The Germans saw in Russia that infantry actions were fought overwhelmingly at close range

Saturday, October 21st, 2023

In Africa and Sicily Anglo-American forces had seen elements of a new kind of close combat that the German army had developed in Russia, Bevin Alexander explains (in How Hitler Could Have Won World War II), but on the boot of Italy they came firmly up against it:

The Germans saw in Russia that infantry actions were fought overwhelmingly at close range, 75 yards or less, and introduced the MP38 and MP40 “Schmeisser” machine pistol that fired high-velocity pistol bullets, giving heavy unaimed fire to blanket an area and suppress enemy resistance. The Russians introduced a different sort of weapon that achieved the same effect, the PPSh41 7.62-millimeter submachine gun (burp gun). Supported by fast-firing portable machine guns, the MG-34 and MG-42, the Schmeissers gave Germans mobility and high volume of fire. They never replaced all their standard medium-range bolt-action rifles (the Mauser Kar. 98k) or employed many of the next-generation automatic assault rifles (Sturmgewehr), but Schmeissers and MG-34s and MG-42s gave them high capacity to defend against attacks.

The British replaced in part their medium-range bolt-action rifle, the Enfield No. 4, with various submachine guns (“Sten guns”) that fired the same 9-millimeter pistol cartridge as the Schmeisser, coupling them with the Bren gun, a reliable light machine gun.

The Americans were slower to replace the M1 Garand semiautomatic medium-range rifle. Wherever possible they used the Thompson M1928 submachine gun, firing .45-caliber pistol ammunition, but this weapon was in short supply. Americans made do with their M1s, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), and light machine guns. It was late 1944 before they introduced the M3 submachine gun (grease gun) in large numbers to compete with the Schmeisser.

The Germans learned to exploit the weaknesses of Americans under fire for the first time. In such cases Americans had the tendency to freeze or to seek the nearest protection. All too often American infantry merely located and fixed the enemy, and called on artillery to destroy the defenders. Only after much experience in 1943 did American infantry learn that the best way to avoid losses was to keep moving forward and to close in rapidly on the enemy.

Tanks could not be used in the mountainous terrain of Italy in massed attacks as Rommel had done in Africa. In Italy tanks largely reverted to the infantry-support role that the British had envisioned for their Matildas and other “I” tanks at the start of the war. However, American tankers and infantry had little training in this role. Infantry and tanks could not communicate with each other. Infantry could not warn tankers of antitank traps and heavy weapons, and tankers could not alert infantry to enemy positions. Consequently, infantry had a tendency to lag behind tanks, and Americans did not work out the smooth coordination of tanks, infantry, and artillery that the Germans had developed long before in their battle groups or Kampfgruppen.

Similar problems developed in the use of tank destroyers (TDs), essentially 75-millimeter guns on open-topped tank chassis. TDs were designed to break up massed German panzer attacks. The Germans no longer massed tanks, but used them as parts of Kampfgruppen. American commanders slowly changed the use of TDs to assault guns to destroy enemy tanks and defensive positions with direct fire.

Finally, the Allies did a poor job of coordinating air-ground operations. Allied fighter-bomber pilots flying at 200 mph often could not distinguish between friendly and enemy forces on the ground. The pilots could not talk to ground units, and vice versa. This resulted in many cases of Allied aircraft bombing and strafing friendly forces. Consequently, Allied troops often fired on anything that moved in the sky. Only in the spring of 1944 did the U.S. Army Air Force deploy forward air controllers (FACs), using light single-engine liaison aircraft (L-5s) that could direct radio communication to aircraft and air-ground support parties at headquarters of major ground units. It was a bit late: the Germans had employed this system in the campaign in the west in 1940 to direct Stuka attacks on enemy positions.


  1. Freddo says:

    “Marie noted that Dempsey was disappointed in the lack of tactical flair shown by Brigadier Hinde throughout the battle and that the British should have known better than to attempt an armoured advance unsupported by infantry in the bocage. The British fought an uncoordinated infantry and tank battle during the morning and the Germans did much the same throughout the day.[198]”

    Combined arms is hard.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    The US Army seems to be about to adopt a replacement for the M16/M4 family that harks back to the M1/M14. The new XM7 rifle is only a little shorter than the M14 and weighs more when fully tricked out. The new cartridge is a 6.8 mm round designed for effective fire out to 600 meters. The recoil of the combat round is substantial, along the lines of the 7.62 NATO, and a low-power version of the cartridge will be used in training. Because of weight, magazines will be limited to 20 rounds.

    So all the lessons of Vietnam, Korea, and the Eastern Front are thrown away. The US Army and Marine troops will carry a heavy rifle that is uncontrollable in full-auto mode and will also have a limited ammo load out, maybe 7 or so 20-round mags. About 70% of the number of rounds carried in ‘Nam and the sandboxes.

    Guderian was a big believer in suppressive fire, and he wanted all the infantry that accompanied his tanks to carry automatic weapons like the Schmeissers.

  3. Isegoria says:

    Yes, that was the rationale for moving to a glorified .22:

    The conclusion was that most combat takes place at short range. In a highly mobile war, combat teams ran into each other largely by surprise; and the team with the higher firepower tended to win. They also found that the chance of being hit in combat was essentially random — that is, accurate “aiming” made little difference because the targets no longer sat still. The number one predictor of casualties was the total number of bullets fired. Other studies of behavior in battle revealed that many U.S. infantrymen (as many as 2/3) never actually fired their rifles in combat. By contrast, soldiers armed with rapid fire weapons (such as submachine guns) were much more likely to have fired their weapons in battle. These conclusions suggested that infantry should be equipped with a fully-automatic rifle of some sort in order to increase the actual firepower of regular soldiers. It was also clear, however, that such weapons dramatically increased ammunition use and in order for a rifleman to be able to carry enough ammunition for a firefight they would have to carry something much lighter.

    Designing a weapon means making trade-offs though:

    A century ago, it was “obvious” that a soldier needed a powerful, accurate, dependable rifle that could kill the enemy from as far away as possible — something like a deer rifle, around .30 caliber and accurate out to a mile or more.

    What’s good for sniping is not necessarily good for storming though, and armies facing entrenched foes began to experiment with pump-action shotguns, which shoot multiple pistol-bullet-sized balls from one 00 (“double-ought”) buck-shot round; submachine guns, which shoot pistol ammo rapidly; the Pederson device, which transforms a battle rifle into a big submachine gun; and light machine guns, which fire full-power rifle rounds, accurately from a bipod, or not so accurately from the hip.

    By the end of World War II, the Germans had stumbled onto the modern assault rifle — a machine carbine, really, bigger and with better range than a submachine gun (or machine pistol), but smaller and with less recoil than a light machine gun (or machine rifle).

    After the War, the Russians turned this idea into the iconic AK-47. The Americans, on the hand, seemed averse to the whole notion of an intermediate round. Before the war, they adopted the semiautomatic M1 Garand in .30-06 (“thirty ought six”), rather than Pederson’s .276. After the War, they resisted a similar British round and foisted the 7.62×51 mm on their NATO allies — a .30-06 Lite, only not that much lighter.


    Rather than move to an intermediate round, the American military reacted by going with a glorified .22, the 5.56 mm shot from a plastic M16.  It turns out that a teeny-tiny bullet is still plenty lethal at high velocity, and the Army’s Operations Research Office had concluded that what really mattered was volume of fire — the number one predictor of casualties was the total number of bullets fired. From their research, soldiers rarely fired, unless they had a rapid-fire weapon like a submachine gun, they rarely aimed, because everyone was scrambling for cover, and most combat was at short range, because the two forces had stumbled across one another. Thus, what soldiers really needed was something that could spray a lot of bullets in the general direction of nearby enemies — a fully automatic weapons shooting small, light bullets.

    But that’s not how America’s professional Army uses its M16s today. First, American soldiers don’t use true M16s. They use M4s, which are M16 carbines; they have shorter barrels, to make them easier to handle. (The Marines never moved away from the longer-barreled M16.) Second, they don’t rely on “spray and pray” tactics. Semi-automatic fire gets more rounds on target faster than full-auto fire. (The Marines have always emphasized accurate fire.) Third, they don’t stumble upon enemy forces at close range, at least not in Afghanistan — which is why forces in Afghanistan are carrying more and more 7.62 mm rifles and machine guns, even though they’re heavy and require heavy ammo.

    So, is there a magic bullet with the best qualities of both the 5.56 and the 7.62? Anthony Williams, co-editor of Janes Ammunition Handbook, doesn’t phrase it that way, but, yes, an intermediate round could be just such a magic bullet. Two suggestions are the 6.8 Remington and the 6.5 Grendel.


    The 6.8 Remington performs as you’d expect — half-way between the larger 7.62 and the smaller 5.56…

  4. Jim says:

    Drugged-up known-to-FBI fake school shooters could use this information to secure a higher K/D ratio. Who will run the outreach program?

  5. Michael van der Riet says:

    Bob Sykes, with respect, I have fired a .303 Enfield and compared to that the 7.62 NATO rifle has no recoil worth mentioning. Thanks to the impetus of the ejected cartridge, in a full-auto burst of five rounds or more from the hip the rifle tends to go left and low. With experience the shooter counteracts that with a body twist in the other direction, same as firing the Bren on full auto. But you will never get a bruised shoulder from the recoil of a SLR. Purely by the way, we were shown penetration of a steel plate by a 5.56 that the 7.62 bounced off. Watch the YouTube video mocking Sniffer Joe’s advice, “Buy a shotgun.”

  6. VXXC says:

    “All too often American infantry merely located and fixed the enemy, and called on artillery to destroy the defenders. Only after much experience in 1943 did American infantry learn that the best way to avoid losses was to keep moving forward and to close in rapidly on the enemy.”

    Oh? Really? how many did we lose and how many did the Russians and Germans lose?

    And A BRIT is having the shamelessness to WRITE this CLOSE WITH THE ENEMY to ‘avoid losses’?

    BTW are these the same Brits who criticized the American Mark Clark in Italy for ‘driving their men too hard’ meaning relentless frontal assaults?

    Now the truth is there’s a time to close, and a time to pound them first then advance, there’s a time unfortunately for frontal assault and there’s a time to try and get behind them or on the flank. Actual maneuver is the very maneuver itself has the effect, a flank attack supported by fires to the front constitutes positional warfare.

    The infantry you speak of we ran out of in WW1, or at least the British did, in the words of the then Lord of the Admiralty the plan seems to have been that the British and French would run out of bullets before the Allies ran out of Breasts. This did not work. Nor was it unknown at the start of the war. The entire race to the sea was to get on the flanks. Plan 17, the Schiefflen plan was flank attack, and so on and so forth.

    May I direct the shade of Bevin Alexander to one Winston Churchill, as they’re probably in the same neighborhood? Bullets::Breasts ratio is his description of the British army ‘strategy’ from WW1.

    Or perhaps General Alexander can consult Monty? Monty always had superiority in all materials but above all firepower because by the time he got there he was dealing with seasoned SURVIVORS who didn’t want to get killed. Since few here have seen this: you can get Green troops to do anything ONCE. IF they survive your master plan, THEN they’ll never do stupid things that get them killed unnecessarily again. By the time Monty got there, that’s what he had to work with…not that the British hadn’t learned this the hard way in WW1.

    Infantry should close if and only if it’s worth the causalities. Infantry should sweep over the objective IF it’s worth the ensuing and now certain causalities: because if you didn’t take the causalities before, you will now.

    Take heart: for decades of getting away with Bad Habits in these silly overseas adventures taught us exactly how to get WW1 Western Front results, you see the fruits of this in Ukraine.

    Ukraine is the caricature of WW1 stereotypes of bad leadership hurling men from trench to trench. The infantry advising them is doing so, because they always got away with it in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they’re too stubborn to admit the failure.

    I’ve had the exact conversation of ‘don’t go on the objective after the enemy is defeated WITHOUT A GOOD REASON, because if you didn’t take causalities before you will now.” I exactly got the Infantry Dogma BS back…that I am getting here.

    The truth is your soldiers and infantry too will learn they don’t want to die if they don’t have to… so you better have some artillery and a good reason to have them expose themselves unnecessarily.

    All of this was as true of the Germans as the Americans and the Brits.

    The Russians? After Stalingrad and the Volga campaign they got rid of the Commissars – who led from the front – and then they replaced them with SMERSH. Why?

    Because the Commissars had led from the front and WERE DEAD, and the surviving Russian Troops…didn’t want to die. That’s how they survived.

    So now you need the Scumbags from SMERSH – essentially Military Police – to drive the infantry to victory.

    Since you brilliant men may be called upon to lead, or perhaps at least understand seasoned troops, you’d better start factoring these things into account.

  7. VXXC says:

    The debate above on what kind of rifle cartridge we should switch to even though artillery is known to be 85% and machine guns most of the rest, the rifle 5% of the damage at most…is why…we’re going to end up with troops that won’t advance even when it makes sense. The troops that trust their cough gag leadership…won’t keep doing it. Because they’re going to be dead or in the hospital.

    ^^^ already in the Ukraine the infantry have stopped advancing, even when they should, TRUST was lost ^^^

    If I was gonna want to reincarnate, it would be like Bonaparte – an artilleryman.

    Bonaparte said only lightning is preferable to cannons.

    The big killer on the peer conflict as opposed to bug hunts, er counter-insurgency, is artillery.

    As to the new rifle: some people complained they didn’t have the range for long range sniper/marksmen duels in Afghanistan, so the disaster that is the new weapon was birthed. This is why you STFU and don’t ask for new tools, use the ones you have.

    The defects of the new 6.8 are legion, among which you can’t change the barrel on the LMG, the optics require armorer level intervention…we can go on..

    Don’t worry about the rifle. Worry if they’re going to shoot at all. In fact worry that they’ll even show.

    ^^^ these are real problems ^^^

  8. Isegoria says:

    The real role of small arms in combat, Dr. Jim Storr suggests, is not to kill the enemy so much as to do something else.

  9. VXXC says:


    Correct. Mostly. The problem is people — until combat — want regimented, dogmatic solutions. Even after combat, unless they led the great charge. This is why, more than any other matter, in combat the leaders MUST lead, meaning YOU FIRST.

    That XOR…they’ll lose their troops confidence. Then, unless the troops are bound by something else like sacred oaths or beliefs, SOMEONE ELSE can and WILL take the troops.

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