Source: U.S. War Department "Handbook On German Military Forces" (Mar'45)
Officially released from restricted status by the U.S. Army Center For Military History.
1. WITHDRAWAL FROM ACTION (Abbrechen des Gefechts)
The Germans break off an engagement for one or more of the
following reasons: when it has served its purpose; when
conditions require the employment of the troops, or part
of them on another front; when a continuation of the battle
gives no promise of success; or when defeat is imminent.
When an attack exhausts itself without attaining its objective,
the Germans assume the defensive as the first step in
withdrawing from action. If the defense must be continued
in a rearward position, the breaking of contact, the
retirement, and the resumption of the defense are carefully
planned beforehand. Positions in the rear are prepared
for the reception of the troops, particularly if they have
engaged in heavy fighting. The retirement is made in
conjunction with that of adjacent units, and stress is placed
on maintaining the cohesiveness of the retiring forces.
By maintaining the usual fire of all arms, the Germans try
to deceive their enemy as long as possible as to the continued
occupation in force of their original position.
In view of the severe losses inflicted by Allied planes
and armored forces on German troops during daylight
disengagements, the Germans try to await darkness before
withdrawing from action. At night they break off combat on a
wide front and move back along routes as nearly perpendicular
as possible to terrain features suitable for fighting
delaying actions. When the situation forces them to
withdraw during daylight, the do so by unit sectors,
coordinating the movements of adjacent units.
2. RETREAT (Ruckzug)
Retreat is a forced retirement which is ordered by the Germans
only when all possibilities for success are exhausted. The
objective is to place enough distance between friendly and
hostile forces to enable the former to conduct an orderly
withdrawal and to occupy new positions in the rear.
b. COVERING FORCES.
The Germans usually organize covering forces from troops
in closest contact with the enemy - either whole tactical
units or elements from several. These forces attempt to make
the enemy believe that the position is still fully occupied.
Engineers prepare additional obstacles, minefields, and
booby traps forward of and within the positions to be held.
A portion of the artillery and heavy infantry weapons
support the covering forces. They maintain as long as
possible their former fire activity to deceive the enemy,
even when fulfillment of their mission means the loss of
individual guns. The sector assigned to a covering force
is usually too wide to be under effective control of a
single commander, but the actions of the various
commanders are closely coordinated. Orders specify whether
the covering forces are to remain in contact with the
hostile forces until they begin to advance, or to follow
the main body after a specified interval.
c. REAR GUARD (Nachhut)
1. As the distance from the enemy increases, the retiring
troops form march columns. Where possible, a division's
retirement takes place along two parallel routes. The
freshest troops available are used as rear guards. Since the
rear guard cannot expect support from the retreating main
body, it must be relatively strong. It is composed of
infantry units. Generally the divisional field artillery
retires with the main body, none being assigned to the
rear guard. Self-propelled and heavy infantry-support
guns, and even howitzers, are frequently attached to the
rear guard. Tanks also may be assigned. A typical rear guard
for each route in a division retirement is one infantry
battalion to which are attached elements of the reconnaissance
unit, to protect the flanks, and of the engineer unit to
2. The rear guard infantry battalion normally employs only
one of its rifle companies on active rear guard tasks. The
three rifle companies perform this function in turn as long
as their strength remains approximately even. If the terrain
demands it, two companies are employed at a time. Two or
more antitank guns and half of the self-propelled or heavy
infantry guns allotted to the full rear guard support the
rearmost rifle company or companies. When pressure becomes
too strong, the single rifle company is withdrawn through
the two remaining rifle companies which are supported by
the remainder of the attached weapons. Variations of this
leapfrogging progress are repeated until darkness, when
a general disengagement takes place and the original
formation is resumed.
3. Rear guards withdraw by bounds to selected but not prepared
positions. The extent to which positions eventually can be
prepared depends on the proximity of the pursuing forces, the
length of time each particular position is likely to be held,
and the decision of the individual company and platoon
commanders. During each stage of the retreat, the commander
of the rear company can order a withdrawal to the main
rear guard position, but withdrawal from each main rear
guard position is ordered by the commander of the main
body. Frequently the speed of withdrawal is based on a
time-distance schedule. During the withdrawal from a
certain town, rear guards were instructed to retire not
more than 3,000 yards a day.
4. Experience has shown that in certain types of country a
reinforced rear guard company generally can hold up very
superior forces on a front as wide as three miles. In one
instance of a withdrawal from a defensive position along
a river line, a German Panzer division, which had one
Panzer Grenadier battalion and attached elements as its
rear guard, was covered by one rifle company reinforced
by a company of tanks, four infantry guns (including two
self-propelled), and a battery of medium howitzers. The tanks
were mainly used to cover the withdrawal of the rifle
elements. On another occasion a similar rear party had a
number of heavy mortars attached. These covered the infantry
withdrawal with the help of four tanks which also carried
the mortars back to the next bound.
5. Particularly suited for rear guard tasks, because of its
armor and high fire power, is the armored reconnaissance
battalion of the Panzer division. When employing the
armored reconnaissance battalion in terrain that affords
cover, the Germans site well camouflaged, armored half-tracks
in wooded areas, flat reverse slopes, or high grain fields,
and open fire with all weapons at very close range. The
armored half-tracks then penetrate into the confused enemy
and, after repulsing him, retreat to previously organized
3. DELAYING ACTION.
a. BASIC PRINCIPLES.
The Germans make a distinction between "delaying engagements"
(Hinhaltendes Gefecht) and "delaying action" (Hinhaltender
Widerstand). A delaying engagement is primarily the general
plan of the higher commander for holding back the enemy.
Delaying actions are the measures taken by lower units to
carry out the higher commander's plan.
The purpose of delaying actions is to enable the main German
force to disengage itself from battle, retire in order, and
establish a new defensive position. Delaying actions therefore
seek to deceive the enemy as to German strength, dispositions,
and intentions; to prevent the enemy from committing the
main German forces; and to prevent close pursuit of the main
forces by the enemy. These measures are accomplished by rear
guards, special battle groups, and strongpoints, all of which
are characterized by high automatic fire power, mobility, and
economy in numerical strength.
Delaying actions are organized not in a main defensive belt,
but on lines of resistance (Widerstandslinien). The distance
between such lines is great enough to prevent the enemy
from engaging two of them from the same artillery position.
He is compelled to displace and move up his artillery to
engage each line. These lines of resistance are normally
established along forward slopes to facilitate disengagement
and withdrawal under cover. The delaying actions are fought
forward of the lines of resistance with mobile forces.
Furthermore, battle outposts are organized forward of each line.
The main delaying weapons are machine guns, mortars, and
self-propelled weapons. Tanks are used in small groups.
Maintenance of contact is a most conspicuous principle in
the German's conduct of a withdrawal and delaying action.
The size, composition, direction, and intention of the
attacking enemy force are observed at all times.
b. CONDUCT OF THE DELAYING ACTION.
During a delaying action, wide sectors are covered by artillery
units widely deployed - guns are sited by sections if necessary -
and by widely distributed infantry-support weapons. The defense
is then further organized by establishing strongpoints manned
by small groups.
The positions from which delaying actions are fought are
characterized by very slight depth. As a general rule,
a unit is responsible for double the front normally allocated
in defensive fighting. A company sector is 650 to 1,300 yards;
a battalion sector 1,750 to 4,400 yards; a regimental sector
4,400 to 6,600 yards; and a division sector 13,000 to 22,000 yards.
In leaving a line of resistance, German covering forces attempt
to disengage by night. If that is not possible, their actions
are governed by the following principle: the enemy is not
allowed to come closer to them than they are from their next line
of resistance. The troops must be able to reach the new
position before the enemy reaches the old one, or their losses
will be excessive.
The troops therefore do not retire in the face of enemy patrols -
every effort is made to destroy such patrols - but only when
the enemy mounts an attack. If it can be ascertained that
the enemy is preparing for a massed attack, the Germans make
a timely withdrawal to avoid exposing the troops to enemy
artillery concentrations. Advance elements employ smoke to
enable them to make a getaway in a critical situation.
Riflemen cover the disengagement of heavy weapons, which move
back by bounds. Every opportunity is taken to make limited
counterattacks in order to inflict casualties on an enemy
who advances recklessly.
Fire is opened at extreme ranges on an enemy advancing for a
major attack. Enemy reconnaissance forces are allowed to
approach, however, and then an effort is made to destroy them.
Counterattacks on a large scale are avoided, except when the
enemy threatens to penetrate the line of resistance. When that
occurs, the Germans counterattack with the main forces of the
rear guard and seek to restore the situation in order that
the program of staged withdrawal may be continued. Local
counterattacks are made for the protection or retention of
some feature essential to the safe conduct of the main
withdrawal, or to gain time for the preparation of the line of
resistance or phase line.
The area between the lines of resistance is called the
intermediate area (Zwischenfeld). Explicit orders are given
as to whether the intermediate area is to be covered in one
bound or is to be fought over. The latter necessity arises
especially when the next line of resistance has not been
fully prepared and time must be gained. Detachments must
reach the line of resistance early enough to insure that all
the main positions are occupied in time.
The supply of ammunition is carefully organized. A great deal
of ammunition is required for delaying actions because a few weapons
on a broad front must do as much as or even more than the
normal number of guns in a defensive position. When ammunition
is scarce, the Germans specify, down to sections if necessary,
the quantity of ammunition that may be used at each position.
Every commander maintains a supply of ammunition for emergencies.
The Germans stress the importance of deceiving the enemy by
every means. Artillery and heavy weapons are moved continually
to give an impression of greater strength. Dummy positions
and camouflage are also widely used.
So that isolated groups may be adequately directed, signal
communication receives special attention.
In delaying actions in mountainous terrain, the Germans
make greater use of their reconnaissance and engineer units
than of any other component. Reconnaissance units are almost
continuously in contact with advance and flanking enemy
elements, and participate in most rear-guard and battle-group
c. STRONGPOINTS IN DELAYING ACTION.
The Germans cover the rear guard's resistance or phase lines
by a system of strongpoints or defended localities. Just as it is
a function of the rear guards to prevent a pursuing force from
making contact with the main body while it is on the move,
so it is the function of strongpoints to prevent the penetration
of resistance or phase lines until the main body has withdrawn
to its next position.
In manning strongpoints, the Germans show the same economy of
force they show in forming rear guards. Typical fire power of
a strongpoint in close country is one or two self-propelled
guns, two heavy mortars, and up to six machine guns.
In open country, one self-propelled gun is normally employed,
supplemented by three tanks and a small party of infantry with
mortars and machine guns in armored half-tracks.
Strongpoints generally are organized on the hedgehog principle.
Provision is made for all-around fire, but the strongpoints are
not necessarily mutually self-supporting. They are normally
located on commanding features, and sometimes on the forward
edges of villages or hamlets if these dominate road or terrain
bottlenecks. In flat country, however, villages usually are
not occupied except by snipers, but positions are occupied in
the rear of the villages to engage enemy vanguards debouching
from them. Weapons are not dug in, and positions are
frequently changed. Counterbattery fire thereby is rendered
very difficult as there are no prepared positions to be
spotted from the air. The Germans thus force their enemy to
launch a full-scale attack supported by artillery to dislodge
the garrison of the strongpoint, which normally withdraws just
before the attack can materialize. Approaches to strongpoints
which cannot be covered by fire are frequently mined.
Extensive minefields are frequently laid at the heads of
re-entrants in hilly terrain.
d. BATTLE GROUPS IN DELAYING ACTION.
Battle groups are normally organized for the execution of
some specific task in the withdrawal, such as a local
counterattack or the defense of some particular feature
whose retention is necessary for the security of the main
Battle groups, which the Germans employ for offensive and
defensive as well as delaying missions, vary in size from
a company or two, with attached close support weapons, to
a regiment or several battalions reinforced with tanks,
artillery, antiaircraft, engineer, and reconnaissance elements.
In all cases the Germans seek to make them as self-sufficient
as possible in combat. In actual practice, however, the
composition of German battle groups appears often to have
been dictated less by the theory of what units should be
put together to form a self-sufficient combat force, than
by the demands of an emergency situation which commanders
have been forced to meet with the insufficient and
normally disassociated units at their disposal.
German battle groups may be organized for short, long, or
changing missions. They are usually known by the name
of their commander.
e. DEMOLITION AND OBSTACLES.
To prevent the pursuing enemy columns from approaching close
enough to engage even their rear guard elements, the Germans
continually employ demolitions and obstacles of all kinds.
The thoroughness with which engineer operations have been
carried out has increased steadily throughout the war. Culverts
and bridges are completely destroyed. Roads and all natural
detours are mined, cratered, or blocked by felled trees;
in streets and villages, streets are blocked by the wreckage
of buildings. Vertical rail obstacles are placed to obstruct
main routes; mines often are laid for 30 yards around the
edge of the obstacle. Wooden box mines are used to a large
extent as demolition charges, and aerial bombs and artillery
shells are sometimes similarly employed.
Frequently rear parties are committed to a delaying engagement
in order to cover the preparation of demolitions immediately
behind them. During static periods in the general withdrawal,
when the Germans occupy their line of resistance or phase
line, engineer units prepare demolitions in the rear. After
the withdrawal, these demolitions are covered by sniper fire,
machine guns and self-propelled weapons as long as possible.