by George J. Mordica II, Military Analyst, CALL
Since the Middle Ages urban combat has been a dirty business. The effect on the populace has always been traumatic, whether the people were participants or simply bystanders caught in the misery of it all. In earlier times, laying siege to a city and then taking it was the objective. Since World War II and the refinement of maneuver warfare, cities have become a restricted area that are more easily bypassed or reduced than taken. Part of the reason for this gradual change in strategy has been the cost associated with military operations on urbanized terrain (MOUT). The cost, though difficult to calculate, has been excessive and prohibitive.
Recent examples of urban combat, such as the Russian attempt and eventual success in Grozny (the capital of the Republic of Chechnya), demonstrate the current price of fighting under these conditions. This Russian operation was conducted unconstrained by some of the modern-day concerns such as civilian casualties or collateral damage. Yet, the operation demonstrated that urban combat is demoralizing, resource draining, politically costly, and represents the least favorable option of driving the enemy out. More favorable strategies in taking a city include: cutting off the city from enemy reinforcement and supply, thereby letting the defenders collapse; reducing the city by armed force; or bypassing the city altogether and winning the war by other means. Some disadvantages in conducting urban combat are the loss of maneuver space and communications and the loss of any technological edge that U.S. forces possess. Although technology can be put to good use in this type of warfare, the loss in overall advantage seems to outweigh the gain.
The purpose of this article is to discuss the dangers of entering into urban combat operations unprepared. The Russians experienced a hard lesson at Grozny, a lesson the United States experienced in earlier times on a large scale at Aachen, Manila, Hue, and Panama, and recently on a smaller scale in Mogadishu: that urban combat operations are not and cannot be clinical operations.
This article also attempts to form a baseline of knowledge gathered through years of studying military history, from someone who is not an expert in urban combat operations. The thoughts discussed here are the result of reading historical literature, reviewing recent events in the world, and monitoring trends gathered from various U.S. Army training centers. The Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) is attempting to observe lessons from MOUT that may help soldiers in a future urban combat contingency. There are concerns by some junior leaders, voiced at the JRTC, that soldiers are not being properly trained, equipped, supplied, and led to meet the challenges of urban combat operations.
2. DOCTRINAL BASE.
OBSERVATION 1: U.S. doctrine on combat operations in urban areas is outdated.
DISCUSSION 1: The primary U.S. Army doctrinal publication on this subject, FM 90-10, Military Operations on Urban Terrain (a prescription on how the Army plans to fight in the urban environment), was published 15 August 1979. Its focus was on the fast-moving European battlefield of the 1960's and 1970's. An update specifically designed to provide the "how-to pieces of urban combat" was addressed in FM 90-10-1, An Infantryman's Guide to Combat in Built-up Areas, published in May 1993, and the subsequent Change 1 to that field manual dated 3 October 1995. Change 1 of FM 90-10-1 provided some lessons learned from the Army's experiences in Panama, Haiti, and Somalia. The potential threats described in both these publications have changed the weapons and munitions in our own inventory, as well as tactics, techniques, and procedures. In addition, the technology present on the battlefields of the world has dramatically changed. The types and locales of cities, as well as political and environmental limitations, city sizes, population densities, and changes in demographics in areas where the Army may be committed, need review. The equipment available to the regular infantry for executing doctrine is outdated. Moreover, the training the Army is using to prepare its soldiers for urban combat is not realistic enough to present the full spectrum of command and control, along with the psychological impact, close combat, and logistical problems associated with this kind of combat.
RECOMMENDATION: Tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) need to be developed as an interim measure until doctrine can be written that supports urban combat. A new publication, MCWP 3-35.3, Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain, published 16 April 1998 by the United States Marine Corps, and the Marine Corps current "Urban Warrior" experiment are positive steps which offer a different approach and fresh review of many of the questions the Army needs to address. The Marines are conducting "Urban Warrior" over a two-year period to develop TTP and long-range, over-the-horizon command and control capabilities. An Army experiment called the MOUT TF originated at the Department of the Army and was tasked to TRADOC. This effort was then tasked by TRADOC to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. Its mission is to determine what should be done about the outdated FM 90-10/90-10-1 and to develop a training strategy for urban combat in the Army. Another interesting project at Fort Benning is the Advanced Concept Technology Demonstration (ACTD). This project is a joint venture with the Marine Corps, and is focusing on what technology can bring to the urban fight.
OBSERVATION 2: The political realities of urban combat have resulted in the use of terms that tend to place limitations on the conduct these operations. Terms such as surgical MOUT, precision MOUT, and high-intensity MOUT are attempts at making urban combat something that it is not. It is imperative that the correct terminology be used in describing these operations.
DISCUSSION 2: These terms tend to bring civility to urban combat operations. Based again on historical research and examples of how urban combat is fought, there is no method for this type of operation. The distinctions between one phase of urban combat and the others are not precise. The different types of urban combat descriptions give our soldiers and leaders a false sense of security that the operation they are conducting will not escalate; consequently, they do not plan thoroughly for such contingencies.
RECOMMENDATION: It is important that doctrine writers and soldiers who develop TTP use the correct terminology in describing the details and actions necessary in urban combat. The sugar-coated version of urban combat will not reflect the truth. Battles in a city are savage, and many times do not allow for precautions normally taken in the field concerning refugees, civilian casualties, evacuation of friendly and enemy wounded and dead, and prisoners of war (POWs). The intent here is not to desensitize our soldiers to the plight of civilians or friendly and enemy soldiers, but to caution everyone that conventional concerns on the open battlefield may not apply in urban combat. Does this mean the Army cannot hold itself to a high moral code -- NO! The United States is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions and must abide by and uphold its provisions. However, it does mean there is a need to be prepared for a situation where beliefs, moral code, and practices are tested beyond the bounds of current training, and to be prepared to face those challenges on a case-by-case basis. Clearly defined rules of engagement can go a long way in establishing the limitations our forces should use in any given urban operation.
OBSERVATION 3: The manpower resources needed to conduct urban combat is a problem for the U.S. Army. Under the current downsizing agenda, the Army does not have the soldiers to do the job on the scale of the Russian experience at Grozny and meet its two regional war mission. Any urban operation requires the infantryman, and many of them, not only to clear buildings and fight the fight, one room at a time, but to secure buildings already taken and to guard precarious lines of communication that can be cut by a determined enemy squad. In an urban battle today, the battle for a building may take U.S. forces 24 stories straight up. Battle space cannot be considered in ground area in urban combat.
DISCUSSION 3: A battle fought under these conditions lessens all the advantages the U.S. military possesses on the open battlefield, and requires that soldiers, not machines, fight and die for every corner, set of stairs, soda machine, and hallway. The grim reaper will collect his due, no matter what devices can be developed to improve our advantage. There are just too many corners, stairs, vending machines, and hallways along the way. To anticipate few casualties in this type of operation would not be an honest appraisal.
RECOMMENDATION: The Army needs soldiers in sufficient numbers to fight and support the urban battle and provide service support to those soldiers. The cost of a major urban conflict with the two regional war scenario should be evaluated. Additionally, a streamlined combat organization is needed that allows for easier task organization. A standard organization in combat arms units will help. Infantry units should be organized the same whether they are light infantry, airborne infantry, air assault infantry, ranger infantry, or mechanized infantry. Specialty, in organization, creates unnecessary problems in equipment, weapons, ammunition, and support. The Army in its currently reduced state does not need organizational problems complicated by one-of-a-kind and uniquely organized subordinate organizations. The "keep it simple stupid" (KISS) principle applies here, where "one organization fits all" is the best approach, then organize for combat.
Recently, the Chief of Infantry addressed this last concern. He recognized the problem in the field and reacted to "quick-fix" the organizational problem. The doctrinal development in organizations will follow, and unit training will adjust to the changes over time. The changes will define the basic unit of infantry and lead to its development in the task organization for combat, whether in the urban environment, in the jungle, or in the desert.
OBSERVATION 4: Training in villages will not prepare the Army for combat in large metropolitan areas. The Army has invested a tremendous amount of money and assets in developing a series of first-class MOUT sites at various training centers to train soldiers to operate in the urban combat environment.
DISCUSSION 4: These sites can help a soldier polish the skills he needs to clear a room, isolate a threat, or move up a stairwell, but the present training sites are unrealistic. They suggest the urban terrain can be isolated and cut off. Only in the best of circumstances would this be the case. Cities are too large and too segmented to allow for complete encirclement, and forces are not available to accomplish this task. As in Grozny, the enemy will be reinforced and supplied with open-ended support. Gone are the days when an army can prevent these enemy activities in an urban battle. Even the best weapons in the world cannot isolate the enemy; the example of the Ho Chi Minh trail should tell all military practitioners something. If the enemy is dedicated to his cause, rearming, resupply, and reinforcement will be something our forces must contend with and be prepared for.
RECOMMENDATION: The U.S. Army needs to work with city governments to train under as realistic conditions as acceptable to those cities. Offers of cooperation, funding, and sharing of experiences that could otherwise never be gained with local law enforcement agencies and other emergency services can create an exercise that will benefit all concerned. The Marine Corps "Urban Warrior" provides a model.
OBSERVATION 5: U.S. forces currently do not have the special weapons needed and lack the quantities of weapons necessary for urban operations. The weapons historically needed to do the job are in many cases either not in the inventory or not available for training in the urban environment.
DISCUSSION 5: In our world today the concern of what weapon is appropriate for the incident may impact on our ability to fight successfully in urban combat. The enemy can use whatever ruthless means he has at his fingertips to engage our forces, yet due to the prevailing attitude with its image, the press, and concern for the local population, the Army may be prevented from using its most effective weapons. In an historical example (Aachen), the use of 155-mm artillery in direct fire mode offered a tremendous equalizer, yet today, it would create unacceptable collateral damage. Another weapon consistently used in city combat is the flame-thrower. When faced with a bunker or basement where all the firepower in the world is available yet not effective, it has historically been the flame-thrower that got the job done. This weapon, like no other, produces a tremendous amount of psychological effect on a trapped enemy, yet this weapon is not considered an acceptable substitute for firepower. The M202 Flash is the latest generation of flame weapon; however, few infantrymen have trained with this weapon. At present the weapon is in the inventory but not generally available for training. This weapon is much safer than the previous flame-thrower apparatus and also easier to train with and store. Why is this weapon, better described as a round (actually four tubes), not used in training or available in quantities necessary for urban combat? If safety is still an issue, technological improvements in binary weapons might help in the development of an advanced flame-thrower.
RECOMMENDATION: Develop weapons based on the need to defeat the threat, not on political considerations concerning whether such a weapon should be used in a given situation. The concerns for a weapon's use should be: (1) Will it be effective? (2) Is it safe for our troops to use? (3) Will it have the desired effect? Finally, the weapon must be available in sufficient quantities for use in realistic training and for combat.
OBSERVATION 6: Quantity of supplies is another issue that the Army must be prepared to address in an urban combat situation. Previous evidence shows that urban combat uses an inordinate amount of supplies, from ammunition to bandages. This usage is in conventional supplies only. It does not account for specialty equipment such as grappling hooks and rope (described as essential for every soldier) or for the high use of fragmentation, white phosphorus, thermal, and smoke grenades necessary for every move.
DISCUSSION 6: A lack of sufficient supplies and specialty equipment will force our troops to use alternatives and "work-a-rounds" to clear the enemy from certain positions. Because these work-a-round weapons are not supported, they are not in the inventory and will not be available for training or available when needed for urban operations.
RECOMMENDATION: Screen weapons for use in the urban environment, and make weapons effectiveness, easy use, and safety (rather than political acceptability) priorities.
OBSERVATION 7: Munitions now in the inventory are not suitable for urban combat. In past wars the types of ammunition in the inventory worked for all possibilities. Today, this is not the case. Due to the cost of maintaining ammunition stores and the doctrine that U.S. forces expect to employ, the ammunition is designed to emphasize high-speed maneuver battles (tank-on-tank, infantry-fighting-vehicle on infantry-fighting-vehicle) with little concern about the effects current types of ammunition will have in urban combat.
DISCUSSION 7: Armor Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS) rounds will not explode against masonry, and armor piercing ammunition will not have the desired effect against brick and wood. The need for a greater selection of ammunition for all our weapons in urban combat is necessary. Infantry operations alone will not succeed. As demonstrated in previous engagements, indirect fires must be used to isolate strong points, and a combined arms team has the best chance of success. The destructive power of tanks, anti-tank, and direct fire artillery weapons can create a foothold in an enemy position that will allow the infantry to close with and destroy them. The ammunition currently in the inventory will not fit the bill. It is designed for a different type of warfare, and to assume it will do the job is a mistake.
RECOMMENDATION: A high-level review of the ammunition necessary in urban combat must be conducted. The use of high-explosive, high-explosive plastic, white phosphorus, and flechete rounds need to be evaluated and considered for reintroduction into the inventory in sufficient quantities for effective training. Satchel charges, explosives, and bangalore torpedoes should also be re-evaluated for use in urban conditions. There are numerous cities and towns abandoned along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers due to the Corps of Engineers buyout in flood plain programs that could serve as perfect targets for experiments of different types of munitions and their effectiveness. Recently, a MOUT Conference was held at Fort Benning, Georgia, and members of CALL witnessed a demonstration of new munitions under consideration by the Infantry school for forced-entry in urban combat conditions. These promising munitions, each with their own unique capabilities, will go a long way in solving some age-old problems for infantrymen in urban combat. The next step is to obtain these munitions as soon as possible and provide them to the field, along with instructions and training devices that give soldiers the tools needed to train. Also a new type of multi-purpose tank ammunition (XM908), using a high explosive shape charge for the 120-mm gun, is currently being tested. Hopefully, this ammunition is being examined for a role in urban combat.
OBSERVATION 8: Specialty communications equipment is now only available to special units. This communications equipment is needed now for regular infantry for training and potential combat operations.
DISCUSSION 8: The communications equipment available over-the-counter in the United States can sustain a tactical squad of any police department in America in force-entry operations. Yet, the U.S. infantryman must rely on systems designed for the open battlefield. Questions related to new communications equipment include whether that item is secure or not, if it is battery operated, how is it recharged, and what is the distribution plan. The appropriate equipment for conducting urban combat is available, but if that equipment is on the shelf, it is not providing soldiers with the tools they need to train and fight in an urban combat contingency.
RECOMMENDATION: Communications problems that can occur during combat in a city environment must be detected and fixed during training NOW. These potential communications problems are not on-the-site problems; they represent a series of complex problems found only in a segmented urban battlefield with electronic interference, dead spots, and anomalies that hinder command and control. The U.S. Army must train with the equipment, weapons, communications, soldiers and leadership to develop the doctrine and TTP needed to win in urban combat.
OBSERVATION 9: Realistic NBC hazards are not incorporated into urban combat training.
DISCUSSION 9: Recent examples of chemical use in Tokyo by a terrorist group should have sent a shock wave throughout the military. This action makes the use of NBC operations in urban combat probable. The enemy our forces are likely to face will be technologically inferior, and, despite our best efforts, will attempt to negate our advantages in conventional weapons and combat operations. NBC represents a tremendous equalizer for any potential foe. The very terrain presented by a city encourages the use of these potent weapons in isolated "no-win" skirmishes as the enemy tries to escape to fight again in the next block or around the next corner. Urban combat creates an opportunity to fight to allow separation and escape to fight again. In some cases, the sacrifice of forces, by the enemy, to create a catastrophic loss on an opponent will probably be a choice. The more friendly forces committed to a fight in a single building allows a determined foe more options to use all the weapons at his disposal. One dreaded enemy option is to neutralize the building using NBC and create catastrophic loss for U.S. forces.
RECOMMENDATION: The U.S. Army must take the threat of NBC in urban combat seriously. This threat is real and presents a dilemma to any force trying to conduct urban operations. The Army needs to conduct liaison operations with all related government and intelligence agencies to gain a better understanding of the threat and to incorporate that intelligence threat into urban combat scenarios, with other government agencies participating.
6. CONSIDERATIONS FOR TTP DEVELOPMENT.
In the research effort necessary for this newsletter and as the result of separate discussions with observer/controllers in round-table discussions at the Joint Readiness Training Center, a number of recurring trends were identified. These trends are supported by observations submitted over time to CALL for inclusion in CTC trends publications published semi-annually. The recurring trends are listed below and are grouped by the battlefield operating system (BOS).
INTELLIGENCE BOS: TA.5
- The intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) is not specific enough for MOUT.
- Lack of a decision support template and timeline preparation hinder the planning process.
- There is limited intelligence focus on routes to the objective.
- The force ratio analysis is rarely done, if done at all.
- Identification of key terrain and fields of fire is not effective.
- Intelligence gathering and development of input for the planning process is not complete.
- Use of psychological operations and civil affairs operations are not planned.
- Identification of decision points and setting conditions for success are not emphasized.
- Units fail to get eyes on the objective to confirm the intelligence template.
- Little thought is given to intelligence collection from and care of civilians on the battlefield.
MANEUVER BOS: TA.1
- The movement plan to the object is usually not well done.
- There is a lack of focus in the movement to the objective, resulting in significant casualties.
- Casualties in the movement prevent units from achieving mass on the objective.
- Units do not achieve mass at other decision points.
- There is a failure to isolate the objective and protect the force from counterattack.
- There is a lack of combined arms TTP for armor, aviation, and close air support for urban combat.
- Uncoordinated maneuver and overwatch are more common in the urban fight.
- An unclear doctrinal base confuses units about correct procedures for clearing rooms.
- Marksmanship at all levels is poor with the exception of some special operations units.
- There is confusion among units as how to delineate inside from outside battlespace.
FIRE SUPPORT BOS: TA.2
- Use restrictive Rules of Engagement in dealing with collateral damage and associated urban combat effects.
- Units have problems with allocation of resources and positioning of fire support assets.
- Poor use of precision-guided munitions in units.
- Suppression of enemy air defense for assembly areas is poorly planned.
- Units poorly use counter battery fires in urban conditions.
- Q36 are not being effectively used against enemy mortars.
MOBILITY AND SURVIVABILITY BOS: TA.6
- Unit movement to the objective is not well done.
- The operation orders do not properly allocate engineer resources for the urban fight.
- There is usually little unity of the engineer effort.
- Units are not effective in suppress, obscure, secure, and reduce (SOSR) at all levels.
- Engineers are attrited prior to the objective.
- Lack of eyes on the objective (scouts/aviation) prevent identification of obstacles.
COMMAND AND CONTROL BOS: TA.4
- There is a lack of synchronization across the board in the battlefield operating systems.
- Units do not effectively locate their command and control nodes.
- Battalion task force is overloaded with requests from higher.
- Wargaming and course of action development for urban combat need work.
- Leaders are unsure how to effectively fight once in the city.
- Communications problems in urban conditions are a major challenge.
- Leaders at all levels have problems with Rules of Engagement and proportionality.
- There is poor use of the Judge Advocate General in the brigade combat teams.
- The fight needs to be defined and clear to each unit level of responsibility.
- Units fail to get eyes on the objective (scouts/aviation) to shape the battle.
- Sniper teams are not properly used in planning and not considered as additional eyes on the objective.
- Confirmation of intelligence template is denied when no one can observe the objective.
COMBAT SERVICE SUPPORT BOS: TA.7
- Allocation of assets to support the urban fight is poor.
- Resupply and casualty evacuation in the urban fight are not conducted well.
- Urban-specific supply items: ladders, knee and elbow pads, and ropes with grappling hooks need to be available to all units preparing for this type of action.
- Units do not plan for urban combat and the high died-of-wounds rate.
- Speed, not haste, in the tempo of urban operations should be the norm.
AIR DEFENSE ARTILLERY BOS: TA.3
- There is a poor allocation of ADA assets to support the urban fight overall.
- Focusing of the correct ADA assets at the proper place and time in the battle is poor.
- Attack aviation vulnerability in battle positions is not taken into consideration in the order.
The world in which the Army will fight in the 21st century is even more politically complex and dangerous than just a few years ago. There is a dramatic increase in the lethality of weapons available to hostile elements. The United States must cope with advanced technology that reinvents itself in hours, days, and weeks. The Army now faces a dangerous world without a defined foe. The enemy is nebulous, and the Army is caught between a highly successful (but increasingly outmoded) doctrine and the desire to prepare to meet future adversaries. Urban combat will be a small piece of any new doctrine. The Army cannot wait for the next revision of FM 100-5, Operations, to be completed. Possibly the best approach is to develop new TTP for future contingencies and conflicts now. Developing and formalizing the TTP may generate broader thought that will lead to new doctrine.
The Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) is attempting to develop current TTP to provide a stopgap measure until doctrine is updated and distributed. This method requires the support and contributions of soldiers in the field. CALL is not a doctrine-writing organization. CALL has the mission to support the deployed unit, provide assistance to the follow-on unit, and provide the Army as a whole with the lessons from these experiences. These lessons in the form of TTP can be the first step in revising doctrine, or the first step in recognizing that the Army has a potential problem.
The Army, as an institution, needs to be straightforward in dealing with its leadership, its soldiers, and the American people in addressing these problems, and must begin NOW! Positive leadership is the key ingredient toward success of urban combat operations. The casualties, resource requirements, and collateral damage of urban combat are now and will always be unacceptable and will remain so unless the Army addresses this subject and prepares for this contingency.
The intent of this newsletter is to inspire a healthy debate and dialogue that will eventually improve the Army's readiness for urban combat. The question may arise as to the need for a specific urban combat doctrinal manual or whether urban combat operations can be considered a combat condition. If this latter approach on urban combat is accepted, then should urban combat be incorporated into field manuals as an appendix or annex or incorporated into the text to address the "how to fight doctrine" for each discipline within the U.S. Army? The problems discussed are real. Those who believe urban combat can be clinical are wrong. The hard truth about urban combat operations is that "it is a dirty business, but somebody has to do it."
The U.S. Army has a legacy in dealing with urban operations. The lessons learned in World War II urban combat are as vital and current today as when they were experienced by veterans of that war. "The old hands at the game go through a town keeping inside the houses," one veteran explained. "They use bazookas to knock holes in the dividing walls as they go, and when they come to the end of the block and have to cross the street to the next block they throw smoke first and cross over under cover of that." The most important things in street fighting is stay off the streets and "keep dispersed, move fast, and keep on moving whatever happens... Keep your head up and your eyes open and your legs moving, and at all costs keep apart."1This lesson should not be lost over time, but applied to train soldiers to accomplish a combat mission that will be as difficult, confusing, and intense as the Army will ever be asked to accomplish.
The following historical example shows how Americans can adapt to a new situation when forced to. It is short, well-written, and describes a battle from beginning to end, including the anxiety soldiers experience in urban combat. It also describes the impact of change in ideas concerning organization, weapons, tactics, and leadership that occur regardless of whether soldiers are prepared or not.
The 2d Battalion, 26th Infantry, at Aachen, October 1944
by Dr. Christopher R. Gabel, Historian, Combat Studies Institute, USACGSC
Throughout history, terrain has shaped the conduct of military operations. Traditionally, generals have been concerned with water courses, elevations, depressions, and vegetation in the planning and conduct of battle. With the coming of the industrial age, a new terrain feature--the modern city--became important in the waging of war. In ancient times, a city's military significance resided in its fortifications and its garrison. If these could be overcome, a city ceased to be a military impediment. In modern times, however, an urban area can constitute a major military obstacle. A modern city might be large enough to block a strategic avenue of approach into an enemy's land. Also, its population poses major logistical, administrative, and security problems for the invader. Tactically, a city's closely packed buildings, basements, alleyways, and sewer systems offer cover, concealment, and ready-made defensive positions to the defenders. Masonry buildings tend to muffle the blast effect of the attacker's artillery, and when destroyed, these buildings choke the streets with rubble and broken glass. Offensive movement through urban terrain is further hindered by the canalizing effect of man-made terrain such as roadways, embankments, and cuts.
Generally, a modern city magnifies the power of the defender and robs the attacker of his advantages in firepower and mobility. A city can ingest an invading army, paralyze it for weeks on end, and grind it down to a state of ineffectiveness. The German city of Aachen, population 165,000, posed just such a threat to the U.S. First Army in the autumn of 1944.
The First Army reached the German border near Aachen early in September after a rapid seven-week advance across France and Belgium. At this point in the war, the First Army was an experienced, highly respected fighting force, but it had overextended its lines of communication. Its transportation requirements had far exceeded preinvasion planning and were being met only through the efforts of the improvised "Red Ball Express." Units were depleted through the exhaustion of men and materiel. Frontages had become overextended. Moreover, when the First Army entered Germany, it immediately encountered the Westwall, known to the Allies as the Siegfried Line. The Westwall was essentially a giant antitank barrier consisting of obstacles and pillboxes covering Germany's entire western border. Two separate belts of the Westwall protected the Aachen gateway, testimony to the importance of the region. Fortunately for the First Army, many of the German troops that were to defend the Westwall around Aachen had been cut off and captured in Belgium before they could reach their new positions. Even so, the Westwall constituted a significant combat multiplier for the second-rate forces that were pressed into the defense of Aachen.
When the First Army arrived at the German border on 10 September, the Germans expected an immediate assault on Aachen and deployed their meager forces accordingly. Instead, Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges chose to attack the Westwall just south of the city, hoping to break through the border defenses before logistical shortfalls brought his operations to a halt. From 13 to 15 September, elements of the 3d Armored and 9th Infantry Divisions penetrated the Westwall and, in the process, outflanked Aachen to the south. But they were unable to press their advantage. The First Army then stood down for three weeks to reorganize and build up strength for a deliberate attack on Aachen itself.
On 8 October, Hodges undertook the encirclement of Aachen, with the 30th Infantry Division of XIX Corps attacking from the north and the 1st Infantry Division of VII Corps from the south. German resistance was stiff and progress slow, prompting Hodges to begin the reduction of Aachen before the encirclement was complete. A surrender ultimatum delivered to the German garrison in Aachen on 10 October brought no response: Hitler had designated Aachen as a "fortress," meaning it was to be held to the last man.
The task of reducing Aachen fell to Major General Clarence R. Huebner's Ist Infantry Division, a veteran of the Tunisia, Sicily, and Normandy campaigns. Since the 1st Division was also responsible for the southern jaw of the Aachen encirclement, only one regiment, the 26th Infantry, could be spared for the assault on the city (see map). The 26th, under Colonel John F. R. Seitz, had only two of its three battalions on hand. It would face a numerically superior foe: some 5,000 Germans, commanded by Colonel Gerhard Wilck, garrisoned the city. (The 1st Division's G2 estimated the defenders at only 3,500.) Adding to his complications, Seitz was ordered not to become inextricably involved inside Aachen while the encirclement battle raged. One circumstance working in the Americans' favor was the relatively low quality of German forces in the garrison, which included overage conscripts, converted navy and air force personnel, and city police.
The advance of the 2d Battalion, 26th Infantry, into central Aachen, 12-21 October 1944
In an attempt to secure a degree of surprise, Huebner elected to attack Aachen from the east rather than from the south, where the 26th Infantry currently occupied lines. Major General J. Lawton Collins provided a corps asset, the 1106th Engineer Combat Group, to man the lines vacated by the 26th. The engineer force consisted of two engineer combat battalions and elements of two bridge companies and was reinforced by an antitank company and a mortar company. Its mission was defensive.
The 26th Infantry's plan of attack called for sending one battalion, the 3d, north of Aachen to capture the high ground commanding the area, while the 2d Battalion cleared the center of the city. Lieutenant Colonel Derrill M. Daniel, commander of the 2d, organized his battalion into three hard-hitting company task forces. Each rifle company was reinforced with three tanks or tank destroyers (tanklike weapons), which allowed company commanders to supply one to each platoon; two 57-mm antitank guns; two bazooka teams to augment the three bazookas organic to each company; a flamethrower; and two heavy machine guns. Daniel also obtained one self-propelled 155-mm gun to augment his firepower. Since his frontage would be two to three times that recommended by doctrine for urban fighting, all three companies would have to participate in the assault; there could be no battalion reserve. On the positive side, intelligence gatherers provided him with maps of Aachen. Furthermore, at least seventy-four batteries of corps and division artillery were in the Aachen sector, giving the Americans a significant edge in overall firepower.
For two days prior to the 26th Infantry's assault, artillery and air power pounded the defenders of Aachen with 160 tons of bombs and 10,000 rounds of artillery. The 1106th Engineers contributed to the preparation by packing a trolley car with explosives (dubbed the "V-13") and rolling it down railroad tracks into the city's center. Apparently, because of the stout masonry construction of the city's buildings, the preparatory fires had little impact on the Aachen garrison. Nonetheless, the infantry assault proceeded on 13 October as planned.
The 2d Battalion's line of departure lay along a railroad embankment fifteen to thirty feet high that bounded Aachen to the east. At H-hour (0930), all the infantrymen threw hand grenades over the embankment and scrambled across, firing all weapons. It took thirty minutes for the Germans to recover and begin returning fire. Meanwhile, two tanks succeeded in passing over the embankment, followed by the rest of the battalion's vehicles, which drove right through a railroad station that was located under the tracks within the embankment itself.
The 2d Battalion deployed with F Company on the right, where it tied in with 3d Battalion; E Company in the center; and G Company on the left, its flank resting on the railroad embankment south of town. Each company zone was roughly three blocks wide, meaning that each platoon within the company worked a separate street. As the battalion advanced, every building was assumed to be a German defensive position until proven otherwise. No German, whether soldier or civilian, was allowed to remain in the battalion's rear. Every room of every building was thoroughly searched before the attack continued to the next. Even the sewer manholes were blocked up to prevent enemy infiltration. To maintain positive control over his companies and prevent flanks from opening up, Daniel used a "measle system"--city maps on which every intersection and all key buildings were numbered. The companies operated within specified zones and halted periodically at checkpoints designated by battalion to establish positive liaison with flank units. In sum, speed counted for less than thoroughness; it took Daniel's battalion nine days to clear downtown Aachen.
Equally noteworthy was the battalion's effective use of firepower, which was in keeping with Daniel's slogan, "Knock 'em all down." His principle was to keep up a continuous stream of fire from every available weapon, ranging from rifle to medium artillery. The division and corps artillery had remained south of Aachen when the assault forces moved to their jump-off points east of the city, misleading the enemy as to the Americans' intended axis of advance and permitting the artillery to shoot parallel to the front of the assault troops. This eliminated the danger of "short" rounds falling on friendly troops and allowed the infantry units to call down fire very close to their own positions. By shelling German lines of communication, Daniel isolated objectives. He also used artillery to drive defenders out of the upper floors of specific buildings. Direct fire from tanks, tank destroyers, antitank guns, and machine guns also chased the enemy away from his firing positions. Machine guns commanded the streets along the axis of advance, ready to cut down any evacuating Germans. Daniel's infantry stayed out of the streets whenever possible, preferring to move from building to building by blowing holes in walls. Ideally, by the time the infantry closed in on a given strongpoint, the Germans would have been driven down into the cellars. Grenades and, if necessary, flamethrowers and demolition charges, finished the job.
Knowing the effectiveness of German antitank weapons, the Americans were especially cautious in employing their valuable armor. Generally, tanks and tank destroyers stayed on the side streets (perpendicular to the axis of advance) and nosed cautiously around corners to fire. They would generally shoot one building ahead of the infantry advance until an entire block was cleared, then advance to the next side street.
Obviously, this method of combat required high expenditures of ammunition. Daniel established a battalion ammunition dump to ensure the steady supply of munitions. Evacuating the wounded also posed special problems, because the rubble and glass in the streets quickly ruined the tires of wheeled vehicles. Therefore, tracked utility vehicles known an weasels were pressed into duty for casualty evacuation. Several incidents called for special ingenuity on the part of the 2d Battalion. Early on 15 October, G Company encountered fire coming from a massive three-story air-raid shelter constructed of concrete fifteen feet thick. Infantrymen quickly drove the German defenders inside and fired on the doors with machine guns. Through an interpreter, the G Company commander issued an ultimatum, which the defenders ignored. At that juncture, a flamethrower was brought forward. When the flamethrower failed to ignite, the company commander lighted it with a match. After one squirt of flame at a baffle-covered door, the defenders gave up. Two hundred soldiers and about 1,000 civilians emerged from the gigantic shelter.
Later that day, the Germans counterattacked G Company with a tank-infantry force, and penetrated the U.S. line to a depth of several blocks. The penetration was quickly sealed off and eliminated. This counterattack was one of the few German offensive actions inside Aachen during the U.S. advance.
On 16 October, U.S. troops spotted what appeared to be a pillbox several blocks ahead of the battle line on the street that served as the boundary between E and G Companies. Since none of the company weapons could destroy it, Daniel decided to employ his precious 155-mm gun. To do so safely, he concocted a rather unique combined arms effort. While one tank destroyer knocked holes in a building at the foot of the street in question, creating a field of fire for the 155-mm gun, other tanks and tank destroyers fired into the cross streets to keep roving German armor at bay. Meanwhile, riflemen cleared the nearby houses of German infantry. When all was safe, the 155-mm gun fired some twelve rounds into the pillbox and into the intersections along the street. The "pillbox" proved to be a camouflaged tank, which was utterly destroyed. Another German tank was destroyed by one of the 155-mm gun's random shots into the cross streets. After his capture, the German commander of Aachen was said to have denounced such use of a large weapon as being "barbarous."
Two days later, G Company made further "barbarous" use of the 155-mm gun. Despite the Americans' care in clearing all buildings, on 18 October they came under rifle fire from the rear. After two hours of searching, they found that the shots were coming from a church steeple that had not been secured. Tank and tank destroyer fire had no effect on the steeple, which, it was later discovered, had been reinforced with concrete. One shot from the 155-mm gun brought down the entire structure.
As the 2d Battalion advanced through Aachen, its already wide frontages extended even farther. Fortunately, the encirclement battle east of Aachen was won on 16 October, freeing up forces to aid in the city's reduction. C Company from the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry, joined the assault on 18 October, taking a sector on the battalion's right flank. A battalion from the 28th Division, the 2d Battalion, 110th Infantry, joined Daniel's force on 19 October, occupying a gap between G Company and the engineers south of the city. As welcome as these reinforcements were, the battle in Aachen was already winding down. German resistance became less determined as the defenders realized that they were encircled and had been abandoned by their high command.
On 21 October, Daniel's force reached the railroad embankment that marked the western edge of central Aachen. Daniel staged another embankment assault (like that employed on 13 October to enter the city) and secured the far side of the obstacle. Meanwhile, just to the north of the interbattalion boundary, elements of the 3d Battalion prepared to destroy a bunker with their attached 155-mm gun. Unknown to them, one of the inhabitants of the bunker was Colonel Wilck, the garrison commander. When Wilck recognized his predicament, he radioed a message to his high command and announced his determination to fight to the end; he then promptly surrendered.
For all practical purposes, this marked the end of the battle for Aachen. The operation netted a total of 5,600 German prisoners and cost the 26th Infantry 498 casualties from all causes. Daniel's 2d Battalion and attached units lost less than 100 casualties. By the end of the battle, U.S. forces had destroyed 80 percent of the buildings in Aachen.
Doubtless, the capture of Aachen would have been much more difficult had the defending German forces been of higher quality. Even so, the U.S. forces involved must be credited with fighting skillfully and intelligently. Through their masterful use of firepower, careful control measures, and sound tactics, the Americans defeated a numerically superior opponent who enjoyed all of the advantages of defending in urban terrain. As the first German city captured by the Allies in World War II, Aachen represented a milestone in the destruction of Hitler's Third Reich.
This article was previously published in Combined Arms in Battle Since 1939, by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College Press, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1992.
1. Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Chapter 2: Intelligence
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