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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 24, 2019


Today I am going to try something a little bit different. You will be, I suspect, familiar with the German Nebelwerfer as a weapon. But have you ever thought about how they were used, or how their units changed, or even their effect on the enemy? Maybe I can shed some light on those questions, as I attempt to chart the course of the Werfers throughout the war.
I recently got hold of some documents about the Nebelwerfers, and their operators. These were, by the document’s own admission, based on limited factual evidence, and relied to an extent on POW interrogations. To add to the confusion the Nebelwerfer units seem to have been very loose in their organisation and tactical deployments.

There do seem to have been some core values in regard to Nebelwerfers. They were considered infantry support weapons, that were to be used for area fire only. Throughout the war almost every source that mentions it stresses that Nebelwerfers were only for area fire. One POW when interviewed became quite emphatic that such a weapon would never replace artillery due to its lack of effect against point targets. This view was confirmed by German propaganda, which in a radio broadcast in September 1943 pointed out that as the Russians could only achieve any success when using large numbers of men and material. Thus the area effect of the Nebelwerfers means that such a weapon was the ideal solution to the Red Army.
An example of a early Werfer unit dug in.
A British officer once described the fall of France as being achieved by a handful of elite panzer formations, while the dull mass of the German army followed on behind. This was certainly true of the early Nebelwerfer units. At the start of the war the rocket troops were only equipped with 28/32cm Wurfgerat 40. This was a wooden frame (called a Wurfgestell 40) housing the rocket. This projectile would be either a 28cm HE or 32cm incendiary round. These would be placed on a rack then fired off in salvos. Positions for these rocket troops were considered as long term sites, with Nebelwerfer units staying in position for a week or more. Moves between sites were done at night, with the unit normally beginning its move about 2300. Each site was carefully prepared and fully entrenched. These troops were also to be used as chemical weapon specialists with training in decontamination as well as contamination.
A less well dug in Werfer unit in Russia.
In 1941 the 15cm Nebelwerfer 41 entered service. This was the iconic six barreled weapon on a mount most of you will be familiar with. With it came a new way of fighting. Now the weapon could be mobile, and a shoot and scoot style of warfare was employed. Although in one case in Sicily an Allied observer reported he was ranging in on a Nebelwerer battery that moved before he could fire, but it only moved 500m to the left, and immediately fired again, allowing an easy shift in his aiming point and a rapid response. Along with this introduction the troops were re-named as Werfer troops, as smoke became less of their role, about 80% of rounds fired were HE, with the rest being smoke. The name Nebelwerfer was applied to all equipment as an attempt at disinformation.
Alternative launching sites were always prepared, and the launchers switched between them after firing. An unregistered site was never used due to the problems of directing their fire. Germans, like several other armies of the period, used a rather archaic top down command style for directing their artillery. Fire missions would originate from the observers, and being sent up the chain of command to a higher HQ, where upon the fire would be approved and sent down to the weapon troops to actually fire the mission.

Early in the Russian campaign several large concentrations of Nebelwerfers were fired. They were most common at Sevastopol, although they were also used at Leningrad. In October 1942 Leningrad had the largest concentration of Nebelwerfers fired at any one time, when four regiments were controlled and fired by the Army HQ. No hard numbers are available, but this was likely in the region of 200 launchers firing simultaneously.
As the war progressed the Germans began to consider a battalion of Werfers, about eighteen launchers, as the ideal number. As Allied armoured superiority increased the Germans began to include 50mm PAK-38 guns in the organisation. These would be sited about 200m to the front of the Nebelwerfer unit to provide local defence against tanks. About the same distance away a couple of LMG's were sited to delay infantry and give the rockets troops some warning of an infantry approach. As these weapons were not in contact with their command position, they were isolated and likely seen as nothing more than speed bumps to give the Nebelwerfers a chance to evacuate.
Nebelwerfer positions were often on the reverse slope of hills in an attempt to hide the considerable flash from launching. On the flatter Russian plains one trick used by the Germans was to set fires to haystacks and provide a cloaking light source against which the launcher flash would be diminished. If that was not available, a double launch was often used, with one unit close to the front line launching then another much father back firing. This would create two launch signatures very close to each other hopefully confusing enemy flash ranging.

The flash problem was seen as a big problem, as it allowed enemy guns to range in for counter battery fire. This was a major worry against British forces, as the unique way British artillery was controlled meant that it could theoretically be landing shells within 30-60 seconds on a target. As a Nebelwerfer unit usually took about five minutes to relocate, the first 90 seconds of which were spent reloading at their old position, it could mean that the slit trenches were rather important. Equally the back-blast from launching gouged out a shallow trench and blasted the stones and dirt all over the place. This depression was scorched black and was often a good indicator of a Nebelwerfer's position. The final reason given for trenches at the site was the worry over premature detonations. Around 11% of the rockets fired would be faulty in some way, either blinds, or worse duds. If one of these duds detonated in the tube the entire detachment would be killed if not for the abundance of trenches. 

A missfire was actually easy to deal with, if horribly risky. The Nebelwerfer 41 rocket had the propellant in the nose, and the charge in the rear. The fuse was in the bottom of the rocket, so all that had to be done was to unscrew the fuse, which would then simply fall out, rendering the rocket mostly safe. 
The ring about two thirds down the rocket is actually the vent for the efflux from the rocket motor.
Reload rockets were always stored with their nose towards the enemy. Thus, in the event of enemy fire triggering the rockets they would fly towards the enemy. The rocket warheads however were fairly inert, while the motors could be triggered even a direct hit was unlikely to detonate the warhead.

The effect of the rockets themselves was considered by the Germans to be primarily morale based due to the low fragmentation of the rocket. On hard, stony ground a 15cm rocket would create a shallow crater just 6in deep and about 3ft in diameter. There was an attempt in the middle of the war to create more morale effect, similar to the reputation the Stuka achieved, by adding pigments to the rocket motors to create different colour smoke trails.
Overall the biggest limiting factor was ammunition supply. There was a constant lack of rockets for troops to fire. On all of the larger calibres they produced rail inserts to allow the 15cm rocket to be fired should their usual calibre not be available. As the war got into its final years ammo and spare parts became even more scarce, and Allied control became more overwhelming. However, the ability to dump a large amount of morale sapping explosive on a single area was still useful.

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