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The men of Sturm (Assault) Battalion Rohr could make a fair claim to being the “Elite” of frontline fighters of the German Army (1914-1918). They were used in an Assault and Training role and were the seed out of which the assault units which followed were created. At Verdun, on the Chemin des Dames, in the 1918 Offensives, the men of Rohr were always in the thick of the action. Usually attached to other units they acted as examples, as advisors and as observers, taking their experiences back to the Sturmbataillon where developing new tactics and methods was the first order of the day.  

I will add links to other SB Rohr related articles (A number are in the pipeline).


Thomas Wictor, author of “German Flamethrower Pioneers of World War I”, was kind enough to provide the following brief history of the Sturmbataillon Nr. 5 (Rohr).  Tom is working on “Flamethrower Troops of World War I: The Axis and Allied Powers”, which will be published by Schiffer later this year.


Right: Unteroffizier Adolf Breuer of SB Rohr along with Infantrymen they trained in the Assault tactics developed by the battalion. To go to the page on Adof Breuer Click
HERE

The 4. Sturm-Kompagnie was chosen to demonstrate the tactics of the S.B. to the Kaiser in August 1916. Adolf Breuer was decorated by the kaiser. His Iron Cross award document and a description of the assault can be seen
HERE

To see S.B. Rohr in the Champagne, go
HERE

1915  


On March 4 the War Ministry ordered the Eighth Army Corps to establish the first formal Assault Detachment (Sturmabteilung) of the German army. Based on the Wahn artillery range in the Rhineland, it was the result of a suggestion made by infantry General Hans Emil Alexander Gaede, commander of Army Detachment Gaede (Armee-Abteilung Gaede) in the Vosges mountains. General Gaede’s men had successfully utilized steel shields when advancing, and Gaede and Colonel of Artillery Max Bauer decided to apply the concept to field guns.

Under Bauer’s direction the firm built 20 3.7cm assault cannons(Sturmkannone) fitted with large shields. These weapons would be accompanied by assault pioneers who would clear the way of obstacles and allow the guns to lay direct fire on strong points.  
The Assault Detachment was commanded by Major Calsow of Pioneer Battalion No. 18. One company of pioneers from Pioneer Replacement Battalion No. 3, led by Hauptmann Paulich, was assigned to the new unit. A second company under Hauptmann Franceson was transferred from Pioneer Replacement Battalion No. 10. Volunteer artillerymen from several batteries on the western front manned the assault cannons.

The two companies of assault pioneers were issued portable steel shields and experimental steel helmets, which the combat veterans among them criticized as too cumbersome for combat use. The Assault Detachment trained at Wahn throughout April and May and was deployed to the Loretto front to engage in a defensive battle.

On June 16 the Detachment suffered heavy casualties, as the pioneers were deployed as line infantry, not assault troops, and the assault cannons were used as light field pieces firing from the rear instead of as the close-in weapons were were intended to be. They produced large muzzle flashes that allowed the French to quickly spot them and respond with their own artillery. The gun detachment lost 13 of its weapons, and the pioneers suffered more than 50 percent casualties.  Major Calsow was relieved in August and the Assault Detachment assigned to Army Detachment Gaede.  

Hauptmann Willy Martin Rohr (Left) of the Guard Rifles Battalion (Garde-Schützen-Bataillon) was given command of the Detachment on September 8. Assault Detachment Rohr was assigned a machine-gun platoon armed with two MG08 heavy machine guns, a trench-mortar platoon armed with four light weapons, a gun battery armed with four modified Russian 7.62cm cannons designated "infantry guns" (Infanterie Geschütze), and a flamethrower platoon armed with six small flamethrowers (Kleif). Four heavy and two medium spigot mortars (Ladungswerfern) and one grenade launcher (Granatenwerfer 16) completed the arsenal.  

Rohr’s goal was to create a unit that had elements of every arm of the ground forces, in order to create new techniques for using the weapons. Being pioneers, the men of the Detachment were already familiar with the hand grenade, which Rohr deemed central to effective close-quarter fighting.  

Assault Detachment Rohr saw its first action on October 12, when the 2nd Assault Company attacked French positions at the Schrätzmannle in the Vosges Mountains. After six large flamethrowers of the 3rd Guard Pioneer Battalion were fired, six squads of assault pioneers attacked assigned sections of enemy trench, clearing them with hand grenades while trench mortars and field guns silenced French artillery and a machine gun. Infantrymen following behind the assault pioneers consolidated the positions with shovels and sandbags. 4 Assault Pioniers were killed in the action including Unteroffizier Friedrich Pöhler (seen left). For a link to the action see HERE.  

The operation was so successful that Rohr used it as the core of the training for the remainder of the Detachment. Beginning in December he also began training infantry units in his assault tactics.  

On December 22, the entire Assault Detachment was used in combat for the first time, in cooperation with Reserve Jäger Battalion No. 8. The two units reclaimed positions lost at the Hartmannsweilerkopf and the northern sector of the Jägertanne. Christmas Eve saw the Detachment experience its first failure, when heavy fog and a lack of preparation and organization prevented the assault pioneers from taking back the Hirzstein. Following several more failed attempts between Christmas and the new year, Rohr undertook systematic preparations for a large- scale attack modeled on the Schrätzmannle operation.

Above: Men of the 4. Kompagnie after a succesful action. One of the men wears a French helmet and has a French machine gun, probably items captured in the action.

1916  

After extensive rehearsals in full-sized mockups of the enemy trenches, the Assault Detachment led Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 188 and Nr. 189 in an attack at the Hartmannsweilerkopf on January 10. As before, trench mortars, artillery, and flamethrowers were used. German casualties were light, and the objective was taken. The Assault Detachment returned to its barracks in the Kaiserstuhl hills of Baden. At the order of General Gaede it began training infantry units in Rohr’s tactics.  

In February the Detachment was transferred to the Fifth Army in preparation for the attack on Verdun. Prior to the commencement of the battle on February 22, the Detachment was attached to the 6th Infantry Division of the III Army Corps. Rohr’s men fought at the Azannes, through the Herbebois, and at Fort Douaumont. One to four assault pioneers were assigned to each infantry battalion as hand-grenade throwers, although at Herbebois an entire Assault Company supported by all its weapons attacked the French pillboxes ahead of the regular infantry. The heavy combat necessitated a 24-hour rest period at Ornes, after which the Detachment launched an unsuccessful week-long attack from Hardaumont toward the Caillette Woods.  

The Detachment returned to the Fifth Army in March and was sent to Beuville. Here Rohr trained replacements for his own force and held assault courses for infantry units. The Assault Detachment was never employed as a whole during the Battle of Verdun but provided shock troops and weapons squads to other units. When pressed by Crown Prince Wilhelm for reasons why the Germans were not more successful, Haupt. Rohr stated that the various branches of service lacked experience and did not cooperate well, and the men were unfamiliar with the new close- combat weapons and tactics. In particular the infantry had not been trained in the use of hand grenades and, not trusting the weapons, simply threw them away by the thousands.

Left: A Pionier from SB Rohr in typical Stormtrooper uniform

As a result Rohr was given a mandate by the Crown Prince to fully train the army in the use of the hand grenade and in the principles of cooperation between the branches of service. An extensive training field was established at Beuville, close to the village of Doncourt, and the Assault Detachment was enlarged by the War Ministry so that it could more effectively instruct other units. Two more pioneer assault companies were raised; the machine-gun platoon was expanded into a full company armed with six weapons; and a howitzer battery armed with four 10.5cm Krupp mountain guns (Gebirgshaubitzen L/12) was added. On April 1 the Detachment became Assault Battalion Rohr (Sturmbataillon Rohr).  

The two new pioneer assault companies were formed with men from Pioneer Replacement Battalion No. 7. Thereafter replacements for Assault Battalion Rohr came from Pioneer Replacement Battalion No. 35, which proved replacements for Pioneer Battalion No. 35, a poison-gas unit. Haupt. Rohr created a fifth pioneer assault company by converting the battalion Pioneer Park Company into a fully trained and armed assault formation. Each assault company had a strength of 210 men. By the middle of 1916 the Battalion was comprised of:        

one battalion staff      
five pioneer assault companies      
one machine-gun company      
one trench-mortar detachment      
one flamethrower platoon      
one howitzer battery.  

At Beuville, the Battalion taught two-week courses in assault tactics.   

The Fifth Army was the first to complete its training, after which the remaining armies on the western front were instructed in the new methods. In the winter of 1916-17, the armies on the eastern front were trained, as were Austrian troops. A special detachment was sent to Bulgaria to establish an assault battalion in the Bulgarian First Army, and then several Turkish divisions were trained.  

Rohr and his men felt that their primary function was as a fighting unit; they agitated constantly for combat and took part in over 70 assaults in Verdun in 1916. Although casualties incurred during most operations were generally light, occasional heavy tolls resulted in the Battalion being replaced five times over the course of the war.  

In May the OHL ordered that each army on the western front send two officers and four NCOs to Beuville to be trained in Rohr’s tactics. On May 27 Rohr published “Instructions for the Employment of an Assault Battalion,” a short manual which codified his methods.  

Inspired by Rohr's successes, the War Ministry decided to convert four Jäger battalions to assault battalions. In August officers and NCOs of the Jäger battalions were dispatched to Beuville for training. After Romania declared war on the Central Powers, three of the Jäger battalions were removed from the program and sent to the Romanian front. Only Jäger Battalion No. 3 was converted, becoming Jäger-(Assault-) Battalion No. 3 (Jäger- Sturm- Bataillon Nr. 3).

In late 1916 the howitzer battery of Assault Battalion Rohr was given the responsibility of training the Close-Combat Batteries (Nahkampf-Batterie) and Infantry-gun Batteries assigned to the armies of the western fronts. The howitzer battery also trained ordinary artillery batteries and regularly tested new weapons and equipment.  

General Erich Ludendorff visited the Crown Prince at his headquarters at Montmedy in September, where he reviewed a company of pioneers from Assault Battalion Rohr that served as the Prince’s honor guard. Having been on the eastern front for the past two years, Ludendorff had never seen troops outfitted in steel helmets, uniforms with leather elbow and knees patches, and ankle boots with puttees. When he learned of Rohr’s new tactics, Ludendorff decided that the Assault Battalion should serve as the model for all German infantrymen. On October 23, he ordered that each army on the western front create an assault battalion.  

As a result Assault Battalion Rohr was re-designated Assault Battalion No. 5 (Sturmbataillon Nr. 5) in December.

Above: Men of the 4th Kompagnie SB Rohr with a group of infantrymen they were training in assault methods.

1917  

By February the Germans had created 15 assault battalions and two assault companies, all trained by Assault Battalion No. 5. On February 7, the War Ministry renamed the battalion Assault Battalion No. 5(Rohr) (Sturmbataillon Nr. 5 [Rohr]) in honor of its commander.  

On February 18, Crown Prince Wilhelm authorized the men of the Battalion to wear a badge on their lower left sleeve, above the cuff. It consisted of a crown above a “W,” both in white metal and attached to an oval of field-gray cloth. Rohr’s men wore the badge despite the fact that it was never approved by the Kaiser.  

After the new infantry assault battalions had been trained, Assault Battalion No. 5  (Rohr) saw far more combat than in the previous year. Rohr’s men were also used defensively more often than offensively, a role for which they were initially unsuited due to their aggressive “stormtrooper spirit.”

Right: 2 stamps used by the SB Rohr, the first was used in the period when it was the only SB on the German Army, the second after the creation of the other SB's.

In the spring the Battalion detached two pioneer companies to Assault Battalion No. 7 in support of an operation to recapture Chemin des Dames. Assault Battalion No. 5 (Rohr) spent much of 1917 fighting on the western front, particularly at Verdun.  

One noteworthy battle took place on June 29, when the 1st Assault Company of the Battalion attacked French positions on Hill 304. The company was strengthened with shock troops from the 2nd Assault Company, a machine-gun platoon, a howitzer platoon, trench-mortar squads, and the battalion’s flamethrower platoon. Rohr’s men rehearsed the assault daily for three weeks, photographed by French reconnaissance aircraft. The assault was aimed at eliminating a salient 1800 yards wide, held by only 40 dismounted dragoons of the 24th Regiment. After an extensive bombardment, Rohr’s men attacked at 6:30 P.M., led by three Kleif squads advancing at intervals of 20 paces.

The French fought back with rifles, a light machine gun, and hand grenades, repulsing the first wave. After three and a half hours, Rohr’s flamethrower squads and hand-grenade throwers had pushed the French 200 yards down the trench and killing or wounding half of them.   

Making a last stand, the French threw grenades until the Germans vacated the trench and gave up all the ground they had taken. Although American news services reported that Assault Battalion No. 5 (Rohr) lost two entire companies in the battle, German records showed only eight dead and three missing.  

On August 20 the French launched an offensive in Verdun, recapturing Morte Homme and Hill 304 after a massive artillery barrage. Rohr’s Battalion fought defensively for an entire week without respite.

1918  

In 1918 Assault Battalion No. 5 (Rohr) experienced combat almost continuously, suffering its heaviest casualties of the war. In preparation for the Peace Offensive, the battalion was divided into two half-battalions (Halbbataillone) and assigned to two different infantry divisions.  

Half-battalion Krafft was commanded by Hauptmann der Reserve Krafft of Pioneer Battalion No. 7. It was attached to the 34th Infantry Division in the first line of the heavily fortified village of Urvillers, south of St. Quentin. Half-battalion Hoffmann, commanded by an officer of Pioneer Battalion No. 10, was attached to the 50th Infantry Division north of St. Quentin. The Howitzer Battery remained undivided and was deployed with Half-Battalion Hoffmann.

Before the Peace Offensive began on March 21, Half-Battalion Hoffmann trained with Assault Tank Detachment 1 (Sturmpanzerkraftwagen- Abteilung 1) at Beuville. The crews of the five A7V tanks doubled as assault troops who would dismount and fight with rifles, hand grenades, and flamethrowers. The tanks themselves were too slow and cumbersome to serve effectively with fast-moving shock troops.

The 5th Sturm Company of the S.B. Rohr took part in the first German Panzer assault see HERE

Right: Unteroffizier Adolf Breuer of the 4th Kompagnie, he fought with SB Rohr at Verdun and on the Chemin des Dames. See HERE

On March 24, the two half battalions were reunited under the command of Major Rohr. The Battalion was put at the disposal of the 9th Infantry Division and inserted as a unified whole, attacking in concert with a reinforced Jäger battalion. Rohr’s men helped storm Montdidier with Grenadier Regiment No. 9 and were sent to different hot spots on the front covered by Army Hutier. After three weeks of combat the Battalion retired to captured British billets near Nesle in order to train the Guard Cavalry Rifles Division (Garde-Kavallerie- Schützen-Division) in assault tactics. Given a few days rest back at its garrison, the Battalion was then dispatched to the First Army and divided again, one half-battalion attached to the 1st Infantry Division and the other to the Guard Cavalry Rifles Division.  

Left: The Iron Cross 1st class certificate to Lt. d. Res. Alwin Zirkler 

Fighting with these two divisions, the Battalion suffered high casualties on July 15-16. It was then pulled out of the defensive battles and inserted piecemeal with various divisions attacking through the Argonne toward the Meuse. Following a short rest period, Rohr’s men were ordered to train Austro-Hungarian divisions brought to the western front. As the American offensives pushed further into German-held territory, the Battalion was thrown at threatened positions, the assault pioneers trucked in or forced to march when transportation was not available. Soon it became apparent that the situation was hopeless, and Rohr’s men resigned themselves to failure.  

In mid-October the Battalion was withdrawn to the rear area of the Fifth Army and remained there as a reserve. In the final days of the war Rohr’s men served as the honor guard of the Kaiser's Supreme Headquarters at Spa. Forty-eight hours after the Kaiser abdicated and fled to Holland, the OHL delegated command of the battalion to the Soldiers’ Councils, apparently fearing that Rohr’s men were experiencing a breakdown in discipline. Major Rohr demanded and was granted the right to march his men back to Germany, but only after the OHL removed a company’s worth of the best troops to serve as the headquarters' bodyguards.  

On the way home, the reduced Battalion undertook its final mission and cleared the Herbestal train station of mutinous troops. After this, desertions became so commonplace that by the time Rohr reached Schwelm the only men remaining were the grooms who cared for the horses of the howitzer battery and the machine-gun and trench-mortar companies. The horses were sold; the proceeds given to the Workers’ and Soldiers’  Council of Schwelm; and Assault Battalion No. 5 (Rohr) was dissolved.  The volunteer company that remained in Spa to guard the OHL travelled to Colberg, where it formed the core of Freikorps Hindenburg.  

Major Rohr served with the Reichswehr Guard Rifles Battalion in Lichterfelde and then became a staff officer in charge of supply in Flensberg. After leaving the army he died in 1929.  

During the war 624 men of Assault Battalion No. 5 (Rohr) were killed in action, died of wounds, accident, or disease, or went missing.  

Much of the information in this article was taken from Eberhard Graf von Schwerin, "Das Sturmbataillon Rohr," in Das Ehrenbuch der Deutschen Pioniere, edited by Paul Heinrici (Berlin: Verlag Tradition Wilhelm Rolf, 1931), pp. 558-562.

To return to the "Raiders" page click HERE

 
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