German Snipers in Normandy 1944
- Published: 08 January 2012 08 January 2012
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
After the allied landing in Normandy months of bloody combat followed until eventually the German defences crumbled and were transformed into a chaotic retreat. During this fighting many arms of the Wehrmacht distinguished themselves, not the least the German snipers. The sniper's role was to target and shoot important personnel such as nco's, officers, artillery observers, signalists, orderlies, gun crews etc, they also functioned as observers, listening posts and information gatherers. Another important feature of the snipers was that they had a demoralising effect on the enemy. It is reported snipers accounted for fifty percent of an American Battalion's casualties. With their stubborn resistance they became one of the most feared and hated enemy on the battlefield. It went so far that a myth or legend was created. Soon a sniper fear filled the allied lines.
A nineteen year old soldier, John D. Hinton, M- Company, 3. Battalion of the 116. Infantry Regiment remembers how he met a sniper already at the landing. When they had managed to get off the beach and reach the bank they tried to set up a gun on the top of the bank. Each time a soldier tried to get himself behind the gun a sniper, 800 meters to their left, began to fire at them. A number of soldiers were shot in their arms, Hinton was shot in the leg and one soldier died.
2. Battalion 'Royal Ulster Rifles', part of the 9. Infantry Brigade of the 3. Infantry Division met snipers early. After the landing the Battalion was ordered to take the heights northeast of Periers sur le Dan. On the way to the heights they captured seventeen German soldiers, seven were reported to be snipers!
At 1700 the seventh of June the Royal Ulster Rifles was ordered to move up towards Cambes, a small village about ten kilometres inland. Due to the fact that the village was surrounded by dense woods and a stone wall, observation of enemy positions was impossible. The judgement was made that only light resistance was to be expected. D- Company under Captain Aldworth received orders to approach the village together with a tank company. When they almost had reached the edge of the woods they met heavy sniper and mortar fire. The company was split- up in two parts to attack through the forest from two directions but met deadly crossfire from enemy machineguns. Stretcher bearers from the medic section were shot when they tried to save wounded soldiers. The tanks stood powerless due to the high wall surrounding the village. Captain Aldworth was hit and died immediately, one of the platoon commanders became wounded. The Battalion commander aborted the attack. The Company commander and fourteen others were now dead, one officer and eleven other were wounded, four soldiers were missing. Cambes proved to be a heavily defended German position and when finally, after bombardment by everything from light mortars to heavy naval artillery, the village was taken it was filled with dead Germans. A wounded SS sniper was captured.
Early on the morning of the ninth July the Battalion's forward elements began to reach the outskirts of Caen. Lieutenant Burges secured St. Julien, northwest of Caen, and slowly but safely began his advance on the city itself. At first the enemy opposition was light and they had no problem with fighting back. Soon, however, the resistance stiffened, persistent snipers shot at the patrol. Lieutenant Burges was hit and wounded in the head by a well aimed bullet. Soon two nco's were killed. Burges' patrol had to pull back.
Some of the snipers that the allies met in Normandy had had excellent training in the Hitlerjugend, some of them had been trained in small calibre rifles. Before the war the Hitlerjugend had increased the military training for its members. Many boys were trained in sharpshooting. Those who distinguished themselves were later give sniper training. When they later went into combat they had been given good and valuable training. In Normandy the 12. SS Panzerdivision 'Hitlerjugend' fought. This was a unit composed of recruits from the Hitlerjugend and experienced officers from the 1. SS Panzerdivision 'Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler'. At Caen the young boys would have their baptism of fire.
Caen was an excellent place for the German snipers. Together with artillery observers who directed artillery fire on exposed infantry the snipers totally dominated the grounds around Caen. The Brits and Canadians had to go through every square meter to make sure the terrain was secured from the stubborn snipers, a time consuming task. It was at Caen that snipers like Gefreiter Kurt Spengler distinguished themselves. Spengler was at the northeast of Caen, isolated in a big minefield. He shot down a notable number of British troops until he finally was killed by heavy artillery bombardment.
Illustration of Gefreiter Kurt Spengler at Caen.
On the twenty-sixth of June SS Pionier Pelzmann of the 12. SS Panzerpionierbataillon's fourth company is positioned under a small tree, he is a forward observer. He has dug a hole and then placed a big piece of armour from a Pzkpfw. IV and grass on top of it. The only opening is a small observation slit facing the enemy. It's impossible to discover him. From the observation slit he has shot a large number of British soldiers when he finally runs out of ammunition. He steps out of his dugout, grabs his sniper rifle and smashes it to the tree. He throws the rifle away and shout "So, I don't have any ammo left, finished enough of you- you can shot me now!". A big red haired Englishman then steps forward, grab Pelzmann's arm, places his revolver against his head and fires. Pelzmann falls dead to the ground. Oberscharführer Ernst Behrens, who together with a handful of other prisoners have witnessed the incident, is told to gather all the dead soldiers and concentrate them at a certain spot. When he comes to Pelzmann he counts about thirty dead Englishmen in front of Pelzmann's dugout.
A British soldier named Percy Lewis, who during and after the war was a professional boxer, witnessed the cruelties of war. When he served in the 6. Battalion K.S.L.I. of the 181. Field Regiment he witnessed a German sniper being executed by a soldier whose brother was killed by a sniper the day before. The allied attitude towards snipers was hard on the western front, it was due to these kind of events the German snipers fought so fanatical.
In spite of earlier experiences with snipers it's first at Normandy that they grow to be more than a source of irritation. That's anyway how the American soldiers felt. To clean out an area from snipers was time consuming and sometimes it took a whole day before a bivouac area was secured. The allied soldiers were forced to learn fast how to handle snipers and avoid unnecessary risks. Soon the soldiers began to squat when moving. The soldiers ceased to salute officers and no one was called by rank anymore. Everything was done to decrease the risks of exposing oneself to sniper fire. An unpleasant, tense feeling crept onto the soldiers who were forced to always stay on alert. An American officer commented: "Individual soldiers have become sniper-wise before, but now we're sniper-conscious as whole units."
When men from the 653. Tank Destroyer Battalion moved inland they met dead bodies lying along the hedgerows. The sniper fear spread immediately. There were even rumours circulating that French women collaborators had been left behind and were now acting as snipers. "They were everywhere sniping at us. We moved around very carefully and never alone. We would even take someone with us when nature called."
The German snipers spread themselves out in the Normandic landscape. When the allied troops began to advance they left behind a large number of German snipers who later shot at less alert troops. The terrain was perfect. The hedgerows that marked off fields only permitted a free sight of a few hundred meters. A suitable distance, even for the inexperienced sniper. A sniper could hit a chosen body part at a distance of 300 to 400 meters. The thick vegetation that characterised the hedgerows, or bocage, meant that it was extremely difficult to discover the snipers positions. A soldier compared the fighting with Guadalcanal. The hedgerows dated back to the time of the Roman empire. They had been put in place to mark property and were used as fence for the grazing fields- often only one exit existed. To fight in the bocage was like fighting in a labyrinth. The thick, high hedgerows made the allied troops feel like they were trapped in a tunnel. The terrain enabled maximum hiding opportunities for the snipers while their targets had to dangerously expose themselves. Among the hedgerows the snipers prepared a few positions from where they expected the enemy to approach. At company level the snipers were usually used for harassing the enemy and defending machinegun emplacements. Often the German troops dug in under the hedgerows and thus mortar fire had little effect. Among the hedgerows they also often placed booby traps, mines and trip wire explosives. From these positions they fired upon the allied troops until they had to retreat. The troops that were too far behind the enemy lines fought until they didn't have any food or ammunition left, then they surrendered- a riskful thing for a sniper.
In Normandy a new phenomenon appears on the battlefield. Earlier snipers usually had tried to withdraw at some point but suddenly some snipers began to behave differently. It became more and more ordinary that the allied troops met snipers who fired shot upon shot without any intent to leave their position. This tactic almost always ended with the sniper being killed but caused heavy casualties among the allies. Due to their young age these fanatical snipers were later given the nickname 'suicide boys' by the Anglo- American troops.
The American war correspondent Ernie Pyle reported from Normandy: "There are snipers everywhere. There are snipers in trees, in buildings, in piles of wreckage, in the grass. But mainly they are in the high, bushy hedgerows that form the fences of all the Norman fields and line every roadside and lane."
It was not only among the hedges and trees that the snipers hid. At crossroads important targets such as traffic police and officers, the crossroads were although quite often shelled therefore the snipers positioned themselves a bit away from these. Bridges were also ideal spots, here a sniper could easily create panic and havoc with only a few shots. Lone houses were an obvious place and therefore the snipers placed themselves a short distance from these. Sometimes the snipers hid among wreckage but this meant that they preferably had to change position often. Another ideal spot for the sniper team were the fields with crops, here it was difficult to find out the exact position of the sniper and the dense crop provided good concealment. Often the snipers tried to position themselves high. Water towers, windmills and church towers were perfect positions but also obvious and thus exposed to artillery fire. Despite the obviousness snipers often hid up in these places. The more experienced snipers usually positioned themselves in other, less evident, tall buildings. Sergeant Arthur Colligan served in the 2. American Armored Division, he remembers the church towers with horror: "They were used by German snipers to shoot at us."
A captured German sniper was interrogated and asked how he could tell officers, wearing normal uniforms, carrying rifle and not wearing any rank badges, apart from regular soldiers. He simply stated "We shoot the men who have moustaches", by experience they had learnt that moustaches were common among officers and higher nco's.
The German snipers always tried to hit important targets such as officers, nco's, observers, singalists, gun crews, orderlies, vehicle commanders etc. As opposed to the MG 42 the sniper didn't reveal his position as easily when he opened fire. A good sniper could pin down a whole infantry platoon. When he fired his first shot the whole platoon froze and he was then given time to change position. A typical mistake among green troops when fired upon by a sniper was to hug the ground and not return the fire. A platoon commander in the 9. Infantry division remembers: "One of the fatal mistakes made by infantry replacements is to hit the ground and freeze when fired upon. Once I ordered a squad to advance from one hedgerow to another. During the movement one man was shot by a sniper firing one round. The entire squad hit the ground and they were picked off, one by one, by the same sniper."
1944 became a turning point for German sharpshooting. The educational movie 'Die unsichtbare Waffe' was shown and new doctrines were created based on careful evaluations and earlier experiences. It was stressed that snipers must be used correctly and they have to act according to the new doctrines. As an example it was emphasized that snipers must work in pairs. Camouflage uniforms were standard and new sophisticated weapons and equipment was available in huge numbers although there was some trouble with meeting the demands of sniper rifles. Heinrich Himmler, himself very interested in sharpshooting, had early set up sniper programs for the Waffen SS. During the latter part of 1944 the numbers of snipers were also to increase within the grenadier- and volksgrenadier companies.
The snipers ten commandments 1944:
1. Fight fanatical
2. Shoot calm and contemplated, fast shots lead nowhere, concentrate on the hit
3. Your greatest opponent is the enemy sniper, outsmart him
4. Always only fire one shot from your position, if not you will be discovered
5. The trench tool prolongs your life
6. Practice in distance judging
7. Become a master in camouflage and terrain usage
8. Practice constantly, behind the front and in the homeland, your shooting skills
9. Never let go of your sniper rifle
10. Survival is ten times camouflage and one time firing
Snipers existed on different levels. The trained snipers usually existed at company and battalion level and above, they had received special training and received specific tasks. Most of the time these snipers acted in teams of two, on sniper and one observer, they could also act on their own and in bigger teams. There were also soldiers with sniper rifles at platoon level, the had no special training and usually operated within the company, supporting it.
A well camouflaged German sniper in France 1944, he has a face veil under his hood.
A German company had for a long time been under accurate artillery fire. This was something that only an observer could be responsible for. A sniper team was sent out to no mans- land to locate the observer. For hours they were lying still and observing, always searching for a sign that could reveal the enemy's position. In the landscape there was a knocked out tank. Suddenly the sniper's discovered a piece of white paper in front of the tank that wasn't there before. They notified the company commander to put forward an anti- tank gun to force the enemy out from under the tank. The gun shot a well- aimed round and the sniper team was prepared. The shot hit the tank and two Englishmen came out. The distance was 200 meters. The sniper fired his first shot and hit one of the soldiers in the chest. The other soldier ran right in front of the snipers view, stopped and hesitated. The sniper fired and the English soldier fell dead to the ground, hit in the head.*
Military statistics have revealed that during the second world war it usually it took 25 000 shots to kill a soldier, the sniper needed an average of 1.3- the allies had every right to worry about the German snipers.
T/ Sergeant Frank Kwiatek was a forty-six year old platoon commander in a heavy-weapons platoon. During the first world war he spent nineteen months as a machine-gunner. He had spent twenty years in the same platoon and his soldiers called him 'Hardtack Murphy'. When he was in North Ireland he was given the news that his twenty-one year old brother Ted, a tank gunner, had been killed during the fighting in Sicily. Before his men Kwiatek swore to avenge his brother by killing twenty-five Germans. He was later given the news that another brother, Jerry, had been killed in Italy. Kwiatek swore to kill another twenty-five Germans. Frank Kwiatek had so far put twenty-two notches in his rifle. One for each German. He had killed twenty with his rifle and two with hand grenades. He has also killed a dozen of Germans with a tommy gun but he didn't count them because he wanted to be able to see his enemy in the eyes when he killed them: "I like to see him drop. When he drops, I can almost see my brothers smiling at me. I like shooting snipers especially; they're so sneaky."
The first sniper that Kwiatek shot was encountered when his unit was stopped outside Cerisy La Foret. The sniper had chosen to place himself at a crossroad- a good position. After the sniper had killed a number of men the company commander asked for a volunteer to eliminate the sniper. Kwiatek volunteers. He prowls through the woods until he was about twenty-five meters behind the sniper who was positioned behind a road marker. Sergeant Kwiatek lifts his rifle to shoot the sniper but then discovers another sniper about thirty meters to his right. He first shoots the sniper to the right and then the sniper behind the road marker. A few minutes later Frank Kwiateks company has begun to advance again. He walks behind to give rear protection. Suddenly he discovers a hedge move slightly, he becomes suspicious since it moves in the opposite direction of the wind. He sneaks up to the hedge until he sees a German. He then shouts "Hey!" The German turns around and Kwiatek fires a shot and the German falls to the ground. At first he thinks it was a common soldier but later learns that it was a fallschirmjägerhauptmann.
Once one of Kwiateks men stuck his head above a hedge to shoot but is shot by a sniper. "His brain splattered all over my face...I have never been so sick in my life" Frank Kwiatek remembers. Private Floyd Rogers and Kwiatek decides to get the sniper. Kwiatek tells Rogers to hold up the dead soldier’s helmet on his signal. Kwiatek moves away about forty meters and then gives the signal. The sniper fires immediately. Sergeant Kwiatek gives the signal to Rogers to stick up the helmet again but at another position. Kwiatek now sees the snipers head and shoulders stick out from a tree. "Then I let him have it. All it took was one shot. Those bastards don't give you more than one shot."
Private James W. Justus remembers Sergeant Kwiatek as a good leader. "The only trouble is, he wants to finish off the war by himself. Every time I see him, he's looking at a tree. He's going to be a very sad man when the war is over and there are no more snipers to kill."
Vehicle commanders were a rewarding target for snipers, Sergeant Eugene W. Luciano often stood upright in his half- track to be able to better guide his driver. "I know I heard an occasional shot hit the half-track and also zip past me as we advanced." He also remembers how they used to use tracer ammunition at snipers who hid in barns and haystacks.
Eventually the allied units adapted new tactics that reduced their casualties to enemy sniper fire but snipers continued to pose a threat and be a source to fear among the allied soldiers on the western front throughout the war. They personified the fear the soldiers had. A new culmination of German sniper actions would happen when the Allied forces started to enter German soil and during the Ardennes offensive. Then the German resistance would once again stiffen and more emphasis would be put on snipers.
*It is not certain whether this happened during the fighting’s in the bocage or not.
Sources usedScharfschützen- Schiesstechnik: Die Schiessausbildung der Scharfschützen, Gestern und Heute Teil 1 und 2 by S. F. Hübner, WSV- Verlag Kienesberger (1999)
The German Sniper: 1914-1945 by Peter Senich (1984)
The Military Sniper since 1914 by Martin Pegler, Osprey publ. (2001)
The History of the 12.SS-Panzerdivision "Hitlerjugend" by Hubert Meyer, J J Fedorowicz Pub (1994)
Unnamed collection of german documents concerning snipers, Thomas U. Voss (publisher)
"Sniper Killer" by Sgt. Walter Peters, article in The American Rifleman, February 1945
Our Blood and His Guts! by Tech. Sgt. Eugene W. Luciano
Busting the Bocage: American Combined Arms operations in France June -31 July 1944 by Captain Michael D. Doubler
www-cgsc.army.mil/carl/resources/csi/doubler/doubler.asp (22 February 2003)
"Hedgerow Sniping", Ernie Pyle reports from France, 26 June 1944.
search.eb.com/normandy/pri/Q00235.html (17 febr. 2003)
Do you have any corrections or additions to the material presented on the site?
Please help us improve the site by sending them to us.