Ultimate Weapon: The Sniper Unit Was Perfected in World War II

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October 11, 2020 Topic: History Region: World Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IISnipersPacific WarEastern FrontMilitary Tactics

Ultimate Weapon: The Sniper Unit Was Perfected in World War II

When World War II began, a new style of warfare was introduced; it was capable of swift and extensive movement and created very different battlefield conditions in a variety of theaters worldwide. In these conditions, the art of the sniper could be adapted to produce an effective weapon.

Soviet snipers were trained to operate in all phases of war. Deployed down to the lowest tactical level, they worked on the flanks of an advance to attack any targets that might slow it down. Such targets would include command elements and the crews of heavy weapons. Soviet snipers were expected to use their initiative in a way that was unusual for their rank- and-file comrades. As in most armies, the intelligence-gathering ability of snipers was utilized as a matter of course.

The prowess of Soviet snipers was something of an unpleasant surprise to the Germans, and despite being somewhat overblown by Soviet propaganda it undoubtedly made the Germans take notice and institute measures of their own. As the war went from bad to worse for the Germans, particularly on the Eastern Front, the cost-effectiveness of the sniper became increasingly apparent to German commanders at all levels. German sniping also benefited from a surprising patronage in the form of Heinrich Himmler, chief of the dreaded SS.

The Waffen-SS, the military element of Himmler’s organization, had taken a keen interest in sniping from the beginning of the war but was hampered by a shortage of suitable equipment. German sniper training was conducted at the highest level by 1943. Experienced snipers were withdrawn from the front to instruct sniper recruits, themselves selected from the best infantry marksmen. Particular emphasis was placed on camouflage and fieldcraft. Matthias Hetzenauer was Germany’s top wartime sniper with 345 confirmed kills. He was an exponent of the “one shot, one kill” philosophy. He recommended that snipers be chosen from “people born for individual fighting such as hunters, even forest rangers,” a practice followed by both the British and Americans. In contrast with the Soviets, German snipers usually worked in pairs but were organized at battalion level. As the prolonged war reduced the numbers of trained marksmen available, their orders might even come from division.

During the defensive battles later in the war, German snipers rather than machine guns were often used in delaying actions. Their ability to cause casualties to high-value targets, and their flexibility and mobility while remaining difficult targets themselves, made them ideal for these tasks. Captain C. Shore, author of the book With British Snipers to the Reich, cites an example of a few German paratroop snipers holding up an entire battalion of the 51st (Highland) Division in Sicily. Despite being subjected to artillery bombardment, these Germans maintained accurate fire at a range of 600 yards before withdrawing in good order. The toughness of the German infantrymen, combined with excellent training and initiative, led Allied soldiers to fear the German sniper.

After the disasters of 1940, British sniping was reinstituted in a haphazard fashion, with the quality of training varying in standard enormously. The warfare in the open desert of North Africa did not lend itself to sniper operations, but as soon as the closer country of Tunisia and Sicily was encountered, this changed. Here, accurate long-range shooting was at a premium, but it went against the grain of British practice that stressed closing with the enemy. One sniper officer came up with a solution: “We found an unsuspecting Boche about 600 yards away from us and could not get any closer to him. So we lined up three snipers together and got them to fire simultaneously, hoping that one of the bullets would hit. Our hopes were fulfilled!”

“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.”

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.