The Organization of Special Units
Special command staffs are often needed to carry out certain types of improvisations. A wise commander will anticipate such situations by keeping special staffs at his disposal for any emergency. This is only possible if all staffs not absolutely essential at the front or in rear area assignments are actually pulled out and thereby made available to the command. The Germans might have accomplished a lot more in this respect. For instance, the commander of XXXVI Mountain Corps was under the impression that a corps staff was not needed on the Kandalaksha front and might be put to better use elsewhere. He suggested that a divisional staff with an expanded supply branch would be quite adequate to exercise the tactical command functions in this area. Although he submitted several suggestions along these lines, they were quickly turned down by army. In similar cases it should always be possible to transfer such a staff without delay, if necessary by air, to a point where it might be urgently needed.
In many instances a command staff had to be suddenly improvised to take over some special mission. After the Stalingrad disaster the staff of XI Infantry Corps was reconstituted from an unassigned corps staff which was hastily organized in the beginning of February 1943. Formed in the area north of Kharkov, it consisted of one general and several general staff officers who happened to be in this area on an inspection trip. The staff was to assume command over three German divisions which had been committed to strengthen sectors formerly held by Hungarian and Rumanian forces. These divisions were without higher headquarters after the collapse of Germany's allies on the Stalingrad front. The lower echelons of the staff were picked from the field units, and a Hungarian signal battalion, later replaced by a small German unit, took care of signal communications. The initial difficulties were gradually overcome. It took five months and required numerous reassignments and organizational changes to transform the improvised corps staff into a regular one. Other corps staffs were improvised in a similar manner and their deficiencies were eliminated step by step until they finally became fully organized corps staffs.
In one instance the improvisation of two special traffic regulating staffs made it possible to withdraw ten divisions and
thousands of refugees across the Dnepr River. (Map 6) During the course of the large-scale Russian counteroffensive in August-September 1943, the enemy advanced rapidly from the Belgorod area toward Kiev, and Army Group South had to be withdrawn behind the Dnepr. The crossing of the river, which was 2,5003,500 feet wide in this area, was complicated by the fact that only a few bridges were left standing. Some of the bridges were threatened by the enemy advance while others had been reached by the Russians before the arrival of the German troops. Every possible step had to be taken to delay the enemy advance and simultaneously accelerate the crossing of the German units over the few remaining bridges.
The long wooden bridge at Kremenchug alone had to serve as a crossing point for ten divisions, six of which were panzer divisions. The XI Infantry Corps was put in charge of the river crossing and was assigned two special staffs to assist in this mission. One staff had to make certain that the march order was observed on the north bank and had to enforce one-way traffic in order to ensure a steady flow of approaching units. The other special staff was employed on the south bank of the river at Kryukov with the mission of assuring the rapid debouchment of the divisions. Although the mission sounded simple enough, its execution presented all manner of difficulties. Even before the previously scheduled withdrawal of garrison installations and unwieldy army and army group supply units had been completed, the situation demanded that the panzer divisions cross immediately. Some Russian parachute troops had meanwhile landed on the other side of the river and their ground forces had begun to cross the river upstream. Only motorized units were capable of reaching the south bank of the river between the bridges in time to restore the situation. In order to give the panzer divisions precedence over other units, it was necessary to stop all traffic and clear the roads for the tanks. For five days mixed columns of all arms extending over many miles camped in the adjacent fields or, wherever this was impossible because of the many swamps, they kept to the side of the road and waited for the signal that would allow them to continue on their way. Their campfires were close to their foxholes. Alongside these columns, or trapped between them, were streams of refugees and herds of cattle.
Only radical measures against traffic violators of all kinds made it possible to put the panzer divisions at the head of the columns. Even more difficult than the approach to the 2,500-foot highway bridge was the exit on the south bank because the streets of Kryukov were very narrow and winding. In addition, the drivers
had a tendency to slow down once they had reached safety on the south bank or to stop altogether to obtain information on the whereabouts of their parent unit. This had a delaying effect and was therefore very harmful. The attempts of mixed convoys to find the right branch of the road and turn off immediately after crossing the bridge also caused major delays. The drivers seemed to forget that many thousands of vehicles behind them were waiting to cross the river. To overcome this difficulty all units were ordered to continue on the highway to the south for twenty miles from the bridge without regard to resulting detours. Drastic steps had to be taken to enforce this order and many control points and even airplanes had to supervise the flow of traffic.
The two special staffs worked with perfect co-ordination and during the first days directed 5,000 to 7,000 motor vehicles a day across the river. Later this rate was stepped up to an average of 8,000 to 10,000 and within ten days a total of 70,000 motor vehicles had crossed the highway bridge.
Simultaneously, three infantry divisions with their horse-drawn vehicles as well as the trains of two additional infantry divisions crossed the river on a railroad bridge covered with planks. Alongside this bridge engineers built an improvised floating bridge for the crossing of the 30,000 civilian vehicles that were routed through the Kremenchug area during the same period.
The special staffs also regulated the traffic across these two improvised bridges. It was particularly difficult to designate the approach routes to the bridges in such a manner that the columns would not cut across each other or, where that was unavoidable, to establish intersections at points where cross-traffic would cause the least disturbance.
Regulation and control of the river crossing topped all other tactical considerations for ten days. Despite so many difficulties, all divisions crossed successfully with their vehicles and it was even possible to get the slow-moving evacuation transports and various supply columns across the river. The rear guards held out long after the time limit set by the army and saw to it that even the last immobilized tanks were moved across the highway bridge. Several tanks were coupled by cables and towed by prime movers although permission for their demolition had been given several days before. At Poltava, twelve freight trains loaded with tanks and other valuable equipment stood ready for demolition because enemy tanks had already cut the railroad track connecting Poltava with Kremenchug. A counterattack by German armor cleared the line sufficiently to allow all twelve trains to pass the threatened points and reach Kremenchug.
The two infantry divisions whose trains had been put across the river at Kremenchug had to cross the Dnepr fifteen miles downstream. Some of the civilian columns and most of the herds of cattle were diverted to that crossing point. None of the engineer units in the area had any standard military bridging equipment, motor boats, pneumatic pontons, or civilian shipping facilities. For this reason the two divisions had to resort to whatever expedients they could devise at the time. The last remaining fishing boats were assembled, floats were built from old logs and native wagons without wheels, and some mill boats anchored along the banks were used as ferries.
With these improvised craft soldiers and civilians were moved across the river with all their equipment and possessions. Wagons that were unsuitable for use as ferries were disassembled, floated across, and reassembled on the south bank. Tied to the various makeshift ferries, the horses swam across without resistance. Herd after herd of cattle was driven into the water, but the animals repeatedly shied away from the 2,500-foot-wide river. Only when led oxen were willing to precede them did the mass of the cattle follow into the river accompanied by shouting peasants crossing in boats on both flanks. Slowly and with deafening roars the cattle waded across the 700 to 1,000-foot-wide shallows. Then they suddenly sank into the navigation channel and with heads up swam silently through the very deep and up to 1,000-foot-wide channel until they could set foot again about 350 to 500 feet before reaching the other bank. Herd after herd, 800 to 1,000 head of cattle each, was driven across the slowflowing river. Even though some herds had been on the move for a month and had covered distances of 125 to 200 miles, there were no casualties. A total of 64,000 horses and more than 80,000 head of cattle-swam the Dnepr. The young animals followed separately on large, boarded-up ferries. This completely improvised measure contributed greatly to relieving the bridges at Kremenchug and proved very effective.
The successful completion of the difficult mission may be attributed to the fact that the dual responsibility for the conduct of operations and for the technical problems of the river crossing was vested in the local corps commander. By this arrangement all tactical and technical measures were coordinated under a single man. But a considerable part of the success is to be credited to the efficient special staffs and to the additional crossing facilities- both major organizational improvisations. Yet all these efforts could have been frustrated had the enemy used strong air forces at the right time. However, they were not effectively committed until 90 percent of the forces had completed the
crossing. Then a Russian bomber scored a direct hit on the detonation device installed on the highway bridge, which had been readied for demolition. The charge was set off and the bridge was destroyed. At that time, however, the loss of the bridge was not particularly serious because the rear guard tanks and assault guns were able to withdraw across the railroad bridge, which remained intact. Before this attack enemy air activity was negligible, and only one light bomb scored a direct hit on the highway bridge. It merely pierced the surface without damaging the vital bridge structure. The vehicles bypassed the small hole, which was covered up within one hour. The flow of traffic was not interrupted.
II. Special Formations
A certain number of the organizational improvisations mentioned in this chapter deserved to be permanently incorporated into the tables of organization and equipment of the units concerned. But only a few were officially adopted because manpower and materiel shortages usually prevented the introduction of far-reaching changes. In order to overcome some of the chronical deficiencies, the infantry corps and divisions were forced to use a number of expedients. When they were on the defensive and had to hold overextended front-line sectors without motorized units, they scraped together all the available motor transportation to have at least one motorized battalion or just one company for emergency purposes. These elements used Panje wagons during the muddy season and sleighs during the winter. By this improvisation the command had mobile reserves on hand even though they were small.
The formation of so-called Korps Abteilungen [Ed: provisional corps] was an emergency measure that was also helpful in deceiving the enemy. Remnants of three divisions which had been badly mauled in difficult extended battles were merged into one division with each of the original divisions forming one regiment. The new division was designated Korps Abteilung and distinguished by a letter A, B, C, etc. Each provisional corps carried the corps insignia and each infantry regiment was designated by the number of its former division. The regiments drew their replacements from the Wehrkreis* of their original divisions.
The provisional corps had the combat value of an infantry division and fought equally well. The merger had the advantage that the staffs of two divisions with all their organic units became
*Ed: The basic military area in Germany, resembling somewhat the prewar U.S. Corps Arcs.: it had the additional functions of administering conscription policies and furnishing replacements to specific units whose home stations were located in the Wehrkreis.
available for reassignment to new divisions or could be used as special staffs or for some other purpose. On the other hand, the new regiments could not be used as battle-tested cadre for newlyorganized units. This disadvantage outweighed all benefits that could be expected from the formation of Korps Abteilungen. The field forces resented this measure as well as the policy of giving preference to the organization of new divisions with inadequate cadres instead of providing experienced, though weary, front-line divisions with replacements to restore their former striking power. Whenever a new division without sufficiently experienced cadre was suddenly committed in a major battle in the Eastern theater- as happened only too often- it just melted away like snow in the midday sun. The field forces unanimously requested that the battle-tested divisions be reorganized. Yet, as a rule, new inexperienced divisions were sent to the front despite all the damage caused by this procedure.
The provisional corps may have fulfilled their purpose as a temporary measure, but in the long run they proved to be a handicap rather than an asset. If the purpose of this expedient was to eliminate divisions that had not performed well in combat, it would have been better to dissolve them entirely and not to preserve them in parts.
The German experiments with the employment of task forces were more conclusive. In one instance an improvised task force, organized for a specific purpose, played a decisive role in the annihilation battle near Plavskoye in November 1941. The enemy had moved up an armored brigade, which the Germans were unable to match at that time since their panzer forces were heavily engaged in the vicinity of Tula and no armored units of divisional or brigade strength could be withdrawn from that sector. In this emergency Second Panzer Army entrusted a brigadier general on the staff of XXIV Panzer Corps with the mission of improvising a panzer brigade. Time was of the essence. Discussions with other agencies were no longer feasible and, in any event, they would have been fruitless. For this reason army released some panzer units to the improvised brigade. Equipped with ample authority, the brigade commander succeeded in assembling his force within a few hours. In addition to the panzer units assigned by the army, he picked up some motorized artillery and other combat units on his way to the front and brought them along. Other units volunteered to join his task force.
The next day the commitment of the brigade led to a decisive victory. The battle southeast of Plavskoye was won with very heavy casualties to the enemy. Most elements of the improvised
brigade could then be returned to their parent units. This example shows that the success of an improvisation greatly depends upon the man who is charged with its execution. Responsible commanders must therefore always keep in mind who is best suited to carry out an improvisation if they want to avoid the mistake of selecting an officer just because he happens to be available. This is of particular importance whenever an improvisation may have decisive influence on the entire situation.
The formation of more or less independent regimental combat teams often became necessary in view of the vastness of European Russia and its terrain conditions. The composition of these teams was usually adapted to local requirements, which meant that organized operational units such as divisions had to be split into two or more improvised forces. This measure proved expedient in specific situations, which occurred quite frequently in Russia, but was applied only on exceptional occasions because maximum striking power could be assured solely by committing an entire division as one unit. Regimental combat teams were effective whenever they were employed to turn the tide of battle at a decisive point.
A railroad combat team was improvised when the German offensive reached Orel in 1941 and two Russian armored trains were captured intact at the railroad station. One infantry regiment, some artillery, Flak, and railroad engineer elements were loaded on captured railroad trains and attached to the armored trains manned by German crews. This improvised combat team made a thrust to the south in the direction of Kursk and succeeded in surprising the Russians. Within two days the combat team reached Ponyri on the way to Kursk and took firm possession of the railroad lines after some small-scale fighting. Thus the unit contributed materially to the success of an operation, which resulted in the capture of Kursk during the muddy period of 1941.
Flying columns were committed for the same purpose as combat teams. In most instances these were motorized units composed of elements from various branches and their strength and structure depended on the mission they were to receive. For instance, in 1941 the 97th Light Infantry Division left its rear elements in the assembly area , and improvised a flying column with truck transportation from its service units. This column was composed of three motorized units- one infantry battalion, one artillery battery, and one antitank battalion. By its quick action and deep enveloping maneuvers it spared the follow-up division many casualties.
In another instance a flying column was committed in the Kerch Peninsula immediately after the German break-through of the Parpach Line during the Crimean Campaign. The same evening the column reached the Tartar Wall, a fortified line west of Kerch, and captured the enemy positions. The crucial point for the recapture of the peninsula was thereby once again in German hands. The 132d Infantry Division, which followed in the rear could never have reached this point in time.
An interesting improvisation took place in the arctic when a mountain pack bearer battalion was transformed into a mountain infantry battalion. The mountain pack bearer battalion was composed of men in advanced age groups who hailed from the Alps. They were gradually replaced by younger men and the battalion was transformed into a combat unit. Clothing and equipment were appropriate. All members of the unit were experienced skiers but, since they needed specialized training, they were withdrawn from the line for a two-month period. Upon completion of the training this battalion was capable of difficult independent missions in the arctic wilderness.
At the outset of the campaign north of the Arctic Circle it became clear that formations of a special type were required. In the midst of operations, however, any kind of large-scale reorganization was out of the question. As a modest beginning the command decided to experiment with the formation of a swamp battalion which was to be particularly qualified for independent small-unit action in the arctic. Since there was no precedent for the formation of such a unit, it was organized by selecting young soldiers in excellent physical condition who were experienced skiers. They were issued the same clothing and equipment as mountain infantry troops. This proved so effective that all combat troops in the arctic were subsequently equipped in the same manner. A few captured trucks were to provide the battalion with motorized transportation. The men soon gained confidence and adjusted themselves to the difficult conditions prevailing in the arctic wilderness. The Finns provided instructors and gave some welcome assistance. When XXXVI Mountain Corps applied for official recognition of the unit, the request was approved and the battalion was designated a bicycle battalion. A shipment of bicycles promptly arrived; needless to say, they were absolutely useless in the arctic. Following another request the battalion was finally redesignated as an independent motorized infantry battalion. It was issued command cars and Volkswagen [Ed: the German version of the jeep], which had proved extremely useful in the snow and on the poor, narrow, rocky roads. Now the battalion was truly mobile. Later when the Finnish
units, which had been attached to corps were pulled out, the new battalion carried out difficult combat and reconnaissance patrols in the arctic virgin forests and barren wastes north of the Arctic Circle.
III. Last-Ditch Improvisations
1. The LEUTHEN Project
When the Russian armies poured across Germany's eastern borders in the beginning of 1945, the Army High Command introduced a major improvisation, the LEUTHEN Project, which constituted a radical change in the Army's replacement and training policy. To the German mind LEUTHEN, a small town in Silesia where Frederick the Great had won a major battle with improvised forces, was the symbol of a victorious last-ditch stand. It was probably for this reason that the Army selected the term LEUTHEN to designate this project. The plan foresaw that all training units of the entire replacement army were to be transferred and assigned to the field forces as soon as the code word LEUTHEN was transmitted to them. In immediate proximity of the front these training units were to be subjected to a more realistic combat training than they could possibly receive in the zone of the interior. Moreover, they were to serve as security forces in rear area positions or defense lines. The original idea was therefore both sound and practical, but it should have been put into effect much sooner, when the front was still stable. What actually prompted the execution of the LEUTHEN Project at that late stage, whether it was still the original intention as officially proclaimed or rather the steadily deteriorating situation on the fighting fronts, must be left to conjecture. In reality all the LEUTHEN units were immediately committed and thrown into the thick of fighting in critical situations.
What did the LEUTHEN units look like? In every Wehrkreis there were a number of training and replacement units of various arms, which were under the command of division staffs. The men who had completed their training and were ready for combat duty were in the replacement units. The training units were composed of recently inducted recruits who were to be prepared for combat by undergoing an eight-week basic training course. Upon receiving the code word LEUTHEN, the division staffs were to move out with all training units that had completed one to seven weeks of training.
One of the units alerted in this manner was the Special Administrative Division 413, which consisted of several training battalions, a regimental headquarters, an artillery battalion with an odd assortment of guns, and elements of an engineer and a
signal battalion. As a tactical unit, the division was really no more than a reinforced infantry regiment commanded by an elderly general with a small staff. Needless to state, it was absolutely incapable of any combat assignment. The cadre up to the division commander consisted of personnel unfit for combat because of sickness, injury, or for lack of tactical qualifications. Most of the noncommissioned officers had suffered combat injuries of such severity that they were barely fit for garrison duty. Some of the men were entirely untrained, others had completed one half to three quarters of their basic training. Some of them were unarmed because the number of weapons provided for training units did not suffice to arm every soldier. In addition, the various formations had absolutely no organic transportation. There were no more horses than those needed for the normal garrison functions and the division had no field kitchens since the food had always been prepared in the permanent garrison kitchens. The clothing and equipment were equally defective. Quite a few soldiers, for instance, could not be issued garrison belts. In general, everything was in exactly the condition to be expected from a home station in times of stress where shortages have become the rule rather than the exception.
When the LEUTHEN division moved out it was therefore no more than an improvisation of the poorest sort. This might not have mattered so much had the division undergone a rigid training schedule far behind the lines. But even while it was on the approach march to its destination, one of its battalions was shifted from the Main River valley to Hammelburg where a small enemy armored force had broken through. The remainder of the division was immediately sent into combat and annihilated.
In summarizing, one may state that the LEUTHEN Project was doomed from the outset because it was applied in a situation for which it was entirely unsuited.
2. Other Desperate Measures
In view of the extremely heavy losses of manpower, the shortage of weapons, and the precarious condition of the transportation system, the situation of the German Army became so critical that the need for improvisations grew even more urgent during the last few weeks of the war. The organizational improvisations of that period were a far cry from those introduced during earlier stages. In many cases the selection and training of replacements was makeshift. Equipment of all types was totally inadequate and consisted of whatever was left over or could be picked up. Since no guns were available, the organization of new artillery units was practically impossible. Whatever new infantry units were organized during this period were of limited capability in
the field. In Bavaria, for instance, the last regular activation of a new infantry division took place in November 1944. What followed thereafter was pure improvisation, not so much because of the shortage of trained replacements, but because of the inadequate supply of weapons and equipment.
Although the organization of new divisions had become impossible, replacement units were sent to the front until the beginning of March 1945. Then even this function could no longer be accomplished. Each Wehrkreis assumed command over its replacements, organized a few emergency infantry battalions and transferred them to the nearest tactical command. Many well-trained soldiers were still available but, because of the serious shortage of infantry heavy weapons, it was no longer possible to organize entire machine gun companies. The battalions were therefore composed of a small battalion staff and four rifle companies. Each company had one machine gun platoon with two heavy machine guns and a few locally requisitioned wood-gas-burning trucks, one of which carried a cook stove. The few artillery battalions organized during this period were composed of a great variety of guns. No two batteries were alike and every section had guns of different caliber.
During that period occurred a very significant incident, which demonstrated the effects of the improper utilization of administrative personnel. Several first-rate panzer battalions were in the process of rehabilitation at the Grafenwoehr troop training grounds in Bavaria. When enemy armored spearheads approached the area, a corps commander responsible for a nearby sector of the front ordered the staff of the training center to assume the tactical command of the panzer battalions and stop the enemy advance. The commander of the training center was a general well along in years who had always handled administrative assignments very competently but had never during his long career commanded a panzer unit. His staff was composed of elderly reserve officers and ordnance specialists. Their leadership spelled disaster for the panzer battalions.
The numerous organizational improvisations introduced during that period were only stop-gap measures applied in time of extreme emergency. Since most of them were adopted to overcome purely local critical situations they are of little consequence in a study of this type.
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