The ‘Stormtroop’ Idea I

Three special Versuchstruppen were established by Colonel Max Bauer at the behest of the General Staff early in 1915. These experimental units were to test trench mortars, flame-throwers, and small ‘assault cannon’ respectively, their ultimate raison d’être being to spread the knowledge so gained throughout the army. The activity of these ‘trailblazing’ units might even lead eventually to the discovery of new methods to create gaps in enemy trench lines large enough for conventional units to pass through, thus leading to the resumption of the war of manoeuvre. Whilst the trench mortar- and flame-testing units were generally profitable, and did indeed lead to the adoption of new equipment and tactics, it is the Sturmkanonen unit commanded by Major Kalsow, founded by order of 2 March 1915, that has come to be regarded as the ancestor of all ‘Stormtroop’ units.

The degree to which there is a direct and necessary connection, or even a genuine lineage, is debatable, given the extent to which Stoss tactics were already beginning to catch on elsewhere, as for example in the general deployment of ‘hand-grenade squads’. It should also be remembered that at least some other formations, such as the Garde Schutzen Bataillon, formed their own ‘assault companies’ at roughly the same time as the official experimental units, and probably independently of orders from the highest levels. Some of these were used as raiding parties, acting in formations of their own devising or as loose collections of individuals. Certainly, there was a degree of mythologising of the ancestry of the Stormtrooper, which was encouraged during the inter-war period by a variety of publications. These works included Bauer’s own book Der Grosse Krieg, a number of unit histories, a respected and much-copied encyclopaedia article by Major Berktau, and a PhD thesis by Gruss entitled Aufbau und Verwendung der Deutschen Sturmbataillone in Weltkrieg (‘Establishment and Use of the German Storm Battalions in the World War’). Nevertheless, what the experimental troops did do was to bring together a range of disparate ideas and equipments, and, in the most valid and immediate way possible, subject them to the test of war. They were also the mechanism by means of which the General Staff generated a standard model and systematically analysed the results. To this extent at least, the history of Kalsow, Rohr, and their men is highly significant and bears repeating.

Kalsow’s first task was to bring together a headquarters section, two companies of engineers and a detachment of twenty lightweight 3.7cm cannons recently developed by the firm Krupp. The troops came not from elite formations, but predominantly from Ersatz, or supplementary units. The next job was to practise attacks against dummy trench lines. During the spring of 1915 this work was carried out on artillery ranges well away from the front line near Cologne, but by May a practical set of tactics appeared to have been formulated. Following a traditional bombardment from covering artillery, the engineers would send parties forward protected by armoured shields to prepare the way for the little guns. The Krupp Sturmkanonen would then be pushed up, perhaps fifty to seventy-five metres apart, to engage any machine guns or nests of resistance left untouched by the preparatory shelling. Having neutralised enemy resistance, the remainder of the Sturmabteilung would come forwards, bombing and fighting their way through any remaining opposition.

Kalsow was committed to putting what was now known as the Sturmabteilung into action on the Western Front in June. The results were disappointing, and two factors seem to have frustrated what might otherwise have been a highly profitable experiment. The first was that a 3.7cm projectile was really too light to deal with trench fortifications, and though their effect was limited, the guns were betrayed by a large muzzle flash. The second reason for lack of success was that rather than holding the Sturmabteilung back in a rear area until the chance for a decisive blow manifested itself, Kalsow’s men and guns were committed prematurely to the line. Losses were alarmingly high: of a unit only 649 strong, 184 men became casualties and six guns were lost in the first two weeks alone. These trained men proved difficult to replace quickly, with the result that Sturmabteilung Kalsow was out of action for some time.

Bauer’s reaction was unforgiving, and in his memoirs he would describe the unfortunate Kalsow as ‘an engineer who considered his troops as such’. On 8 September 1915 Kalsow was therefore replaced by Hauptmann Wilhelm Rohr, an aggressive and ‘outstanding’ 38-year-old officer. Rohr had previously served as a company commander with the Garde Schutzen and already had a record of innovative offensive action at the head of shock troops; moreover, he had new ‘tactical and technical ideas’. Bauer was very clear from the outset that he regarded the formation as a ‘Lehrtrupp’ (a ‘learning’ or ‘teaching’ unit), which would ‘receive and test’ new ‘Kampfmittel’ (battle equipment). Rohr was certainly favoured from on high as his unit was described as the Crown Prince’s ‘Lieblingstruppe’, or favourite unit. A practical demonstration of this would be provided the following year when Hindenburg and Ludendorff visited the Western Front together. As Hindenburg recalled:

On the way there … the German Crown Prince joined us and honoured me at Montmedy by parading a Storm company at the station. This reception was thoroughly in keeping with the chivalrous habit of mind of this exalted young Prince. His merry, frank manner and sound military judgement have always given me pleasure and confidence.

‘Little Willy’s’ action also had the effect of parading Stormtroops in front of the top commanders who really mattered, and had the ultimate power to make productive use of them.

Fortune or good sense also smiled on Rohr in another way, for about the time of the arrival of the Sturmabteilung with General Gaede’s forces at the end of the summer of 1915, its equipment was re-balanced and reinforced to incorporate a mixture of weapons. These included initially two, later six, machine guns (the equivalent of a full machine gun company); four light mortars; and six of the precious flame-throwers. The relatively ineffectual 3.7cm guns were later replaced with a full battery of mountain howitzers, which packed a far bigger punch. The unit now had the weaponry with which to tackle most tasks out of its own resources. The use of mortars and other supporting weapons as ‘organic’, or integral to the unit, as Truppwaffen was highly significant for it allowed the unit commander to quickly target local threats without long-winded or uncertain recourse to the artillery proper. Other units were already mixing machine guns on trench mounts, grenadiers and riflemen in new ways, but the Sturmabteilung was a quantum leap forward in that it mixed in an unfettered way what had previously been artillery and engineer resources. Part of the credit for this must go to Rohr and Reddemann, who seem to have co-operated in an exemplary manner; part to Max Bauer, who had the vision to make the experiments possible, and the political clout to protect the micro-tacticians from any untoward jealousy on the part of the established infantry, artillery and engineer hierarchies.

Sturmabteilung Rohr was first committed to action at the Schratzmannle on 12 October 1915, but rather than risk the whole unit, one company was used in concert with 187th infantry regiment. The attack began with the discharge of six large flame-throwers, following which small Stormtroop squads leapt into the newly cleared French trench and used grenades to quell anyone bold enough to challenge them. Intervention by enemy machine guns was countered by mortars and artillery specially deputed for the task. Ordinary infantrymen carrying the materials to block off the newly captured trench system now came over and consolidated the position firmly against any possible counterstroke. This, and other small actions during the winter, soon demonstrated the validity of the new tactics. As soon as December 1915 it is recorded that Rohr’s unit began to fulfil its didactic function by hosting a six-day course for 400 members of 12th Landwehr Division – thus was spread the fruits of first experience.

Another of the early tasks of Rohr’s men was the testing of the new Stahlhelm, or steel helmet. Bauer claimed that in fact he had realised as early as 1900 that ‘the smallest shell splinter’ was capable of penetrating both the leather Pickelhaube and skull behind it, and that he had raised the question of better head protection within the General Staff in 1912. Not until after the outbreak of war, however, and against a background of a rising toll of head injuries, was anything practical done about this matter. The very first helmet was a rather thick, heavy object: a skull piece on an orthopaedic-looking leather backing, with a Norman-style nasal guard. It was a local issue of 1,500 pieces only. These went to Army Group Gaede, and almost had to be paid for personally by Lieutenant Colonel Hesse, who seems to have procured them on his own initiative. Obviously, something much better was in order, and now official steps were put in train to provide a helmet which could be manufactured in quantity.

The impetus for what we now know as the German steel helmet appears to have come from Dr August Bier and Professor Hauptmann Friedrich Schwerd. The former provided statistical evidence as to the type of missiles causing head injury, and the latter set out to design the optimum shape and thickness of helmet to prevent the maximum number of these wounds. Experimental models were ready by 20 September 1915. Ballistic testing on Kummersdorf artillery range was carried out in November, and Rohr’s men got some of the new headgear during December. On 14 December the War Ministry was able to announce that 30,000 of the helmets would be available in January 1916. Later, Rohr’s battalion would also be called upon to test new models of body armour. These were not quite so successful, but did get issued on a limited scale.

It was also in January 1916 that Sturmabteilung Rohr fought one of its most famous actions, leading larger units of infantry in the successful attack on the Hartmannsweilerkopf. Doubtless, this was a particularly sweet moment for Rohr himself, as he had fought here before with the Guards. By February 1916 Rohr’s detachment found itself part of Fifth Army at Verdun, where it was thrown into the maelstrom together with more conventional infantry formations and Guard Pioneers with their flame-throwers. Casualties now escalated, and the unit was withdrawn The ‘Stormtroop’ idea

As we have seen, three special Versuchstruppen were established by Colonel Max Bauer at the behest of the General Staff early in 1915. These experimental units were to test trench mortars, flame-throwers, and small ‘assault cannon’ respectively, their ultimate raison d’être being to spread the knowledge so gained throughout the army. The activity of these ‘trailblazing’ units might even lead eventually to the discovery of new methods to create gaps in enemy trench lines large enough for conventional units to pass through, thus leading to the resumption of the war of manoeuvre. Whilst the trench mortar- and flame-testing units were generally profitable, and did indeed lead to the adoption of new equipment and tactics, it is the Sturmkanonen unit commanded by Major Kalsow, founded by order of 2 March 1915, that has come to be regarded as the ancestor of all ‘Stormtroop’ units.

The degree to which there is a direct and necessary connection, or even a genuine lineage, is debatable, given the extent to which Stoss tactics were already beginning to catch on elsewhere, as for example in the general deployment of ‘hand-grenade squads’. It should also be remembered that at least some other formations, such as the Garde Schutzen Bataillon, formed their own ‘assault companies’ at roughly the same time as the official experimental units, and probably independently of orders from the highest levels. Some of these were used as raiding parties, acting in formations of their own devising or as loose collections of individuals. Certainly, there was a degree of mythologising of the ancestry of the Stormtrooper, which was encouraged during the inter-war period by a variety of publications. These works included Bauer’s own book Der Grosse Krieg, a number of unit histories, a respected and much-copied encyclopaedia article by Major Berktau, and a PhD thesis by Gruss entitled Aufbau und Verwendung der Deutschen Sturmbataillone in Weltkrieg (‘Establishment and Use of the German Storm Battalions in the World War’). Nevertheless, what the experimental troops did do was to bring together a range of disparate ideas and equipments, and, in the most valid and immediate way possible, subject them to the test of war. They were also the mechanism by means of which the General Staff generated a standard model and systematically analysed the results. To this extent at least, the history of Kalsow, Rohr, and their men is highly significant and bears repeating.

Kalsow’s first task was to bring together a headquarters section, two companies of engineers and a detachment of twenty lightweight 3.7cm cannons recently developed by the firm Krupp. The troops came not from elite formations, but predominantly from Ersatz, or supplementary units. The next job was to practise attacks against dummy trench lines. During the spring of 1915 this work was carried out on artillery ranges well away from the front line near Cologne, but by May a practical set of tactics appeared to have been formulated. Following a traditional bombardment from covering artillery, the engineers would send parties forward protected by armoured shields to prepare the way for the little guns. The Krupp Sturmkanonen would then be pushed up, perhaps fifty to seventy-five metres apart, to engage any machine guns or nests of resistance left untouched by the preparatory shelling. Having neutralised enemy resistance, the remainder of the Sturmabteilung would come forwards, bombing and fighting their way through any remaining opposition.

Kalsow was committed to putting what was now known as the Sturmabteilung into action on the Western Front in June. The results were disappointing, and two factors seem to have frustrated what might otherwise have been a highly profitable experiment. The first was that a 3.7cm projectile was really too light to deal with trench fortifications, and though their effect was limited, the guns were betrayed by a large muzzle flash. The second reason for lack of success was that rather than holding the Sturmabteilung back in a rear area until the chance for a decisive blow manifested itself, Kalsow’s men and guns were committed prematurely to the line. Losses were alarmingly high: of a unit only 649 strong, 184 men became casualties and six guns were lost in the first two weeks alone. These trained men proved difficult to replace quickly, with the result that Sturmabteilung Kalsow was out of action for some time.

Bauer’s reaction was unforgiving, and in his memoirs he would describe the unfortunate Kalsow as ‘an engineer who considered his troops as such’. On 8 September 1915 Kalsow was therefore replaced by Hauptmann Wilhelm Rohr, an aggressive and ‘outstanding’ 38-year-old officer. Rohr had previously served as a company commander with the Garde Schutzen and already had a record of innovative offensive action at the head of shock troops; moreover, he had new ‘tactical and technical ideas’. Bauer was very clear from the outset that he regarded the formation as a ‘Lehrtrupp’ (a ‘learning’ or ‘teaching’ unit), which would ‘receive and test’ new ‘Kampfmittel’ (battle equipment). Rohr was certainly favoured from on high as his unit was described as the Crown Prince’s ‘Lieblingstruppe’, or favourite unit. A practical demonstration of this would be provided the following year when Hindenburg and Ludendorff visited the Western Front together. As Hindenburg recalled:

On the way there … the German Crown Prince joined us and honoured me at Montmedy by parading a Storm company at the station. This reception was thoroughly in keeping with the chivalrous habit of mind of this exalted young Prince. His merry, frank manner and sound military judgement have always given me pleasure and confidence.

‘Little Willy’s’ action also had the effect of parading Stormtroops in front of the top commanders who really mattered, and had the ultimate power to make productive use of them.

Fortune or good sense also smiled on Rohr in another way, for about the time of the arrival of the Sturmabteilung with General Gaede’s forces at the end of the summer of 1915, its equipment was re-balanced and reinforced to incorporate a mixture of weapons. These included initially two, later six, machine guns (the equivalent of a full machine gun company); four light mortars; and six of the precious flame-throwers. The relatively ineffectual 3.7cm guns were later replaced with a full battery of mountain howitzers, which packed a far bigger punch. The unit now had the weaponry with which to tackle most tasks out of its own resources. The use of mortars and other supporting weapons as ‘organic’, or integral to the unit, as Truppwaffen was highly significant for it allowed the unit commander to quickly target local threats without long-winded or uncertain recourse to the artillery proper. Other units were already mixing machine guns on trench mounts, grenadiers and riflemen in new ways, but the Sturmabteilung was a quantum leap forward in that it mixed in an unfettered way what had previously been artillery and engineer resources. Part of the credit for this must go to Rohr and Reddemann, who seem to have co-operated in an exemplary manner; part to Max Bauer, who had the vision to make the experiments possible, and the political clout to protect the micro-tacticians from any untoward jealousy on the part of the established infantry, artillery and engineer hierarchies.

Sturmabteilung Rohr was first committed to action at the Schratzmannle on 12 October 1915, but rather than risk the whole unit, one company was used in concert with 187th infantry regiment. The attack began with the discharge of six large flame-throwers, following which small Stormtroop squads leapt into the newly cleared French trench and used grenades to quell anyone bold enough to challenge them. Intervention by enemy machine guns was countered by mortars and artillery specially deputed for the task. Ordinary infantrymen carrying the materials to block off the newly captured trench system now came over and consolidated the position firmly against any possible counterstroke. This, and other small actions during the winter, soon demonstrated the validity of the new tactics. As soon as December 1915 it is recorded that Rohr’s unit began to fulfil its didactic function by hosting a six-day course for 400 members of 12th Landwehr Division – thus was spread the fruits of first experience.

Another of the early tasks of Rohr’s men was the testing of the new Stahlhelm, or steel helmet. Bauer claimed that in fact he had realised as early as 1900 that ‘the smallest shell splinter’ was capable of penetrating both the leather Pickelhaube and skull behind it, and that he had raised the question of better head protection within the General Staff in 1912. Not until after the outbreak of war, however, and against a background of a rising toll of head injuries, was anything practical done about this matter. The very first helmet was a rather thick, heavy object: a skull piece on an orthopaedic-looking leather backing, with a Norman-style nasal guard. It was a local issue of 1,500 pieces only. These went to Army Group Gaede, and almost had to be paid for personally by Lieutenant Colonel Hesse, who seems to have procured them on his own initiative. Obviously, something much better was in order, and now official steps were put in train to provide a helmet which could be manufactured in quantity.

The impetus for what we now know as the German steel helmet appears to have come from Dr August Bier and Professor Hauptmann Friedrich Schwerd. The former provided statistical evidence as to the type of missiles causing head injury, and the latter set out to design the optimum shape and thickness of helmet to prevent the maximum number of these wounds. Experimental models were ready by 20 September 1915. Ballistic testing on Kummersdorf artillery range was carried out in November, and Rohr’s men got some of the new headgear during December. On 14 December the War Ministry was able to announce that 30,000 of the helmets would be available in January 1916. Later, Rohr’s battalion would also be called upon to test new models of body armour. These were not quite so successful, but did get issued on a limited scale.

It was also in January 1916 that Sturmabteilung Rohr fought one of its most famous actions, leading larger units of infantry in the successful attack on the Hartmannsweilerkopf. Doubtless, this was a particularly sweet moment for Rohr himself, as he had fought here before with the Guards. By February 1916 Rohr’s detachment found itself part of Fifth Army at Verdun, where it was thrown into the maelstrom together with more conventional infantry formations and Guard Pioneers with their flame-throwers. Casualties now escalated, and the unit was withdrawn from the front to Doncourt after about three weeks, but the High Command was impressed enough to expand the experimental Sturmabteilung into a full-blown battalion. At the same time, many infantry regiments also deployed storm platoons or storm companies, for attacks on specific strong points in the French defences.

In May 1916 the High Command ordered that all the armies on the Western Front should send small cadres of officers and NCOs to the new Sturmbataillon. Thereafter, these personnel were to return to their own formations where they would train more units in the new tactics. Progress was uneven, owing to the pressures of active service, the difficulties of supplying enough new equipment, and the time taken to train the trainers, but soon dozens of new Sturm units were beginning to appear. So many were in fact formed during the latter part of 1916 that by November of that year a majority of divisions had at least one Sturmabteilung of about company strength, and some others had them as part of regimental strengths. A whole Jäger, or light infantry battalion, was also converted wholesale to create a new Sturmbataillon.

Even before this wave of training and conversion was complete, new orders were issued that every army was to have its own battalion-strength Sturm unit. More men were trained, and many of the extant company-sized units were brought together to form numbered battalions. Before the end of 1916 no less than sixteen Sturm battalions were in existence: ten in the west, five in the east and one with the Bulgarians. Usually, the identifying number of the battalion agreed with the number of the army to which it was attached. Some of the units had an Austro-Hungarian company allotted, and later, a further battalion was formed for the Italian front. As far as possible, the rank and file Stormtroopers were to be volunteers, young, unmarried, and physically fit. Unsurprisingly, quite a few men failed to come up to the mark and were returned to the units from which they came. Interestingly, Bauer seems to have regretted that the Stormtroop units were expanded as much as they were, for by adopting this course he believed they increasingly sacrificed their underlying principle. They were now set up – wrongly in his opinion – as Elitestosstruppen, ‘elite shock troops’, which was not what he had intended. Nevertheless, the idea of trying to train as much of the German army in the new tactics as was practicable continued. The Stormtroops were therefore both a useful reserve of quality assault troops, and what Ludendorff described as ‘examples to be imitated by other men’. As Major Berktau put it so eloquently, the Stormtroops were Lehrtruppe and Kampftruppe, both teachers and battle troops for the hardest assignments.

The Sturmbataillon establishments varied in detail and over time, but at full strength numbered up to 1,400 men. These were divided into anything up to five Sturmkompagnien; first six, and later twelve, heavy machine guns in one or two companies; a battery of direct support infantry artillery; a mortar company with eight weapons; and a troop of about half a dozen flame-throwers. Berktau records the strength of the individual Storm companies as being five officers and 263 men; the machine gun company as four officers and 85 men; and the mortar company as two officers and 108 men. Where the infantry support artillery company was four modified 7.62cm guns, this element numbered three officers and 76 men. Rohr’s own 5th Storm battalion was probably one of the strongest, boasting five Sturm companies, two machine gun, one artillery, and one mortar company. The Sturmtruppe Picht, which fought in Romania in late 1916, was put together using personnel from 148th infantry regiment, cavalry units, artillery and some men from a Bosnian unit in Austro-Hungarian service. This had four Sturm companies and a machine gun company, plus ancillary units.

Rohr and others had soon discovered that the full-length rifle was something of a handicap when involved in trench fighting and handling ancillary weapons, so shorter carbines of the sort already used by the Pioneers and cavalry were widely used by the Stormtroops. Whilst the artillery and pioneer elements of the Sturmbataillon were allowed to retain the distinctions of their arm of service on their uniforms, the ordinary infantry dress and equipment was modified to suit the special hard service, and dash, of the Stormtrooper. Thus it is that Berktau records the Storm battalion troops as being equipped with: ‘Steel helmet, Gebirgshosen, [literally “mountain trousers”] with leather patches to buttocks and knees, mountain boots, puttees, entrenching tools, picks, and larger spades, hatchets, wire cutters, two Feldflaschen [water bottles] per man, carbine and bayonet. NCOs and communications troops were armed with semi automatic pistols’. As befitting the Sturm units’ frequent use of hand grenades, the ordinary private soldiers were not designated as ‘rifleman’ or ‘fusilier’ but Grenadiere – Grenadiers. The significant exception to this rule was Rohr’s own battalion, which retained pioneer titles and distinctions.

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