Aufklärungs: German Reconnaissance 3
Kfd.1 VW Kubelwagens & various Horch Wagons and light trucks make up the 3/.Kradschützen.Btl.GD (3rd Squadron ‘Volkswagens’) note the white Kradschützen tactical symbol below the GD Stahlhelm with the number ‘3’ denoting the Squadron; Summer 1942.
A superb explanation of the methods adopted by German reconnaissance units is described here by Oberst a.D. Fabian von Bonin von Ostau, who served in Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 1:
“Having been given a task by division, the commanding officer
would despatch several troops along the most important axis and lead
them personally. Behind him, the squadron thickened up the flanks with
further troops. As an officer commanding a section of two eight-wheeled
cars, I carried out tasks given to me directly by the commanding officer.
I was given a distant objective, perhaps 20 to 40 kilometres into enemy
territory, and, without consideration of neighbouring reconnaissance
sections, had to reach this using my own initiative. Enemy forces had
to be reported and if possible circumvented without detection so that
we could penetrate deep into their rear areas. Often we had not reached
our objective by nightfall and remained as stationary observers, on suitable
features, until daybreak. On reaching the objective we were either ordered
to return to our unit or were relieved by another reconnaissance Zug
that had followed us up. Occasionally we remained stationary in enemy
territory until such time as our own division caught up with us”.
“At first one had to overcome and become used to a feeling of loneliness, of being all alone in enemy territory without being able to rely on outside help. With increasing experience, one's self-confidence grew; apart from which, such independent missions were particularly attractive to a young cavalry officer in that one was not pressed into a restrictive framework with one's superiors and neighbours”.
“The initial penetration into unknown enemy territory was difficult. For this purpose our own local attacks were taken advantage of before the enemy could recover his balance. When one had achieved some penetration, the advance became easier.
A reconnaissance leader must be a good observer and have a nose for knowing where he might run into the enemy. Mostly the cars were well camouflaged and used all available natural cover, following each other with the last car covering the rear. On features where a good field of vision was offered, one halted and made a thorough observation. If no enemy were seen then the first car went on to the next observation point under surveillance, when it arrived safely the next car was called forward”.
“It was important to make a thorough observation of villages as the enemy in one form or another nearly always used these. If you see the enemy, then you know. If the enemy is not visible and the civilian population is going about its normal business, then the village is not occupied by the enemy. If no people are seen, this is highly suspicious and the village should be by-passed by a wide margin”.
“The best patrols I had were those with clean guns. Even worthwhile targets were only reported and not engaged; that is the business of others. A troop leader with a tendency to bang away is useless for reconnaissance purposes since he is soon located by the enemy and chased like a rabbit. A report giving the location of an enemy tank lager is of infinitely more value than five shot up lorries”.
“Reports were made in Morse code and communications were good.' The operators were well trained and could send reports quickly, but it was up to the section commander to formulate the report. This soon became a matter of routine. Voice transmissions were used only between vehicles. Every report concerning the enemy's whereabouts, and even negative information contained in periodic situation reports, helped build up a picture of the overall enemy situation. The essential ingredients of a successful reconnaissance section were a well-drilled team, mutual confidence and strong nerves. Our main thought was always “There is always a way out and all is not lost so long as one is alive."
The Stower 40 Kfz.1; Seen here towing a struggling Krad through a sea of Russian mud known as the ‘Rasputitsa’. The Stower was fairly typical of the type of light passenger vehicles to be found making up the rest of the following motorised stabs/signal units and employed for various roles including the radio support version of the vehicle designated the Kfz.2.
Sd.Kfz.233 armed with the L24 Howitzer gun of the 1/.Kradschützen Battalion GD in action on the Russian step summer of 1942. An integral part of the reconnaissance squadron organic firepower supporting the patrols and mounted infantry against fortified enemy positions and bunkers these vehicles were much loved for their firepower and manoeuvrability.
Sd.Kfz.231 (8 Rad) Heavy Armoured Reconnaissance vehicles armed with the Kwk38 2cm flak Cannon for use against light vehicles and infantry. Note the bottle like smoke discharge canisters mounted on the front wing which sprays a fine atomised mist of chlorosulfuric acid that absorbs moisture from the air to form a dense white smoke. Unfortunately small arms fire can rupture these canisters and dispense the smoke at an inopportune moment.
Sd.Kfz.250 halftrack (Alt model) from 2/.Kradschützen Battalion GD
later designated 2/Pz.Aufkl.Atb.GD; deployed on a reconnaissance mission
in Southern Russia, mounting MG34’s for vehicle defence and covered
in the dry fine dust of late summer over the familiar dark Panzergrey
(RAL 7021) paint; August 1942. Note the Uhu (Owl) stencil in white
seen below the vision port celebrating the unit commander Von Usedom.
Although having superior off road capabilities when compared to the 4 wheeled armoured cars, the 250 series was at a noticeable disadvantage having an open top crew compartment leaving the crew-members susceptible to overhead shell bursts and enemy fire from elevated positions. Furthermore the vehicle was none the less still out performed by the 8 wheeled vehicles across open country and required more scrupulous field maintenance.
By January 1943 with the war turning against Germany and the earlier success were beginning reversed. The Wehrmacht found itself fighting multiple defensive actions rather than offensive operations of earlier years, which by default negated the need for the traditional reconnaissance unit’s roles. Instead the reconnaissance battalions were reassigned to performed crucial work as covering forces by concealing from the enemy the details of their our own movements and intentions. For this purpose the armoured reconnaissance squadrons, with their good communications equipment were deployed over a wide area under their squadron leaders. In defence the motorcycle troops and the heavy company, were deployed mainly to thicken the front line, while Division gave specific missions to the armoured car troops. When covering a withdrawal the method employed by the reconnaissance battalions was the reverse of that used in the advance. The armoured reconnaissance squadrons remained in concealed observation positions after their division had disengaged, while the remainder of the battalion established temporary defensive fronts, usually based on narrow-frontage features such as a bridge or causeway, through which the cars would withdraw when they received the order to retire. In these circumstances the two major tasks of the armoured reconnaissance squadrons were to screen the divisional flanks and rearguard against observation by the enemy's reconnaissance units, and to report on the enemy line of attack as they developed. From the flow of information provided by the cars, the divisional commander was able to adjust his plans accordingly and conduct the successful withdrawal of his battle group. The cars were recalled when the division had consolidated its main defence line and would retire through their own battalion's interim defence lines while bridges were blown up, trees felled and roads mined behind them.
Clearly the daily life of a reconnaissance troop Soldat was that of hardship and fear. Concealment, observation and nerves of steel were the order of the day, and all carried out deep behind the enemies front lines far from friendly supporting forces. Oberst von Bonin von Ostau was wounded on three separate occasions, and of four of his fellow troop leaders who joined at the same time, three were killed during the 1941-1942 fighting and the fourth the following year.
By Simon Garner