No, we’re not talking about the combat lemmings in low-budget plastic suits in the Star Wars movies. We’re talking about the original item — the Stormtroopers of the German Empire in the Great War.
We’re working our way through the excellent book Sturmtruppen by Spanish historian Ricardo Recio Carmona (translated to English by Gustavo Cano Muñoz and edited by Tyler Baldwin). This is a new book, published by Andrea Press in 2014, and it’s a richly illustrated and extensively documented survey of something every history buff thinks he knows.
The conventional story goes something like this:
After years of stalemate, the Germans developed Sturmtruppen in 1918, small, heavily armed detachments who operated independently and used stealth and infiltration tactics to surprise the enemy, and concentrated firepower to overwhelm him locally on contact.
And as remarkable as that development would be, it’s not exactly what happened. Carmona documents that, while Sturmtruppen had evolved to that level by 1918, to the point where even the Allies figured them out, they had been formed and deployed, if partly on an ad hoc basis, more or less continuously since 1914.
A fine point of German terminology is that Stosstruppen (Shock Troops) were strictly ad hoc, and temporary, but Sturmtruppen (Assault Troops) might equally be temporary “mobs for jobs” or permanent units. While assault troops might have been tasked to fight, they had a second, equally important role, which was to teach storm troops tactics to regular army formations.
Hptm. Willi Rohr
The first such formal, permanent unit was probably Hauptmann Willi Martin Ernst Rohr, whose Sturmabteilung Rohr stood up in his Guards regiment in 1915. This was revolutionary in the German service, which entered the war committed, as its enemies and allies all were, to a line formation, whose only difference from the formations of Waterloo a century earlier was a little more open deployment, as a nod — an ineffectual nod — to the firepower of repeating rifles, machine guns and recoil-compensated quick-firing artillery.
Carmona notes that the characteristics of a Sturmtrupp operation, technically and tactically, included:
- Task organization, including assault and support elements;
- Selection of the men by the officer in charge;
- A rehearsal (or rehearsals) in a safe area configured to replicate the mission objective;
- Leaders’ reconnaissance to pinpoint infiltration points and routes;
- A precise schedule of execution with specific time hacks;
- Pre-arranged artillery and mortar support (not preparation);
In addition, surviving documents and memories make it plain that Sturm- and Stosstrupp leaders conducted very modern-seeming patrol inspections and troop-leading procedures that would not be out of place in a modern Army, and they began doing this from 1914. All the combatants were shocked by the terrifying effectiveness of modern 20th Century armaments, but the Germans did something about it. The French, British, and Russians just kept trying to logistically manage the battlefield in such a way that they’d deploy more human chests than the Germans could deploy bullets or artillery fragments.
Armaments of the Stormtroopers
The term Sturmtrupp was first used in connection with flamethrower detachments in 1914, and that offensive spirit was thought to reside in such units as well as in the new technical elite of tank operators, and the ancient light infantry of southern Germany, the Mountain Troops.
But most Sturm- u. Stosstruppen were armed with infantry weapons — just more of them. The principal weapon became the hand-grenade, a weapon that in 1914 was only in engineers’ inventory, not infantry. Period photos of a Sturm- u. Stosstruppler always show him well-endowed with ‘nades.
German hand grenades came in offensive (blast only, no fragments, for use by troops in the open) and defensive (fragmentation, for use by troops under cover) varieties. The reason for taking cover when throwing a frag grenade is that it can produce casualties beyond its typical throwing range! Beyond that distinction, German ‘nades were produced in four broad types and many specific models. The types were ball grenades, disc grenades, egg grenades, and stick grenades.
The ball grenade M1913 was the only grenade produced at the beginning of the war, and was produced originally only for sappers. It was a serrated iron-cased fragmentation grenade in the style of many other nations’ grenades, except that it was truly spherical, not at all ellipsoid. It had a pull wire on its fuze on top, which started a 5-7 second delay. (A second prewar version with a clockwork fuze was not produced after the war started). It would be redesigned during the war, to simplify manufacturing, but the replacements were called both M1913 Neuer Art (“new type”) and M1915.
This collection of Great War grenades came from a collector forum. German grenades in it (all left of the center of the image) include:
3. German M1915 Kugel grenade fragments
4. German M1915 Discushandgranate
5. German M1915 Kugel grenade, friction fuse
6. German m1913 Kugel grenade, friction fuse
7. Mauser T-Geweher round
8. German flechette
9. German Eier grenade with transit plug
10. German Eier grenade with standard friction fuse
11. German Eier grenade with friction fuse
12. German Eier grenade with M1917 friction fuse
13. German Stielhandgranate M1917
14. German Stielhandgranate M1916
15. German 1914 rifle grenade with transit plug
The disc grenade was uniquely Imperial German and was fuzed to detonate on impact with the ground. It came in three different models: a sheet steel offensive grenade of 100-110 mm diameter; a cast iron defensive grenade of 80 mm diameter; and a catapult-launched Schleuder-Diskushandgranate that could be launched further.
The egg grenade was a latecomer, introduced in 1917. In continuously improved versions, it would remain in German service to 1945, but at the time it was a simple attempt to make a grenade that cost less and used fewer resources than the stick grenade. It had a time fuze and 32 grams of black powder.
The stick grenade, called by English-speaking troops the German “potato masher” from its resemblance to the household implement, is the grenade most people today associate with Germans, although many nations used stick grenades. Most stick grenades were offensive grenades with 200+ grams of explosive inside a thin sheet cover. The original M1915 had a time fuze initiated by pulling a wooden knob that formed the base of the stick. Apparently due to accidents, this was replaced by a pull cord that was protected by a screw-off protective cap in the M1916 and M1917 models. At some point, these grenades were available with impact as well as time fuzes.
Center, upper: Stielhandgranate 15. Center, lower: SHG 17 (pull cord extended). The grenade on the right is Austrian.
In addition to these factory grenades, Sturmtruppen had a variety of improvised and field-expedient grenades, often made right behind the front in engineers’ workshops, especially in the 1914-15 period. Grenades were also combined into a Geballte Ladung with six extra heads, detonated sympathetically, arrayed around the one on the stick, or made into a Gestreckte Ladung by placing grenade heads at about 10-15 cm apart along a wooden lath or stick. (This seems to be intended to be an improvised Bangalore torpedo).
Sturmtruppen carried lots of grenades, and the number rose as the war continued. A trooper might have felt well-armed with two or three grenades in 1915, but by 1917 he would want saddle-bags around his shoulders with three or four stick grenades on each side, and a few egg grenades in his pocket as backup. Some troopers were designated grenade-throwers, and they might have an assistant who carried a whole pack of ‘nades.
Firearms carried tended to be Mauser 98 carbines and numerous pistols. By 1918, the Sturmtrupp table of organization and equipment specified the new MP 18/1 submachine gun for all officers and NCOs and 10% of troops, but the firearm was never produced in such quantity.
And, of course, machine guns and mortars were used from the German trenches in support of Sturmtrupp attacks.
Jünger mid-war. He went on to be one of only 11 company commanders among the 700 recipients of the Pour le Mèrite, and to survive the war and become an important literary and philosophical figure in Germany.
Carmona quote a German officer, Ernst Jünger, on his armaments before leading a Stosstrupp (edited for clarity):
… across my chest, two sandbags, each containing four stick grenades, impact fuses on the left, delay on the right; in my right tunic pocket, a Pistol 08 [Luger] on a long cord; in my right trouser pocket, a little Mauser pistol; in my left tunic pocket, five egg grenades; in my left trouser pocket, luminous compass and whistle; in my belt, spring hooks for pulling out the pins, plus knife and wire cutters.
He was prepared for all eventualities, with his home address in a wallet in one pocket, and a flask of cherry brandy in another, and his Trupp removed unit identifying insignia from their uniforms and went “sterile.”
Grenades are one of those unglamorous weapons that gets short shrift between the wars, only to come into great demand “when the guns begin to shoot.”
Sturmtruppen is a well-researched and documented look at the German tactical revolution of WWI and will get you thinking about the profound impact these tactics have had on warfare today.
It’s made us want to read Carmona’s thesis which was on the quartermaster service of the Blue Division, Franco’s volunteers with the Germans on the Eastern Front, even if we have to read it en español. And it’s also made us want to read Jünger’s Storm of Steel, which has been translated into English.
Carmona, Ricardo Recio. Sturmtruppen: WWI German Stormtroopers (1914-1918). Madrid, 2014: Andrea Press
Jünger, Ernst. Im Stahlgewittern. Berlin, 1920: E.S. Mittler und Sohn. Available online at: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/34099
Numerous other Jünger works are available at Archive.org.