Best sapper-related pic I was able to find.

It's strange to me how sappers never seem to inspire much imagination, never seem to get good stories in military journals. They resemble military intelligence and military police in this regard.

There were interesting technological developments for army engineers, of course. Sadly, the only reports (such as conference documentations) about their stuff sent even me to sleep.

One such example was a mid-90's hype about quick dry cement. It sounded like the answer to most questions of army engineering nature. 

Build obstacles in hours? Quick dry cement!

Build buildings in hours? Quick dry cement!

Repair roads or bridges in hours? Quick dry cement!

Build field fortifications in hours? Quick dry cement!

Somehow, some researchers were extremely enthusiastic about quick dry cement for army engineers. I had difficulties to imagine anything more boring than cement, though.

Meanwhile the German military journals annoyed me by repeating assertions about the greatness and innovation of the Keiler, a simple 40 years late vehicle that based on a British '42 invention. Those articles usually made more the impression of an "armour"-themed article than an "sappers"-themed one.

There could be so very interesting articles about sappers.
They have the (often unofficial) role of emergency auxiliary infantry, and some of their outfits were indeed (in some countries) meant as crack specialist assault troops.
It's been known for decades that support troops need to be more capable of self-defence than they are; a secondary mindset, equipment and small unit organisation for this might make sense (I know that many have given up any hope in regard to rear personnel fighting capabilities and equate 70% of army forces to the trail of non-combattant traders and craftsmen that followed pre-18th century field armies). 
Sappers are the most obvious starting point for a movement towards this.

Wouldn't it be nice for a change to see some articles in the general military journals about how some sapper battalion can turn into a dismounted area defence battalion within five minutes, about what it figured out concerning the training schedule, concerning mindset, leadership requirements, weapons and munitions compromises?

Then again, German sappers (Pioniere) have a reputation that was coined by the personnel system's  low intelligence requirements for their recruits. They drew much of their leadership from their recruit pool. Maybe this is a more widespread issue and they're the last ones to expect major innovations from?

S Ortmann


  1. 1. You can't say any more that every soldier should be fit to fight as an grunt. It's verboten! It would imply that you would have to exclude women from military duties. And that's a no no no those days of artificially low fitness level tests for them allowing to claim gender equality where there isn't any.

    2. Those with the low IQ get to be sappers in the german tradition due to the fact that in combat those are the troops with the highest attrition rate equalled only by the field artillery (ari duels get quickly very very bloody when they happen). Therefore the supposedly most "extensible" people get thrown at this job. Sappers get in to action in front of the, well, front. And this exposes them to enemy fire like hell. And they have tasks which have to be done in place because you can't move a river crossing for example at will.

    3. No wonder sappers officers are frequently grown in rank. This is one of the services where the common incompetence of the "career officer", produced by being for a very very long time a schoolboy and nothing more is most evident. You need craftsman for it.

    4. As a collorary we should perhaps at one time discuss the utter complete strategic uselessness of all those fancy "special" troops so common and adored those days.

    5. Like with the fitness of woman for military duty: there is no reality which can't be fixed by a few more or less well done ridiculous hollywood movies.

  2. I don't think that female fitness could really be an issue in regard to rear area troops' self-defence.

    This isn't about hauling Pzf3 for long distances, but rather about carrying it from a truck to a position a few hundred metres away.

    There's also little reason why support troops should make use of the heavy hard body armour inserts.

    So combat equipment could easily be less than 20 kg. In worst case simply issue a MP7 to the Pzf user and his/her ammo bearers (no G36; RPG-7 users often have no other weapon at all and are still respected by their enemies).
    Women CAN carry a lot, women do that all over the world all the time.
    The insane weights (over 25 kg, and we know such loads are stupid since evaluations a hundred years ago!) of today's dysfunctional occupation war infantry are not the correct benchmark.

    20-25 kg over 2 km walking or 200 m running without huge exhaustion is fine enough for rear troops, and most serving women can be trained for it.

    1. I think is is an issue. It's not only about physical strength (an proper light machine gun would be almost certainly too much) it's about endurance too. Women don't have it. When under pressure they then to get pregnant very quickly. And then there is a much simpler answer. It's not like it hasn't been tried before. In general it had catastrophic results. The "russian sniper" girl - was mostly a product of the propaganda of the times. Womens "liberation" and "emancipation" was one of the poster child project of the communism. More common to the real people with vivid historic memory is the image of the "officers play girl" in the red army or the gruesome female KZ guard on the german side. (Both examples I heard about from first hand.)

      And last but not least: we tend to loose one war after another with this new wonderful equal opportunity tolerance army. Nobody for example takes in to account how many fit, and I think in esp. those who are fit, man will be repelled from enlisiting by the perspective to serve under a female "commandeine".

    2. Matthias Wilde4 June 2012 at 14:36

      Interesting. Does that mean that you would say that active female participation was not higher in the Red Army than in the western ones?

      Propaganda is, of course, ALWAYS an issue; but at least at the societal level the Eastern Bloc was, in my opinion, definitely more advanced in regard to women rights.

      Clearly visible, for example, when comparing DDR-BRD.

  3. In Canada, sapper officers typically have an engineering degree. Creating and removing obstacles can be very technically demanding (and doing it while under fire certainly adds complexity)

  4. For what it is worth I got this off wikipedia,
    look under the part called "Standards"


    The only thing on Sappers I have seen on TV that talked much on them was a program on the US Army Sappers in training.


  5. Matthias Wilde1 June 2012 at 14:36

    While I am also against women in most military functions, I agree with Sven in that physical carrying capacity is not the critical variable. Rather it´s about building and maintaining esprit de corps, an ardous task even in a male-only group. Adding the unavoidable sexual issues and psychological differences of coping with stress to the mix, it can quickly turn ugly.

    It has become a cliché to mention it, but more than 2 million years of hominid evolution indubitably left its mark on our minds, a fact which won´t go away due to wishful thinking. Of course, that does not mean than women cannot perform admirably in specialist roles, as seen e.g. with female Russian snipers in WW2.

    In that sense I agree with Rosomak, as well as with Sven´s general line of reasoning, that the next "Big One" will probably see a lot of painful re-thinking and going back to basics, throwing out some of the bad habits acquired during the last 10-20 years of occupational duty and societal infantilization.

    Sven, any comments on Rosomaks hypothesized correlation between alleged (!) low IQ - Pioniere and attrition rates?

    1. On the IQ issue. Well it has been studied and is well known among professionals. There is a very strong correlation between the level of IQ and survivability in combat conditions. Stupidity kills you quite quickly under fire. More to the point: in first battle about 1/5 will get killed. The average IQ of the survivors will be about 15 points higher then before. The russians did measure it. Thereafter they tended to do less basic training before sending troops in to combat.

    2. Matthias Wilde4 June 2012 at 14:22

      Fascinating topic! Can you provide some sources?

      It definitely sounds plausible, even given the semi-random nature of survival in industrialized warfare, but a difference of 15 IQ points would be HUGE.

  6. I've recently re-read Uhle-Wettler's "Schlachtfeld Mitteleruopa" an he paid much attention to why the infantry got the lowest IQ recruits.

    Basically the average and median IQ demands of the Bundeswehr were higher than the ones of the conscripts they got. Technical and statt positions got priority for higher IQs and the infantry got what was left.
    He continued to challenge the notion that the increasing role of technology for example in the tank force really requires smarter boys than before. Much of the tech was claimed to make life easier, after all. Yet, sometimes this "easier" simply meant that expectations grew.

    In the end, he appears to blame in part the normal dynamics of a huge organisation and the senior leadership for not recognising that not only technology, but also the necessity of independent action (thinking) required smartness.

    Some tool breaking down due to wrong use is more easily blamed on stupidity than an infantryman getting spotted or shot because of a stupid move.

    By the way; the worst historical survivability in Germany WW2 was the job of Panzergrenadiere 2LT on the front.

  7. Highest attrition rate of officers during WWII was very likely found in AF fighter units in 1944 (west front), most died during their first 3 short sorties.


  8. The measure usually used in average, though - and the many pilots who survived hundreds of sorties push the survival rate on that measure.

    In fact, even fighter missions against huge bomber streams and hundreds of escort fighters had remarkably low kill and loss rates on average and even a loss is not necessarily a KIA.

  9. I think you understimate the fighter losses in 1944. For one veteran who died 30 rookies became KIA in Jagdgruppen in France and only inflicted the same number of kills the veteran would. The (few) veterans survived many sorties because they had learnt their trade in earlier years when they had a really good chance to survive their first dozen crucial sorties. This opportunity was completely gone in 1944 for rookies.

    BTW: When I check the churchyard of my hometown (near Hannover, with airfield) I find that even in hinterland many dead German fighter pilots were not longer identified in 1944, which indicated a clear change compared to previous years.