Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The BEF’s preparations for and conduct of the defensive battles during the spring of 1918 – Part 6

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The German Plan

The reality was that Ludendorff planned a series of successive inter-related attacks that would together force the collapse of the allied armies.  The BEF, perceived by the Germans as tactically clumsy but stubborn, were seen as the backbone of the allies; if defeated the rest would collapse.  From the winter planning process three options appeared to meet Ludendorff’s requirements.  The first ‘George’ was aimed to break through the BEF front near Armentiéres, in Flanders, and advance on Hazebrouck with a subsidiary attack ‘George II’ to isolate and overcome the BEF in the Ypres salient.  The second ‘Mars’ was to be directed against Arras.  Lastly ‘Michael’ would be an attack against the BEF 3rd and 5th Armies either side of St Quentin with the aim of wheeling north once the defences had been breached and pushing the BEF back towards the sea.  ‘George’ would not be an option until the assault area had dried out; April at the earliest.  The BEF defences around Arras were perceived as being too strong for the initial assault, so, on 21 January Ludendorff selected ‘Michael’ as his principle assault:

‘I favoured the centre attack [Arras]; but I was influenced by the time factor and by tactical considerations, first among them being the weakness of the enemy.’.  Erich Ludendorff, Ludendorff's own story, August 1914-November 1918; the Great War from the siege of Liège to the signing of the armistice as viewed from the grand headquarters of the German Army (London: Harper & Brothers, 1919), Vol 2. p.161.

German Tactical Doctrine

During the 1918 assaults the Germans applied the results of a significant doctrinal change in tactics.  The genesis of the "infiltration tactics" were grown from the German examination of the attacks with "limited objectives" in the west, coupled with techniques learned during the more open warfare on the Russian and Italian fronts.  These techniques, combined with the German artillery tactics from the Russian and Italian fronts, were successfully applied at Riga (September 1917) and Caporetto (October 1917) convincing Ludendorff that they could be applied to large scale operations on the Western Front to make a strategic breakthrough.

The new German tactical doctrine, or "infiltration tactics," emphasized the squad as the manoeuvre unit.  Squads were to by-pass resistance and to continue to attack deep to the rear of the enemy positions.  The Germans organized their artillery fire support plans to capitalize on surprise and shock effect.  Extremely violent but short artillery preparation fires culminated in a rolling barrage to protect the infantry advance.  Regular infantry formations followed the infiltration units to reduce by-passed strongpoints and to keep the leading units supplied.

A massive training programme was necessary to produce the required number of trained divisions for the breakthrough.  The German High Command (OHL) dedicated the winter of 1917-1918 to training such a force.  In the time available the increased level of training required could not be attained by every German soldier.  This led to the formation of "attack" and "trench" divisions.  The OHL appointed approximately one quarter of the German divisions as "attack" divisions.  These divisions were withdrawn from the line, issued the best equipment, and subjected to intensive training.  The remaining three quarters of the German army served in "trench" or "sector" divisions manning the defensive zone.  By the spring of 1918, 56 "attack" divisions were trained in stormtroop tactics, fully mobilized with vehicles and draft animals, and modernized with new weapons.  These divisions were prepared to spearhead the assault.  This double standard caused morale problems and would ultimately impact on the German tactical performance as the casualties experienced by the “attack” divisions could not be easily replaced.  The German tactically based offensive was to cruelly expose all of the BEF weaknesses despite the fact that they had been exposed to them at Cambrai during the German counterattack.

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