“The attackers weren’t ordinary German infantrymen, they were the Kaiser’s elite sturmtruppen or ‘stormtroopers’ — handpicked men, specially trained and armed to the teeth.”
Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 21, more than 6,500 German heavy guns and 3,500 mortars unleashed one of the most devastating artillery bombardments in the history of warfare — all of it concentrated on a tiny 150-square-mile patch of the Allied lines along the Somme.
In less than five hours, nearly 3.5 million shells had shattered British command posts and gun batteries, while salvo after salvo of deadly chlorine and mustard gas rained down on the trenches.
As the violent cannonade abruptly ended, the dumbfounded Tommies staggered back to the parapets and watched in dismay as legions of heavily armed enemy soldiers charged out of the gloom of No Man’s Land. The attackers weren’t ordinary German infantrymen, they were the Kaiser’s elite sturmtruppen or “stormtroopers” — handpicked men, specially trained and armed to the teeth.
Within minutes, the raiders had overwhelmed the Allied defenders at key points along the line and were racing through the openings to sow chaos in the rear. Their assault had cleared the way for a half-million regular German soldiers who would soon be pouring through the gaps along the 40-kilometre front like water through a rain grate. The British and French were falling back in disarray. After nearly four years of war, victory for the Kaiser seemed tantalizingly within reach.
And while the Spring Offensive eventually fizzled, the resounding success of the stormtroopers’ onslaught staggered the Allies. What’s more, this new style of fighting had effectively rewritten the book on infantry tactics. In fact, armies to this day still use their techniques on the battlefield.
The rise of Germany’s stormtroopers is perhaps one of the most fascinating stories of World War One. Here are some of the highlights.
The First ‘Blitzkriegers’
Stormtroopers were notorious for their radical Hutier infiltration tactics — named for Oskar von Hutier, the visionary German general that championed their aggressive combat style. Forceful, sophisticated, even surgical, this revolutionary approach to trench warfare was a clear departure from the unimaginative and costly practice of using sustained, sector-wide barrages followed with frontal assaults by massed infantry. Stormtrooper attacks typically began with quick but incredibly violent artillery bombardments on narrow segments of the enemy trenches. Then came rapid onslaughts across No Man’s Land by squads of heavily armed commandos. The fast-and-furious assaults would target only those areas that had been softened up by the shelling. Just like the Nazi Blitzkrieg of World War Two, stormtroopers would roll over the defenders at key points, bypassing concentrations of Allied troops, and then speed into the rear areas to confuse and paralyze the enemy. Only then were the regular infantry sent forward to widen the gaps in the front, mop up resistance and secure captured territory.
Tools of the Trade
While stormtroopers were considered ‘light infantry’, each was equipped with a small arsenal of weaponry. Although many eschewed the standard Gewehr 98 rifle in favour of shortened cavalry carbines, the raiders’ chief weapon was the hand grenade. In fact, they carried sandbags full of them into action. NCOs and officers armed themselves with rapid-fire pistols, like the Mauser C-96 or the P08 Luger outfitted with shoulder stocks and high capacity magazines. Support teams using Danish Madsen LMGs and even captured British Lewis guns helped cover advancing squads. Some units were known to rely on even heavier ordnance. Flamethrowers, trench mortars and even sawed off 7.62 cm artillery pieces were often carried or rolled into No Man’s Land by the assault teams.
The first stormtroopers were from the Calsow Assault Detachment, a pioneer outfit with Germany’s Eighth Army. Established in March 1915, its role was to eradicate enemy bunkers and machine gun nests using portable 37 mm artillery pieces. Oddly, this novel concept was never battle tested; the unit was decimated after being rushed to the Western Front to help stem an Allied offensive. An army captain named Willy Rohr later took command of the battered detachment and spent the rest of the year modifying the outfit’s tactics.
Battalions of Stormtroopers
After a successful demonstration to the German crown prince and General Ludendorff, the high command warmed to the concept. In 1916, the top brass ordered every corps on the Western Front to scour its ranks for the fittest and bravest to man experimental assault teams. By the end of the year, 30 German divisions had established battalions of shock troops. Even the navy had formed a detachment. The units became known as “storm men”, “raiding troops” and even “hunting commandos”, before the term sturmtruppen or stormtrooper took hold.
The first major stormtrooper offensive of the war took place in the opening days of the disastrous Verdun offensive of 1916. The following year, German assault units would punch through Italian lines at the Battle of Caporetto and would even retake ground captured by Allied tanks at the Battle of Cambrai. The results of these early forays were so encouraging that stormtroopers became a key element in the 1918 Spring Offensive or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser’s Battle).
Right from the start, the stormtroopers were considered the elite of the German army… and they knew it. Celebrated in the national press for their dash and daring, stormtroopers were lavished with plentiful rations and comfortable living conditions. Assault teams rarely if ever manned the trenches like their rank and file comrades. In fact, they were brought up to the front just prior to an action and were whisked to the rear when operations were complete. Unlike ordinary ground-pounders, stormtroopers travelled by truck to save their strength for combat. Veteran raiders flouted regulations and modified their uniforms as they saw fit, adding camouflage and leather patches on the knees and elbows, a practice that raised eyebrows among the spit and polish brass. But while the units were spared much of the horror and drudgery of trench warfare, they were expected to face certain death without hesitation when called upon. Not surprisingly, casualties among stormtrooper battalions were shockingly high.
Because of their fast-moving style of fighting, stormtroopers needed to be in peak physical shape at all times. And in addition to a punishing fitness regimen, they also trained rigorously for battle, refining their tactics endlessly in mock assaults using live ammunition. When planning for an operation, the teams received detailed briefings, unlike their trench dwelling counterparts. Stormtroopers were given intricate maps and areal photography of their specific objectives and even rehearsed their assaults on life-sized replicas of their targets.
This Changes Everything
Stormtrooper fighting techniques revolutionized modern warfare. The battalions pioneered many of the small-unit tactics that are still in use on battlefields to this day. Assault detachments were also the first German soldiers to be equipped with the distinctive stahlhelm steel helmets. Up that point the Kaiser’s soldiers wore the largely useless spiked pickelhaubes. They dabbled in now-ubiquitous body armour and were also the first soldiers to use submachine guns in combat, the MP-18.
Other Armies’ Stormtroopers
Germany wasn’t the only army to apply stormtrooper tactics in World War One. A French commander named André Laffargue penned a widely read essay on assault teams in early as 1915. The following year, the Russians used concentrated artillery and precision infantry assaults to punch through Austrian lines at the Brusilov Offensive in Galicia. The attack nearly broke the Central Powers in the east. The British army famously used both Canadian and Australian shock troops all along the Western Front with great success. Italy’s Arditi performed a similar function and Austria Hungary formed its own stormtrooper detachments known as Jagdkommandos.
After the armistice, the fascination with stormtroopers lived on. Their battlefield successes fed into a popular post-war narrative in Germany that maintained the empire could have won the war were it not for defeatists on the home front. The stormtrooper mystique would go on to inspire the paramilitary Friekorps of Weimar Germany and more famously the die hard Brown shirts of Adolf Hitler’s SA or Sturmabteilung. In fact, the term “stormtrooper” itself would become indelibly associated with the Nazi Party, eventually overshadowing the remarkable accomplishments of the Sturmtruppen of the First World War.
Drury, Ian. “German Stormtrooper 1914-18”. Osprey Publishing, 1995.