Königgrätz: Battle of Eagles

The Prussian military system had been thoroughly reformed after Napoleon had crushed it at Jena in 1806. The crucial development was the growth of a Great General Staff, embodied in law in 1814. Bright officers were selected to what was effectively a military brotherhood, charged with continuous study of the art of war and the drawing up and review of plans. Essentially a managerial system, in the long run it proved brilliantly suited to control large complex armies. Because it was successful in the wars of 1866 and 1870–1 the General Staff developed enormous prestige and decisive influence in military affairs. General Staff officers formed specialised groups, such as that dealing with railways, and were skilful at spotting ways in which new technology could be adapted for military use. Ultimately every general in command of an army had a chief of staff who had a right of appeal if he did not like his superior’s plans. To prevent these officers losing touch with military reality they were rotated through regular periods of service in line regiments. The Prussian General Staff presided over an army of 300,000 raised by a highly selective form of conscription. These were backed up by 800,000 reserves, each of whom at the age of 32 passed into the militia or Landwehr which would only be called up in emergency. In 1859 Prussia had tried to move to support Austria against France, but mobilisation had been a fiasco. As a result the General Staff paid careful attention to the use of railways to get troops quickly to the front. At the same time reserve and regular battalions were firmly attached to local military districts so each got to know the other.

In 1866 the tensions between Prussia and Austria over the leadership of Germany led to war. Prussia had only half the population of its adversary and the Austrians had a long-service conscript army of 400,000 which, in theory, could strike first into enemy territory. But the Austrian army could not concentrate quickly because its units were used for internal security, scattered in such a way that the men were always strangers to the people whom they garrisoned. Prussia thus had time to summon its reserves and to take the initiative under Helmuth von Moltke. Moreover, the Austrian advantage in numbers was partially nullified because Prussia allied with Italy, forcing Austria to dispatch an army there. In Italy in 1859 Austrian forces had failed to implement firepower tactics, and had been overwhelmed by direct (and very costly) French attacks. They were now armed with a good muzzle-loading Lorenz rifle, but thought that they should hold their troops together in large units that were trained to deliver bayonet charges. Also, aware of the inadequacy of their cannon in Italy, the Austrians had bought excellent rifled breech-loading artillery.

Moltke sent three armies along five railways to attack Austria through Bohemia, with the intention of concentrating them against the enemy’s main force. In the event, two of these armies confronted the Austrians in their strong and partly fortified position at Königgrätz/Sadowa/ on 3 July 1866. Each side had about 220,000 men. Fighting was ferocious but the Prussians held on until their third army arrived to bring victory. Prussian infantry tactics were the revelation of Königgrätz. In 1846 the Prussian army had adopted a breech-loading rifle, the Dreyse needle-gun. This had a potential firing rate of about five shots per minute and it could be loaded and fired from the prone position. The Dreyse was scorned by other armies: it lacked range because the gas seal on the breech was inadequate and it was feared that such a high rate of fire would encourage soldiers to waste their ammunition before charging the enemy, so overburdening supply lines.

At Königgrätz the Austrian artillery did much damage, but the rapid fire of the Dreyse at close range cut down the Austrians whose forces were gathered in large close-order units highly vulnerable to this kind of firestorm. The British Colonel G.F.R. Henderson commented that the Prussians did not charge with the bayonet until the enemy had been destroyed by musketry: ‘The Germans relied on fire, and on fire alone, to beat down the enemy’s resistance: the final charge was a secondary consideration altogether.‘

Important as the Dreyse was, the real key to victory was tactical and organisational. Moltke, like Clausewitz, understood the fluidity of battle and the problem of control:

Diverse are the situations under which an officer has to act on the basis of his own view of the situation. It would be wrong if he had to wait for orders at times when no orders can be given. But most productive are his actions when he acts within the framework of his senior commander’s intent.

He developed what would later be called the doctrine of mission tactics (Auftragstaktik), under which subordinate officers, even down to platoon level, were instructed in the intentions of the overall commander, but left to find their own way of achieving this end. At Königgrätz the Prussians made their infantry firepower count by closing with the enemy in forest land where the strong Austrian artillery could not bear upon them. This enabled them to shoot into the packed Austrian ranks as their junior officers led them around the enemy flanks. Fire and movement was the solution to the conundrum so ably propounded by du Picq.

This was possible because junior officers in the Prussian army were thoroughly trained, and understood the need to accept responsibility for the progress of their soldiers, and staff officers rotated through the fighting units communicated what senior commanders wanted. In addition, at the core of the Prussian army was an excellent corps of long-term NCOs well able to support their officers. At Königgrätz the Austrians suffered 6,000 dead, over 8,000 wounded and about the same number missing, and conceded 22,000 prisoners. The Prussians lost 2,000 dead and 6,000 wounded. Austria made peace almost immediately and Prussia took over all the north German states, enormously enhancing her military capability. The obvious lesson of Königgrätz was firepower. The Austrian Field Marshal Hess articulated another very clearly: ‘Prussia has conclusively demonstrated that the strength of an armed force derives from its readiness. Wars now happen so quickly that what is not ready at the outset will not be made ready in time … and a ready army is twice as powerful as a half-ready one.‘ Strike first would become an article of faith amongst the general staffs of Europe in the years down to 1914.

After Königgrätz

The victory of Sadowa made General von Moltke a celebrity, though an unlikely one. Intellectual, thin, clean-shaven, crisp and dry in speech and writing, he had the air more of an ascetic than a warrior. Although a gifted translator, he was so taciturn that the joke went that he could be silent in seven different languages. In 1867 he accompanied the king to the Paris Exhibition, was presented with the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour, and had conversations with French marshals Niel and Canrobert. The social niceties over, he returned to his office in Berlin to devote his thought to the problems of waging war against France. As professional military men, both he and Niel privately believed that a war between France and the North German Confederation was inevitable. As Niel once put it, the two countries were not so much at peace as in a state of armistice.

It was Moltke’s job, as it was Niel’s, to ensure that his country was ready when the test came, and he went about his task diligently. As a conservative Prussian, he saw France as the principal source of the dangerous infections of democracy, radicalism and anarchy. As a German, he shared the nationalist belief that Germany could become secure only by neutralizing the French threat once and for all.

Following the war of 1866, the Prussian army became the core of the Army of the North German Confederation. Under War Minister Roon’s direction, integration of the contingents of the annexed states into the Prussian military system proceeded without delay. As Prussian units were regionally based, other states’ forces were readily accommodated into the order of battle while respecting state loyalties. Thus troops from Schleswig-Holstein became IX Corps of the Confederation Army, those of Hanover X Corps, those of Hesse, Nassau and Frankfurt XI Corps and the forces of Saxony XII Corps. In addition to the manpower provided by this regional expansion, the new army could call upon the enlarged pool of trained reserves produced by Roon’s earlier reforms. While maintaining an active army of 312,000 men in 1867, the Confederation could call on 500,000 more fully trained reservists on mobilization, plus the Landwehr for home defence. Once the southern states’ forces were included following the signing of military alliances, the numbers available swelled still further. By 1870 Germany would be able to mobilize over a million men.

The world had hardly seen such a large and well-disciplined force. Its backbone was the Prussian army, combat-hardened and commanded by experienced leaders, which had won the 1866 campaign. The post-war period allowed time to make promotions, weed out unsuitable commanders, and learn lessons of what could have been done better. The time was well used.

For instance, Prussian artillery had not performed as effectively as hoped against the Austrians for several reasons: faulty deployment, lack of coordination with other arms, technical failures, and want of tactical experience in handling a mixture of muzzle-loading smoothbores and the new breech-loading steel rifled cannons. All these deficiencies were addressed. At the king’s insistence, Krupp’s steel breech-loaders became standard, this time with Krupp’s own more reliable breech blocks. From 1867 General von Hindersin required gunners to train hard at a practice range in Berlin until firing rapidly and accurately at distant targets became second nature. Batteries also practised rushing forward together in mass, even ahead of their infantry, to bring enemy infantry quickly under converging fire. Time and again, this would prove a devastating tactic. If the Battle of Waterloo proverbially was won on the playing fields of Eton, it is small exaggeration to say that Sedan was won on Germany’s artillery ranges. The proficiency of German gunnery was to astound the French in 1870.

Less spectacular but equally important in conserving the lives of German troops were improvements to the medical service. The huge numbers of wounded after Königgrätz had swamped the medical services. Disease and infection had spread rapidly in overcrowded field hospitals. In 1867 the best civilian and military doctors were called to Berlin, and their recommendations for reform were implemented over the next two years. The medical service was put in charge of a Surgeon General and army doctors were given enhanced authority and rank. Sanitary arrangements for the health of troops in the field were revised and their enforcement became part of the regular duties of troop commanders, who were also issued with pamphlets explaining their responsibilities under the 1864 Geneva Convention. Troops were issued with individual field-dressings to staunch bleeding. Medical units were created and all their personnel issued with Red Cross armbands. The units included stretcher-bearers trained in first aid who would be responsible for evacuating the wounded from the front to field hospitals. From there evacuation to base hospitals would be by rail using specially fitted out hospital trains. Once back in Germany, where the new Red Cross movement was taken very seriously, the wounded would be cared for with the help of civilian doctors assisted by volunteer nurses recruited and trained under the active patronage of Queen Augusta. Yet there would be no conflict of authorities in wartime, nor any room for civilian volunteers wandering about the combat zone under their own devices. The work of civilian doctors and nurses would be directed by a central military authority in Berlin. Like the artillery, the medical service was transformed between 1866 and 1870 by a systematic approach to overcoming the problems experienced in modern war.

This approach was epitomized by the General Staff itself under Moltke’s direction. In 1866 the General Staff had established itself as the controlling brain of the army and had won confidence by its success. It recruited only the very best graduates from the Army War College, and had expanded to over one hundred officers, who were assigned either to specialist sections or to field commands. Its task was to ensure that the army in wartime operated like a well-oiled machine to a common plan. It worked effectively because it was well integrated with the command chain and avoided unnecessary centralization. Army corps were responsible for carrying out their part of the plan. The commander of every major unit had a chief of staff who was in effect Moltke’s representative. Many senior commanders had themselves done staff duties, just as General Staff officers were required periodically to move to operational duties so that they understood the problems of field commanders. Germany’s 15,000 officers were expected to show initiative in achieving objectives laid out in a general plan, and to understand their duty to support other units in pursuit of it. Moltke organized regular staff rides and war games to provide his officers with experience in solving command problems, together with related skills like map reading in the field. Intelligence on French forces and plans was continuously gathered and updated.

Origins of the British Light Infantry

‘Light troops are, as it were, a light or beacon for the general, which should constantly inform him of the situation, the movements and nature of the enemy’s designs; it is upon the exactness and intelligence of what they report that he is enabled to regulate the time and manner of executing his own enterprises.’ (Colonel Coote Manningham)

There was nothing particularly new about light infantry at the turn of the nineteenth century. Most armies had light troops in some form, including the British who had theoretically deployed light companies of just forty-four men since the middle of the eighteenth century. Captain Cooper wrote in his 1806 compendium of works on light infantry that

In the American wars they were particularly useful; and the mode of fighting, which the American nations pursued, evidently showed the necessity of such a corps. For, until Light Infantry were established, a regular army was never safe on its march, being always harassed and dispirited by the irregular troops of the enemy. To obviate these difficulties, the British Generals selected the most enterprising officers, and the most active of the privates … by these means they produced the desired effect; they engaged the enemy in his own way, opposed Light Troops to Light Troops, repulsed him with advantage, and secured and facilitated the operations of the army. The success of these troops gave rise to the formation of a Light Company in every regiment.

After the peace of 1763, the Light Companies were all reduced.

Notwithstanding the above, in the British military tradition the army mainly relied on foreign mercenaries and locally-raised irregulars when light troops were needed. The majority of the light infantry fighting for the British in the forests of North America were provided by the likes of Rogers’ Rangers. Armed with, for instance, the Pennsylvania long rifle or the Ferguson rifle, they were a very effective supplement to the red-coated British infantry in the heavily-wooded terrain of the colonies. During the American War of Independence, Hessian mercenaries provided most of the formal light infantry presence in the order of battle.

At the end of the wars in North America the conservative military view was that formed units of light infantry would be of little utility on the more open European battlefield and that the practice of raising companies of backwoodsmen or hiring mercenaries when the situation dictated would suffice.

In Dundas’ drill manual of 1792 which consists of 458 pages, only 11 appertained to light companies. All this is not to say that there were not advocates of light infantry, but those that developed and practised light tactics tended to do so well out of the gaze of the Horse Guards.3 The fact that the term ‘Light Bob’, which later became a plaudit, was almost an insult before and during much of the French Revolutionary Wars is a measure of how far the British military were from accepting whole light infantry units into the regular army on a permanent basis.

The process of change in the outdated British military came as a result of the hard school of defeat in early campaigns and battles against the French revolutionary armies between 1792 and the end of the century. The raw energy released by the Revolution and the levée en masse had produced large numbers of enthusiastic but barely-trained soldiers. In battle they attacked in columns preceded by clouds of voltigeurs and tirailleurs deployed as a protective skirmish screen, which also galled the enemy line with their fire. This was so effective that by the time the column closed, the enemy was half defeated.

Volley fire against skirmishers was ineffective; they would either go to ground or into cover as the orders ‘Ready, present, fire’ were given, and similarly a bayonet charge had little effect against tirailleurs who simply fell back and resumed their firing as the line re-formed. In short, without sufficient skirmishers of their own to counter those of the French, the British could do little to oppose the voltigeurs. Slowly an understanding of the need for more than a nominal light company per infantry battalion grew, but there was continued opposition from the ranks of more conservative officers. Nonetheless, in 1794 Thomas Graham (later major general) was authorized to raise the 90th Regiment as light infantry following the experience of facing tirailleurs the previous year.

By the final years of the eighteenth century there were senior commanders such as Generals Grey and Sir John Moore, both veterans of North America, who were active exponents of light infantry. Sir John had witnessed the methods of one of his commanding officers, Lieutenant Colonel Mackenzie. Following this seminal moment Sir John started to form his own theories, based on his experience of campaigning in the Mediterranean and the West Indies, which he put into practice when he held a command during the United Irishmen’s rebellion in 1798. He trained elements of his force, including a militia battalion, as light infantrymen or, as he promoted the concept, as ‘a universal soldier’. This was an infantryman that was, he stressed, not only trained to fight conventionally in line but also capable of being deployed as a skirmisher. The writings and advocacy on light infantry that had been begun by a handful of almost visionaries in the last decade of the eighteenth century had, by 1806, had become a deluge of print, including compendiums such as Cooper’s bringing together the best thought and practice regarding light troops.

Despite growing enthusiasm, the conversion of whole battalions to light infantry would, however, not begin until 1803. In the meantime, the appreciation and tactical handling of line battalions’ light companies was improving rapidly.


Iphicrates’ Reforms

Iphicrates was born towards the end of the fifth century into a poor and rather obscure Athenian family. Despite his lowly background he rose to a position of command in Athens, fighting in a number of campaigns including the Corinthian War and the Social War, he also spent time in Persian service after the Peace of Antalcidas. Diodorus places his peltast reforms after 374, following his Persian sojourn, using his experiences prior to that date to develop this new type of soldier.93 The exact dating of the reforms is not relevant here, but their nature certainly is, as it was this type of soldier that constituted the bulk of Alexander’s mercenary forces. I have also tried to argue earlier that Alexander’s heavy infantry were essentially a version of Iphicratean peltasts, being equipped as they were with a small shield and very little body armour.

The primary sources of information that we have for the peltast reforms of Iphicrates are Diodorus and Nepos, both of whose accounts are very similar. According to them the most significant changes were as follows:

Iphicrates replaced the large (shield) of the Greeks by the light pelte, which had the advantage that it protected the body while allowing the wearer more freedom of movement; the soldiers who had formerly carried the [large hoplite shield] and who were called hoplites, were henceforth called peltasts after the name of their new shields; their new spears were half as long again or even twice as long as the old ones, the new swords were also double in length, In addition Iphicrates introduced light and easily untied footwear, and the bronze harness was replaced by a linen covering, which although it was lighter, still protected the body.

Diodorus regards these changes as having been introduced into the existing hoplite troops and in the process discounts the possibility of already existing peltast-style light infantry. Diodorus’ failure to realize the existence of peltast troops before Iphicrates is indeed very striking. In this omission Diodorus shows his serious lack of understanding of the military situation of the day. Modern commentators have frequently been struck with the absurdity of this, and have taken up an opposite attitude. For them the change was a trivial one and consisted chiefly in the standardizing of the existing, but rather haphazard, peltast equipment. This argument, however, simply will not do. It assumes that the light-armed skirmishers of earlier narratives were equipped in the same manner that Diodorus describes. This simply cannot be the case; light-armed skirmishers would not have carried a sword and spear twice the length of those carried by hoplites. Earlier narratives also tell of peltasts actually throwing their spears. If Iphicrates was standardizing that which already existed then why did he not provide his troops with these throwing spears? We are surely not to believe that they carried these as well. Some other explanation must be sought.

Was Iphicrates actually inventing a new type of peltast, one with specific and specialized equipment? The other extreme view is that Iphicratean peltasts were in no way different from Thracian peltasts. On this interpretation, Iphicrates’ reforms were of little significance, as troops of exactly the same type existed already in Thrace. The truth probably lies somewhere between these two extreme positions. There was probably no uniformity of peltast equipment before Iphicrates, some using primarily throwing spears, some longer spears, still others using swords of various sizes. The size of the shield probably varied too. I suspect therefore that Iphicrates studied the light infantry of his day and based his reforms around choosing from the various groups the equipment that best suited the type of soldier that he was trying to create. We may see Iphicrates therefore not as creating something entirely new, or as standardizing that which already existed, but as refining the equipment and tactics of the peltasts of his day.

Mercenaries had not been a significant part of the military forces of the city-states in the fifth century. There was, on the one hand, very little fiscal means to support such troops, and, on the other, a generally held belief that it was a citizen’s duty to take up arms and defend his polis as need arose. Any Greek mercenaries that did exist were generally employed in Persia or Egypt. Mercenaries were also employed in Sicily in significant numbers from an early date. By 481 it seems possible that Gelon, tyrant of Syracuse, maintained an army that included as many as 15,000 mercenaries. They presumably constituted a significant part of the army that won the decisive victory over the Carthaginians at Himera. The most significant event that sparked a major increase in the employment of mercenary troops on mainland Greece was the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnesian states were the first to employ mercenaries in great numbers. These mercenaries were initially not light-armed troops but hoplites from Arcadia. Athens was slow to hire such troops, largely because of the geographical difficulty in reaching them, but by the end of the war mercenaries of all kinds were finding employment on both sides. The reasons for this change lay in the nature of the war itself. The war was prolonged and almost continuous and there were few large-scale set piece battles fought; most engagements were on a small scale and fought by troops who were relatively lightly equipped and very mobile. Mercenaries were simply better at this kind of combat than heavily armoured hoplites. The hiring of mercenaries was made possible now, and less so earlier, by the relative prosperity of the warring states as compared to earlier in the fifth century.

The end of the Peloponnesian War did not see an ending of the employment of mercenaries in Greece. The peace itself led to a large number of men who had become accustomed to earning their living as hired soldiers suddenly becoming unemployed. This would generally have a destabilizing effect upon any society, but they would not have stayed unemployed for long. The political situation in Greece in the fourth century meant that there were always potential paymasters. Their other great sphere of employment, Persia, was also undergoing change. The central authority of the Persian Empire had begun to weaken. The local governors and satraps grew more independent and ambitious. Their position needed military support, and they found it most readily in Greek mercenaries. It had long been recognized that mercenaries formed a more secure power base for tyrants, rather than citizen soldiers whose loyalty was more open to question if a usurper came along. Greek mercenary infantry in Persian service continually proved themselves more capable than anything that the native Persians were able to achieve, so the great king himself was also forced to hire his own contingents to keep pace with his potentially disloyal satraps. We see this to be true during the reign of Alexander too: the only quality infantry that Darius had at his disposal were the Greek mercenaries. Initially 20,000 strong at the Granicus, they had been reduced to perhaps only 2,000 by the time of Gaugamela. This was because of successive losses at the Granicus and Issus, but probably due to desertion too as it became apparent that Alexander was a more attractive paymaster. The League of Corinth had specifically outlawed a Greek taking up arms against another Greek; this decree had meant little at the outset of the campaign when Persia looked like a good bet for victory. At the time of the battle of Gaugamela in 331, however, Darius found it almost impossible to hire more Greek hoplite mercenaries. This was partly because he was no longer an attractive employer, partly because of the distance from Greece, and partly because Alexander was hiring them in increasing numbers, thus reducing the available pool.


The Spartan King Agesilaus died at the age of 84 on the way home from Egypt. There seems to have been something unhappily circular in the defence economy over which he presided: mercenary expeditions raised money by which the Spartan state was enabled to hire more mercenaries. However, it may be pleaded that Agesilaus was in fact trading military expertise for manpower.

Agesilaus’ death marks the end of an epoch in Greek history. His skilful operations had to some extent concealed the serious decline in the fighting potential of the Spartan citizen army. The development of new forms of warfare had been in itself an admission that the supremacy of the Spartan hoplite phalanx was at ‘an end. Since the Peloponnesian War, the Spartan army had been substantially remodelled; this in itself reflected a decline in numbers of the fully-enfranchised citizens who formed the backbone of the heavy infantry. The decline could in some degree be paralleled by population decline in other Greek states, but apart from all general tendencies Spartan military strength had also been seriously affected by the losses suffered in a devastating earthquake which occurred as far back as 465 BC – before the Peloponnesian War had even begun.

The Spartan army in the fourth century consisted of six battalions (morai). Each of these was under the command of a polemarch and, according to contemporary historians, consisted of 400 or perhaps 600 men. Both citizens and non-citizens served in it. Within the mora, there was subdivision into smaller units, as previously with the lochos. During the Corinthian War, a Spartan mora, after escorting a contingent of allied troops back to the Peloponnese, was intercepted in the Isthmus and routed with crippling losses by the Athenian commander Iphicrates. In numerical terms, casualties of 250 out of a total strength of 600 men, which on this occasion the unit contained, were extremely serious. The strategy and tactics of Iphicrates were even more significant; his victory was gained against hoplites by the use of lightarmed troops. The Spartan debacle, which occurred outside Corinth, can be paralleled by others in Greek military history, where (as at Amphipolis in the Peloponnesian War) incautious troops marching close under enemy walls exposed themselves to a sally from the city gates.

The action, however, was still more reminiscent of Sphacteria. The Spartans were overwhelmed by missiles and never allowed to come to grips. At Sphacteria, Spartan lack of foresight, combined with some bad luck, had produced the fatal situation, but Iphicrates was the deliberate architect of his own victory, which vindicated to the full his new strategic and tactical concepts of light-armed warfare. Indeed, there is a third reason for regarding Iphicrates’ success on this occasion as historically significant: the troops he commanded were mercenaries and their victory was gained against a predominantly citizen force.

Panzer Force 1940: A Major Restructuring

Though there had been no significant tank-versus-tank engagements during the Polish campaign, German planners were aware that against the French and British, they would face superior numbers, better armed and armored vehicles, and not least stronger antitank defenses. As the Wehrmacht began the process of deploying westward, the armored force underwent a major restructuring.

First to go were the light divisions. Field experience confirmed the prewar decision to concert them to panzer formations. While they had generally performed well enough on the move, lack of tanks proved a major handicap whenever it came to fighting. Adding a company of mediums was unlikely to remedy the problem. Instead they were renumbered as the 6th through the 9th Panzer Divisions and given a two-battalion tank regiment (a single battalion in the case of the 9th). Increased production of Panzer IIIs and IVs resulted in new tables of organization as well. In February 1940 every tank battalion was authorized two light companies, each with two platoons of Panzer IIs and two of Panzer IIIs, and a third “medium” company with a platoon of five Panzer IIs and two platoons totaling seven Panzer IVs; more larger tanks would be issued as they arrived.

That was the theory. In fact, the new tanks trickled in during the winter and spring of 1940. The gap was filled in part by delivery of the 38(t). Around a hundred each went to the 7th and 8th Panzer Divisions (the 6th had the older 35(t)); the other seven divisions had German vehicles, including a significant number of Panzer Is—around a hundred in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th. The next campaign would still be a light tank operation, with all the accompanying implications for better and worse.

In one respect the tanks would be even lighter than desired. The Panzer IIIs coming into the battalions were models E and F, with 30mm of frontal armor and the highest standard of reliability in the armored force. The gun, however, was the original 37mm. The Weapons Office and the armored force alike had originally wanted a heavier piece. A 50mm/42-caliber gun was available; the tank’s turret and turret ring had even been designed to mount larger weapons, but retooling would reduce production at a time when every tank counted. Only a few of the up-gunned versions would see action in the western campaign.

Experience in Poland indicated that the motorized divisions were too large to be controlled in mobile operations. Each shed a regiment, usually transferred to a panzer division organically short of infantry. The Cavalry Rifle Regiments and the reconnaissance formations of the former light divisions were reorganized to panzer division standards with some anomalies—including the troopers’ pride that kept them wearing cavalry yellow branch insignia instead of donning infantry white. Armored half-tracks remained part of Heine’s “airy empire of dreams” for all except a few companies in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Panzer Divisions—the privilege of seniority.

As long as the infantry rode trucks, battle group system or no, they would be thrown sufficiently on their own resources to make organic support weapons vital: medium mortars, 37mm light infantry guns, 37mm antitank guns. In contrast to the foot-marching infantry, these were usually assigned to battalions. That in turn gave regimental headquarters more time to train in handling combined-arms formations, as opposed to using attached tanks as generic close support. The rifle companies and battalions, for their parts, intensified assault training, working independently and with the divisional pioneers to break the way for the tanks and then keep pace with them as they advanced.

A few other mobile formations existed as well. Two battalions of Panzer IIs converted to flamethrowers were authorized in the spring of 1940. The 40th Panzer Battalion for Special Purposes was organized with three companies of Panzer Is and IIs and a few experimental types for the invasion of Denmark and Norway. A two-regiment motorized brigade participated in the Danish phase of the operation. Far more significant was the appearance of the Grossdeutschland Regiment. Its ancestor was the Berlin Security Battalion, originally formed under Weimar to safeguard the government and showcase the Reichswehr. In 1937 it was expanded to regimental strength. Recruited, like the former Prussian Guard, throughout the Reich, it was considered a corps d’elite and in 1940 it included four battalions. Three were standard motorized infantry. The 4th, prefiguring later developments in the motorized infantry, was a support battalion with an infantry gun company, an antitank company, and something entirely new: an assault gun battery of six self-propelled 75mm mounts.

The assault gun was a product of exigency: a substitute for the heavy tanks projected in the 1930s for direct infantry support; and a consequence of branch rivalry in the German army. Had rearmament progressed in the systematic fashion envisaged by the General Staff and the High Command, or had Hitler adjusted his diplomatic offensive more closely to Germany’s military capacity, assault guns might well never have existed. Their institutional patron was the artillery. Responding to the nascent armored force’s call for tanks to be concentrated under its command, Germany’s gunners argued that infantry support would inevitably suffer. Experience indicated that weapons in a different branch- of-service chimney were all too likely to be totally elsewhere when needed.

During World War I, the artillery had responded by forming specialized “infantry gun batteries,” armed with modified field guns—an approach unique to the German army. There had never been enough of them, and in the 1920s the Reichswehr had developed two purpose-designed infantry guns, one 75mm and the other 150mm—the same caliber as the standard medium howitzer. Introduced in regimental gun companies, they were useful but disproportionately vulnerable, especially at close range. Their crews, moreover, wore infantry-branch white, and the cannon cockers saw themselves being relegated to third place in the combat arms pecking order.

In 1935, Erich von Manstein, newly appointed head of the General Staff ’s Operations Section, prepared a memo consolidating previous discussions and recommending the development of a self-propelled “assault gun” to work directly with the infantry, with each division having its own battalion. What the gunners described, and what the Weapons Office turned into a development contract in 1936, was to a degree a throwback to the original Allied tanks of World War I: a vehicle with a low silhouette for concealment “not to exceed the height of a standing man,” all- round armor protection, and a 75mm gun with both high-explosive and armor-piercing capacity. Putting those requirements together made a turret impossible; the gun would instead be mounted in a fixed superstructure with a limited traverse of 30 degrees. Initially, as in the later US tank destroyers, the top was open to facilitate the observation considered necessary for tactical effectiveness at infantry ranges. Before going into production, however, the vehicle was given a roof and a panoramic sight enabling it to employ indirect fire. After all, assault guns were artillery weapons.

Guderian, the armored force’s designated pit bull, argued that the concept was a mistake. Turreted tanks could do anything assault guns could do; the reverse was not the case. A subtext amounting to a main text was that the projected assault gun would use the chassis of the Mark III tank and the gun intended for the Panzer IV. Guderian and his tanker colleagues were not placated by projections indicating that rising production would avert serious competition for chassis. A disproportionate number of officers in senior army appointments had begun their careers in the artillery—Fritsch, Beck, and Halder, among others. It has been suggested that a “gunner mafia” thwarted Guderian out of branch rivalry. More to the point was the fact that the light tanks that were expected to become surplus as the IIIs and IVs entered service were too small and fragile to carry a three-inch gun even in a hull mounting, while the artillerymen wanted every active infantry division to have its assault gun battalion by the fall of 1939.

In practice, assault guns never became a high-priority item. The first soft-steel experimental models were not completed until 1938. The first production run was only 30, and those were not delivered until May 1940. Only a half dozen six-gun batteries saw action in France. Later orders placed in early 1940 were for only 120 vehicles—hardly evidence of either branch or institutional commitment to the concept. Not until the Sturmgeschütz III proved its worth beyond question did the contracts expand and the assault gun begin to take its place beside the panzers in Wehrmacht history and military lore.

Light tank chassis were nevertheless good for something. The towed antitank gun was still considered satisfactory as the backbone of antitank defense. The army’s offensive mind-set, however, encouraged active defense to the point where the initial title of Panzer Abwehr (tank defense) was changed prewar to Panzerjäger (tank hunter). The 37mm gun was easily handled, but against the up-armored tanks coming into service, its days were numbered. The more powerful designs on the drawing boards were also significantly heavier. But the Czech army had possessed a very effective 47mm antitank gun and the armored force had an increasing number of Panzer Is becoming surplus to requirements. Remove the German turret, mount the Czech gun behind a three-sided shield, and the result was the first tracked, armored antitank gun to enter service. The design was patchwork and its numbers were small, but as with the assault gun, its relative success in 1940 made the 47mm Panzer I combination the first in a long line of similar improvisations in all armies.

In the interim between the fall of Poland and the attack on France, the armored force confronted another kind of technological problem. How best could the commander of a mobile formation built around the internal- combustion engine be at the critical point of a battle while at the same time continuing to command his whole force effectively? The panzer division included an “armored radio company,” but its vehicles were as a rule attached to division and brigade headquarters. Events in Poland had demonstrated the practical limits of radio communication under field conditions. “Leading from the front” invited the dispersion of effort as commanders seeking to exploit presumed opportunities wound up directing isolated actions that eventually devolved to skirmishes with limited tactical results. Guderian’s familiar mantra “klotzen, nicht kleckern” (“slug, don’t fumble; keep focused on an objective”) was sound enough. The problem was implementation.

Erwin Rommel, newly appointed commander of the freshly minted 7th Panzer Division, addressed the problem by developing a mobile headquarters based on an electronic command system mounted in a cross-country vehicle: a network of radios allowing him to contact both subordinate formations and his own main headquarters. He sought as well to develop a common way of doing things—not as a straitjacket, but rather as a framework for structuring the behavior of subordinates in the constant emergency that was the modern mobile battlefield. Commanders at all levels were to exercise independent judgment, with the division commander using his sense of the battle and the information provided by his headquarters to select points of intervention, ideally to refine and complete the efforts of the men on the spot.

Rommel made clear to his senior staff officers that he depended essentially on them to process and evaluate information in his absence, and to act on it, should that seem necessary. By later American standards, German divisions had small headquarters whose officers were relatively low ranking. That reflected exigency more than principle; the army after 1933 was never able to keep pace with its own expanding need for troop staff officers. The often-praised “lean and mean” German structure meant everyone worked constantly. Vital information could be overlooked by busy men. Fatigue and stress led to errors in judgment and to problems of communication as tired, frustrated alpha-male subordinates snapped pointlessly at each other. Especially in a mobile division, success depended heavily on a commanding general willing to support the decisions of even junior staff officers in whose ability, toughness, and loyalty he had confidence.

There was only one Rommel, who in the 1940 campaign would deliver arguably the most outstanding division-level command performance in modern military history. But in every panzer and motorized division, men with similar perspectives were assuming senior posts. Friedrich Kirchner of 1st Panzer Division, the 6th’s Franz Kempf, the 10th’s Friedrich Schaal, and their counterparts were not water-walkers. But they were solid professionals, able to get the best out of subordinates. Some began as gunners, some as infantrymen, and some wearing cavalry yellow. What they had in common were high learning curves, fingertip situational awareness, and emotional hardness unmatched even in the Red Army. The combination would prove consistently formidable, no matter the operational considerations.

The greater question in these interim months was how the mobile formations could best be used. At division levels the accepted pattern for an initial deployment was a wave formation with tanks leading. The rifle brigade and usually the pioneers formed the next echelon, then the artillery. The reconnaissance battalion scouted ahead, looking for enemy forces and alternate routes of advance. The attack itself went on in a relatively narrow front, no longer than a thousand yards. As a rule, the tanks led, regiments abreast or one following the other, each responsible for overwhelming a particular element of the defense. Their moral effect was considered on a par with their physical impact, both combining to carry the division through enemy defense by mass, shock, and speed. The motorized battalions, supported by the antitank battalion and the pioneers, would clear pockets of resistance along the line of advance, consolidate captured ground, and prepare to hold it against counterattacks until summoned to catch up with the tanks and repeat the process. The reconnaissance battalion would move into the lead, three or four miles ahead of the tanks, supported when necessary by the motorcyclists. The artillery supported the whole operation with direct or indirect fire as necessary—or as possible. The guns were expected to keep pace with the tanks, which waited for no one.

The major development after the Polish campaign involved using armored forces to conduct the initial breakthrough even against prepared defenses. On February 7, at a war game held in Koblenz, Guderian proposed concentrating the armored forces for a drive across the Meuse River around Sedan, then expanding the bridgehead northwest toward Amiens. The Chief of Staff insisted on a measured buildup, waiting for the infantry before seeking to exploit the initial success. A month later, a second war game evaluated the same issue. This time the pressure from on high for using infantry to force the crossing was even stronger. Guderian and XIV Panzer Corps commander Gustav von Wietersheim responded that the proposed conservative employment of the armor was so likely to produce a crisis that they could have no confidence in a high command that ordered it.

These kinds of war games were intended to generate spirited debate with no hard feelings. But when two experienced senior generals flatly declared “no confidence” in a plan, it was the closest thing possible to saying “get yourself another boy.” This partly manifested the panzer troops’ new confidence. Arguably it also reflected a persisting sense at senior command levels that, for all their retraining, the foot-powered infantry of 1940 might not be the soldiers their fathers were in 1914. This was the time of the new men of the German army: the panzer troops.

The army faced a related problem: growing shortage of motor vehicles. As early as 1938, maintenance personnel had to cope with a hundred different models of trucks. That number had been reduced, but on the outbreak of war, confusion was restored by the commandeering of thousands of trucks directly from the civilian economy. Polish roads—or the absence of them—had been hard enough on the panzers. Supply columns had suffered losses in some cases more than 50 percent, many of them permanent. By 1940, write-offs had reached a point where the General Staff was considering replacing some trucks in infantry divisions with horse-drawn vehicles. Small wonder in such contexts that the concept of putting the mobile forces up front increasingly permeated thoughts about the coming campaign.

Panzer Forces in Poland

The interacting deconstructions have in turn generated opportunities for reconstruction. Blitzkrieg was certainly not a comprehensive principle for mobilizing Germany’s resources for a total war waged incrementally. Nor was it a structure of concepts like Air Land Battle or counterinsurgency, expressed in manuals, taught in schools, and practiced in maneuvers. The word itself had appeared now and then in German military writing since the mid-1930s, not in a specific sense but to refer to the kind of quick, complete victory that was at the heart of the army’s operational planning, and a central feature of its doctrine and training. Nor was the context always positive. Just before the outbreak of war, one critic affirmed that the chances of a blitzkrieg victory against an evenly matched enemy were zero.

To say that blitzkrieg was an ex post facto construction nevertheless makes as much sense as to assemble the components of a watch, shake the pieces in a sack, and expect to pull out a functioning timepiece. The most reasonable approach involves splitting the difference. On one hand, blitzkrieg is a manifestation of Bewegungskrieg, the war of movement, the historic focus of Prussian/German strategic and operational planning that Seeckt and his contemporaries sought to restore after the Great War. On the other hand, blitzkrieg gave a technologically based literalness to an abstract concept. Bewegungskrieg had always been more of an intellectual construction than a physical reality. It involved forcing an enemy off balance through sophisticated planning creatively implemented in a context of forces moving essentially at the same pace. In blitzkrieg the combination of radios and engines made it possible for an army literally to run rings around its enemy—if, and it was a big if, its moral and intellectual qualities were on par with its material.

The Polish campaign helped shape that concept. Considered in hindsight, Case White, the cover name for the invasion of Poland, seems a classic example of what the Germans call “a made bed.” Much of the terrain was ideal for mobile operations: large stretches of open country with neither formidable natural obstacles nor man-made ones like the hedgerows of Normandy. The weather cooperated. September was unusually dry—a boon in a country where paved roads were few to an invader whose off-road capacities were limited. The Polish army depended on the muscles of men and horses for mobility. It had around 600 tanks, but most of them were counterparts of the Panzer I, and most of those were attached by companies to the cavalry brigades. Strategically, German occupation of the rump state of Slovakia left Poland enveloped on three sides—yet the Polish army was deployed along its frontiers in a pattern similar to the one Napoleon sarcastically suggested was best suited to stop smuggling.

That positioning reflected domestic factors. Poland, much like West Germany during the Cold War, could not afford to abandon large parts of its territory without devastating consequences for the national morale on which its conscript army’s effectiveness depended. It reflected as well the defensible—and accurate—conclusion that even without the non-aggression pact with Germany, whose negotiation had hardly been a secret, the Soviet Union could be expected to seek direct profit from a German- Polish war.

In sum, Poland had no prospects of waging anything like a long war successfully. Its only prospects lay with its French and British allies. That, in turn, ironically placed Poland in a position similar to that of Prussia in the autumn of 1806, when it did not have to defeat Napoleon, just bloody his nose and set him back on his heels until the British guin eas and Russian bayonets that were the Fourth Coalition’s real strengths could be brought into play. German planners, with vivid memories of the World War I blockade and well aware of France’s “Anaconda plan” of total mobilization for total war, were correspondingly committed to a war from a standing start. Overwhelming Poland as quickly as possible would change the military dynamic—and might just change the international dynamic as well, if Hitler could pull off another of his high-wire stunts.

Reduced to basics, the “decisive point” of Case White rested with Army Group South: three armies coming out of Silesia and Slovakia. Army Group North’s two armies attacked from Pomerania and East Prussia. The strategic intention was a breakthrough of the Polish cordon followed by a double penetration: a pincers movement on a Schlieffe nesque scale, the tanks meeting somewhere around Warsaw and then separating again, one part turning inward toward the Vistula River to finish off the trapped Polish main force, the other continuing to the Bug River to screen the decisive battle and secure against such contingencies as Soviet treachery.

The projected campaign generally resembled pre-World War I planning and specifically replicated the Austro-German offensive into Russian Poland in October 1914. Despite significant tactical successes, that operation ultimately failed. There was only one way for the German army to achieve its objective operationally: keep moving. Army Group South had the peacetime army’s three mobile corps headquarters, four panzer divisions, all four of the light divisions, and two motorized divisions—around 2,000 tanks. Army Group North had the newly organized 10th Panzer Division, a provisional division built around a panzer brigade, and a corps of one panzer and two motorized divisions under Heinz Guderian—around 500 tanks, but with lesser distances to cover.

Army Group South broke through and drove northeast, bypassing defenses, striking into the Poles’ rear to cut communications and block retreats, supported by Stuka dive-bombers whose precision strikes were neither disrupted from the air nor challenged from the ground. The Stukas had increased their repertoire by adding a propeller-driven siren to each strut of their fixed landing gear. The eldritch screaming of these “Trumpets of Jericho” reinforced the conviction, affirmed by virtually everyone ever under dive-bomber attack anywhere, that the plane was aiming at him personally.

That did not mean the Poles collapsed. Nor did they act, contrary to one report, as though German tanks were still made of wood and cardboard. The panzers and motorized infantry of Army Group North found breaking out was hard to do against local counterattacks and the determined resistance of cut-off troops with no place to go. It was in this sector that the legend of cavalry attacking tanks with lances was born—courtesy of some Italian journalists who listened to shaken German survivors of the actual event. On September 1, a Polish lancer regiment stumbled on elements of a German battalion in a clearing, charged, and took them by surprise. Then a few German armored cars appeared and shot the lancers to pieces. But that incident, among others, shook the 2nd Motorized Division badly enough that its commander briefly considered retreat until brought up short and sharp by Guderian.

The panzers’ initial fighting in the northern sector featured the kinds of logistical, tactical, and communications lapses predictable for any untested formations in the first days of any war. Guderian’s lead-from-the-front approach led to interventions in the chain of command that confused his subordinates. Nevertheless, by day five of the offensive the tanks and trucks of Army Group North were on their way to Warsaw. Hitler himself came forward to see the results, and the one-time infantryman was suitably impressed when Guderian showed him Polish artillery positions overrun and destroyed by tanks.

On October 15 the spearheads of XIX Panzer Corps, now reinforced by the 10th Panzer Division, reached Brest-Litovsk, far into the Polish rear. Army Group South’s 4th Panzer Division reached the outskirts of Warsaw as early as October 8, but lost half its tanks attempting to break into the city. The general advance was further delayed by a desperate Polish breakout attempt that caught the German left flank along the Bzura River. But the panzers shifted their axis of advance 180 degrees in twenty-four hours with an ease belying their lack of experience. Stukas and conventional bombers hammered Polish concentrations. The counterattack collapsed in a welter of blood and the mobile forces swung back toward Warsaw to link up with Guderian.

On September 17, the Red Army crossed Poland’s eastern border with a half million troops. That ended any Polish hopes for continued resistance on the far side of the Vistula—hopes in any case dashed by the refusal of the Western allies to make more than a token effort to relieve the German pressure. Only Warsaw remained unconquered and its defenders cashed out high, inflicting heavy casualties despite continuous air and artillery bombardment, both characterized by disturbingly high levels of inaccuracy. German propaganda spoke of an eighteen-day war. Army Group South, which bore the brunt of the fight for Warsaw, lost more men in the second half of the campaign than in the first two weeks, a dry run for the serious work. Warsaw capitulated on September 27. On October 5, Hitler reviewed a victory parade through the devastated city. The last organized Polish force fought off the 13th Motorized Division for four days before surrendering at Kock on October 6. Poland was kaput. What remained was establishing the new border with Russia, organizing the occupation of the Reich’s latest conquest, and evaluating performances.

To a degree, unusual after such a decisive victory, the German army applied an “iron broom” to doctrine, training, and command. The artillery was criticized for hanging too far back and for being unresponsive to the rapidly changing requirement of modern battle. The infantry came under fire for a general lack of aggressiveness and flexibility and for too often waiting for the guns, the tanks, and the Stukas to do the work instead of pressing forward with their own resources. Officers at all levels were reminded of the need for maintaining situational awareness, for maintaining calm in what seemed a crisis, and, above all, for seizing the initiative in every situation.

The panzers came off unscathed by comparison. Prior to September 1, questions had remained as to how well the methods and material of mobile warfare would actually work in the field. A month later, there seemed no doubt: The combination of tanks, motorized troops, and aircraft could not only break into and break through an enemy front; they could break out, with decisive effect. Breaking regiments and battalions into combined-arms battle groups, usually based on the tank and rifle regiments but reconfigured to meet changing tactical and operational situations, was generally validated. The difficulties of practical implementation even against what quickly became episodic resistance were noted, but described as susceptible to training and experience.

That did not mean fine-tuning could be neglected. The armored force reported a loss of just over 200 tanks—under 10 percent of the total committed, and that figure is the one most often cited. Recent research by Polish scholars in German records indicates that almost 700 tanks were written off at one time or another from all causes. About 550 of those were either total losses or beyond the ability of unit workshops to repair. These statistics reflect a demanding operational environment, one that encouraged neglecting vehicle maintenance because of crew and unit stress and fatigue. They reflected the relative fragility of the Panzer Is and IIs that formed the bulk of the armored force. And they reflected the determined local fights, often to the last man, made by Polish troops using everything from satchel charges, grenades, and antitank rifles to field guns firing over open sights, in the pattern of the First World War.

In the long run, actual losses were inconsequential. No one with any responsibility seriously considered the light tanks as anything but stopgaps. On mobilization, each tank battalion had left one company behind as a depot. In the panzer divisions, one of the remaining three companies was supposed to be equipped with Panzer IIIs and IVs. Delivery problems meant only the 1st and 5th Divisions came close to that standard. The light tanks were left on their own—contrary to prewar doctrine and expectation. Absent projected support from the high-velocity gun of the Panzer III and the 75mm of the Panzer IV, light tanks depended even more than anticipated on speed and maneuverability. A light tank halted for any reason was wearing a bull’s-eye. A light tank challenging a barricade risked winding up on its side. A light tank engaging antitank guns was pitting hope against experience. It was first-rate crew training—but the hard way.

Tactically, frontline reports uniformly insisted on using tanks en masse, by battalions at least. Even when needed for direct support of infantry, tanks should never be distributed in less than company strength. Panzer officers also consistently complained of the motorized infantry’s inability to keep pace, and more or less delicately suggested that advancing under fire was not a particular strong point. Some suggestion of the infantry’s problems in that regard comes from the war diary of the 35th Panzer Regiment. Describing the initial fight for Warsaw on September 9, it refers to truck-borne infantry taking cover under heavy small- arms fire as their unarmored vehicles went up in flames. The diary does not refer to any direct support provided by tanks that were having their own troubles that day. “Avoid built-up areas” was solid panzer advice, eventually forgotten in the rubble of Stalingrad. Solid as well was the recognition that the motorized troops at least needed more in the way of organic supporting weapons and, if possible, a general issue of armored half-tracks.

The panzers took with them into Poland another legacy. After 1933, generalized concepts of the “East” as an object of German manifest destiny, long present in the general culture, were integrated with National Socialist conceptions of the East as “living space.” Soldiers were informed that they were the vanguard of Germany’s destiny, with the missions of conquering the new territory and governing the primitives who inhabited it. “I’m looking for hard men,” Hitler declared to his adjunct. “I need fanatical National Socialists. See to it that such men are brought forward.”

The Führer had plenty of prototypes. From the early days of September 1939, negative, derogatory attitudes toward Poles and Jews informed the army’s official reports, its private correspondence, and its public behavior. Troops used Nazi jargon to describe the people as “subhuman” or “inhuman”; junior officers and enlisted men showed consistent willingness to initiate reprisals, to implement terror, to translate vague authorizations to establish local security into fists and boots, summary executions and firing squads.

The Prussian/German army had a history—it might be said a culture—based on risk and violence, fear and force. World War I had shown German units were likely to assume any surprise attack was initiated by the civilians. A report from 4th Panzer Regiment, for example, describes priests “disappearing” into a village church “as soon as panzers appeared. . . . Signals were immediately observed from the church tower. Then machine guns opened fire on us.” Two well-placed rounds from a Panzer IV solved that particular tactical problem. The social/ cultural one remained. Fast-moving armored formations were disproportionately likely to come under unexpected fire. Erich Hoepner, commanding XVI Panzer Corps, ordered “the most severe measures” against “partisans.” On September 4 and 5, troops of his 1st Panzer Division responded by shooting a number of male civilians, apparently in the belief that someone in the village had fired on them. Elements of 1st Panzer killed more civilian men and destroyed as many as 80 farms in another village in reprisal for a Polish counterattack—presumably assuming the civilians had somehow participated. In the aftermath of the collapse of the Bzura counterattack pocket, the 4th Panzer Division was involved in a number of killings of Polish civilians and of soldiers who were legally prisoners of war by the terms of the local surrender.

Examples can be multiplied, though not yet ad libitum. Compared to the rear-echelon “Action Groups” that followed the army, and to a Waffen SS that was at this stage far more dangerous to civilians than to anyone with a gun, the panzers’ shield might even be described as relatively clean. Their behavior nevertheless went well beyond first-battle jitters involving quick triggers or misunderstood gestures or a straggling soldier officially surrendered who still had his rifle.


An Austrian Jäger (Hunter) rifleman.

Norwegian ski troops stabilize rifles on ski poles, approximately 1700.

Despite their limited usefulness, rifles still occasionally managed to find their way into battle-and some of history’s most lucrative targets were among their first.

Rifles were not adopted for general military issue, and with good reason: rifle-armed infantrymen would have been at a tremendous disadvantage. Reloading a snug-fitting rifled bore was a tedious process, taking about two minutes. At such a slow rate of fire, given the rifle’s typical range-perhaps 200 yards-a line of riflemen would have been bombarded by 25 volleys of smoothbore musket fire and a bayonet assault before they could load for a second shot. And the cost! A rifle required extensive hand finishing, costing three to four times the price of a smoothbore. Further, there was no means to attach a bayonet, and just as well-most rifles, especially long-barreled American guns, were too slender and delicate for bayonet fighting.

It was obvious to military leaders of the day that victories were determined not by shot placement but by reloading quickly and maintaining well-drilled discipline under fire. Of what possible military value was selective, accurate fire? What difference did it make which opposing infantryman a rifleman selected to engage? There were masses of fast-firing muskets to do that, rapidly shooting, reloading, and shooting. Volley fire from rows of well-drilled infantrymen firing smoothbore muskets-that’s what w o n battles, according to 18th-century European generals. It seemed the height of folly to jeopardize this winning equation and instead rely on the agonizingly slow fire of riflemen.

At the naval Battle of Texel on 10 August 1653, Admiral Martin Harpertszoon Tromp, the commander of the 100-ship Dutch fleet and the victor of a dozen engagements with the British, stood at the helm of his flagship, the Brederode, as she neared the enemy’s flagship. Colorfully attired and in conspicuous command, Tromp offered too grand a target for a British rifleman perched high in the nearby ship’s rigging. That sharpshooter’s well-placed shot not only struck down Holland’s foremost naval leader, but also contributed mightily to the Dutch loss at Texel and, with that, a British victory in the First Anglo-Dutch War. Equally, though, Tromp’s death ended any hope of restoring England’s pro-Dutch Stuart monarchy. In grateful recognition, Britain’s King Charles II presented his victorious admiral a New World land grant that the admiral’s son, William Penn, would use to found Pennsylvania-quite a dramatic chain of events from one well-aimed shot.

In 1709, no less momentous were the results of another sharpshooter’s skills. Sweden’s King Charles XII, a youthful, Alexander-like warrior-monarch, inspired his tiny army to dominate the Baltic region. After defeating Denmark, he invaded Poland, seized Saxony, and even fought Czar Peter the Great’s Russia. Brave to the point of recklessness, King Charles did not attempt to conceal his presence while inspecting his front line before one of history’s pivotal battles at Poltava in the Ukraine. He proved an irresistible target for a distant Russian sharpshooter, who took careful aim and nearly missed, striking his majesty in the left foot. The king’s wound festered. Though feverish, 11 days later Charles attempted to command from a stretcher, but the czar’s troops decisively defeated the demoralized Swedes.

Though he retained the throne in Stockholm, this was not the last meeting this monarch would have with a rifleman. Nine years later, on 30 November 1718, while besieging the Norwegian fortress of Fredriksball, King Charles XII raised his head above a wall to observe the action when “a well-aimed shot” struck his left temple, killing him instantly. Thus one Norwegian rifleman ended forever Sweden’s dominance of northern Europe. (And reminiscent of John F. Kennedy conspiracy claims 250 years later, rumors flew that the king had actually been assassinated by Swedish political enemies. Twice, in 1746 an d 1859, his body was exhumed, only to determine that “the fatal shot had been fired from a distance on the king’s left, and from a higher level than that on which he stood.”)

The rifle that killed King Charles XII may well have been a German Model 1711, an early European military rifle manufactured by gunmaker Zella Mehlis, available both in full-length and carbine versions, the latter with a 22-inch barrel. It was known to have been used in the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. Later the Model 1711 was issued to Norway’s sonnenfjellske ski troops, one of Europe’s earliest sharpshooter units.

Where did these early sharpshooters come from? Prior to the 1750s, incidents of military sharpshooting were extremely rare because rifles were extremely rare. Few armies possessed rifles, and there were no military courses to instruct any kind of basic marksmanship, much less precision shooting. To find such expert shooters, armies had to look outside their own ranks, calling on self-taught marksmen already skilled with rifles. It could be said that every 18th-century rifleman, w h e n thus called into military service, was a sharpshooter since only a rifleman could selectively engage targets or hit targets beyond the range of the common infantryman.

Austria and Prussia, too, fielded sharpshooters armed with hunter rifles (Jägerstutzen). In 1744, Prussia organized a special corps of “Field Hunters on Foot” (Feldjäger zu Fufs), recruited from professional Alpine hunters and noted marksmen, outfitted with long-barreled rifles and employed as light infantry. These Feldjägers preceded conventional infantry formations as scouts and skirmishers, remaining close enough for concerted action with the main body, which also could protect them with massive firepower. The following year, Austria established a similar light infantry unit, called the Hunter Group (Jägertruppe), manned by professional hunters from Alpine regions.

The Dutch Reforms

Opnamedatum: 2010-01-18

Prince Maurice at the Battle of Nieuwpoort by Pauwels van Hillegaert. Oil on canvas.


The army of Maurice of Nassau at Nieuport, 1600, in ‘battalions’. Note the English regiments of the de Veres in the advance guard 

In 1568 the Dutch began their long battle for independence from Spain and would remain at war intermittently for 80 years. The problems faced by the young Dutch republic played an important role in the military reforms that would take place there over several decades to come. Although many of these reforms centred on infantry organization, drill and tactics, the nature of warfare in the Netherlands would be one of many more sieges than battles.

The name most often associated with the Dutch reform movement is Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625). He was the son of William the Silent who had been one of the main leaders of the Dutch revolt. In 1584, at the age of only 17, he became Stadthalter of Holland and Zeeland. In 1590, he was made captain-general of all of the Dutch forces and was then in a position to undertake his reforms.

Like many of the military men of his age, Maurice hoped to emulate the military establishments of antiquity, in particular the Romans. Maurice read military manuals from antiquity, in particular those of Vegetius, Aelian, and the Taktika of the Byzantine emperor, Leo, as well as the works of contemporary commentators such as Justus Lipsius. What emerged for Maurice was an emphasis on regular standing forces and the importance of discipline and drill. But within the context of classical antiquity, Maurice also saw the importance of making more effective use of the constantly improving technology of gunpowder weapons.

One of the most important changes instituted by Maurice was the creation of a standing army. The army was still made up primarily of foreigners serving for pay. Some of these were mercenaries in the traditional sense, while others were foreign troops sent by their monarchs to serve under Dutch command and at Dutch expense (notably fron1 England). In 1603, for example, the Dutch army consisted of a total of 132 companies. Of that number there were 43 English, 32 French, 20 Scottish, 11 Walloon, 9 German and a mere 17 Dutch. The main reason for the preponderance of foreigners was the relatively small population of the Netherlands, combined with the need to keep an army in the field almost constantly for 80 years. Maurice recognized that keeping these companies in his service all year round, rather than discharging them in the off-season or at the end of a campaign, would make the Dutch army a more effective fighting force in the long run.

The maintenance of this standing army also allowed Maurice to initiate new standards of discipline and drill. In this, Maurice was aided by his cousins William Louis and John, counts of Nassau. Maurice and his cousins oversaw the standardization of drill, and equipment, so that all the troops in Dutch service would be using the same methods regardless of their origin. The length of the pike and the armour of the pikemen, as well as the length and calibre of firearms were all standardized. Perhaps more important was the codification of drill at this time in the ‘Dutch Discipline’. All words of command as well as the manual of arn1S for both the pike and arquebus and musket were regularized. In 1607 Jacob de Gheyn’s Wapenhandelinghe was published – a complete manual of arms for pike, arquebus and musket illustrated with 116 plates, accompanied by the appropriate commands and a commentary.

Maurice also modified the military organization and tactics of the Dutch infantry. Once again Maurice turned to antiquity for inspiration. He hoped to replicate the flexibility of the Roman legion by creating units based upon the cohort to replace the large unwieldy regiments and tercios of his own time. To that end, he reorganized each Dutch regiment into two or more battalions. In theory, each battalion was to be 550 men, the same size as a cohort in Vegetius’ antique legio, and was made up of 250 pikemen and 300 men armed with firearms, 60 of which were to form a line of skirmishers. The pikes were to form in the centre of the battalion with arquebusiers and musketeers on the wings.

Moreover, these units drew up in fewer ranks than the earlier regiments and tercios; figures vary but the pikes seem to have been between five and ten deep and the shot between eight and 12 ranks deep. The shot were trained to use countermarch fire, a tactic inspired by Aelian. In this formation the files of shot had intervals between them wide enough for a man to march.

The first soldiers in the file would fire a volley and then do an about face, marching back through the intervals and join the rear rank, all the while going through the drill to reload their weapons. This would be followed by the men of the second rank and then the third and so on. By the time men from the front rank returned to their original position, they would be reloaded and ready to fire another volley and start the drill all over again. This method of firing required great discipline but created a constant volume of fire from the unit. When threatened by cavalry, the arquebusiers and musketeers would retire behind 26 the pikes without disrupting the formation. In battle, the Dutch usually formed their battalions in three lines of battle. These lines could be staggered to resemble a chequerboard so that the battalions in the individual lines could support one another. This bears a striking resemblance to the Roman acies triplex of a legion drawn up in similar formation. Maurice laid the foundations for the early modern standing army based on constant drill and a high standard of discipline. He also developed a system of tactics that truly integrated pike and shot in a coherent fashion. Ironically, throughout the two decades of conflict with Spain, Maurice was only twice able to take his army into battle (both were victories), yet found himself participating in no fewer than 29 sieges.

Cold War Maskirovka

By the late 1960s surprise had become an important ingredient in military operations. The Soviet Military Encyclopaedia described surprise as ‘one of the most important principles of military art (which) consists of the selection of times, techniques and methods of combat operations, which permit delivery of a strike when the enemy is least prepared to repulse it and thereby paralysing his will for organized resistance.’

Painfully aware of the impact of Barbarossa on the Red Army in 1941, the Soviets determined that they would never again be caught unprepared. At the same time surprise and deception began to rank with superiority in arms and manpower as central themes for future victory against the West. From the outset the Soviets accepted that complete surprise was impossible, but nonetheless began to believe that they could neutralize most NATO early warning and surveillance systems by adopting a policy of absolute secrecy and by using Maskirovka at all levels.

Knowing that they were powerless to prevent the intrusion of United States spy planes and satellites into their air space, the Soviets took steps to disguise the true intentions of military factories and installations in their flight path. Phoney factories and arms dumps were built, and after May 1960 (when Francis Gary Powers’ U-2 aircraft was shot down by an SA-2 missile near Sverdlovsk) dummy surface-to-air missile sites were constructed to deter further sorties over delicate areas. A massive arms park was constructed in East Germany, close to the railway used by the United States, France and Britain to resupply their troops in West Berlin. While every effort was made to disguise the quantity and type of real weaponry stored there, dummy tanks and guns were regularly deployed close to the compound perimeter to confuse the intelligence analysts travelling on the daily trains.

Disinformation, a core component of Maskirovka, became the responsibility of Department D of the Committee of State Security, or KGB. For years the KGB and its predecessors had been doctoring photographs to reinforce the myth that the Bolshevik seizure of power had been a mass movement headed solely by Lenin. Trotsky had ‘disappeared’ from many official photographs, including the famous photograph of Lenin addressing the troops in a packed square in Moscow in 1920. In the 1960s they even began to doctor parades. The May Day and October Revolutionary Parades through Moscow’s Red Square began to ‘exhibit’ new weapon systems, tantalizingly tarpaulined to keep them a secret from prying Western observers. Only when the observers began to realize that the tyre pressures and suspensions on these often massive lorries were inconsistent with their carrying anything more than a light wooden mock-up did they come to realize that the whole thing had been an elaborate hoax.

Later, even after the introduction of Gorbachev’s glasnost, topical subjects were cleverly distorted. Newspaper articles appeared describing the decadence of the West. In March, 1987, the influential state newspaper Izvestia carried a cartoon implying that AIDS had in fact been manufactured in the West. This was followed a month later by an article in the internationally read Moscow News implying that experiments were being undertaken at Fort Detrick, Maryland to spread the disease. The naked aim of this policy seems to have been to create pressure for the removal of US foreign bases, thus strengthening the influence of the Soviets abroad. Ultimately this somewhat crude propaganda attempt was overtaken by events and failed. Nonetheless the fact that it was even attempted gives an indication of the degree to which the Soviets were willing to project their policy of disinformation, even when fighting for their own political survival.

The Need for Strategic Surprise

At the height of the Cold War the Soviets were keenly aware that they could not hope to match the West economically, and fully appreciated that any conflict with NATO would have to be brought to a conclusion quickly and clinically before its sixteen participating members had the opportunity to mobilize and deploy their armies. West Germany would become the principal target, and would have to be overrun in a single pre-emptive offensive. The distance from the then Inner German Border (IGB) to the Ruhr was a mere 350kms across the North German Plain, a relatively short distance for the Soviet Union’s highly mobile Third Shock Army if allowed to exploit its preponderance of armour, mechanized artillery and motor rifle regiments.

The Soviets fully appreciated that, if they were to stand any realistic chance of taking West Germany by surprise they would have to keep deployed in peacetime sufficient armed forces to reach at least the nearest strategic objectives before NATO had the opportunity to mobilize and bring into action its reserve echelons. The Soviets would not have time to call upon their own reserves, nor would they be able to mobilize them before hostilities for the fear of alerting the West to their intentions. In the words of Marshal of the Soviet Union V. D. Sokolovskii, ‘He who, right from the start, can get his troops deepest into enemy territory will be best able to exploit the results of his nuclear strikes (or indeed to foreclose his nuclear option) and to prevent the enemy from mobilizing.’

Experience had taught the Soviets that troops moving fast sustained less casualties, and expended less fuel and ammunition, than forces moving slowly. By moving rapidly their strategists argued that they would be able to impose their style of war on NATO. Instead of having to conduct a difficult breakthrough operation, they would clash with NATO formations in a series of ‘meeting engagements’ – a form of battle for which they had trained and most of NATO had not.

They regarded surprise as a force multiplier which would enable them to achieve at least limited strategic objectives with much smaller forces than would be necessary against a prepared enemy. By moving fast they would be able to exploit the gaps and weaknesses enforced by NATO’s mal-deployment, and by obviating the need for breakthrough operations would remove the necessity for vulnerable concentrations of reserves and for strong second echelons. They would therefore simply not present NATO with sufficient battlefield nuclear targets to warrant the politicians agreeing to nuclear release, with its obvious ramifications.

In the world of deception the Soviets displayed a level of flexibility and organization which NATO both failed to comprehend and was incapable of emulating. Officers were compelled by regulations to employ some form of Maskirovka to aid their exercise assaults and were severely censured if they failed to do so. Dummy equipment was introduced which not only looked like the equipment being simulated but possessed similar physical properties. Where possible it reflected light, heat and electromagnetic energy in the manner of the original to confuse photographic analysts with the array of infra-red and false-colour imagery available to them.

Control of deception plans was exercised at the highest possible level to reduce the possibility of lower-level deception schemes compromising each other and the main plan by revealing anomalies. All plans were clearly defined and subordinated ruthlessly to the aims of the overall operation. They were directed at specific targets, often the enemy commander, and were based on his known prejudices and likely reactions. NATO intelligence gathering and dissemination was analysed to insure that as many of its sources and agencies as possible would be able to corroborate the deception plan without realizing its implications.

The Soviets accepted that modern intelligence gathering made it difficult to conceal preparations for a large-scale offensive. Nonetheless they regarded concealment of the scale, and especially the direction and timing, of the main attack, as quite achievable. Soviet principles of Maskirovka were never tested on the North German plains. They, were, however exploited fully during the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and later in Afghanistan.

The rôle of Special Forces in Maskirovka

It was always accepted by NATO that any Warsaw Pact offensive would involve the widescale use of the Soviet Special Forces, or Spetsnaz, who would attack key targets behind the lines and who would almost certainly attempt the assassination of key military and political figures. Yet very little was known about Spetznaz. In fact Voiska spetsialnogo naznacheniya, to give it its full name, had no peer in the West. In the eyes of the Soviet Union it was a force of special designation rather than a NATO-style special purpose force, and was ideally suited to the art of Maskirovka.

As ever the Soviet paranoia for secrecy was all pervading. Until 1989 references in the Soviet press to the VSN were rare and usually couched in historical terms. Units were described in a special reconnaissance (spetsialnaya razvedka) or diversionary reconnaissance (diversiya razvedka) context, and never as special forces. The very existence of a multi-talented elite within the Soviet Army was discounted as Western propaganda.

In 1989 the Kremlin partly lifted the veil of secrecy and allowed a series of articles to appear in the Soviet military and civilian press referring in detail to the existence and performance of units of special designation. However, much of the information leaked was of low grade intelligence value. It was already known to NATO analysts and was almost certainly only released in an attempt to defuse the West’s growing interest in Soviet special forces. Moreover, many of the units discussed, although doubtless elite, had little, if any, connection at all with Spetsnaz, nor were they directly involved in the growing art of Maskirovka.

The Prague Spring

Maskirovka was used to devastating effect during the suppression of the so-called Trague Spring’, a Czechoslovak liberal-reform movement which began on 5 January, 1968. On that day the Central Committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party met to formally end the fourteen-year reign of First Secretary Antonin Novotny. His replacement, Alexander Dubcek, at once began to implement a series of reforming policies which the Kremlin found unacceptable. For six months the Soviets tried to undermine the reform movement through political sabre-rattling, threats and covert action. When this failed they resorted to violence.

A series of large-scale Warsaw Pact exercises were initiated in and around Czechoslovakia and were accompanied by numerous visits by military and diplomatic delegations. Following the Warsaw Pact ‘SUVAMA’ exercise, 16,000 Soviet troops remained in Czechoslovakia awaiting their long delayed withdrawal. In a particularly clever ruse, shortly before the invasion the Soviets ordered the transfer of substantial Czech fuel and ammunition stocks to East Germany as part of an unspecified logistical exercise.

So as to mask their intentions from an unsuspecting world, immediately prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia the Soviets confined to barracks the majority of their conventional troops stationed throughout the northern sector of the Warsaw Pact. The Czechs were not unduly worried therefore when an unscheduled civilian Aeroflot aircraft landed at Prague’s Ruzyne Airport late at night, taxied and eventually parked at the end of the runway. An hour later a second Aeroflot aircraft was granted permission to land. This time the aircraft disgorged its passengers, all of them fit young men, who, having cleared customs without incident, set out for the city centre. Two hours later the ‘passengers’, by now fully armed from caches stored in the Soviet Embassy, returned to take over the main airport buildings.

Almost at once one, possibly two, further aircraft, directed by the ‘rogue’ at the end of the runway, landed and immediately disembarked teams of uniformed Spetsnaz. A series of transports followed, each containing a nucleus of Spetsnaz supported by conventional airborne troops from the 103rd Guards Airborne Division. Within two hours of the first uniformed Spetsnaz troops landing, the airport and its immediate environment were firmly in Soviet hands and troops were advancing unmolested on the capital. By daybreak the Presidential Palace, the radio and television studios, the transmitters, all of the main railway stations and the bridges over the River Vltava were in Soviet hands.

Even now the Soviets maintained a level of total security. To the total surprise of Western military watchers (who openly admitted that they could not have done so themselves) the Soviets brought in reinforcements from throughout the Warsaw Pact in total radio silence. Quietly and with minimal fuss the advance units crossed the Czech border preceded by military police regulators. The latter deployed to the major crossroads, towns and larger villages en route to await the oncoming convoys. When these arrived they were flagged forward and onward to their destination without the benefit of a single radio transmission. The Nato EW (Electronic Warfare) units, which might have expected to gain a great deal of intelligence from the mass manoeuvres, were left confused and frustrated.

After the invasion the KGB embarked upon a propaganda campaign so virulent that it supposedly began to influence the actions of its political masters in the Politburo. Weapons caches supposedly hidden by Western sympathizers were ‘discovered’ near the West German border, fake documents were produced to prove the existence of CIA-supported counter-revolutionary activity, liberals were terrorized and untrue and exaggerated reports sent back to Moscow.

Maskirovka in Afghanistan

The rôle played by Maskirovka in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was no less critical. The aim of the invasion was to establish a new puppet government in Kabul which would ask for Soviet assistance, thus legitimizing the initial intervention. For this it was necessary for the exisiting government, itself pro-communist, to be destroyed completely. The actual invasion took place over the Christmas period when immediate Western condemnation would be difficult to orchestrate.

Nothing was left to chance as every aspect of Maskirovka was fully exploited. In April, 1979, a battalion of Soviet paratroops were deployed to Bagram Airport, notionally to release Afghan troops for operations against anti-government rebels in the hills. In late August General Ivan Pavlovskiy, who had commanded the invasion of Czechoslovakia, arrived with a sixty-man General Staff delegation to conduct a detailed on-scene reconnaissance that lasted into October. On 17 December, after an abortive attempt to assassinate him at his palace in Kabul, President Amin was persuaded by his Soviet advisers to move his court to the more ‘secure’ palace at Darulaman, some miles from the city.

Prior to the invasion, Soviet advisers actually managed to neutralize two Afghan divisions by persuading their commanders that their anti-tank weapons and ammunition needed to be checked and accounted for, and the bulk of their armour withdrawn for servicing.

Between 8 and 10 December, 1979, some fourteen days prior to the invasion, Spetsnaz forces accompanied by an airborne regiment deployed to Bagram, a key town to the north of Kabul, in order to secure the Salang Highway with its vital tunnel. Between 10 and 24 December a battalion from the airborne regiment, with Spetsnaz support, moved to Kabul International Airport less than 3kms from the city centre. Between 24 and 27 December troops from the 105th Guards Airborne Division, again supported by Spetsnaz, landed at and secured Kabul Airport and the Afghan Air Force bases at Bagram, Shindand and Kandahar.

During the course of the following night the full offensive began. Paratroopers arrested the Afghan government, much of it while attending a lavish Soviet social function in the city. At the same time Spetsnaz teams demolished the central military communications centre, captured the still-functioning Ministry of the Interior, the Kabul radio station and several other key points. Simultaneously two Spetsnaz companies, with KGB assistance and supported by an airborne regiment, attacked President Amin’s palace at Darulaman. Amin, his family, security force and entourage were killed for the loss of twenty-five Soviet dead, including KGB Colonel Balashika, reportedly killed by ‘friendly’ cross-fire.