You are German army Lieutenant Wolfgang von Bostell, commander of a Sturmgeschütz III assault gun. Although the StuG III is a fully tracked armored vehicle mounting a high-velocity 75 mm gun, it does not have a rotating turret and is not a tank. German assault guns and crews are part of the infantry branch, not the panzer corps, and their mission is to provide firepower to support infantrymen during an attack or defense.
You have been fighting on World War II’s Eastern Front since June 1941, and you were with German units that reached the gates of Moscow in December of that year. However, since the Soviets’ turning-point victory in the July 1943 Battle of Kursk, the resurgent Red Army has steadily pushed German forces back west. Currently, your StuG III and two infantry squads are defending a position near the town of Modohn in western Latvia.
Ten minutes ago, two Soviet T-34 tanks suddenly appeared over the hill to the east. Your combat-experienced crew (gunner, loader and driver) reacted immediately, quickly knocking out both enemy vehicles. Within minutes, however, two additional T-34s crested the hill. Your gunner took out the first one, but the second tank reached the low ground at the hill’s base, where it was protected from the flat-trajectory direct fire of your StuG’s gun. Before you could order your driver to a position from which to fire upon the tank, the T-34 suddenly roared out of the low ground and raced toward you at over 30 miles per hour.
Although a fast-moving tank is difficult to hit, your superb gunner disabled the T-34 with his first shot, striking it on its right tread. Then, just as the tank swung its turret to line up its gun on your StuG, your gunner’s second shot scored a direct hit that destroyed the enemy vehicle.
Yet you have little time to celebrate these victories. You can clearly hear the rumbling sound of multiple tank engines on the far side of the hill and can see a black cloud of exhaust fumes rising beyond the high ground. All too soon many more Soviet tanks – undoubtedly accompanied by swarms of Red Army infantrymen – will appear over the crest.
As you consider what tactical options you can employ to meet the imminent Soviet attack, your driver turns toward you and asks, “Lieutenant, what are your orders?”
WHAT IS YOUR DECISION, LIEUTENANT BOSTELL?
ASSESSMENT OF THE TACTICAL SITUATION
The StuG III with its high-velocity 75 mm main gun has proved to be an excellent tank destroyer and it adds “punch” to infantry operations by taking out enemy bunkers and strongpoints. Since the StuG III is fully tracked, it has the speed and cross-country mobility of a tank, but it has no turret and therefore presents a much lower silhouette that is harder for the enemy to hit. Yet the lack of turret combined with the gun’s limited arc of right-left traverse (only 24 degrees) often means that the driver must position the StuG so that it is pointing at a target before the gunner can take it out.
After seeing your assault gun destroy the first four tanks, the Soviets now undoubtedly know your strength and disposition. Thus, you are certain that they will attack in force, advancing large numbers of tanks and infantry as a single unit since sending a few vehicles at a time makes them easy targets for your gunner to knock out one by one.
The dense forests on your flanks will channel the Soviet attack through the open, rolling terrain to your front, where your gunner will have a good field of fire. However, if some of the tanks reach the low ground at the hill’s base, they will be protected from your gun’s rounds and could stage for a massed, rapid assault across the intervening 400 meters to overrun your position with their greater numbers.
POSSIBLE COURSES OF ACTION
You see two possible courses of action you could employ in this tactical situation:
The first option is to defend in place alongside the German infantry squads. Your gunner will take the information he acquired from knocking out the four T-34s at various ranges and use it to accurately target the tanks in the main enemy force. Meanwhile, your German infantrymen will engage their Soviet counterparts. The disadvantage of this plan is that it allows the Soviets to retain the tactical initiative to mass their superior numbers of tanks and men against your single assault gun and small infantry force.
The alternative is to advance rapidly over the hill to the east and hit the Soviet force in its assembly area with a spoiling attack. Once the StuG is in motion, your driver can quickly swing it right or left to line up its gun on the enemy targets. This bold plan capitalizes on speed, maneuver and surprise, allowing you to seize the tactical initiative by striking the Soviets before they can deploy into attack formation. Since they will not expect you to be the aggressor against their much larger force, you will sow confusion and chaos within their ranks and hopefully gain a decisive tactical edge.
Based on your previous combat experience, you realize that if you defend in place you will not be able to knock out the Soviet tanks or kill the enemy infantrymen quickly enough to prevent them from eventually overrunning your position. You therefore decide to launch a bold, surprise spoiling attack.
“Driver!” you command, “on my order, race east over that hill as fast as you can! We’re not going to sit here and let those Ivans mass enough tanks and men to overrun us. We’ll hit them first, attacking them in their assembly area while they are still getting organized for their assault and are unprepared to fight. We don’t have to take out every tank and soldier – just enough of them to cause chaos and send them scrambling in every direction.”
Turning to the German infantrymen, you shout, “Follow in the wake of the StuG and join us on the other side of that hill as quickly as possible!”
You then order, “Driver, forward!”
Colonel (Ret.) John Antal is the author of the must-read book “7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution: The Founding Fathers, Liberty and the Struggle for Independence” (Casemate, 2013).
HISTORICAL NOTE: This article is based on an actual combat action fought by Lieutenant Bostell, who subsequently received the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. His daring attack into the enemy assembly area caught the Soviets by surprise, aided by the fact that the mud-covered StuG was initially mistaken for a Soviet armored vehicle. During that day’s fighting, the lieutenant’s assault gun dispersed the enemy force and knocked out a total of 11 T-34s. The following April, Bostell received the coveted oak leaves to the Knight’s Cross after having destroyed nearly 50 Soviet tanks and armored vehicles while fighting on the Eastern Front from 1941-45.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Armchair General.