Updated March 27, 2019 · Upvoted by
, former Retired US Marine Infantryman (0311/0369) at U.S. Marine Corps and
, Former Sgt US Marine Corps. Recruiter Liaison NCO, DOD Administration Management
I am going to post a modified version of the answer I have here (Joseph Scott’s answer to Were US Marines tougher than elite German troops in WW2?), as I indirectly answered this question.
Aside from a few Marines crewing shipboard weapons during landings, the Marines did not face German forces during WWII, so we cannot make a direct comparison. However, we can compare the performance of Marines to US Army units in the Pacific and then US Army units against German ones. In the Pacific, US Marines tended to demonstrate a 70% greater casualty exchange rate per man than US Army units fighting against the Japanese in comparable circumstances. The key phrase here is ‘in comparable circumstances.’ The Marines participated in a number of unnecessary and badly supported head-on beach assaults that resulted in high losses. The Army tended to avoid such showy operations.
Meanwhile, in late 1943 through 1944, the Germans tended to enjoy a roughly 100% superiority in casualties inflicted per man against the US Army. So, looked at like that, average German units were actually slightly better than US Marine infantry by about 17%, while elite units like the Hermann-Goering Panzer-Fallschirmjaeger Division enjoyed casualty exchange rates twice as good as the average German unit.
Looking back famous battle of Belleau Woods in WWI, where US Marines did face the Germans, at the end of the first day, Marine losses were 2.5 times as high as German losses. Using T.N. Dupuy’s numbers for the advantages of a defensive position, and considering the Germans were somewhat outnumbered, this would tend to corroborate the numbers above, suggesting a slight German advantage.
Incidentally, the Germans actually demonstrated superior skill at beach assaults during the Crimean Campaign on the Eastern Front, when they made a division-sized amphibious assault against the extremely heavily fortified position at Severnaya Bay. Rather than alert the enemy to their attack with an extensive preliminary bombardment, German guns held their fire, waiting in support until called upon. Moving over the straight by night, the Germans landed at first light, and assaulted so rapidly that by the time the Russians realised they were under attack, the Germans already had a firm foothold ashore, and quickly overcame the entire Soviet defensive system with relatively light losses, again outnumbered. Bear in mind they were assaulting a beach area that was more extensively fortified than the Atlantic Wall the Allies attacked.
Why? Well, let’s look at how they were trained and selected:
The US Marines had a more comprehensive marksmanship program than the US Army, one which placed much greater emphasis on fire discipline and accuracy. This is born out in combat footage. In a US military study of combat footage from WWII through Vietnam it was observed that Marines, 90% of the time are seen to aim carefully, to fire predominately on semi-automatic when armed with automatic weapons, and to fire off shots on semi-auto more slowly and with greater deliberation. By contrast, Army soldiers are seen to rapidly fire off shots, often emptying their magazine, with less time taken to acquire their a target or assess range. Where the US Army relied on volume of fire, and many officers had little faith in marksmanship under combat conditions, the Marines valued precision shooting.
However, the Germans were known for having a similarly superior marksmanship program which, as far back as WWI and before, placed great emphasis on teaching soldiers to evaluate ranges under combat conditions, to prize accuracy over speed, encouraged concentration of fire to suppress or destroy targets, and taught that one should withhold fire until within effective range to cause significant damage, and preferably until the minimum possible range, to achieve the most decisive effect.
As early as the turn-of-the-century, the Germans had devised pop-up targets and moving targets for marksmanship practice to improve realism. Soldiers who identified a target and evaluated the range were taught to immediately call out this information, so that other soldiers nearby could quickly adjust their sights and engage the target. Every platoon and squad had a designated observer, generally a more senior soldier picked for proven ability to accurately identify range and target, who would report this information to their commander to allow them to assess how best to allocate fire and make sure everyone’s sights were correctly set. In the infantry squad, this individual was typically placed with the machingunner, who was seen as the major source of firepower.
Unlike the US system, where recruits learned on rifles, followed by only cursory familiarisation with their other weapons, unless they were designated a BAR gunner, Germans were trained from the start on rifles, submachineguns, pistols and machineguns, learning how to fire the latter from the bipod, from the very stable four-legged mount made for it, which could be fitted with a scope for accurate fire to 2000m, and even from the hip in “assault fire.” (And yes, this can be done effectively in real life, provided the weapon is braced properly and the range is short. There are a number of accounts of German machinegunners using this technique to good effect against enemy squads caught in the open at 50–75m during assaults.) Those demonstrating the best marksmanship with the weapon were made the machinegunners, but everyone was effectively trained in it’s use to 1000m and could quickly take over the weapon. Every Marine was a rifleman, but every German soldier was both rifleman and machinegunner.
The US Marine Corps had developed a strong tradition and unique sense of espirit d’corps that the Army, outside of a few individual units, lacked. Despite civilian jokes about the narrow-minded, quaint, stubborn ways of the Marines, they had and have the reputation of an elite service, which attracted higher quality volunteers than the Army got. However, Marine training was built on the same psychologically backwards, counterproductive “break them down and build them up” approach the Army used, only with greater intensity and brutality. Random beatings, sadistic hazing and petty harassment were a regular feature of training. This tended to stifle some of the very initiative that would later be encouraged, alienate more intelligent recruits, and leave Marines with mixed, conflicted feelings about the service, something of a love-hate relationship. The Marines also tried to buttress this tradition by wasting a lot of training time on an obsession with such militarily useless matters as Napoleonic marching drill, something they are still famous for their skill at. On top of that, the Marines, like the US Amy, had a centralised depot training system, which meant that initial training was conducted by instructors who would not form part of the recruits’ unit, giving the whole thing a more distant, impersonal, factory assembly line feel.
Drill and ceremony training took up a significant portion of a US Marine recruit’s time.
The Germans, in contrast, had largely discarded hazing as a training methodology, recognising it to be out-dated and counterproductive. Instead of mindless sadism, the Germans tried to make training tough in realistic, combat-orientated ways that soldiers could appreciate as actually teaching important battlefield lessons. Breaking the individual personality of the recruit was frowned on in favour of trying to find and build on strong points in their character. Off duty time in training was far more relaxed, and relations between all ranks considerably more congenial than what was found in the very stratified, class-conscious US services. Officers led the training most of the time, rather than farming it out to NCOs as was the US practice. The Germans created a degree of camaraderie across all ranks that was the envy of every other fighting force.
Contrary to the popular stereotype of the precise German formation doing the Prussian Slow March (“Goose Step”) down the Unter der Linden, as far back as WWI the German Army had begun to discard such drill and ceremony training as useless. Only a few specially selected units such as the Leibstandarte and the Grossdeutschland’s demonstration battalion trained for such displays. Most German soldiers learned only a few rudimentary movements like Present Arms, and instead of marching about in formation, they were drilled in practical combat movement, such as taking cover rapidly under sudden fire, and rushing from cover to cover.
The Germans placed great emphasis on combat movement and fieldcraft, and this proved to be one of the greatest differences between German and Allied units on the battlefield. Much of the fire and movement tactics and fieldcraft practiced by armies today was adapted from the Germans, and where the soldiers of our time might find their Allied counterparts’ battlefield behavior old-fashioned, most of what German soldiers did back then would seem quite familiar and modern.
The Germans retained greater combat mobility by never going into combat with the kind of ridiculous loads many Marines were forced to lug ashore, as they knew that was suicidal. Germans were trained to leave non-essential equipment behind (in their platoon carts in land operations) and were taught to never go into battle with more than 22kg on them. All the other stuff would have be brought ashore by follow-on troops once the beach was taken, in amphibious landings.
Training was conducted by each regiment, so that some of the NCOs and officers conducting training would be going to the front with the new troops, ensuring that they had leaders who were familiar to them, and who were likewise acquinted with them, knowing their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, German troops were rarely put straight into combat when they reached the front. Instead, frontline units organised their own training courses, so that newly arriving troops could be taught all the latest tactics by the very officers and NCOs who would lead them in battle.
A short anecdote from the training of the SS-Verfungstruppe that would later become 2nd SS “Das Reich” will serve to illustrate a number of German training principles:
‘One of our platoon leaders loved that piece of ground, so we were often “in Paradise.” One Autumn day we marched out through a steady drizzle of rain to “Paradise.” We arrived just as the farmer had finished spreading the area with manure. There was a terrible stink of cows and pigs in the air. The prayer, “Lord let this cup pass from me”, was not granted and on our officer’s lips was a satisfied smile as he explained the tactical situation. He waved his hand across the dung-covered “Paradise” and pointed to a small wood. There, he explained, were the enemy trenches and went on to say that it was our task to carry out an attack and to drive him from those positions.
‘The machineguns opened up and we fired our blanks at the imaginary enemy. Then we had to rush forward and fling ourselves flat. Some recruits tried to find a nice place on which to lie down. This caused our officer to order a new movement. “The enemy barrage is too heavy. As we cannot pass through it we will roll over and over on the ground in order to reach a new assault position. Follow me”, and he flung himself on to that dung covered field and rolled over and over. With rifles pressed between our knees and tight to out chests we, too, rolled over and over, cursing and swearing.
‘We returned to barracks stinking from the filth which encrusted our uniforms. But our officer marched at our head as proud as a Spaniard, as if we had just won a battle. Before he dismissed us he spoke a few words. “Lads, think of this. If we were under fire you would not have time to find a nice place to fling yourself down You would hit the deck quickly, irrespective of whether it was a field of flowers or a pile of shit.” He was right, of course.’
I would draw your attention to the following points from this story:
1.) The officer leads the training personally, and specifically participates in the most unpleasant aspect of it, demonstrating leadership by example.
2.) He explains the tactical situation the exercise takes place in beforehand, and he further explains the specific necessity of the exercise afterwards; the German armed forces made great effort to get recruits to understand the purpose of everything they did, and encourage active, thinking obedience, rather than mindless automaton behavior.
3.) The officer speaks to his troops in a friendly, comradely manner; he is their teacher, and they are his worthy students. He does not treat them with disdain or belittle them.
4.)The officer does not care that the recruits voice dissatisfaction in the form of cursing, so long as they do what is ordered. No special punishment follows for them having the insolence to do this. German soldiers were expected to be willful individuals who had opinions of their own and were free to voice them to a much greater degree than most Allied troops were.
5.) The story shows the great degree to which the German ground forces trained to reflexively and instantly throw themselves flat under fire. Many Allied soldiers hesitated to do so, or preferred to only kneel in place, exposing themselves to fire in the process.
6.) The Germans made great use of lateral movement while prone to confuse the enemy about their location, and frequently altered the exact axis of their attack to find the best place to infiltrate close to enemy positions safely.
Contrary to stereotype, the Germans had long ago abandoned their own mania for precision marching drill in favour of practical combat skills. Note that no NCO is wasting the time to correct these 5th SS-Division soldiers on their casual attitude to Shoulder Arms.
The US Marine Corps’ background as a shipborne, expeditionary service meant the Marines were often deployed in small landing parties, and at one time, in boarding actions that tended to be much more fluid and individualistic than massed field battles on land, leaving them with a much greater tradition of initiative at the small unit level than the Army. To this day the Marines show more comfort with “Mission-type Orders” than the US Army, though the latter has narrowed that gap a fair amount since the 1940s. NCOs typically enjoyed greater autonomy and responsibility than their Army counterparts.
Germans, on the other hand, invented “Mission-type Orders” or Auftragstaktik. Encouraging initiative down to the lowest soldier, stressing wide latitude in executing orders, rapid and flexible reaction to changing events, and thriving in chaos were the hallmarks of the German military. Of all the combatants in WWII, only the Finnish made comparable demands on the tactical thinking and active participation of their lowest-ranking soldiers, and their system had been created by a German officer.
The Germans possessed one final advantage that added to both their initiative and morale: the selection and training of leaders. In the US, a college degree guaranteed (as today) an officer rank, despite the lack of correlation between either the affluence to pay for college or academic success with combat leadership. The Marines did happen to have a much tougher training course for their infantry officers than the Army (modern Marine Infantry Officer’s Course is similar in difficulty to Army Ranger School), however, the difficulty was mostly in the physical intensity, rather than in tactics and leadership. Marine officers could (and still can) often outrun their whole platoon with ease, but typically lacked the degree of practical job knowledge their platoon NCO possessed. Training for a US Marine officer was also much shorter than what his German counterpart received. Marine officer training was around 6.5 months, which is actually less than what a German NCO had to go through.
Additionally, the US has tended towards a ‘management’ style of command that focuses on choreographing what everyone else is doing, but leaving most of the physical leadership to NCOs. Many US officers have chosen to ignore this and lead from the front, but they were the exceptions, rather then the rule, and the system has tended to discourage this behaviour. This command-post leadership creates to a sterile, brittle, and uninspiring command style, which can’t react to events on the spot.
In Germany, merely having an Abitur and an awesome physique wouldn’t guarantee you the coveted silver shoulder straps. First, you had to submit to a detailed psychological examination conducted by a team of officers and psychologists which sought to test your willpower and determination in adversity, your decisiveness and quick-thinking under stress, and your ability to communicate clearly and teach soldiers, with the latter being tested by literally having the candidate try to teach something they knew to some random soldiers loaned to the psychological board. Assuming you got passable marks, you then had to apply to individual regiments. It was up to the colonel of each regiment to interview you, look over your test results and accept you or not. The German Army couldn’t force any colonel to take a given candidate, and there was no quota system. Having gotten this far, the officer-candidate now attended training as a common soldier in the regiment that accepted them, where they were expected to demonstrate exceptional initiative, decisiveness, determination and integrity. They were tested in their squad command abilities repeatedly. If they didn’t really shine in basic training, they simply became a private soldier.
If they passed, then before 1942, they received a promotion to Fahnenjunker-Unteroffizier (Officer Cadet holding the rank of Corporal/Squad Leader) and went on to a 9 month leadership course, the Kriegschule. From 1942, they had to undertake a six week combat tour first. If they did well in battle as a squad leader, they went on to the leadership course. At any point, they could fail and be stuck as a squad leader. Throughout the course, their leadership qualities, particularly their tactical ability was continually scrutinised and tested, and also heavily mentored by the officers running the course. It was a far more intellectually demanding and mentally focused course than the Marine equivelent. Where a US Marine officer candidate engaged in intense athletics every day, and the most common cause of failure in training was injury or physical inability, a German officer cadet spent 1 hour a week on athletics, but 6 hours a week on tactics, 6 on military history, 3 on weapons technology, 3 on combat engineering, 2 on topography, map reading and navigation, and at least an hour each week on each of air defence, communications and automotive engineering. By far the most common cause of failure at Kriegschule was lack of mental ability. German NCOs had to pass a similar 9 month course.
If they passed, then before 1942 they got another promotion to Fähnrich (Ensign, equal to Unterfeldwebel/Sergeant) and went on to a much more difficult 9 month Waffenschule, where they learned how to command troops in their arm of service. From 1942, they again had to undertake a six week combat tour before proceeding to the advanced course. At the advanced course, the same screening, selection and mentoring was repeated more intensely. Many simply stayed NCOs. But even this course only made them Oberfähnrich (Senior Ensign, equal to Oberfeldwebel/Sergeant Major). They the returned to their regiment for an 8 week ‘field probation’ where the officers would scrutinise them to see if they really had what it took to be an officer. Those that finally made it to leutnant rank (which required a final vote by the officers of the regiment) tended to truly be the most gifted soldiers and ablest leaders in their units, in contrast to the ‘Butterbars’ and ‘Shiny Privates’ US enlisted people still joke about.
German officers were expected to know their soldiers to a much greater degree than their US counterparts as well. A company commander would be expected to remember to congratulate a soldier not only on his own birthday, but on those of his parents’ also. German officers at company level were expected to keep up on any problems a soldier was having at home, and to sit down and have a one-on-one talk with every soldier under their command at least once a month, talking about whatever concerned them and trying to address any problems they had. Unless interrupted by sustained combat, a German company would sit down every day while their commander read out current events, which they were given the opportunity to ask questions about. While the National Socialist system encouraged this as a time to disseminate propaganda, in actual practice it was a time when the company would discuss as a unit whatever was on their mind.
Perhaps most importantly, German officers were taught to lead from the front always. Even Field Marshals led attacks in person on many occasions, belt full of grenades and submachinegun in hand. This attitude of always doing more themselves than they asked of their subordinates won a degree of respect and devotion from German soldiers that US officers simply couldn’t compete with. Even the most cynical and fatigued German soldier found it hard to shirk battle when they ran across their 72 year old corps commander digging a fighting hole and preparing to form the rearguard with just himself and his staff. (Which is how Paul Hausser re-established the defensive line that held the Falaise-Argentan gap open long enough for most of Army Group West to escape encirclement.) Individual US officers sometimes displayed this attitude, but in the German Army, it was expected as a matter of course. This is perhaps best illustrated by the story of a request for the award of the Iron Cross 1st Class which reached the desk of Field Marshal Schoerner in late 1944. The citation described how, during an attack, a certain regimental commander had taken up an MG.42 and led the foremost assault platoon in the attack, staying at the very point of the advance throughout the day of fighting, despite being wounded. As a consequence, their division commander recommended they be given the medal. Schoerner, however, angrily scrawled across the citation document: “Every German regimental commander is expected to be at the forefront of their men in attack and defence. This action in no way merits a special award!”
As an example of what I mean, check out some of the officers pictured below, and their decorations for close combat, and for personal destruction of enemy tanks with infantry weapons.
Consequently, though the German Army and USMC possessed many similarities, the Germans held the edge in initiative, leadership and morale.
Leadership from the front:Hauptmann (Captain) Peter Kiesgen, recipient of the Knight’s Cross, with 5 Tank Destruction Badges for the personal destruction of a tank by means of infantry weapons in close combat, instructs Hitlerjugend in the art of tank hunting.
Oberleutnant (Senior Lieutenant) Günther Viezenz, wearing 7 Tank Destruction Badges and his Knight’s Cross. He would eventually win 5 Tank Destruction Badges in Gold and 1 in Silver for destruction of 21 enemy tanks.
Hauptmann Ferdinand Frech, holder of the Knight’s Cross, 4 Tank Destruction Badges in Silver, and the Close Combat Clasp in Bronze for 15–24 days in hand-to-hand combat.
Major Goerg Wenzelburger, holder of the Knight’s Cross, and the Close Combat Clasp in Gold for 78 days of hand-to-hand combat.
This Sturmbannfuehrer (Major) of SS-Standarte Germania wears the Knight’s Cross and Close Combat Clasp in Silver for 25–49 days in hand-to-hand combat.
SS-Brigadefuehrer and Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Sylvester Stadler, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Close Combat Claps in Gold for 50+ days of hand-to-hand combat.
Oberst (Colonel) Erich Lorenz, commander of 85.Infanterie-Division, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, 2 Tank Destruction Badges in Silver, and the Close Combat Claps in Gold for 50+ days of hand-to-hand combat.
Generalmajor Otto-Ernst Remer, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Close Combat Clasp in Silver for 25–49 days of hand-to-hand combat.