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Title 144
Copyright by Bryan Perret


In an armoured regiment equal priority is placed upon the characteristics of firepower, protection, mobility and flexibility. In an armoured reconnaissance battalion these priorities do not have equal weight and their order of precedence may, in lay eyes, appear somewhat unusual. The battalion's entire raison d'etre rests upon the gathering of information for its parent formation, and for this task the abstract quality of flexibility is the prime requirement,. especially during the planning phase and in the field of radio communication; the radio is the reconnaissance vehicle's most important weapon, and its use can cause untold damage. Therefore mobility is equally essential to transport it into its operation area. However, occasions may arise when the information sought has to be fought for, and in this context some protection and firepower is useful; on the other hand, it must be emphasised that the best results are obtained through undetected observation, and that contact with the enemy is avoided if at all possible.
These principles are, of course, common to all armies, but in the years following the repudiation of the Versailles Treaty the blitzkrieg technique was being forged, and in the Panzerwaffe the requirement was for deep reconnaissance which could operate effectively up to 30 miles ahead of the main body.

Unlike the British, who had employed armoured cars continuously in a wide variety of roles, the German reconnaissance battalions were heavily influenced from the outset by, their cavalry background. Thus their order of battle contained all the elements which were present in the cavalry screens of 1914, but reflected in the modern idiom. Instead of horses there were armoured cars; in place of footsore jaegers there was a motor-cycle machine-gun element; the horse artillery had been replaced by vehicle-drawn howitzers and anti-tank guns; and the assault pioneers, concerned mainly with bridging, were also mechanised.

The 1939 organisation of the Reconnaissance Battalion (Aufklaerungs Abteilung or A-A) of a Panzer division consisted of:
   A headquarters staff
   Two armoured reconnaissance squadrons (Panzerspaehschwadronen)
   A motor-cycle machinegun squadron (Kradschuetzenschwadron)
   A heavy squadron (Schwere Schwadron)
   A mobile workshops, and supply and transport elements.
The battalion headquarters incorporated the usual command and control apparatus, as well as an intelligence section (Nachrichtenzug), which was responsible for correlating the information received from the squadrons and transmitting it to divisional headquarters via a troop from the divisional signals battalion.

Each armoured reconnaissance squadron consisted of a squadron headquarters containing one radio command vehicle and four armoured cars fitted with radio; one heavv troop of six six- or eight-wheeled armoured cars; and two light troops, each of six four-wheeled cars. The heavy troop could be further sub-divided into three two-car sections, and the light troops into two three-car sections, provided each section contained at least one car fitted with radio.
The. motor-cycle machine-gun squadron employed side-car mounts and consisted of squadron headquarters, three rifle troops each of three sections armed with two MG 34s and one light mortar as integral support weapons, and one heavy troop equipped with four MG 34s.
The heavy squadron contained a number of diverse elements including a light infantry gun troop, equipped with two towed Model 18 75mm light infantry, guns; a Panzerjaeger troop with three (later five) towed 37mm anti-tank guns and one MG 34; and an assault pioneer troop of three sections, each armed with one MG 34.
This organisation has sometimes been described as a battle-group, but such a description is misleading. The function of the motor-cycle machine-gun squadron and the weapon troops of the heavy squadron was that of shock troops, designed to case the passage of the cars through the enemy's defended zone by suppressing the opposition with a high volume of fire. Once through this zone the cars completed their mission alone. If a water obstacle lay across the route of an armoured reconnaissance squadron, part or all of the assault pioneer troop might be attached; such an attachment was far from popular with the armoured car crews, since the bridging vehicles were slow and their bulk rendered them unsuitable for use along certain routes. The armoured reconnaissance battalions of the motorised infantry divisions were similarly organised, but had only one reconnaissance squadron and lacked a heavy squadron.

Hitler's decision to double the number of Panzer divisions and expand the motorised infantry branch for the invasion of Russia placed a severe strain on available resources; the reconnaissance troops were no less affected than other areas of the Panzerwaffe, many battalions entering the campaign some way short of their theoretical establishment. This, as well as the serious losses incurred not merely during the invasion itself but also in the dreadful winter that followed, made some re-organisation inevitable. Some mention has already been made of the difficulties encountered by the four-wheeled cars during this period, the result being that their availability and importance steadily declined. Losses among motor-cycle troops generally had also been high, so serious in fact that the Panzer division's organic motor-cycle battalion was disbanded and its personnel posted to the reconnaissance battalion. This meant that the latter's organisation for a while lacked its previous tactical balance, there being somewhat too few cars and rather too many motor-cyclists.

In this interim form, the battalion's order of battle was as follows, the term 'company' having been substituted for 'squadron':
   Battalion headquarters and intelligence section
   One armoured car company, usually equipped with eight-wheeled cars
   Three motor-cycle machine-gun companies
   One heavy company
   Mobile workshops, supply and transport
As more half-tracks became available the battalion's motor-cycle element was steadily reduced. The arrival of the 75mm 233 and later the 234/3 and various self-propelled anti-tank gun mountings, both wheeled and half-tracked, also meant that the towed weapons troops of the heavy company, always of dubious value, could be phased out.

It goes almost without saying that during the lengthy period of this major re-equipment no one armoured reconnaissance battalion precisely resembled another. However, in the spring of 1944 the theoretical constitution of the battalion had been tabulated as follows:
   Battalion Headquarters
   Staff Company (Stabskompanie)
   No. 1 Armoured Reconnaissance Company (Panzerspaehkompanie)
   No. 2 Reconnaissance Company (Aufklaerungskompanie)
   No. 3 Reconnaissance Company
   No. 4 Heavy Company
   Supply Company (Versorgungskompanie)

The majority of these titles are misleading. The Staff Company, for example, logically incorporated the intelligence section, but also included the battalion's six armoured car troops – Radspaehtrupps - which each contained three vehicles. Those four-wheeled cars still remaining were grouped into light troops, one vehicle at least being fitted with radio, but most of the troops were equipped with eightwheelers, among which radios were now fitted as standard. A troop of three 75min. L/24 howitzer cars also formed part of the company, joined later by a troop of Pumas or 75min L/48 234s. The vehicles of the more heavily armed troops were allocated to other troops as their missions dictated.

The principal equipment of No. 1 Armoured Reconnaissance Company was the 250/9 reconnaissance half-track. The company was subdivided into eight three-vehicle troops - Kettenspaetrupps - and three 250/3 radio vehicles provided rear link facilities for the company commander.

No. 2 and 3 Reconnaissance Companies were also equipped with the 250 half-track series. Each consisted of a company headquarters, three reconnaissance troops and a heavy weapons troop. The headquarters section included two 250/3 rear-link radio vehicles, and each reconnaissance troop contained seven 250/1 armoured personnel carriers, subdivided into one troop headquarters vehicle and three sections of two vehicles each. The heavy weapons troop consisted of one 250/1 in troop headquarters; a close support section of two 250/8 self-propelled 75mm L/24 howitzers and one 250/1 APC; and a mortar section of two 250/7 80mm mortar carriers and one 250/1 APC.

The conception of the half-tracked reconnaissance company was not simply that of a replacement for the old motor-cycle machine-gun squadron, although it did incorporate its role, which it was able to perform with ease since its establishment provided for no less than 48 machine-guns as well as the organic heavy weapons support mentioned above. Fully equipped with radio, its primary task was reconnaissance; ist provision of Panzergrenadier support for armoured car or armoured reconnaissance company operations had now become a secondary role, invoked at the battalion commander's discretion.

No. 4 Heavy Company consisted of an assault pioneer troop, a close support troop and a mortar troop. The assault pioneers, in addition to their bridge repair role, were also responsible for demolition; this included the removal of barriers if the battalion was leading an advance and the destruction of bridges if it was covering a withdrawal. They were also specialists in certain combat techniques, and their order of battle included a section of six man-pack flamethrowers. The troop's theoretical establishment was seven SdKfz 251/5s, the assault pioneer version of the medium half-track, but whether these were available in sufficient numbers is doubtful, and suitably modified 250/1s would have taken their place.
The close support troop nominally consisted of six 251/9 self-propelled 75min L/24 howitzers,.and the mortar troop of six 251/2 80min mortar carriers, but in practice the 250/8 and 250/7 were frequently used.
This battalion organisation, like others of the period, represents what was desirable rather than attainable. The majority of reconnaissance battalions were below strength during the last year of the war, and expedience and improvisation were the order of the day, commanding officers using whatever equipment they could obtain to carry out their missions.

Something of the method adopted by German reconnaissance units is described by Oberst a.D. Fabian von Bonin von Ostau, who served in Panzer-Aufklaerungs-Abteilung 1:
Having been given a task by division, the commanding officer would despatch several troops along the most important axes and lead them personally. Behind him, the squadron thickened up the screen 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 recce 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 recce section 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 recce 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 these were nearly always used by the enemy in one form or another. 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 enemy occupied. 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 leaguer is of infinitely more value than five shot-tip lorries.
Reports were made in Morse 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."

Once our invasion of Russia had been halted in December 1941, fresh Siberian formations were pitched against troops who had no experience of winter warfare conditions. The Army had to fight a series of delaying actions until a defence line could be established on the Upper Volga. During this period the reconnaissance battalions performed vital work as covering forces, concealing from the enemy the details of 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 fighting element of the battalion, that is the motor-cycle troops and the heavy company, were deployed mainly in the front line, while the armoured car troops were given specific missions by Division.
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 thrust lines as they developed. From the flow of information provided by the cars, the divisional commander was able to adjust his plans according to the needs of the moment and so conclude the successful extraction of his command. 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.


Notwithstanding the use of all possible means to achieve its ends by stealth, deception and concealment, armoured reconnaissance was -and remains - an extremely dangerous game, and the average troop leader had an active, testing, but all too frequently short career. 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.

The above text is an extract from:
Bryan Perret "German Armoured Cars and Reconnaissance Half-Tracks 1939-45" Osprey New Vanguard, September 1999