By: Captain Michael O'Leary, CD, p.l.s.c., The RCR
"By placing stronger emphasis on section training, the general level of platoon and company effectiveness could be much improved. Treating the section commander more like the commissioned officer-commander to whom he reports would be an enlightened and practical way of contributing to this. Additional time spent on demanding and realistic section training would not only strengthen primary-group cohesion but would as well better condition individuals for the lonely reality of the battlefield." (1)
Sgt Byng surveyed the open ground to his front. As undesirable an approach as the wide field might be, the restricted boundaries assigned to the platoon dictated that 2 Section must cross to the low ridge 600 metres to the front. Once the section secured that intermediate point, the remainder of the First Platoon would follow up to establish a "foot-on-the-ground" for the next tactical bound.
"When discussing the infantry section, two principal points arise - organization, and tactics."
Byng's section was well versed in its drills. For months before this deployment they had, at section, platoon and company levels, rehearsed and practiced all foreseeable scenarios. 2 Section's battle drills were excellent, each practice in dry or live fire training demonstrated improvement until the Section's drills were beyond reproach. Sgt Byng had confidence in his soldiers' abilities and expected no difficulties even if they were engaged on this advance.
Byng looked left and right along the woodline to his troops, indicating that they would advance in arrowhead formation. He stepped forward at the same time as Cpl Lipsett, the nearest man in his left flank fire group - Bravo fire group. Pausing as Cpl Lipsett stepped off to take up the point of the formation, Sgt Byng observed as the rest of 2 Section emerged from the shadows. To his left Cpl Lipsett was followed by Pte MacDonell, carrying the M-203 grenade launcher. Further left was MCpl Watson, the Section Second-in-Command and Pte Hughes, the C-9 section machine-gunner in MCpl Watson's fire group. Pte Hughes had recently joined the section in preparation for this operation, he had demonstrated weak machine-gun drills and Sgt Byng awarded him the C-9 as an opportunity to refresh his training and gain practice.
To his right, the three remaining section members completed his own fire group - Alpha group. Cpl Burstall carried the other M-203. Burstall was very good with the launcher and could be depended upon to react quickly with accurate fire as needed. The second fire team of Alpha group consisted of Cpl Loomis and, carrying the other C-9, Pte Currie. Currie was a constant source of aggravation to his Section Commander, intelligent and eager to please, he was constantly falling behind in physical activities. Although he had improved throughout the battalion's pre-deployment training, he still needed constant monitoring and encouragement. Sgt Byng felt the added exertions of carrying the C-9 and its associated ammunition load could only help his physical development.
As he moved forward, staying behind and to the right of Lipsett, Sgt Byng issued anticipatory orders: "2 Section, if we take fire from our front, we will move into line and assault forward by groups and fire teams to the ridge to our front. If the enemy is too strong we will establish a fire base for the platoon." Lipsett was nearly 50 metres from the woodline before the last of the section was clear. With 5-10 metres lateral separation, the section covered almost 80 metres from the far right-hand to the left-hand soldier. To the front the gently sloping terrain was dominated by a low ridge, which was the Section's initial goal. To either side, low scrub started to fill the old farm fields on either side of the corridor they were clearing.
Looking over his shoulder, Sgt Byng could see the movement of the platoon HQ personnel and those of the other sections as they prepared to follow 2 Section across the open ground. With one-third of the distance to the ridge covered, Byng began to think that this short bound would be without incident, the Section was maintaining its spacing well and the riflemen were covering their arcs diligently. Besides, they had just passed through where Bravo Company was policing up its casualties from the last firefight. The seriousness of their task was clear and they had no intention of sharing Bravo's fate.
Re-examining the ridge, Sgt Byng felt it just wasn't getting closer. As he opened his mouth to tell Lipsett to pick up the pace, the first shots rang out. As one, 2 Section went to ground; returning fire commenced and the flanking troops alternately covered one another as they moved forward into line with their Section Commander. Distracted by the sound, Byng was torn between searching the ridge for the enemy that had fired upon 2 Section and trying to determine if any of his soldiers were hit.
With practiced ease, the soldiers of 2 Section began executing the Section Battle Drill, all except MacDonell, whose absence from the firing line clearly indicated the effectiveness of the enemy's fire. All went quiet as the section searched the ridge to their front, but no further sign of the enemy's location was offered. Byng quickly realized that only by resuming the advance was more information to be gained. Byng's radio set sounded in his ear even as he considered his options. The Platoon Commander, who had also seen MacDonell go down and said he would be picked up by the follow-on troops, ordered "Advance."
Responding quickly, Sgt Byng instructed 2 Section to advance by fire groups and ordered Bravo group to move first. Bravo's three remaining members dashed forward, each quickly adopting a new firing position to cover the move of Byng's Alpha group. Alpha group moved as soon as Bravo was down. Almost at once the enemy shot at the running troops. Only three found new positions, Currie's slowness in redeploying the C-9 cost him dearly. The loss of the C-9 from the Section's firepower was serious; it was the only support weapon under Byng's control that could reach across the 350 metres remaining to the enemy's position on the ridge. Byng steeled himself to order another bound by the fire groups. The Platoon Commander informed him that there appeared to be only one or two enemy soldiers on the ridge and that the rest of the platoon was 'going to ground' while 2 Section cleared the position. "Bravo, prepare to move," shouted Byng.
Lipsett, Watson and Hughes leapt up at Bloggin's executive order to move. The next two bounds by each fire group went uncontested, the distance to the ridge closing to just under 300 metres. The six remaining members of 2 Section began to pick up the familiar rhythm of the battle drill. Movement in fire groups of three was readily adjusted to since each fire group had spent various training days without a member. Watson and Hughes closed the gap left when MacDonell fell. The Section's sole C-9 wielded now by Hughes was a comforting source of critical fire support during each bound.
On Alpha group's third move since the enemy's last shots, the enemy again fired upon the advancing section. This time, Lipsett, from his position covering Alpha's bound was able to identify the enemy's position and give a sound target indication. The enemy's fire, this time, was not effective and Sgt Byng now had positive information upon which to focus his attack. Issuing the appropriate fire control order, Byng achieved the orientation of his section that he had thus far been unable to establish.
Bravo group made its next move, pivoting slightly right to direct their fire and movement toward the indicated enemy location. Alpha's suppressive fire, unfortunately, failed to achieve its goal and the enemy was able to return fire against Bravo group's soldiers. Lipsett went down hard, Sgt Byng knew he wasn't getting back up during this attack. He shouted at Watson and Hughes to close toward the centre even more on their next bound. Even as he passed this order, Byng moved, leading Alpha group forward again under the supporting fire of Watson's rifle and Hughes' C-9.
Retaking fire positions, Byng and Alpha group commenced firing on the enemy positions. He saw Watson and Hughes moving in his peripheral vision. They went to ground slightly forward of his own line and began firing again. Hughes' C-9 fired two bursts and then stopped with an unfamiliar sound. As Hughes began cursing at his weapon and tried to clear the stoppage, Sgt Byng quickly ordered Alpha group to hold its location until the C-9 was operating again. Angered at his own inefficiency, Hughes rose over the gun to force its action rearward. A single shot rang out from the enemy's ridge and Hughes slumped to the ground beside the inactive machine-gun.
MCpl Watson immediately realized the scope of this tragedy, and made a sudden move to recover the C?9. She reached it quickly, the near misses of enemy fire forcing her to stay low as she examined the weapon. The weapon's state of repair was obvious to Sgt Byng when Watson tossed it in the dust beside Hughes and crawled toward her Section Commander. With four soldiers remaining, armed with one M-203 and three C?7's, Sgt Byng knew that this attack was not going to get easier. The first requirement was to close another 50 metres so that the M-203 grenade launcher could start providing some effective fire support. Byng quickly issued orders to initiate movement by two-man fire teams. He and MCpl Watson would form the left hand team, Burstall and Loomis the right. On Byng's order he and MCpl Watson began firing on the known enemy trench location while Burstall and Loomis prepared to move. The first bound for each fire team occurred without incident, gaining the 50 metres needed to bring the M-203 into action. Burstall wasted no time, sending the first grenade to impact just short of the location indicated by his Section Commander. The second grenade was higher, but the impact appeared to be well down the back side of the ridge. Maintaining effective suppressive fire on the ridge with the grenade launcher would be difficult.
2 Section covered the next hundred metres quickly. Accurate rifle fire and Burstall's grenades kept the enemy's heads down as the four remaining soldiers advanced toward their goal by short bounds. On his second attempt to bring the grenade launcher to bear Burstall was forced to rise in order to see his target across the tall grass. This movement, unfortunately, caught the enemy's attention and two quick shots from dense cover were effective. Lowering himself to the ground, Burstall lay still.
Sgt Byng considered 2 Section's situation. Since the enemy opened fire, the section had covered over 250 metres at a cost of five soldiers. Byng knew he had to get the last three section members to the ridge and take out the enemy before the platoon could cross the open ground. Leading Loomis and Watson forward at a crawl, he prepared himself to lead his three-person fire team in a final series of rushes to close with the objective. Spreading out to a wider than usual spacing, the three remaining members of 2 Section began a steady movement toward the enemy's trench. In turn, each soldier dashed forward a short bound while the other two maintained a steady rate of suppressive fire.
At a range of 50 metres Byng fell, a result of a bold return burst of fire from the enemy. He lay still, watching as MCpl Watson took charge and directed Loomis to make the next bound. He moved rapidly to a new position of fire, not realizing that the angle of his engagement provided the enemy sufficient protection in a defilade position to continue firing forward. Watson moved as soon as she heard Loomis' rifle firing. She was unaware that that fire was not providing the suppression she needed to protect her movement. The enemy, however, was quick to react and Watson went down heavily in response to a well-aimed burst from the enemy's rifle.
Loomis knew at once that the odds were now one-to-one, and as he was still in the open ground these odds were not in his favour. Slowly he crawled forward through the grass, trying to reach the ridge and outflank the enemy, which had decimated 2 Section. He hesitated to fire, partly for fear of revealing his own location and partly because he was now unsure of the precise location of his enemy's trench. Loomis, after fifteen exhausting minutes, reached the crest he had been trying to attain since 2 Section had first been engaged. Breaking through the thin line of brush, he realized that the "ridge" was also the edge of a narrow ditch crossing the open area of the platoon's advance. He looked along the ditch to the left and right and, not seeing his enemy, rolled quickly into the depression.
Pausing in the bottom of the shallow ditch, Loomis considered his options, which were to continue after the enemy or to wave the platoon forward. Choosing the latter, he peered carefully across the area beyond the ditch, seeing no sign of his opponent. Rising, he raised one arm to wave the platoon forward. A single shot rang out from the grass close behind. Loomis, suddenly realizing that his enemy was as good at personal concealment as he was at marksmanship, went down and stayed down. Quietly cursing his error, he lay there, watching as the enemy soldier sat up and grinned, and they both waiting for the umpire to reset Loomis' weapons effects simulation vest and allow him to continue the training. The umpire was now in sight, crossing the area between the woodline and the ditch with the Platoon Commander as they analysed 2 Section's attack.
"As you can see here," the Umpire was relating to the Platoon Commander, "the section attack with balanced fire groups, even when the strength ratio is favourable, is not always the best option. Here we saw a trained and experienced section decimated because of a few fundamental flaws. The main problem, however, in this situation, is the requirement for each soldier to repeatedly expose him or herself and find a new fire position. This theoretically places each in the enemy's sights on every bound. In particular, on a long assault, the risk to the section machine-guns can be too high, they are awkward during fire and movement, require highly skilled and fit gunners, and moving them too often breaks the potential for continuous fire support from the section's most effective suppressive weapons. "
The attack of 2 Section and the failure of their battle drill in unfavourable circumstances is not presented as proof that the battle drill used is weak or incorrect. Sgt Byng and the soldiers under his command reacted in accordance with their training, The inappropriateness of the tactics to the situation are perhaps a lesson for them and us to explore other options.
An aspect of any combat training that should always be borne in mind by trainers and participants is the potential capabilities of the enemy. Setting aside our proclivity to situate favourable force ratios and defeatable firepower, the potential training and intelligence of individual enemy soldiers cannot be discounted:
"The enemy's power of intelligent observation and thought give rise to what Georgetown University military historian Edward Luttwak calls the "paradoxical logic of war." No matter how sound the rules and procedures in "the book," the enemy will very shortly know "the book" better than you do and will turn "doing it by the book" into a death trap." (2)
The demise of Sgt Byng's section in a measurable training environment demonstrated clearly that a lack of flexibility in section tactics can quickly lead to disaster when the test or combat conditions exceed the effective limits of the prevailing battle drill. Potential problems of limiting the assault formation to an extended line is not a new observation and was commented on by Captain B.H. Liddell Hart shortly following the First World War:
"We now turn to consider the formation of the actual fire, or fighting units, which are the sections. The extended line is not a formation of security; it is not under the instant command and control of the section commander, and thus it prevents full advantage being taken of covered approaches and reduces the power of manoeuvre. The very idea of a line presupposes a wasteful frontal attack instead of a manoeuvre combat." (3)
We need to continue to explore the possibilities for success in section tactics in order to develop a more flexible and efficient method of section fire and manoeuvre. The Canadian Army traditionally upholds the initiative of our junior leaders as one of its great strengths, but does our training approach support this? A noted trainer in the American Army once described the relative importance of initiative and training as follows:
"American soldiers are commonly believed to have great natural initiative in responding to unusual situations. This is true only if training conditions them to react to the unexpected-and war is full of the unexpected. … So training should include instruction in the unusual, with emphasis on operations over unusual terrain: rivers, swamps, mountaintops. It will add interest, and will develop a unit's ability to cope with all tactical situations, including the more normal." (4)
Similarly, does the Canadian Army currently offer sufficiently challenging training in basic section battle drills and small unit tactics to encourage and demand the effective application of initiative? Routinely teaching and practicing repetitive set-piece section attacks in the training of our young officers and NCOs as if there were little difference between the parade square and the battlefield does not promote initiative; instead, it offers precisely the opposite effect.
"Parades are not manoeuvres; whilst the one is formal, regular and rigid, the other is informal, broken and flexible; whilst the one demands implicit obedience, the other depends largely upon intelligent self- expression." (5)
When discussing the infantry section, two principal points arise - organization, and tactics. (6) There is no simple solution to either, any argument to defend a specific structure or tactical approach necessarily requires a detailed preamble establishing roles of infantry forces, organizations, available weapons, tactical situations, etc. The challenge is to present an argument which establishes a solution offering the best ability to meet the widest number of situations. Often, another nation's infantry organization will be offered as a potential solution. While this at first seems a possible course, it may be fraught with hazards if only because the compromises that were made to develop it have not been published along with their tactical structure. Similarly, comparative effects of individual training, discipline, effectiveness and combination of weapons should be analyzed to establish the potential effectiveness and applicability of another army's solution.
The infantry section, while a fundamental component, is only part of the platoon. The section is the manoeuvre element of the platoon, as the platoon is for the company, and so forth. But, given the relative ranges of the section's weapons in comparison to the platoon's area of manoeuvre, each section can also be employed as a fire support element, as strong or potentially stronger (7) than the platoon's weapons detachment. The tactical direction and requirements of the section's superior commanders - the Platoon and Company Commanders, dictate the section's employment, as well as any limits of reorganization.
In the defence, it is well recognized that tactical sub-units are sited and tasked by the commander "two-up." Infantry sections are issued defensive positions and primary arcs of fire by Company Commanders, platoons by Battalion Commanders. Each subordinate commander then sites and directs remaining weapons and personnel to complement the superior commander's tactical plan. The degree of direction applied to task major weapons in platoons and sections indicates that these weapons, whether machine-guns, mortars or anti-armour weapons, actually belong (in a tactical sense) to the commander who directs their employment, not necessarily to the immediate commander responsible for the soldiers who fire them.
Even within the platoon and section this relative relationship remains. When necessary, to ensure the coherent coordination of combat power in accordance with his plan, a Platoon Commander does, and should, direct the placement and tasking of individual weapons within the platoons' sections. The section may man and maintain "its" machineguns and grenade launchers, but these weapon systems are really the Platoon Commander's to employ.
Seldom, however, does the control of weapon systems within the Infantry platoon achieve this level of detail, particularly in offensive operations. There has been a growing tendency to consider the section an inviolate organization, tasked as a single entity only and with an incorruptible internal structure. Alarmingly, the structure of the infantry platoon has not always even been preserved by its own commander. As dismounted manpower decreases due to leave, courses, casualties or other LOB (8) causes, the tendency appears to be to distribute platoon support weapons to the sections rather than maintaining a full weapons detachment and surviving with smaller sections and an unreduced number of tactical elements.
Any perception of advantage in simplifying the tactical structure of the platoon is false. The loss of tactical flexibility, both in the physical capability of the platoon's manoeuvre and fire support elements but also in the minds of its commanders is great.
As discussed in The Canadian Infantry Section Attack: Attrition Training in a Manoeuvre Army the infantry section has regularly changed its organization over the past seventy-five years. Ranging from a singular group of riflemen, it gained options as it gained weaponry. The First World War saw the appointment of bombers (9) and the creation of Lewis gun sections within the platoon to provide distinct fire support and manoeuvre sections. Later, the firepower of each section increased as machine-guns became lighter and more mobile and were incorporated as section weapons. (10)
Grenades became a weapon for every infanteer to carry, and the light machine-gun was incorporated into the TO&E (11) of each infantry section. By the close of the Second World War, the infantry platoon was composed of three sections and a platoon weapons detachment. Each section was comprised of fire support and assault elements. But the location of light machineguns within infantry sections was not considered an inviolate structure. "The Bren gun should be made available-away from its section and the men of its section-if the Platoon or Company Commander has a definite use for it in some other way … To tie the Bren gun to its section on all occasions may be to lose its usefulness whilst, on the other hand, it is likely to slow up and disorganize the action of the attacking rifle sections." (12) In the late 1980's, Canada's infantry section organization made one further evolution from a fire support/assault element configuration to one of two balanced rifle groups, each group armed with one C-9 light machine-gun, and three C-7 rifle (one of which will soon mount the M-203 grenade launcher).
There are situations where balanced rifle groups are a strong and effective section organization, but there are other situations where it may not offer the capability needed to meet the threat. The reorganization of infantry sections within the platoon is not an unfamiliar concept. It has been most commonly employed over the past few decades in patrolling. For platoon level fighting patrols, a significant reorganization of the platoon may occur, as each NCO and soldier is assigned tasks matched to individual skills and weapons carried. This flexible approach to task organization provides a good foundation for further examination of optional structures for the infantry section.
The balanced fire group section organization with the groups in line for the assault provides good firepower in a narrow frontal arc. But the effectiveness of the balanced fire groups deteriorates over distance/duration of the attack, when the troops executing it lack the discipline of practiced infanteers, or when following the drill compromises potentially sound alternatives. For such situations, we need to offer small unit commanders options - options of organization and of tactics.
We've already discussed the section's place within the infantry platoon. The inherent flexibility of the platoon has not changed, as long as three sections and an independent weapons detachment are maintained, but what options are available for the rifle section?
With a dismounted infantry section of eight soldiers, the following combinations are two possible alternatives to the balanced group structure: fire support and assault elements and heavy/light groups. In all cases, do not consider the section organization fixed. Dependent on the section's tasks and any direction received from the platoon commander, the section commander should retain the capability and freedom to rearrange not only the section's formation, but also its organization to best meet the anticipated threat. The fundamental requirement to achieve this degree of flexibility is that all section members must be trained and experienced in each configuration, thus enabling the section to shift organizations as easily as they do field formations.
Basic understanding of and maintaining the skills necessary for small unit tactics are an Army requirement not restricted to the Infantry. Although this presentation uses an infantry point of view and terminology, its tenets and recommendations are applicable to every field unit responsible for its own tactical security.
As alternatives to the section organization are discussed, keep in mind the concepts of time and space with respect to the section attack. Habitually, we train and practice section tactics over relatively wide spaces, rehearsing simplified battle drills in double quick time, as attempted by Sgt Byng and 2 Section in the introductory section to this article. Consider the likely effects of enemy rifle and supporting fire, friendly support fire and shrapnel, and the human instinct for self-preservation. Instead of executing section attacks over an expanse of two to four hundred metres length and similar width, section tactics in close assault may well be executed within a fifty metre range, with all movement executed at a low crawl. Even in such extreme cases, the tactical alternatives will not change, but the range and speed of manoeuvre of the section attack can change radically. Many readers will be familiar with S.L.A. Marshall's descriptions of the isolating effects of coming under effective fire:
"The first effect of fire is to dissolve all appearance of order. This is the most shocking surprise to troops who are experiencing combat for the first time. They cannot anticipate the speed with which their forces become fractionalized or the extent to which the fractions will become physically divorced from each other as the movement is extended and the enemy resistance stiffens." (13)
In any tactical situation, the section commander must balance the platoon commander's intents and tasks against his (or her) own preferred tactical solution. At times, anticipated tasks may cause the platoon commander to direct the section to adopt a particular organization, otherwise it may remain open for the section commander to select an appropriate organization. This degree of flexibility is complemented by the requirement to assess each situation for assigned tasks, the threat, the personnel and weapons available in the section, the encountered enemy and the ground over which the section will execute its task. These conditions rarely result in repetitive circumstances, the section commander therefore needs alternatives to meet each situation with a tactical solution best suited to success.
Employed for decades before the integration of the C-7/C-9 weapon suite, the employment of a static fire support element ensured continuous suppressive fire on an objective while the section's rifle group executed a move under cover to a flank, preparatory to a short final assault. Consider that if this tactical organization was effective with two FN C-2 light automatic rifles in the support group, it must be equally or more effective with two C9 Light Machine Guns (LMGs). With current section strength, the section might be divided into a three-person fire support group containing two C-9 LMGs under control of the section second-in-command and an assault group of the section commander and four riflemen. Alternatively, when appropriately skilled and experienced machine-gunners are selected (in both weapon handling and the section's tactics), moving the section 2IC to the assault force becomes an option.
With a dedicated C-9 group, the Section Commander has the option of placing this strong fire support element nearest the threat during field movement. Advancing in an arrowhead formation, the C-9 group might well be placed on the flank most likely to contain an enemy threat, thus ensuring rapid deployment of the machineguns to a suitable fire position protecting the redeployment of the remaining section members. When advancing in single file in close country, the fire support group might lead the section behind platoon scouts (if deployed).
On enemy contact and dependent on the ground and space available, the section commander might execute a right or left flanking, leaving his supporting machine-guns on or near the section's position after contact. Based on his combat estimate assessing the threat, the ground and his available forces, the section commander would select a line of advance for the rifle group. Closing with the enemy, ideally under cover, while the C-9 group provided suppressive fire, the section commander would launch a short intense assault on the enemy's trench from an unexpected direction. The assault would be launched once a covered approach was no longer viable or the continuation of fire support became a threat to the assault group.
The support and assault group section organization gains even more flexibility when the assault group is considered to be divisible. One or two riflemen may be detached to guard a threatened flank on the approach of the assault group. Alternatively, the fire teams of the assault group may be directed by the section commander to approach on both sides of the supporting fire, threatening both of the enemy's flanks when the terrain does not offer a clear flanking approach. This may be a most effective tactic in close combat when fighting through a heavily contested objective, establishing a suppressive crossfire under which at least one flanking fire team should be able to close with the targeted enemy trench. This tactical approach will be examined further below.
Maintaining balanced rifle groups with identical weaponry ensures that any rifle group can meet any assigned task with equal opportunity for success, omitting of course the potential effects of individual personalities, training, etc. Any change which gives the tactical elements of infantry sections radically different weapon suites also requires that commanders pay greater attention to situations and threats to ensure the best likelihood that each group will receive tasks best suited to its capabilities. This concept has been discussed briefly above with the support and assault group section organization. Organizing the infantry section's rifle groups with specific characteristics will also provide the resources to meet threats with tactical elements best suited to the task. Taking this grouping principle one stage further leads us to consider the grouping of a heavy and light group organization.
The current eight-man infantry section could be organized into a light group under the section commander with four C-7 rifles, and a heavy group under the section 2IC with two C-9 LMGs and two M-203 grenade launchers. This may be less an alternative organization for a section commander to select than one likely to be ordered by the platoon commander as part of a platoon tactical plan. On the advance, a heavy group on the platoon's threatened flank ensures a strong fire support element can be deployed and brought into action quickly. In platoon patrolling and raiding operations, regrouping of two heavy groups with the platoon's weapons detachment can form a strong firebase, while combined light groups create a mobile and agile assault force.
The division of the infantry section's resources into role specific elements is not a new concept. This division has been described recently by the manoeuvre warfare theorist William Lind:
"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, breeching, 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." (14)
It has become a common point of view that the infantry section is too small a combat unit to be considered divisible. The theory that the tactics of individual sections become irrelevant within a larger assaulting organization has not been supported by past analysts, including Liddell Hart:
"In developing his argument for firing and maneuvering 'right down to the scale of the smallest combat unit,' Liddell Hart emphasized that weight of force in modern war was related to weight of fire and not merely numbers of men. He further stressed that though in large actions it might appear that infantry units have been confined to a purely frontal role, the wider dispersion forced on combatants by the increased effectiveness of modern weapons rendered possible penetration by fire units (section) between enemy defence posts. The role of the section, platoon, and company commander in such circumstances is to exploit 'their penetration to change their sector of the battle from a mere bludgeon fight into a manoeuvre combat.'" (15)
Flexible section organizations must be complemented by a similar freedom of action to employ alternative tactics when the commander's combat estimate indicates their suitability. The foregoing discussion of section organization has, at times, touched on tactics, because organization and tactics cannot be easily separated. A given organization leads to tactical plans that capitalize on its capabilities, while a given tactic is best employed with a specific organization. Training NCOs and officers to conduct small unit tactics requires imparting an understanding of possible organizations, of tactical variations, and of the inter-relationships between the two.
Whether the scenario is the wide open spaces of a section alone in training, a lead section in close country, or a section in the centre of a battalion assault, isolated by fire and casualties, there are only a few basic tactical variations of the section attack. These variations are the frontal, the flanking, and the limited double envelopment. (16) Each of these concepts will be covered below, the reader must always keep in mind that these are not rigid formulas for success to be matched to specific battlefield conditions, they are options on which to base tactical planning at the section level.
Any consideration of the attack must be predicated by an understanding of the complementary roles of fire and movement. Fire is used to suppress the enemy, either the intended target (17) or a secondary threat, and to destroy the target enemy. Fire is applied by one component of an attacking force to allow movement by another. Movement is employed to gain better fire positions and to close with the target enemy for the final assault. For every tactical element, from the two-man fire team upwards, the effective combining of fire support and manoeuvre is necessary to success in offensive operations. Notably, at the section level, once close battle has been joined, the relative usefulness of outside resources becomes nearly zero as the fratricide threat from outside fire support cancels its employability in close proximity with the enemy.
Sections, therefore, fight nearly alone, as their relative universe contracts to encompass the section and its target enemy, with transitory effects felt by secondary threats and outside organizations. Realizing this, it is possible to discuss, and train, the section attack in close combat in isolation. Our general understanding of the value of "fire" is good, as is also the tendency to apply as much firepower as possible to achieve an aim, be it only suppression, or destruction. Movement, however, is a more difficult concept. We have habitually trained and practiced manoeuvre on a relatively grand scale - battalions and companies executing sweeping approaches of a some kilometres length around lone training objectives, sections rehearsing attacks over wide and long expanses of open ground, as in the example presented by Sgt Byng and 2 Section.
But the fire and movement of any tactical element may take place is an area considerably smaller than that which we have learned through our training to envision. Rather than a single tactical solution to sweep across two or three target trenches, a section commander might have to revise the section's tactics during the battle to defeat each trench in turn. Tactics then become based upon, as much as any other factor, the relative positions of the section's members following each successful taking of a trench and before the next.
Even while the prevailing section assault tactic is to attack directly at the identified enemy location, we maintain a societal aversion to any consideration of the "frontal attack." Reminiscent of the First World War, we tend to skew our observation of this type of attack by imagining it to entail aligning the assaulting force parallel to the defenders and attacking into the face of their prepared defences, across their killing zones. The author has seen this avoidance of the "frontal" taken to such extremes in training as to see an enemy objective approached from its flank subjected to a flanking manoeuvre which, in effect, placed the assaulting element directly in front of the enemy's defences.
For section tactics, we will describe the frontal tactic from the perspective of the section's formation, not particularly with regard to the relative layout of the friendly assault force and the enemy defence. The section in frontal assault will attack with all of its elements on line; the prevailing balanced rifle group tactic is one example of this. Also, a section that is directed to or chooses to enter battle with fire support/assault or heavy/light group configurations may also approach combat in a linear frontal form. Most often, this tactic will be used when the section is assaulting as part of a larger force, when all elements of the section must initially move in concert with other sections of the platoon or company.
Once engaged in close combat, and the section's area of operations becomes tightly constrained as discussed above, the section commander may be required to employ other tactics in the detailed fighting of the objective. The frontal will be used most often during the initial assault as part of a larger unit, but seldom will an ongoing attack allow sections to maintain such a simplistic parade square formation across a contested objective, and any expectation of such ritualistic execution of drills in training is erroneous. The frontal tactic's greatest advantage is that is allows the approach of an assaulting force with dispersion but, until close combat is joined, it will require outside fire support resources to suppress the enemy.
Limitations of the frontal tactic include the exposure of all section members, the exhausting nature of the movement by every section member once fire and movement commences and the disruptive nature of internal fire support as each soldier in the section is required to repeatedly change fire positions. The frontal assault, with all section elements on line, should be employed when exposure to enemy fire can be limited to as short a time as possible, such as following the dismount of a mechanized infantry force. Commanders must assess the value and risk of outside fire support (artillery, air, aviation) in order to allow the closest possible approach by infantry before they are required to fight through the objective area using only internal fire support.
As the reader can see, the applicability of the section frontal tactic is most effective as part of a greater whole, it is not as strong in isolation and commanders should examine its value in tactical situations in this light.
"While dividing the squad into two task-oriented teams would appear to separate fire and maneuver, the opposite is in fact true. Each team, organized and trained for specific tasks, will quickly come to rely on the other for tactical success. The probing team, being more lightly armed, will search for an exploitable weakness or present the enemy with an immediate, close range threat. The support team, keyed to the movements of the probing team, will position its suppressive fire, either by rapidly shifting fires or by physical displacement, so as to present the enemy with a longer range, equally dangerous threat. Individually, the two teams present easily counterable menaces; together, they become a combined arms team requiring the enemy to expose himself to one in order to combat the other." (18)
Before the balanced rifle group organization was adopted with a focus on the frontal, the flanking attack was the principal section tactic in training and operations. In training this tactic, a tendency existed to execute section flanking attacks over much wider areas than a section would normally employ. The desired requirement to achieve an optimum 90-degree angle between the supporting fire and the direction of the assault was generally given as an indication that this tactic was not applicable when participating as part of a larger assault force. But accepting this as a limitation assumes that the fire support is directed forward on the axis of approach and the complementary assault is perpendicular, i.e., along the attacker's line of troops. But, in close combat, even this optimum angle of support may be achieved without undue threat to flanking friendly forces. With both the supporting fire and the assault positioned up to 45-degrees either side of the original axis of advance, all firing continues to be directed safely forward of the attacking forces, making this an acceptable tactical option in close combat.
For the section alone, whether it be a leading section in close country, a section isolated in close combat, or a non-infantry group of soldiers tasked with a security clearance operation, the flanking manoeuvre offers the best balance of fire and movement capabilities. Again, from the point of view of the section's configuration on the ground, the flanking tactic involves a static fire support element and a mobile assault element which, ideally, closes with the target enemy under cover. The flanking tactic is best employed when the section can readily deploy fire support and assault elements. This division of the section's strength is not necessarily dependent on a specific organizational structure and may be based on balanced fire groups, a fire support/assault, or heavy/light group configurations.
The section commander, following a combat estimate, will place a fire support element in a location where it can suppress the enemy throughout the assault element's approach march (or crawl). Initial employment of a mutually supporting linear formation (the frontal) may be necessary before a flanking manoeuvre can be executed in order to achieve a better supporting fire position or location from which to initiate the flanking manoeuvre. The section commander can employ each element of the section to support the movement of the other until the fire support group has achieved the best possible fire position, and/or until the assault group can begin its approach movement.
The strength of the flanking tactic lies in the stable and continuous fire support provided by the firebase, as well as in the relative strength of the assault element. When necessary, the section commander can detach one or more riflemen to guard an exposed flank on the approach to protect the execution of the original task. If this secondary target is the section's next objective, then this detachment then forms the initial foot-on-the-ground for the next assault.
"Pepper pot-What is called the "Pepper Pot" method of infiltration was used very frequently [by the Germans] and was carried out by four or five men in the light machine-gun group, all of whom carried rifles, and ammunition for the light machine-gun, with the exception of the gunner. This group would dash forward a few dozen yards and then from entirely different directions other small groups would do the same thing, all independently and all trying to get at least one gun to the rear of the objective. Their object being to cause confusion and to instill the fear of encirclement into the defenders." (19)
Since the Second World War, "pepper-potting" evolved into a common buzzword for individual fire and movement. It had lost its original connotation of multiple, mutually supporting groups of riflemen and light machine-gunners attempting to penetrate an enemy defensive position, threatening the encirclement of individual posts in order to cause the collapse of the entire defence. To describe this tactic more particularly from the perspective of one attacking section and a specific target enemy, the term double envelopment has been selected.
Normally considered a formation level tactic leading to an attempt at encirclement, the double envelopment is seldom considered in Canadian infantry training as an option for section tactics. In close combat, the section commander may be able to establish a firebase but remain unsure of the best flank from which to effect an approach and assault. In select cases, it may be considered a viable option to split the assault element into two fire teams and attempt a flanking manoeuvre along both sides of the fire support. This tactic can readily be adapted in close combat from the frontal configuration. The mobile flanking fire-teams must be careful not to threaten one another. In this case, one or both assaulting fire teams may achieve a position from which to execute a final assault or one may reach a better fire position from which to support the final rush of the other.
From a command and control point of view, the double envelopment is a high-risk option, to be adopted when other clear alternatives do not appear to be present. It should seldom be considered in open terrain as each element then lacks the combat power to neutralize new threats and continue the current mission. In close combat, the section may actually use variations on the double envelopment tactic most often. Adaptable as casualties reduce the section's strength, the double envelopment also offers the opportunity to maintain dispersion of the section's personnel while focussing its firepower on each enemy target trench in turn.
The foregoing discussion of section tactics has been intentionally brief. The effective application of section organization and tactics requires a fundamental understanding of the options and variations available, and an absence of any formulaic guidance, which might erroneously be considered a solution matrix. This series of articles has evolved because existing publications do not sufficiently explore tactical options. The prevailing theory of section attacks as taught by the Army has become more rigid with each generation of instructors. The evolution to a simplistic section attack drill may have allowed ease of instruction and assessment, but it does not ensure the degree of tactical flexibility essential for effective section leading in combat. Even in training, many commanders from section upwards are unperturbed at the sight of sections sweeping across objectives in live or dry training without regard for the detailed and mutually supported fighting of the objective.
Commanders and instructors must know and understand the employment of variations in section organization and tactics. They must also expect and demand them in practice. Every training event should reflect realistic consideration of the conditions of combat. (20) The design of training situations that anticipate the likely selection of alternative solutions is essential. Close combat tactics can change radically based on the perspective of the observer. Changing the scale of manoeuvre and reducing the virtual horizon effectively changes the problem. NCOs and officers should TEWT (21) the fighting through of an objective under the presumption that no movement above crawling is possible. Current discussions about "fighting through the objective" are reminiscent of officers siting trenchlines from horseback early in the First World War. Changing the range of section assault training problems from 300 to 100 metres, or even 50 metres, so fundamentally alters the tactical considerations that an entirely new perception of problem solving must be applied. Simplistic drill execution can be suicidal, alternative solutions must be taught and allowed in training and operations.
There's been a lot of talk in the Canadian Army lately about "getting out of the box." Encouragement of new approaches to tactical problem solving, to support a mission command or Auftragstaktik style of command, is prevalent. But before we can reasonably expect our young officers to exercise these practices we must similarly teach and encourage our NCO combat leaders to exercise a similar degree of flexibility. Emphasis must shift away from employing drills to execute tasks, to the application of tactical components applied logically to support achievement of the commander's intents: the platoon and company missions. Within the field force, the fundamental tactical building blocks are section organization, and section tactics. If these are strong, the combat methods built upon them will have a basis of strength, which is essential.
Only by demanding an understanding of intent driven operations and allowing freedom of action by junior commanders can we eventually evolve toward a coherent mission command structure. If we give our section leaders effective tools, and the freedom to make errors and to learn in training how to apply them effectively, we can establish and maintain that capability as a strength in our land forces. Training, trust and the reward of initiative are the keys to improvement and future success in small unit tactics. Options of organization and tactics provide our section commanders a fundamental framework on which to base sound decision-making. The words of US General H.H. Howse best describe the guiding advice we should issue whenever we conduct this level of training:
"Don't do everything according to the book: look at your mission, see what you have to do it with, and then work out the most sensible (which may frequently be the most unusual and most audacious) way of doing it - and let fly. Use your brain, your imagination, your initiative." (22)
(1) John A. English, A Perspective on Infantry; (Praeger Publishers, New York) 1981
(2) Jonathan Shay, M.D., Ph.D., Achilles in Vietnam; Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1994
(3) Captain B.H. Liddell Hart, K.O.Y.L.I., The "Man-In-the-Dark" Theory of Infantry Tactics and the "Expanding Torrent" System of Attack, The Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXVI, No. 461, February, 1921
(4) General Hamilton H. Howze, Howze on Training, CONARC Board for Dynamic Training, Fort Benning, 1971
(5) JFC Fuller, quoted in Captain R.A.D. Applegate, RA, Why Armies Lose in Battle: An Organic Approach to Military Analysis, Royal United Services Institute, Vol 132, No 4, Dec 87
(6) Some readers may also want to include field formations as a component of section tactics, this article, however focuses on the section in close combat (i.e., after being engaged by effective fire). The current range of field formations can be combined with alternative section organizations for wide range of possible pre-battle distributions of the section's weaponry, but these have little effect on the execution of the battle because the section commander will normally select a formation which supports his expected plan of execution for an assault.
(7) When the number of the section's weapons (2 x C-9 LMG, 2 x C-7 with the M-203 grenade launcher, 4 x C-7 rifles, M-72s, etc.) and their relative rates of fire are considered.
(8) LOB = Left Out of Battle, during World Wars One and Two a formal requirement to retain a percentage of the unit's personnel out of combat was exercised to support reconstitution of the unit following heavy casualties.
(9) Grenade throwers during World war One were called bombers after the British 'Grenade Hand No. 5,' more popularly known as the Mills bomb. Before the Mills bomb was patented in September, 1915, soldiers in the Allied armies devised home-made grenades from jam tins, gun cotton and metal scrap in a dried mud matrix for shrapnel with a rudimentary detonator and fuze.
(10) The concept of identical sections in 'The Homogenous Platoon' were discussed in the early 1930s by "Infanteer" in A Ray in the Outer Darkness, published in the Canadian Defence Quarterly, Vol. IX, No. 1, October, 1931. This concept, in particular the melding of infantry and machine-gun organizations was further detailed by the same author in The Story of Two Snakes in the April, 1932, issue of the same publication.
(11) TO&E = Table of Organization and Equipment. The doctrinal structure for manning and equipment for a military unit.
(12) Lieutenant-Colonel R.L. Sherbrooke, D.S.O., The Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment), The New Infantry Weapons; Their Organization and Tactical Employment, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXXIII, February to November, 1938
(13) S.L.A. Marshal, Men Against Fire, 1947
(14) William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, 1985
(15) John A. English, A Perspective on Infantry; (Praeger Publishers, New York) 1981
(16) It is perhaps appropriate to reiterate here a footnote from Doctrine and Canada's Army, by LCol R.J. Jarymowycz, CD, published in The Army Doctrine and Training Bulletin, Vol. 2, No. 3, August 99. "The complete trio of classical manoeuvres is: Arbela (Alexander the Great: an attritional frontal with envelopment of a flank), Cannae (Hannibal: the double envelopment) and Leuthen (Frederick the Great: the flanking attack)." In simple terms, the choice of manoeuvre options between two discrete forces, whether they are ancient armies or modern infantry sections, remains limited to these basic elements and their variations.
(17) I will use the term "target" when it is necessary to differentiate between the object enemy of the assaulting force and either the "enemy" as a general concept or complementary (supporting) enemy positions. Use of the term "target" is not intended to infer a depersonalization of the enemy as seen in our systematic ritualization of "the enemy" by using classification range targets (figure 11) during live field firing, to the nearly complete elimination of realistic target (or objective) representation. This failure to represent a realistic enemy has a number of consequences. These include the consistent training of soldiers to locate and identify range targets rather than realistic enemy targets, the likelihood that personnel will hesitate before engaging any other type of target in operations, and the presumption that these targets are a suitable training device for advanced field firing practices.
(18) William S. Lind, Maneuver Warfare Handbook, 1985
(19) Notes From Theatres of War, Canadian Series, Number 1, "North Africa" December 1942 to March 1943, May 1943
(20) It is notable that the Canadian Army has tactical training (e.g., Section and Platoon in Battle) and training safety (e.g., B-GL-304-003/TS-0A1 - Training Safety) publications but no reference providing comprehensive guidance on the design and conduct of small unit tactical training exercises. This shortfall is likely the principal cause of the overly simplistic and set-piece live fire training events we have seen in the past decade as well as the occasional catastrophic failure of such exercises resulting in injury or death (setting aside instances of accidents without attributable fault). One excellent example of a training guidance publication is Realistic Combat Training; and How to Conduct It, by Robert B. Rigg, Lt-Col, US Army (Military Service Publishing Company, Harrisburg, Penn., 1955). Realistic Combat Training, while dated, provides a detailed framework for designing training which balances risk and challenge with emphasis on maximizing training potential for participants, not on minimizing risk to the range officer's career.
(21) TEWT = Tactical Exercise Without Troops. A training method by which commanders practice combat estimates on the ground without the presence or participation of their subordinates.
(22) General Hamilton H. Howze, Howze on Training, CONARC Board for Dynamic Training, Fort Benning, 1971
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