Sunday, October 10, 2010
WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE: Impassable Barrier or Infiltration Route
Surmounting water “barriers” has been an infiltration staple throughout military history when it comes to delivering a surprise attack to the enemy from an unexpected and/or undefended direction.
This was but one of the reasons that the Japanese were able to hopscotch down the Malay Peninsula during WWII to defeat a superior British and Commonwealth force. Only a narrow strip of land along one coast was accessible at all; the mountainous interior really was impenetrable jungle. Fine new surfaced roads the British had built for the rubber plantations provided a route right down the main invasion route. The British-commanded forces would make roadblocks and defenses at likely choke points, their flanks, they thought, protected by “impenetrable jungle” and swamps that no modern, mechanized European army could have maneuvered through. Their flanks were always turned, and another withdrawal necessary, during which infiltrators would make their own roadblocks and ambushes.
Allied Intelligence, especially after the campaigns in Malaya and Burma, amassed considerable information on the Japanese’ use of infiltration tactics, especially in conjunction with waterways of various types.
“Regardless of whether these frontal attacks were made, the Japanese nearly always moved patrols around the flanks of our forces, and, in many instances, patrols crept through gaps in our lines to reach the rear. The patrols usually were small, numbering from two to a few dozen men. They were lightly dressed, and generally were armed with light machine guns and grenades. Each of the men carried enough compact food to last for several days. By collecting food from the countryside, they often had enough to last much longer. These men had been trained and hardened to withstand many discomforts. All, or nearly all, were expert swimmers and handlers of small boats. They had been instructed to look upon woods and water as things to assist them--not as obstacles…
In their infiltration tactics, the Japanese moved fast at certain times and very slowly at others. They stood in rice-field ditches for hours, up to their necks in water, waiting for targets to appear. They lay hidden in underbrush for long periods waiting for chances to advance without being seen…
By Water Craft
The Japanese look on water as a highway, not as an obstacle. In both Malaya and Burma, the Japanese employed small specially-designed river boats and small confiscated civilian boats to infiltrate patrols to the flanks and rear of defending forces. The patrols, sometimes composed of large numbers of troops, generally moved at night. When they moved in daylight, air protection was afforded them. Such movements were possible very often because of the large number of rivers and inlets in Malaya, particularly along the west coast. A succession of infiltrations by boats down the west coast aided greatly in forcing several British withdrawals. The boats usually hid in numerous well-covered inlets by day and traveled close to the coast line at night until reaching their destination. In some cases the Japanese used rafts made of bamboo poles.”
Not even ice-cold swift-running rivers proved to be an impassable barrier. Against the United Nations forces in the Korean War, when they depended upon such rivers to anchor their lines or provide a front-line defensive barrier, the Commies found a way to surmount the rivers. At times, both North Korean and ChiCom soldiers stripped naked, with their cloths held over their heads, and waded or swam such icy barriers. Light infantry weapons and equipment and individual gear were ferried across on floating logs. Once on the far shore, they quickly donned their warm, quilted winter clothing and went to work. Working with minimal materials, their engineers nonetheless built temporary bridges capable of supporting infantry, oxcarts and pack animals, and even light vehicles.
While the Viet Cong were also known for the use of sampans and small waterways throughout the Mekong Delta, Marine Intelligence noted also their simple but ingenious river-crossing techniques.
“…the Viet Cong, in heavily patrolled areas, do not always use boats as a means of crossing rivers. In areas where rivers are rather wide, the Viet Cong will tie or strap their weapons across their backs, inflate an easily obtainable plastic bag and float slowly across with only their heads showing. To mark the point where the individual is to land, the Viet Cong have used the technique of placing a simple bicycle taillight reflector mounted on a bamboo stick at the desired landing point. On moonlit nights, the reflector provides adequate light for navigation purposes. Tinfoil has also been used as a means of providing an unattended navigation light.”
Colonel David Hackworth noted this about the VC’s ability to exfiltrate as well as infiltrate: “When the attempt is made to seal in the enemy troops, one small opening left in the chain of force, such as a ditch, the palm grown slope of a canal bank, or a drainage pipe too small for an American to venture, will be more than enough to suit their purpose. They will somehow find it; there is nothing that they do better by day or night. It is as if they have a sixth sense for finding the way out and for taking it soundlessly. They are never encircled so long as one hole remains.”
Whoa! Smells like Politics down here!
Culverts, storm drains, drainage pipes, irrigation tunnels and especially sewers have provided hidden routes into and out of a wide variety of places, even those considered impregnable. King Richard the Lionhearted built his “impregnable” castle, Chateau Gaillard, in 1189. The castle fell, in part, because of a single French peasant soldier nicknamed Bogis, found an unguarded sewage chute. It was 30 feet long and just barely big enough for a man to fit through and, of course, full of raw sewage. Under cover of darkness, Bogis and a small team of soldiers penetrated the castle via this route, setting fires and causing a panic amongst the defending English, who retreated to the castle keep.
When a handful of Jewish resistance fighters took up guerilla warfare against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, the sewer system was not only their last refuge but also provided routes for them to move freely under the very noses of the Germans. Troops, tanks, and artillery all proved ineffective against the guerillas. Only the Medieval expedient of completely and totally flooding all the sewers full of water ended resistance.
In August of 1942, a team of German and Finnish troops used the seemingly endless and bottomless Finnish lake and muskeg country to penetrate 125 miles behind Russian lines to blow up bridges on the Soviet Murmansk-Leningrad railroad, the Soviets’ vital main supply line. They used boats, outboard motors, and paddles to navigate rivers, lakes, streams, swamps and overland portages from one body of water to the next to penetrate deeply and silently. A climactic nighttime raid from the rivers destroyed all but one of the targeted bridges.
On the other side of the Eastern Front coin, Soviet partisans and encircled troops made great use of the vast swamps of the Pripet Marshes and the wet, boggy forests of the region. From these places, they could infiltrate German rear areas to conduct raids, plant mines and commit sabotage. Tanks could not operate where they did, aerial spotting was difficult due to the forest canopy, and in many cases artillery made little impression, the muck swallowing the shells and muffling them
The Russians were also fond of river infiltration.
“During the night of 21-22 August , three men, residents of Svidovok and Dakhnovka, swam across the Dnepr with the aid of fascine-type rafts made of reeds and twigs, and reached the Russian regimental command post. They brought information about German troop dispositions, including the assumed location of command posts and heavy weapons.
Upon receipt of this information the Russian regimental commander decided to send reconnaissance patrols across the river in an effort to gain more details. As an initial step, the covering forces on the three islands were reinforced. From his reserve battalion the regimental commander then selected 40 men who appeared to be best suited for the task of gathering information behind enemy lines. Two reconnaissance detachments, each composed of 1 officer, 3 noncommissioned officers, and 16 men, were organized. Each man was armed with a sub-machinegun and three hand grenades, and each wore a light-weight fatigue uniform and straw shoes. The men ranged in age from 16 to 30 and were all excellent swimmers.
Standing by on the east bank of the river were eight flat-bottomed boats to carry the patrols to the hostile shore by way of the islands. Each boat was manned by two native fishermen who alternately propelled and steered by means of a scull oar, taking full advantage of the current.”
Some Spetsnaz methods of infiltrating by water.
Although this initial combat reconnaissance failed, it opened the way for further scouts and infiltrations that were eventually successful.
Muskeg, marsh and swamp all often have muck and silt in which no vehicle can operate. Likewise, tidal flats and low rivers expose hard-to-navigate deep mud conditions. In the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota, this is known colloquially as “loon shit”. Even men on foot can hardly move in it, sinking in to the knees or even the waist with every step, losing boots, floundering, and becoming quickly exhausted.
Russian Spetsnaz Special Forces, below, developed a method using snowshoe-like devices and walking sticks equipped with wide baskets to greatly distribute their weight and enable them to move across such terrain where no infiltration would be thought possible.
When even loon shit can be crossed, no place is safe.
An NVA sapper, sappers being among the elite of those forces, described some of the training they went through to move silently in mud and water.
“Wading through mud, we were taught to walk by lowering our toes first, then the rest of the foot. Picking our feet up, we would move them around gently, then slowly pull the heels to avoid making noises. If you just pulled them up, without first moving then around, you’d make sounds. The same thing would happen if you didn’t put your toes down first. We used the same methods for walking through water.”
In 1939, the Soviets also began developing the underwater bridge as a means of infiltrating larger units without revealing the structure to aerial observation and thus interdiction. This remained a standard tactic through the end of the Cold War. The VC and NVA were to make use of this same subterfuge decades later in Vietnam.
“Noteworthy, too, was their camouflage of river crossings by the construction of underwater bridges. For this purpose they used a submersible underwater bridging gear, which could be submerged or raised by flooding or pumping out the compartments. The deck of the bridge was usually about 1 foot below water level, and was thus shielded from aerial observation.”
The last thing one usually associates with the Iran-Iraq border is water infiltration but actually, in addition to the desert, there was a vast series of marshes. When the surviving Iranian militia-type forces finally got tired of losing thousands of men in futile screaming banzai-type frontal attacks over open ground against well-equipped and dug-in modern Iraqi armored forces, they retreated to the marshes. After scratching their turbans a bit, they decided maybe another tactic besides frontal assaults over open desert might be in order. In the marshes, the poorly-equipped militia could act in a capacity somewhere between light infantry and guerillas. Here, they held their own against their heavily armed and technologically advanced enemy.
THIS is IRAN?!?!
Endless seas of standing water and connecting waterways and tall, dense expanses of reeds provided excellent cover and concealment for the Iranians, who learned to move in small patrols on foot and in native-built and small motor-powered boats. The marshes were impenetrable to Iraqi armor and mechanized forces, and their artillery shells and bombs disappeared into the bottomless muck with little or no damage.
“Iran used the lessons learned in this area to launch one of the most successful attacks of the war farther south. While launching a diversionary attack north of Basra, Iran launched a commando raid using Basij frogmen, boats and pontoon bridges to cross the Shatt Al
Arab and take the Al Faw peninsula. Their attack took advantage of darkness and rain and totally surprised the Iraqi defenders, many of whom fled their posts. The Iranians quickly established a bridge head and reinforced the peninsula. They dispersed their defenses and dug in quickly. They made all troop and supply movements at night to prevent the Iraqis from acquiring artillery targets. This attack provided one of the greatest demonstrations of the Iranians’ potential in light infantry attacks in difficult terrain.”
Afghanistan is another place not often thought of when it comes water infiltration and exfiltration, but it has happened. In May 2005, Taliban insurgents, rather than disappear into the mountains, put up fierce, near suicidal fighting defense in and around the village of Bulac Kalay. It turned out that the terrorists sacrificed themselves so that their high-ranking leadership could escape by floating down the snow-melt swollen Arghandab River.
The Green Zones of Afghanistan are kept green and cultivated by a series of underground irrigation canals and tunnels. The Mujahideen and now the Taliban have used these to move freely undetected. In one case in 2005, a small Taliban force escaped from American forces by fleeing up an irrigation tunnel that brought snow-melt water down from the mountains. Once out, they flooded the tunnel to very effectively deter any pursuit.
The Mujahideen used an unusual water-borne method to attack an outpost: “Abdul Wali, a Mujahideen from Kandahar, was known for his creative bomb-making. Once in 1986, he sent a floating bomb down the Nosh-e Jan creek (which runs in the western suburbs of Kandahar city from northeast to southwest) to destroy a government outpost at a hotel'. Abdul Wali strapped a 250 kilogram bomb onto some truck tire inner tubes. He measured the distance from the outpost to his release point upstream where he would launch his floating bomb. The bomb was hooked to a wire whose length was the length from launch point to outpost. Once the floating bomb stretched out the full length of the wire, it was exactly under the outpost. Abdul Wali remotely-detonated the bomb and destroyed the outpost.”
This is not to say that only eastern forces make use of this principle.
British General James Wolfe, during the French & Indian War, had unsuccessfully shelled and attacked the French fortress at Quebec for several weeks. Finally, he landed troops up the river from Quebec, coming ashore in the darkness of night and ascending a little known goat trail up the cliffs and bluffs of the riverside. From luck as much as skill, the move succeeded and led to the climactic battle of the Plains of Abraham, the capture of Quebec, and the eventual French defeat.
Very important dead white guy American publik skools don't teach about anymore.
George Washington, of course, used small, fragile wooden boats to cross through the ice cakes of the Delaware River to attack and defeat the Hessians at Trenton on Christmas night 1776. Before that, an amphibious exfiltartion saved Washington’s fledgling American Army when it was being surrounded and trapped with its back to the water by the British Army after the Battle of Brooklyn. Marblehead boatmen, using small wooden boats, muffled oars, and a foggy night successfully evacuated the American forces from right under the noses of the British.
Special operations during World War Two from the British Commandos provided some of the first offensive actions against the then-victorious German juggernaut. Courtesy of the Royal Navy, the commandos landed on the coasts of Norway and France to conduct reconnaissance and raids on important targets. In the Pacific, the US Marine Raiders paddled silently ashore in rubber boats to infiltrate Japanese-held islands, clandestinely launched from USN submarines which had already infiltrated Japanese naval and air defenses.
The damage done was less a victory than the morale and propaganda value to American and Commonwealth citizens in that their military forces were “striking back” and “taking the offensive” against enemies that had formerly seemed unstoppable.
The small patrol boats of the “Brown Water Navy” in Vietnam utilized the myriad waterways of the Delta to appear wherever they wished with considerable mobile firepower. From here the modern Navy SEALs were born, and since then they have become the premiere Special Forces to turn infiltration by water into an art. They can even infiltrate and take deep water drilling rigs in the open ocean undetected.
U.S. Navy SEALs infiltrating stealthily ashore somewhere in Vietnam. Note the bare feet and non-standard (i.e., ones that function in a harsh battlefield environment) weaponry.
Likewise, Marine Force Recon and Rangers are no strangers to rubber boats and water infiltration. The Sealous Scouts in Rhodesia sometimes even used collapsible klepper kayaks to infiltrate Africa rivers, an extremely dangerous endeavor in itself what with the Hippopotamus’ penchant for attacking and sinking small watercraft. The jolly-looking hippo actually kills more people in Africa than do lions and crocodiles and snakes, oh my.
Small boats can also find themselves able to come and go virtually at will in many places around the world…the deltas of mighty rivers, fjords, mangrove swamps, vast northern lake country waterways, the channels among the islands along the coast of British Columbia, Alaska, etc.
Many such waterways, especially at certain times of the year, come accompanied by other forms of moisture…rain, fog, snow, mist…known as “infantry sunshine”. In at least one publicized case, a Coast Guard helicopter equipped with FLIR lost a drug-runner’s small boat on the open ocean in what was termed an “ocean haze”.
So water doesn’t always have to be a barrier to overcome or circumvent. To the underdog or small force, it can instead become an asset rather than a liability, and a route to what cannot otherwise be accessed. It is not necessarily easy, but can be easier than the other options.