How World War II Gave Birth to the Modern-Day Sniper
February 28, 2020 Topic: History Region: World Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IISniperGermanyImperial JapanAustralian Military

How World War II Gave Birth to the Modern-Day Sniper

A big leap forward.

Patience and careful observation were found to be the key ingredients for success, particularly where the enemy did not suspect the presence of snipers. Shore recounted one such action: “The forward platoon of the unit was in and around a cluster of smallish houses about 200 yards from the bank of the river. From the roof of one of these houses there was a good view of the top of the bank held by the Huns. Snipers watching the bank observed that the Germans changed their sentries every hour with monotonous regularity. At first the Hun was cautious, and our snipers withstood the temptation to shoot, hoping that the targets would become even more favourable when the Jerries had lost some of their caution. Later in the day, the hoped for happened, and at 1200 hours, six of the enemy could be seen from the waist upwards. There were four of our snipers on duty and, having their set plan of execution ready, they each selected a Hun and fired. Three of the four Huns fell, and shortly afterwards, their bodies were dragged from the top of the bank by their comrades concealed below.”

The bocage country of Normandy provided excellent conditions for sniping, particularly for the defenders. A lone sniper or machine gun could dominate the close country. One American platoon leader described the difficulty with inexperienced troops, who tended to go to ground and stay there when under fire. “Once I ordered one 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.”

The question of whether snipers should wear rank insignia was vexing for some. Shore’s commanding officer demanded that his officers cease the practice of wearing roll-neck jerseys that covered their collars and ties. “If we were to die, he said, we must die as officers!” It is important for officers to be instantly recognized by their men, but it is also clear that an identifiable officer was an inviting target for the sniper.

An aide to General Omar Bradley noted, “Brad says he will not take action against anyone that decides to treat a sniper a little more roughly than they are being treated at present.” If caught, a sniper could expect to suffer for his art. But the Germans did not have it all their own way during what became positional warfare for almost two months. Captain William Jalland of the 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, found that his snipers regarded Normandy as ideal country, making good scores against careless German units.

At the outbreak of the war, the U.S. Army was even less prepared for sniping than the British, and despite the obvious success of snipers against them in both the European and Pacific Theaters, senior American commanders never adopted a systematic program of sniper training. Although having access to many outstanding marksmen, this lack of commitment meant that results were haphazard indeed. Upon arrival in Tunisia, Colonel Sidney Hinds of the 41st Armored Infantry Regiment created a training course that lasted five weeks and graduated a number of snipers. Elsewhere, if commanders took no interest, nothing would be done. The chief weakness in U.S. training methods was the gap between marksmanship, which was of a very high standard, and fieldcraft, which tended to be less thorough. When some ad hoc schools were set up behind the lines, they tended to deal with handling the telescopic-sighted rifle rather than the tactical intricacies of the sniper’s art.

The Japanese were masters of camouflage, and since most of the fighting in Asia and the Pacific was at relatively short range, emphasis was placed on camouflage and fieldcraft. Each sniper was issued camouflage nets for helmet and body, although simpler methods were more common in the field. Tactics employed were broadly similar to those of Western armies, including the targeting of high-value installations, personnel, and equipment. One noticeable difference was the use of trees, even the rigging of small chairs among the branches and fronds.

Throughout the war, the Japanese sniper proved a constant trial to his enemies, from coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean to the forests of New Guinea.

The 1st Battalion, 163rd U.S. Infantry Regiment was badly troubled by snipers during one encounter. The divisional historian wrote, “From a tree almost anywhere around our oval perimeter, a Jap sharpshooter could choose a Yank target who had to leave his water-soaked hole. The range could be all of 200-400 yards. The keen-eyed sniper could steady his precision killing-tool on a branch and tighten the butt to his shoulder. He could take a clear sight picture and squeeze the trigger. All 1/Bn might hear is a Jap .25-caliber (6.5mm) cartridge crack, like a Fourth of July cap cracked on a stone. Then a Yank cowering in a hole might hear the prolonged dying groan of a man in his next squad. Or long after a deadly silence, he might find his buddy a pale corpse with a deceptively small hole in his forehead.”

The elimination of snipers was difficult business, but the Americans were nothing if not thorough. Two-man countersniper teams manned the forward defenses while other teams set off to climb the jungle trees Tarzan fashion and guide others along the ground. Through careful coordination of these elements, the snipers were eradicated one at a time. Rounds from 37mm antitank guns firing canister were found to be effective, blasting whole areas where snipers were suspected. British and Commonwealth troops used similar tactics, and once the Japanese sniper was seen for what he was, certainly not a superman, then the battle against him was largely won. As the war progressed, the quality of the Japanese sniper deteriorated, and the British began to have some notable sniping success of their own. One report describes the combined sniper strength of two brigades (48 snipers) having killed 296 Japanese in a two-week period, for the loss of two men killed and one wounded in the finger.

Australians made excellent snipers, the best being those who had been kangaroo hunters. A ’roo hunter must be a superb shot since a clean kill preserves the pelt and will not disturb the other ’roos. Most of them were already experienced with the heavy .303 Lee-Enfield rifle. One such hunter turned sniper accounted for 47 Japanese on Timor but only claimed 25, on the basis that “you can’t count a ’roo unless you saw him drop and know exactly where to skin him.” The Australians fought a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese on Timor, killing some 1,500 for the loss of 40 and forcing the Japanese to divert large reinforcements.

(This article was originally published in 2018.)

This article by Jon Latimer originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Reuters.