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Section VI. RETROGRADE MOVEMENTS

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)

a. GENERAL

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)

a. GENERAL.

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 prepare demolitions.

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 alternate positions.


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 engagements.


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 withdrawal.

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.


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