August 22, 2014

How the German Army Used Smoke in Combat

The German Army had made extensive and effective use of smoke for support of ground combat operations. The following examples are representative.

Smoke Screens in the Defense

(1) The advance guard in figure 1 had to find out whether the group of houses in the upper right was occupied by enemy soldiers. If it drew fire from these houses and from the grove of saplings at the upper left, smoke candles were ignited, and the advance guard returned to the woods under cover of the smoke.

Figure 1
Figure 1. 

(2) In figure 2 a German heavy machine gun platoon is under artillery fire. With the wind coming from the 1:30-o'clock direction, the German platoon sets down a line of smoke candles, which permits movement to a new position on the hill at the right. Smoke is used to cover only that part of the terrain which offers no concealment. The candles are placed with due regard for the direction of the wind.

Figure 2
Figure 2. 

(3) In figure 3 strong, well-spaced enemy defenses have stopped the German attack at the entrance to a village. To prepare for further maneuvering later on, the Germans dig in under cover of smoke, taking advantage of all cover offered by the terrain.

Figure 3
Figure 3.

(4) A German bicycle scout squad returning from reconnaissance suddenly receives flanking fire from the woods shown at the top of figure 4. The squad takes cover in a ditch, and ignites smoke candles. The smoke allows the Germans to proceed under cover behind the hill at the left. Behind this hill they are out of the field of fire.

Figure 4
Figure 4. 

(5) In figure 5 a German retrograde movement is taking place under cover of smoke. The withdrawal was begun as soon as the first screen was set up. Shortly afterward, the second screen was set up, to give the German unit time to reach the cover afforded by the woods shown at the bottom of figure 5. Plunging fire from machine guns on the flank is also covering the movement.

Figure 5
Figure 5.

(6) In figure 6 German tanks are withdrawing while screened by their own smoke. The flank vehicles are screened by smoke from an artillery battery. It will be noted that this situation calls for quick realization by the artillery observation post of the tanks' predicament, and for a knowledge of how to use wind direction to achieve the proper secondary screen.

Figure 6
Figure 6.

(7) Antitank Defense. The following instance took place in North Africa. Part of an Allied armored division was brought up to help stem a German advance. It succeeded in ambushing a column of German tanks. Some damage was inflicted and the Germans withdrew, laying down a smoke screen. The commander of the Allied force waited for the smoke to lift, thinking that it could not last long. But it persisted, and, since the terrain did not permit by-passing the screen, he gave orders for his tanks to proceed through it. As soon as the Allied tanks were silhouetted on the other side, the Germans fired on them with everything they had, and inflicted a great deal of damage before retreating.

Smoke Screens in the Attack

(1) There is a barricade of wire obstacles in front of an Allied machine-gun nest in figure 7. Under cover of smoke, the Germans cut gaps in the wire.  By means of a few smoke candles, the screen is extended toward the machine-gun positions, since the direction of the wind permits this. Both flanks of the nest are attacked under the light screen. Also, a few smoke grenades are thrown in front of, and into, the nest.

Figure 7
Figure 7. 

(2) Against Pillboxes. The German technique of assaults against pillboxes is similar to that used against machine-gun positions, with some interesting modifications. Usually the assault is preceded by concentrated artillery fire. One purpose of this is to make craters in which an advancing combat engineer detachment can take cover. When the assault detachment reaches wire obstacles surrounding the pillbox, a flare signal calls for all available artillery fire to be placed on the pillbox.

Smoke screens are laid down by grenades or candles. Men with wire cutters or Bangalore torpedoes open gaps through the wire. Flare signals call for artillery fire against the pillbox to cease, and a flame-throwing detachment advances through the gaps in the wire and tries to get within 5 or 6 yards of the pillbox. These men are covered by machine-gun fire. As soon as their fuel is almost exhausted, they shout a warning, and men with pole charges advance to the embrasures of the pillbox and detonate the charges inside it. If the pillbox still holds out, smoke candles may be thrown inside it to make the air unbreathable, or an attempt may be made to blow in the roof with a heavy charge.

(3) In figure 8 a German attack is stopped by fire from a heavy machine gun on the left flank. Smoke is used to blind the machine gun, and the attack continues.

Figure 8
Figure 8.

(4) During a German tank attack, an Allied observation post and (suspected) antitank weapons were blinded by smoke from aircraft and artillery.

Figure 9
Figure 9.

Area Smoke

The term "area smoke" means the use of smoke to achieve, over an extensive area, an effect much like that of thick natural fog. The Germans regarded this as an important asset in an attack against forces prepared for defense along a stabilized front, in a field defensive position, or behind a water obstacle.

Area smoke creates a zone in which, and into which, observation and observed fire are either difficult or impossible, except at close range. It therefore favors close combat, with infantry playing an important part. The Germans regarded surprise as especially useful in an attack under area smoke; this prevents the opposition from rearranging its defensive strategy so as to safeguard against penetration of its lines.

Employing Area Smoke in the Attack

a. Preparations

Before the main attack, the Germans occupied suitable positions of readiness. Reconnaissance was performed and thorough preparations were made, before the area smoke was laid down. The attacking units were given as clear a picture as possible of the nature of the terrain to be crossed, and details regarding the defensive capabilities of the opposing force.

The main objectives of the attack were the enemy artillery positions. The Germans realized that if the main defensive zone is of great depth and strength, it may be necessary for them to decide upon intermediate objectives, which could be recognized easily in the smoke—that is, roads running at right angles to the advance, intersecting streams, and so on. This made it possible to correlate the laying of the screen with the progress of the attack.

Before the smoke screen was laid down, the artillery places thorough, destructive fire on the area to be attacked. High ground, suitable for observation posts in the vicinity of the battle zone, was blinded. The German intention was to neutralize enemy artillery while the attacking forces were moving toward their preliminary positions, and to keep it neutralized throughout the battle.

Minefields were cleared beforehand and obstacles were dealt with, so that the attacking forces would be delayed as little as possible. The night before the attack was to begin, the first wave of attacking units was brought up near the positions of readiness. Roads and paths approaching the defensive zones were so marked that, even after smoke had begun to drift over these routes, there could be no possibility of error. The attacking units came to the positions of readiness in open formation.

First light in the morning was regarded as the most favorable time for the attack to begin. The approach of the attacking units might be preceded by a fairly long area smoke bombardment on the hostile forward positions. Smoke and high-explosive projectiles were fired together until the attacking German infantry approached the area which was being smoke-screened. If possible, the hostile rear observation posts were blinded at this time.

b. Maintaining the Area Smoke Screen

The area smoke was laid down in zones 225 to 350 yards wide, across the axis of attack. Its rate of advance was governed by the difficulties that the Germans estimated they would encounter in the respective combat areas, and by the nature of the terrain; normally, the rate of advance averaged about 225 yards in a 15-minute period. The Germans stipulated that once this screen had been set in motion, it had to follow the timetable prepared in advance.

German units carried the attack forward under full cover of the smoke. At this stage, forward visibility was kept to hand-grenade range. A head-on wind gave the attack the best smoke protection, the Germans believed. Also, a lateral wind had certain advantages, because it carried the smoke across sectors which were not being attacked—a useful deception. The Germans said that a wind blowing in the direction of enemy forces is unsuitable, since it prevents use of the screen for close combat.

The Germans believed in extending a screen over the flanks of the combat area, as a ruse. During an attack the screen was supplemented by the smoke equipment of individual attacking units—that was, by smoke grenades and candles and by smoke shells from infantry guns. The Germans tried to supply their units generously with these items, especially with the smoke candles.

c. How Units Were Coordinated

The division commander assigned objectives to the infantry commander, and also assigned missions to the artillery. Antiaircraft defense was provided while units were assembling. The area screen was laid down by smoke units and artillery, working together under the sole command of the artillery commander. This area screen was laid on the basis of a time schedule and a coverage outlined by the division commander. The infantry regimental commander gave the battalions details regarding their attack and the objectives of the breakthrough. He put under the command of the battalions such materiel as might be necessary to the fulfillment of their missions; this included antitank guns, infantry guns, and aids to maintaining direction. Forces assigned to attack defensive works were augmented by combat engineer units with their special equipment, individual armored vehicles, and weapons for engaging pillboxes. The battalion commander went forward with the troops engaged in the breakthrough. Radio apparatus was considered necessary, even for lateral communication, during the course of fighting in the smoke-covered area. Additional signal units were attached, to provide the necessary communication under these difficult circumstances.

Reconnaissance aircraft were employed to report the effectiveness of the screen, and to reconnoiter the terrain beyond it. Dive-bombing attacks were carried out against hostile battery positions, assembly areas, and moving columns of hostile reserves. After the breakthrough, the regimental commander reorganized those forces which had become scattered.

d. The Attack

The infantry were the first to enter the combat area. The Germans dispatched assault detachments against individual and especially formidable defensive positions on the near edge of the combat area; the purpose of this was to make penetration easier.

German assault troops were thrown in at points where the terrain and the character of defensive obstacles offered conditions most favorable for a thrust. During the battle these assault troops had to rely on their own resources. The German theory was that such units should be strong enough to fight their way across the combat area, and reach the far edge still strong enough to continue active fighting. It was a German principle that these assault units should advance simultaneously, no matter how great the variety of tasks that each unit must perform.

When the infantry was nearing the far edge of the hostile defenses, under cover of the smoke, the artillery began its mission of providing the necessary fire cover for the spearhead of the attack, as it came out of the smoke and within the view of enemy forces. German artillery forward observers, with field telephone apparatus, accompanied the forward elements of the attacking infantry, and communicated with the artillery liaison officers at battalion headquarters. During the advance through the smoke, the observers signaled to field artillery observation personnel at prearranged times, to indicate which objectives had been attained. Vertical light signals, such as Very lights, were used for this purpose.

e. Follow-up of Attack

When the attacking units reached the far edge of the screen, they reorganized so that an immediate attack could be launched against important objectives, which usually lay beyond the screened area. While the infantry was reorganizing, antitank guns provided protection. Also, tank units which had been held in readiness were brought through the newly captured area to attack hostile artillery positions and any hostile reserves which may have been brought up. German reserves exploited the breakthrough so that maximum strength was applied against enemy forces on the far side of the smoke screen.

f. Area Screens Used with Water Obstacles

It was a German principle that, when hostile forces were defending themselves behind a water obstacle, an area screen was useful only if there was little or no current or if the stream was a narrow one. The first wave to be ferried over consisted only of assault troops who are to engage the fieldworks on the opposite bank.

The timetable for the area screen took into account the requirement that units ferried across a stream must have time to assemble on the opposite bank before any thrust against extensive hostile defenses is attempted.

U.S. War Department, Military Intelligence Division. Intelligence Bulletin Vol. II, No. 5. 1944.