♦ The German Army in World War II ♦

Armored Reconnaissance Battalions 1939-45


 SPW 250/9 halftrack reconnaissance vehicles (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

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The Aufklärungs-Abteilung (motorisiert) was the divisional reconnaissance battalion of panzer and motorized infantry divisions. In early 1940 those belonging to panzer divisions were redesignated as Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilungen, and when the motorized infantry divisions became panzer grenadier divisions in late 1942, their reconnaissance battalions were similarly retitled.

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In the wartime German Army reconnaissance was a sophisticated and complex undertaking, and the reconnaissance battalion was a key component of all divisions. This was especially so for the mechanized mobile divisions, and their reconnaissance battalions were not merely scout units.

The tactical doctrine governing the employment of the reconnaissance battalion was that it should fight for information. Locating the enemy was only a first step. The reconnaissance battalion was then expected to develop the situation by forcing the enemy to deploy, revealing his strength and intentions. This was done by simulating a full-scale attack, both to acquire and report information, and to buy time. Thus the reconnaissance battalion had to have sufficient strength and firepower to make its attack appear plausible, and reliable means of communication with the division headquarters. These considerations governed its original organization and its evolution from 1939 to 1945.

From 1939 to 1942 the motorized reconnaissance battalion of the panzer divisions and motorized infantry divisions had the organization depicted in the diagram below. Not all battalions were exactly alike and early on those of the panzer divisions were larger than those of the motorized infantry divisions. By the end of 1941, however, a standard organization had been adopted for both types of divisions. The battalion headquarters company and the armored car companies were well equipped with radios, including long-range models to facilitate communications with higher headquarters. The armored car platoons had four-, six- and eight-wheeled armored cars armed with machine guns and 20mm automatic cannons. Typically, these platoons would lead the way, probing for the enemy, with the motorcycle infantry company and the heavy company with its towed antitank and infantry guns in close support, ready to go into action when contact was made.

The wheeled armored cars, motorcycles and trucks with which the armored reconnaissance battalion was equipped proved adequate for operations in areas with a developed road network, such as France. But in Eastern Europe and European Russia, where good roads were few, they were less effective due to their limited off-road mobility. The first year of the campaign in Russia also disclosed that the battalion’s firepower was inadequate. In particular, the heavy company’s 37mm antitank guns were ineffective against the Red Army’s T-34 and KV tanks. The obvious solution to the mobility problem was to equip the reconnaissance battalions with tracked and half-tracked vehicles. Firepower was boosted by providing more and heavier support weapons.

The Sd Kfz 232 heavy armored car (World War Photos)

Unlike the US and British armies, the German Army never equipped its motorized reconnaissance battalions with light tanks. Instead, the SPW 250 light armored halftrack was modified by the addition of a turret identical to that of the Sd Kfz 222 armored car, mounting a 20mm cannon and a coaxial machine gun. The SPW 250 was also modified to serve as an armored command vehicle, an armored radio vehicle and an armored support vehicle in several configurations. These SPW 250s equipped the new armored car (halftrack) and armored reconnaissance companies created in late 1942. There were never enough of them, however, completely to replace wheeled armored cars.

Nonetheless, the 1942 armored reconnaissance battalion (as it was by then designated) was considerably larger and more heavily armed than its predecessor. The motorcycle infantry company was deleted and replaced by two armored reconnaissance companies with three rifle platoons and a heavy weapons platoon (mortars and heavy machine guns) all carried in SPW 250s. There were two armored car companies, one wheeled and one halftrack. The armored heavy company had the larger SPW 251 armored halftrack for its self-propelled and towed infantry and antitank gun companies. The battalion headquarters included a platoon with six heavy armored cars, armed with 75mm infantry guns.

But thanks to equipment shortages, there were many variations from this desired standard. Only the 1st Panzer Division had the full armored reconnaissance battalion as depicted below. Some battalions had only one armored reconnaissance company, sometimes supplemented by a motorcycle infantry company or a light motorized company with Volkswagen field cars. In many battalions, the heavy company was motorized, equipped with trucks instead of halftracks. The reconnaissance battalion of the 13th Panzer Division, for example, had one armored car company (wheeled), one armored reconnaissance company, two light motorized reconnaissance companies and a motorized heavy company.

Vehicles and troops of a reconnaissance battalion in Russia, 1943 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

In late 1944 the standard armored reconnaissance battalion had one wheeled and one halftrack armored car company, one armored reconnaissance company and an armored heavy company. Once again, however, equipment shortages dictated many deviations from the authorized organization. And even when it could be achieved, combat losses quickly reduced the battalion’s strength.

In addition to its primary role, the armored reconnaissance battalion was frequently employed as a mobile reserve force, particularly when its parent division was on the defensive. When so tasked it was usually organized as a battle group (Kampfgruppe) with additional units attached, e.g. a tank company or an assault gun battery. This practice of cross-attaching divisional sub-units to create task forces for specific mission was a standard practice of the German Army.

In the postwar period, most major armies adopted and elaborated upon the wartime German reconnaissance unit model. The US Army, for example, evolved the armored cavalry regiment, in effect a mechanized brigade with its own tank, artillery and helicopter support.

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Organizational Diagrams



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