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"Pillbox Warfare in the Siegfried Line" from Intelligence Bulletin

[Intelligence Bulletin Cover]   Rifle company commanders provide insight into German pillbox warfare in the Siegfried Line in this Jan. 1945 Intelligence Bulletin article.


[Pillbox Warfare in the Siegfried Line]

The commanders of four U.S. rifle companies which have been in contact with the enemy in the Siegfried Line have furnished valuable information about the resistance offered by German pillboxes, and have submitted comments regarding the vulnerability, as well as the capabilities, of these fortifications. The terrain in which these rifle companies have been fighting contains many steep hills (some as high as 500 feet), woods with thick underbrush, and streams. Consequently, most of it is poor tank country. The pillboxes encountered by rifle companies have been of three types: some have had only one aperture, others have had mounted machine guns and two apertures, while still others have simply been personnel shelters. As to density, there has been approximately one pillbox every 100 yards in width and depth, and the fortifications have been mutually supporting. The Germans have had very good observation and an abundance of artillery and mortar support.

None of the company commanders' remarks should be construed as necessarily coinciding with United States Army doctrine.

[U.S. soldiers fire a bazooka into a pillbox in the Siegfried Line.]
U.S. soldiers fire a bazooka into a pillbox in the Siegfried Line.

[A front view of a captured pillbox in the Siegfried Line.]
A front view of a captured pillbox in the Siegfried Line.


"Most of the pillboxes seem to have been constructed to permit long-range fires. Once you get fairly close, there are quite a few dead spaces through which troops can filter. We've found it advisable either to view the routes from a good observation post on the previous day or to make a thorough map reconnaissance. One way of avoiding enemy fire has been to move across open ground, from ridge to ridge, during the hour just before daylight. Although one of our rifle companies gained only 100 yards in a whole day of fighting, because of extremely heavy German mortar and machine-gun fire, the same company caught the Germans unaware in the hour before daylight the next morning. It covered 1,000 yards without losing a man, and took six pillboxes without the aid of supporting weapons."

Cooperation with Mechanized Support

"When tanks or tank destroyers are used, infantry should be deployed, ready to rise and advance with the vehicles as the latter pass through the infantry positions. As I see it, infantry should not be allowed to stop because of mortar or artillery fire, for infantrymen who lose close contact with the tanks are more vulnerable, and the demoralizing effect of an infantry-tank assault upon the Germans is lost."

Assault Teams

"Each member of an assault team must know not only his own weapon and his own mission, but the weapon and mission of everyone else on the team. That is, he must be familiar with flame throwers, demolition charges, rocket launchers, and so on. Sometimes each rifle platoon is assigned a fixed zone of responsibility. Each pillbox becomes a phase line for coordination and reorganization. In many instances a single platoon, by firing at the embrasures, will cause two or three German pillboxes to `button up'. However, the Germans often will continue to fire through small slits in the embrasures. The fact that pillboxes are mutually supporting very definitely is something to remember. This is why our plans always include fire on flanking pillboxes, as well as on those which are to be assaulted."

Use of Smoke

"The saying that a blind man cannot shoot straight can be equally true of German pillboxes. While it is not always possible or desirable to use smoke, a pillbox which has received smoke and white phosphorus from 81-mm mortars and artillery is at a great disadvantage when the actual assault takes place."

Infantry and Direct Supporting Fire

"Supporting weapons, such as tanks, which have been placing direct fire on pillbox apertures should cease fire without signal as soon as the infantry comes within 25 yards of the pillbox. The Germans are likely to keep an aperture closed if the infantrymen nearest it take it under fire immediately. If two flanking groups of three or four men each take up positions in the rear of the pillbox, they can cover the rear entrance and apertures. If the support squad locates the embrasures in the supporting pillboxes and keeps them covered with fire, German capabilities are reduced proportionately. The rest of the company or platoon should move past the pillbox and secure the ground beyond it, to protect the assault team while the latter does its job."

[This U. S. soldier is peering into an abandoned German pillbox.]
This U. S. soldier is peering into an abandoned German pillbox.

[A U. S. tank destroyer has blasted this Siegfried Line pillbox with devastating fire from its 75.]
A U.S. tank destroyer has blasted this Siegfried Line pillbox with
devastating fire from its 75.

Possible Surrender

"We have a man work his way close to the pillbox, so that he can throw in a fragmentation grenade or white phosphorus grenade. When there is a quiet moment, he shouts, 'Kamerad?' and 'Wir schutzen nicht!' ('We won't shoot!'). Often the occupants of the pillbox will give up at this stage. If they don't surrender, use of rifle grenades or the bazooka against the steel doors or apertures may have the desired effect. For safety's sake, other riflemen cover all fire ports while this is going on."

Digging Them Out

"If the Germans refuse to surrender, some of our men work their way to the blind side of the pillbox and blow the embrasures with TNT. After this, working from the top, we place a pole charge against the door. We never allow anyone to enter the excavated area behind the pillbox, inasmuch as the Germans always cover it by means of a small embrasure built especially for this purpose. In no circumstance do we allow anyone to enter the pillbox to take prisoners. We make them come to us. Sometimes they claim that they are injured, but we have found that after a second charge of TNT they somehow manage to walk out.

"Antipersonnel mines may be found in the approaches to pillboxes. We always keep half an eye on the ground, just in case."

Other Methods

"We have found that when the preceding measures fail, Siegfried Line pillboxes may be susceptible to still other assault methods. A demolition charge can be used, tanks can blast in the rear of the pillboxes, or a tank dozer can cover the door and embrasures with dirt. The use of tank dozers may not prove successful in the future because the Jerries are planting mines, some of them activated by remote control, as a countermeasure. The one time we used a flame thrower and a pole charge together, the combination started a fire inside the pillbox. Some ammunition got going, and the resulting confusion was all in our favor."

White-phosphorus Grenades

"After an embrasure has been blown out, the Germans often will remain in the pillbox until they have been persuaded to leave by a flame thrower or by hand grenades. A hand grenade in the ventilator of a pillbox sometimes stuns the Boche, but a white-phosphorus grenade in the same air shaft is likely to prove a great little reviver."


"Even if the enemy surrenders, there may be some men who will not come out. Keeping the pillbox covered and throwing a grenade into each room before entering it is our favorite way of preventing further trouble."

Making Pillboxes Useless

"The Germans try to reoccupy pillboxes whenever possible. For this reason we believe in demolishing the fortifications immediately. Six pillboxes in our portion of the Line have had to be taken three times. Merely blowing apertures and doors is not enough to make pillboxes untenable. We find that they must be completely destroyed right down to the ground. If even one wall is left standing, the Germans may use it as a place to fight from. This is why we like to have men follow close behind us with the necessary equipment to destroy the pillboxes completely."

Readiness to Meet Counterattacks

"After a pillbox has been taken, deployment to the front and flank is a reasonable precaution against a German counterattack. We find it necessary to be ready for the rain of German mortar and artillery, fire which always follows our capture of a pillbox. Bunching up around prisoners is a dangerous business. Since Jerry is quite prepared to shoot his own men rather than let them be taken prisoner, it's a good trick to send them to the rear as quickly as possible.

"At least 1 hour before nightfall is a good time to halt an attack — and even earlier, if possible — inasmuch as it's absolutely necessary to set up a proper defense. The Germans will launch a strong counterattack right after dark, and if you are not well organized, they will push you off your hard-won ground.

"When we intend to occupy a position, our men dig in, choosing spots around and between the pillboxes. If we use a pillbox as a rest position, to relieve our men from their fighting positions, we take care not to let an enemy counterattack catch us bunched up inside it. German combat patrols sometimes send one or two men around our flank to knock out our machine guns when the counterattack is being made from the front. The enemy hope that we'll be so interested in firing to the front, to meet the main attack, that we'll neglect to watch our flanks and rear."

[Rear view of a well camouflaged German pillbox, part of the Siegfried Line defenses near Aachen.]
Rear view of a well camouflaged German pillbox, part of the
Siegfried Line defenses near Aachen.

When the Counterattack Comes

"German counterattacks have been made after nightfall, and have been preceded by a lot of shouting and talking. This is supposed to be nervewracking. However, when our troops have organized their positions well and are thoroughly alert, it is the enemy who suffers, instead. We have had success with 60-mm illuminating shells in lighting up these attacks. We hold our fire until Jerry comes in close, and then we cut him down in our final protective line. We use plenty of grenades, both fragmentation and white phosphorus. And when Jerry retreats, we follow him with fire and with fragmentation rifle grenades."

A Rifle Company vs. Three Pillboxes

"On 15 September our rifle company attacked a hill on which there were three pillboxes. Because of heavy fog, our tank destroyers could not fire; nevertheless, at 0730 we were within 50 yards of the pillboxes.

"We moved sufficiently near the pillboxes to place fire on the apertures, causing them to close. This took a BAR and a couple of riflemen. When the apertures were closed, we moved around to the rear of the pillboxes. Those men who were not part of the assault section moved out beyond the pillboxes and secured the hill which was our objective. The assault teams were left to reduce the pillboxes. These teams then closed in on the pillboxes from the rear. We called for the Germans to surrender, but they fired a few scattered rounds in return. We then fired two bazooka rounds into the door at the rear of each pillbox. In the case of two of the pillboxes, the bazooka and a couple of hand grenades thrown through the doors brought the Germans out into the open. We collected four prisoners from one box and six from the other.

"The Germans in the third pillbox refused to come out. This presented a bit of a problem. A couple of bazooka rounds fired at the door, as well as a couple of hand grenades thrown through the door, merely drove the Jerries from one room to another. Finally they were driven into the room when the aperture was. A short burst of the flame thrower changed their minds about surrendering."

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