APPENDIX II

GERMAN COMBAT TACTICS IN NORMANDY

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The German ground forces in Normandy differed widely in their origins and equipments, in their motivations and capabilities. To some extent, these differences were masked: at higher levels by an officer corps infused with common doctrines; at lower levels by standardized tactics and brutal discipline; and at all levels in Normandy by severe shortages of matériel.

NORMANDY LESSONS

The German infantry, no less that the Allied, had to come to terms with new and unexpected lessons when the war reached Normandy. As his formation disengaged from the Caumont sector in mid-July, the commander of 2. Panzerdivision set down his clear vision following a month of combat in the bocage. The experienced and highly professional General der Panzertruppen Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz offered advice to the 326. Infanteriedivision as it was about to relieve his own formation in the rough terrain south of Caumont.

First, the broken terrain of the Normandy bocage with its hedgerow-bordered small fields and sunken roads simply did not permit large-scale, co-ordinated operations. ‘All engagements soon resolve themselves into shocktroop and individual engagements. The possession of “dominating heights” is often not as decisive as the possession of traffic junctions.’1 Control of the crossroads was essential for the movement of vehicles, while the heights were of less utility (unless they directly overlooked those vital roads) due to restrictions on lines of sight due to the abundant hedges and trees. ‘The incredibly heavy artillery and mortar fire is something new, both for the seasoned veterans of the Eastern front and the new arrivals from reinforcement units...The Allies are waging war regardless of expense.’

Although the veterans became accustomed relatively quickly, the inexperienced took several days longer to ‘acclimatise’. The incoming fire was all the worse for being directed by spotter aircraft, ‘spies in the sky’, against which the Luftwaffe appeared ineffectual: only a half-dozen German machines had been noted passing over Lüttwitz’s division during four weeks in the sector.

In von Lüttwitz’s view, normal German offensive tactics were inappropriate. ‘Attacks prepared all “according to the book” have little chance of succeeding.’ Textbook forming-up areas would be quickly spotted and bombed mercilessly. If in spite of everything such an assault got under way, it would be stopped by artillery after a mere few hundred metres. Better by far, he maintained, to face all the difficulties of operating at night, accepting that only slow progress would be made, with very short-term objectives set, and progress gained only by repeated attempts, night after night. In this respect at least, Lüttwitz’s views appear not to have been widely implemented, largely due to the overall defensive orientation of the German forces in Normandy, partly too due to the inexperience of many low-quality German units. Pre-war German doctrine had neglected night operations. The passivity of German units at night had been noted (with some relief!) by British observers during the brief 1940 campaign in France and Belgium. The war in the East led to changes. The Germans recognised both the effectiveness of Russian troops in night offensive operations (explained away by peasant soldiers’ ‘closeness to nature’ and lower dependence on artificial light); yet also the fragility of Russian units when surprised at night: bound by rigid orders and easily confused by changing circumstances. In theory, by 1944 German authorities recommended that fifty per cent of training, from basic training onwards, be conducted at night. In practice, it seems unlikely that many units in Normandy approached this ideal.

However, von Lüttwitz deemed that defensive operations need not be so hazardous. While the enemy could usually rely on weight of artillery to support his advance as far as the main line of resistance (the Hauptkampflinie, or HKL), nevertheless, ‘The enemy infantryman is no fighter in our sense of the term, and consequently only a few machine-guns are necessary to hold him – but these must be there at the right time.’ Preparation and alert reinforcements were vital. Once the enemy brought up his forward artillery observers and dug in his antitank guns, the time for rapid counter-attack was past and the infantry would have to revert to night-time infiltration. Counter-attack had to be rapid, and encouraged by platoon and section officers leading from the front, preferably with a loud ‘hurrah’. Indeed, in von Lüttwitz’s division it was laid down that attacks were to be accompanied by loud bugle calls designed to synchronize the assault (which also succeeded in overcoming the natural tendency of less experienced soldiers to go to ground among the numerous hedgerows).

DEFENCE AND COUNTER-ATTACK

At the strategic level, the Germans proved unable to mount a successful counteroffensive in Normandy. Their attempts were foiled by logistic difficulties, Allied pre-emption, and misguided directives from the Führerhauptquartier. But German defensive tactics proved more effective. This effectiveness arose from three closely interwoven strands: doctrine, leadership, and weaponry.

German defensive methods in Normandy evolved from lessons learned during the First World War, enshrined in the 1933 Army Regulation 300 entitled ‘Truppenführung’, and extensively practised over a year of fighting withdrawals on the eastern front. Essentially, the front line - the ‘Forward Edge of the Battle Area’ - was to be manned by only a thin screen sufficient to keep out enemy patrols and reconnaissance. Recognising that any substantial assault would penetrate this thin crust, the key to defence lay in countering the blow as quickly as possible. Since the First World War, the Germans had realised that an attacking force was at its most vulnerable at the instant it seized its objectives: tired, occupying positions that faced the ‘wrong way’, potentially lacking communications and short of ammunition. So too in Normandy: many an assault by Allied infantry paused on the captured positions awaiting support, only to suffer pre-registered bombardment and assault by fresh troops.

The technique of the hasty counter-attack - Gegenstoß - was two-edged. To succeed, the practice had to be implemented without delay. Amid the confusion of battle, leaders on the spot had to react instinctively, without waiting for higher authority. This was perfectly in keeping with one of the key tenets of Truppenführung: delegation of authority. So long as the broad objectives were understood, junior leaders were implicitly authorized to use their initiative in pursuit of those objectives without further detailed instruction. Inaction was held to be a greater error than recklessness. Again and again in Russia this had worked. But there ever remained the risk that a sophisticated enemy, able to predict the German doctrinal commitment to counter-attacks, so hardwired into junior leaders as to become almost a reflex, would use that knowledge to effect.

At the end of June, British Second Army commander Miles Dempsey astutely recognised that the whole purpose of Operation EPSOM had changed: from gaining territory, to forcing commitment of the newly-arrived German armoured reserves. The objective was now attrition: to bring on a fight in which the Germans’ offensive capability would be written-down. Instead of pushing on towards the original objective of the Orne River crossings, Dempsey now recognised that, ‘the vital spot to hold was the Rauray gap... where the Germans would strike.’ And strike they predictably did: lured on to killing grounds where the superiority of the Royal Artillery could wreak havoc.2

TRAINING AND RESILIENCE

In contrast to the British system of regimental independence, the German infantry were trained in a highly standardized manner which permitted new units to be quickly formed from companies or even squads of mixed origin. The building blocks of infantry organization were common to most front-line formations. And to avoid creative leadership being stultified by uniformity, junior leaders were encouraged to use their initiative to an extent rare in the British and virtually nonexistent in the Russian armies. It was drummed into junior officers’ heads that orders stood only so long as the assumptions on which they were based remained valid. Leadership meant responding to new circumstances. Even non-commissioned officers were expected to make their own decisions without waiting for confirmation from above. So, even after taking casualties, a small unit would usually have someone left ready to assume command. To this day, the German term ‘Kampfgruppe’ means rather more than simply an improvised ‘battle group’; it implies an ad hoc formation with a common understanding of tactics under dynamic leadership.

Furthermore, at squad level German doctrine differed fundamentally from that of the British and American armies. Instead of the rifle being the backbone of squad firepower, supported by a squad light machinegun, German tactics gave the machinegun primacy. The squad - or Gruppe - was built around the squad machinegun. This was the MG 34, later the improved and cost-reduced MG 42 (collectively known by the Allies as the ‘Spandau’). The MG 34 had an impressive rate of fire: up to 1,200 rounds per minute, versus the British infantry squad’s Bren gun which, for all its unquestioned accuracy, could only manage 500. Indeed, American intelligence reports suggested that the MG 34 was wasteful: ‘the rate of fire is probably too high for the weight’; and to the MG 42’s further increase in cyclic rate, the only comments were that, ‘this increased rate of fire is not desirable from any point of view’ and ‘a certain decrease in accuracy has resulted’. This entirely missed the point.

Soldiers’ accounts mention the considerable morale effect of the sound made by this weapon’s firing (a continuous rasp, likened to a tearing bedsheet, quite unlike the stuttering patter of a Bren gun). For many new to battle, this unfamiliar yet never-forgotten sound was the first indication that the enemy was nearby. On the battlefield, the MG 34 had an effective suppressive capability. Unusually for an air-cooled machinegun, the German infantry favoured long bursts of fire. One man and his assistant, liberally supplied with belts of ammunition and replacement gun barrels, could keep enemy heads down over a wide area. And men with their heads below the parapets of their entrenchments were not taking part in the fire fight. By night, a MG 34or 42 on its tripod mount could lay effective firelanes to interdict swathes of territory and harass enemy movements. (A common tactic in Normandy was to fire streams of tracer at head height, giving the enemy confidence to advance upright, and be cut down by unseen streams of bullets pre-sighted to sweep lower levels.) All in all, the ordinary German infantry soldier (‘Schütze’) became rather more an ammunition carrier than a rifleman. And as a further consequence, the Gruppe became extremely resilient. So long as there was someone to man the machinegun, losses of personnel would not immediately or greatly reduce the squad’s firepower.

This goes some way to explaining why we so often read of major German formations being defeated, only to find their sub-units appearing and re-appearing in subsequent actions. By the end of July, after two days of combat, the 326. Infanteriedivision had been shattered, its positions overwhelmed, its general killed and divisional headquarters disrupted. And yet, sub-units of the division continued to resist in key areas, and were to remain in action for days to come. South of St-Martin-des-Besaces, as the British Guards Armoured Division struggled forward through almost impenetrable traffic jams, groups of infantrymen of 326. Division had been hastily reassembled. Stiffened by newly-arriving armoured vehicles and Panzergrenadiere of 21. Panzerdivision, disparate elements of the 326. Division were forged once again into locally effective fighting forces.

THE ROLE OF ARMOUR

Even in the open ground, Normandy presented the German armour with new challenges. On 9 June, on the plateau between Caen and Bayeux, the young tank men of the Hitlerjugend division had moved into battle against the invader: singing as they went, trusting in the near-invulnerability of their Panther tanks and the shock effect of the cavalry charge. They gunned their tanks over open ground towards the enemy, leaving their infantry behind. These tactics often worked in Russia. The massacre that ensued would reverberate through the division. Seven of the twelve Panther were knocked out in short order by the defending Canadians: both the effectiveness of the 17-pounder antitank gun and the tendency of the Panther to blow up when penetrated were amply demonstrated. A note of caution was sounded.

As to the close bocage country of Normandy, von Lüttwitz posed the question: if the assault depended on infiltration, what of the modern Panzerdivision with its tanks and armoured halftracks?

‘There is no question of tank employment in the true sense of the term. They can only be used to accompany infantry. Their mobility is limited... since the country favours anti-tank combat, each single tank must have strong flank protection. It is unprofitable to employ more than one troop of tanks at the time.’

Von Lüttwitz insisted that advance through the dense terrain must be achieved by infantry backed up by heavy fire from tanks in close support – the very tactics which the United States Army was simultaneously developing in the course of July to penetrate the Normandy bocage.

A separate report on experiences in Normandy from 6 to 22 June was compiled by Panzer-Lehr-Division and likewise forwarded to the general-inspectorate of the Panzertruppen (subsequently captured and translated by British 2nd Army intelligence). This concluded,

‘The country is very close Bocage. The bocage cannot in most cases be crossed and therefore tanks are with few exceptions confined to roads and paths... The use of tanks must be confined to the support of infantry. Close co-operation must be maintained between both infantry and tanks. Above all, prompt discovery of lanes from which our own tanks shoot up enemy tanks which are attacking.’

A further captured document, authorized by Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen Guderian3 himself, urged not only that the vulnerable flanks of the Panther be screened by antitank guns or less valuable tanks, and the Panther be not used at all in close-in wooded or built-up areas, but even went so far as to suggest that its relatively high fuel consumption should always be considered before committing Panther tanks to a particular operation.

Critically, von Lüttwitz’s document concluded, ‘the actual punch is delivered by the infantry and the fire power supplied by the tanks, and thus control of the operation lies with the infantry.’ And this the advice of a seasoned armour leader!

INDIRECT FIRE

The German infantry in Normandy depended heavily on mortars for their indirect fire support. To some degree this was doctrinal, but the dependence was further due to the Allies’ artillery superiority and air supremacy over the Normandy battlefield.

The conventional German artillery, generally of 10.5cm or 15cm calibre, both towed and self-propelled, was dependent for survival on regular relocation. During the Normandy campaign, British counter-battery techniques (aided by aerial photography and direct air reconnaissance) achieved a high state of efficiency. And once detected, German batteries were subject to intense levels of counter-battery fire. Von Lüttwitz estimated that his divisional artillery could deliver barely a tenth the weight of fire of which his opponents were capable. The Royal Artillery history later recorded that, ‘Although the enemy had a large number of guns, they fired very little... Some very heavy concentrations were put down on hostile batteries, amounting on one occasion to 104:1, with an average weight of shell of 20 tons a target.’4

Faced with such crippling retaliation, the German artillery adopted ‘elastic’ or ‘nomadic’ tactics: shooting then relocating quickly, according to von Lüttwitz as many as six times a day. But in so doing, they risked both becoming visible to Allied air reconnaissance and compromising their ability effectively to camouflage their positions (a time-consuming business if done properly). Added to these problems were those of communications. In the dense Normandy countryside, lines of sight were typically short, and artillery observers on the ground had to be closer than ever to the front. (Another benefit of Allied air superiority was the freedom granted to Air Observation Posts, ‘AOPs’, which proved as infuriating to Germans on the ground as they were invaluable to the batteries they served.) Longer lines of communication, generally by field telephone wire, were increasingly vulnerable. Among the most hazardous duties of the German ground forces were those of despatch rider and wire-man, both typically carried out in the open and under fire.

Little wonder then that the Germans increased their dependence on mortar fire. This encompassed both the Werfer brigades’ large-calibre, multi-barrelled projectors, delivering inaccurate but potentially morale-sapping area fire by ‘moaning minnie’ rockets; and the more conventional mortars integral to the infantry regiments. The latter especially were hard to identify from the air, and relatively mobile (except for the weight of ammunition that needed to be transported). The infantry’s 8.1cm mortar bombs posed a serious challenge to British soundranging (and later radar) devices. Operating at battalion level or lower, they were closely tied-in to the tactical requirements of the actions they were supporting.

DOCTRINE AND MORALE

In the action at les Grands Bonfaits (recounted in Chapter 13), Major Thornburn reflected with satisfaction that German armour advanced very cautiously, and the infantry appeared unwilling to close on his 4th KSLI position. Other observers record similar feelings. Steel Brownlie noted that German activity throughout much of the BLUECOAT battle was ‘usually in platoon strength with a couple of tanks, taking every advantage of the thick country.’ Major How of the Herefords went so far as to criticize the German command for wasting their strength by attacking in ‘penny packets’. Tactical changes such as those approved by Guderian were a major change from methods that had been employed consistently and successfully on battle fronts from the sands of North Africa to the Russian steppe. Their adoption reflected a high degree of realism and a commendable willingness to abandon standard practices and adapt to circumstances. Though admittedly these changes fell short of abandoning the customary (and all-too predictable) immediate counter-attack on a lost position.

Other experienced British observers observed that the troops opposing them were not of the same calibre as German formations of the earlier war years. There is much truth in this. By August, even the SS-Panzer divisions were having to accept growing numbers of non-German manpower in their ranks. On the morning of 4 August, the Irish Guards attempted to extract information from captured grenadiers of 9. SS-Panzerdivision. An officer

‘spent a long time interrogating one unhappy man with a pick-handle and in German, till the man thought of one intelligible word - “Russki!”’5 The 32nd Guards Brigade Intelligence Summary of 6 August noted, ‘The fact that 100 Ukrainians, former PW, none of whom could speak German and who only had just sufficient knowledge to fire a rifle, were drafted at the last minute to 10 SS Pz Gr provides further eloquent testimony to the chronic shortage of manpower from which the enemy is suffering.’

Nevertheless, this is not the full story. The standardized tactical training and harsh discipline of the infantry stood the German army in good stead when it came to incorporating lower-quality troops into the rifle companies. Long after the regiments of 326. Infanteriedivision had been smashed, many of their component companies and platoons showed a remarkable ability to retain cohesion, regroup, and return to action under new leadership. Nor were all the troops lacking in motivation. Many have questioned how and why Germans continued to fight in support of an obviously lost cause.6 One insightful study appears in the Guards Armoured Division Intelligence Summary of 7 August. This commentary cautioned against judging the morale of the enemy on the basis of prisoner interrogation.

‘The morale of a PW after capture differs from his morale before capture... the low morale of the PW when interrogated is due to his realising in most cases only after capture the futility of further fighting. It is the sight of the enormous reserves of material which they see during their journey within captivity that provokes that very popular phrase “Die Materialuberlegenheit [sic] ist Kolossal.’ [‘The material superiority is colossal’] The study concluded, ‘The mixture of Russians in 19 and 20 SS PGRs [i.e., the Grenadier regiments of 9. SS-Panzerdivision] does not appear to have affected the Germans’ “Will to Fight” but did cause them to reconsider the chances of driving us from FRANCE.’

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