German tactics in withdrawal and delaying actions in Italy have followed, in
general, the directions for the conduct of a delaying action as issued by
General Heidrich, commanding the 1st Parachute Division, on 27 September 1943. A
translation of General Heidrich's directive follows.
* * *
a. Basic Principles
(1) Delaying action is a tactical concept for commanders. As far as
the troops are concerned, they will fight in accordance with the general rules for
a defensive battle. The purpose of the action is to delay an enemy's advance, to
inflict casualties, and to deceive him in every possible manner. For this a
commander with initiative and adaptability is essential.
(2) Delaying actions will not be fought on a main defensive line, but on
successive lines of resistance. The distance between such lines will be great
enough to prevent the enemy from engaging two of them from the same artillery
positions. He must be obliged to move up his artillery to each line. The maximum
range of British field and medium guns is 10 to 12 kilometers. It is best to site
these lines of resistance along forward edges so that it is always possible to
disengage and withdraw under cover.
(3) Where fighting occurs before lines of resistance, the ideal is to carry
it out with mobile forces. In addition, battle outposts will be organized in front
of each line. It is particularly important during the fighting of a delaying action
to maintain intensive reconnaissance patrols and keep watch over a large area, so
that the enemy's line of advance can be speedily noted.
(4) During a delaying action wide sectors will be allotted and covered by
artillery units widely deployed; guns will be sited in sections if necessary, and
heavy infantry weapons widely distributed. The defense will then be organized
by setting up strong-points manned by small groups. As a general rule, a company
will be responsible for double the front normally allocated in defensive fighting.
Delaying actions are characterized by very slight depth.
(5) In a line of resistance it is most advisable to disengage from the enemy
by night. If that is not possible, the following basic principles will be observed in
detail by commanders: (a) a time limit, or (b) a distance will be laid down--i.e., I must
not allow the enemy to come closer to me than I am to my next line of
resistance. The troops must reach the new position before the enemy reaches the
old one. The battle will be broken off and troops will retire to a new line of
resistance when the enemy crosses the first line in force.
The troops will therefore not retire in the face of enemy patrols but only
when the enemy really mounts an attack. If it can be ascertained that the enemy
is preparing for a massed attack, the main consideration is to make a timely
withdrawal, so that our troops will not be exposed to enemy artillery concentrations.
Advance elements must have smoke candles to enable them to make a getaway
in a critical situation. Riflemen will cover the disengagement of the heavy
weapons. The aim should be to leapfrog the heavy weapons back. Every opportunity
to inflict casualties on an enemy advancing recklessly must be taken by carrying
out limited counterattacks.
Fire will be opened at extreme ranges on an enemy advancing for a major
attack. Enemy reconnaissance will, however, be allowed to approach and then be
(6) The area between the lines of resistance is called the intermediate
area (Zwischenfeld). Explicit orders will be given whether the intermediate area
will be covered in one bound or will be contested. The latter possibility arises
especially when the next line of resistance has not been fully prepared and time
must be gained. Detachments must reach the second line of resistance early
enough to ensure that all the main positions are occupied in good time.
(7) The supply of ammunition must be carefully organized. A great deal
of ammunition is required for delaying actions because a few weapons on a broad
front must do as much as, or even more, than the firing done by the normal number
of weapons in defense. When the supply of ammunition is limited it must be
specified how much ammunition may be used by each position. All responsible
ranks must plan in advance.
(8) In order to overcome subsequent difficulties, every commander must
have some sort of reserve.
(9) It is especially important to deceive the enemy by every means. These
include continual moving of artillery and heavy weapons, to give the impression
of greater strength; dummy positions, camouflage, setting of booby traps, wide
employment of all types of obstructions.
(10) So that individual units may be adequately directed, signal communications
must receive special attention.
(11) Defensive actions must be completely understood in this type of warfare
if literally all possibilities are to be exploited to inflict losses on the enemy.
* * *
b. Conclusions From Above Directive
An Allied study of the above directive leads to the conclusion that in Allied
operations against a German delaying action, contact is made, in general, with three
main forms of German opposition: rear guard, battle-or-combat groups and
strong-points or centers of resistance.
(1) Rear Guard
Where possible, a German divisional withdrawal takes place on two parallel
lanes. A typical rear guard for each lane is one infantry battalion to which are
normally attached elements of the reconnaissance and engineer units to watch
the flanks and to prepare and execute demolitions. Self-propelled heavy infantry
support guns and even howitzers are frequently employed in the rear guard, but
generally the divisional field artillery withdraws with the main body.
The rear guard infantry battalion normally employs one of its rifle
companies only on active rear guard tasks. The three rifle companies perform
this function in turn as long as their strength remains approximately even. If the
terrain demands it, two companies are employed at a time. In support of the company
or companies acting as rear screen are two or more antitank guns from the battalion
heavy company and half the self-propelled or heavy infantry support guns allotted
to the full rear guard. The normal process when pressure becomes too strong is
to withdraw the single rifle company through the two remaining rifle companies
which are supported by the remainder of the weapons•, and the leap-frogging process
is continued until darkness when a general disengagement takes place and the
original formation is resumed.
Rear guards withdraw by bounds to selected but not to prepared positions.
The extent to which positions can eventually be prepared depends on the proximity
of the pursuit, the probable length of time each particular position is to be held,
and on the decision of the individual company and platoon commanders. During
each stage of the withdrawal, individual company commanders can order retirement
to the main rear guard positions, but withdrawal from each main rear guard position
to the next is ordered by the commander of the main body. Frequently the speed
of withdrawal is on a time basis. During the withdrawal from Calabria, rear
guards were instructed to retire not more than three kilometers a day.
Experience in Italy generally has shown that the reinforced rear guard
company in certain types of country can hold up very superior forces on a front
as wide as three miles. For example, on retiring from the Volturno River (see
Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 45, p. 47), the Hermann Goring Division, which
had one panzer grenadier battalion and attached elements as its rear guard, was
covered by one rifle company reinforced by a squadron of tanks, four infantry guns
(including two self-propelled), and a battery of medium howitzers. The tanks were
mainly used to cover the withdrawal of the rifle elements. On another occasion
a similar rear guard had a number of heavy mortars attached. These covered
the infantry withdrawal together with four tanks which finally carried the mortars
back to the next bound.
Battle groups are normally organized for the execution of some specific
task during the withdrawal, such as local counterattack or the defense of some
particular feature the retention of which is necessary to the conduct of the main
The term battle-group is used by the Germans to designate any unit or
group of units reinforced in such a way as to be as nearly as possible
self-sufficient in combat, and placed under command of a single person or headquarters
for carrying out specific combat missions. Battle-groups vary in size from a
company with attached close-support weapons, to a regiment or several battalions
reinforced with tanks, artillery, antiaircraft, engineers and reconnaissance elements.
They may be organized for short or long or changing missions according to the
prevailing battlefield conditions and the plans of the commanders.
The projected battle tasks having been taken into considerations, the
composition of a new battle-group will directly depend upon the immediate tactical
situation and the availability of troops. When available units are strong, and there
is plenty of time for preparation, a new battle-group will be of a mobile and
well-balanced character. In contrast, if time is pressing and available units are
scattered and weak, the resulting group may be made up of normally disassociated
units and sub-units quickly thrown together to save the situation or to gain a
In view of the varied and ever-changing determining factors, battle-groups
seldom show any similarity to each other in composition or tactical employment.
Nevertheless, most battle-groups have three elements in common, namely assault,
holding, and support elements. Groups formed for purely defensive action, however,
may lack the assault element.
In the case of battle-groups encountered in Italy, it has been observed that
the composition has been dictated far less by the theory of what units should be
put together to form a self-sufficient combat force than by the demands of an
emergency situation which the commanders have been forced to meet with only
insufficient troops at their disposal.
German battle-groups are usually known by the name of an individual commander.
The enemy covers the resistance or phase lines which mark the periodical
stages in withdrawal from one defense line to another, by a system of
strong-points or defense areas. Just as it is the function of the rear guards to prevent
a pursuing force from making contact with the main body when on the move, so
it is the function of strong-points to prevent the penetration of resistance or
phase lines and to cover these until the main body has withdrawn to its next position.
As in the case of rear guards the enemy shows great economy of force
in the composition of strong-points. Typical composition in close country has
been one or two self-propelled guns, two heavy mortars and up
to six M.G. 34's. In more open country one self-propelled gun has been encountered, supported by
three tanks and a small party of infantry with mortars and machine guns in
Strong-points are generally organized on the hedge-hog principle. Provision
is made for all-around fire, but strong-points are not necessarily mutually supporting.
They are normally located on commanding features and sometimes on the forward
edges of villages or towns if these command bottle-necks. In flat country however,
villages are normally not occupied except by snipers, but positions are occupied
in the rear of such villages to engage our deploying vanguards. Positions are
frequently changed and weapons are not dug in. Counterbattery work is thus
rendered very difficult, as no prepared positions can be spotted from the air. In
hilly country the enemy has succeeded in imposing protracted delays by
strong-points. Further advance is made impossible without considerable deployment,
and a full-scale attack has to be mounted with artillery support to dislodge the
garrison of the strong-point which then normally withdraws just before an attack
can materialize. Approaches to strong-point positions which cannot be covered
by fire are frequently mined. Extensive minefields have often been encountered
at the head of re-entrants in hilly terrain.
(4) General Conduct of Withdrawal and Delaying Actions
The security of the line of resistance and its retention until withdrawal to
a similar line is ordered is the enemy's main concern during a delaying action.
He normally seeks to ensure this by using his rear-guards, battle-groups, and
strong-points to prevent the attack from actually contacting the line. Should
these methods be unsuccessful and the line of resistance be penetrated, the enemy
will then counterattack with his main forces and seek to restore the situation in
order that the program of staged withdrawal may be continued.
In Italy, where the Allies have for the most part been forced to follow up
the enemy's withdrawal on a limited number of routes in close mountainous terrain,
the enemy has made greater use of his reconnaissance and engineer units than of
any other component of his forces. Reconnaissance units have been in almost
continuous contact with Allied advance and flanking elements and have participated
in most rear guard and battle-group engagements. Maintenance of contact is a
most conspicuous principle in the enemy's conduct of a withdrawal and delaying
action. Only rarely has contact been altogether broken. The size, composition,
direction, and intention of the attacking force is at all times observed.
While maintaining contact, however, the enemy employs all possible means
to prevent the attacking columns from approaching sufficiently close to engage even
his main rear guard elements. The engineer unit is thus continually employed in
effecting demolitions and obstacles of all kinds. The thoroughness with which this
was effected, increased progressively throughout the enemy's withdrawal from
Salerno to the Winter Line. Culverts and bridges have been completely destroyed,
roads and all natural detours mined, routes cratered and blocked by demolished
trees and buildings in towns and villages, rail tracks broken and ties cut by means
of a special track-destroyer (see Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 45, p. 21). The
debris left to obstruct communications has often been mined to a depth of
thirty yards. Wooden-box mines have been used to a large extent as demolition
charges and aerial bombs and artillery shells on a number of occasions.
Frequently rear guards are committed to a delaying engagement in order
to cover the preparation of demolitions immediately behind them. During static
periods in the general withdrawal, when the enemy is standing on his line of
resistance or phase line, engineer units prepare demolitions in the rear. After
the withdrawal demolitions are covered by snipers, machine guns and self-propelled guns.
To summarize, great economy of force has been exercised. The enemy
has avoided committing his main forces and has sought to prevent a close Allied
follow-up by means of rear guards, special battle-groups, and strong-points, all
of which have been characterized by economy in numerical strength, high automatic
fire-power, and mobility. The main delaying weapons are machine guns, mortars
and self-propelled guns and minefields. Tanks are used in small
groups. Counterattack on a large scale has been avoided. Local counterattack has invariably been
for the protection or retention of some feature essential to the safe conduct of
the main withdrawal or to the preparation of the line of resistance or phase line.
The enemy has only counterattacked on a major scale when his line of resistance
has been threatened by penetration.