The German Infantry Battalion, 1939 to 1942
The basic outline of the Infantry Battalion remained unaltered during the opening years of the war, being made up of a Headquarters, a Machine Gun Company and three Rifle Companies.
As well as the below detailed organisations, there were Infantry Battalions on a reduced scale of support weapons, which were more common in the early years of the war. In 1939 for example, these tended to have no mortars and only twelve machine guns, all of which were concentrated in the Machine Gun Company. By 1941 the practice was becoming rarer, though some Battalions had no 8-cm Mortar Platoon. The following lists what might then be considered the more usual frontline organisation.
The Infantry Battalion, circa 1939 to 1940
Battalion Headquarters (5 Officers, 15 men)
Communications Platoon (19 men)
Battle Train (2 Officers, 17 men)
Rations Train (8 men)
Baggage Train (7 men)
Machine Gun Company (4 Officers, 173 men)
Company HQ (1 Officer, 20 men)
Battle Train (11 men)
Rations Train (3 men)
Mortar Platoon (1 Officer, 67 men)
Two Machine Gun Platoons, each (1 Officer, 36 men)
Three Rifle Companies (4 Officers, 186 men), each comprised of;
Company HQ (1 Officer, 11 men)
Battle Train (18 men)
Rations and Baggage Trains (6 men)
Machine Gun Section (16 men)
Three Rifle Platoons, each comprised of;
Platoon HQ (1 Officer, 3 men)
Light Mortar Section (3 men)
Three Rifle Squads, each comprised of 13 men
Total Strength of 820 all ranks (23 Officers and 797 men)
The Infantry Battalion, circa 1941 to 1942
Battalion Headquarters (5 Officers, 27 men)
Communications Platoon (22 men)
Battalion Train (32 men)
Machine Gun Company (5 Officers, 197 men)
Company HQ (1 Officer, 14 men)
Battle Train (14 men)
Rations Train (3 men)
Mortar Platoon (1 Officer, 61 men)
Three Machine Gun Platoons, each (1 Officer, 35 men)
Three Rifle Companies (4 Officers, 187 men), each comprised of;
Company HQ (1 Officer, 12 men)
Battle Train (17 men)
Rations and Baggage Trains (7 men)
Anti-tank Rifle Section (7 men)
Three Rifle Platoons, each comprised of;
Platoon HQ (1 Officer, 5 men)
Light Mortar Section (3 men)
Four Rifle Squads, each comprised of 10 men
Total Strength of 861 all ranks (22 Officers and 839 men) * Battalion HQ was superseded during 1942 but no copies of this table appear to have survived, so the above figures are taken from an alternative source.
Points of note
The German Infantry Battalion never gathered its overall command and service elements into a Headquarters Company, as did the British and Americans. Another interesting omission is a Pioneer Platoon. In practice, each Battalion selected a number of men from within the Platoons to be trained in the role. They were detached from their units and assembled as and when required. Also, Infantry Battalions were never authorised their own antitank guns, such weapons remaining firmly under Regimental control.
The elements of the Battalion
Battalion Headquarters - consisted of the Battalion Commander, Adjutant, Ordnance and Medical Officers, and a small staff of runners and clerks.
Communications Platoon - maintained radio, wire and telephone communication between the Battalion and higher and parallel formations.
Battalion Supply Train - contained the Battalion's small motor pool, large numbers of horse drawn wagons and also the usual tradesmen and specialists.
The Mortar Platoon - in 1939, the Mortar Platoon of the British, French or Polish armies had just two weapons. At the outbreak of war, the German Mortar Platoon had six 8-cm weapons, giving the Battalion a notably higher degree of firepower than its adversaries. The Platoon, like much of the German Army, was reliant on horses and wagons to transport its weapons and ammunition.
The Machine Gun Platoon - the German Army had learned well the lessons taught by the machine gun on the killings fields of the Great War. But they did not rely on the same weapons for the next conflict, as was the case with the allies. The MG34 was a unique concept, a General Purpose Machine Gun or GPMG. The weapon could be mounted on a heavy tripod and fed by continuous belts of ammunition, or fired from a bipod with a short belt contained in a drum. The toll this weapon and its successor took on allied troops was truly terrible. Each Platoon served four MG34s, used in the sustained fire mode on tripod mountings.
Despite the introduction of the MG34 production shortages meant that in the early years of the war, some units were equipped with the older MG08/15 heavy machine gun. This was a direct descendent of the Maxim machine guns but despite its age it remained a perfectly lethal weapon, and was found in use until the end of the war in some instances.
The Rifle Company - the Rifle Company underwent a major change following the invasion of Poland, with a very different Rifle Squad, or Gruppe introduced as a result of experience.
The original Squad was thirteen strong, with three Squads per Platoon. The Squad was made up of a leader and assistant, both NCOs, and seven men, all of who were armed with rifles. The Squad was completed by a Light Machine Gun group of four men, armed with three pistols and one rifle and serving a single light machine gun. Platoon HQ was nothing more than an officer and three messengers carrying a pistol and rifles respectively. The Light Mortar Section contained an NCO and two men, all armed with rifles and serving a single 5-cm light mortar.
This was the Squad and Platoon in use during the invasion of Poland, where it proved to be too cumbersome a unit to operate effectively in action. Following the campaign the ten man Squad detailed below was adopted, but it was not until early 1941 that this was reflected in the organisational tables. It does raise the intriguing question of whether units in action in the West in 1940 were operating on the old organisation or the new.
The new Squad was made up of an NCO, a six man rifle element and a three man light machine gun team. The NCO was originally armed with a rifle, but as sufficient stocks became available adopted the MP40 machine pistol. The MP40 was the world's first mass produced submachine gun, and was constructed from pre-fabricated metal stampings and plastic. It fired the usual 9-mm round, and became a highly sought after allied trophy. Some one million were eventually produced. The men of the rifle group were all armed with the Mauser bolt action rifle, an amended model of the 1898 weapon fielded during the Great War. One of the riflemen also acted as assistant leader. The Germans based the firepower of the squad around a single light machine gun. The MG34 was served by a gunner and loader, each man armed with a pistol, while a third man acted as an ammunition bearer and carried a rifle. The original weapon was the revolutionary MG34. The Germans believed a gunner would only have seconds to engage exposed enemy infantry before they naturally took cover. The MG34 had an exceptionally high rate of fire for the period, enabling even the shortest burst to unleash a tremendous volley.
With the reduction in the size of the Squad came an increase in the number of Squads per Platoon, rising from three to four. The four Squads were directed by a Platoon commander aided by an NCO, three runners and a supply wagon driver. The commander was armed with a machine pistol and a semi-automatic pistol, while the NCO was unusually authorised just a pistol. The three runners carried rifles, as did the wagon driver. One of the runners was the first to be equipped with a telescopic sight for his rifle. The wagon driver was responsible for the Platoon supply vehicle, a horse drawn affair which transported the bulk of the unit's equipment. Increasingly during 1942, it became common for the Platoon Commander to be a senior NCO rather than a commissioned officer.
The Company Train included four stretcher bearers armed with pistols, one being routinely attached to each Platoon. The Light Mortar Section was the same as before, with an NCO, gunner and loader. The NCO carried a rifle, each crewman now a pistol. The 5-cm light mortar was not a popular weapon. Unlike the British, who used the 2-inch mortar more for smoke than effect, the Germans intended the 5-cm to bridge the gap between maximum grenade range and minimum safe artillery range. It was not a success, being too heavy a weapon for too small an advantage. It fell out of use quickly once the campaign in the East began. During 1942 each Squad received a rifle grenade launcher, used to propel a variety of high explosive and more often anti-tank rounds, providing a much more flexible weapon.
Company level fire support also changed considerably between 1939 and 1941. Initially, each Rifle Company had a Section of two heavy machine guns under its own command, which when added to the eight such weapons in the Machine Gun Company gave the Battalion a total of fourteen. By 1941, and possibly earlier, the Company machine guns were removed and a third Platoon was added to the Machine Gun Company, bringing the total number of weapons down slightly to twelve.
Replacing the Machine Gun Section was the Anti-tank Rifle Section. Its NCO commanded three teams, each of a gunner and loader serving a single Panzerbuchse 38/39. The anti-tank rifle was an outmoded idea from a previous era, effective against only the lightest of armoured fighting vehicles. The ironic reality was that many German Infantry units did not even have the rifles until the invasion of Russia, in which theatre of war they were infinitely outclassed by the heavier Soviet tanks. But, as in the British and Red armies, they remained in use long after they should have to provide the infantry soldier with some means to engage armour in the absence of the necessary towed guns.
Company HQ provided the usual command functions. The supply role was handled by the substantial Company Train, which included a large number of horse drawn vehicles and a 2-ton truck.
While the above organisation was officially in use from February 1941 until the end of 1943, the realities of war, especially on the Eastern Front, brought about many changes. No hard and fast rules can be applied to units amending their authorised establishment in the light of circumstance, but some general observations can be made.
Weapons such as the 5-cm mortar and the anti-tank rifle quickly proved to be more of an encumbrance than a valuable means of fire support, and were often discarded. Shortages of personnel to replace casualties largely caused Rifle Platoons to shrink from four Squads down to three. At a rough estimate, the overall effects of these reductions could account for a total drop in personnel of approximately 120 men from the authorised strength of some 860 all ranks. While the reality was well known to commanders in the field, it was not until the end of 1943 that the Germany Army introduced a new organisation for the Infantry Battalion that incorporated these developments.
The German Army
The German Infantry and Grenadier Battalion
German Divisional Organisations