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Talking Tactics, Part Five

5HeaderThe concept of fire and movement was, essentially, a product of the introduction of magazine fed rifles. At that point the firepower of the individual infantryman increased to the point where, if he was allowed time to fire unimpeded, he could dominate ground so effectively with fire that no enemy movement would be possible. In the Boer War this was proven empirically, as the well-entrenched Boers swept the open veldt before them.

The British answer was to use massed rifle fire by stationary troops to cover short rushes forward by small parties, thereby allowing the battalion to advance by small increments towards their objective. It was primitive, but it worked and the tactics of fire and movement at small unit level were much enhanced during the Great War by the introduction of man-portable machine guns and rifle grenades at platoon level.

By the time of the Second World War, most militaries were equipping their units to operate using the principles of fire and movement at platoon level. How this was achieved varied slightly from nation to nation. Here we can only take a view of the essential principles of fire and movement and look at why and how it was achieved.

The Lottery of the Firefight
The primary reason for combining fire and movement is the fact that the protracted firefight on even terms is a complete lottery. In the following situation, with two squads facing each other from light cover at close range the result of the exchange will always be a matter of chance.

5Firefight 1The unit which opens fire first has a slight advantage, but that is so minimal as to be entirely within the margin of error which we must assume chance will play in any imprecise calculation (and warfare is entirely imprecise in such detail). What is almost guaranteed is the result of that firefight if it is allowed to continue to its ultimate conclusion; the loser will be obliged to withdraw with losses of over 50%, its morale broken. However, the winner will also have suffered typical casualties of around 50% losses and will no longer have any real offensive capability. In other words, the outcome will be left almost entirely to chance and, even then, both units will burn themselves out with any victory being largely dissipated by an unacceptable level of losses.

The more effective alternative for a platoon commander is to use manoeuvre to create a situation where by he achieves local superiority over his opponent in one area of the battlefield. But how is this achieved?

There are various terms used to describe the means to this desired result. Probably the best is the “Four F’s” when the US forces used in WWII. Find, Fix, Flank, Finish. In detail this means to find your opponent, to fix him in place with firepower, to flank him and then, finally, to close to finish him off. The British Army uses Pin, Pivot, Punch, Pursue at Operational level, and one can see that Fix and Pin, Flank and Pivot, Finish and Punch are all doing the same job. Let is look in detail at the “Four F’s” and how they relate to Chain of Command.

Find
We have stressed in Part Three of this series how critical it is to identify the enemy’s precise location before launching an attack. The Patrol Phase of the game gives the attacker an indication as to where his patrols identified the enemy as being prior to the game beginning. Whether they are still there, and in what numbers they are present is as yet unknow to him. It is absolutely critical that he identifies where the defender’s actual positions are before he launches his attack. We looked at this in Part Three and Part Four, so suffice to say here that through use of scouts or a leading section you should oblige the enemy to reveal himself before you launch the main blow. Here we will look at how an advance against an unidentified enemy position should be conducted using Fire and Movement tactics.

Think carefully about the best routes of advance and provide the spearhead unit in your force with covering fire to allow it to probe the enemy position as safely as possible. The 1944 platoon leader’s manual states:

“Covering fire is essential to any advance. Without it, forward movement will often be impossible. The nearer the section gets to the enemy position, the greater the need for covering fire”.

In Chain of Command we are well placed to follow this mantra. The rules allow for Covering Fire to be provided for an advancing unit, something which will reduce the effectiveness of fire from any unit appearing in the targeted area. What is more, the rules also allow for the moving troops to move “tactically”, taking maximum advantage of the terrain. This also reduces the effect of any fire against them. As a result they may not be 100% safe, but they are as well-protected as they can possibly be. In the following diagram we see the rifle team from Section A advancing tactically along the hedgerow whilst the light machine gun team provides covering fire against one section of hedgerow to their left. Section B is putting covering fire into the hedgerow ahead.

5FindThis manoeuvre, if conducted well, presents the German player with a real tactical problem. Wherever he deploys troops to fire on A, they will be treated as a target in hard cover due to the covering fire and tactical movement. The next step for the Allied player is to consolidate their advance with Section A, providing more covering fire to keep German heads down while Section B moves up to assume the next position from where it can cover the advance. Clearly, at some point the German defender must intervene, but by using fire and movement tactics the Allies are attempting to ensure that the effect of any defender’s fire will be reduced by the covering fire. In other words, the advantage of surprise, which a defender should enjoy, is dissipated by good tactics.

5Find2Once the German defenders deploy, the Allies will need to decide whether to press home their attack in this area, or whether to withdraw here and shift the axis of their advance elsewhere. If the latter is preferred, leaving one Section to threaten in this area, whilst shifting the second Section to a more central position will then serve to tie down German troops to this area whilst allowing the Allies to make the final decision where their main attack will be launched.

Fix, Flank & Finish
The principle of fixing and enemy with firepower is constant through the doctrines of the various forces. However, how that is applied differs. Some forces had specific base of fire squads as part of the platoon to achieve that; some used attached support weapons to provide the required firepower. The example we will look at here is from the British manual but could equally apply to US or German infantry. For other troops with a base of fire element, such as US Armored Infantry or Airborne forces, Section A would simply be replaced by that firepower element.

5FixAs can be seen, Section A is engaging a German force. This presents all of the problems we covered about the uncertainty of a firefight, so it is critical that once a plan of attack is decided up on the fix, flank, finish phases are implemented as quickly as possible. The manual tells us that:

“There must be no interval between the cessation of covering fire and the beginning of the assault. If there should be such an interval the enemy will begin shooting again. Remember, if the enemy is dug in, covering fire seldom kills him; it merely makes him keep his head down so that he is unable to shoot back.”

To begin the flank phase, the light machine gun team from Section B can rapidly take up a position on the right and add its fire. We are now firing for effect as it is key that we oblige the Germans to get their heads down and, in Chain of Command, that is represented by Pinning them. Close assaults are always dangerous against an unpinned enemy, as they should be, so look to win the firefight first. Part of this is done by the LMG team from Section C moving to a deep position to fire into the flank of the enemy position, but also to cut off the avenue of retreat for the German forces.

Finally, with the enemy fixed in position, the rifle teams from Sections B and C have combined to assault and finish off the enemy. Moving forward tactically they can hurl grenades before then launching an all out assault against what, by now, should be an enemy who lacks much will to resist.

Throughout this whole process the attacker has always kept one unit constantly firing against the enemy position. If this process was combined with the advance using fire and manoeuvre then it is key that, at any point, one unit is stationary and providing a base of fire, whether that is covering fire, or firing for effect. Equally, the position of the LMGs is noteworthy. At no time until the moment of assault is their line of fire blocked by the assaulting team. In this way the maximum firepower is maintained right up to the moment of assault.

Theory & Practice
One of the most important quotes from our 1944 manual tells us the following:

“Battle drills do not give you the answer to every problem; they do not absolve the commander from thinking, but they do help him think along the right lines.”

It is a pragmatic and practical comment which should be borne in mind. The illustration above showing the ideal find, fix, flank, finish attack has the disadvantage that it shows one German squad facing odds of three to one. This rather assumes that the rest of the German platoon in a game of Chain of Command is standing idly by and allowing this to occur. In reality it may be that such odds are not achievable. However, by finding our enemy before we launch our attack, and by retaining one or more units in reserve, we can at least allow ourselves the flexibility to stack the odds in our favour at one point.

The ability to use our Chain of Command points to bring forward a jump-off point, and then to immediately utilise that to launch an attack, or to simply threaten one, is a powerful tool. The use of support weapons to neutralise other identified enemy positions, either by engaging them with fire, or by simply placing them in a position where they dominate ground and can be put on Overwatch can stop the enemy redeploying his forces freely. Where smoke is available, or mortar bombardments, these can be used to isolate part of the table and allow number to be brought to bear against an inferior opponent. Let’s look at an example using the scenario we have followed thus far.

5AssaultWe saw Sections A and B advance on their right using some textbook fire and movement techniques. They identified that the Germans held the rear orchards in strength, but fortunately they were able to withdraw due to the covering fire they had been putting down; however, not before they advanced one Jump-Off Point forward 18”, suggesting that this would be the flank where the main attack would be launched. Shifting Section B to a central position also keeps the German in the orchard in place with an implied threat in the centre.

Deploying Section C, the Allied player sent out two scouts to move against the third German Jump-Off Point. The Scouts were killed, but as the attacker in this scenario the Allied player has more support than the Germans and can deploy that, marked S, along with the rest of Section C to engage the Germans in a firefight. A mortar barrage is begun. In this situation it actually pins down part of the German force in the orchard, but even if nobody was under the barrage it would serve to isolate the southernmost German unit. Now Section B can add its LMG team to the base of fire and send its rifle team around the flank to assault.

Whilst this does not perfectly match the blueprint above, it does retain most of the principal elements. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the support unit is, it simply adds to the firepower and helps win the firefight. With that done the assaulting team can again go in with grenades before finishing off the enemy. If the German defenders are suitablly pinned, Section C could even advance to overwhelm them and cause them to surrender.

The Lesson
Chain of Command is all about combining Fire & Movement in order to maximise enemy casualties and minimise your own. Use Covering fire and Tactical movement to protect advancing troops wherever possible. Use Covering fire against apparently unmanned positions which may in fact contain enemy force (i.e favourable points to which your enemy can deploy). For an attacker to enter a stand-up firefight without simultaneously manoeuvring to a position of advantage is to surrender the initiative and accept losses which will swiftly reduce the fighting capability of your force.

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13 Responses

  1. Quite, but not to forget also that we never want to be fighting fair, which means always outnumber your opponent, because as the ratio goes up in your favour, your casualties go down. So the bottom line is about making sure that you leverage local superiority to minimize one’s own casualties, or as Patton said, “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

  2. Stephen O'Leary says:

    Any thoughts on which is better, Overwatch or Covering Fire?

  3. John Ewing says:

    I’d say that neither Overwatch or covering fire are better than the other. They are both valuable in the right circumstances. Overwatch helps you restrict the enemy’s movement, covering fire aids your own movement
    I think most wargamers in my experience fail to appreciate the value of covering fire. Since we all like to fire for effect most players seem to prefer overwatch.
    John

  4. Truscott Trotter says:

    If you are attacking and you think the enemy may deploy ahead of you both is the answer!
    If he is already deployed you would not use overwatch unless you are bypassing him and cannot get a shot immediately and you want to shoot is that unit moves.
    Mortars are n extremely useful weapon in the attack….which is why I am sad my Soviets do not get access to them.

  5. Rolf says:

    …a thoroughly engaging and enlightening series of articles Rich. It makes clear that CoC is absolutely game/simulation ‘as one’, and he who knows the best TACTICS will invariably be able to utilise CoC to it maximum benefit and the optimal outcome.

    …you should be selling copies to the MOD!

    Cheers

    Rolf

  6. Big Rich says:

    Overwatch is better if you are looking to cover an area of ground through which the enemy may advance. Covering Fire is better if you are attempting to protect your own men advancing against a relatively limited area with a potential enemy presence. If you are facing a 12″ frontage where the enemy could “pop up” (normal with deployment 6″ from a jump-off point) then put your covering fire into the middle of that and you’ll likely catch anyone appearing. If, however, you have a 24″ potential enemy deployment area then the enemy will likely appear where you are not putting in covering fire. In that situation the troops moving should be tactical and you’d be better on overwatch in order to respond to any fire.

    That said, if you are faced with a 24″ frontage, then you may well be attacking at the wrong place as it doesn’t fit well with the requirement that the avenue of approach should be as protected as possible.

  7. Big Rich says:

    …you should be selling copies to the MOD!

    What, Paul Weller?

  8. Rolf says:

    ..Ministry of Defence!

  9. Mike says:

    Richard,
    Fantastic series and making a big impression on all of us:)
    I know this is only an example but one question i wanted to ask. In the paragraph under the second illustration you say the combination of covering fire and tactical movement make the target hard cover. But if they are moving tactically behind a hedge then they are in light cover raised to hard cover because of moving tactically. So the covering fire means the unit can only be shocked not have men killed, because they can at best roll 6 minus one for covering fire so 5. Is this correct?
    Just getting up to speed with this one and so wanted to check although it hasn’t raised its head in our games because people haven’t been using covering fire much.
    Mike

  10. Big Rich says:

    Hi Mike

    Not quite. The covering fire doesn’t affect the “effect” roll, but the “to hit” roll. So, covering fire its on 5 and 6 instead of 6, then the target moving tactically is counted as in hard cover instead of light cover. It’s all incrementally making life harder for the defender.

  11. Big Rich says:

    Oh, THEM! 8^D

  12. Mike says:

    Hi rich,
    Yeah. That was embarrassing. Played a game last night and in the first few minutes realised the error of my ways. Just to say we saw a big change in tactics last night with our guys. We had close assault on a house with lots of grenades thrown, covering fire and much more movement.
    Keep up the great work.
    Mike

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