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Two battles are separated by six decades and a high-tech transformation. But the street fighting tactics of Iraq would be familiar to infantrymen of World War II.
By BILL DURYEA
Published August 28, 2005
[Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Signal Corps
|THEN IN AACHEN: Armored tanks were crucial in taking the city in 20 days of fierce fighting in October of 1944.
|NOW IN FALLUJAH:
U.S. forces, including a division that also fought at Aachen, used tactics learned there to take the city in 17 days. .
CARLISLE, Pa. -- In October 1944, U.S. infantrymen set foot for the first time in a German city. For the next seven days they fought to clear every building, every cellar, every sewer pipe, while German snipers hidden in bombed-out buildings picked them off by the score.
The battle, like so many others in World War II, would define popular notions of combat for years to come: bloody, chaotic, long.
Sixty years later, the United States is at war again. To be sure, the Iraq war is a much smaller scale conflict, but we find ourselves at a similar crossroads.
For all the technological advantages gained since the end of WWII - helicopters, night-vision goggles and unmanned reconnaissance planes no bigger than a desk - the troops who last November fought their way down every street in Fallujah used tactics and weapons that would have been familiar to any veteran infantryman who had set foot in Aachen.
"In the infantry business, a lot hasn't changed," said John Bonin, professor of concepts and doctrine at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle. "You're living in mud. You're eating bad food. You're living on adrenaline and fear. That's no different than last century."* * *
Aachen was the birthplace of Charlemagne and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire - in Hitler's eyes the seat of "the First Reich" and therefore a city of overwhelming symbolic importance.
But it held no more than practical value to the Americans. Without possession of Aachen, American forces could not advance securely to the Rhine.
After days of heavy bombardment, the Americans sent an envoy into the city bearing an offer for the Germans to surrender. The Germans refused; Hitler had vowed the city would not be taken.
That didn't stop American senior commanders from gathering in Vervier, Belgium, on the night of Oct. 13 to celebrate the "fall" of the first German city. They predicted they would be in Berlin by December. The festivities were woefully premature.
On the same day their generals were celebrating victory, two battalions of the 26th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division took their first steps inside the city. At full strength that would have been approximately 2,000 men, but full strength was not part of Army reality at that late stage of the war. The 1st Division started the war with 14,851 men, but during two years and nine months of combat suffered 21,023 casualties - a rate of 142 percent.
"They were numerically inferior to the 2,000 odd men at German Col. Wilck's disposal, supported by 30 guns and five tanks," wrote Charles Whiting in his 1976 book Bloody Aachen.
One American colonel had prepared carefully for this most dreaded form of combat. Small squads of soldiers working with tanks and armored vehicles would proceed to predetermined checkpoints, never advancing beyond that point until they had made contact with squads on each flank.
They had not advanced to the first checkpoint before the plan broke down.
"Within a matter of minutes, 20 or more of the 2nd Battalion's men lay on the cobbles, shot in the back," Whiting wrote. "And before their startled comrades could react, their attackers had disappeared the way they had come, scuttling into the cover of the sewers."
To give themselves protection from enemy fire and grenades that rained on them from rooftops, American soldiers worked closely with tanks, tank destroyers and later two self-propelled 155mm guns, capable of blowing a hole through a block of buildings.
Typically, a tank would fire on the building just ahead of its rifle platoon, suppressing enemy fire until the soldiers could enter the building, "heralding their arrival at a room or cellar with hand grenades," wrote Ward Page in a report in 2000 on urban warfare for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The city fell to the Americans on Oct. 21. Casualties were heavy during the final seven days of street-to-street fighting - 414 wounded, 75 killed and nine missing in action.* * *
Aachen would influence Army strategy for years to come.
The Army's Field Manual 100-5, a document that has been called the tap root of Army doctrine, has this to say about urban warfare: "Commanders should avoid committing forces to the attack of urban areas unless the mission absolutely requires doing so."
But as the world becomes more urbanized, noted Ward Page in his report, "the opportunities for avoiding urban areas are diminishing, and missions for the force projection Army of today and tomorrow are more likely to mandate operations in cities than was the case yesterday."
Iraq has proven his point.
"People who are non-technological look for ways to stretch war out," Conrad Crane, director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa., said. "The American way of war tends to be: get in quick with massive force and then leave. But other societies" - the Chinese under Mao, the Vietnamese, for example - "are prepared for protracted war."* * *
When the U.S. decided in late 2004 to invade Fallujah, insurgents had been massing in the city west of Baghdad for months.
But the Marines and Army infantrymen (members of the 1st Division, the same division that had fought in Aachen) compensated for the insurgents' home field advantage in several ways.
They had superior numbers. Unlike Aachen, coalition troops outnumbered the enemy by as many as 3 to 1.
They had tanks and armored fighting vehicles, a tactic that had proven decisive in Aachen.
And just as important, they could see everything that moved in the city.
Before the first shot was fired, military reconnaissance, using unmanned aerial vehicles (10 different types) and satellite imagery, had identified about 100 of the insurgents' safe houses.
In Iraq, special intelligence teams would sift the reams of information streaming into the operations center 24 hours a day and then repackage it in Microsoft PowerPoint presentations (complete with digital maps and video) that commanders would use to prioritize their targets.
"At first the insurgents had a hard time grasping that we could see them at night - better sometimes than during the day," said Bing West, a Vietnam-era Marine veteran turned author who wrote No True Glory: A Front-line Account of the Battle for Fallujah. "We had cases where they were crawling on their hands and knees barking like dogs, trying to pretend that's what they were. It was almost comic."
But if the insurgents hunkered down, U.S. forces were once again in the dark.
At the start of the offensive, Fallujah had 39,000 buildings. Each one of them had to be searched and cleared. Later, commanders would determine that every 70th building contained enemy fighters.
"But the Marines didn't know which ones," West said.
So they looked for clues like police detectives would.
"They were looking for s---," West said. "They'd look in the outhouses to see if there was fresh human feces. That and dead dogs. (The insurgents) would kill them to keep them from barking."
"We were great on the outside," West said. "But we were back to raw courage when we went inside. The minute you go up to that house, it's just the individual. No high-tech."
In the end, Fallujah was taken at a cost of 71 combat deaths. Street-to-street fighting in Aachen was shorter, but more costly.* * *
On any given day during the Aachen campaign, 25 to 60 men were "sick," a designation that often meant they were suffering "combat exhaustion." The phenomenon was not well-understood at the time, though Army officials sensed that one of the major causes - along with inadequate training and weak officers - was confusion on the battlefield.
"A soldier needs to know what is going on, what is expected of him what he may expect to encounter; he must have a definite objective or goal," read a report in the Army's Operations Division Bulletin of June 10, 1944. "Without proper information he is more prone to absorb wild rumors, loose talk and misinformation, resulting in constant mental stress and strain."
Loss of morale meant that in WWII, only 25 percent of men fired their weapons, S.L.A. Marshall wrote in his famous book, Men Against Fire.
Of all the transformations between WWII and today, the quality and availability of battlefield information may be one of the greatest.
On the morning of the D-Day invasions, Field Marshal Montgomery, having launched his troops, returned home to tend his roses. He could see nothing and what he could see he couldn't change. Fifty-nine years later, U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, who commanded the coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, watched on a plasma screen as blue dots, indicating individual tanks and troop carriers, moved in real time across the Kuwait border into enemy territory.
The guiding principle of this transformation is that technology will enable commanders to avoid the "fog and friction" of war that 19th century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said was endemic to battle.
Critics, among them high-ranking military commanders, say this is a dangerous misreading of the unpredictable nature of war, in which "the enemy always has a vote."
"The more the available information," writes Martin van Creveld in his 1985 book Command in War, "the longer the time to process it and the greater the danger of failing to distinguish between the relevant and the irrelevant. ..."
The war in Europe ended within seven months of Aachen's fall. Fallujah was unquestionably a more decisive victory than Aachen, but eight months have passed and the war in Iraq is not over.
-- Bill Duryea can be reached at 813 226-3377 or firstname.lastname@example.orgACHEN/FALLUJAH by the numbers
Length of campaign:
Aachen: siege lasted 20 days, Oct. 2-21, 1944; fighting inside city: 9 days, Oct. 13-21
Fallujah: 17 days, Nov. 8-25, 2004
Number of troops:
Aachen: less than 2,000 (two battalions 26th Infantry Regiment)
Fallujah: 10,000 Marines and Army, 2,000 Iraqis
Number of enemy fighters:
Aachen: 2,000-5,000 German troops
Fallujah: 4,000 insurgents (estimate)
Number of troop casualties:
Aachen: 414 wounded, 75 killed, 9 missing (26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division)
10,199 killed and wounded (1st Army, from Oct. 2-21)
Fallujah: 71 killed, 425 wounded (U.S.); 8 killed, 43 wounded (Iraqi)
Number of enemies killed/captured:
Fallujah: 1,200-1,600 killed; 1,000 captured
Sources: DARPA, U.S. Dept. of Defense, Military History Institute
[Last modified August 22, 2005, 10:49:04]
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