Saturday 5 September 2015

World of Tanks History Section: Evolution in City Fighting

Each military leader who ever had to take or defend a city was proud of that achievement. Such a task is much harder than defeating the enemy in an open field. The streets are narrow, visibility is limited, controls of your forces is difficult. These are only a few of the problems faced in city fighting.

The art of war within a city evolved along with the changes made to cities over the centuries. For many years, the assault of a city was like an assault on a fortress, so similar were their fortifications. Later, cities grew into large stone labyrinths. Even later came concrete, underground structures, and large houses. Every time the cities changed, war in the city changed with them.

Walls of Izmail

In the 17th century, in the modern Odessa oblast, on the shores of the Danube, stood the Turkish fortress of Izmail: a large and powerful defensive structure built with help from French engineers, meeting all standards of the art of fortress building of the era. Its walls housed a garrison of over 35,000 men.

During the Russo-Turkish war, the fourth one in the 17th century, Izmail was assaulted twice, but no success was achieved until General-Field Marshal Potemkin assigned the task to the famous general Suvorov. He personally examined the fortress and declared: "This fortress has no weaknesses."

Be that as it may, but the fortress must be taken. Winter was coming, and food came to the Russians from far away. The army was threatened by hunger, cold, and disease. The Turkish garrison was motivated to fight to the end; the sultan threatened to execute anyone leaving the fortress.

Suvorov needed six days to prepare for the attack. He gathered 31,000 men, less than the defenders. The Russian plan included an attack from multiple sides, including a landing from the water, which the Turks were unprepared for. Suvorov demonstrated his plan personally on a scale model of the fortress so that every officer knew where to lead his troops.

The Turks discovered Suvorov's plan, but could not resist an attack from three sides. The resistance was fierce, but the disoriented garrison was pushed out of the external fortifications by 8:00. The battle shifted to city streets. Suvorov sent in 20 light guns firing grapeshot to aid his infantry. By noon, the fortress fell.

Paris Commune, city battles anew

By the middle of the 19th century, the meanings of "city" and "fortress" diverged completely. Technological advances, including military technologies, changed the concept of warfare. Both sides had a much larger amount of new weapons and technology.

In the spring of 1871, civil unrest began in Paris, achieving the scale of a revolution and resulting in a new government, now known as the Paris Commune. The government, which lasted for 72 days, had tens of thousands of National Guardsmen at its command. Additionally, the rioters captured over 1000 cannons and machineguns, many new rifled guns, millions of rounds of ammunition, and even powerful naval guns, as well as armoured trains, an armoured battery on the Senne, and a fleet of cannon boats.

The Paris Commune would appear to be a powerful enemy, but it was not so in practice. Firstly, the revolutionaries were a poorly organized force. Few National Guardsmen had military experience. They were commanded by passive and indecisive officers, aside from Jarosław Dąbrowski, but even he could not turn a crowd into an army.

In May, the government began a decisive offensive against the Paris Commune. The revolutionaries attempted to fortify the city, but the famous barricades were usually primitive constructions of sand and stone that stood at about human height, defended by a few dozen men with rifles. At best, a single cannon or machinegun could be found.

The government forces, on the other hand, attacked according to best practices. They achieved high concentrations of forces, thousand of men per kilometer. Infantry was supported by field and assault guns. Specifics of city planning were taken into account, such as the presence of large avenues, easing the movement of troops. Infantry was supported by sappers who used dynamite to blow holes in the sides of buildings to form passages. Any barricades that were encountered were bypassed or suppressed from a distance with cannons. The revolutionaries fought bravely, but could not resist a well planned assault. The last cannon shots were fired at fort Vincennes on May 29th, and the Paris Commune ceased to exist.

Assault Groups: a perfect instrument

During the 20th century, all new technological novelties were used in the assault and defense of cities.

Machineguns, now much more compact and fast-firing, increased the firepower of a squad. Flamethrowers left no hope for soldiers hiding in houses or basements. Poison gases could penetrate every crack and get to soldiers without chemical defenses. All of this was used only in WWI. A few years later, airplanes and tanks would enter the equation.

New tactics were needed to effectively use all of these novelties. A traditional offensive of infantry and artillery could stall even in the outskirts.

The Germans applied the concept of an assault group as early as WWI. At first, this was a squad of infantry armed with small arms, grenades, and explosives. A mobile and cohesive group, not burdened by any unnecessary gear, approached enemy trenches, pelted them with grenades, and entered close combat. In WWII, these assault groups became the main instrument in city fighting.

In the spring of 1945, during the assault of Koenigsberg, a typical Soviet assault group consisted of an infantry company (about 150 men) armed with submachineguns, more suitable for city fighting than rifles or carbines. The group was armed with about 6 guns ranging from 45 to 76 mm, a 122 mm howitzer, machineguns mortars, sappers, flamethrowers, and one or two tanks or SPGs. The result was a multipurpose mobile unit, capable of solving many types of tasks. The group could be further split into an offensive unit, a defensive unit, a fire support unit, and a small reserve.

Tanks had a good reason for being a part of this group. A tank's thick armour served as much better protection than the shield of a field gun. The tank was more mobile in all respects, beginning with movement speed and ending with mobility of fire. Turning a turret was much faster than turning a gun by hand.

Here is how assault groups worked when assaulting Koenigsberg or other cities. Tanks or SPGs drove in front, destroying enemy strongholds. Infantry moved along both sides of the street, observing roofs and windows, where enemy Panzerfausts could be hiding. Soldiers entered houses through windows or through openings made with explosives. Houses were cleared top to bottom using the principle "the grenade goes first". If an enemy concentration was discovered, cannons and mortars were pulled up. Infantry tried to circle around any concentrations from flanks, the rear, over rooftops or even underground.

The most important thing was to assault the city with a mass of soldiers. The assault groups were just the advance guard of a steel avalanche that was hot on their heels. The effectiveness of these tactics speaks for itself. Koenigsberg, considered an impregnable fortress, was taken in only four days.

Tactics of city fighting followed the advance of technological progress, specifically in the past 150 years. What never changed was the necessity for careful planning, bravery, and the ability to think quickly in battle. These are the most important weapons, without which you cannot take a small village, let alone a city.

Original article available here.

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