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All Posts, Military History

Author Guest Post: Jaap Jan Brouwer


The last two weeks the Ukraine army has been very busy along the frontline, looking for the Schwerpunkt. As the Ukraian’s are trained along the lines of the NATO – doctrine, which is a derivate of the German doctrine of Auftragstaktik, they are looking with aggressive reconnaissance actions for the weakest point in the Soviet, sorry Russian, front. Here they way the Germans did the job. Learn more about the German way of war (and in extension the Ukraine way of war) in my book ‘The German way of war. A lesson in tactical management’.

Cynically enough the the descendants of the famous Panther and Tiger tanks of World War II are now fighting in the same area as their ancestors…. I wish these ‘big cats’ all the luck they can use.

Leopard tank

Origins of the Schwerpunkt

One of the biggest problems of trench warfare of World War I was how to force and successfully follow up a breakthrough. If a breakthrough was achieved at all, infantry and artillery were unable to keep up with the rapidly advancing vanguard units; due to the difficulty of the terrain, they simply got bogged down in the mud. The advance units thus became isolated and could then easily be neutralized by the enemy. To cope with the problem of breaking through the front, the Germans developed ‘Hutier tactics’ in the last phase of the First World War, whereby heavily armed units (Stosstruppen – stormtroopers) infiltrated through the front line at certain places (Schwerpunkte – key points) and then quickly advanced into the rear areas to disrupt lines of communication and destroy artillery positions. The problem remained, however, that the regular infantry could not support the Stosstruppen: the horse-drawn wagons of the infantry and the supply columns could not keep up with the rapid pace of the attack in the muddy and shell-pocked terrain. This allowed the enemy to regroup and close the gap in the front. The weakness of Hutier tactics was overcome in the Second World War by the use of tanks and armoured tracked vehicles for the transport of infantry, since these could move easily over difficult terrain in the form of the tank offensive.

The German philosophy is best exemplified by their tank offensives, which represented Blitzkrieg in its truest form. The Germans realized that no opponent could have the upper hand all along the front; therefore, as a result of the lessons learnt and experiences gained in the First World War, they concentrated their forces at a single point, termed the Schwerpunkt. This was not a new invention, but rather a centuries-old trademark of German tactics. The Romans described it as one of the main characteristics of the way German tribes fought; the force of their attack was focused on one point of the Roman cohort, resulting all too often in its disintegration. As Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg would declare, ‘An operation without a focus is like a man without character.’ When the Schwerpunkt was the weakest point of the enemy’s defensive line, this was the ideal attack route and offered a good opportunity for artillery support. A tank offensive (in fact, any type of offensive operation) could be concentrated on this part of the front. The ultimate goal of the tank offensive was not the front itself but some way beyond the front line, in the enemy’s rear area. Following the principles of Auftragstaktik, the tanks were tasked to progress as far and as fast as they could behind enemy lines. Individual commanders were given appreciable discretion to maneuver their forces and act according to their own insight, as long as the set goals were reached.

Reconnaissance in Force

One of the features of German tank offensives was reconnaissance in force. The Germans attached a much higher value to information collection than their opponents. At the outset, separate reconnaissance units were established and trained; and since the Germans believed in fighting if necessary to gain information, these units were not only very mobile and well equipped, they were also heavily armed. Each division had such a reconnaissance battalion, the Aufklärungs Abteilung, whose task it was not only to collect information but also to respond to any opportunities that arose during an armed reconnaissance. The Aufklärungs Abteilung was often the most mechanized and heavily armed unit of a division and therefore able to serve as a strategic reserve for the less motorized divisions.

In addition to collecting general information on such features as the enemy’s artillery positions, reconnaissance had to provide information on any weaknesses in the enemy lines that could be used to identify a Schwerpunkt. The reconnaissance units scanned the enemy front in a fluid movement in search of such weaknesses. Because of their considerable firepower and aggressive posture, which often led to intense skirmishing, actions by reconnaissance units were frequently believed to be major attacks. This would cause the enemy to respond with counter-fire, troop movements, radio traffic and the like, all of which could be analyzed by the Germans to provide useful information for possible follow-up actions. Once a Schwerpunkt was located, the reconnaissance unit would contact the divisional commander. The commander could then start the attack by putting his tank units in place, while also instructing the reconnaissance unit to continue its activities and force a breakthrough. In this way, an exploratory action could suddenly morph into a regular attack with much greater tactical implications. Reconnaissance units were therefore a serious factor that an opponent had to take into account at all times. In not only tank offensives, but everything the Germans undertook, the formula I = S × M occupied a central place. Impact = Speed × Mass often proved that even units of small size could have a major impact on the course of a battle, provided they were able to act quickly. For that reason, the Germans wanted to keep the time lag between observing enemy movements and responding to them as short as possible. Auftragstaktik, with its decentralized decision-making and short intervals between perception and action, focused on this, and concepts such as Beweglichkeit (mobility) gave solidity to it. The equation also applies in reverse: the longer it takes to make a decision and plan actions (i.e. if Speed is reduced), the more Mass you need to force a breakthrough, (i.e. achieve Impact). All in all, on the basis of experiences during the First World War, an unambiguous vision of the organization and its way of operating was formulated. However, this vision and method of operation placed high demands on the organization in all kinds of areas.

Order The German Way of War here.