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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.