Beginning of the End. German assault units in Operation Michael, 1918
Assault detachment in Operation Michael 1918. MP18 submachine guns were only used by assault units and earned the love of fighters and the nickname Grabenfeger (trench broom). A flamethrower is also visible in the illustration. Spotted camouflage is featured on most soldier helmets (Waffenkultur/Osprey Publishing).
This material continues the series of articles on the German assault units in the First World War.
The first part - "German Assault Units in the First World War".
Transfer Articles "Der Anfang der Ende", published in the German online magazine Waffenkultur (waffenkultur.de) No. 67
Author: Christian Vaeth
Translator's note. This article deals with the first of five offensive operations undertaken by the German army on the western front against the Entente countries in March-June 1918 and united by the concept of "Spring Offensive of 1918". In Russian-language sources, this first offensive is often referred to as Operation Michael. In the German language (and in the original article) the name "Kaiserschlacht" prevails. In turn, this name is often transferred to the entire spring offensive.
The spring offensive of 1918 was Germany's last attempt to seize the initiative on the western front of the First World War. Here there was a large-scale participation of assault units. We will consider the first hours of the offensive, which was the peak of their actions.
After the conclusion of a truce with Russia, the German Empire was able, from December 1917, to transfer about 50 divisions from east to west and secure a numerical superiority on the western front for several months. The Germans had a small window of opportunity until the moment when the United States, which entered the war in April 1917, would be fully involved in the fighting.
Finding a way out of positional impasse
The Schlieffen plan at the time called for a wide enveloping maneuver through Belgium and northern France as far as Paris, with the aim of quickly defeating France before British troops arrived to help her. After that, it was planned to transfer the released forces against Russia. Rapid success in the west was the only chance for the German Empire to achieve victory in a war on two fronts.
But after the rapid successes of the first days, the German offensive stopped, resting on the enemy’s positional defense bristling with many machine guns, which could not be broken through, even at the cost of huge losses. None of the warring parties was ready to oppose anything to the crushing fire of the new weapons.
The organization and training system of the troops were still influenced by the old doctrines. For more than three years, the forces of the Entente and the Central Powers have been trying to achieve a strategic breakthrough on the western front, which would lead to the encirclement of large enemy forces. While on the eastern front, in the south, in the Middle East, after the breakthroughs of the front, hostilities assumed a maneuverable character in 1917, in the west, an exhausting positional war continued. The firepower concentrated in a relatively small space nipped in the bud any offensive attempts.
The German "spring offensive" of 1918 was a series of offensive operations that lasted from March to July, which ultimately did not lead the German army to success. Military historians agree that this large-scale offensive failed in the first day. After impressive tactical successes, the last German attempt to shift the war from position to maneuver failed. Although this offensive was the high point of the German assault battalions and assault tactics in general.
In this article, we will consider the first hours of Operation Michael, the first of a series of operations in the spring offensive.
Neither side on the western front from 1914 to 1918 managed to achieve a breakthrough of the front. Therefore, General Ludendorff, planning the offensive of 1918, was not going to leave anything to chance, and also wanted to use new tactics. The best commanders from all over the army were gathered in order to analyze the experience of battles in all sectors of the front and at all command levels.
The result of this work was, among other things, a series of instructions “Offensive in a positional war”, the author of which was Captain Hermann Geyer (Hermann Geyer, in World War II - general, commander of the IX AK in campaigns against France and the USSR. - Approx. Translator), about it will be discussed below. The planning of the future offensive was based on them.
The most famous member of this expert group was Colonel Georg Bruchmueller (Georg Bruchmueller), who distinguished himself as early as 1916 near Verdun, and earned the nickname Durchbruchsmueller (Muller-breakthrough) for his skillful control of artillery fire. The fact that this ordinary artillery officer was appointed advisor to the commander in chief on the western front for artillery, speaks of how flexible and focused on real achievements the German military leadership had become by this time. In a British or French army, this would have been unthinkable.
The achievements of the German command in the field of organization and supply are still impressive. Thousands of guns, such as this 21-cm mortar, along with ammunition and other supplies, were to be pulled by rail and horse-drawn transport to the area of \uXNUMXb\uXNUMXbthe future offensive from all over the empire. On the massive use of mechanized traction, as was the case with Western opponents, the Germans could only dream of. (Waffenkultur / Imperial War Museum)
When planning artillery preparation, it was necessary to make a choice between many days of shelling and a short intensive artillery attack. Prolonged shelling led to more severe destruction of the enemy defenses, but, on the other hand, gave the enemy time to prepare to repel the offensive and bring up reserves. Therefore, it was decided to limit ourselves to a relatively short five-hour artillery preparation. For this, half of all the guns that were available in the German army on the western front were assembled.
Thus, a hitherto unprecedented concentration of artillery was achieved: 6 guns were to fire 473 million shells. This also meant the need for covert transfer and storage of a huge amount of ammunition, as well as the movement of 1,16 guns from the eastern front and their zeroing. With all the rigidity of planning, it took eight weeks.
To reduce losses from enemy artillery fire in some sectors of the front, an unusually large number of shells with poison gas - chlorine and phosgene - were collected. The ratio of explosive and gas shells in such cases was 1:4. With their help, it was planned to disable enemy artillerymen. On the salient of the front at Flesquières, where large-scale attacks were not planned, mustard gas was preferred.
News there was also the depth of artillery fire: the artillery preparation plan provided for the destruction of road intersections, places of possible concentration of reserves, command posts many kilometers away from the front line. But
purposeful aerial reconnaissance of these targets would be a warning to the enemy. Therefore, planning was carried out mainly on the basis of maps - the most difficult task for staff officers.
The preparation plan was as follows:
4:40 - the first phase of artillery preparation - stunning fire from all barrels at enemy artillery positions, command posts, communication centers, and troop deployment sites; duration - 120 minutes; twenty minutes later, all trench mortars cease fire and redeploy directly to the front line;
from 5:30 transfer of all fire to the first line of enemy trenches;
6:40 - the second, third and fourth phases of artillery preparation - a series of three ten-minute artillery attacks; during each ten-minute period, one-third of the artillery transfers fire to new targets while the rest continue to fire continuously;
7:10 - the fifth phase of artillery preparation, lasting 70 minutes; the first 30 minutes - concentrated fire on the first line of enemy fortifications, then for 15 minutes the transfer of fire to the space between the trench lines to prevent the transfer of forces; the next 15 minutes - the suppression of the remaining enemy firing points, and finally 10 minutes of shelling with gas shells;
8:20 - repetition of the fifth phase, with some change in goals; duration 75 minutes;
9:35 - the seventh phase of artillery preparation - the last 5 minutes before the infantry attack; howitzers fire in no man's land, as close as possible to their own infantry; all mortars and field guns fire high-explosive shells at the front line of the enemy defenses; all heavy, including railway, guns hit the second line of enemy fortifications;
from 9:40 - support for an infantry attack by creating a barrage of fire with a fire shift of 200 meters every 4 minutes.
One relatively young officer and his ideas, the already mentioned Captain Geyer, had a great influence on the planning of the March offensive. In accordance with this plan, the infantry was to receive maximum freedom of action. Each infantry division was assigned a clearly defined sector of the offensive and its direction. Instead of precise prescriptions about goals, timing and forces involved, the order was limited to the fact that within the assigned boundaries, the division was to advance as quickly and as far as possible, regardless of the situation on its flanks.
Therefore, there were no plans to change the artillery plans for setting up a fire shaft - the fire was transferred forward every 4 minutes, regardless of how far advanced infantry units had advanced by that time. At the spearhead of the attacks in each direction were assault detachments, followed by line regiments and reserves. For the first time, large numbers of artillery units were placed directly at the disposal of infantry commanders for the prompt solution of emerging tasks.
The divisions operating in the most critical sectors were assigned jaeger assault battalions, which had long been practicing assault tactics in battles. These battalions already had an appropriate organizational structure. The battalions included assault: infantry, sapper, artillery, sanitary, etc. units. The fighters of the light assault companies were fully provided with hand grenades and means for destroying fortifications and barbed wire, and trained in the use of these means. Previously, all this was the prerogative of sappers.
In addition to the trench guns and mortars available in heavy weapons platoons, field guns and mortars were attached to the companies. Such an organization anticipated the modern organizational structure of modern infantry battalions.
On the front, about 70 kilometers long, 76 German infantry divisions were concentrated for the offensive. This force was opposed by 26 divisions of the 3rd and 5th armies of the British Expeditionary Force.
Forces of the enemy
At the beginning of the war, the British army was the only one in the world that could compare with the German infantry in terms of the quality of training and weapons. But, unlike Germany, there was no universal conscription in Great Britain. By 1918, in many parts of the British troops there were only a few soldiers with pre-war training, while in the German proportion of those reached one third. Here the superiority of the German conscription system was manifested. One hundred years of continuous preparation of reserves have paid off. At the same time, Britain had at its disposal the human and material resources of a vast colonial empire.
In 1918, the German offensive had to face the new British doctrine of "elastic defense". In accordance with it, defense in depth was divided into a "forward zone" (Forward Zone) and a "combat zone" (Battle Zone). There were relatively few people in the advanced trenches, but they were saturated with machine guns. Their task was to inflict maximum losses on the attacking enemy. At that moment, when the enemy was close to breaking through this line, the forces occupying it had to withdraw, and these positions, together with the enemy who had burst into them, were destroyed by artillery fire.
The Battle Zone was supposed to stop the offensive of the already weakened enemy. Such tactics made it possible to economically spend human resources. The front line was occupied by the troops on the principle of rotation, while the rest - only in the event of an immediate threat. Thus, the personnel were provided with more or less acceptable living conditions.
Since the German troops managed, at the cost of enormous efforts, to keep the preparations for the offensive secret, the opposite side outlined the restructuring of its defense system. It was the 5th British Army, which was at the forefront of the German attack, that only recently took over this sector of the front from the French.
According to the British, the field fortifications were in a terrible state. The troops that made up the 5th Army were also not of the best quality and did not have combat experience. Much better was the position of the 3rd Army, located to the north. It included two tested Scottish divisions and other experienced units.
The allied command assumed that the Germans would launch an offensive in the areas occupied by the French army, which was severely exhausted and weakened by soldiers' riots in 1917.
German offensive plan
By the beginning of 1918, all the German troops that were to take part in the upcoming offensive had undergone intensive training. Assault troops even trained on fortifications that mimic those they would have to overcome.
Final preparations began in February. The enemy was not supposed to detect the arrival of new infantry divisions, artillery, and airplanes at the front. The infantry went only at night, from village to village, in order to go unnoticed by air reconnaissance. Artillery was supposed to take up their positions only a day before the attack.
A few days before March 21, at exactly 12 o'clock, large black balloons rose above the front zone, and exactly ten minutes later they descended again. This was done so that everyone could synchronize their clocks with the clocks of the General Staff.
By 1:00 am on the night of March 20-21, all forces were to reach their original positions. As early as March 20, the British managed to capture a group of twenty German soldiers, who belonged to three different regiments of two different divisions, during one of the sorties. During interrogations, they named the time of the start of the offensive, since in no case did they want to be in British positions at the time the artillery preparation began.
There were still five hours left before the start, but the British did not use their chance to prepare for the upcoming events in any way - an unforgivable mistake. They could avoid big losses by simply taking their places in the Battle Zone. In reality, they had to do this already under the artillery shelling that had begun.
The artillery action plan developed by Colonel Bruchmüller was implemented like clockwork. Assault troops began to attack minute by minute. The lingering "Hurra" customary in such cases was forbidden. Only brief orders from squad, platoon, and company commanders could be heard: “Forward, forward!” Residual enemy resistance in the forward trenches was quickly crushed, and within a few minutes the first line of defense of the British on a front 50 kilometers wide simply ceased to exist. Such a result has not yet been achieved by any of the parties in this war.
A particularly dangerous situation arose for the British on the salient of the front at Flesquieres. The main German strike fell at the junction of the 3rd and 5th armies with the aim of encircling four enemy divisions in Flesquieres within the next 24 hours. The German infantry advanced so quickly that they even captured some of the British artillery batteries in their positions. This had happened before only in the first, maneuverable period of the war in 1914.
The light guns attached to the assault troops did the bulk of the work of destroying British bunkers, firing at them at close range. But such a rapid advance led to the depletion of the forces of the fighters. By the evening of March 21, most of the assault detachments were replaced by linear units and withdrawn to the rear.
In the south, where enemy defenses were particularly weak, the Germans managed to break through the main line of defense of the British on a front 16,5 kilometers wide. But for a breakthrough to the English Channel and the complete defeat of the British Expeditionary Force, a similar breakthrough was needed in the north. And right there were the best British formations, which put up fierce resistance and were able to prevent a breakthrough.
An assault team in a captured British artillery position. The stormtroopers managed to capture a lot of food and other property, which they had not seen for years in exhausted Germany. This caused widespread looting, which slowed the advance in many areas (Waffenkultur/Osprey Publishing).
Hack and predictor Aviator
Germany failed to use the last chance and win a strategic victory in the West before the United States with its huge material and human resources entered the war on the European continent in full force. However, the new assault tactics used by the German army forever changed the organization and methods of infantry action. This innovation, in terms of the importance of its influence on military affairs, can be compared with the appearance of the first tanks. However, for the general public, it remained almost invisible.
Translator's note. The author's laudatory tone in describing the British army seemed strange to me. The Russian military attache in France during the First World War, General Ignatiev, did not highly appreciate the fighting qualities of the British troops. Here is a fragment from his memoirs "50 years in the ranks":
- Ah! Ah! - heard the surprised low exclamations of one or the other of the assembled English commanders. All this was so new and incomprehensible to them, but the patient Frenchman did not lose heart and honestly carried out the assignment assigned to him ... "
The third and final article of the cycle will analyze the experience of the First World War and the development of assault tactics in the Reichswehr of the 1920s.
The ending should ...
- Author: Christian Vaeth. Translation: Slug_BDMP
- Waffenkultur, open sources
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