The sniper occupied a unique position on the battlefield of World War Two. As the weapons of war grew evermore lethal and sophisticated, he continued to wreak his own brand of carnage with nothing more complicated than a scoped rifle.
The mere mention of the name, sniper, carries with it an air of menace. His role had a chilling simplicity; to target and kill enemy soldiers with a bolt action or semi automatic rifle. He could also act as a valuable observer of enemy movements, gathering intelligence during long periods of inactivity, but such was purely ancillary to his main task. Snipers, operating in pairs or singly, proved capable of pinning down inordinate numbers of men in favourable terrain, releasing dozens of ordinary riflemen for other duties. There is a good case to be made that the role of the sniper was as much psychological as it was tactical.
The role of the sniper
Snipers did not flourish in the company of others. They could play little part in a set piece assault amid the competing din of artillery and machine guns. Rather, they operated in the lull between such assaults, and were most at home in the defensive battle.
A typical hunting ground for the sniper would be a static section of the frontline, where the opposing forces were dug in preparing for the next major attack. Tactics differed little on either side of the line. Sniper teams would establish hides at various points, with covered routes of movement between them. From these they would observe the enemy positions through their powerful telescopic sights, waiting for an unwary soldier to reveal himself for that split second too long. Snipers learned to choose their targets carefully, concentrating on specialists such as observers, or officers and NCOs. They knew once they had struck, they would be liable for retaliation from enemy mortars and artillery. This ensured they could never be positioned too closely to their own infantrymen who would not be thankful for such attention. This meant they were perhaps only able to get off one shot before having to relocate to another hide, and so were at pains to make sure it had the greatest effect. This deliberate form of targeting still managed to shock soldiers more used to the indiscriminate nature of the modern battlefield, but it can be traced back as far as the Napoleonic or American Revolutionary wars.
Such attacks had a huge effect on the men in the frontlines. Every precaution was taken not to show themselves for even the briefest time. Snipers were known to observe likely points for sometime before actually firing, giving them sufficient time to learn the movements of men crossing particular areas. Laying down covering fire was largely ineffective as no one knew where the sniper was. Men became accustomed to walking permanently hunched or dragging themselves through mud to avoid presenting even a fleeting target. While this may sound more appropriate to the trenches of the Great War, there were numerous frontlines of the Second which presented similar opportunities to the sniper, particularly in the East and Asia.
In those areas where the advance had bogged down, such as Italy, the sniper quickly settled in to the routine of harassing the enemy line, whittling away at the defenders who remained helpless to reply unless someone caught sight of a muzzle flash. This restricted him to targets of opportunity, men unlucky enough to wander into his crosshairs. When facing an enemy on the move, inevitably towards him, the sniper operated in a more fluid manner.
A lone sniper could effectively pin down a whole Rifle Platoon as they sought to advance. Unlike in a defensive action, the troops had to break cover at some point if they were going to make ground. That was when they were vulnerable. It can be argued that a single MG42 could prove equally devastating. The difference was though, that a heavy machine gun could not normally open fire without disclosing its position. That allowed the attacking force to focus on it and move to disable it. A concealed sniper was another problem entirely. To be truly effective, the sniper would seek to engage the enemy in an area where he had cover, but they were forced to operate in the open. The nature of the terrain and his ability to utilise it were primary factors in the success or failure of the sniper.
The first warning that troops had been targeted would come from the unmistakeable report of a rifle, and the sight of a man stopping as if halted by an invisible hand before falling to the ground. Without knowing where to return the fire, the only option was to take cover, and the only way to track the sniper was when he fired again. There also remained the very real threat that there was more than one sniper at work. At a stroke, the momentum of an entire unit had been stopped by perhaps a single shot. Then followed the game of cat and mouse as the sniper continued to fire from concealment, changing his position to avoid detection, while the infantrymen attempted to hunt him down. The shattered streets of Europe provided ample scope for the sniper to elude them, as did the jungles of the Far East.
The 'suicide boys'
As the Western allies closed in on the Reich, a relatively new phenomena began to emerge. Snipers are not, by nature, intent on their own destruction. They were soldiers as any other, prepared to face death but not necessarily rushing to its embrace. They knew when the time had come to withdraw and did so. This can be safely said of British and American snipers, and even Russian. Such had normally been the case for the Germans.
However, during the last year of the war, allied troops were increasingly confronted by German snipers who had no intention of relinquishing their posts. They earned the nickname 'suicide boys' as most were only of school age. Armed with a self loading G43 rifle, they could do immense damage before being overcome, even when tying themselves to just one position. The normal allocation of snipers across the various armies was usually just two or three men per Company. By late 1944 the Germans authorised no less than seven snipers per Grenadier or Volks Grenadier Company. It was symptomatic of their increasing desperation, but nonetheless accounted for a great many allied casualties towards the end of the war.
In the right circumstances, snipers could have an effect out of all proportion to their numbers. The fact that they operated largely in the defensive means they are mostly associated with first the Russian and then the German armies, however British and American snipers took their toll too.
The uncomfortable thing about the sniper is the deliberation taken before a kill. Ordinary riflemen took aim and fired just the same, perhaps picking their targets in order of the threat they posed. What was, and remains, unique to the sniper was his ability not to shoot a particular soldier. If he had taken time and trouble to secure a good position, he would not 'waste' perhaps his only shot on a lowly private if there was chance of an officer showing up. The telescopic sight allowed him to see the face of the man he was about to kill in great detail, not simply the outline of a figure most soldiers shot at. It was an unenviable reality.
As a result, snipers were not normally lauded. A British officer recounted the rebuke he received from his Sergeant after shooting dead an unsuspecting German busy combing his hair; 'Are you satisfied now you've killed him?' There are always stories of snipers deliberately shooting to wound a man, in an attempt to draw his comrades into the open to rescue him so they could be gunned down too. How common or accurate such tales are remains for debate. The only certainty was that when a sniper of any nationality opened fire, the same two thoughts went through the minds of the men under attack. One was spoken, the other concealed; Where is he? Am I next?
Small Unit Formations
Infantry Tactics of World War Two