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Shortly after the Normandy landings, the German Army noticed something about the American Army’s fighting habits. “There was usually a lull in the fighting during the nights.” The Americans seldom continued a fight after the sun went down. A reading of American unit journals confirm that little action occurred during the hours of darkness. Only the Germans used the dark to launch attacks.

The Advantages of Night Operations

The Germans made excellent use of nighttime for “tactical regroupings, unit transfers, the forward movement of replacements and supplies…tactical movements in preparation for an attack…movement into defensive positions…disengagement, and retreat.” With Allied planes roaming the skies, the Germans risked exposure to air attack if they moved at all during the day. Pressed during the day by American infantry and Allied air, the Germans felt a huge sense of relief to have nighttime to themselves. While the Americans slept the Germans used the night to recover and reset their defense.

The Americans sacrificed several tactical advantages by restricting offensive operations to daytime. First, the added concealment of night could’ve saved lives when American riflemen had to attack over open farmland. Second, darkness shortened the effective range of defensive weapons making it easier to close with the enemy. Third, the infantry missed the chance to infiltrate German positions under the cover of dark. When German resources dwindled too far to put together a solid defense, they began defending a line of forward isolated outposts backed by reserves. Their combat outposts often blunted American attacks and cost the Americans a lot of casualties. The American infantry could've compromised this strategy by slipping between the outposts at night.

Why Didn’t the Americans Attack at Night?

General Blumentritt
General der Infantrie Gunther Blumentritt

The natural difficulty of controlling movement in the hours of darkness explains some of the reluctance. A German general, Gunther Blumentritt, once noted, “Night is no man’s friend.” Given the inexperience of the leaders, American units may have considered a night attack too risky. Fatigue also played a part. After planning and supervising attacks during the day, commanders and staffs did not have the energy to extend operations into the night. Fatigue does not justify losing lives. If commanders thought they could attack successfully at night, they would've exploited that tactic. Why did they lack confidence in their ability to attack at night? I have an explanation for why American units avoided night attacks.

Tactical Doctrine

The Army’s field manuals from the early 1940s discussed night attacks but always from the view that such an operation was employed under exceptional circumstances. Manuals at company, battalion and regiment levels emphasized the difficulties of night operations but seldom mentioned the potential benefits. Doctrine imposed extra reconnaissance and movement control measures. Units required special training and rehearsals before any night attack could be considered. Given the daily grind of offensive operations in Normandy, commanders had no opportunity to plan and prepare such complex operations. As a result, the American Army slogged away, day-after-day, against German defenses in the light of day.

I had my introduction to the Army’s tactical doctrine when I served as a lieutenant at Fort Hood. I put together a field training event on the night attack. After pulling out my rifle company field manual (FM 7-10), I read through all the requirements for a successful night attack. I programmed each step in the tactical exercise. The company performed daylight and evening recons of the objective. Men stayed behind to maintain observation on the objective. The platoons posted guides to

Field Exercise
Author (2nd from R) Fort Hood 1973

help with night navigation and rehearsed for an assault in the dark. All this preparation took hours. A relatively simple night movement bogged down when the platoons wasted time just linking up with the right guides. Even then the guides themselves had trouble navigating to the correct positions for the final assault. The attack dragged for more hours.

Conclusion

At the end of the training exercise, I got together with the other lieutenants to discuss the operation. All of us agreed that the whole attack grossly violated the KISS formula (Keep It Simple Stupid). We felt that a single recon of the objective followed by careful map reading and a little compass work would’ve gotten us to the objective a lot sooner. The conclusion—the Army’s tactical doctrine was way too complex and difficult to execute.

In truth, tactics for a night attack should mirror those for a daylight attack. Had the troops of 1944 been taught and trained that way, they might’ve seized the advantages of night operations and put relentless pressure on the German defenders.

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After the euphoria of victory in Europe wore off, the western Allies paid grudging homage to the fighting ability of the German Wehrmacht. People noted Germany’s early successes in World War II and vigorous defense in the war’s last stages. Despite the massive Soviet and Allied forces arrayed against Nazi Germany in 1944-45, they held out for eleven months, fighting a two-front war. Military leaders admitted that Nazi Germany had been a formidable opponent.

Most historians attributed the tough German defense to their combat experience, superior generalship and Allied supply challenges. Years later military historians started making a more controversial assessment. Colonel Trevor DuPuy, citing battlefield statistics, stated “the German ground soldier consistently inflicted casualties at about a 50% higher rate than they incurred from opposing British and American troops UNDER ALL CIRCUMSTANCES. This was true when they were attacking and when they were defending.”

German Infantrymen
German Infantrymen in Normandy

Others, such as Max Hastings and Antony Beevor, also remarked on the superior battlefield prowess of German infantry. The fanatic SS troops earned special mention for their fierceness. These historians credited the fighting skills of the Nazis for much of the German Army’s success. The Nazis' willingness to prolong the fight against overwhelming odds helped keep the Allies bottled up in the Normandy hedgerows for seven weeks.

Did German infantrymen outfight their American counterparts?

My research into the 4th Infantry Division’s combat actions from June 6, 1944 to May 8, 1945, draws a different answer, depending on the time frame of the action. In Normandy, yes, the Germans fought with greater skill and determination than the Americans. After the devastating loss in the Falaise-Argentan Pocket, no. American infantrymen matched and sometimes over-matched the Germans. After the Battle of the Bulge, just the opposite. The GIs trounced the demoralized German troops, even the ardent SS, as they drove into the Fatherland.

Two Battles with Different Results

Besides the slow pace of the Allied advance against the out-numbered Germans, the campaign in Normandy provides plenty of anecdotal evidence of Germans getting the better of the Americans.

Private Dick Stodghill related an incident when 4th Infantry Division troops attacked across an open field south of Carentan. The American infantry trailed behind six tanks when German anti-tank guns knocked out the tanks in rapid succession.

Tank and infantryman
Tank and Infantryman Fighting in Normandy

Machine guns pinned down the American riflemen in the field, stopping the attack. The enemy, members of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division, were not content with merely stopping the attack. A dozen Panzergrenadiers jumped over a hedgerow and ran to the abandoned American tanks. Before the Americans could shoot them, the SS soldiers climbed into the tanks then turned the tanks’ guns against the exposed American infantry. It was that kind of bold, confident and clever action that frustrated the Allies in the summer of 1944.

An attack by part of the 4th Infantry Division, nine months later, tells a different story. A battalion-size German force from the 212th Volks Grenadier Division, augmented with a company of SS, defended a series of bunkers inside a woodland. A battalion-size American force, augmented with tanks, attacked the entrenched Germans. The American infantry concentrated their fire against one bunker at a time. After suppressing the defenders, a tank came forward to blast the bunker. An infantryman finished off the dug-in Germans with a satchel charge. Down the line the experienced American infantry repeated the process and dislodged the German defenders. In a desperate attempt to turn back the Americans, the Germans counterattacked but got mowed down by tank, machine gun and rifle fire. The battle ended with the Americans killing twenty Germans for every man they lost.

Stay Tuned

What accounts for the disparate outcomes? In future posts I will address the issues contributing to the German soldiers’ initial combat advantage and the Americans’ ability to turn the tables on them.

Military units must fight with a single will to triumph on the battlefield. The individual responsible for imbuing that will into the hearts of the soldiers is the commander. In combat, a strong-willed leader is one who infuses his subordinate commanders and troops with an indomitable fighting spirit.

Brigade Commander

Portrait of William MacRae
General William MacRae

During research for my Civil War book, More Terrible Than Victory, I ran across a leader who stood out for his success in boosting the combat effectiveness of his unit. Confederate Brigadier General William MacRae took command of a North Carolina brigade in late June 1864. The Tar Heel brigade had suffered terrible losses in the Virginia Overland Campaign over the previous two months. In his first act as brigade commander MacRae booted his men out of the wagons they were supposed to guard on an easy resupply mission. His strict orders put the troops on notice that discipline under the new general would be a lot tighter.

The thirty-year old general took steps to uplift esprit de corps within his brigade. Especially noteworthy, he formed an elite team of skirmishers from battle-proven troops of every regiment. “MacRae’s Sharpshooters” carried repeating rifles and held regular marksmanship practice. Men competed for the distinction of joining the exclusive sharpshooter outfit. Throughout the rest of the Petersburg Campaign they led the way for the brigade, often overcoming their foes by themselves.

Reams Station

Battle of Reams Station
MacRae's Brigade Assaults at Reams Station

General MacRae proved his tactical skills two months later at the Battle of Reams Station. His brigade drew a hard luck mission to attack across open ground to dislodge part of the Union II Corps from an entrenched position. The Union troops had already driven off two earlier attacks. Scouting the terrain MacRae realized that the only chance for success was to break the Union position with a spirited bayonet charge, relying on a bold, rapid charge to overwhelm the defenders’ will. MacRae timed his attack perfectly. He held his brigade back until the adjacent units advanced close to the Union position then unleashed his men. As a result, the fierce assault demoralized the Union defenders and collapsed their position.

Burgess Mill

MacRae’s Brigade further burnished its reputation within the Army of Northern Virginia at other engagements around Petersburg. While the morale of many Confederate units eroded under the pressure of Grant’s siege, the Tar Heels showed rejuvenated spirit at Jones Farm and Burgess Mill. At the latter battle, MacRae’s Brigade nearly routed an entire Union Corps before getting counterattacked from three different directions. Showing his usual aggressiveness and skill, MacRae led his men out of the trap. He refused to abandon the field even though his exposed troops were heavily out-numbered. The Union troops withdrew that night. The battered Tar Heel brigade prevailed through sheer force of will.

Combat Leadership

The short general with the high-pitched voice turned his worn-out brigade into one of the best fighting forces within Lee’s Army. His tactical skill, discipline, and determination showed forth in the fighting prowess of his men from general to private. In conclusion, William MacRae exemplified the value of leadership in generating combat effectiveness.

In our connected world, we can put written histories in the palms of our hands with a few keystrokes. Yet, to get truly close to historical events nothing beats digging through primary source information. For those who want to research American military history, the gold can be found at the National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland.

NARA preserves the vital documents and materials our nation produces in its proceedings, so that “we the people” can unearth the chronicles of our history. The mammoth facility in College Park houses contemporaneous records and makes them available for research. NARA welcomes curious amateurs as well as professional researchers.

Son, Paul, examining records at NARA
My son, Paul, at NARA

The ease of access and quantity of firsthand documents can astonish anyone on an initial visit. Within an hour, one request for information about a single World War II regiment produced fourteen boxes of documents. Each box held a rich collection of field orders, maps, overlays, after action reports, casualty lists, etc. Some documents describe routine activity. “F Co. and Hdqs Co. moved into town to receive the usual quota of champagne, cognac, bread and fruits.” In contrast, other records expose the chaos of an unfolding battle. “Mtr-cycle machine gun Bn opposing us. Our location on 340024.”

The archives offer a peek into history at a granular level rather than the bland, superficial passages we read in our high school textbooks. Furthermore, the researcher can see orders, overlays and journals that commanders and staffs created on the spot. A careful reader can catch the truth of the situation from these documents that, sometimes, casts a different light on the rosy pictures spun in later accounts.

Plan a Research Visit

NARA provides helpful information on how to plan a visit to their College Park location. Be sure to review their guidelines on what to do and what not to do at their facility. To learn more visit the National Archives website https://www.archives.gov/