German Army

Kampfgruppen, Panzers and Heer: German Infantry and their Doctrine in Normandy

Going to change things up a little for this Historical post, as today I’ll be starting a 3 blog series talking about the doctrine and tactics of each planned nation. We’ll be covering the American infantry, German line and panzer grenadier infantry, and British armoured and line infantry. This week, the German Army.

The German Infantry Platoon

german-infantry-plt

The German infantry platoon tends to operate the same way as an infantry platoon in any other army of the 1930s & 1940s – The platoon has 3 (sometimes 4) sections, as above, and a light mortar which in practice is attached to the platoon headquarters. The platoon leader tends to be an officer, usually a Leutnant, although it is not uncommon especially in the German army of the period for warrant officers to be platoon leaders. It has its own transport: for line infantry horse and cart, for Panzer Grenadiers a light truck, nominally an Opel Blitz.

The German Infantry Section

german-infantry-squad

The infantry section in the German army, whether it is Panzer Grenadier or Schutzen, is 9 men strong. It consists of 5 riflemen supporting a 3 man machine-gun team with a section leader managing the movements of the whole.  German strategists realised after analysing the performance of the infantry in the First World War that a well-trained machine-gun team were arguably a more valuable resource than 10 riflemen due to the fact that crews were less likely to fall prey to covering instead of firing. The establishment of buddy teams manning the machine-gun also added to the effectiveness, as the men would know and like each other, not wanting to let each other down.

German infantrymen scan the skies for Allied aircraft in Normandy, (after the invasion) June 1944.

German infantrymen scan the skies for Allied aircraft in Normandy, (after the invasion) June 1944.

As such, the axis of offensive action for German infantry revolves around the machine-gun within the squad, and the role of the riflemen within a squad is to support the machine gun, not vice versa. The role of the machine-gun is to fix the enemy, and eliminate them through superior fire if possible. If this cannot be achieved, the enemy is suppressed until the rifleman supporting the machine gun can close to grenade and bayonet range, and eliminate the enemy that way.

German Soldiers of the 709 Infantry Division, abandon their refuge and rush to their positions in Montebourg, Normandy in June 1944.

German Soldiers of the 709 Infantry Division, abandon their refuge and rush to their positions in Montebourg, Normandy in June 1944.

The Wehrmacht in Normandy in this regard is not too different to the Wehrmacht of the early war exploits, trained to be taking the fight forever to the enemy, meeting attack with counter-attack, advance with counter-charge and the like. Panzer Grenadiers, the infantry trained specifically for close operation with German armoured formations, tended not to operate any differently to their regular Schutzen counterparts, other than moving close to the enemy by trucks or halftrack as part of a wider offensive before dismounting and fighting.

The OSS produced a film to educate their agents on the way German infantry fought. It’s a fantastic period source to show how the Americans in particular understood the doctrinal requirements of the German Army.

Co-operation with other arms

German infantry tended to grasp inter-arm co-operation a lot better than the British or American infantry did, especially earlier in the war. German infantry and armour commonly worked together in both training and combat, meaning that commanders of both branches often knew enough of their counterpart role to complement each other in the attack. These ‘Kampfgruppen’ were generally thrown together from units the same general area to complete a specified task, i.e. the defence of a strategic locality or for an offensive action.

A Panther Ausf.A transports troops as part of a Kampfgruppen 1944, Alsace-Lorraine, France

A Panther Ausf.A transports troops as part of a Kampfgruppen 1944, Alsace-Lorraine, France

The Kampfgruppe was essentially a mish-mash of different branches (armour, artillery, infantry etc) organized quickly in accordance with tactical and strategic situation at hand. Kampfgruppen were usually named for the superior officer, and they are exceedingly common in in Normandy as infantry fought pitched battles with the resources they had to hand. Although very little official doctrinal texts survive concerning them, they occasionally pop up in unit war diaries and in the regimental and official histories of the units concerned.

Next Week: American infantry doctrine in Normandy

The German Reaction to D-Day.

The observer in the bunker at Pont du Hoc could not believe his eyes. What seemed to be thousands and thousands of ships were anchored in the channel, some firing over his head at targets unseen, others launching thousands of small craft which appeared to be making for the shore. The predicted allied invasion had begun, and he penned a message to this extent, to be sent to higher headquarters.

Despite some advance warning, and the strength of some German units in the West, the Germans failed to contain the invasion of Normandy, and failed to commit 4 SS divisions that could have turned the tide. Why?

Defence of the Western provinces of the new German Reich fell to Field Marshal von Rundstedt, as Commander-in-Chief West. Under him he had two main army groups, B and G. B contained Erwin Rommel, favourite of Hitler and master armoured strategist. Of the 300 Divisions the German Army had to call on, around 58 or so were stationed in this area. Despite this seemingly large reserve of manpower to combat the Allied invasion, it must be remembered the composition of these troops left a lot to be desired.

Osttruppen were recruits from Russia and the East. Some, like the above solider being registered with an American POW handler, came from as far away as Korea.

Osttruppen were recruits from Russia and the East. Some, like the above solider being registered with an American POW handler, came from as far away as Korea.

The vast bulk were seasoned fighting men from the Eastern front, with experience of combat, good training and committed NCOs and Officers. However, these were not the troops defending the beaches, but were instead held in the interior of France. The beaches themselves were defended largely by what the Germans termed Osttruppen, or Eastern Troops; conscripts from Russia, Turkestan and other eastern European nations with no desire or will to fight for the Germans. Equipped with obsolete or captured equipment, these troops were badly motivated, badly lead and all too willing to surrender to the Allies. The only beach that was not was Omaha, with disastrous consequences for the Americans due to land there.

Additionally, Von Runstedt on paper had nine panzer divisions and one panzergrenadier division in theatre, with a total of over 1,400 tanks and self-propelled guns. Part of Panzer Group West, they were counted as part of von Rundstedt’s on paper strength despite the fact he possessed no direct control over them. With Rommel trying, and failing, to change the Führer’s mind about changing this administrative complication, the situation was in fact made worse. When the invasion of Normandy occurred, 4 of the Divisions armed with the heaviest, deadliest armour and best trained mobile troops the Germans possessed – 1st SS, 12th SS, 17th SS Panzergrenadier and Panzer Lehr – were held in reserve to be commanded by Hitler himself.

Panzergrenadiers, trained to work alongside armour, were some of the forces held in reserve.

Panzergrenadiers, trained to work alongside armour, were some of the forces held in reserve. These elite troops could very well have turned the tide for the Germans on the decisive first day.

Finally, even the weather was against the Germans. The weather was horrendous at the beginning of May, and as June commenced heavy winds caused high seas, and fog obscured the coast, making a landing unlikely to be successful. With these conditions seemingly favouring the defenders, Rommel felt happy to take a few days leave, and returned to Berlin to celebrate his wife’s birthday. Other senior officers also were withdrawn, to a conference war-gaming the potential of an Allied invasion and how to counter it.

Erwin Rommel was a particular favorite of Hitler. His reputation as an unflappable commander was well earnt in the deserts of North Africa. At the time of D-Day, he was in Berlin, celebrating his wife's Birthday.

Erwin Rommel was a particular favorite of Hitler. His reputation as an unflappable commander was well earnt in the deserts of North Africa. At the time of D-Day, he was in Berlin, celebrating his wife’s Birthday.

When the invasion did happen in June, the troops initially defending the beaches were not up to the standard, and the bulk of the tank force paralysed waiting for orders (Hitler was asleep when the invasion occurred, and would not be woken for several hours, meaning 4 SS divisions took no part in the initial fighting.) The only tank force the Germans possessed not paralysed by a napping Führer, 21st Panzer Division, was immediately thrown against the British, around Caen, and although they succeeded in breaking through to the coast and stalling the British advance were forced to withdraw when Fireflies were bought up to engage them. Of the 120 tanks taken into the action, 70 were lost.

Panther, knocked out by a Firefly of 7th Dragoon Guards. Although this photograph was taken slightly after 21st Panzer's push, it demonstrates the losses they suffered quite well. B5780

Panther, knocked out by a Firefly of 7th Dragoon Guards. Although this photograph was taken slightly after 21st Panzer’s push, it demonstrates the losses they suffered quite well. B5780

Failure of the Germans to respond to D-Day rest on the factors above, but also on the brilliant success of Operation Fortitude, the allied deception plan to convince the Germans that a land invasion of France would take place at the Pas-de-Calais. Fake armies, consisting of inflatable tanks, wooden airfields and other deception plans were instituted to keep the Germans guessing as to the true site of the invasion. The fact that the tank troops were not moved until Hitler could be certain Normandy was not a feint shows the ingenuity of this plan worked.

Next Week: Into the Cotentin