German makeshift strongpoint defence tactics, Winter 41-42

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Ike_FI
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German makeshift strongpoint defence tactics, Winter 41-42

Post by Ike_FI » 19 Jan 2003 16:55

This interesting survey explains in detail some of the practical arrangements Germans utilized in order to cope in the harsh coditions of Eastern Front after their attack phase had stalled.
Strongpoint Defense: Conduct

Driven to the shelter of Russian towns and villages as an emergency measure, German troops did their best to fortify these positions against the inevitable Soviet assaults. Defensive techniques varied from division to division according to local conditions and experiences. A major difficulty, now becoming apparent to German commanders for the first time, was that previous defensive training had been deficient. As one senior officer later wrote, German troops "so far had been inexperienced in this sort of thing.... It is surprising indeed how often and to what extent veteran officers, who had already participated in World War I, had forgotten their experiences of those days. The fact that [German] peacetime training shunned everything connected with 'defensive operations under difficult winter conditions' proved now detrimental for the first time [italics in original]."61

To compensate for their inexperience, German units shared combat knowhow by exchanging hastily prepared battle reports. An early memorandum of this type, prepared by Fourth Army on 23 January 1942, recounted techniques used effectively by the 10th Motorized Division. Reduced to the strength of a mere infantry regiment, the 10th Motorized Division had for three weeks used a strongpoint defense to defend a fifty-kilometer sector against an estimated seven Red Army divisions.

The 10th Motorized Division's report' explained how, in preparing to defend a village strongpoint, officers began by surveying the available buildings to identify those best suited for defensive use. Houses that did not aid in the defense were razed, both to deny the Red Army future use of them as shelter and also to improve German observation and fields of fire, Houses selected as fighting positions were then transformed into miniature fortresses capable of all-around defense: snow was banked against the outer walls and sheathed with ice, overhead cover was reinforced, and firing embrasures were cut and camouflaged with bedsheets. When available, multibarreled 20-mm flak guns were integrated into the defense in special positions, which consisted. of houses with their roofs purposely torn off, the floors reinforced (to hold the additional weight of guns and ammunition), and the exterior walls covered with a snow-and-ice glacis to gun-barrel height. These "flak nests" helped keep both Soviet aircraft and infantry at bay.62

Russian farming communities were usually located on hills and ridges, and defensive strongpoints established within them normally had commanding observation and fire over the surrounding cleared fields.63 Defensive combat from such positions was, again according to a 10th Motorized Division report, primarily "a question of organization," requiring careful use of all available heavy weapons and artillery. When enemy attacks seemed imminent, German artillery fire and air attacks (when available) were directed against known and suspected enemy assembly areas. As Soviet forces approached the strongpoint, the fire of heavy mortars, antitank guns, and heavy machine guns joined in. Such fire was carefully controlled, since experience showed that "it is inappropriate to battle all targets with single artillery pieces and batteries. It is much more important to strike the most important targets using timely, concentrated fire to destroy them." If enemy forces were able to get close enough to launch a close assault against the fortified buildings, the careful preparations of the defenders kept the odds strongly in their favor. Any enemy infantrymen who worked their way into a village were either cut down by interlocking fires from neighboring buildings or wiped out by the counterattacks of specially designated reserves. Armed with submachine guns and grenades, these reserve squads were launched against any penetrating enemy troops before they had a chance to consolidate.64

During this winter fighting, German units soon realized that strongpoints confined to small villages had serious drawbacks as well as advantages. For one thing, Soviet armor posed a deadly threat to house-based defenses. Since camouflage could not hide buildings, Russian tanks had little difficulty in identifying and engaging the German positions concealed therein. Moreover, if successful in driving the Germans from their building shelters and into the open, the enemy tanks could slaughter the fleeing Germans almost at leisure.65

Second, strongpoints sited entirely inside villages virtually conceded control of the surrounding area to the Red Army. This reduced German reconnaissance and left the strongpoints susceptible to encirclement or night attack by stealth. (Even in its early report, the 10th Motorized Division conceded that night attacks were a major problem for village strongpoints. Noting that the Russians frequently used night attacks to disrupt the carefully orchestrated German fire plans. 10th Motorized Division officers felt compelled to keep a minimum of 50 percent of their strongpoint garrisons on full alert at night "with weapons in hand" to guard against surprise Soviet assaults.66)

Finally, most rural Russian villages occupied only a relatively small area, with huts and houses clustered close together. According to an 87th Infantry Division after-action report, strongpoints restricted to such congested areas formed "man traps" since they made ideal targets for Soviet artillery.67 The 35th Division's report concurred with this assessment, declaring emphatically that "the defense of such a [village] strongpoint must be made in the surrounding terrain."68 Likewise, the 7th Infantry Division learned to avoid unduly concentrating troops in villages even when no other positions had been prepared.69

Based on these considerations, German units gradually refined their strongpoint defenses by pushing defensive perimeters beyond village limits. This helped to conceal the German positions, increased security against surprise attack, and gave sufficient dispersion to avoid easy annihilation by Soviet artillery. These extended perimeters also reduced the distance between neighboring units and made it more difficult for Russian patrols to locate the gaps between strongpoints. Though tactically sound, the extended perimeter was accepted only reluctantly by cold and tired soldiers, and "rigorous" measures were sometimes needed "to convince the troops of the necessity of occupying as uninterrupted a front line as possible in spite of the cold weather."70

Within these extended strongpoints, command and support personnel, artillery, and reserve detachments were normally located in and around the built-up area itself. An outer defensive perimeter, consisting of interconnected infantry fighting positions, encircled this central core (see figure 6). Although each unit developed its own priority of work, the construction of the outer defensive works usually began with the building of hasty fighting positions. Then followed, in varying order, the construction of small, warmed living bunkers; the improvement of fighting positions; the clearing of communications paths through the snow; the clearing of fields of fire; and the emplacement of mines and obstacles.71

As a rule, German soldiers kept "living bunkers" that were separate from their fighting positions (see figure 7). The quarters bunkers, replete with overhead cover, cots, stoves, and charcoal heaters, were built in sheltered pieces of ground and were connected to the fighting positions by short trenches. If outpost sentries sounded an alarm, soldiers would scramble from their warm quarters to their battle stations. The living bunkers for forward troops were just large enough to accommodate "the smallest combat unit (squad, machine-gun crew, or antitank team). Thus, these bunkers generally [held] about six men; otherwise they [became] Menschenfallen [man traps] under heavy bombardment." Reserve forces deeper inside the strongpoint perimeter were commonly sheltered in larger, platoon-size bunkers.72

Not only did German infantry squads live together in warmed bunkers, but they also fought together from squad battle positions. These squad positions were normally protected by individual rifle pits to the flanks and acted as alternate locations for nearby machine-gun teams.73 The use of thick ice walls, armored by pouring water over poncho-covered bundles of sticks and logs, was a favored method for protecting the fighting positions and the connecting trenches.74 The 35th Division found that the squad battle positions should be uncovered so embattled troops could observe, fire, and throw grenades in all directions. Walk-in bombardment shelters with overhead cover, constructed at intervals throughout the defensive trench system, protected troops from enemy artillery. By day, crew-served weapons were kept inside the living bunkers to protect them from the cold; at night, they were prepositioned outside ready for immediate use.75

The Russian winter caused special problems for laying minefields and constructing obstacles. Pressure-activated antipersonnel mines proved to be s,ingularly unreliable. Enemy ski troops could glide over fields of pressure mines without hazard, and the heavy accumulations of snow cushioned the mines so that detonation even by footslogging infantry was uncertain. The snow also smothered the blast of those mines that did explode. Therefore, tripwiredetonated mines were more reliable and more effective than pressure mines, posing a threat even to Soviet ski troops. (The 87th Infantry Division suggested that tripwires be strung with excessive slack so they would not contract in the extremely cold temperatures and cause the mines to self-detonate.)76 Placement of antitank mines was generally restricted to roads and other obvious avenues of approach for armor, as neither mines nor engineers were available in sufficient numbers to lay belts of antiarmor mines elsewhere. Since the Germans used pressure-detonated antitank mines, they ensured that the mines were laid on hard surfaces and that snow did not muffle the explosive effects. In fact, after the blast of buried mines failed to damage the tracks of enemy T-34s, the 35th Division painted its antitank mines white so they could be left nearly exposed on hard-packed road surfaces.77

The construction of effective obstacles required some ingenuity. Deep snow, of course, was a natural obstacle to cross-country movement for troops lacking skis and snowshoes. (One German attributed the survival of encircled German forces at Demyansk to the fact that "even the Russian infantry was unable to launch an attack through those snows."78)However, as snowbanks did not always locate themselves to maximum defensive advantage, the Germans devised effective supplemental barriers. Simple barbed-wire obstacles were helpful, with a double-apron-style fence being most effective, especially when coupled with antipersonnel mines and warning devices. Unfortunately, barbed wire remained generally in short supply due to the ruinous German logistical system, and wire fences could be covered by drifting snow. Thus, the 7th Infantry Division believed that its few flimsy wire obstacles were valuable only for the sake of morale and early warning.79 To compensate for the barbed-wire shortage, German troops contrived a variety of expedient entanglements. Some units gathered large quantities of harvesting tools from Russian villages and fashioned "knife rest" obstacles consisting of sharpened scythe blades supported by wooden frames. Even when covered by snow drifts, these nasty blade fences impeded or injured Soviet infantrymen wading through deep snow toward German positions.80 In and near wooded areas, the Germans felled trees to make abatis-type barriers. Snow walls, measuring two to three meters high and thick, were built--mostly with civilian labor--to impede Russian tanks.81 Some German units tried to keep Soviet forces at arm's length by burning down all Russian villages forward of their own positions. Denied the warmth and shelter of these buildings, Red Army troops would have to spend their nights sheltered some distance away from the German lines and could attack only after a lengthy approach march.82
- a quote from article
http://www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources ... y/wray.asp[/quote]

Gwynn Compton
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Post by Gwynn Compton » 20 Jan 2003 09:31

It is a very interesting article indeed. I've often heard it quoted that the German's were taught only how to advance, never how to retreat.

Gwynn

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Post by Ike_FI » 20 Jan 2003 19:07

Gwynn Compton wrote:It is a very interesting article indeed. I've often heard it quoted that the German's were taught only how to advance, never how to retreat.
Gwynn
Hello Gwynn,

I thought too that even though that long quote may look tedious at first sight, the contents is well worth sacrified time.
If you check the source (link on previous post), you'll find some commentary on that attack/defence/retreat skills issue too - the whole article is very long so I didn't copy all here.

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Post by Ike_FI » 22 Jan 2003 13:47

I just found a first-hand account that fits the time-frame and conditions described above pretty well.
Combat Experiences of Fritz Langanke
2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich"
Recon Bn and Panzer Regiment

In his own words

Transcribed by Mark Bando
After a stay in a repair shop we had driven our 8 wheeled armored reconnaissance car from Warschau through Minsk, Smolensk, and Wjasma out to the Rollbahn (main traffic road) toward Moskau up to the exit to Gshatsk. It was a tremendous job to keep a vehicle moving on Russian roads and lanes in the coldest winter of this century. Here, at this point, one close behind the other and parked side by side the whole width of the road, all kinds of vehicles of the German Army were standing during the long night of 19 January, 1942. Quite a bunch of MP's were striving desperately to organize the swerving out to Gshatsk and to get into the lanes the traffic from the town to the Rollbahn. Yelling, roars and wild swearing accompanied uninterruptedly this hectic activity. Various passenger cars and truck stuck in the snow, or their motors wouldn't start after a longer stop were ruthlessly overturned and pushed off the road. Crossroads and Rollbahn had to be kept free for the supply of all units in the Moshalsk area and east of it.

It was terribly cold and together with the gunner I had gotten off the car, trying to warm up a bit by moving. Because inside the vehicle it was like sitting on an ice block when the motor didn't run for some time. To stand, to drive a couple of meters and stand again, that went on for hours until we finally reached the exit and wanted to take off for Gshatsk. I indicated for the driver to pull the car to the right but he continued nearly straight on until the anti-tank gun shield hit the snow wall heaped up at the road sides. Immediately a group of MP's were there to throw our car off the road but they realized quickly that it wouldn't work because the car was too heavy. Supported by their worst cursing we pushed the car to and fro several times before we finally were able to round the bend. Thereafter the terrain allowed us to get off the road and in a wide circle we reached the rim of the town. With a strong eastern wind blowing the temperature that night was around -40 degrees Celsius. The grease of the needle bearings of our rec. car had become too stiff. You could turn the steering wheel only with very great difficulty. Next day, we tried to get it going freely but didn't really know what to do.
...read the rest at http://www.dasreich.ca/fritz_anec1.html

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Al Carter
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Post by Al Carter » 22 Jan 2003 15:50

Excellent piece! Very interesting to see the less glamorous side of the battles of WWII. If the Germans were never taught defense...boy did they learn it fast. The land that Germany took from Russia in 1941 took Russia till 1945 to get back.

Al Carter

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Post by Sokol » 23 Jan 2003 08:10

That's interesting Al. But here I was thinking that in 1944 the Soviets were busy pushing the Germans out of Poland. And Ukraine and Belarus aren't exactly part of Russia, my friend.

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Scott Smith
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Post by Scott Smith » 23 Jan 2003 11:16

The Germans fought a defensive war for the most part on the Western Front from 1914-1918, completely outclassing the Allies in terms of damage inflicted for cost paid. They knew how to do it--it just wasn't glamorous. Operational maneuver was in vogue instead. And Hitler knew how to do it, as he had lived it in the trenches. Kesselring's Italian defense is considered a textbook case of brilliant defensive warfare.
:)

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Al Carter
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Post by Al Carter » 23 Jan 2003 18:08

I guess I should have said Soviet Union since after the war with Poland Soviet Union did have a chunk. The Germans did take Ukraine and White Russia from Soviets in 41. The Soviets didn't push the Germans back to their jump-off points in Poland till December 44 or early 45.

You are right that the Germans lost their toe hold in geographic Russia around Narva in 44 I think.


Al Carter

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