National Attributes – Tactics and Command during WW2

Some notes I made as explanation of why in Crossfire different nationalities during WW2 have different ratings for Officers and for Command and Control. Most details taken from (Hastings, 1984)


Very methodical. Relied on set piece battalion attack, with two companies forward. Relied heavily on “firm bases” when attacking and were overly concerned with “exposed flanks” – even in Normandy and Italy where the Germans could only muster weak company counter-attacks.

Attacking formations were split into large numbers of assault squads commanded by officers. This aggravated the lack of tactical flexibility as NCOs were rarely in the “big picture”, so were unable to act in accordance with the main plan if the officer became a casualty. This in turn meant attacks were seldom exploited once the objective was taken, with troops unlikely to either pursue the enemy or to dig in, thus making the attackers susceptible to a local counter-attack.

In at least one battalion in Normandy (6 DWR) Officers and NCOs abandoned rank insignia, thus making it difficult to lead when they themselves were new to the unit and didn’t know the men. NCO leadership was considered weak, thus requiring the officers to take more of the leadership burden.

Relied on the doctrine “Let metal do it rather than flesh” and “Waste all the ammunition you like, but not lives” (Hastings, 1984, p. 180).

Captain Basil Liddell Hart made his own fairly damning summary of British performance in Normandy:

Time after time they were checked or even induced to withdraw by boldly handled pockets of Germans of greatly inferior strength. But for our air superiority, which hampered the Germans at every turn, the results would have been much worse. Ours forces seem to have had too little initiative in infiltration, and also too little determination – with certain exceptions. Repeatedly one finds that big opportunities were forfeited because crucial attackers were stopped after suffering trifling casualties. That was particularly marked with the armoured formations (Lessons from Normandy, Liddell Hart papers, King’s College, London, cited in Hastings, 1984).


The US First Army fighting in Normandy had a serious shortage of competent Officers and NCOs largely due to the American policy of offering recruits a choice of service; good candidates went to the Air Force and technical services. Many Officers and NCOs had to be sacked in the field. Few of the men in junior leadership roles could operate effectively beyond the control and eyes of their battalion or even company commanders.

With the exception of Airborne and Ranger units, American troops placed too much reliance on supporting artillery to drive the enemy from their positions and had little aggressive spirit. Field craft was poor (“too careless”, and although trained in marching fire, US infantrymen were unwilling to shoot at targets they couldn’t see or to expose themselves to shoot.

Like their British counterparts in Normandy, many American Officers abandoned rank insignia for fear of snipers – thus making it difficult to lead when they themselves were new to the unit and didn’t know the men.


German leadership at regimental level and below was superb, whether a brave, able and quick-thinking colonel commanding a battlegroup, or an NCO directing the defence of an entire sector of the front. “The allied solider never seemed to be trained as we were, always to try to do more than had been asked of us” (Corporal Hohenstain of 276th Infantry, cited Hastings, 1984, p. 217).

Germans were masters of slow and steady advance by infiltration, working small parties behind Allied positions and forcing the defenders out by showing that their flanks were turned (Hastings, 1984, p. 176). “The Germans were great opportunists. They were prepared to act – always” (Colonel Brian Wyldbore-Smith, GSO I of the British 11th ARmoured Division, cited p. 217).

Because the Germans understood the limitations of the Allied command and control their policy was to “as far as possible go for the enemy officers. Then seize the initiative yourself” (from a German report from Italy, cited by Hastings, 1984, p. 177).

Even average German formations proved capable of continuing to fight effectively when reduced to 25% of their strength.


Erickson, J. (1993). The Road to Stalingrad: Stalin’s war with Germany: Volume One. London: Weidenfeld.

Gajkowski, M. (1995). German Squad Tactics in WWII. Pisgah, Ohio: Nafziger Collection Inc.

Hastings, M. (1984). Overlord: D-Day and the battle for Normandy 1944. Papermac.

Lucas, J. (1982). War in the Desert: the Eigth Army at El Alamein. Arms and Armour Press: London.

Medley, R. H. (1990). Five Days to Live, France 1939-40. Dover & Company.

Sharp, C. S. (1998). Soviet Infantry Tactics in WWII: Red Army Infantry Tactics from Squad to Rifle Company from the Combat Regulations. George Nafziger.

U.S. War Department. (1995). Handbook on German Military Forces. Author.

I haven’t actually seen this book, so I am relying on comments made by Bill Owen on the Spearhead Discussion Forum.

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