I thought this article on PANZERGRENADIER TACTICS might prove of some interest, as probably the German Motorised/Panzergrenadier divisions were amongst the most versatile of the War.
Guderian always accepted that tanks could not operate alone effectively. Despite anti-infantry weaponry-usually machine guns-a tank was always vulnerable to small groups or even lone infantrymen if they were determined enough. This vulnerability was increased if the infantry had access to decent anti-tank guns or devices, but even poorly-equipped foot soldiers could prove a real danger if they had the requisite courage. Finnish tank-killing infantry destroyed about 1600 Soviet AFVs/Tanks during the Winter War of 1939-40, mostly using Molotov cocktails or even petrol filled vodka bottles. Tanks proved particularly at risk in broken terrain, such as forests and urban areas and the Finns exploited this.
When Tanks were fighting through defensive lines or moving through landscape that provided the enemy with good cover, they needed accompanying infantry to go in first to clear the way or make a breakthrough in the enemy line so the Tanks could then exploit. Thus the Panzergrenadier might very often have to fight like a conventional infantryman. Conversely, in a fast-moving advance that usually characterised German Blitzkrieg tactics he might find himself carried by a halftrack, lorry or motorcycle, or in extreme circumstances, hanging from the tank itself, ready to dismount and engage anything that slowed the Tank. Whenever tanks bypassed points or ‘pockets’ of stiff enemy resistance, it was the job of the Panzergrenadier to clear up these pockets.
Although the classic image of the Panzergrenadier is intimately associated with the SdKfz 251 half-tracked armoured personnel carrier, there were never enough of these vehicles to equip panzergrenadier formations to full strength. The concept of a carrier-borne attack into the heart of the enemy’s defences accompanying the tanks was the ideal, but the reality was somewhat more mundane. Most Panzergrenadiers were transported in soft-skinned vehicles like trucks and motorcycles. These were very vulnerable and thus caution was required when following tanks. There were no half-tracks available in the Polish campaign, and later in the War very few Pazergrenadier divisions had a full complement of these vehicles. Even within the Panzer divisions, only 1 battalion in 2 would be so equipped.
Therefore instead of driving into the midst of the enemy position, the Panzergrenadiers. normally debussed at a forming-up point or start line away from the enemy’s line of sight. They then attacked in the conventional manner of infantry supporting tanks. The key tactical advantage was that because of their motorisation, they could be brought into battle as soon as they were needed.
It was only at the time of Barbarossa in 1941 that large numbers of SdKfz 251s became widely available and enough to equip full battallions of Panzergrenadiers within a Panzer division. Now, the Germans could experiment with fighting directly from their half-tracks. Although the SdKfz 251 provided decent protection against small arms fire, they only had 13mm of armoured plate. Thus they became vulnerable to even the smallest calibre anti-tank weapon and suffered accordingly. Due to heavy losses suffered amongst half-tracks when accompanying Tanks into the heart of a battle, the Germans fairly quickly resorted to debussing at least 400m or so in front of enemy positions, when using the SD KFZ 251. Nonetheless, under certain tactical conditions, the half-track could provide a useful firing position.
At the lowest level, the basic Panzergrenadier unit was the gruppe or squad, usually about 12 men mounted in a half-track or often a truck. The squad was led by a squad leader, usually a junior NCO eg a corporal, who was armed with a machine pistol and was responsible for the squad to the platoon commander. On the move, he also commanded the vehicle and fired the vehicle mounted machine gun, usually an MG 34/42. His rifle-armed assistant was normally a lance-corporal and could lead the half squad if it was divided. The squad contained 2 light machine-gun teams, each of 2 men, four rifle-armed infantrymen and the driver and co-driver. The driver was also responsible for the care of the vehicle and expected to remain with the transport. A Panzergrenadier platoon was made up of 3 squads, with the platoon HQ in a separate vehicle. The HQ troop consisted of a platoon commander, usually a junior officer but sometimes a sergeant, a driver, a radio-operator, 2 runners, a medic and usually some form of anti-tank gun.
When the squad was transported by a half-track, the vehicle was mounted from the rear. The deputy squad leader was responsible for closing the door, thus he would sit towards the rear of the vehicle and the squad leader would sit at the front.
These vehicles were open-topped, and on the move it was usual for one man to scan the skies constantly for aircraft, whilst others kept a watch on both sides of the vehicle. When a platoon was driving together, close order, for the convoy was usually 5-10m apart in column or even abreast in open country. In combat, however, the gaps were extended to beyond 50m, and ragged lines or chequered formations were used. If the whole battalion was deployed, the preferred formation was often an ‘arrowhead’. On the whole, troop-carrying vehicles rarely averaged more than 30km per hour road speed. Even under ideal conditions, a panzer division was not expected to advance more than 20km in a day.
The SdKfz 251, drivers were prepared to simply ignore or drive through small arms fire, but the presence of enemy artillery or anti-tank guns usually saw them seek cover. The squad’s machine-gunners might well engage targets on the move, as could the rest of the squad if necessary from the sides. Often when advancing, the SdKfz 251s, could utilise a motorised version of fire and movement, advancing, stopping and firing to cover other half-tracks. A halted half-track provided a good firing position but was vulnerable. As a result, it was not recommended to stop for more than 15-20seconds in hostile terrain. The normal dismounting procedure was via the rear of the vehicle. However, in emergencies, the squad might well jump over the side as well as out of the back. This was often performed on the move at slow speeds. Once dismounted, the Panzergrenadiers fought as normal infantry. Improvements in Soviet anti-tank defences as the war advanced meant that the Panzergrenadiers often had to precede the tanks, or a mixed force of tanks and soldiers might move forward to clear enemy defences.
One of the most important German formations developed during the Soviet campaign was the PULK, a contraction of Panzer und lastkraftwagen, meaning tanks and trucks. This was a hollow wedge of tanks inside which moved the mororized infantry. The point of the wedge was formed by the best tanks and the sides by other tanks and self-propelled guns. When the wedge pierced the enemy defences, it widened the gap as it passed through. The Panzergrenadiers were then able to spread out and attack remaining areas of resistance from the flanks and rear. If the enemy’s weakest point had not been identified, the PULK could advance as a blunt quadrangle. Once a weak spot was found, the formation could incline left or right, its corner becoming the ‘point of advance’.
Although the Panzergrenadiers key role was co-operation with Tanks they could fight on their own. The very flexibility was a vital component of their value. They could fight as infantry offensive and defensive actions, assault vital strongpoints, seize bridges and clear urban or wooded areas in which the Tanks were at risk. Essentially the Panzergrenadiers was part of an all-arms team. His role grew out of the German acceptance that the Tank could not win battles alone. To quote Wilhelm Necker in 1943: ‘The Germans at an early stage in the war and even before the war understood the special weakness of the tank: its dependency on terrain and the fact it cannot occupy, but can only strike hard and break through lines. For this reason, the actual tank force was cut down to the minimum and the division reinforced with various other units, the most important being the Panzergrenadier.’
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