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Tactical Philosophies of the Squad
By Eric Tobey, revised by Jonathan Bocek

The following was taken from the Die Neue Feldpost newsletter & was done so with permission of the publisher.  We would like to thank him for his generosity as well as thank all those who have contributed to this article.  It is with their efforts, we are able to share this valuable research with the rest of you.

German Vs. American
One of the questions that was put to the U.S. military thinkers after WWII was this:  'What made the German infantry so tactically formidible?'.  This question became especially intriguing after records revealed that U.S. troops on the offensive could seldom overcome their opponents without heavy artillery or air support, overwhelming numbers, tanks, or a combination of all four of these.  Although there were a number of different factors which contributed to this disparity in combat effectiveness, this article will show how even the difference in the basic squad theories could cause an unevenly-matched small unit engagement.

As with most armies that developed their tactics after learning lessons the hard way in World War One, both the U.S. and the German Army had the same basic recipe for defeating the enemy in an infantry fight:

"After neutralizing the enemy with FIRE SUPERIORITY, riflemen will MANEUVER forward and eliminate him."  So much for general philosophy - the big difference lay in the extent and the way in which both armies went about doing it.

The American System:
Sometime after WWI, a bunch of American Infantry brains sat down to think up a set of tactics for the U.S. footsloggers.  With a basic train of thought rooted in the sharpshootin' tradition of the American rifleman, these men formulated methods based on the rifle.  In a slight concession to the contemporary trend to increase squad firepower, the U.S. tacticians included a Browning Automatic Rifle (or BAR) in the squad's equipment.

The 12-man squad itself was divided into 3 distinct parts - a 2-man scout team, a 4-man support team including the BAR, a 5-man assault team, and the squad leader.  The system was supposed to work like this: the squad leader advances with the scout team to locate the enemy, then direct the fire of the support team on their positions before joining the assault team in order to lead them in to wipe them out.  This seemingly simple system placed a lot of faith in the GI and that indisputably fabulous weapon, the M1 Garand.

Then the war came and these squad tactics were put to use.  Here's what often happened to the squad in combat: the squad leader gets pinned down or hit with the scout team; the support team blasts away in the general direction of the origin of enemy fire without any real idea of where their positions really are; the leaderless assault team then makes the attack alone, that is if they didn't need the influence of their NCO to do it under fire in the first place.  Worse yet, the whole plan could be upset by a few casualties.

The main problems here were twofold: an inability to achieve fire superiority and squad tactics that invited the loss of unit cohesion.

This first problem explains why the GIs were so dependent on the support of heavier weapons outside of the squad to build up a large enough base of fire to get that all-important "fire superiority".  The combined fire of M1s and a BAR was seldom enough to sufficiently suppress or damage the enemy; unable to do this on their own, the squad was obliged to call in help from the outside.

Unit cohesion is especially important to counteract the effect of battlefield confusion, casualties, and a lack of individual offensive spirit.  The fact that this was a problem in the standard infantry outfits is emphasized by the accomplishments of a few specialized units like the Rangers and the Paratroops.  These units had pretty much the same armament as the standard squads, but their training stressed aggressive action with whatever resources were available and taught these men not to expect much help from the outside.  Therefore the training of these units was tailored to develop fire superiority and retain unit cohesion with whatever could be assembled after a drop:  the result was, in the small unit level at least, that the fighting ability of these GI formations was at least as good as that of the best German units.

The German System:
The German entered the war with a system that was only slightly less complicated than the US design: 10-man squads divided into an MG troop and a rifle troop, with a squad leader over all.  It is also likely that the Germans experienced at least some of the same problems as the GIs in the beginning, so by 1941 they had simplified the organization and workings of their "Gruppen".  The following description applies to German tactics from 1943 on.

Although the 9-man (or before 1943, 10-man) squad was divided into a 3-man MG team and a 5-man rifle team with a squad leader over all, the division in the German squad was less distinct in the German unit.  In fact, some German manuals ceased to distinguished between these two teams after 1941.  The reason this came about was because the German squad leaders actually employed their whole formation as a single, large, MG team.

The important lesson that the German military thinkers brought out of WWI was that the machine-gun, not the rifle, was the primary killing weapon on the battlefield.  This is one reason that they continued to equip their riflemen with the outdated Mauser bolt-action or the short-ranged machine-pistol; even though the well-developed German arms industry was capable of providing its riflemen with a more sophisticated long-arm, it did not because the MG was the only weapon in the infantry squad that mattered.  The primary mission of the rifleman was to provide protection for the MG and help bring up ammo for it if necessary.  The MG was also usually operated by one of the best men in the unit since the Landser squad leaders had instructions to place one of their steadiest soldiers behind it.

With the task of providing new weapons for the riflemen out of the picture, the considerable talents of the small-arms designers were concentrated on the development of an efficient light machine-gun.  In doing this they really outdid themselves.  First the MG34, then the MG42, and this last one was (and still is) a real lulu!  Capable of belching out 1200 rounds per minute and being easily carried, operated, and maintained by a pair of men, the MG42 became the lynchpin of German tactics.

These tactics went something like this: the squad leader advances with his whole unit until contact is made; the MG then opens up on the enemy to achieve "fire superiority".  If a good hosing down with this beast isn't enough to either destroy or run off the opposition, the whole squad would leapfrog forward in short rushes until the desired effect was achieved.  In the event that the MG fire itself wasn't enough to finish the job, the gun would be used in a suppression mode as the riflemen went in to clean up with hand-grenades and the bayonet. 

The squad leader in all this was better able to control the actions of his unit since his training decreed that during combat he be in the center of the squad.  If for some reason the squad leader was separated or incapacitated, the squad could still be counted on to continue functioning aggressively.  German infantry training stressed independent thinking for all of its soldiers; thus effective and opportunistic action was within the capability of any German group no matter how small or who was left in charge.  This was also one reason why German units could suffer enormous casualties and still perform.

In summation, it seems that the German squad had the right weapons to achieve fire superiority and the right training and tactics to retain unit cohesion and the "will to combat".  All of this would probably have sounded immaterial to the Landser who cowered under a shower of Allied shells, ran for the ditches under attack by the dreaded Jabos, or were hunted by groups of fierce Paratroops.  But when small units of German and GI troops tangled, the difference in performance was often marked.

In contrast, most American squads were handicapped by an overly-complicated squad organization, lack of an effective automatic weapon, and the detrimental effects of the loss of unit cohesion cause by confusion or the loss of their leaders.



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