Thomas Wictor

Mass Flamethrower Attack at Skrobowa

In late 1916 the German 5th Reserve Division was ordered to take an extensive Russian trench system at Skrobowa. Located on a hillside north of Baranowitschi, the target area was about 4400 yards wide and 1100 yards deep and had withstood several assaults by the Austrians. Reddemann described the positions as fortresslike strong points, blockhouses, and flanking installations of concrete, “climbing up one behind the other,” bristling with machine guns and served by as many as one hundred soldiers per site. After Reddemann personally reconnoitered the system, he decided that none of the tactics he had developed for frontal attacks would work. He had to try something new, something more audacious, an approach he christened the “Knife Tactic” (Messertaktik).

First, Reddemann made a verbal report to the Supreme Army Command and received permission from General der Infanterie Erich Ludendorff to use four companies of the Guard Reserve Pioneer Regiment, which he would command himself. The assault would be a combined stationary and pouncing attack with Grof and Kleif, the latter being used to pierce the Russian trench system ahead of six infantry battalions advancing abreast. In preparation for the attack, the Russian positions would be subjected to an artillery and trench-mortar barrage, and particular trenches would be “shocked” with twenty-four Grof secretly positioned in the German line a few days before.

The real innovation was the deployment of flame shock troops (Flammenstosstrupps). A flame shock troop was composed of six Kleif troops, each of which contained two Kleif squads. Rounding out each flame shock troop were a hand-grenade squad from the flamethrower regiment and several infantry groups under the command of flamethrower officers and deputy officers.

Reddemann described the flame shock troops as “snakelike,” indicating long, thin formations. They were to sprint across 330 to 550 yards of open ground, moving side by side 220 to 330 yards apart and striking the Russian lines perpendicularly. Their speed and momentum, as well as their single-file formation, would allow them to pierce the Russian line and cut it into “still-twitching pieces” by destroying every point of resistance in front and to the sides with flamethrowers, hand grenades, and machine guns. The specific routes they would take were precisely determined beforehand, based on large aerial photos that the men studied carefully.

As the flame shock troops punched through the Russian lines and raced up the enemy communication trenches to take the heights, flamethrower and hand-grenade squads would turn to the sides and suppress the heavy flanking fire that was expected. These shutting-down (schliessenden) units would screen infantry shock troops that followed 55 to 110 yards behind the flame shock troops. Two Kleif squads were placed in the interval between each flame shock troop and infantry shock troop to neutralize any remaining or developing points of resistance. After the infantry shock troops poured through the holes in the Russian line, the six battalions of regular infantry would follow in four waves. Twelve flame shock troops would execute the frontal Knife attack, followed by twenty-four Kleif squads. Four flame shock troops would take important objectives on the left wing and be held in reserve by Reddemann; thus a total of 216 Kleif would be used.

The operation was rehearsed for a week in a mockup of the Russian trench system built behind the German lines. On November 9, 1916, German artillery and trench mortars unleashed a four-hour barrage, near the end of which the twenty-four Grof in five separate groups shocked their targets. While the artillery barrage and Grof assault continued, the twelve flame shock troops left their jumping-off points, crossed No Man’s Land, and bored into the Russian line. On the left wing, two more flame shock troops drove forward under the cover of smoke and fire. Behind these forces, the infantry shock troops advanced, each preceded by two Kleif squads. The four waves of regular infantry brought up the rear.

From his headquarters Reddemann kept track of the battle through airborne intelligence officers in observation aircraft equipped with two-way radios. They reported on the progress of individual flame shock troops and dropped message streamers containing fresh orders to the troops on the ground, allowing Reddemann to save his reserves for the toughest points of resistance.

One such example was a concrete fortification on a commanding height occupied by a garrison of more than 100. Given the code name “Stronghold” (Feste), it was armed with dozens of machine guns that swept the glacis in front and threatened to halt the entire advance. Since the reinforced concrete withstood direct hits by artillery and heavy mortars, the decision was made to attack the fortress with Flame Shock Troops 5 and 6, one of which was commanded by Leutnant Fredenhagen. During the ensuing frontal assault, Fredenhagen and a number of his men were killed, but the flame shock troops persevered in an “exceedingly death-defying fashion.” Despite the rain of bullets, they moved in close enough to spray their weapons through the firing loopholes of the Stronghold, which persuaded the Russians to surrender.

After an hour the entire Russian trench system had been taken. Russian casualties were considerable, according to Reddemann, although he gave no numbers. In addition, forty-nine officers and 3380 men were captured, along with many machine guns, trench mortars, and other material. The flamethrower pioneers suffered sixty-nine casualties, including two officers and fourteen NCOs and men dead. Reddemann described these numbers as high in comparison with those of the infantry, a view shared by divisional commander Generalleutnant der Infanterie von Woyrsch. “Of decisive importance was the participation of the flame shock troops in the attack,” he wrote.

These troops, who for three days had worked to move up during the artillery-fire preparation on the enemy positions, went forward with the greatest bravery… The success of the flamethrower units was certainly bought through considerable casualties that were much higher than among the infantry, for whom they had cleared the way for victory… A carefully selected and excellently organized and led elite unit.

The Knife Tactic Used on the Western Front

“The art of the flamethrower assault,” as Reddemann called it, had to be constantly adapted due to changes in position warfare on the western front. The elastic defense used by the enemy in the featureless, shell-cratered landscape required that the regiment modify its shock-troop tactic. Flame shock troops were from this point split into two echelons, the second moving from cover to cover behind the first and eventually overtaking and relieving it. In addition, trenches and occupied lines of shell holes were rolled up from the inside using much heavier firepower.

There were also more mass flamethrower assaults in which the individual squads ran at the enemy side by side in intervals of five to ten yards, under continuous jets of flame fired over their heads by Grof. Upon breaking through, these flamethrower squads would keep the enemy at bay until the infantry shock troops arrived. Then the flamethrower squads would either go in ahead of the infantry as shock troops, or they would advance with them as flame-accompanying squads (Flammenbegleittrupps). The objective was to both impact the enemy’s morale and distract his attention from the infantry shock troops.

This new form of assault was usually made against the most critical strong points, such as command blockhouses and machine-gun nests. Proper execution required that the flamethrower squads utilize blind spots for breaking through laterally in what Reddemann called “surprise flanking thrusts”; once inside the enemy line, the squads would then turn against the actual objective. For the tactic to work, the opposing trenches had to be relatively close. If not, there had to be enough cover for the flamethrower squads to approach undetected to within 90 to 110 yards.