Sunday, October 24, 2010


Withdrawal action. Un-assing the AO. Retrograde action. Disengaging. Strategic withdrawal. Getting’ outta Dodge. Retirement. Fall back. Turn tail. Attack in another direction (Marines only). Beating feet. Or, as King Arthur put it so eloquently in regards to the Killer Rabbit in Monty Python’s Search for the Holy Grail, “Run away! Run away!”
Whatever you want to call it, there comes a time when the best course of action is just to get the hell away from a superior enemy force. It is actually one of the hardest military tasks to perform successfully, without the withdrawal turning into a rout. To the Western way of thinking, this is usually considered “manly”, but it sometimes makes good sense in a particular situation. The Eastern and guerilla mentality sees it as a perfectly viable course of action with no dishonor in turning tail almost before the last shots echo out. But as the old saying goes: “He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day.”

Here’s a short lesson from the official U.S. Army course on the subject, INFANTRY PLATOON DEFENSE, with tactics for withdrawal, delay and disengagement towards the end of the chapter.

Let’s examine some of the tactics used by some of our enemies (and a handful of friends) in the past and in the present. Under-estimating and/or deigning to learn lessons from the enemy has often been a costly failing which could have been corrected easily enough.
Snipers have traditionally played a vital role in covering withdrawals and delaying enemy pursuit, with their effectiveness all out of proportion to their small numbers. The word “sniper” was often over-used during WWII, to include men armed with machine pistols or even light machineguns, but the effect was the same.
German, Russia: Some of Germany’s top WWII snipers on the Eastern Front certainly agreed that such a use of crack marksmen worked very well in a delaying action:

“In most cases four to six snipers were ordered to rear guard and eliminate any enemy appearing; very good results. Use machine guns for rear guard only in emergencies since snipers delayed enemy's advance by one or two hits without easily revealing his own position.”

German, France: “We found that the Germans usually tried to pin down our leading elements by directing fire from machine pistols and other small weapons against their front and machinegun fire against their rear. The Schmeisser machine pistol has a high cyclic rate of fire, but is by no means accurate. It was used extensively by German snipers who placed themselves 3 or 4 miles outside towns or villages, along roads leading to these communities. The snipers would cut in on the leading element of a company or battalion in order to hold it back. They would fire until they were out of ammunition, and then would jump out of their trees and come running towards our lines, shouting ;Kamerad!’ Each sniper wore a specially camouflaged uniform and also had camouflaged his weapon by painting it and tying leaves to it so that it would blend with the surrounding foliage. An important mission of German snipers was to delay the advance of our columns into populated places. This was why they fired on our leading elements, instead of holding their fire and trying to engage a larger force.”
German, Italy: “Individual snipers armed with light machine guns, submachine guns, or rifles were concealed in the vineyards and trees forward of, and on the flanks of, the main German positions. The mission of these snipers probably was to protect the German flanks and to harass the United Nations force.”
Red Army, Russia: Red Army tactics included covering a retreat with 3-4 snipers accompanied by a single automatic rifleman, with the latter cautioned to fire sparingly and change positions often.
Japanese, WWII, Burma: The Japanese in WWII made use of snipers, some of them armed with light machine guns, in delaying actions in Burma.
“Sometimes, instead of outposts, a screen of snipers would be pushed forward from the main position. On occasions when a sniper screen was used in place of outposts, the snipers would fire a few rounds at the advance guard, slip out of their trees, retire 100 yards to a new position, then fire and retire again at the first opportunity. This procedure was continued until the snipers had fallen back to the main defense position.”

An assault is an exhausting endeavor, especially when conducted repeatedly.
This is one of the most important missions of delaying elements or a rear guard. Every time the enemy is force to deploy his troops into battle formation, lay down covering fire, and flank and/or assault, it robs him of time, expends prodigious amounts of ammunition, and eventually exhausts the assault troops.
There is also a powerful psychological effect, as the enemy is forced to react to you and loses the initiative. As well, if the rear guard continually sneaks out the backdoor to leave the assault teams storming vacant positions and inflicting very small casualties, it quickly becomes discouraging.
Rebels, Chechnya: “The insurgents intend ambushes…to impede…the enemy. The type of ambush chosen depends on the combat situation, the correlation of forces, and the terrain. If the purpose is to delay the movement of forces and assets, to alter their direction, or to force a premature deployment into combat positions, then the insurgents can use a significantly smaller force than they would need for ambushes to destroy or capture the enemy…only a few insurgents can detain a company-size or smaller unit for several hours…”
Japanese, WWII, Burma: It was the function of the outposts to open fire as soon as the Allied advance guard came within range, and so pin down the leading elements and force them to deploy and waste time probing for the flanks of the Jap position. This accomplished, the outpost would retire before it was encircled
Native fighters, German East Africa [Tanzania]: “After discharging their firearms, the natives retire hastily…to get ahead of the column so that they may repeat their attack…By constantly harassing their enemy in this way, they hope, while avoiding serious losses on their own side, to tire him out, compel him to expend his ammunition and gradually reduce his power of resistance till he can finally be overwhelmed…”
German, Italy: Fire will be opened at extreme ranges on an enemy advancing for a major attack…” [to force them to deploy early.]
German, Mountain Ski Troops: German Gebirgsjaeger mountain and ski troops, especially small raiding parties who often encountered larger enemy groups, employed the age-old and still-used “fish hook” technique of ambushing their back trail during withdrawals.

“If possible, ambush positions will be established on ridges from which it is possible to direct effective enfilading fire at the enemy during his slow ascent, while the troops not yet in position dodge quickly to the rear (fig. 28).”
German, WWII, Italy: Every opportunity to inflict casualties on an enemy advancing recklessly must be taken by carrying out limited counterattacks.”
British, Crete: When Allied forces on Crete were forced to retreat from the German airborne forces on Crete, the paratroops were quick to spot the withdrawal. Fortunately for the retreating British, Greek and Commonwealth troops, their retrograde was covered by a company of Maoris. With their warrior hearts, chilling cries, and unexpected, aggressive bayonet charges, they repeatedly sent the pursuing Germans fleeing in disarray. Due in large part to the Maoris and their unconventional tactics, the British retreat was successfully conducted overnight with very few casualties.
Red Chinese, Korea: Tactical traps were employed by the enemy to lure United Nations troops into an area. Withdrawals were made by some enemy troops to entice UN forces into a hasty exploitation. Other enemy troops positioned themselves to strike the flank or flanks force, in an attempt to destroy small UN units. In selecting an ambush site, the number of riflemen on the first line decreased, but an increase of automatic weapons was provided. The bulk of the enemy troops deployed under cover to afford a quick attack.”
Rebels, Chechnya: [Guidelines for jihadist commanders include] “Conduct an organized withdrawal in small groups while deploying ambushes and delivering retaliatory fire if the forces of law and order launch a surprise attack on a broad front. Maintain psychological pressure on the forces of law and order by firing on them regularly.”
Viet Cong, Vietnam: It should be noted that the VC have a negligible ability to support a withdrawal with indirect fire weapons. His chief defenses against pursuit are the use of rapid movement, ambushes, booby traps and snipers along his routes of withdrawal.”

The worse the terrain, the easier it is for a small rearguard to greatly delay the opponent’s advance with a relative handful of men. In addition to mountains, urban terrain can be considered a formidable terrain barrier.
Taliban, Afghanistan: The Taliban used Afghanistan’s varying terrain to their advantage when defending against Coalition offensives. In the mountainous Gumbad valley of northern Kandahar, insurgents fought from behind piles of rocks on a mountain face, fled through irrigation ducts designed to channel snowmelt, and disappeared over the ridgeline into a nearby mountain range totally inaccessible to Coalition forces except by air…In Kandahar’s lush and heavily cultivated Panjwayi valley, the Taliban fired from the cover of fields and orchards, and moved unobserved through the valley’s many irrigation canals…In the third offensive, insurgents ambushed advancing troops in outlying areas to the south, and employed a sniper whose position was never identified. In all three instances, the insurgents fled using pre-planned escape routes minutes before air support arrived...The insurgents broke contact shortly before the aircraft arrived. They escaped by climbing up a set of irrigation ducts running down the mountain. They then flooded the ducts to prevent the soldiers below from giving chase.”
Red Chinese, Korea: The covering force or delaying party which covered an enemy withdrawal was usually selected from the last unit to break contact with United Nations Forces….The covering forces ranged in size from a 3-man group to a platoon, although a squad was normally employed…These delaying parties were placed at strategic points where the land was least favorable to attack, where the roads were poor and natural approaches few. Thus, a small number of men armed with automatic weapons were able to hinder a United Nations attack.”
Mujahideen, Afghanistan: “The Mujahideen from Lezhi retreated south while a 20-man Mujahideen force blocked the Manay Kandow pass. The pass is dominated by a high peak which is capped with a thick rock slab. Under the slab was a natural cave which the Mujahideen improved. The cave could accommodate the 20 Mujahideen during artillery and air strikes. The Mujahideen also dug communications trenches so that they could quickly reoccupy their fighting positions once the firing stopped. The firing positions dominated the Tani plain and were well positioned to stop any infantry attack. The DRA [Soviet puppet government forces] repeatedly attacked the pass but could make no headway. The infantry would attack, meet withering Mujahideen fire and stop. Then massed air and artillery would pound the area. The infantry would again try to attack, but would again be stopped immediately. The procedure would then repeat itself, but the DRA made no headway during its 10-day attack. After 10 days, the DRA called in heavy Soviet airstrikes which continuously hit the mountain top. The thick rock slab began to sway and rock. The Mujahideen were afraid that the rock slab might shift and crush their cave, so they finally withdrew.”
Finnish, Finland: Grossly outnumbered by Soviet forces equipped with modern tanks, aircraft and artily, the Finnish Defense Forces during the 1939-40 Winter War became masters of the unseen delay and withdrawal with extreme economy of forces. In the thick forests and deep snow of the central regions, the mechanized Soviet Army was literally trapped on the few existing roads, unable to maneuver or flank. Without skis or snowshoes, not even the infantrymen could move off the roads in snow several feet deep. It didn’t take much for small groups of snipers to halt a Soviet advance. In one case near Lake Suojarvi, a well camouflaged sharpshooter with a Lahti automatic rifle held up an entire Russian regiment for over an hour.
Above the Arctic Circle in Lapland, a flat endless tundra devoid of trees seemed to be made for rapid advances. But in a scorched earth policy, the Finns, out-numbered five to one and without any tanks or anti-tanks guns, destroyed each and every man-made or natural feature which might provide Red Army soldiers any food, shelter or warmth as the winter temperatures dropped to as low as 40 below zero. Despite a lack of cover, the Arctic nights provided long hours darkness and blizzards swept the landscape, allowing warmly dressed native Lapp snipers to whittle away at the Russian soldiers practically at will.

Viet Cong, Vietnam: Recognition of the VC doctrine of emergency dispersal is of vital importance to successful pursuit. The VC commander may exercise one of two options, both of which are based on prior planning. He may elect to withdraw his force as a unit(s) or order dispersal into small groups. If emergency dispersal should be required due to pursuit, blocking of the withdrawal route or intensive air effort, small unit leaders take over again, possibly ordering total dispersal on a man for man basis. If the unit commander sends a few men off in different directions to draw fire and mislead the aircraft, when dispersing as individuals and being pursued by ground forces.”
Japanese, Burma: After the withdrawal had begun, the Japanese would disperse in groups of three or four men, who would work their way back over unmapped trails and rendezvous at an assembly point about ½ to 1 mile to the rear. From here the rear guard would proceed in column down the trail until it came to the position selected for the next stand.”
German, Mountain Ski Troops: As long as the raiding party is under fire, it will retreat, if possible, on previously prepared tracks made from one assembly point to another, as designated by the leader. Ski tracks often remain visible for a long time and betray the route. Therefore, the enemy must be deceived as to the return route by dummy tracks, loops, and false route signs. In newly fallen snow the tracks may be blurred by spruce branches dragged by the last skier. If the enemy pursues, as many delays as possible must be arranged for him. These include sudden fire from ambush, trail-breaking through difficult terrain, preparation of road blocks and obstacles, and mining of trails.”
Taliban, Afghanistan: Most ambush positions were carefully placed to facilitate a quick retreat. Fields, irrigation ditches, bunkers, and small compounds provided cover for insurgents to escape unnoticed from the air or to wait out bombardment.”
Native fighters, Tanzania: [The native soldier’s]…mobility and incredible marching powers, coupled with accurate knowledge of the country, maker him able to carry out apparently impossible detours. He has no fixed line of retreat, for after a defeat his forces break up into small parties, which retire in all directions and concentrate again at points previously agreed upon, often in the rear of the victorious troops.”
Bad weather has always been a mixed blessing to the infantryman. (I never really did see the Army’s thinking that one needs to go out and practice being cold, wet and miserable. Ma Nature and Mr. Murphy will take care of that eventually. But that’s neither here nor there.) When it comes time for an undetected advance or withdrawal, “Infantry Sunshine” becomes the grunt’s best friend.

“Infantry Sunshine” provides cover for a withdrawal.
Japanese, Burma: When the Jap rear guard abandoned a delaying position, such a move was made at night, usually starting about 1 hour after sunset… they were accustomed to leaving a light machine gunner or a sniper in position until first light. He would fire an occasional burst to create the impression that the position was still occupied.”
German, Italy: In the Italian campaign, it was noted that the Germans usually withdrew in the early morning, between 0200 and 0400 hours. The rearmost delaying parties were equipped with smoke grenades, pots, and candles to concealment of their movements with smoke screens
Red Army, Russia: [Organized withdrawals were conducted] “Especially at night and during the extended periods of morning and evening fog that are characteristic of damp forests and swamps, the evacuation of a position cannot be observed from the air or ground.”
Mujahideen, Afghanistan: That night, the weather cooperated with the breakout. There was a heavy gusty wind which blew sand around. The noise of the wind and the dust concealed us as we moved between the enemy tanks. There were many Mujahideen in that cordon. There were Mujahideen from two districts and other areas as well. About 2,000 Mujahideen escaped into the night. The dust and wind also helped the civilians exfiltrate and covered their escape. When we got out, the wind died down.”
This is the crux of the whole matter. A withdrawal that leaves your forces scattered and in disarray, without cohesive units, is a wide open invitation for defeat in detail or a complete rout. It’s a tricky matter to pull it off successfully. But there are ways.
Japanese, Burma: By such actions [small rearguards & snipers firing and retreating] the Japs avoided the isolation and eventual destruction of any sizable portion of their troops.”
Native fighters, Tanzania: “The natives think themselves beaten in a fight only when they have suffered great losses: flight and escape with small losses they regard as success.”

Viet Cong, Vietnam:
VC will seek concealment in the local area in preference to panic and purposeless flight. The individual’s knowledge of fieldcraft, evasion techniques, and familiarity with the local area are decisive factors. If pursued to a settlement, he is taught to hide his weapon and other equipment and demand concealment from the villagers whose fear of possible reprisal from the VC may provide him temporary protection. His personal safety is the VC’S only responsibility. If VC personnel have to hide out for weeks before returning to their unit, this is acceptable as they have no requirement to be back by reveille, and in their absence, they leave no vital installations unguarded or in danger of attack.”
Taliban, Afghanistan: In populated areas, insurgents often hid their weapons, mingled with civilians, and waited until nightfall to retrieve their arms. The insurgents rarely took serious casualties in hit-and-run ambushes. Their command-and-control often broke down when US or British forces struck from multiple directions and closed. Yet, Taliban fighters were rarely cornered. When assaulted by a large, heavily armed force, they tended to melt away well ahead of time – particularly in the mountains – and return later after Coalition forces withdrew.”
Unfortunately, even after all this, you can’t just kick back and have a brewski, eh. It’s time to get your poop in a group and get ready for the next round. Still, it sure beats being tits up in the mud or locked in a POW cage.

1 comment:

Ben said...

"Every time the enemy is forced to deploy his troops into battle formation, lay down covering fire, and flank and/or assault, it robs him of time, expends prodigious amounts of ammunition, and eventually exhausts the assault troops." I'll vouch for that.

During field exercises for infantry squad movement, when a couple of "opposing force" bad guys would fire on us, then pull back before we could complete our step-by-step paint-by-numbers assault on them, then fire on us again further down the trail, it really messed us up and wore us out. Consequently, the op-for guys were usually told to "play fair" and die in place in a loud, grotesque, military manner.