This picture shows what appears to be the command detachment of a German infantry platoon. In the foreground, to the left of the radio operator, sits the Zugführer or platoon commander. His shoulder straps are obscured, but it can be assumed he is either an Oberleutnant or a Leutnant. His second in command, an Oberfeldwebel (Master Sergeant), can be seen sitting on an ammunition box in the centre, while one of his squad leaders (an Unteroffizier, or Sergeant – wearing an Iron Cross) sits on the edge of the trench smoking a cigarette and taking notes. From the captured Russian PPSh-41 submachine guns dotted around the position it can be assumed that these men are somewhere on the eastern front.
Far from being automatons, German junior officers were trained to be adaptable to deal effectively with the enemy and the terrain over which they conducted operations. They were the cement that held the German Army together and kept it fighting.
On the outer ramparts of the Third Reich in the final days of the war, the burden of holding together the battered remnants of the army fell upon the shoulders of a small band of veteran colonels and majors. When divisions were decimated time and again by massive Allied firepower or rolled over by Soviet tank hordes, small groups of German soldiers led by determined commanders formed ad hoc battle groups to try to close the breach in the frontline.
The German Army’s junior officer corps, i.e. between the rank of Oberst (colonel) and Leutnant (2nd lieutenant), was the backbone of Hitler’s war machine, and it was the vital link between the Führer, the Wehrmacht’s high command, and the ordinary soldiers. It was largely due to the junior officers that Hitler’s army kept fighting in spite of the overwhelming odds it faced.
Throughout the war the German Army was keen not to dilute its officer corps by directly promoting noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from the ranks, although in extreme conditions field promotions did occur. All potential officers first served in the ranks prior to selection for officer training before being given the appointment as “aspirant officer.” The basic educational qualification was set high, which meant that many NCOs were unable to progress into the officer corps. Potential officers who were selected during their basic recruit training had to have passed the university entrance examination, but more senior potential officers were exempt from this requirement. After serving several months in a unit under supervision, the aspirant officer would be dispatched to the Officer Training School at Doberitz near Berlin for a six-month basic officer training course. The majority of officers commissioned prior to the start of the war were conscripts, who were released to return to civilian life after their two years of national service.
In the early war years, the majority of colonels and majors had been professional soldiers in the old Reichswehr. They were the last of the old guard, and many were either aristocrats or the sons of career military families. The rapid expansion of the army and first wave of heavy casualties in Russia and Africa in 1941–42 meant that by the time Germany was forced on the defensive after Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943, these men were leading divisions or serving as staff officers at high-level headquarters. As they rose in command their places were taken by men who had risen through the ranks to now lead frontline battalions and regiments.
The burden of leadership thus fell on men who had been commissioned as young lieutenants in the early years of Hitler’s rise to power and then progressed through officer training during the 1930s. This infusion of reserve officers after 1943 transformed the German Army officer corps from a peacetime professional force into one that reflected German society as a whole. The reserve officers were almost all from lower-middle-class stock, or university-educated professional classes. Nazi control of the German education system in the 1930s meant that this generation of officers was almost totally indoctrinated with the Führer’s racist ideology. In some divisions, this meant that more than a quarter of all officers were members of the Nazi Party.
A major contributing factor to the battlefield success of the German Army was the fact that its officer corps was trained in what is now known as Mission Analysis or Auftragstaktik. German officers of all ranks were trained to be able to fight without detailed orders, to make do with just a brief statement of their commander’s intentions. The commander told his subordinates what he wanted achieved, not how to do it. Subordinate officers were expected to be able to think on their feet and adapt their brief orders to meet the requirements of the situation on the ground.
German Auftragstaktik techniques differed fundamentally from the more rigid command procedures adopted by the Allies. The latter relied on what the Germans called Befehlstaktik, or detailed direction of all troops. The differences in command procedures were largely responsible for the ability of the Germans to recover from the brink of disaster time and time again.
After 1943, Allied forces regularly broke through German lines in massive set-piece attacks involving huge artillery barrages and air support. These were tightly choreographed operations and junior subordinates were allowed little freedom of action. However, these attacks invariably became bogged down or deflected. Allied commanders often showed little initiative. They just waited for further orders, for reinforcements, or for new supplies to come forward, leaving the weakened attacking troops vulnerable to counterattack.
This was the point at which the German command doctrine came into its own. It gave the commander on the ground the freedom of action to do what was necessary to stop the attack, without reference to higher command. In many cases, of course, such reference upwards was actually impossible, because the artillery bombardments or air strikes had severed communications with higher headquarters.
For the execution of Auftragstaktik, command procedures required highly trained, experienced, and confident commanders. Central to German officer training at this time was the concept that the aspiring commander should be trained to take over the job of his immediate superior. So company commanders had to be ready to take over command of their battalion if its commander was incapacitated. Likewise, platoon leaders had to be prepared to take over from their company commander if he was killed or injured.
Periods of work in staff posts then prepared officers to command a combined-arms battle group or Kampfgruppe. A working understanding of how infantry, tanks, antitank guns, artillery, mortars, combat engineers, and aviation could work together was developed through staff training and on maneuvers. Training courses started with instruction on the capabilities of the various arms and equipment found in the Germany Army, then progressed to training exercises without troops where students were given tactical problems to solve, and they walked the ground with instructors discussing the best solution. Students then graduated to full-scale field exercises with demonstration troops. On these exercises students were swapped around between command appointments to give them experience of working with different arms and equipment.
The Kampfgruppe concept was so successful for the Germans because it grew from an all-arms combat doctrine, centered on the idea of unity of command, or Einheit. The German Army had long since dropped the idea of single-service combat units. Every corps, division, regiment, and battalion contained different types of weapons and sub-units. On the battlefield it was routine for further mixing of weapons and types of unit to occur as Kampfgruppen were formed for specific missions and then disbanded when they were completed. In the Allied and Soviet armies the forming of all-arms units was constantly being frustrated by arguments about command relationships, such as tank commanders not wanting to be under the orders of the infantry. In the German Army, the role of the Kampfgruppe commander was clear cut: he was the boss, period.
There were well-practiced procedures for establishing Kampfgruppen and transferring command of sub-units to them. It was usual to build a Kampfgruppe around an existing battalion or regimental headquarters to ensure all the necessary planning and communications capabilities were readily available for the Kampfgruppe commander. While a specific Kampfgruppe might be centered on a specific battalion or regiment, it was usual for a variety of supporting sub-units to be thrown in the pot to round out its combat capabilities. These generally included combat engineers, communications units, antitank guns, assault guns, medical support, logistic units with additional ammunition and combat supplies, reconnaissance troops, military police for traffic control, intelligence specialists, heavy mortars, rocket launchers, artillery planning staff, and observers. The latter were of particular importance because they determined the level of fire support available for a specific operation.
The most successful German battalion and company commanders were usually in their late twenties or early thirties. They motivated their men by leading from the front, sharing the privations of their frontline troops. Examples of these men included Dr. Franz Bake, who achieved fame as the commander of a Kampfgruppe of Panther tanks that led the rescue attempt to open a route to the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket in February 1944. They also had to convince their troops that they had their interests at heart and were not going to waste their lives in stupid or fruitless operations. But in the extreme conditions on the Eastern Front, commanders also had to act ruthlessly to maintain discipline. The point at which units cracked under pressure was difficult to judge, but if panic was to be nipped in the bud then sometimes waverers had to treated harshly. This was particularly the case when units were in danger of being surrounded. After Stalingrad in 1943, ordinary German soldiers were very frightened of being trapped in pockets, or Kessels, and units occasionally collapsed when Soviet troops got behind them. This symptom became known as “Kessel stress,” and the Germans thought it had to be dealt with carefully if commanders were to keep their units fighting to give them a chance to break out or launch a counterattack against the enemy.
Although desertions were rare, especially in Russia where the local population was almost universally hostile to the Germans, officers were regularly urged to take harsh measures against ill-discipline. Field court martials were increasingly common as the war progressed. Junior officers were empowered to shoot on sight any soldiers who wavered in the face of the enemy, or were spotted crossing over to enemy lines. However, at the end keeping the troops fighting was an increasingly difficult task as the ordinary soldier’s faith in the Führer started to waver.