Another episode related to military elite troops. This time we will present you one of the best and most famous “Shock Troop” from WW1: the German Stormtroopers.
They were specialized soldiers, trained in what was intended as the new German school of trenches warfare. Officially formed for ”infiltration tactics”, the soldiers were in fact assault units, being very well trained and equipped. Such a soldier was known as a Sturmmann.
The roots of the Stormtroopers
Major Calsow formed the first Stormtrooper unit during the spring of 1915, but the contribution of Hauptmann Willy Rohr, who eventually took the command of the unit, was essential. The methods and tactics developed by Rohr since attached to the Storm troops became the basis of today’s infantry tactics for small units.
Since Captain Rohr took command of the unit, also new habits developed within the soldiers and their tactics. Willy Rohr was familiarized with the trench body armors in use, but considered them way too heavy and uncomfortable for what he had in mind. For Captain Rohr speed was better than any armor, so he decided to keep in use for this troops only the Stahlhelm, the new German steel helmet, which later became the standard for the German army.
The Stormtroopers had to be light in equipment, having as the main weapon a specially designed bag for carrying several grenades, with which the assault should be launched. The soldiers had to reach the enemy lines while the artillery would fire a barrage at very low height, in order to directly hit the enemy positions. Parts of this tactic were adopted by the Arditi, the Italian WW1 Shock Troops, very similar to the German one.
Engaged in Combat
The first combat experience for the new Stormtroopers units was in the Vosges Mountains, where they performed a successful assault on French positions in October 1915.
After this first experience, some equipment changes were made in order to facilitate this new style of combat. Lighter boots were issued, while the uniforms were modified with leather patches, in order to reinforce knees and elbow while in crawling situations. Also the main had to be lighter, so the Karabiner 98a (previously used by cavalry units) replaced the Gewehr 98. Also, the standard Seitengewehr 98 bayonet had to be replaced, so the daggers and the trench knives became the favorite choice for the Stormtroopers.
The German ”Shock Units” participated in their first major offensive during the Battle of Verdun, when they were in the first wave of attack on French trenches.
Eventually, the Stormtroopers tactics were pushed even further, when the German general Oskar Von Hutier introduced his aggressive combat style into the assault troops routine.
Hutier’s tactics were formed around the idea of an initial artillery bombardment with heavy shells and poison gas rounds, intended not to destroy the enemy frontline, but only to weaken it. During the artillery barrage, the Stormtroopers would advance towards the enemy positions in a dispersed formation, entering the enemy trenches by breaching them in their weak sectors. They had to capture enemy headquarters or artillery positions, clearing the way for the regular infantry battalions equipped with light machine guns or flamethrowers.
Usually, the officers used rapid-fire pistols, like the Mauser C96 or the P08 Luger.
By the end of 1916, 30 German divisions had in their formation battalions of shock troops. The soldiers from those battalions were known as “Storm men” or “Trench raiders”, before the ”Stormtrooper” term entered in use.
Like in the case of others elite troops, the German Stormtroopers had a ”special light” around them, being celebrated in the national press for their courage and tenacity in the battles, and also better treated with good rations and more advantageous living conditions.
The Shock-Troops were brought to the frontline only before the assault, and they traveled by truck, in order to save their stamina for the attack; no need to say that the rate of casualties among them was very high.
German Storm troops were the first to use a submachine gun in a battle
Their training was severe and practiced with real ammunition. They had to be in top physical shape and they endlessly repeated the attack tactics in their training facilities. They were also equipped with top-notch documentation related to their mission, including detailed maps and aerial photographs, even using life-sized replicas of some of their objectives.
Among the already presented weapons from their equipment, we must also remember the light machine gun MP-18 and the fact that the soldiers from the WW1 German Storm Troops were the first to use submachine guns in battle.
Other similar units present in other countries armies were the Italian ”Arditi” or the Austro-Hungarian “Jagdkommando”, both formations very similar to the German ones, and using very similar methods in the battles and regarding attack tactics.
After the end of the war, the Stormtroopers name became a myth. Their actions were very present in the German post-war narrative, becoming an inspiration for the Freikorps, a German paramilitary movement from Weimar, and for the well-known ”Brown Shirts”, or SA ”Sturmabteilung”, directly related to Hitler’s actions.
Unfortunately, the “Stormtrooper” term was eventually associated with the Nazi Party operations, which were of a totally different nuance if compared to the Stormtroopers actions from WW1.