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Lock, Stock, and History

Attack of the Stormtroopers

The word “stormtrooper” brings up several well known connotations.  To many a “stormtrooper” is the standard footsoldier of the Empire in the Star Wars Trilogy.  To others a stormtrooper is a fanatical Nazi street thug or partisan that thrived in Germany during the 1920’s.  However the true stormtrooper is much more than both.  The first stormtroopers were elite soldiers during World War I who changed the nature and tactics of warfare forever.

In 1915 a highly decorated German soldier named Captain Willy Rohr developed a new set of infantry tactics to break the stalemate of the war.  By 1915 World War I in the Western Front had ground into a tense war of attrition characterized by trench warfare.  Much of the energy and resources of both sides were spent on developing new technology to break the trenches.  Capt. Rohr believed that what was needed was not new technology, but drastically new tactics and assault methods.  During World War I most attacks were large frontal assaults conducted by large units such as regiments and battalions.  Rohr believed in conducting assaults using smaller squad and platoon level tactics.  Capt. Rohr formed the first stormtrooper unit in 1915, which was called the Rohr Battalion.  The Rohr Battalion operated much differently than other standard army units.  

Rather than attacking an enemy trench en masse with large units, the newly promoted Major Rohr divided his battalion into companies and platoons, investing in his officers the authority to act on their own initiative.  When the stormtroopers attacked, they did so under a creeping artillery barrage like other units.  However as soon as the stormtroopers reached enemy lines, the battalion split up into individual platoons who attacked the various weak points of the enemy trenches.  Most importantly, the stormtroopers were skilled at fighting from cover.  When the assault began, some parts of the unit laid down covering fire to keep the enemy’s head down, while others were tasked with the actual job of infiltrating the trench.  Once the stormtroopers had captured a trench, the regular infantry would move in to mop up the area and exploit the hole in enemy lines.

While the stormtroopers had special tactics, they also were equipped with special weapons.  Stormtroopers were typically armed with lighter and more compact weapons which were better suited for fighting in the confines of a trench.  This included carbines, submachine guns, light machine guns, light mortars, flamethrowers, pistols, grenades, trench knives, and clubs.  Stormtroopers were also noted for wearing a new helmet called the ”stahlhelm”, which would not be adopted by the rest of the German Army until later in the war.

The success of the stormtroopers caused the German Army to form many more stormtrooper battalions, usually one for every division.  In addition, Austria and the Ottoman Empire formed similar assault units of their own.  By the final years of the war, Allied forces also formed their own unofficial stormtrooper units.  

Today the legacy of the stormtrooper continues on.  The idea of conduction an assault with the tactical initiative given to small units, and maneuvering under the protection of covering fire, would be a staple of infantry tactics, used even today.

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