Storm Troops

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Specialized soldiers operating with the German army in France in World War I.

World War I in France was fought in what was certainly the most futile way possible. The Industrial Revolution had produced weapons of mass destruction like the ma- chine gun, tank, and poison gas, yet the generals throughout most of the war sent their troops into combat in the same fashion in which soldiers had attacked for more than 100 years: mass infantry assaults with soldiers rushing forward line abreast over open ground. The trench system that was developed soon after the war started made such attacks suicide, yet the generals continued to send their men forward like this from 1914 through 1918. The “no man’s land” between the trenches became a killing ground, while the trenches them- selves became underground living quarters that only occasionally were lost or gained by combat. The only change in tactics was to precede each assault with massive amounts of artillery. This, however, gave the defenders plenty of warning as to when and where the infantry assault would be coming. As soon as the artillery stopped, the defenders came out of their under- ground shelters and mowed down the advancing troops. Millions of men died.

In 1918, with the war going badly for them, the Germans developed a new meth- od of fighting in an attempt to break the stalemate of trench warfare. They learned a lesson from the Eastern front, where Russian general Brusilov had surprised an Austrian army after attacking with only minimal artillery fire. The Germans took this idea and honed it into the Sturmtruppen, the Storm Troops. Instead of attacking in mass waves, they reasoned, send in smaller units on the heels of shorter preliminary barrages. Give them objectives to reach behind the enemy lines, which would paralyze communications and reinforcement while sowing seeds of panic. Move quickly and do not worry about rear or flanks, for the main offensive would follow and clear those up. These rubrics did not represent a particularly new concept, for small parties of men had throughout the war infiltrated enemy positions in order to reconnoiter the lines or bring back prisoners. The Storm Troops, however, would do this on a much larger scale, operating from squad- to battalion-sized units.

The effectiveness of this new tactic was enhanced by the talents of two German officers. General Oskar von Hutier, commander of the German Eighteenth Army, had been the man who developed the new tactics and tested them against the Russians on the Eastern front. He commanded the forces that launched the new style of attack against the British in France. The other key figure was Colonel Georg Bruchmuller, who developed a new type of artillery barrage to assist in the Storm Troops’ assaults. Instead of tearing up the ground with large amounts of high explosives, as had been done for the previous three years, he used more poison gas shells. Mustard gas was used on the flank areas of the assault, as its slow diffusion rate would hinder reinforcement from neighboring trench lines. Phosgene gas, which dissipated much more quickly, would be used on the areas of immediate attack to immobilize the troops defending them, as well as into the rear areas to neutralize British artillery positions.

Operation Michael was the code name for the first attempted use of Storm Troops tactics in France on March 21, 1918. It succeeded brilliantly. The British Fifth Army in the region around St. Quentin and Albert was caught unawares and soon fled in panic as Storm Troopers, using hand grenades and flame throwers, captured hundreds of prisoners and quickly made their way to rear areas. Here they found evidence of such hurried withdrawal that mess halls still had food cooking with no one in sight. The Germans fed them- selves and pushed on toward their objectives of road junctions and British artillery positions. By the end of the day they had accomplished what had been dreamed of by every general since the war started: a hole in the enemy’s lines that could be exploited, putting Germans in the Allied rear areas to start the long-hoped-for war of maneuver.

It was fortunate for the British, however, that they had fled so quickly, because the Germans were unable to keep pace. The British managed to establish another defensive position along the Somme River. This is not what stopped the Germans, how- ever. Instead, they succumbed to exhaustion and began looting. The Germans had been on short rations and supplies for some months and, to them, the British rear areas were a paradise of food and equipment. In three days they had created a massive bulge in the Allied lines, capturing more territory in less time with fewer casualties than almost any operation of the war. However, three days of constant moving and fighting had worn the Storm Troops out, and the burden of their accumulated loot further slowed them down. German Commander Field Marshall Ludendorff called the offensive a success and canceled further assaults for the time being.

Ludendorff followed up Operation Michael with Operation Georgette, a similar offensive against the British positions farther north around Armentieres. This was launched on April 9, 1918, and was just as successful for the Germans, although they failed to reach their intended goal of the rail junction at Hazebrouch. Had that fallen, it would have severed the supply line to the British army from the ports along the English Channel. Still, Operation Georgette caused another massive bulge in British lines as they were again mauled and pushed back. Once more, exhaustion on the part of the Storm Troops slowed their advance as time went by.

Buoyed by the huge gains made during these two offensives, Ludendorff prepared for a similar attack to the south in the area called the Chemin des Dames along the Aisne River. It was a quiet sector held by French units and British divisions that had been sent there for rest and refitting. It was more rugged than the area of Operation Michael, so the Germans added some mountain troops to the Storm Troop units. On May 28, 1918, the Germans once again threw the Allies into a panic. The French troops, already demoralized from earlier slaughter, broke and ran. Reinforcements found themselves overwhelmed by the rapid German advance. The Germans captured undamaged virtually every bridge across the Aisne River. The offensive moved inexorably toward Paris as reinforcements were pushed forward. At this point, a new player emerged: the United States. Although America had declared war on Germany more than a year earlier, it was still drafting and training men, most of whom were still at home. Some 120,000 Americans were in France, but they were half-trained and untested. They were also the only troops available. American General John Pershing temporarily lent the American Second, Third, and Forty-second Divisions to the French, and they stemmed the German tide.

From May 30 to June 17, 1918, American marines and infantry halted the Germans, at enormous cost, at Belleau Wood south of Soissons. The German advance stalled at what came to be called the Second Battle of the Marne River, but Ludendorff ordered more men into the push for Paris. Had he followed his original intent and attacked in Flanders far to the north, he may have collapsed the entire Allied line. Instead, the lure of Paris was too great— but the Allies were now reinforced and waiting. This time it was Allied artillery that did the most damage, and the follow- up attacks by American and French troops at Soissons and Chateau-Thierry marked the beginning of the end for the German war effort.

Through the summer and fall of 1918, the Allies pushed a broken and undersupplied German army out of France and to the borders of Germany itself before an armistice was signed in November. The German Storm Troops had succeeded in their tasks, but the introduction of their tactics was a case of too little, too late. The lesson learned by the Storm Troops was not forgotten, however. The Germans be- tween the wars focused on the idea of mission-oriented attacks that did not worry about flanks. The problem of exhaustion was solved by the development between the wars of German armored forces. The theory of quick penetration and disruption of rear areas was reborn in 1939 in Poland with the blitzkrieg that almost took Adolph Hitler’s armies to European domination.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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