Key point: German snipers played a crucial role in the war.
The three Soviet tanks edged forward slowly as the drivers scanned for the concealed Germans that lay ahead. The lead tank suddenly clanked to a stop and swung its long barrel around. It looked much like one of Hannibal’s elephants with its trunk raised, sniffing the air before its planned lunge forward toward the hapless enemy.
The Wehrmacht troops were in a precarious situation. They lacked air support there as the Soviets mounted a heavy attack in mid-August 1943 along the length of the Donets Front in eastern Ukraine.
Antitank panzerfausts were not available to the 3rd Gebirgsjager (Mountain) Division, and the unit had few, if any, sticky charges to blow the tracks from the Soviet T-34 tanks. All they had were their wits and their bolt-action Mauser rifles against the three steel titans that loomed in front of them with scores of Red Army soldiers trailing.
Suddenly, the lead tank’s hatch opened about 10 inches and a head appeared with binoculars to scan the scene. Sniper Josef “Sepp” Allerberger brought the Soviet tanker’s head into the center of his scope, and at some 500 feet he squeezed off a round. A splat of blood hit the hatch as the head sank into the bowels of the tank.
That single shot marked the beginning of yet another wild melee on the Eastern Front. The tanks lobbed a few shots toward the German positions, but after a few minutes they gunned their engines and left the field to the exposed and largely doomed Soviet riflemen who did not fare well against the well-entrenched Germans.
The battle might have gone the other way had it not been for the young 19-year-old Austrian sniper who singlehandedly changed the course of the engagement by likely taking out the commander of the three tanks. His timely, well-aimed bullet negated the Soviets’ heavy initial advantage in firepower and maneuverability.
Snipers have often been “force multipliers” in warfare with their ability to take out key military leaders or crucial signal and communications officers. For example, the course of the crucial Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution was dramatically changed when an American sniper killed British General Simon Fraser at a distance of some 300 yards. During the American Civil War, Union General John Sedgwick fatally fell to a sniper’s round at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House just after he remarkably stated the enemy “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”
Allerberger and Matthaus Hetzenauer, another skilled Austrian sniper in the same division, were officially credited with killing more than 600 enemy soldiers during the Soviet advance toward Berlin in the latter stages of World War II. And their sniper totals did not include scores and scores of Soviets who fell to their rapid-fire machine pistol efforts during numerous determined and often foolish Russian frontal assaults.
Both young Austrians received the prestigious Knight’s Cross for their efforts, and unlike most snipers they left rather detailed descriptions of their work on the Eastern Front. Most snipers, like Finland’s Simo Hayha—dubbed “White Death” for his more than 505 confirmed kills in the Winter War just prior to the start of World War II—were reluctant to discuss their work which many considered underhanded or unmanly.
Allerberger, perhaps, left a more compelling firsthand account than Hetzenauer, who has been credited with 346 official kills, some 89 more than his fellow Austrian. But it was Hetzenauer, the highest scoring Axis sniper of the war, who left more detailed information on sniper techniques, training, and tactics—all told after he endured five years of captivity and forced labor at the hands of the Soviets. Both were fortunate to have endured the war at all because of the traditional heavy loss of snipers and the nature of the four-year-long bloodbath on the Eastern Front that took millions of lives on both sides.
Hetzenauer preferred a K98k Mauser rifle with a six-powered scope, while many German snipers preferred a four-powered scope on the Mauser. Occasionally he did use a German-built Gewehr 43, a 10-round semiautomatic rifle with a four-powered Zielfernrohr scope. The weapon was copied somewhat after the Soviet Tokarev self-loading rifle SVT-38.
Neither the Soviet nor the German self-loading rifles were ever capable of the accuracy of a bolt-action rifle. The bolt-action rifles had fewer moving parts and so could be fine-tuned by a skilled gunsmith to create the consistently accurate weapon needed by snipers. In close fighting, an SVT-38 type weapon, or perhaps even a machine pistol like the German MP-40, could prove invaluable for snipers and others when they needed a high rate of fire.
Ironically, the precise engineering and exceptionally close tolerances of the Mauser rifle occasionally proved to be its own shortcoming during minus 40-degree and lower temperatures on the Eastern Front, and the extended periods of freezes and thaws that often turned roads into canals of mud and coated men and weapons equally with the sludge. The Soviet Mosin Nagant rifles had more liberal manufacturing tolerances and came with lubricants that could better withstand Russia’s extreme cold. This made them a preferred weapon for many Germans, as well as most Soviet snipers. This was especially true of the prewar Nagants produced at Tula Arms Plant, whose history traced back to 1712 when it was founded by Tsar Peter I. Famed Finnish sniper Hayha logged most of his official kills over the iron sights of a Mosin Nagant. He contended that scopes too often fogged up in harsh conditions and the restricted view of a scope limited the weapon’s usefulness in close in situations.
For his part, Allerberger initially preferred a captured Soviet sniper rifle, a Mosin Nagant with a scope, coupled with a semiautomatic Gewehr 43 for rapid, close-in support because of its 10-round magazine. Both snipers took great pains to prepare advanced hiding places for their sniper rifles, knowing that German snipers who fell into enemy hands would be faced with long, drawn-out torture and eventual death.
Allerberger was frank about the use of his Gewehr 43 when faced with large waves of charging Soviets. At times, the first two enemy waves were armed and the next two waves of men were instructed—because of a lack of weapons—to charge forward nevertheless and pick up and use weapons from their fallen comrades. Soviet machine gunners in the back, directed by the feared NKVD, or Soviet secret police, ensured that the orders were carried out for the Motherland.
Allerberger noted that by early October 1943 the Germans had come to realize that the Russians had an apparent nearly inexhaustible reservoir of manpower that was still often used recklessly against them. He recalled one battle during which waves of dead and dying Russians began piling up in front of German positions. They created near walls that succeeding Russian attackers had to climb up to get to the Germans. And Russian T-34 tanks further afield crushed the fallen bodies of the dead and wounded alike, “their bones snapping like dry wood” as the tanks clanked forward while riflemen ran out of ammunition and went at the enemy with bayonets and shovels.
Allerberger used his Gewehr 43 to shoot at the stomachs of the men in the attacking waves. As the men fell and screamed in prolonged and agonizing pain, it caused their comrades to falter and fall back. Hetzenauer also used those tactics, but he most often employed a German MP40 machine pistol in that role. Hetzenauer curtly contended that “snipers do not need a semi-automatic weapon” if they are employed properly as snipers.
Because of the fierce nature of the fighting on the Eastern Front, both sides did, on occasion, resort to armor-piercing, tracer, and explosive bullets. That was also true in the Winter War as Finnish sniper Hayha suffered a near fatal injury when an explosive bullet from a Soviet sniper took off part of his jaw and forced him into retirement.
Hetzenauer, for one, largely refrained from using tracers because it could help reveal a sniper’s location. He did use armor-piercing ammunition when going against Soviet machine gunners and observers who often worked behind armored steel loophole plates to help protect them while providing a small opening for observation and firing. Rather surprisingly, he also used outdated German antitank rifles (panzerbuchse) against bunkers and loopholes because of their high-velocity, armor-piercing ammunition. Hetzenauer insisted that he used explosive ammunition only for observation and to clear Soviets from thatched farmhouses by setting the roofs aflame.
In the United States and Britain, snipers were volunteers, but the Germans often took a good shooter from the front and sent him back to Germany for training, as occurred with Hetzenauer. There they were taught the finer points of shooting, as well as camouflage and deception.
Hetzenauer’s three and one-half months of official sniper training occurred during the second quarter of 1944 in a troop training depot in southern Austria. There he learned the necessity of patience and perseverance while he honed his shooting skills under the watchful eyes of experienced snipers. The students were expected to hit a small target without fail at 325-435 yards. He was taught how to estimate distances and use deception, making the best use of terrain, and employing dummies that could be moved about with ropes and equipped with rifles that could be remotely fired with wires.