Hitler's Killers: Here's What Made These Two Nazi Snipers So Deadly
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Key point: the fight was brutal and snipers were used to slow down advancing forces. Berlin was so tired to save its increasing defeats.
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The three Soviet tanks were slowly advancing as the drivers searched for the hidden Germans ahead of them. The lead tank suddenly stopped and swung its long barrel around. It looked very much like one of Hannibal's elephants with its trunk raised, sniffing the air before approaching the unfortunate enemy.
The Wehrmacht troops were in a precarious situation. There they lacked air support when the Soviets launched a heavy attack along the Donets front in eastern Ukraine in mid-August 1943.
Anti-tank anti-tank missiles were not available to the 3rd Mountain Division (Bergdivision), and the unit had little, if any, sticky charges to blow up the tracks of Soviet T-34 tanks. All they had was their minds and bolt-action rifles against the three steel titans who appeared before them with dozens of Red Army soldiers.
Suddenly the lead tank hatch opened about 10 inches and a head appeared with binoculars to scan the scene. The sniper Josef "Sepp" Allerberger brought the head of the Soviet tanker into the center of his rifle scope and made a round at a distance of about 500 feet. A splash of blood hit the hatch as the head sank into the intestine of the tank.
This single shot marked the beginning of another wild melee on the Eastern Front. The tanks fired a few shots at the German positions, but after a few minutes they shot down their engines and left the field to the exposed and largely doomed Soviet shooters, who were not doing well against the well-anchored Germans.
The battle could have been different if the young 19-year-old Austrian sniper had not single-handedly changed the course of the battle by probably defeating the commander of the three tanks. His timely, targeted bullet negated the Soviets' great initial advantage in terms of firepower and maneuverability.
In warfare, snipers were often "force multipliers" because they were able to eliminate important military leaders or important signaling and communication officers. For example, the course of the decisive battle of Saratoga in the American Revolution was changed dramatically when an American sniper killed British General Simon Fraser about 300 meters away. During the American Civil War, Union General John Sedgwick died fatally on a round of snipers at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House shortly after he remarkably discovered that the enemy "could not strike an elephant at this distance".
Allerberger and Matthäus Hetzenauer, another experienced Austrian sniper from the same division, were officially ascribed to the killing of more than 600 enemy soldiers during the Soviet advance towards Berlin in the final stages of World War II. And their sniper numbers did not include dozens of Soviets falling on their rapid-fire submachine gun efforts in numerous resolute and often foolish Russian frontal attacks.
Both young Austrians received the prestigious Knight's Cross for their efforts and, unlike most snipers, left behind fairly detailed descriptions of their work on the Eastern Front. Most snipers, such as Finnish Simo Hayha, who was dubbed "White Death" shortly before the start of World War II because of his more than 505 confirmed killings in the winter war, were reluctant to discuss what many considered to be underhanded or unmanly.
Allerberger may have left a more convincing first-hand report than Hetzenauer, who received 346 official kills, 89 more than his Austrian compatriot. But it was Hetzenauer, the war marksman with the highest score, who left more detailed information about sniper techniques, training and tactics - all after five years of captivity and forced labor by the Soviets. Both were lucky enough to endure the war due to the traditional heavy loss of snipers and the nature of the four-year carnage on the Eastern Front, which claimed millions of lives on both sides.
Hetzenauer preferred a K98k Mauser rifle with a rifle scope with six drives, while many German snipers preferred a rifle scope with four drives on the Mauser. Occasionally, he used a rifle 43 made in Germany, a semi-automatic 10-round rifle with a telescopic sight with four drives. The weapon was copied somewhat after the Soviet Tokarev self-loading rifle SVT-38.
Neither the Soviet nor the German self-loading rifles have ever been able to achieve the accuracy of a repeating rifle. The bolt action rifles had fewer moving parts and could therefore be fine-tuned by an experienced gunsmith to produce the consistently accurate weapon required by snipers. In melee combat, a SVT-38 weapon or even a submachine gun like the German MP-40 for snipers and others could prove invaluable if they need a high rate of fire.
Ironically, the precise design and exceptionally tight tolerances of the Mauser rifle occasionally proved to be its own shortcoming at minus 40 degrees and lower temperatures on the Eastern Front, as well as during longer frost and thawing times, the streets often in mud and mud channels coated coated men and weapons alike with the mud. The Soviet Mosin Nagant rifles had more liberal manufacturing tolerances and were supplied with lubricants that could better withstand the extreme cold of Russia. This made them a favorite weapon for many Germans as well as for most Soviet snipers. This was especially true for the pre-war Nagants, which were produced in the Tula Arms Plant and whose history goes back to 1712 when Tsar Peter I founded it. The famous Finnish sniper Hayha recorded most of his official killings over the iron sights of a Mosin Nagant. He claimed that riflescopes fog up too often in harsh conditions and that limited sight on a rifle scope limits the usefulness of the weapon in tight situations.
For his part, Allerberger initially preferred a captured Soviet sniper rifle, a Mosin Nagant with rifle scope, together with a semi-automatic rifle 43 to ensure quick support from close range due to its 10-round magazine. Both snipers worked very hard to prepare advanced hiding places for their sniper rifles, knowing that German snipers who fell into enemy hands would be subjected to long, protracted tortures and eventually death.
Allerberger was open about using his 43 rifle in the face of large waves of attacking Soviets. Sometimes the first two enemy waves were armed, and the next two waves of men were instructed, despite the lack of weapons, to storm forward and pick up and use weapons from their fallen comrades. Soviet machine guns in the background, which were headed by the dreaded NKVD or the Soviet secret police, ensured that the orders for the motherland were carried out.
Allerberger noted that at the beginning of October 1943 the Germans realized that the Russians had an apparently almost inexhaustible reservoir of workers, which was still often used ruthlessly against them. He remembered a battle in which waves of dead and dying Russians piled up in front of German positions. They created near walls that subsequent Russian attackers had to climb to get to the Germans. And Russian T-34 tanks, farther away, crushed the fallen bodies of the dead and wounded alike. "Their bones snapped like dry wood," as the tanks clinked forward while the rifles ran out of ammunition and they attacked the enemy with bayonets and shovels.
Allerberger fired his rifle 43 at the stomachs of the men in the attacking waves. When the men fell and cried out in persistent and excruciating pain, their comrades faltered and fell back. Hetzenauer also used this tactic, but mostly used a German MP40 submachine gun in this role. Hetzenauer narrowly argued that "snipers do not need a semi-automatic weapon" if used properly as snipers.
Due to the violent fighting on the Eastern Front, both sides occasionally resorted to armor piercing, tracers and explosive bullets. This was also true in the winter war, when Finnish sniper Hayha suffered an almost fatal injury when an explosive bullet from a Soviet sniper took part of his jaw and forced him to retire.
For one, Hetzenauer largely refrained from using tracers, as this could help to determine the location of a sniper. He used armor-piercing ammunition when attacking Soviet machine guns and observers, who often worked behind armored steel gap plates to protect them while providing a small opening for observation and shooting. Surprisingly, he also used outdated German anti-tank rifles against the bunkers and loopholes because of their fast, armor-piercing ammunition. Hetzenauer insisted that he only used explosive ammunition to observe and remove Soviets from thatched farmhouses by setting fire to the roofs.
In the US and the UK, snipers were volunteers, but the Germans often took a good shooter from the front and sent him back to Germany for training, as was the case with Hetzenauer. There they were taught the intricacies of shooting, camouflage and deception.
Hetzenauer's three and a half months of official sniper training took place in a troop training depot in southern Austria in the second quarter of 1944. There he learned the need for patience and persistence as he refined his shooting skills under the watchful eye of experienced snipers. Students were expected to hit a small target at 325-435 meters. He was taught how to estimate distances and use deceptions, make the most of the terrain and use dummies that can be moved with ropes and equipped with rifles that can be fired with wires from a distance.
Allerberger, already a successful sniper, was assigned to a four-week training program near Judenburg, not far from his home, in the last quarter of 1943. This was done with a wink and a nod from his commanding officer, as this would give the young sniper a necessary break from the murders and chaos on the Eastern Front. He was often asked by the sniper school instructors to share his experiences. Many of the instructors had also served in this capacity on the Eastern Front. Allerberger, for his part, was surprised by the school's "shooting garden", a miniature landscape with a village and streets in which they had to shoot the "enemy" with small-caliber sporting weapons as they appeared in windows, doors and behind trees. Because of his experience at the forefront, he shone in these exercises. During the training, the instructors revised and rebuilt the landscapes to make them more interesting and challenging.
Allerberger's sniper class was instructed to record their observations of terrain, weather conditions, and hits in notebooks that they carried with them. As an experienced sniper, he warned of the need to encrypt their entries in the event of capture because the snipers were treated by the Soviets.
During the war, both sides used the deception to a significant extent, from a helmet pulled up on a stick and deceiving only inexperienced snipers on the other side to sophisticated devices like dummies that appeared to smoke. Hetzenauer was careful not to use steel gap plates, as they were cumbersome in the field and more susceptible to enemy observation. He used 6 × 30 German binoculars for general observation and a small captured Soviet periscope while in the no man's land near the enemy.
For one thing, Allerberger developed an interesting way to use an old umbrella quite early to support his camouflage efforts. He took off the cloth and used local plants and grass woven into the wire frame to provide local coverage. It turned out to be exceptionally functional and could easily be updated to adapt to a particular terrain when it changed location in the field.
But there was more to sniffing than a keen eye and good training. Germans who came straight from training with no first-hand experience of fighting often managed to fend off 15 to 20 sniper rounds before they were struck by an experienced enemy - and the Soviets had many of them. The invaluable experience of staying extraordinarily cool under fire and carefully preparing a shot position with one or possibly more options for hidden "slips" often made the difference between life and death.
Allerberger often crawled into no man's land at night to prepare his holes, to prepare for his own retreat if necessary. He often added grenades and trip wires to cover the approaches to his skin. These can be used for protection or distraction if he needs to get out quickly.
Experienced snipers also knew how and when to jump into a predetermined safe position in a movement that the Germans called rabbit jump (rabbit jump). Rapid evasive maneuvers and occasional double backs were often part of this movement, which required speed, willpower and nerves of steel. Less experienced snipers often shuddered on the spot, worked to endure sustained concentrated rifle, mortar and artillery fire, and suffered the often fatal consequences.
Hetzenauer, Allerberger and Haya insisted that snipers should not position themselves in trees, although the higher altitude would offer a better view of the enemy. Such a position could be fairly easily identified and isolated to prevent a sniper from slipping off to fight another day. Despite this admonition with common sense, Allerberger encountered a situation northwest of Bakalovo in which eleven men from the leading company were toppled within minutes by targeted head and chest shots. Then two of the company's commanders were lost to explosive bullets as they got up to look through their binoculars. It quickly became clear that the Germans faced dozens of Soviet snipers whom they had heard of but never met.
Efforts to remove the snipers from the thick evergreen in front of them proved unsuccessful and even worse resulted in the deaths of several German machine guns. The unit lacked artillery or even heavy mortar to drive the enemy away, so everyone squatted together until Allerberger reached the scene. The Austrian assessed the situation and knew that he had to come closer in order to better assess the situation. He took five grenade bags, filled them with grass, and added helmets and false faces. He left them with assistants as he carefully crawled forward. When Allerberger gave the agreed signal, the dummies were raised and he was able to identify where the enemy snipers were housed when the top branches swayed from the blast from the gunfire.
Then he carefully crawled back to safety about 200 meters and informed his superiors about his plan of attack. He placed five machine guns in well-hidden positions and crawled forward again after putting the men with the dummies. As soon as he was on one side, he signaled to his assistants that the dummies raised slightly. When a sniper fired, he clearly identified the position of the sniper and fired while the German machine guns tied the treetops generously to hide the sound of his deadly moult. The Soviet snipers fell "like sacks" from their elevated positions. After a short time, Allerberger repositioned itself and the process started again. In total, he killed 18 enemy snipers within an hour.
After a long period of rest, the Germans cautiously advanced towards the forest and collected the enemy sniper rifles and equipment. When one stepped over the seemingly lifeless body of a sniper, he saw the face of a woman who had been shot in the chest. Suddenly she pulled an automatic pistol out of her jacket and fired a lap, thrusting the Germans in the buttocks as he killed them with his MP40.
Although it was the first time that these Germans met a group of female snipers, they had heard of such units. In fact, the Soviets trained and employed more than 2,000 female snipers before the war ended. Many of the women turned out to be stubborn and extraordinarily accurate as they worked diligently to avenge the death of family members and loved ones through the invaders.
Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the most successful sniper in history, has been dubbed "Lady Death" for her confirmed 309 killings involving 36 enemy snipers. She even went on a goodwill tour of Allied nations during the war that included a stop at the White House.
Once, Allerberger and the shooter Josef Roth teamed up to deal with a Soviet sniper who had killed a number of men and made life difficult for the Germans at the front. After spending hours scanning the landscape and looking through binoculars, they discovered the man's fur. He had ingeniously secured himself in an earthen cave dug by a dam.
The Germans had to let the sniper point them further and decided to use a large bread bag filled with a stick and grass and with a cap attached to it. At a predetermined time, a third man lifted the doll up. The Soviet fired and revealed its exact position, and the two Germans fired explosives from two slightly different angles. There was a thud in the cave, and then there was a fairly hectic activity on the Soviet side when something was carried away. A careless Soviet observer then raised his binoculars to his eyes and paid for the mistake with his life. This ended the deadly sniper fire from the Soviet side.
During the war, German snipers took on an even more important role in resisting the seemingly steadily growing Red Wave. They were often left behind to slow or even stop Soviet progress, if only for a few hours, as larger forces retreated to safer positions.
Hetzenauer was captured in the Donets Basin and spent five years as a worker in Soviet captivity. Despite adversity, he managed to inform his masters about his sniping work, which had reduced him to around £ 100 when he was released. Allerberger was luckier. At the end of the war, he managed to evade the Soviet troops and safely return to Austria from Central Czechoslovakia.
The author Phil Zimmer is a US Army veteran and a former newspaper reporter. He has written on a number of World War II topics.
This article originally appeared on June 29, 2019 on the Warfare History Network. It will be published again due to the interest of the readers.
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