The differences between German military doctrine and the Allied and Soviet doctrine during World War Two
German doctrine differed a lot from both the Allies and the Soviets.
All of course changed throughout the war, as what was available to commanders changed and the strategic possibilities and constraints changed.
The Germans entered World War Two with one of the absolute best armies the world have ever seen. Building on their experience in World War One, where they had developed both operational and tactic doctrines that were well-adopted for both trench and more open fighting. Flexible defense, where you deployed small groups of troops to the front to hold the line and reserves to the back allowed them to delay and then counter-attack an enemy attack both tactically and operationally (note – tactics involves small units, operations divisions and corps and strategy large armies and logistics). A quick counter-attack to retake lost territory while the enemy was still trying to organize his defense, bring his heavy weapons up, entrench and re-align his artillery to provide defensive fire was often devastatingly effective.
On the offence, the Germans had developed infiltration tactics, meaning that small heavily armed groups of men would attack and bypass strong-points and heavy resistance to allow following troops to neutralize them, and continue deep into the enemy line to attack support weapons, artillery and logistics and other rear area troops to cause the most destruction.
Building on these two doctrines, the Germans added a concentration of force – especially tanks – and the idea of punching even deeper to completely disrupt the enemy force. This is what Anglo-Saxon sources love to call‘Blitzkrieg’ (the Germans themselves never gave it a name other than ‘Schwerpunkt’ – “main focus, focal point, center of gravity”). Combined with a strong air force and close co-operation between tactical bombers (German infantry would often have Luftwaffe liaison officers attached for communication and requests of air support), the Germans brought a revolutionizing co-ordination and focus on air support to the battlefield in World War Two.
German NCOs were extremely well trained – the Reichswehr, the 100 000 man army the Wiemar Republic was allowed was trained so that every soldier could be an NCO, every NCO an officer and so on, to allow for a rapid expansion. German NCOs led from the front, died at a higher rate than regular soldiers, trained with their soldiers, ate with their soldiers and brought a very strong unit cohesion to German units, especially early war. It can probably be said that German NCOs led and kept the German army together throughout the war.
German officers and NCOs were not only very well trained – they were also allowed an extreme level of independence of action in what the Germans called auftragstaktik, or mission tactics. The unit was given a mission to solve and allowed a high degree of freedom to solve the mission how they saw most fit (as they were on the ground close to the objective). NCOs and lower officers were also encouraged to take opportunities without waiting for orders as the time to get a confirmation from higher command could mean that the opportunity was lost.
The Germans excelled in tactics and operations, but were not as good in artillery tactics, logistics and strategy as their opponents, especially the British and Americans.
Auftragstaktik was picked up by the Western Allies after the war, and is more or less standard for any western army today. Combined arms warfare, adapted to the armies of the time, is also standard in all armies today, as is concentration of armored assets in specialized divisions.
The Soviets entered World War Two with an interesting mix of experience from World War One, the Russian Civil War, their own type of deep battle doctrine and a political reversal of much of this, which proved disastrous.
The Eastern Front was never as locked or entrenched as the Western Front had been in World War One. The massed attack was on several occasions more successful here – the Central Powers broke through at Gorlice-Tarnow 1915, the Russians almost broke the Austro-Hungarians at the Brusilov offensive 1916 and the Germans managed to break Russia with their Baltic offensive 1917.
The Russian Civil War had also seen armies operating mostly independently from each other with a for the time minimal logistics train.
Generally, the Soviets had experienced that the more strong-willed and politically coherent army would win but also that adding resources to a successful attack would produce excellent results.
Tactically, the Soviets focused on overwhelming firepower and force on the attack and tenacity, excellent entrenchment and camouflage on the defense. The Soviets had also developed their own version of theschwerpunkt idea in their deep battle doctrine, in which armored, mechanized and cavalry formations would be grouped together, force a breakthrough and then act independently by rushing through and going for the deep of the enemy territory.
However, the 1937 and 1938 purges changed this. The idea of deep battle was lost, and armor was assigned to the infantry for support, although some dedicated mechanized and armored formations remained, as well as a large independent cavalry force. The purges also froze the initiative of the Red Army – NCOs and officers would not dare to do anything without orders for the risk of being accused of being a traitor. Tactical flexibility suffered heavily as a result.
In Spain, the Soviets more or less re-built the Spanish army 1937 along Soviet lines and tried to use zeal and discipline as replacements of tactical flexibility – while the Republicans had plenty of zeal, most soldiers came from the various militias and were unused to military discipline. The attempt to replace firepower and tactical flexibility with zeal and discipline spelled disaster during the Ebro offensive.
The Soviet system also proved devastatingly lousy during the Finnish Winter War. The lack of tactical flexibility, the lack of a short-range and long-range patrol doctrine in dense terrain (things the Finns excelled at) as well as operational and strategical planning failure in sending mechanized or motorized heavy formations into dense forests where they were road-bound and easy to cut up in mottis proved the failure of the Soviet system.
However, the Soviets did learn a lot from Finland, lessons they would put to good use against the Germans on the Eastern Front once they had recovered from the initial shock.
1941 the Red Army could in some circumstances be described as an armed mob without any real communications, leadership or even purpose.
The 1945 Red Army was a completely different beast and one of the best armies in the world. What happened?
The losses in Finland, and especially in the first year of the Eastern Front shock the Soviets to the core and allowed them to start learning what they were good at – but especially what they were not good at.
The Soviets understood that they could not match the Germans in tactical flexibility and in the training and education of NCOs and lower officers (since they did not have the same stock of educated people to draw from and because of the extreme casualties they suffered). So the Soviets developed that they called an operational doctrine. Specialized staffs of officers from the central command, STAVKA, was attached to sectors of the front where heavy fighting was expected. Heavy artillery, which had been attached to divisions and made them heavy and unwieldy (and hard to use since the divisions lacked the radio equipment and dedicated artillery staff as well as forward observers etc to use it well), was moved to special artillery formations. Large armored and mechanized formations were created and placed under high command orders.
These formations were attached to these staffs and used where it was deemed necessary. If an attack ran into heavy resistance and slowed down, resources was quickly shifted to a part of a front where the attack was more successful.
Adding to this was maskirovka or large scale camouflage and deception. Hiding troops by radio silence, camouflaging large formations and especially creating the false impressions they were at another part of the front by laying phone lines, creating massive radio chatter, placing dummy tanks and artillery and have trucks run back and forth to create the impression of new roads and well-used supply lines, the Soviets concentrated overwhelming force and tricked the Germans into assigning their reserves elsewhere and then used operational flexibility to keep their enemies off their balance.
The Soviets, learning from the Finns, also created the idea of constant small raids, patrols and infiltration for information gathering at a large scale – the Western Allies and the Germans had used patrol activity to take prisoners and do reconnaissance on the Western Front in World War One, but the Finns taught the Soviets about long-range patrol activity, something which they used frequently and with good effect against the Germans.
The western allies developed their own version of maskirovka (notably by creating their false army that was to attack Calais on D-day), but the Soviets pioneered it, and it became standard tactics for all armies, although at a larger scale and more common among the Soviets and their Warsaw Pact allies during the Cold War.
Long-range patrol activity is now also a very common concept in all armies – special forces usually take this duty nowadays, akin to how the British commandos operated during World War Two.
The British exited World War One with several sets of experiences. They had excelled at logistics and firepower and towards the end of the war, at the pre-planned set piece battle. The British focused on overwhelming firepower and protected movement during the inter-war years and developed the Universal Carrier to carry mortars, MGs and other support weapons for the infantry to allow them to protect themselves against a German-style flexible defense counter-attack. It would also provide a (lightly) armored LMG carrier for the troops to advance (or retreat) behind, akin to a mobile MG bunker.
On a larger scale, the British had re-introduced conscription in January 1939 and were still in the process of building a large modern force when World War Two started. Large parts of the forces employed by the British all over the Empire were more suited to colonial police duties than to modern warfare. This can be seen in how differently several Indian divisions, such as the 4. and 5. performed expertly, while others melted away at the sight of the enemy. The British were scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel and had problems manning all of their large Empire, the front against the Japanese in India, the North African theater (later Italian theater) and then the Western Front in France, not even speaking of the extensive air war, the Royal Navy and the merchant navy all over the world needed to supply their vast Empire. The British started to form armored divisions 1940, but clung to a flawed doctrine of infantry (for infantry support) and cruiser (for penetration and fast movement) tanks.
The British did very well in logistics. Pre-planning logistics, building infrastructure and ensuring supplies were in place. The British built railroads from Alexandria to El Alamein and from El Alamein to Tobruk in very short time to supply their troops. Likewise, the mulberry harbors to supply the troops landed in the Normandy invasion was a British innovation.
They were surely superior in mobile warfare to the Italians in the desert during Operation Compass, but came up short against the Germans.
Strategically, the British focused on logistics and decisive set-piece battle. Buy time to bring their logistic superiority to bear, fix the enemy in one place and grind him down through superior firepower, superior logistics and superior numbers. The only real step away from this the British conducted in World War Two was the Market-Garden operation, where the British 30. Corps was to link up with previously dropped airborne forces along a very narrow front, seizing bridges, routing the opposition and entering the Rhur area and ending the war. The operation failed due to faulty intelligence and German resilience.
The British had a strong tradition of dominating the terrain around an enemy from World War One and trench patrols and used this actively throughout the war. They also developed this into the long-range raids of the commandos and the LRDG (Long-Range Desert Group) which would consist of highly trained troops inserting themselves behind enemy lines for sabotage and raiding as well as intelligence gathering.
The long-range insertion of special forces still lives as a concept of most western armies. The level of logistics established by the British and their pre-planned logistics is still the mainstay of western warfare.
While the French were knocked out in 1940, before that they were considered the primary land power of the world and their tactics and doctrine were widely copied.
The French had suffered extreme casualties being on the offensive during World War One and thus focused on the defensive. The French wanted to be operationally on the offensive and tactically on the defensive. They developed excellent medium and light mortars and their system (Brandt) is still in use with all mortars in the world today. The French alternatively believed in the decisive battle or the slow, attritional warfare and mostly a combination of both.
The French wanted to move into Belgium to ensure fighting did not happen on French soil (since northern France held most of the French industry and coal and iron deposits) and to grind down the enemy there – they were prepared to take large casualties in this battle, as long as the enemy took more. The combination of a British blockade, intact French industry and the combined eventual strength of the British and Commonwealth Armies, the French Army and the Belgian Army was supposed to be able to grind the Germans down.
The French artillery system of pre-calculating artillery data for any possibility as soon as a battery has placed itself was revolutionizing for the time and had served them extremely well towards the end of World War One. Their divisions included heavy artillery for counter-battery fire and (as opposed to its Soviet counterpart) the artillery staff, supply service and forward observers to use it effectively. However, it was a system entirely unsuitable for mobile warfare. It was intended for the set-piece battle and slow-moving front of World War One. However, the basis of this system of pre-calculating artillery firing data, developed further by the British and especially the Americans to today’s modern system.
The French also formed the balanced armored division in their Division Légère Mécanique – infantry in armored tracked transports, a strong armored component, a strong reconnaissance component, a strong artillery component with half-tracked transport and its own integral engineering part. This basic design turned out to be how all armored formation would look towards the end of the war.
The US had, as opposed to other powers that had fought World War One, a strong belief in the individual firepower of the rifleman and a disdain for the LMG. While other countries focused heavily on magazine-fed LMGs with rapidly interchangeable barrels (or in the German case, a rather heavy GPMG in the MG 34 and MG 42), the US issued semi-automatic rifles and automatic rifles (without an interchangeable barrel, the BAR was not an LMG as it could not provide sustained fire) and relatively few MGs and all of them (except for the paratroopers) on unwieldy and heavy tripods.
The US built surprisingly much of their doctrines on French and to some extent British ideas. The pre-World War One US army had been very small and mostly fighting colonial police battles rather than European regular forces, and was cut down drastically after World War One. The budding armored corps was disbanded and what few vehicles were developed given to the still horsed cavalry.
The US had a belief that a rifle squad would be able to provide its own covering fire with rifles, which turned out to be less than ideal. The US also believed that tanks would not fight other tanks – that was the job of tank destroyers. Tank destroyers and sometimes also tanks were attached to infantry formations to help them fight tanks and tanks were equipped with weapons more suited to fire high-explosive shells.
The US also created very tank-heavy formations that looked quite a bit like the early German panzer divisions with what was probably too little artillery and infantry for the armored division to act on its own against a prepared enemy.
The Americans learned logistics from the British and built a supply system that outdid their old masters. They learned artillery tactics from the French and outdid them too by pre-calculating a lot of the data needed for defensive artillery fire and bringing down the time from fire request to accurate fire to mere minutes.
One can study which nations built assault guns – artillery on turret-less tanks. The Italians, Germans, Hungarians and Soviets did – the British, French and Americans did not. Because they did not need direct artillery fire against enemy bunkers, MG nests and trenches, since they could quickly call down accurate artillery fire on the problem.
The US learned from the French and included massive amounts of mortars in their formations.
Above all, the US had what no-one else had. The industrial capacity to actually build, move and supply forces entirely mechanized and motorized (the British did it too, at least on the Western Front, a lot of their troops on other theaters were on foot). While the Germans never reached more than 17% of their forces motorized, armored or mechanized, the US reached 100%.
Strategically, the Americans learned from the French again – a broad front, grinding the enemy down and then pursuing violently (as the French plan for 1940 had been). When Montgomery’s Market-Garden failed, Eisenhower did not allow for any exceptions to the broad front – no narrow spearheads that could be cut off.
Rommel was able to get a combat command due to his relationship with Hitler. Rommel had known Hitler for years and had asked Hitler for a combat command. In France his division became known as the Ghost Division. That’s generally seen as praise. However, it was called that because no one in his own chain of command ever knew where it was because Rommel kept out running his own lines of communication and command. If his French opponents had been more on the ball they could have cut him off in a Kessel (surrounded) and destroyed him.
German military officers were trained to think for themselves. Today this is known as Mission Type Tactics. The commander was supposed to give an order which stated the resources available to be used (troops, tanks, etc) and the objective. It was up to the lower ranked officers to use their own initiative in how to obtain the objective.
Rommel however was quite an interfering General. He gave orders with specific instructions and expected them to be followed to the letter. He would also drive around the front and give orders to soldiers thus cutting their actual officers off (there’s accounts of him issuing individual targets to anti tank guns rather than let their own officers decide and almost being killed by the return fire. In fact, Rommel lost quite a few aids while “touring” the front in this manner). This could lead to confusion and also resentment. Rommel was loved by the enlisted men under his command and quite detested by his officers as they considered him interfering and that he didn’t trust them to do their actual jobs.
By going around the front Rommel also quite often cut himself off from everyone. No one knew where he was and it could be quite difficult to get in communication with him.
People also seem to cherry pick things Rommel did or said to prove he was great. They will point out that Rommel believed the Allies would invade Normandy but then leave out that he thought said invasion would be a feint which made him like every other German officer.
I also think that Rommel looked good in North Africa due to the Allies helping him with that image. Churchill “stole” quite a lot of troops from Wavell for the impossible task of defending Greece. Wavell was so worried about his job that he didn’t say anything and thus made it easier for Rommel to attack him, which Rommel did against orders. Wavell also isn’t considered one of Britain’s finest. It is easier to look great if your opponent isn’t.
A lot of people try to make North Africa look like this huge battle for the control of the Suez Canal, to block access to oil fields in the Middle East, etc and thus state that Rommel was sent there as he was the best of the best. In reality the years of war in North Africa were pretty much because Rommel disobeyed orders to not attack.
Which leads me to my next point that if Rommel was so great why wasn’t he on the Eastern Front? Why was he never given that “prestigious and highly important command?” In the West we like to “pretend” that North Africa and Western Europe were every bit as important as the Russian Front, but to the Germans the Russian Front was it. That’s where they sent over 2/3 of their military and suffered 80% of their casualties. Rommel wasn’t even privy to knowing that the invasion of the Soviet Union would be happening which is why he thought when he launched his attack across North Africa that he would quickly be given all the men and supplies he would need. Sadly for him this wouldn’t be the case.
Rommel though was a gallant enemy. He didn’t order his men to execute troops. He didn’t set out to oppress Jewish populations. If he could have avoided this on the Eastern Front we’ll never know, but we can credit him for it where he did fight. In fact, he is said to have ripped up an order from Hitler that ordered him to execute prisoners and then announced that the order wasn’t clear to those around him.
The Australian General Morshead considered Rommel to be highly predictable in how he would initially attack. This is one of the reasons why he failed to take Tobruk from the mostly Australian garrison. Morshead was able to time and time again work out where Rommel would attack and would have the needed defences there to resist. Morshead said that if Rommel had shown a bit more unpredictability the “Fortress” would have fallen as the defenders did not have enough antitank guns, etc to defend everywhere.
I feel that a lot of people talk Rommel up because he’s well known and he’s the “Nazi” you can openly talk about respecting without people looking at you funny. However, I would say he was a mediocre general who was promoted above his means due to his relationship with Hitler. He was a captain trapped in the body of a General/Field Marshal. As a captain things he did wouldn’t have been a problem, in fact they would have worked well. As a general though he acted as a captain. Rommel is quite often praised for his tactical abilities. Tactics though (the small scale stuff, what soldiers do in battle) wasn’t supposed to be what a general worried about.