Philosophies of the Squad
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:
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
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
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.