missed by their parent divisions.
a. Organization and equipment of the brigade
The organization and equipment of the brigade was as follows:
(1) A headquarters staff with one signal communication troop.
(2) Three cavalry regiments, each consisting of one or two mounted troops and three to four bicycle troops, with a total of five troops per regiment. Within a few hours all mounted troops of the regiments could be assembled and a complete cavalry regiment formed for an emergency. Each troop had twelve sections and each section was equipped with two light machine guns. Thus each troop had twenty-four light machine guns and two heavies. In addition, officers and enlisted men were equipped with submachine guns when possible.
(3) Each bicycle troop was issued two horse-drawn wagons, which carried ammunition, baggage, and rations. Of course, these wagons were drawn by small native Panje horses because only they could master the terrain. The mounted troops had German military mounts. Mobility in mud was achieved because the Panje horses and wagons could pull through practically anywhere.
(4) In addition, the brigade included an engineer company, a medical company, and one motorized and one horse-drawn supply column.
(5) Tanks and antitank units were to assist the brigade whenever terrain conditions permitted. Each regiment had only six organic light infantry howitzers. Additional artillery support was also to be provided when necessary. The assistance of infantry and additional artillery units for flank protection was promised in case of a deep penetration or a break-through.
b. Training and commitment of the brigade
After about four to six weeks of combined arms training, the brigade was committed south of Olenino along the Luchesa River. A so-called Rollbahn led from Olenino southward which, although it was supposed to be a fairly good highway, was really no more than an unimproved country road. Short stretches of corduroy road covered particularly wet, swampy sections. Only the Luchesa valley was clear of woods to approximately one to three miles in width. Large, swampy forests extended on both sides of the valley with but a few clearings of varying sizes. Small, swampy creeks flowed through the woods. Maps and interrogation of local inhabitants provided the Germans with exact information on the terrain behind the enemy lines. Once the brigade had broken through the Russian positions at the edge of the woods, it would have to contend with swampy forests ten miles in depth where scarcely a path was to be found.
A panzer division was committed to the right of the brigade with the mission of attacking along the Rollbahn to the south. Since the Russians rightly expected the main effort of the attack along this axis of advance, the division was faced by a very difficult task. From aerial photographs and the interrogation of deserters it was known that strong enemy fortifications such as road blocks and fortified antitank positions were situated along the Rollbahn. The positions farther east and west from this road were not as strongly fortified but were secured by mine fields in which there were only a few gaps. The Russians thought it most improbable that a major attack could be launched east of the Luchesa River because the Germans would be unable to move tanks up to the line of departure through the swampy forests. They also felt certain that a tank attack across the open terrain, the Luchesa River, and through the mine fields would hardly be hazarded.
Approximately ten days before the attack the brigade moved up to the line of departure. Intensive reconnaissance of the intermediate terrain began immediately with the assistance of veteran tankers. Within a short time a complete picture of the enemy positions and the intervening terrain was available. From this picture it was obvious that, after the necessary preparations, an attack with armored support was definitely feasible.
For Operation SEYDLITZ the cavalry brigade was attached to its right neighbor, the panzer division which was to advance along the Rollbahn. The brigade was to thrust through the tenmile-deep forest in one sweep and, if possible, cut the Russian supply line on the north-south highway if the main body of the panzer division was unable to make any progress. Six artillery
batteries and one tank company with fourteen tanks were attached to the brigade for the execution of this mission.
The unit adjacent to the left, an infantry division, was not to jump off until the next day after the initial attack had been successful. For the first day the left flank would therefore be exposed. In the marshy forest terrain this was not a matter of particular concern because a small covering force would surely prove sufficient.
The first difficulties arose when the fourteen tanks had to be moved up to the line of departure through the swampy forests. Forty-eight hours before the beginning of the attack a company of engineers with power saws started to cut trees at intervals of about one yard along the edge of the forest so that the trees fell on open ground along a stretch leading through the assembly area. In a very short time and with relatively little effort a tank path was built which in effect was a corduroy road with about one-yard-wide gaps. Few branches had to be cut off the trees. For obvious reasons this road could only be used by a limited number of tanks and tracked vehicles.
A few hours after the engineers had gone to work the tanks started to move into their assembly area in daylight. This was possible because the wooded terrain afforded sufficient cover. The noise of the tanks was drowned by harassing fire and low-flying reconnaissance planes. All tanks arrived at their destination without incident. Experienced mine-clearing squads were assigned to each tank and ordered to ride on the tanks.
The attack started at 0300. During the artillery preparation the tanks started out together with the cavalry troops. Their movements were favored by a heavy fog which covered the river valley. They crossed most of the intervening terrain without encountering resistance. A ford across the Luchesa River which had been reconnoitered in advance was found to be adequate for the fourteen tanks. Enemy mine fields were immediately recognized by the experienced tankers and engineers and the lanes through the fields were found and widened. Suffering no losses, the tanks and cavalry suddenly rose in front of a completely surprised enemy. In one sweep the first and second lines were overrun and great confusion seized the Russians. The tanks had accomplished their mission. They could not penetrate any farther into the enemy-held forest without sufficient reconnaissance and additional preparation, and were therefore ordered to halt and stay in reserve. By then the cavalry had penetrated the enemy lines three to four miles.
The situation on the right was entirely different. Here the panzer division was to advance along the Rollbahn. The Russians
were prepared for an attack. The German tanks ran into deeply echeloned antitank positions which were camouflaged with the usual Russian skill. The infantry also could not make headway and suffered heavy casualties in the forest fighting. The entire operation seemed in danger of bogging down.
At noon the brigade received orders to pivot toward the west with all available forces and to attack the Rollbahn from the east. One regiment turned to the right and thrust toward the Rollbahn through primeval forest swamps. At times the men sank in up to their knees. Direction had to be maintained by compass. The troops performed seemingly impossible feats and the surprise attack was a full success. By nightfall the regiment controlled a stretch of the Rollbahn, the pressure on the panzer division subsided, and the enemy was in an untenable position. The Panje supply wagons were able to move through the swamps and bring rations and ammunition to the completely exhausted troops.
On the following morning the continuation of the attack met hardly any resistance. On the other hand the physical requirements were extraordinarily high since the men had to traverse six miles of wooded swamps. Before noon the brigade emerged from the forest and a few hours later the first heavy equipment arrived. The terrain ahead extended over a wide area and Russian columns, single vehicles, and individuals could be seen moving about in wild disorder. It was obvious that the enemy command had lost control over its troops. The Russian defense lines had collapsed and the German divisions were advancing everywhere.
Even though Operation SEYDLITZ would probably have been successful without the cavalry brigade, it would have involved a much greater loss of men and equipment. During the eleven days of the operation 50,000 prisoners, 230 tanks, 760 artillery pieces, and thousands of small arms were captured. The situation of Ninth Army had been improved by the elimination of these Russian forces in its rear. The army rear area was safe except for partisan activities.
The composition of the brigade proved to be effective. The proper training for such a special mission requires from six to eight weeks with troops already experienced in Russian warfare. Before the attack the units must be in their jump-off positions for at least two weeks in order to become well-acquainted with terrain conditions through intensive reconnaissance. All intelligence and reconnaissance information must be carefully
rechecked because the slightest inaccuracy can result in failure in that type of terrain.
Preliminary training in teamwork between armor and cavalry is of definite advantage. In an attack over this kind of terrain it may occasionally happen that the cavalry advances too fast. In that case the tanks must radio the cavalry to slow down because terrain difficulties prevent them from keeping up. Portable radio sets are not always reliable because of the density of the forest, and telephone communications therefore have to be used extensively. For that reason each regiment must carry more than the customary quantity of wire.
If possible every officer and enlisted man should be equipped with a submachine gun.
Rations should be concentrated; the lighter they are, the better. The American combat ration (K ration) would be well suited, particularly since it is also protected against moisture.
It would be advantageous to equip troops with rubber boots and impregnated raincoats, camouflage jackets and windbreakers, because dew causes a high degree of moisture in the underbrush. Camouflage covers for steel helmets are essential and camouflage in general is of utmost importance.
The commissioned and noncommissioned officers must be versatile and able to make quick decisions and improvise. Every officer must be able to act independently and ready to assume responsibility. Detailed inquiries addressed to higher echelons cause delays and unfavorable developments which can usually be avoided. Leaders with good common sense and a portion of recklessness are best suited for such special assignments. The scholarly type of officer who relies chiefly on maps is completely out of place.
In general, it may be said that the composition and equipment of the cavalry brigade proved effective for the special mission of advancing and attacking through marshy forests and along muddy paths.
II. Some Improvisations Used During Operation ZITADELLE
1. The Crossing of Russian Mine Fields
In preparation for Operation ZITADELLE, the German pincer attack on Kursk during the summer of 1943, XI Infantry Corps made a thorough study of the problem of crossing the extensive mine fields on the east side of the Donets. The usual procedure of sending engineer detachments to clear narrow lanes for the advance of the infantry spearheads was not considered satisfactory since the terrain offered no cover and the enemy could
inflict heavy casualties upon engineers and infantry by concentrating his fire on these lanes. Several improvised methods for overcoming this obstacle were therefore under consideration.
The identification of the mined area was the first prerequisite since the infantry had to know its exact location prior to the crossings. This was possible because the German-held west bank commanded the Russian positions on the other side of the river. Another prerequisite was that the infantry should be able to spot the location of individual mines at close range with the naked eye. In many places small mounds or depressions, dry grass, differences in the coloring of the ground, or some other external marks facilitated the spotting. The engineers had made a number of experiments in mine detecting. In the early days of the war, the infantry sometimes crossed narrow mine fields after individual engineers lay down beside the mines as human markers, taking great care not to set them off by pressure. Although neither engineers nor infantry troops suffered losses during these early experiments, the procedure was risky and could only be applied on a small scale. It was therefore of little consequence during the later stages of the war.
A second, more promising method that fulfilled expectations consisted of marking individual mines by placing small flags or other simple markers next to the mines. This was done by engineers or infantrymen who were trained in the recognition of mines. This procedure was applied repeatedly and showed better results than the first but its large-scale use presented difficulties. The third and best method was to thoroughly instruct all infantrymen in enemy mine-laying techniques and in spotting mines by using captured enemy mine fields as training grounds. This procedure required that all infantrymen be sent to rear areas in rotation and was therefore rather time-consuming.
These requirements could be met in the case of Operation ZITADELLE since the time of the attack had been twice postponed with an ensuing delay of several weeks. The divisions committed in the narrow attack zone had moved two thirds of their combat forces to the rear where the daily training schedule featured tanks passing over foxholes and the crossing of Russian-type mine fields. This training paid off since it helped the soldiers to overcome their fear of tanks and mines.
The beginning of the attack was so timed that the infantry would be able to detect the enemy mines without difficulty. All the mine fields were quickly crossed by spearheads which suffered practically no casualties. Only one battalion acted contrary to orders and attacked before daybreak, its commander being afraid that he might otherwise suffer heavy casualties from enemy fire
while his men were crossing the extended open terrain in his zone. In the dark, this battalion ran into the previously uncovered mine fields and the two advance companies suffered approximately twenty casualties from mine explosions. When the battalion continued its advance by daylight it had no further losses.
After the first wave had passed through, the engineers rapidly cleared a number of lanes and marked them with colored tape so that the reserves and heavy weapons could follow. Again there were no mine casualties. Only when the supply units followed the infantry through the mine fields, were some of the men and horses blown up by the mines because they were careless or tried to bypass obstacles.
How safely anyone experienced in the detection of mines could move around in these mine fields was demonstrated during a conference on a completely mined hill, attended by about twenty unit commanders and specialists. No one had previously set foot on this hill but it was the only place which afforded a good view of the terrain. During the ascent of the hill each mine was clearly marked and no accidents occurred even though the mine field was crossed in various directions.
This improvised procedure of crossing mine fields became common practice because it avoided many casualties, resulted in quick capture of enemy positions, and was therefore very effective in the Russian theater.
2. A Flak Division Serves as Corps Artillery
In the plan for Operation ZITADELLE XI Infantry Corps was to cover the southern wing of the panzer corps that was to spearhead the attack. For this purpose corps was reinforced by two light motorized artillery battalions and by the fully reorganized 7th Flak Division. This Luftwaffe division, composed of three regiments with seventy-two 88-mm. and approximately 900 smaller antiaircraft guns, was to serve as a substitute for missing medium artillery.
According to Luftwaffe policy the subordination of Flak officers to Army unit commanders was prohibited. The corps artillery commander therefore depended on the voluntary cooperation of the Flak division commander. This led to repeated minor frictions but worked out quite well in general.
The division's first mission was to take part in the artillery preparation under the direction of the corps artillery commander. For this purpose the division was echeloned in depth and committed in three waves of one regiment each. The first echelon was in position in the main line of resistance and closely behind it; its mission was to place direct fire on enemy heavy weapons
and pillboxes. In addition it had to form Flak assault detachments for antitank combat to give close support to the advancing infantry. Together with the corps artillery, the two other regiments were to shatter the first enemy line of defense and paralyze his infantry by delivering sustained concentrations. After that, elements of the first echelon, with the exception of the assault detachments, as well as the entire second echelon, were to support the advancing infantry. The third echelon was to take over the antiaircraft protection of the entire artillery area and was also to participate in counterbattery missions.
Enemy intelligence found out that the attack was to start on 5 July at dawn. The Russians laid down intensive harassing fire on the jump-off positions but this interference ceased as soon as the German artillery concentrations started. These were placed so well and the initial shock was so great that the first assault wave was able to cross the enemy mine fields, penetrate his main line of resistance without delay, and thrust a few hundred yards beyond it. Thousands of tracers fired by the numerous small Flak guns proved particularly effective. The Russians abandoned the trenches immediately and fled into their deep dugouts where the advancing infantry surprised them and had no difficulty in ferreting them out. But when the infantry reached the two-to three-mile-deep zone of battle positions prepared during the preceding months, they had to make extensive use of hand grenades in order to mop up the maze of deeply dug-in trenches, and bunkers, some of which were a dozen or more feet deep. At the same time artillery and Flak fired counterbattery on enemy heavy weapons which resumed fire from rear positions, on reserves infiltrating through trenches, and on medium artillery. The third echelon of the antiaircraft division was fully occupied with defense against enemy bombers which attacked the corps area incessantly. During the first two hours they downed more than twenty enemy planes.
Within eight hours the German infantry penetrated the enemy fortification system in its entire depth and reached the railroad embankment parallel to the Donets. Suddenly a Russian counterattack supported by forty tanks threw back the German covering force from the woods on the south flank and hit the right wing division which was echeloned in depth. But the defensive fire of the divisional artillery and a concentration of all medium antiaircraft batteries stopped the enemy counterattack at the edge of the forest. Then the medium Flak was directed against tank concentrations, which had been recognized in the under-
brush, and dispersed them. Repeated enemy attempts to resume the attack from this area failed without exception. Flank protection was soon restored and the threat eliminated.
On the second day of the operation, the high ground ahead was captured under the protection of Flak artillery fire; all counterthrusts were repelled. On the morning of the third day the enemy attempted to recover lost ground and counterattacked with two heavy tank brigades and motorized infantry units. The tanks overran the battle line of the German infantry and penetrated deeply, but the motorized infantry which followed was repelled. The enemy tank break-through hit the corps center behind which, however, several Flak assault detachments and numerous medium antitank guns were sited in a mutually-supporting formation. The enemy ran into this dense network of antitank defenses as well as a flank attack by thirty-two assault guns and was completely annihilated. The last enemy tank which had penetrated to a divisional command post was surprised by an assault detachment carrying gasoline cans and was set on fire. Sixty-four enemy tanks had begun the counterattack and two hours later sixty-four black columns of smoke gave proof of their destruction. Discouraged by his failure, the enemy made no further attempts at an armored break-through at any point of the corps sector even though he had plenty of additional armored units available. The improvised commitment of the antiaircraft division contributed decisively to this defensive success and the formation of Flak assault detachments proved highly effective in the destruction of Russian armor.
page created 4 September 2002
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