Today, the term “storm trooper” evokes images of the Nazi Party in the period before it seized power. It is true that the street brawlers of the Depression styled themselves as storm troopers, but they were only emulating specialist troops from World War I, soldiers who had inspired a powerful mystique among the Germans some fifteen years before. They were trained to strike swiftly and hard, moving in small groups; in quiet periods, they conducted trench raids, gathering intelligence and disrupting easy habits on both sides of the front line, while in battle operations, they negated the value of enemy strong points by evading them, finding more secure paths to positions deep in the enemy’s rear, and disrupting their supply. In this way, difficult positions became much easier to overcome. The German storm troopers of World War I represent the first systematic effort in modern western armies to use infiltration tactics to undermine the strength of enemy positions.
The development of the storm trooper concept was a gradual process that often built upon unofficial practices that were found to work in one place by a given unit, and then shared with other units. The chroniclers of the British Army speculated that the German practices must have originated in the adoption of French proposals generated in 1915 (and published in 1916), and even today, some sources will cite this pamphlet as the source of the Germans’ idea. It cannot be the first step, however, because the Germans had already created a storm troop unit on March 2, 1915. The process was well underway.
In fact, the concept underlying the storm troops grew out of existing practices as well as field innovations. German field engineers, known as Pioneers, were elite formations that dealt with such issues as the reduction of the enemy’s fortifications, the creation of improvised fortifications for their own side, and the use of heavy infantry weapons, such as mortars and flame throwers. When the entire Western Front became one long fortified zone, the Germans clearly looked to the methods of the Pioneers to find a way to break the impasse, and it did not take long. Trench warfare was in place all along the Western Front at the beginning of winter, 1914; on January 18, 1915, the Germans created a specialized flamethrower unit, and it is they who coined the term Stosstruppen. Six weeks later, a Pioneer company led by Major Kaslow was designated Sturmabteilung Kaslow and became the first official storm trooper unit.
The terminology requires some elaboration, because the terms Stosstruppen and Sturmabteilung came to be used interchangeably, even by the troops themselves. Stosstruppen is often translated as “storm troops,” although the German word Stoss means more accurately a push or stab. Sturmabteilung means most literally “storm detachment,” but in military contexts, Sturm signifies assault. Kaslow’s men were designated a Sturmabteilung in part because they were tasked with the experimental use of a relatively lightweight cannon designed by Krupp, known as the Sturmkanone or assault cannon. The Germans had already learned that distant fire by heavy artillery was not sufficient to destroy machine gun emplacements, so they wanted to see if close-range directed fire by light, mobile guns could accomplish what the heavy artillery could not. While the original purpose of Sturmabteilung Kaslow was correspondingly narrow, it is an early example of the storm trooper concept of using light, powerful weapons to close with the enemy quickly and disrupt their defensive measures. In the future, official terminology would continue to call such teams Sturmabteilungen, with larger formations being designated Sturmbataillonen, but the soldiers used a number of names to describe themselves. These included Sturmtruppen, Patrouillentruppen and Jagdkommando, but the most popular of all was Stosstruppen, which was adopted from the flamethrower specialists.
The Sturmabteilung continued to break new ground as the year progressed. In August, it received a new commander, former Guards Captain Willy Ernst Rohr, and with his arrival came a new focus on tactical innovation. The original purpose of the unit was to explore the possibilities offered by a new, lighter gun; that gun was then discarded, and attention shifted to finding ways to expand on the tactical possibilities that had been found, making use of any available weaponry, particularly hand grenades but even including modified artillery pieces. At this time, the focus was on forcing entry into fortified areas and dealing quickly with concentrations of enemy strength. Favorable results led to the Sturmabteilung’s deployment at the Battle of Verdun. Ranking officers were pleased with its results, and on April 1, it became the first Sturmbataillone, with additional soldiers and additional opportunities.
The High Command intended to use Sturmbataillone Rohr as the basis for similar battalions everywhere in the German Army. Select officers and senior enlisted personnel from all over the Western Front trained with the battalion and brought its experience back with them. Most major formations had created a shock battalion of some sort by the end of 1916, and many smaller units had assembled impromptu teams for the same purpose, relying on local experience. Now these specialists could be regularized. The storm troops were always meant to alternate between short bursts of high-intensity combat duty and longer periods in which they trained other soldiers; in the final analysis, the High Command was not looking to create a series of elite units, but rather, the foundation of the next generation of the German Army. Despite the setbacks of 1918, this objective would be met.
Ironically, the decentralized nature of the Imperial German Army also served it very well in the creation of the storm troop units. As long as objectives were being met, particular formations were given substantial latitude to adopt specific measures as they saw fit, and even junior officers were permitted, even encouraged, to exercise their own initiative. This tendency was only magnified by the circumstances of storm troop combat, in which small units engaged in risky missions out of direct contact with their superiors. Thus, during the course of 1917, innovations were made everywhere in the German Army, and not just in the Western Front. General Oskar von Hutier utilized similar techniques, and sometimes the new storm troop tactics are known as Hutier tactics. Similarly, mountain units employed these tactics at the Battle of Caporetto, with the exploits of Captain Erwin Rommel standing as primary examples.
At their most basic level, these tactics relied on shock action, as opposed to firepower. The problems they were designed to overcome would not be solved by the number of rifles used, but by surprise and confusion caused by the force of an attack. In a sense, the storm troops and similar formations were used to accomplish with infantry what, ten years earlier, would have been accomplished by cavalry. Early developments focused on the destruction of enemy strongpoints, for which explosives were the primary tool. Portable guns played an important role in the creation of the first storm troop unit, but above all, hand grenades were the weapon of choice. Storm troopers in the vanguard often went to battle with four grenades stuck in their belts, one in each hand, and their rifle (often in the shorter carbine version) slung over their backs. Reinforced positions were attacked with cluster charges in the form of seven grenades attached to a single stick. With techniques like these, it became possible to demolish strong points, or to gain entry into a trench position by overwhelming the local defenders.
Certain changes led to other changes, however. With the reduced reliance on firepower, there was no longer a need for a long line of troops to either side, all firing together. The presence or absence of friendly troops on the flank was no longer a primary consideration. Small units, acting independently, could advance rapidly to positions where they could do the most damage without being concerned with their flanks. With this freedom came the opportunity to avoid the centers of enemy strength, rather than eliminating them immediately, and passing deeper into enemy territory, seeking those positions where they could do the greatest damage. Subsequent waves of friendly troops could then deal with the isolated strongpoints at far lesser cost. By the fall of 1917, storm troopers had adopted infiltration tactics as an alternative to costly frontal assaults.
It it generally noted that the collapse of Russia freed huge numbers of men from the Eastern Front for use on the Western Front, and that their availability was a primary consideration in Ludendorff’s calculated risk for a major offensive in the west in the spring of 1918. Storm troops and their infiltration tactics also figured prominently in his calculations. He counted on the cumulative shock effect of many local instances of deep infiltration to break the enemy lines. He also knew that the eastern troops were not yet fully versed in the latest techniques developed in the west, and needed time for the appropriate training. In addition to the by-then familiar equipment of grenades, carbines, lighter machine guns, clubs and knives came a new weapon, the submachine gun, in the form of the Bergmann MP 18/1. Essentially a handheld machine gun firing pistol rounds, it was an important contributor to tactics that relied on fast-moving troops using light but effective equipment.
It should be remembered that storm troops were always intended to represent the future of the German Army itself, and not simply elite formations. Ludendorff did not wish to outfit and train a dozen more specialist storm trooper units; he wanted to prepare as many divisions as possible to fight like storm troops. Accordingly, he reallocated the soldiers all across the Western Front to new divisions, designated by one of three grades: Mobile, Attack and Positional. The Mobile divisions, 44 in all, were staffed with the youngest and strongest soldiers, and they were trained and equipped to emulate storm troop tactics, particularly advancing in open order, acting independently, avoiding the enemy’s areas of greatest strength, infiltrating deeply, and thereby shattering the enemy’s carefully-built defenses. Thirty more divisions fell in the Attack category, representing older but still capable soldiers; they too received this training, and were expected to serve as the reserve troops for the attack. The remaining Positional divisions were strictly garrison troops, and had already been shorn of their most promising officers and men.
Ultimately, the gamble failed. Ludendorff was compelled to attack where he had the best chance of success, rather than where success would have produced the greatest dividends, and while the Michael Offensive made an impressive show, the Germans were unable to capitalize on their successes. This failure was crucial, because the dynamics of Ludendorff’s selection mechanism made soldiers capable of using the new tactics a scarce resource that could not be renewed in the foreseeable future. It was the most capable troops that were thrown into all of the attacks, while those that remained behind were of the lowest quality, and when the German reserves were exhausted, it was the best troops that were spent. Had the Germans been able to secure substantial strategic objectives, the effort might have been worth the cost, but without those objectives, modest successes became a disaster.
The Germans were unable to replenish the troops fit for storm trooper tactics during the war, but the lessons would guide the new German Army when rearmament proceeded in the 1930’s. Infiltration tactics would also be expanded from infantry to cooperating teams of infantry and armored units, becoming one of the cornerstones of the Blitzkrieg. The storm trooper concept was also co-opted by the Nazis for political purposes, but its true legacy was in the German Army of World War II, and in all armies that learned from it.
Bull, Stephen. Stormtrooper: Elite German Assault Soldiers. Military Illustrated, 1999
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms & Armour, 1996
Sheffield, Gary. War on the Western Front: In the Trenches of World War I. Osprey, 2008
Wiest, Andrew. The History of World War I: The Western Front 1917-1918. Amber, 2008
Willmott, H.P. World War I. Covent Garden Books, 2003
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