Golden Journal No. 49:
The Storm Division
In early 1942, the Italian Commando Supremo faced some difficult choices in maintaining its commitments. The Royal Italian Army could not both replenish its losses in North Africa and stand up a new army in Russia to fight alongside the Germans. Italian infantry divisions in North Africa would convert to the new AS.42 standard, which substituted the firepower of automatic weapons and anti-tank guns (in a dual role as infantry-support weapons) for manpower. That would also ease the burden of supplying the troops across the Mediterranean Sea.
By June, the Germans had taken note and started to instill similar changes in their own infantry formations. The infantry companies of the 90th Light Africa Division’s 155th Infantry Regiment now included more machine guns and two platoons of captured Soviet 76.2mm field guns in a dual infantry-support/anti-tank role.
In the spring of 1942, Col. Hermann Balck of the Army’s Mobile Troops Inspectorate recommended formation of several divisions heavily-equipped with motorized anti-tank guns, to be rushed to key points of the front to stem enemy advances. Balck also argued against the practice of lavishing new equipment on a handful of favored divisions where much of it would be unused or lost (a year later Balck would oversee expansion of the worst such excess, the Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland).
In January 1943, the Army set up an experimental division on the Eastern Front, drawing on the experiences in North Africa, Balck’s recommendations, and the Imperial German Army’s experience in the last year of the Great War, when manpower shortages led to massive issue of automatic weapons in compensation.
The 78th Infantry Division had been raised in Baden-Württemburg from reservists just before the war broke out, and then spent the next two years without seeing any action. A mass outbreak of skin rashes kept the division out of the 1940 campaign in France; the division was slated to be part of Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of England, but this was cancelled. The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 marked the 78th Infantry Division’s first taste of combat.
The division took part in the advance through Vyazma and Smolensk toward Moscow, and in the retreat during the winter of 1941. It remained on the front before Moscow for the next year and fought in the Battle of Rzhev in late 1942, where it suffered enormous casualties. By late December 1942, the 78th Infantry Division was down to 1,500 effectives, and this shell withdrew to Sychevka near Smolensk for rebuilding.
In the following month, the division received a new name, 78th Storm Division, and new tables of organization and equipment. The division had the usual four-battalion artillery regiment, and three storm regiments. Initially, each storm regiment had one storm (infantry) battalion and one battalion of 105mm light howitzers, with the artillery regiment’s fourth battalion (150mm medium howitzers) retained under divisional control. Map exercises found that organization unwieldy, and in April 1943 the howitzers returned to the artillery regiment’s control. In June the storm regiments received a second storm battalion.
The division’s rifle squads each had a second light machine-gun team, just like the panzer grenadiers. The rifle companies had three rifle platoons, just like other infantry battalions, but in addition included a heavy machine gun section with two guns, a platoon of 81mm mortars and two platoons of the then-new 75mm PAK40 anti-tank guns. The division’s six infantry battalions lacked heavy weapons companies, and had just the three rifle companies, which had plenty of heavy weapons of their own: in theory, the division bristled with 108 75mm anti-tank guns but went into action at Kursk with “only” 99 of them (close to three times the allotment for a standard infantry division, and many of those formations still fielded the less-capable 50mm anti-tank guns in some of their batteries).
Despite only having three companies, the storm battalions were enormous, numbering over 1,200 men – almost twice the size of a German Army grenadier battalion (the new-model infantry battalion introduced in 1943), which had 720 men of all ranks. The anti-tank guns had half-tracked prime movers (which also transported the gun crews) but the infantry marched; this lack of motorization would limit the division’s utility as an assault force on the offensive or a blocking force when defending.
In addition to the organic firepower of its artillery and storm regiments, 78th Storm Division added organic battalions of heavy (120mm) mortars, anti-aircraft, assault guns, tank destroyers and Nebelwerfer rockets. For the Kursk operation, XXIII Corps added a company of radio-controlled Goliath toy demolition tanks. These supplemental battalions all had their own motor transport.
The Storm Division did not have specially-selected officers or men – it retained the cadre of survivors from the Rzhev meatgrinder, fleshed out from the same replacement pool as every other shattered German division. With its higher proportion of specialists (anti-tank gunners, mortarmen) with more training, it did have somewhat better morale and cohesion than the typical infantry outfit. The division’s awkward structure resulted in a lack of infantry, despite the size of its battalions, making it difficult to take and hold ground. It was by no means elite, but it did have enormous firepower.
The rebuilding division moved to Orel in February 1943, not far from Kursk, and continued its organization through the early summer even as Operation Citadel, the German Kursk offensive, was repeatedly delayed. The new-model division had no opportunity for large-unit exercises to test out its experimental structure when it was rushed to the front in the first days of July. There it joined the German Ninth Army, part of the northern pincer of the Kursk offensive.
In Operation Citadel, the 78th Storm Division fought on the right flank of XXIII Corps, an infantry formation charged with protecting the left flank of the advancing XXXXI Panzer Corps. A penetration’s most vulnerable point lay at its “shoulder,” and 78th Storm Division seemed the ideal unit to hold this crucial point where German planners assumed that any Soviet counter-stroke against the northern wing of the German double-envelopment would be aimed.
The division performed adequately, but no more than that, and even before the German offensive had petered out the Soviets launched their own Operation Kutuzov to reduce the Orel salient north of Kursk. Unlike the German offensive, the Soviet attack had great success and soon 78th Storm Division was retreating along with the rest of Ninth Army.
Afterwards, the division remained at the front and fought a series of defensive battles before the Red Army launched its Operation Bagration in June 1944. The German Army Group Center collapsed, and in early July 78th Storm Division was encircled and destroyed; only a handful of men escaped. A new division immediately received the number, and the name “People’s Storm Division,” which fought on the Eastern Front until the end of the war.
Balck’s 1942 assessment perfectly describes the 78th Storm Division. It performed no better than a standard-pattern infantry division, yet absorbed three times as many anti-tank guns, prime movers and gun crews as one of those formations not to mention the added rockets, mortars and armored vehicles. The division was, like the entire Nazi feudal state, a failure.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children, and new puppy. He misses his lizard-hunting Iron Dog, Leopold.
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