The Canadian Infantry Section Attack Part One:
Attrition Training in a Manoeuvre Army

By: Captain Michael O'Leary, CD, p.l.s.c., The RCR

"Fetishism for battle drills has been largely responsible for sanitizing imagination, creativity and mental mobility in infantry ranks. Battle drills are … a set of reactions … Conversely, tactics are a thought out plan to overcome the threat, the two are therefore dissimilar." (1)

"The section attack teaches more than the mechanics of a small unit assault. It is also a very important vehicle for leadership and command training, for some Corps it is the only tactical leadership training of this type."

See also:

The Canadian Infantry Section Attack, Part Two: Initiative is Always an Option

Organizing Modern Infantry: An Analysis of Section Fighting Power (pdf); by: Major V. Sattler, CD, and Captain M. O'Leary, CD

Infantry section tactics, and their related battle drills, were born of necessity in the tactical stalemate of the First World War's trench battles. The perceived importance of section tactics has ebbed and flowed with our proximity to combat. Well established following WWI, refined throughout WWII and confirmed in Korea, section tactics and the tactical responsibilities of section leaders remained consistent from 1917 until the 1980s. With chronological distance from combat, increased reliance on new weapon systems, and a tendency for the officer corps to focus on higher level tactics with mechanized forces (2), the perceived importance of the section tactic as a combat element and training technique waned. This trend is disturbing because indicates a general decline in the standards, skills and expectations the Army seems to have of our young leaders.

Almost rhetorically, this author recently asked: "What happened to the flanking option for the section attack, where did the concept of fire support and assault groups go?" An infantry senior NCO responded that they were no longer "in our doctrine," including a clear implication that it was not an option for him, as a section commander, to employ. Perhaps our training and tactical philosophies have taken a wrong road somewhere.(3)

Over the past decade, the Canadian Infantry has adopted the two fire-group-section frontal assault as the primary section assault tactic. In streamlining to this one case applicable to the mechanized assault, we have not only limited tactical options for the section commander, but have also sacrificed one of the Canadian Army's best tactical training tools for young officers and NCOs.

To put the case in grander terms, we exchanged a methodology for the section attack that was based on manoeuvre, tactics and aimed fire for one based on speed, simplicity and volume of fire. How, and why, did this happen? When the hell did the Canadian Army intend that published doctrine restrict sound tactical options for any level of command? What make the two-fire-group assault so capable that all others could be discarded (or that we could reach the point where any NCO or officer could believe this)?

During the author's training, the ten-man dismounted infantry section ruled. It was the basis for the tactical training of our young leaders. The section consisted of the section commander, leading a rifle (assault) group of six riflemen (armed with the FN C1), and a second-in-command controlling a fire support group of two automatic rifles (FN C2). (4)

A section organized in this manner gave the section commander a number of tactical options. Options that required him (or her) to read the ground, extrapolate likely enemy threats and actively control the deployment of firepower and assault elements to best meet anticipated threats. Under effective fire, the components of the section would often move independently under the section commander's direction, until the fire support team was in a position to provide continuous suppression on the enemy while the assault group manoeuvred for a final charge with grenades and bayonets. In an ideal scenario, the fire support group was placed in a concealed fire position from which it could suppress the enemy position until the assault group had moved to an assault position. With good use of ground in suitable terrain, the assault group might never be under direct fire of the objective enemy until the final rush.

This was the tactical handling of a section alone -the very type of situation that generations of officers and NCOs learned and practiced in training. When considering the section within the platoon (or company or battalion) the placement of the automatic weapons within the platoon was often directed by the platoon commander. The limited space for manoeuvre and the requirements of the higher commander's mission restricted the section commander's options in this case and the fire and movement of the section adapted to fire and movement with all section elements in line.

And then along came the M-16, albeit modified and renamed for Canadian uses, as the C-7. At about the same time came a fundamental shift to the philosophy and tactics of the eight-man infantry section as the 'normal' tactical group for dismounted tactics. The eight man dismounted section is normally organized into two balanced rifle groups, each with one C9 light machine gun. In the assault, the section commander controls the parallel movement of the two groups toward the objective with each group alternatively providing covering fire for the other. As the section closes and as dictated by the ground, the effectiveness of enemy resistance and by the section's casualties, the section commander will order the groups to commence fire and movement within the groups by fire teams (pairs) supporting each other. Finally, fire and movement by individual riflemen within the teams might be ordered.

The Infantry may have, inadvertently or otherwise, adopted along with these changes some bad baggage. The two-fire-group assault is an effective tactic for trained infantrymen in short intense assaults with plenty of outside supporting fire (infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, artillery, etc.). But, it can only work over very short distances. The nature of the section's movement requires that each of the eight riflemen move from position of fire to position of fire, necessarily within the enemy's view and returning defensive fire. Unless the control of fire within the section is superb, the enemy is sufficiently suppressed, and the attacking soldiers have impeccable discipline to continue moving forward in the face of fire from an entrenched (or at least static) enemy, the attack will fail from loss of momentum (5) or the likely casualty rate (6). When this assault tactic is used over too great a distance, or by soldiers without the training, experience or discipline to make it succeed, the section (or other, i.e. non-infantry, small unit) will die.

Let's consider the infantry platoon's strength and organization. The doctrinal infantry platoon is 1-4-31 (officers - NCOs - infanteers) strong. When eight personnel (12 in a LAV-III platoon) are left in the platoon vehicles, the dismounted fighting strength of the platoon is 1-4-23 (1-4-19), which includes only 18 (14) riflemen. These riflemen are the key element when infantry "takes or holds" ground. Without enough riflemen, the infantry cannot achieve its mission. Traditionally, individual riflemen have another fundamental duty. They carry the ammunition for the platoon or the section support weapons - the belts of machine-gun ammo, the mortar bombs, the rockets. Reducing the number of available riflemen reduces the fighting power, the sustainability, and the survivability of the platoon in the dismounted role and, by extrapolation, that of the company, the battalion, etc.

The eight-man section is based on the size of a dismounted section of mechanized infantry, leaving a driver and a gunner out of a ten-man section in the section vehicle. That eight-man section is, therefore, the basic dismounted manoeuvre unit of the mechanized rifle platoon, but there are some inherent requirements for its survivability. Principally, it expects to be delivered between and to its objectives under armour. Also, it expects to have that vehicle carry its extra ammunition and other combat supplies, and, doctrinally, it expects that vehicle to be available to supplement its firepower with machine-gun or cannon fire. And in a mechanized role, it is very easy to imagine that the primary task of infantry is to execute short intense assaults from a dismount area in close proximity to an objective. The section, it is presumed, would always be an element of the larger tactical unit and the section commander would have limited tactical options or associated requirements for training. That's why mechanized infantry sections can be smaller and have limited tactical options. But, it's also why light infantry sections should be larger and should be trained in tactics that minimize the impact of the absence of the mechanized unit's vehicle-based logistical capability and fire support.

Infantry sections don't all come from Regular Force mechanized units. And even these units should be prepared for operations employing infantry in the fully dismounted (light) role. Few infantry soldiers simply ride in their APCs between assaults, and not every infantry platoon commander has four armoured personnel carriers to rely on for transport and fire support on every mission. Most important to realize, not every infantry platoon or section assault will take place within the context of a mechanized company or battalion operation.

And what about the rest of the army? We must also remember that not only the infantry utilize the "section attack." The section attack, as packaged by the infantry corps as a training device, is exported to nearly every other green trade both as a leadership-training tool and as an introduction to small unit tactics with basic section weapons that these trades will use for local defence. The eight man frontal section assault is not appropriate to all tactical situations. It also requires a high degree of primary group cohesion, fitness and discipline to execute. Notwithstanding the superficial simplicity of this tactic, it is not necessarily the best solution for non-infantry units to employ as a local security method. Of similar importance is the loss of the tactical training opportunity, particularly for Corps that do not receive small unit tactical (combat) training. The section attack taught to young officers and NCOs during leadership training is their units' best chance at survival against minor threats. By limiting options during training and expectations during training assessment, we are taking away the initiative and tactical skill required to capitalize on the potential tactical strength of well-sited supporting weapons integrated with assaults because its not part of our doctrine!

A Short History of the Section Attack 

When the Second (Special Service) Battalion of the Royal Canadian Regiment formed the first Canadian contingent to South Africa, the battalion organization followed the British example, as had the Militia for many years. The battalion's companies consisted of 125 men commanded by a captain OC, with two or three lieutenants, and included four Sergeants, four Corporals and two Lance Corporals. (7) The company was the basic tactical unit; it drilled as one entity and was seldom split. The NCOs had administrative and training responsibilities, but did not exercise independent tactical command over groups of men.

The Canadian Expeditionary Force organized by Sam Hughes in 1914 also followed the British model of a company based battalion organization. In the attack, a battalion of eight companies would line up on a two company frontage with four waves of attackers. But between 1914 and 1918, the organization of the infantry company changed greatly. The nature of war in the trenches of Europe demanded a more decentralized form of tactical control to achieve success. The company, by the end of the war, had developed an organization based on platoons and sections of infantry with a diverse weapon mix of rifles, machine-guns, bombs and sundry close quarter implements. Within the Canadian Corps, it was the dynamic leadership and training methods instituted by Julian Byng to prepare for the assault on Vimy Ridge that firmly established small group tactical alternatives and the signal change to the responsibilities of the platoon commander and his NCOs.(8) By the time the Canadians captured the Ridge, the role of the infantry sergeant had matured from that of a martinet and drill instructor to one of a leader and small unit commander in battle.

Following the First World War, the platoon and section organization was entrenched. The 1928 Section Leading manual describes the infantry platoon with four sections of a commander and six men each. The platoon contained two rifle sections and two Lewis-gun sections,(9) thus balancing the fire support and manoeuvre elements of the platoon. It is notable that the Lewis-gun section included a two-man gun team, and four riflemen to provide protection to and carry ammunition for the machine gun. This is the organization that four years of brutal trench warfare forged of the raw material of the 19th Century's line company.

Infantry small-unit tactics following WWI focussed on the platoon using sections to execute fire and movement. This type of tactics demanded a greater situational awareness, motivation and initiative from the section leaders than ever expected before. The following extract, from 1928, demonstrates a clear and entrenched understanding of the importance of ground, cover and positions for providing effective fire support as well as the recognized hazards of blind obedience to drills:

"Care must be taken that exercises to teach the combination of fire and movement are not carried out as a drill. When a platoon is attacking, advances must not be made by alternate section rushes, without consideration of the ground and the enemy's fire. Every advance should, if possible, be from fire position to fire position. Training on these lines in peace can only result in heavy and unnecessary casualties in war." (10)

The infantry platoon was a primary fighting unit through the Second World War and Korea. Gradual changes were made to section and platoon organizations and equipment as weapons, manning and equipment evolved. By 1944, the platoon consisted of a headquarters, a platoon mortar detachment, and three sections, each of which consisted of a rifle group and a Bren gun group. The rifle section strength was one sergeant and nine men, while the platoon total strength was 1-4-24.

The importance of the organization of the infantry section was well acknowledged in 1944:

"The section must go into battle organized, every man knowing his own job. The section is divided into two groups: Ÿ (i) The Bren Group … (ii) The Rifle Group …

[Alternatively] "… the section may be organized into three groups - two rifle groups and one Bren group." (11)

By 1954, the section organization was defined as being divided into two groups; the Bren group under the section second-in-command, and the rifle group. The section commander responsibilities following initial contact and response drills were:

"The section commander now assumes control and gets the section on the move again by means of fire and movement. He immediately indicates a suitable fire position to the Bren group, if it has not already found one. According to the ground he then orders the rifle group "right or left flanking."

"The rifle group, covered by the Bren group who area now in their fire position, makes its first bound, led by the section commander. The two groups move on in bounds, covering each other until the rifle group has reached the assaulting position with the Bren group ready to support. However the fewer bounds which the Bren group has to make the better, since it cannot give covering fire while on the move and also runs an increased risk of being located by the enemy." (12)

The tactics of the section had been developed to a high standard. The component stages of the section attack would be familiar to any officer or NCO trained before 1990:

"The section … comes under effective fire … Down-Crawl-Observe-Sights-FIRE."

"The section commander must get his section moving again as soon as he has either found a covered line of approach or has arranged to continue the advance by fire and movement."

"… the section commander indicates to the Bren group a suitable fire position (if possible a surprise position)."

"The section commander orders the rifle group "right or left flanking."

"The rifle group covered by the Bren group … until the rifle group has reached its assaulting position …" (13)

These extracts demonstrate the balance of battle drills with the need for a comprehensive understanding of small unit tactics. The two elements of success for the Second World War section were the individual soldiers' battle craft and the section commanders' decision-making and command ability under fire. The freedom of the section commander to combine battle craft, musketry, surprise and use of ground to defeat his enemy while minimizing his own section casualties were vital and expected.

Similarly, the relative importance of battle drills had been reinforced. Drills were a basic structure on which to build once the platoon or section commander had located the enemy and executed an appreciation of the problem and the ground:

"Battle drill must be our servant and NOT our master."

"It must be wisely used and applied."

"It must be emphasized that all the drills which follow in this book are the basis on which to work. They are simple guides for the simple soldier. As sections and platoons become expert in these drills, they must learn to modify them and adjust them to the situation and ground. No one drill can suit all circumstances, and variations on those set out in this and other chapters must be encouraged and taught as soon as the "basic stroke" is mastered." (14)

In 1944, the importance of the battle drill as a basis for tactical planning and decision making was well understood. Battle drills were seen as only a stepping stone in the course of training fighting sections and platoons. The hazards of slavishly following one set drill were also stressed and modification encouraged for greater effectiveness.

The First World War provided a crucible for change to the infantry section and platoon - their organizations, their tactics and the battlefield responsibilities of their commanders. The Second World War and Korea validated these changes, adapted to newer weapon suites but without fundamental restructure from the infantry's organizational concepts of 1918. The infantry had become a flexible combat mechanism, which could adapt more readily to changing battle conditions and tasks than its line regiment precursor. One might even say that the old infantry had died in blind obedience to archaic tactics in the mud of the Somme, Passchendaele and Flanders. A new corps arose at Vimy Ridge, Phoenix-like, characterized by the drive, initiative and new command responsibilities expected of its junior officers and platoon NCOs. World War Two verified and matured this new infantry philosophy, solidly entrenching it in Canada's Army. The experience of Second War veterans stood the Canadian Army in good stead during the Korean War. In that case, the lessons of 1939-45 were effectively re-applied and not materially relearned or revised.

In 1976, the Canadian Army published Section and Platoon in Battle, and updated the same manual in 1981. This manual presented what were substantially the same platoon and section organizations and drills that the Army brought home in 1945. The essential concepts of battle drills as a start point for tactics, variation in methods of attack and effective decision-making were retained.

"The section attack has been broken down into six basic drills; each can be taught as a separate lesson and the drills together form the logical sequence of action to enable a section to overcome minor opposition using fire and movement. As soon as these drills are understood, they should be applied to properly conducted tactical exercises. These drills can be varied to meet any tactical situation that the commander wishes to practise."

"Concurrently with winning the fire fight, the section commander must make his battle appreciation. Having won the fire fight, he must retain the initiative by continuing to bring fire down on the enemy while his section closes for the assault."

"All movement in the open by either group must be covered by the other. ... to get the closest possible fire support. … When the rifle group gets into fire positions, the [light automatic rifle] LAR group must move forward automatically, unless it has already reached a position from which it can give effective fire support to support the assault. The LAR group should not move more than necessary to achieve this. … If, during the advance to the final assault position, the volume of enemy fire has not been effectively reduced by the LAR group, the section commander will immediately adopt fire and manoeuvre within the rifle group, and elements of two and three riflemen or even individual riflemen will support each other forward. … The provision of covering fire in the attack is the primary task of the LAR group; the riflemen's job is to get to grips with the enemy." (15)

It should be noted that the early editions of Section and Platoon in Battle described the tactics of light infantry. Platoon strength was described as 1-4-32, with nine man sections described with the driver counted as one of the section's five riflemen. Even in the 1981 revision, tactics of the section were not revised in consideration of two men remaining in each M-113 armoured personnel carrier (APC). Even the publication's article on "The Rifle Platoon in the Attack With Tanks" is not explicit about whether the infantry platoon is mounted or not. (16)

Within the published training philosophy, infantry tactics remained dismounted in principle fifteen years after the M113 APC was fielded with Canadian ground forces. When I attended the Royal Canadian School of Infantry in 1983, and during an instructional tour in 1988-1990, the APC remained more a way to get to work than a combat component. Emphasis remained on dismounted section and platoon tactics for the training of small unit combat leaders - both officers and NCOs. Despite theory of dismounting short of, on or past the objective, APCs almost invariable went to a Zulu harbour from an early dismount, often with only the drivers as crew in three of four. The platoon fought and the student commander was assessed dismounted.

Section and platoon commanders, on their respective training courses, trained to the same expectations of their wartime predecessors. Battle drills were a basis for training. Candidates were expected to adapt drills to the ground and tactical situation, evolving unique solutions tailored to the problem at hand. With an astute Directing Staff who expected demonstration of comprehension, one could fail for merely conducting a slavish and unsuited drill. The Infantry Corps had retained, whether or not with conscious understanding, that initiative, originality and esprit were significant combat multipliers, while a drill executed by the numbers could get men killed unnecessarily.

Variation in section/platoon tactics continued to receive its due importance, even as the initial signs of change appeared. The M-16/C-7 rifle saw experimentation with and adoption of the two-fire-group section organization. But the 'old' and proven ways of fighting the section remained. Infantry Battle Craft, published by Atlantic Militia Area in 1986 stated concisely:

"The section is normally organized into two-fire-groups, A and B."

"A section seldom operates in isolation, therefore, all the following drills should be viewed within the context of a platoon/company action. It is always possible that a SECTION may have to be detached to clear an area of an isolated enemy post such as an OP, vehicle, etc., with little or no support from the platoon."

"There are three forms of section assault:

a. Left Flanking. One fire group assaults left of a covering group;

b. Right Flanking. One fire group assaults right of a covering group; and

c. Frontal. The fire groups move forward by section skirmish." (17)

While a new section organization was being adopted, the inherent responsibility of the section commander to assess the situation and meet it with a tailored response remained. The concept that a section would rarely operate alone was gaining importance but the importance of preparedness for the more complex tactical problems of isolated section operations was still the fundamental training objective. But this was not to last, with the last veterans long retired from active service, the allure of sweeping mechanized warfare and theories of 'modern' infantry combat replaced the practical lessons of hard-won experience.

As early as 1989, aides memoire published in lieu of a long-awaited reprinting of Section and Platoon in Battle gave precedence to the section operating as part of an attacking platoon or larger organization. Belief in the likelihood of a section operating alone and the section commander devising a unique tactical plan was beginning to fade. An aide memoire published by The RCR Battle School provides illustration of this change in orientation.

"Section battle drills must be viewed in the context that the section has been committed as part of a platoon, company or battalion in the attack and that a separate fire support base has been deployed. Very seldom will a section ever fight on its own. Sections would rarely deploy their own separate and static fire support base. It should be considered the norm for a section to participate in an attack with both of its assault groups moving forward under the covering fire of one another. If in the event that a section had to deploy a separate fire base, the section commander would designate the element to fill that role and then once the fire fight had been won he would carry on with these drills." (18)

While careful reading of the text allows broader interpretation, diagrams and accompanying orders sequences clearly lead the trainee and the trainer to focussing on the frontal assault as the section progresses through section, group and team skirmishing from coming under effective fire to the objective. In an environment of shrinking training time and natural human tendencies to follow paths of least resistance, the section frontal started to become the lone accepted method, especially for leadership course assessments. The section frontal was a raw and simple drill, the leadership candidate needed only to orient on the enemy (an enemy often told to be visible to maximize assessments per training day) and order the skirmishing sequence at acceptable timings or distances. With this change in training approach, emphasis on use of ground, initiative, and tactical decision-making began to diminish. The eight-man dismounted section had also become de facto doctrine, the existence of an APC presumed.

The Infantry Section Attack Battle Drill - 1996

In 1996, the Army reissued Section and Platoon in Battle. With this edition, the concepts of infantry sections of eight soldiers and the rarity of independent section operations were entrenched:

"As the rifle section will seldom operate independently, it will not usually have to rely solely upon inherent fire support except during the final stages of an assault. ..."

"Formations are based on a dismounted section of eight soldiers; and they do not include the vehicle group. ..." (19)

Subtle changes had also been wrought to the remarks introducing section battle drills. No longer was clear emphasis placed on tactical acumen and initiative with the battle drill as a foundation. Battle drills were now described as the principal method of dealing with tactical situations during training; a caution that adjustment to the tactical situation on the battlefield may be needed was relegated to secondary importance.

"Section 2 Section Battle Drills

1. Battle Drills. Experience has shown that when rapid action is essential for success, it is an advantage to have methods of tackling minor tactical problems which are both known and understood. Section battle drills were developed to provide an instinctive reaction to enemy encounters. The seven battle drills explained in this section are designed to teach the soldiers learned reaction to combat stimuli during offensive operations at the section level. Each can be taught as a separate lesson. The sequential execution of the drills is a logical progression of action that enables a section to overcome minor opposition using fire and movement.

2. While battle drills are to be learned and understood as drills during basic training, they must be applied sensibly on the battlefield. They are not to be followed blindly, without regard to the tactical situation." (20)

Conflicting philosophies are evident in the 1996 publication. Advice that careful estimates of the situation and good tactical acumen should be applied are evident:

"BATTLE DRILL FIVE - APPROACH

26. Aim. To Approach to within assault or grenade throwing range of the enemy while continuing to suppress him, using battle craft and available cover." (21)

But equally clear are recommendations that too tidily suit rapid, repetitive training:

"… The maintenance of momentum is important during the approach, and crucial during the transition from the approach phase to the assault phase. …

28. Fire and Movement. In his estimate the section commander decided whether he would attack frontally or from a flank. Whichever, the section commander must direct the section, group and finally team fire and movement at the right time in the battle. ...

29. The section must then take up the battle, providing its own fire support and conduct its approach with fire and movement. The various methods of fire and movement at section level are shown hereafter:

a. Platoon fire and movement. Section moves under cover of the platoon support (GPMG, another section).

b. Section fire and movement. Controlled by the section commander, No 1 Group covers No 2 Group, then No 2 Group covers No 1 Group.

c. Group fire and movement. Controlled by Group commander, one team covers the other.

d. Team fire and movement. On order of the section commander or section 2IC, it is controlled within the team. One team-mate covers the other. (22)

Even additional guidance points offered to section commanders stressed speed and momentum for effective execution of the section assault drills:

"30. The section commander must remember the following points:

b. Maintain the momentum throughout the approach.

d. If the section does not have or is losing fire support, it must use its own resources and use fire and movement.

e. Order Group or Team fire and movement only if necessary as it will slow momentum and tire the troops for the final assault.

i. Covering fire will be used for all movement in the open. The ideal angle of approach to the objective in relation to the line of support fire is 90 degrees. Sections must train with little or no angle of fire support as this may occur in case of a frontal assault." (Emphasis added) (23)

The scope and size of Section and Platoon in Battle had substantially increased. While the relative importance of the section as an independent tactical entity had been diminished, the section's role as a part of a company or combat team was being emphasized. Movement and combat drills for mechanized companies and for combat teams now featured strongly. The section was expected to ride along, dismounting on order to execute simplistic, direct assaults with limited manoeuvre or initiative required. Section drills were assumed to be applicable to light organizations as well as dismounted mechanized formations, but no consideration was given to the markedly different characteristics and likely roles of the two types of infantry.

Simplification of section battle drills, economizations of training methods and a narrow Regular Force focus on mechanized roles have reversed the well-documented practical experience of two World Wars. Fielding of the LAV-III APC will only reinforce these lessons within the Regular regiments as unit training focus centres squarely on integration of the new infantry fighting vehicle.

The Army already has a generation of young officers and NCOs who have learned that the section level solution to a tactical problem is for eight men to assault directly at the enemy (whether from the enemy's front or flank). Notably, the opportunity to train these men and women early in concepts of tactical decision-making, use of ground and directive control has been lost. Teaching and assessing variations of section assault tactics introduces valuable tactical lessons early, and allows the identification of weak leaders who might well pass overly simplistic drill-based assessment.

The frontal two-fire-group assault is applicable to dismounted mechanized infantry in the assault. Tactical options for the organization and employment of the section are equally important to mechanized infantry, vital to light infantry and of greater worth to supporting arms and services than the current dominant frontal assault technique. (24) Training has continued to concentrate on the Regular infantry solution because the broader applications of section tactics are not doctrine. As an Army, we have forgotten that section tactics are a common skill. The infantry execute them on a professional basis; other Corps need them for survival when the situation requires an appropriate set of reactions and training for local protection.

Limitations of the Current Training Approach for the Section Attack

Our current approach to training the section attack has weaknesses. Reducing the requirement to a single tactical option has decreased the degree of responsibility on the section commander to evaluate ground, comprehend and select tactical alternatives, and to command and control section elements to execute his or her plan. The two-fire-group frontal assault is primarily applicable to the mechanized assault; it is not necessarily the most effective small group tactic for other situations. Yet the Army no longer expects comprehensive understanding of or reflexive ability to implement alternative tactics for this level of command or stresses the decision-making cycle to ensure small group tactics fit the situation and the quality and experience of troops.

The section attack teaches more than the mechanics of a small unit assault. It is also a very important vehicle for leadership and command training, for some Corps it is the only tactical leadership training of this type. Permitting every candidate on a course to achieve a performance objective by executing identical drills diminishes the learning and experience potential of the training. Battle drill becomes just that - a drill. The fundamental training opportunity of the section attack goes beyond learning a drill. If the training focuses on drills, it loses the importance of training the required skills to command a small group in combat. Skills necessary for an infantry section within a battle group assault, an artillery detachment securing the battery area, or troops of a Comm Z installation defending against a minor threat.

It is an inappropriate argument to claim that infantry sections seldom operate in isolation.(25) Firstly, it creates a false argument to dangerously narrow the scope of training imparted. Secondly, infantry sections were no more likely to operate outside the confines of a company or battalion assault in 1918 or 1944 than on today's perceived battlefield. The Canadian Army developed and validated aggressive section attack training based on manoeuvre, use of ground and accurately applied firepower in both major conflicts of this century. Experienced soldiers during the Korean War confirmed these lessons. This occurred not because these fit the tactical situations infantry sections encountered, but also because it was a more effective way to train small unit tactical leaders. Confining the scope of training section attack tactics to focus on the limited role of mechanized infantry in the assault is restrictive and greatly detracts from operational reality and the training opportunity.

Infantry must master small group tactics, but the application of small group tactics is not limited to the Infantry Corps. We may speak of the infantry section attack, and the principal reference is an Infantry Corps publication, but training in the tactical command of small groups is an Army requirement. The section attack is common training for Junior NCOs and officers of the Land element. The other combat arms have traditionally used the section attack as a leadership-training vehicle and to teach NCOs and officers the basics of small group assault tactics which units will use in local defence and protection situations. Non-combat arms Corps have incorporated the section attack into officer training such as the Environmental Specialty Land (ESL) Course for the same purposes. The current approach to training the section attack ignores the broader context of this nature of training and short-changes both infantry trainees as well as those of other Corps.

Non-infantry units need a foundation for small group tactical training. The infantry section attack fills this need, but a broader approach that emphasizes the value of static fire support from concealed positions of fire, use of ground for the approach of assaulting elements and the relative effectiveness of accuracy of fire support over volume is necessary. By all means, teach every junior leader and young officer the two-fire-group frontal tactic, but ensure they understand the limited range of conditions in which it applies and have a sound comprehension of alternative tactical solutions. The infantry section attack is an excellent basis for teaching other Corps small unit tactics - but that instruction must include how to adapt those tactics for levels of training, discipline, group size and weapon mix. To accomplish this, the Army needs to move away from drill-focussed instruction and assessment and return to training for and expecting comprehension and initiative in the execution of small unit tactics.

Infantry officers and NCOs who master the frontal section attack will move on to develop a range of tactical options as they learn platoon and higher level tactics. This places these lessons later in training than they could occur. Expecting effective reaction to a more complex set of variables for section attacks would demand a more flexible approach to problem solving earlier in tactical training. This also helps to eliminate or slow the advancement of those candidates who might succeed because they can execute a simple drill but cannot combine the myriad skills necessary to develop a concise tactical plan from a range of alternatives to fit a specific set of circumstances. This depiction may seem to demand an over-complicated training requirement and assessment procedure, but it is merely describing a return to what the Army was doing between 1944 and 1990.

The Way Ahead

The Army, led by the Infantry Corps, should re-examine the objectives, training goals and benefits of training young leaders in the section attack. The training requirements of the Infantry Corps have to be firmly established. Equally, the requirements of the other Corps who have included this training in their courses must be determined. A comprehensive analysis of the potential training advantages of each training approach is necessary. This analysis must address more than the baseline requirement to have candidates execute a section attack drill to complete a performance objective. Tactical training begins with learning drills - if training does not progress beyond this level of understanding and capability, we are forsaking the Army's training accomplishments of two World Wars.

The Canadian Army needs to re-establish small unit tactical training that demands initiative, decision-making and effective use of ground by the trainee. A return to this type of training for section tactics reaffirms the validity of the Army's wartime experience and ensures that our young leaders are more prepared for a mission command approach to operations in the future. Rigid adherence to drills in training and auftragstaktik in operations are not compatible.

Perhaps those who fail to study history are truly doomed to repeat it (26):

Battle Drill.--The teaching of battle drill undoubtedly proved to be of the greatest value in instilling dash and determination into troops and junior leaders. The best results have been obtained from battle drills on a platoon level, but training in the drills up to company level proved useful. 

It is important, however, that junior leaders should not regard battle drill as a universal panacea to be applied in toto in every situation. Battle drill training aims at teaching the basic "strokes," and thus represents only the first rung in the ladder. The drills must be intelligently applied in accordance with the nature of the ground and the particular tactical situation. There were many occasions when unnecessary casualties resulted from poor leadership because junior leaders blindly followed a set drill and failed to apply it with common sense.(27)


The Canadian Infantry Section Attack
Part Two: Initiative is Always an Option

Footnotes to Part 1:

(1)     Col Arjun Ray, quoted in the RUSI Journal, Autumn 1989

(2)     This tendency for career officers to distance themselves from small unit tactics as a professional concern has been identified by such authors as Gabriel and English: "…far too staff-oriented at far too high a level and only remotely connected with the details of small-unit combat. Few officers…genuinely comprehend the details and complexities of squad-, platoon-, or company-sized battle. With the emphasis on staff training, there has been a deemphasis of the true skills of the soldier." - Gabriel, Richard A. and Savage, Paul A., Crisis in Command; Mismanagement in the Army, 1978, as quoted in John A. English, A Perspective on Infantry, 1981

(3)     In fairness to the NCOs of the infantry, the Senior NCO mentioned here does not represent all of his peers. Other NCOs the author has spoken to about the concepts of this article and, in particular, those asked to review it support a return to a more dynamic approach to training section level tactics. Collectively, they are equally puzzled over the last decade's evolution to the two-fire-group-tactic as a primary section tactic. After all, they and their men are the soldiers who may die proving its inherent weaknesses in inappropriate tactical situations.

(4)     Interestingly, the 1954 edition of Infantry Section Leading and Platoon Tactics described a doctrinal section of 11 (commander, seven riflemen, section 2IC and Bren No. 1 and 2) although the predicted battle strength and description of drills was for a section of eight (commander and seven soldiers of which the designated 2IC would act as Bren No. 1).

(5)     Loss of momentum when soldiers encounter fire believed to be effective and the difficulties of reestablishing control and regaining the necessary momentum to drive an attack home are well documented. For example, "When an advancing infantry line suddenly encounters enemy fire and the men go to ground under circumstances where they cannot see on another, the moral disintegration of that line is for the moment complete. All organizational unity vanishes temporarily." - S.L.A. Marshal, Men Against Fire, 1947

(6)     The 1954 edition of Infantry Section Leading and Platoon Tactics actually allowed for a reduction in section strength by casualties, LOB personnel, etc., from eleven to eight personnel (this organization also predates integral personnel carriers, which were attached to a company from a Carrier Platoon). With an eight-man section, comparative reductions may make the prevailing two-fire-group tactic unsustainable.

(7)     T.G. Marquis, B.A., Canada's Sons on Kopje and Veldt, 1900

(8)     See Jeffrey Williams, Byng of Vimy; General and Governor General, 1983

(9)     Section Leading; A Guide for the Training of Non-Commissioned Officers as Commanders and Rifle Sections, 1928 (PDF)

(10)     Ibid.

(11)     Infantry Training, Part VIII. - Fieldcraft, Battle Drill, Section and Platoon Tactics, 1944

(12)     CAMT 7-45, Canadian Army Manual of Training: Infantry Section Leading and Platoon Tactics, 1954

(13)     Ibid.

(14)     Ibid.

(15)   B-GL-309-003/FT-001, INFANTRY, Volume 3, Section and Platoon in Battle (9 Sep 1976, and Change 1 - 1981-11-01)

(16)     Ibid.

(17)     Infantry Battle Craft, Atlantic Militia Area, 1986

(18)     Section Battle Drills (Dismounted), published by The RCR Battle School, March 1989

(19)     B-GL-309-003/FT-001, INFANTRY, Volume 3, The Infantry Section and Platoon in Battle (1996-08-15)

(20)     Ibid.

(21)     Ibid.

(22)     Ibid.

(23)     Ibid.

(24)   As one alternative section organization, consider William Lind's view from The Maneuvre Warfare Handbook, published in 1985: "Rather than having two symmetrical teams, as exist now, the squad should be organized into a probing team and a support team. The probing team, composed of riflemen and grenadiers, should act as the probing, breaching, and where necessary, assault element. The support team, armed with the squad automatic weapon and grenade launchers, should provide the firepower to suppress enemy opposition."

(25)   Infantry Battle Craft, Atlantic Militia Area, 1986; Section Battle Drills (Dismounted), published by The RCR Battle School, March 1989; and B-GL-309-003/FT-001, INFANTRY, Volume 3, The Infantry Section and Platoon in Battle (1996-08-15) 

(26)   From George Santayana: "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

(27)   Notes From Theatres of War, No. 16, North Africa November 1942-May 1943; The War Office, October, 1943

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