Thursday, October 27, 2016

Sturmgeschütz 1943–1945

Along the entire Eastern Front the situation was dire. In Army Group Centre and Army Group North German forces were trying desperately to hold the Soviets back from breaking through their lines. Replacements continued to trickle through to help bolster the under strength Panzerwaffe. But in truth, the average new assault gunner that was freshly recruited was not as well trained as his predecessors during the early part of the campaign in Russia. Nevertheless, as with many StuG men they were characterized by high morale and a determination to do their duty.

In almost three months since the defeat at Kursk Army Centre and South had been pushed back an average distance of 150 miles on a 650 mile front. Despite heavy resistance in many sectors of the front the Soviets lost no time in exploiting the fruits of regaining as much territory as possible.

As the winter of 1943 approached there was a further feeling of despair and disbelief that the war had turned against the Germans. During this period there was an exasperating series of deliberations for the Panzerwaffe. Much of its concerns were preventing the awesome might of the Red Army with what little they had available at their disposal. Yet, the quality of the German infantry in late 1943 was no longer comparable to that at the beginning of the Russian campaign in June 1941.

Whilst drastic measures were made to ensure that infantry defended their lines the assault gun forces were still being frantically increased to help counter the massive setbacks. In 1943 some fifty-five percent of the Panzerwaffe comprised of assault guns. They were now found in numerous units. The divisions and brigades of the Waffen-SS which even had their own battery or even an entire unit. There were also a number of Luftwaffe divisions that had their own assault gun units like the famous Herman Goring Panzer-Korps. In the Wehrmacht for instance there were divisions with their own assault gun unit or battery. By the beginning of September 1943, Panzerjäger units of the various divisions also received their own assault gun units. This was undertaken in order to compensate for the lack of tanks and many of the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions began absorbing many of the artillery assault gun units into the Panzer troops. However; although the assault guns continued to prove their worth within these units, equipping some of the Panzer units with assault guns did not operate well alongside the tank. Although commanders were well aware of the situation, they knew they had no choice. Instead, they continued using assault guns extensively in the Panzer units until the end of the war.

During this period they pushed the StuG further and deeper into the combat zone as an effective tank killer. In late 1943 and early 1944 the assault guns were increasingly equipping the Panzerjäger companies. The StuG continued to fight very effectively, in spite the ovewhelming resistance of the enemy. In many areas the front could not be held for any appreciable time and a slow withdrawal ensued much to the anger of Hitler.

Throughout January and February 1944 the winter did nothing to impede the Soviet might from grinding further west. During February the organization of an assault gun battery was changed consisting of four platoons, one of which had three 10.5cm assault howitzer 42 units. Three platoons each equipped with three 7.5cm assault cannon 40 units. Together with two assault guns of the battery leader, there were fourteen vehicles in each battery.

The alteration was supposed to make the gun batteries more effective on the battlefield. Whilst it increased the fire power crews still found they were numerically outnumbered and as a direct consequence still suffered heavy losses.

Yet, despite the setbacks, by the time the spring thaw arrived in March and early April 1944, there was a genuine feeling of motivation within the ranks of the assault gun units. There was renewed determination to keep the Red Army out of the Homeland. In addition, confidence was further bolstered by the efforts of the armaments industry as they begun producing many new vehicles for the Eastern Front. In fact during 1944 the Panzerwaffe were better supplied with equipment during any other time on the Eastern Front, thanks to the armaments industry. In total some 20,000 fighting vehicles including 8,328 medium and heavy tanks, 5,751 assault guns, 3,617 tank destroyers and 1,246 selfpropelled artillery carriages of various types reached the Eastern Front. Included in these new arrivals were the second generation of tank-destroyers, the Jagdpanzer IV, followed by the Hetzer and then the Jagpanther and Jagdtiger. In fact, tank-destroyers and assault guns now outnumbered the tanks, which was confirmation of the Panzerwaff’s obligation to performing a defensive role against overwhelming opposition. All of these vehicles would have to be irrevocably stretched along a very thin Eastern Front, with many of them rarely reaching the proper operating level.

By the spring of 1944 there was yet again a feeling of renewed confidence in the East. But by the summer as news reached the forward units that the Allies had landed on the northern shores of France on 6 June 1944, deep concerns began to fester on how they would be able to distribute their forces between two fronts. The problems became far greater during the third week of June when a new summer offensive by the Russians called ‘Operation Bagration’ was launched with its sole objective to annihilate Army Group Centre. Opposing the massive Russian force was three German armies with thirty-seven divisions, weakly supported by armour, against 166 divisions, supported by 2,700 tanks and 1,300 assault guns.

By the end of the first week of Bagration the three German armies had lost between them nearly 200,000 men and 900 tanks and assault guns; 9th Army and the 3rd Panzer Army were almost decimated. The remnants of the shattered armies trudged back west in order to try and rest and refit what was left of its Panzer units and build new defensive lines. Any plans to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front were doomed forever.

Although German commanders were fully aware of the fruitless attempts by its forces to establish a defensive line, Panzer and assault gun units followed instructions implicitly in a number of areas to halt the Soviet drive. Again and again the units fought to the grim death. Despite the huge losses and lack of reserves many still remained resolute stemming the Soviet drive east, even if it meant giving ground and fighting in Poland, which was regarded as the last defensive position before Germany.

During the summer of 1944 the Germans began defending Poland against the Soviet might. By September 1944, the whole position in Poland was on the point of disintegration. Action in Poland had been a grueling battle of attrition for those German units that had managed to escape from the slaughter Fortunately for the surviving German forces, the Soviet offensive had now run out of momentum. The Red Army’s troops were too exhausted, and their armoured vehicles were in great need of maintenance and repair. It seemed the Germans were spared from being driven out of Poland for the time being.

By late 1944 it became increasingly obvious that the assault gun, although built in huge numbers, were no longer as effective on the battlefield. Whilst the 7.5cm 40 L/40 gun was still regarded as a lethal weapon, the Russians had already developed newer and larger anti-tank killers of their own with greater armoured protection and better fire power. As a result the Russians continued pushing forward.

On 12 January 1945, the Eastern Front erupted with a massive advance as the 1st Ukrainian Front made deep wide-sweeping penetrations against hard-pressed German formations. The Russian offensive was delivered with so much weight and fury never before experienced on the Eastern Front. Two days later on 14 January, the 1st Belorrussian Front began its long awaited drive along the Warsaw-Berlin axis, striking out from the Vistula south of Warsaw. The city was quickly encircled and fell three days later. The frozen ground ensured rapid movement for the Russian tank crews, but in some areas these massive advances were halted for a time by the skilful dispositions of Panzer and Panzerjäger units. By this time the action strength of the Sturmgeschütz units had fallen to an all time low. Losses of equipment too had increased markedly in the course of the retreat combat. Often assault gun crews would abandon their vehicles when they ran out of fuel and were seen regularly running on foot or hitching a lift onboard other StuG vehicles.

In early 1945, production figures dropped, and as a result of this decline units no longer had any reserves on which to rely on. When defensive fighting began in Germany there was a severe lack of fuel, spare parts, and the lack of trained crews. When parts of the front caved the remaining assault gun units were often forced to destroy their equipment, so nothing was left for the conquering enemy. The Germans no longer had the manpower, war plant or transportation to accomplish a proper build-up of forces on the Oder Commanders could do little to compensate for the deficiencies, and in many sectors of the front they did not have any coherent planning in the event of any defensive position being lost.

During the last days of the war most of the remaining assault guns continued to fight as a unit until they destroyed their equipment and surrendered. At the time of surrender, the combined strength of the entire Panzerwaffe was 2,023 tanks, 738 assault guns and 159 Flakpanzers. Surprisingly this was the same strength that was used to attack Russia in 1941. But the size of German Army in 1945 was not the same; it was far too inadequate in strength for any type of task. Although the war had ended, the Panzerwaffe still existed, but not as the offensive weapon they were in the early Blitzkrieg years.

Nobody could deny that the assault gun proved itself to be a decisive weapon on the battlefield. In the first years of the war it had been an effective offensive weapon protecting the infantry from enemy tank units and clearing a path for them to advance. However, as the war changed the assault gun was compelled to evolve into that of a tank destroyer. Despite great success in action, the StuG was unable to overcome the huge array of Russian armour, and as a consequence incurred high losses.

But in spite the massive losses sustained the assault gun crews had won a reputation for daring and professionalism in combat. The titanic struggles which had been placed upon them during the war in Russia and on the Western Front provided the very backbone of Germany’s armoured and infantry defence until the very end of the war.

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