The ‘Stormtroop’ Idea II

The strongest single motivating force behind the evolution of Stormtroop tactics was the need to find methods for breaking into, and through, trench lines. New Stoss, or shock, methods were already appearing in other units, for the same reason, even as Kalsow and Rohr did their work. Yet there were other needs, and sources of inspiration, which appear to have had a bearing on the development of German infantry assault tactics. It has been remarked, for example, that the methods and equipment of the mountain troops, or Gebirgsjäger, were a significant influence on both Stormtroops and the development of new tactics in general. Whilst German sources are generally inexplicit regarding the early links, there were certainly parallels, as for example in dress, and the necessity for mountain troops – frequently isolated in inhospitable terrain – to act on local initiative. Major Alfred Steinitzer’s Bavarian Schneeschuh Battalion Nr 1 was officially incorporated as early as November 1914, and it is interesting to note that at an early stage mountain companies incorporated both rifle and machine gun platoons – thus integrating different weapons at a lower level of organisation than was usual in the line infantry. Mountain terrain, which frequently forced advances through passes or along ski paths, was doubtless instrumental in causing tactical development in depth, and in encouraging the use of small groups, rather than endorsing the old linear patterns in which infantry were accustomed to fight.

In any event, units of mountain artillery and mortars were also formed, and by May 1915 the Alpenkorps was founded. Interestingly, this would be deployed not only in the high mountains of Italy and the Carpathians, but at Verdun, in Picardy, and in the Argonne, suggesting a general competence as assault troops as well as in their specialist role. As US intelligence observed at the end of the war, ‘the Alpine Corps was considered one of the best German units’. The 200th Division, formed essentially of Jäger and ski-trained troops in 1916, was cast in the same mould. Whilst Bavarians bulked large in the Gebirgsjäger, the role of the Wurttembergers was not inconsiderable, and immortalised for posterity in the writings of Erwin Rommel. The Wurttemberg Mountain Battalion under Major Sprosser was raised at Munsingen in October 1915, and from the start included six companies and six mountain machine gun platoons. Interestingly, even their first deployment in the High Vosges was in terrain where it did not prove possible to man a continuous trench line but necessitated a series of strong points with ‘all round defence’. Thereafter a good deal of the battalion’s work in Italy and Romania involved both platoon-level actions and attacks in which the Wurttembergers were able to pass through enemy positions before attacking the flanks and rear areas. They thus had a general relevance to the formulation of ‘infiltration’ ideas. Whilst many of the battalion’s later mountain battles took place in 1917 and were just one of several sources of inspiration for those compiling tactical doctrine in the last two years of the war, their impact on the later techniques of Rommel himself is indisputable.

Raids were similarly an important testing ground for unusual tactics. Gudmundsson has offered us two excellent examples of German raids that used innovative methods, and were illustrative of the improvements in minor tactics and the co-ordination of infantry with other arms. In July 1916 the 229th Reserve Infantry Regiment mounted the Wilhelm raid against the enemy south west of Lille. Intriguingly, the order to mount the attack, a single-page letter, stemmed from the commanding general of 50th Reserve Division, but did not specify an exact objective. Detailed planning was thus left to the regiment, which also co-ordinated the activities of supporting artillery and pioneer units. Four officers, twelve NCOs and 48 men formed the raiding force proper, with an additional group held in reserve. These personnel had previously been brought together to serve as an ad hoc regimental ‘assault detachment’, and were reassembled again for raiding missions. Questions of detail, including weapons and ammunition to be carried, were devolved to the detachment commander, Leutnant von Werner. The artillery component would include not only mortars but ten batteries of light and heavy artillery, first to prepare the ground, then form a ‘box barrage’ around the target area. Interestingly, the German raid coincided with the execution of a raid by New Zealanders nearby, and this nearly led to the abandonment of Wilhelm. The 229th carried on, hoping to take advantage of the confused situation, but found the defenders resolute and one portion of the attackers proved completely unable to enter the New Zealander’s line. The Germans lost four dead, two missing and fourteen wounded, against which they captured two, killed one and wounded three of the opposition, whilst one New Zealander went missing.

In the Jacobsbrunnen raid of November 1917 the 7th Bavarian Landwehr were pitted against newly committed American troops in a quiet sector of Lorraine. This time there was even more artillery support, from no less than 17 batteries, and the raiders numbered well over 200 troops, drawn from not only the Bavarian Landwehr but other supporting elements including the divisional assault unit. Short salvoes of artillery fire covered the move forward in the darkness, and then the Pioneers broke through the obstacle zone with bangalore torpedoes. The raiders then broke into the enemy trenches, bombing and fighting their way along, killing a number of the Americans and capturing eleven in exchange for relatively modest losses of their own.

Yet these were but two of literally hundreds of missions mounted, and were in fact comparatively late essays in an art which was by now virtually perfected. Arguably, the developmental influence of raiding goes back much further. In many instances there was little to distinguish early ‘raids’ from rather more innocuous-sounding ‘patrols’, and both had begun before the end of 1914. Quite a few of the first missions were relatively crude affairs, and were often on a tiny scale, mounted for limited objectives, perhaps to be a ‘nuisance’ to an already jittery enemy, or to determine his strength and dispositions. One British Tommy later spoke of the fear, early in the war, of German bogeymen, on the loose late at night, with massive ‘truncheons’ (trench clubs) who would attempt to strike at a victim’s head before pulling him bodily from the trench. In the roughest sense, such ventures were certainly experimental. Just one of these diminutive and potentially deadly nocturnal scuffles was mounted by a small group drawn from 36th Fusilier Regiment against the French, in the summer of 1915, and was later recorded first hand by its Leutnant commander:

It rained in torrents the whole night. Better patrol weather one couldn’t have hoped for. At three in the morning I was roused by the Unteroffizer of the watch. At 3.30 we were underway. Everything had been prepared the day before. Each of us had seen the terrain through the binoculars. We were seven altogether, myself, a Vizfeldwebel, an Unteroffizier, and four men. We wanted to penetrate a sap by daybreak, cutting off a post, or at least to ascertain the number of the regiment dug in opposite. At exactly 3.30 we left our trenches. Every man had already checked his pistol and hand grenades … Pitch black. 300 metres to go to the sap. Carefully traversing our own entanglement we listened for a moment – on the other side everything is quiet, no rifle shot, only now and then, further off, the odd Very pistol flare. The Frenchmen suspected nothing, as we came on such a foul night, although our frequent patrols should have made them vigilant. So step by step forwards. Fusilier ‘F’ and me to the front, left and right a man as protection, the rest tightly behind. Feeling the way from shell hole to shell hole, through great bomb craters and climbing over trees felled by gun fire, trying anxiously to avoid any crack from the wood underfoot. Now and then we lie down for a moment and strain our ears. Suddenly, to our right front, a flare goes up. We lie fixed to the spot. Are we noticed? – Everything stays quiet. The rain continues unabated. Our luck. 4.45 finds us by the sap. It becomes gradually lighter. With one of the men I crept cautiously closer. Nothing stirred. The sap is unoccupied. But why did no one come to the sap? After the discovery of our last patrol the French had built a wall of ‘Spanish Riders’ [wooden obstacles with spikes] and barbed wire across the sap. With our single pair of wire cutters we could not do much. But we didn’t want to have got soaked for nothing …

So it was, by whispers and signs, the seven raiders deployed in ambush, clutching their pistols and daggers. Before long, steps were heard and an enemy officer in kepi and grey raincoat came walking down the trench. The German officer jumped down into the trench to seize the unfortunate by the throat and press his dagger to his chest, but the enemy struggled, grappling with him in the wet. Another German attempted to secure him, but in the fracas both headgear and dagger fell into the mud on the floor of the trench, and shrieks from the French officer drew his men running:

Then clearly I saw on the coat collar the number 102, white on black. Already some Frenchmen had arrived; the first without a helmet, half dressed, shoots without taking aim … with all my strength I punched my Frenchman in the face and he lets me go.

So ended this ‘raid’ with the Fusiliers scrambling back into the darkness, with two pieces of information: that the sap was blocked, and the French regiment was the 102nd.

To be valuable learning tools for new minor tactical methods, the gleanings of raids had to be examined, distilled, and circulated. Probably one raid more than any other fulfilled this purpose, and, remarkably, documentation of its planning, execution and results was not only prepared for German eyes, but promptly fell into Allied hands, so that within four months the enemy too had learned many of its lessons. This raid was the attack of 11 April 1916 on ‘the Spion’ near La Boiselle, mounted by a fifty-man detachment of 110th Reserve Infantry Regiment and four Pioneers, the attackers being commanded by Hauptmann Wagener. Of these, roughly two-thirds were to climb from the Blaue Stellung to creep up on the enemy, whilst the remainder formed a support group. The key to the success of the mission was to be a diversionary attack and the close co-operation of machine guns and artillery, as the planning document, written by Wagener himself, explained:

For 25 minutes before the commencement of the raid the artillery will prepare for the assault by shelling the enemy’s trenches between Besenhecke and the Windmühle, and also the Weisse Steinmauer. During the raid the artillery will control by its fire all the enemy’s trenches likely to be a source of danger to the enterprise. In order to draw the fire of the enemy’s artillery away from the spot to be raided a feint attack against the enemy’s position just north of la Boiselle Cemetery will start 15 minutes before the artillery opens fire. In order that the registration of the objective by the heavy artillery and Minenwerfer shall not be apparent, on the morning of the day before the raid … a feint bombardment of target sectors 76 to 79 will be carried out, combined with a mine explosion, with the object of misleading the enemy … The machine gun officer will arrange that, during the whole time of the raid the enemy’s rear trenches in target sectors 76 to 81 are kept under a constant fire, with a view to causing him all possible loss.

Further mortar and artillery work included extensive wire cutting, and a heavy Albrecht mortar firing into the enemy trenches nearby.

The raiders themselves were to go ‘in attack order without greatcoat or cap, belts to be worn without pouches, gas masks to be slung and tucked into the tunic’. Of those to penetrate the enemy defences, half would be armed with pistols, half with rifles. Those ‘supporting’ would mainly carry rifles, and all parties would take grenades. Perhaps fearful of suffering friendly fire, Wagener’s team would all be identified by a ‘triangle of white linen sewn on the breast and back’. Their key objective was to take as many prisoners as possible, and as many rifles, machine guns, packs etc. as could be carried back. On the command of Leutnant Stradtmann, or the ‘charge’ signal by a bugler kept by the Captain for the purpose, the raiding party was to retire to the dugout from which they started. Prudently, Wagener called upon Assistant Surgeon Wisser to set up a dressing station near the jumping-off point.

Despite adverse circumstances, including spirited resistance and wafting gas that caused problems for the attackers, the raid was a huge success. Following the bombardments and distractions Leutnant Stradtmann’s party was first into the British trenches and swiftly secured three prisoners. Joined by the others they then overcame a small group of the enemy, even though they were armed with ‘hand grenades and rifles with bayonets fixed’. Next they encountered a damaged machine gun emplacement where Reservist Nadolny attempted to dig out the weapon. Meanwhile, a few more enemy troops come up a communication trench, but were bayoneted by three Germans. Further along the trench, dead enemies were found in a dugout, but Dumas’s patrol was set upon by British troops who engaged them in a melee with rifles, grenades and pistols, but the enemy were seen off or captured. As a fight appeared to be developing on the left, a few reinforcements and the regimental adjutant, wearing full breathing apparatus, entered the fray. On the right, Freund’s patrol did well, capturing some more of the British and bayoneting others: ‘A few Englishmen attempted to get away, but were shot dead’. Others ran into the box barrage around the target sector, and were forced pell mell back into the raiders. The entire party was back in the German lines within approximately twenty minutes of leaving it. The final tally of enemy captured included 24 fit and five wounded ‘Englishmen’ mainly of the Royal Irish Rifles, and a selection of equipment. Many others were obviously killed, whilst the Germans had a few minor wounds, the worst of which was a man cut across the forehead with a grenade fragment who was immediately able to rejoin his unit after treatment.

The action formed the basis of no less than three reports at various levels. A number of significant conclusions were drawn, including the value of gas as a discomfort and distraction, though the difficulty, if not impossibility, of conducting a complete raid in gas masks was noted. Prior shelling was also seen as extremely useful, not because it had any chance of annihilating the enemy, but because it tended to cause the enemy to spread out into ‘isolated groups’ whose morale would suffer further if any of their number were killed or injured. In the case of the Spion raid it was noted that the supporting batteries and mortars fired about 6,000 rounds, ranging from small field-gun rounds right up to 21cm shells. Whilst reports of the planning and action made a useful template for further raids, widening distribution did nothing for secrecy. Wagener himself appears to have distributed forty copies of one of his reports, and within a few weeks the British had not only Wagener’s words translated but a copy of the fire plan and ‘deductions’ drawn – virtually everything was being studied on the other side of the line by August 1916. Arguably, both sides had learned from this model raid, and the German perpetrators had gained, at best, four months’ headway in digesting the lessons. It was also true that the Canadians were already using many similar methods, and information regarding these had already been circulated to British and other Empire formations prior to this date. As in so many fields, the tactical advance was incremental, and learning from the opposition was crucial.

It cannot be doubted that the very notion of the Stormtrooper had a propaganda value: a power to raise uncertainty in the hearts of the enemy, and give a fillip to those fighting by their sides. The celebrity of the few could, however, be a double-edged weapon, as was recorded by German Medical Officer Stefan Westmann:

The men of the storm battalions were treated like football stars. They lived in comfortable quarters, they travelled to the ‘playing ground’ in buses, they did their jobs and disappeared again, and left the poor foot sloggers to dig in, to deal with the counter-attacks and endure the avenging artillery fire of the enemy. They were so well trained and had developed such a high standard of team work … They moved like snakes over the ground, camouflaged and making use of every bit of cover, so that they did not offer any targets for artillery fire.

It has been said that Stormtroop units suffered disproportionately high casualties, due to the difficulty of the tasks they were given and the single-minded determination with which they were carried out. Conversely, it has been suggested that Stormtroop units actually suffered lower casualties because of their new tactics, and because they were specially chosen as fit men who were withdrawn between operations. Curiously, both of these statements may be correct, with heavy casualties for limited periods being balanced out by periods of training. The statistical information as available at this time appears inconclusive. Rohr’s battalion, numbered 5th ‘Royal Prussian’ Sturmbataillon, after it was attached to 5th Army, is known to have suffered 621 fatalities during the period of its existence. Not all dates of death are known, but 74 died in 1915, 156 in 1916, 118 in 1917, and 1918 was easily the worst year, with 187 or more fatalities. The most senior member to die was Hauptmann Siegfried Hoffmann of the first Sturmkompagnie, on 30 March 1918, one of twenty officers killed or who had died with the battalion. Interestingly, eight of Rohr’s command died in accidents, and of these, six (roughly one per cent of all fatalities) happened on the Übungsplatz, or training ground. This and the fact that one of these, Leutnant Heinrich Hermanns, was even an officer, speak volumes about rigorous training and the use of live munitions.

Given that different units had very different service, exact comparisons are difficult, but we do know that many German infantry battalions suffered more than a thousand fatalities during the war. The Colbergsches Grenadier-Regiment Nr 9, for example, lost 454 officers and 4660 men, which suggests that each of its three battalions had in excess of 1200 fatalities. Two Majors were killed with the regiment. The Bremen infantry regiment Nr 75, similarly, had over 1000 dead per battalion, and this was probably not untypical. On the other side of the line, 2nd Battalion of the Manchesters, with long service on the Western Front, had a comparable 1,165 war dead. Perhaps surprisingly, 11th Battalion of the East Lancashire Regiment (or ‘Accrington Pals’), a unit often held up as particularly inexperienced, and which was ‘slaughtered’ on the first day of the Somme, had 729 killed or missing over the duration of the war, of whom 24 were officers. Moreover, some of the ‘missing’ turned up in German prisoner of war camps, and one or two, including one officer, actually died in German captivity.

Another stereotype that may require challenging is that after the initial raising of the first Sturmbataillon, all storm or shock troops were young, fit men. Again, the figures we have are no more than fragmentary, but what we do know shows that, even if this was generally true, there were definite exceptions to the rule. Sturmtruppe Picht fighting in Romania in late October and early November 1916 suffered 95 casualties, of all descriptions, including ‘lightly wounded’. Of these 95 men, no less than 44% were aged over 25, and 15% were over 30. In Sturmkompanie 4 a number of men were certainly veterans, to put it kindly. Landsturm other rank Adolf Ruhr was almost 41 when he got hit; Feldwebel Waldemar Verch had the bad luck to be wounded on his 40th birthday. Another man, Albert Broze, was 39. It is also worth observing that, generally speaking, ‘veteran’ troops were less likely to get hurt than callow novices, so the likelihood is that rather than being the older members of the unit, the casualties were, on average, younger.

It is also the case that the efforts of the Stormtroop battalions as innovators and trainers were not carried out in isolation. Training in specialist weapons continued elsewhere, as did officer schools, whose syllabuses stressed leading under the new conditions of war. It also needs to be remembered that the Prussian Guard had a Lehr, or instructional, unit even before the start of the war. Intensive retraining of company and battalion commanders was commenced in October 1916, and ‘leadership’ courses for more senior officers were established within both the Army Groups of Prince Rupprecht and the Crown Prince. In the winter of 1917 to 1918 there was finally an opportunity to give huge bodies of men additional training in new tactical methods, as the Russians collapsed and divisions were transferred to the West. This massive effort was a partial success as the early breakthroughs would demonstrate, and personal accounts from some divisions show a very thorough training regime. The 1st Bavarian Division, for example, spent January 1918 training in the Champagne. Next they moved on to Eighteenth Army at Vervins where they were taught or refreshed on discipline, advancing, terrain skills and machine guns. After this there were exercises which included such advanced matters as working with other divisions, and manoeuvre with tanks and aircraft.

This was model practice, but very far from all the German army would be ‘Stormtroop trained’ and able for offensive action. Large numbers of men were too old to be really fit, some of the Landsturm for example being over fifty, and some new recruits had merely grasped the rudiments. Some otherwise useful men were debilitated by wounds or gas. Supplies of new equipment were not inexhaustible. The result was a grading of different divisions as to their suitability for offensive action, and whilst some were Angriff (‘attack’, or ‘assault’), others were merely Stellungs, troops capable of holding a position. At best, the work of the ‘recruit depots’ just behind the line and that of the Storm battalions was incomplete. Having spent part of 1917 in training other troops, notably infantry gun battery crews, Rohr’s own battalion was itself recommitted to the fray in the great offensives of early 1918. It fought first as two half battalions, and later as a single unit, before returning to training again and working with both the Guard cavalry and Austrian units. Finally, and perhaps fittingly, the last duty of Sturmbataillone Rohr was to act as the Army Headquarters Guard unit, probably being regarded by now as the most reliable battalion in the German army.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.