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Time to talk about the famous the German assault guns or as they are called in German “Sturmgeschütze”. Now this video is more about the branch and organization and not individual vehicles. Thus, the name “assault artillery”, because this is the translation of the original name for this branch in German which was “Sturmartillerie”.
Now, the origin story of the assault artillery begins unsurprisingly in World War 1. During the war a common problem was that after a successful initial attack, the follow-up attack advanced too far for proper artillery support or that it took too long to move the guns forward. Furthermore, there was a lack of direct fire support, after all most guns were quite unwieldly and the terrain usually quite deformed from artillery fire, additionally these guns were usually not well protected even from small arms fire. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 2; see also Artillery Combat in World War 1)
The Initiative – Manstein’s Memorandum
The first major call for a “Sturmartillerie” as a mobile and armored infantry support gun was in 1935 in a memorandum from Erich von Manstein, back then, when he was still a Colonel. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 3)
He proposed three main formations as the base for the Army:
1) Independent Tank division with their own organic infantry and artillery units to support the tanks.
2) Independent Tank Brigades that consisted only of tanks and that were under the authority of the Army Command to allow for the localized concentration of force.
3) Regular Infantry division with organic assault gun units to support the infantry units.
Now, the important part here is that the assault gun units should be an organic part of the infantry division. Why is this important? Well, organic divisional units are trained with the division and stay with the division all the time. This means, that other division units are familiar with these units and are also trained in operations where the various different units supported each other, thus everyone involved knows of the strength and weaknesses of the units.
Remember, even to this day tanks without proper infantry support can be quite vulnerable. Additionally, you need to consider that back then most of the German division weren’t even motorized, thus a Sturmgeschütz was quite an oddity that was mostly known from propaganda. Hence, a lot of soldiers attributed qualities to these units that they couldn’t fulfill. Something that could be deadly in combat situations. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 3-4)
Note that the proposed number of units per division was still relatively small. Every division should have one battalion with 3 batteries each with 6 stugs, thus only 18 stugs in total. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 3-4) But, numbers without context can be misleading. So, let’s look at a weapon system with a similar role and its number, this would be the light infantry support gun and in a regular German infantry division of 1940, just 20 of these were present, thus the number of 18 stugs is actually not that low as it might appear at first glance. (Source: Alex Buchner: Handbuch der Infanterie 1939-1945)
The first 5 prototypes were ready in Winter 1937, after which a first series of 30 units was ordered. This series wasn’t completely delivered until May 1940, hence the first time StuGs were used in significant numbers was during Operation Barbarossa. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 4)
Problems & Delays
The original plan called for an assault gun battalion for each active division until Fall 1939. Yet, due to changes in the command structure, delays in the specifications, limits of the German arms industry and internal rivalries this goal was never achieved. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 3-4)
Even far from it, even in in May 1940 only 2 batteries were operational, whereas around 180 would have been necessary to equip all active divisions in May 1940. (Frieser, Karl-Heinz: Die deutschen Blitzkriege; in: Wehrmacht: Mythos & Realität. (S. 184); Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 4-5) Furthermore, the Tank Brigades were realized neither. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 7)
At the start of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 the situation had changed, around 250 StuGs were ready, these were organized in 11 battalions and 5 independent batteries. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 6)
During combat it became obvious that the combat effectiveness of infantry units was increased by a large degree due to the use of the assault gun units. Due to the high amount of training, firepower and mobility. It should be noted that the assault guns were part of artillery branch, thus they were accustomed to supporting infantry from the get go. Furthermore, the better optics and stronger emphasis on artillery practice resulted in higher hit chances. Yet, one major problem was that the battalions were part of the overall Army Units and not organic units of the infantry divisions as Manstein originally had proposed, thus the coordination between the infantry and StuGs was limited. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 6)
By the end of 1942 around 27 Stug Battalions were operational on the Eastern Front, furthermore the required strength increased from 22 to 31 StuGs, although on average only 12 were operational. This means around 320 Stugs operational. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 7)
Although the assault guns were originally intended for infantry support, their role changed on the Eastern Front. Soon they were used more and more as tank destroyers, because the German anti-tank guns with 37mm and 50 mm were simply not able to deal with the T-34 and KV-1, although in Summer 1942 the 75mm Pak 40 was introduced this gun was too heavy to have tactical mobility.
Since Spring 1942 the StuGs were upgraded to the F version that used the long barreled 75mm gun that was also capable with dealing with Russian tanks. And unlike the dedicated tank destroyers like the Marder I and II, it was better armored and also had a far lower silhouette. Thus, the StuG III F was the best German anti-tank weapon at its introduction. As a result, many StuGs were used in the anti-tank role, but thus they were missing for their intended role, namely supporting infantry. This was the reason for the development of the “Sturmhaubitze” (StuH), literally meaning assault howitzer. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 7-9)
By the end of 1943 there were 39 assault gun battalions on the Eastern Front with a total of 1006 StuGs. The average operational rate increased to 15 Stug for each battalion. In 1943 the Wehrmacht was mostly on the defensive and the StuG became a mainstay of the defense. Once Guderian became inspector for the tank troops (“Generalinspekteur der Panzertruppen”), he continuously tried to get the assault artillery integrated into the tank destroyer units, yet without success. Nevertheless, quite a large number of produced StuGs were transferred into tank divisions to compensate for the lack of regular tanks. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 9-11) This situation worsened after the failed 20th July assassination attempt against Hitler, after which Guderian became Chief of Staff. He limited the total amount of assault gun battalions to 45 and furthermore assigned a smaller portion of the produced StuGs to the assault artillery branch. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 11)
Although the output of assault guns increased year by year and reached its peak in 1944. More and more numbers were assigned to other branches. Ultimately, in March 1945 the total number of assault gun battalions was 37 with a total number 606 operational vehicles. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 12-13)
Panzertruppe – Parallel Developments “Sturmpanzer”
Now, some of you might wonder, what about the various other variants of German armored support vehicles with large guns that were similar to assault guns, like the Sturmpanzer “Bison”, the Sturmpanzer 38(t) “Grille” and of course the “Sturmtiger”? Well, those were all parallel developments by the German Tank branch.
Most of them were used with rather limited success, they were usually built upon obsolete vehicles and traded firepower for mobility and protection. Thus, giving them a rather unbalanced quality, their combat effectiveness was quite limited and for the most part they were just a waste of already limited resources. To a certain degree these parallel development by the tank branch were motivated by the fact that the assault guns were part of the artillery branch and thus avoid any dependencies to that branch. (Wettstein, Adrian: Sturmartillerie, S. 5-6)
Organization of StuG Units
Now, there is one question that military historians up to this day haven’t answered yet, namely what is the difference between Thug Life and StuG Life?
Well, first, the German accent and second, organization, organization , organization, so here we go.
Sturmbatterie / Sturmgeschützbatterie 1939 (K.St.N.445)
Now the original Assault Battery from 1939 had the following organization:
1 battery headquarters, 3 Platoons, an lightly armored ammo column, a transport unit and a maintenance squad.
Each of the three platoons consisted of just of 1 observation halftrack, 2 StuG III and 2 ammo half tracks.
Now, this is a rather odd setup, because the headquarters unit actually is only equipped with an observation halftrack, whereas armored headquarters units usually had a similar vehicle than their combat units. In total the unit had 5 light observation vehicles, 6 StuGs, and 6 light armored ammo carriers.
Note that this was an intended organization that was probably never achieved due to a lack of proper halftracks, which to a certain degree were replaced by trucks in the following layouts.
(Spielberger, Walter: Sturmgeschütze. S. 233)
(Fleischer, Wolfgang: Die deutschen Sturmgeschütze 1935-1945. S. 18)
Sturmbatterie 1941 (K.St.N446)
Now, the 1941 version was quite similar, a major change was the addition of the 7th StuG in the headquarters unit. Furthermore for this unit, I have some data on men & equipment.
In total there were 5 officers, 1 official, 37 NCOs and 83 enlisted men. Additionally, 9 light machine guns, 17 trucks, 6 cars, 7 StuGs and 3 light armored ammo carries.
As you can see the early batteries were quite small with only 2 guns, this number increased throughout the war.
Sturmgeschützbatterie (mot) K.St.N.446 (1.11.1941)
(Spielberger, Walter: Sturmgeschütze. S. 236)
(Fleischer, Wolfgang: Die deutschen Sturmgeschütze 1935-1945. S. 33)
Sturmgeschützabteilung November 1942 (K.St.N. 446a)
Now, let’s take a look at the organization of an assault gun battalion from November 1942.
It consisted of a headquarters unit and 3 assault gun batteries. Each assault gun battery consisted of a headquarters unit, 3 platoons and a transport unit. Now each platoon now had 3 StuGs and each headquarters unit one Stug, now if add the multipliers, we get a total of 31 StuGs. Finally, let’s take a look at a late war unit.
(Fleischer, Wolfgang: Die deutschen Sturmgeschütze 1935-1945. S. 67)
Heeres-Sturmartillerie-Brigade Juni 1944 (K.St.N. 446B)
One of the latest organizations was the “Heeres-Sturmartillerie-Brigade” which means Army assault artillery brigade from 1944.
It consisted of a brigade headquarters, 3 assault gun battalions and 1 support grenadier Battery. Each of the assault gun battalions consisted of a headquarters unit,1 assault gun battery and a transport unit. Finally, the assault gun batteries consisted of 2 assault gun platoons, 1 assault howitzer platoon, an ammo column and 1 maintenance column.
Now, if you think this is overly complicated, well, you might be right or you may not be German enough. Anyway, each assault gun platoon consisted of 4 StuGs, whereas each assault howitzer platoon consisted of 4 assault howitzers. Now, let’s take a look at the whole unit. The headquarters units together consisted of 9 vehicles. Whereas the Combat platoons for each Battalion had a total of 12 vehicles. Together there were 30 assault guns and 15 assault howitzers in the brigade.
(Fleischer, Wolfgang: Die deutschen Sturmgeschütze 1935-1945. S. 105)
To summarize, the original concept for the StuG was to be a direct fire support weapon for the infantry, especially in the attack against enemy defensive position. The StuG combined mobility, firepower and protection, additionally since it was part of the artillery branch, its members were better trained in firing and also are more accustomed to support infantry units, unlike regular tank units.
Due the lack of proper tank destroyers the StuGs were used quite often as tank destroyers, for which it was also ideally suited due its strong frontal armor and low silhouette, although this was not their initially intended role. Ultimately assault gun units were also added organically to infantry divisions, but at this stage the German side was on the defense, thus the StuG was mainly used as a tank destroyer and not its original role supporting infantry in offensive operations.
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