Aufklärungs: German Reconnaissance 1

As our living history group represents an Aufklärungs unit of the Groβdeutschland it is important for us discover and understand how the German Army as a whole classified and conducted reconnaissance operations during the war period. German Army reconnaissance techniques & doctrine of the period was sub divided by OKH & OKW into three distinct categories: Operative (Operational) Aufklärung, Taktische (Tactical) Aufklärung and Gefechts (Battle) Aufklärung.

The Pz.Aufkl.Atb.GD unit typically conducted Operational Reconnaissance; routinely this type of German reconnaissance patrol employed armoured vehicles both tracked and wheeled although in the case 2/Pz.Afkl.Atb.GD only with the tracked Sd.kfz.250. They usually penetrated over a large area and in great depth providing vital information for strategic planning and action at command level. This type of reconnaissance was described in German field manuals of the time as being “cunning, clever, bold and decisive”, with the intention of determining the location and activities of enemy forces, locality of rail concentrations, displacements of enemy personnel, tank dispositions, loading or unloading areas of army elements and equipment, and the construction of field fortifications through ground based observation since aerial reconnaissance often missed these smaller, but vital details.

The Reconnaissance battalion's entire reason of being rests upon the gathering of this information for its parent formation, and for this task flexibility is the key requisite. Equally fundamental to this was radio communication procedure as the radio equipment carried is the reconnaissance vehicle's principal weapon. Consequently a high degree of mobility in operational areas is essential.
However, occasions may arise when the tactical information hunted has to be fought for, and in this context some protection and firepower is useful, but a balance between armour and mobility must be maintained with adequate protection provided for the crew whilst not impairing the vehicles overall performance. Nevertheless it must be also emphasised that the best results are obtained through undetected observation, and that contact with the enemy should be avoided if at all possible.

Sectors of responsibility were assigned to each reconnaissance battalions with boundary lines separating adjacent units if this was necessary. It should be noted that units as a rule avoided using main roads as boundary lines because these were likely avenues of approach by the enemy since roads often naturally follow more negotiable terrain, so defining the sectors in such a way that main roads fall within the reconnaissance sectors and that bad ground or in hospitable features act as the border area as these are less likely avenues of attack, thus requiring reduced resources for observation. The width of a sector may be determined by the situation, the type and strength of the reconnaissance battalion, the road network, and the terrain. But in general, the width of a sector assigned to a motorized reconnaissance battalion would not exceed 40 km. 

Sd.Kfz.231 and 232 (fu)With the Sd.Kfz.231 and 232 (fu) (pictured opposite) of the (6 Rad) type it should be noted that the (8 Rad) versions (illustrated below) although an entirely different vehicle carried the same numeric designation of ‘231 & 232’ because German doctrine of the period designated a vehicle not by type, but by the role the vehicle was intended for. Although of note even by the opening stages of the Polish campaign these (6 Rad) type vehicles were being withdrawn from front line service units and being replaced by the more capable (8 Rad) type because of their unsatisfactory off road performance and lack of power.


Sd.Kfz.231 (8 Rad) Heavy Armoured Reconnaissance vehicleSd.Kfz.231 (8 Rad) Heavy Armoured Reconnaissance vehicles were a much-improved and very proficient direct replacement for the 6-wheeled (6 Rad) version as requested by the Heereswaffenamt in 1935 and entering service in 1938. Armed initially with the 2cm Kwk30 flak Cannon but swiftly upgraded to the later rapid fire KwK38 L55 model


Orders issued to a reconnaissance battalion or its patrols normally contain, in addition to the mission, the following:

  • Departure route
  • Information concerning adjacent reconnaissance units
  • Sector boundaries or direction of operation
  • Objectives
  • Phase lines
  • Instructions for transmission of reports and codebooks
  • Location of immediate objectives whose attainment is to be reported
  • Instructions regarding air-ground liaison
  • Time of departure, route, and objective of the main force
  • Return route including alternative

Objectives are clearly defined, and nothing is allowed to interfere with the patrol’s main purpose. “If enemy forces are met, action should be avoided unless the force is so weak that it can be destroyed without diverting the patrol from its main task”. Manuals from the period encouraged these small aggressive tactics. Yet in reality well-disciplined crews would avoid engagements altogether, which would in so doing alert the enemy to their presence.

When a motorized reconnaissance unit expects contact with the enemy, it advances by leaps and bounds. The length of bounds depends on the cover the terrain offers as well as on the road network. As the distance from the enemy decreases, the bounds are shortened; the patrol may be reinforced with either self-propelled guns or occasionally with tanks, as is the case of one notable GD engagement.

A patrol is never split up, but in open country distances between cars may be as much as 100 to 200 metres, depending on the cover provided by the terrain. 

In the case of wheeled reconnaissance vehicles roads are utilized as for as long as possible and habitually different routes for the advance and the return are employed.  Engineers and motorcyclists may be attached to the patrol to deal with roadblocks and demolitions. 

At roadblocks, procedure dictates that the leading car opens fire. If fire is not returned, men quickly dismount and go forward to attach tow-ropes to the roadblock. If necessary, the patrol dismounts and proceeds with machine guns to reconnoitre on foot. While scouting woods, a favourite German ruse is to drive the leading car towards its edge, halt briefly to observe, and then drive off rapidly in a faint, hoping to draw enemy fire that will divulge the enemy positions. 

When the reconnaissance battalion commander sends out his patrols their distance in front of the battalion usually depends on the situation, the terrain, and the range of the signal equipment, but as a rule they would not be more than an hour's travelling distance (about 30 km) ahead of the battalion and the patrol will be equipped for missions lasting one to two days only. The battalion serves as the reserve for the patrols and at the same time as an advance message centre (Meldekopf), collecting the messages and relaying them to the rear parent formation.

A typical armoured reconnaissance patrol unit could be comprised of armoured cars, armoured half-tracks and or motorcycles, but the exact composition depends on their mission, the situation and availability of vehicles in the battalion. Motorcycles are often employed to fill in gaps and intervals, thereby thickening the reconnaissance net.  Historically German Reconnaissance Battalions were heavily influenced from the outset by their ‘Hussar’ cavalry background. Their order of battle contained all the elements, which were present in the cavalry brigades predating the Great War, but reflected in a modern expression. Instead of horses there were armoured cars; in place of footsore jaegers there was a motorcycle machine-gun element; vehicle-drawn howitzers and anti-tank guns had replaced the horse artillery; and the assault pioneers, concerned mainly with bridging, were also now mechanised.

Sd.Kfz.222 mid production variant (4 Rad)Sd.Kfz.222 mid production variant (4 Rad) wheeled drive light armoured reconnaissance vehicle finished in dark Panzergrey (Ral 7021) and armed with the powerful 2cm KwK38 Flak Cannon, close support MG34 and is equipped with short range FuG Spr Ger‘a' Radio for vehicle voice communications.

Motorcycle companies (Kradschutzen) Motorcycle companies (Kradschützen) dominated the reconnaissance units of the early Wehrmacht. However with the huge combat losses to come, this would ultimately lead to these units being rapidly phased out in favour of more capable vehicles, ultimately supporting only secondary roles.


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