Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung Großdeutschland


Like many of you drawn to reading this article I too have always had a real interest in the German Sd.Kfz.142/1 Sturmgeschütz’s or what they are more commonly referred to as the ‘StuG III’ AFV (Armoured Fighting Vehicle). The Wehrmacht fielded this very capable AFV throughout the entire war, being a rather crude looking vehicle at first glance, but strangely by this very nature an appealing machine with its tough angled features. Thou technically not a tank by definition this AFV was originally meant only as a mobile ‘direct fire’ support weapon for the infantry through the enlightened thinking of  General Erich von Manstein. Far exceeding this ideal the StuG III proved through many upgrades to be an incredibly adaptable vehicle as the war progressed, often deployed as a tank killer, a role never originally envisaged. This adaptability came from the dependable Panzer III chassis used as the base for this fighting vehicle repeatedly proving its worth in combat till the end of the war.

WW2 German Sturmgeschütz ‘Ausf A’ featuring the familiar short barrelled L/24 StuK - StuG ‘Ausf A’ featuring the familiar short barrelled L/24 StuK - illustrated by Neil BarlowSturmgeschütz ‘Ausf A’ featuring the familiar short barrelled L/24 StuK

Numerous batteries of these vehicles were fielded and attached to various Army group commands and used primarily as mobile brigades to be placed when and where they were required either to fulfill operational requirements or act as a fire brigade unit for trouble spots along the front. Only the elite German divisions such as the Waffen-SS ‘Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler Division’ and the Heer ‘Groβdeutschland Division’ even had their own organic brigades attached being dedicated solely to these divisions combat actions. These self propelled gun units were originally designated as ‘Sturmartillerie’ this was then modified to Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung as a result of increased platoon size and changing roles (Assault Gun Battalion), then later again ratified to Sturmgeschütz-Brigade in line with further increases in strength and organisation (Assault Gun Brigade). By June 1944 another reorganisation was implemented and with the StuG groups being designated as Assault-Artillery Brigades (Sturmartillerie Brigade) theoretically fielding some 45 vehicles per brigade although only the more favourable battalions ever received the theoretical full complement.

In particular GD’s own brigade was originally formed from some of the very first 24 StuG III Ausf A’s to be delivered to the Wehrmacht. Sturmartillerie Batteries 640, 659, 660 and 665 were the first units to be created, equipped and deployed during the French Campaign to field the StuG in combat. Each battery had six assault guns in three platoons, two assault guns per platoon. It was Sturmartillerie Battery 640 that was assigned organic to the Infantry Regiment Groβdeutschland in April of 1940, later being re-designated as 16th Company – (Sturmartillerie). 16.(StuG.)/ I.R.(mot) GD under the command of Oberleutnant Freiherr von Egloffstein. Interestingly enough one of the battery StuG commanders then was to be the much later celebrated Leutnant Peter Frantz, a future commander of StuG.Abt GD.

To begin with the StuG was armed only with a short barrelled low velocity 7.5cm StuK L/24 cannon in keeping with the vehicles intended role of supporting infantry assaults. However the invasion of Soviet Union bought about new challenges and hardships for the Wehrmacht and from the StuG crew’s point of view in the form of increasing engagements with the Soviet KV-1 heavy & T34/76 medium tanks which were immune to the shot penetration of the short barrelled cannon at both intermediate and long ranges. Fortunately for the Germans this Soviet armour was poorly deployed tactically and fielded in relatively low numbers on the battlefield early in the campaign, but none the less proved troublesome with few weapons in the German arsenal able to deal with this growing threat. This obvious short coming necessitated the need for the StuG to have its first major upgrade to the more powerful 7.5cm L/43 long barrel cannon in the spring of 1942, by august of the same year this was further increased to a 7.5cm L/48 high velocity cannon able to deal with the increasing Soviet armour threats encountered on the Eastern front this upgrade re-designated the vehicle as ‘Sturmgeschütz 40’ Ausführung F, (Ausf. F (L/43) & Ausf. F/8 (L/48) models respectively). ‘L’ indicating the length of the barrel given as a multiple of the calibre size, ie 43 x 7.5cm = Barrel Length. This change to the upgraded barrel also lead to an implementation of an already planned redesign and widening of the hull superstructure giving more internal space to the crew fighting compartment marking a distinct change in appearance to the upper hull on the Ausf G.

 

WW2 German Sturmgeschütz 40 Ausf.F - StuG 40 Ausf.F - illustrated by Neil Barlow

Sturmgeschütz 40 Ausf.F as of late spring 1942 now up gunned with the 7.5cm Sturmkanone 40 L/43 with the final upgrade to the longer L/48 Kanone the vehicle was re-designated Ausf F/8

 

As a consequence of the predicament of staying within the original remit by providing close infantry support against well defended Soviet positions a variant of the StuG III Ausf. F was redesigned and fitted with a 10.5 cm howitzer. These new vehicles, designated  StuH 42 (Sturmhaubitze 42, Sd.Kfz 142/2), were designed to provide the close infantry support needed by the troops whilst allowing an increased number of StuG 40’s to be used in a purely anti-tank role.

For the main production line at Altmaerkische Kettenfabrik GmbH (Alkett) in the Berlin suburb of Spandau the key advantage of the StuG design was in the fact that the vehicle didn’t have a rotating turret in the traditional sense of a Tank. This meant that the vehicle as a whole from a manufacturing point of view was less complex making it considerably cheaper and quicker to manufacture than conventional tanks. In fact the StuG series had the single largest production figures of any armoured fighting vehicle built by the Germans throughout the war, numbering some 10,600 units in total produced mainly by Alkett until March 1945 and costing approximately 84,000RM when compared with the Panzer III (Ausf M) which used the same chassis at 104,000 Reichmarks respectively. Modifications during the course of production resulted in various components being more cheaply cast rather than welded and stowage boxes inbuilt to the sides of the crew compartment being extended. These improvements calumniated in the final production version the Ausf. G in late 1942 where the crew compartment was totally redesigned with the addition of a commander’s copula and from summer 1943 the famous side armour skirts ‘Schürzen’ were also introduced on the production line providing a certain amount of extra protection to the vulnerable flanks, tracks and drives sprockets from small arms and light anti tank fire. Smoke ejectors and a roof mounted MG34 were fitted for protection during close quarter fighting and the spare track rollers moved and mounted at the rear of the upper engine deck. A shot deflector was later added to the copula along with all steel track return rollers to save on materials and a new cast gun mantlet.

Of course not having a turret also brought about some disadvantages and although the barrel had a small amount of deflection (+/-25 degrees) having no turret meant that to acquire the target the Commander/Gunner would have to order the entire vehicle to move on its tracks in order to shift its axis of fire and attain the enemy target in the gun sight, thus wasting precious time and exposing your position to the enemy through movement. This meant that the vehicle was far better suited to the static defensive role rather than in an offensive operation where it could lay in wait for an enemy vehicle to pass. Conversely having no turret meant the StuG gained the benefit of having a very low silhouette on the battlefield making it easier to camouflage and conceal thus becoming a smaller target for the enemy to hit. This also gave rise to the ability to house a main gun in the superstructure that was far larger than any normal rotating turret could accommodate allowing the vehicle to punch well above its weight although the vehicle as a whole lacked sufficient armour protection throughout the war regardless of crude attempts to bolt on thicker armoured plate. Despite these disadvantages the StuG proved to be in the hands of a well trained, capable and coordinated crew a formidable machine with an impressive kill ratio, reportedly numbering some 20,000 enemy tank kills by the spring of 1944 on the Russian front alone.

April 1942 saw Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung 192 consolidated with the original elements of Sturmartillerie 640 that made up 16.(StuG.)/ I.R.(mot) GD and re-designated as Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung ‘Groβdeutschland’ (StuG.Abt. GD) and attached to Inf.Div.(mot.)/Großdeutschland under the command of major Hans-Joachim Schepers. Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung ‘Groβdeutschland’ now consisted of a Headquarters section fielding 3 batteries; each containing 6 StuG III’s being serviced by Sd.Kfz.252 ammunition carriers (munition-schlepper), a small three quarter tracked armoured personnel carrier based on the Sd.Kfz.250 and very similar in design but with the specific task of carrying extra 7.5cm ammunition for the battery.

The men of the StuG.Abt.GD as with all Sturmgeschütz crews wore the same style of cut uniform as there panzer crew cousins but instead of the famous black material they were made from a field grey material and commonly referred to as ‘StuG Wraps’. The collar insignia and epaulettes used the colour Red for the waffenfarbe (piping)  identifying them as being from the Artillery branch of service within the Wehrmacht with the enlisted men following tradition with the rank of ‘Kanonier’ being applied as the most junior level of rank for an enlisted man and those for example holding the Army rank of ‘Feldwebel’ which in the case of the StuG batteries the Rank of ‘Wachtmeister’ was traditionally applied instead, (this being a throw back of the mounted units of old). Studying records would also suggest a strange mix of ranks within the StuG crews themselves, whilst the Battery commander might hold the rank of Oberleutnant himself, the vast majority of individual vehicle commanders and crew members would hold the rank of Unteroffizier with a smaller disproportionate amount of junior enlisted ranks making up the rest drivers/loaders, indicating the crews been seen as specialist since these were highly trained spending many hour perfecting their gunnery skills.

It would at first seem odd that StuG crews were classed as Artillery being a tracked vehicle, however when these vehicles were first introduced the Panzertruppen at that time had no available resources to accommodate this new service branch and since these vehicles were classed as mobile Infantry support in the same role the traditional Artillery would provide support it seemed a natural extension to be attached to the latter instead. Indeed the StuG brigades became so heavily relied upon for the successful outcome of any infantry operation that placing the StuG commanders in charge of the operational ground units was seen as a key element to the success of any operation and became the norm till war’s end.

1943 saw StuG.Abt.GD under the command of Hauptmann Frantz.  With a prolonged rest and refit period 30km south of Poltava over, GD along with her StuG crews was once again thrust into action with several campaigns over the summer and autumn months. July saw the start to Operation ‘Zitadel’ the smashing of the Kursk salient and although ultimately unsuccessful, good progress was made during the opening stages of the campaign of which an extract of one particular engagement is described below;

“On the morning of the 7th July Großdeutschland struck out in a North West direction towards Sirtsev, with Grenadier-Regiment GD accompanied by the tanks, however an undetected minefield soon blocked their path and halted the tanks and the half-tracks of the leading battalion. While paths were cleared through the mines they were subjected to very heavy fire. After this delay, at 1130 hours the battalion, accompanied by II./ Panzer-Regiment GD, swung to the south of Sirtsev. Combined with attacks by other GD units from the north, the Soviet hold on Sirtsev was unsustainable. Late in the afternoon, after fierce close-quarter fighting, the Soviets withdrew to the north-west in the direction of Sirtsevo. The Germans then prepared to assault the Soviet positions around Sirtsevo. By the evening an armoured task force consisting of 2nd kompanie Grenadier Regiment GD, Aufklärungs-Abteilung GD and Sturmgeschütz-Abteilung GD, had succeeded in wresting control of Hill 230 from the Soviet defenders who had been strongly supported by tanks. The hill gave the Germans excellent jumping off positions for an attack on Sirtsevo the next day”.

Mid way through 1944, the organisation was once again revised with the introduction of Sturmartillerie Brigade’s (StuG.Bde. GD) each equipped with 45 assault guns, including 33 StuG III/IV (7.5cm L/48) assault guns and 12 Sturmhaubitze 42 (10.5cm L/28) assault howitzers. The brigade was divided into three batteries with two StuG III’s acting as battery command vehicles, while each battery had two platoons of four StuG III’s and one battery of four StuH 42s. This organization scheme was used alongside the Sturmgeschütz Brigade scheme to the end of the war. In practice though these ideals were hardly ever achieved and then only highly favoured formations received the full complement such as StuG.Bde. GD, but even then with the huge attrition rate experienced on both fronts it’s doubtful if any divisions actually field a full complement. It is also worthy a note that as the war drew to a close, StuG’s were often issued to other units as replacement for tank destroyers and even tanks. Since 1944, StuG III (40) had been issued as replacements for PzKpfw III, PzKpfw IV and in some case’s even PzKpfw V Panther in Panzer Abteilungen.

Incredibly as late as May 7th 1945 the war for the Sturmartillerie Brigades with fuel and ammunition supplies permitting were still fighting courageously and as hard as ever in actions all over the front in particular when StuG.Bde.GD as part of the Brandenburg Division managed to stop an assault conducted by Soviet Iosif Stalin heavy tanks before withdrawing on the night of May 8th 1945, when word was received by radio that Germany had declared unconditional surrender.

Late WW2 German StuG 40 - illustrated by Neil Barlow

This later war 1944/45 StuG 40 carries the distinctive side skirts ‘Schürzen’ armour plates and features the new type cast gun mantlet nick named the ‘Saukopfblende’ because of its resemblance to a pig’s head it also features a new improved remote controlled MG34 for protection against enemy infantry attacks and a shot deflector welded in front of the commanders cupola.



Part 2 >

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