The attack is one of the more important aspects of war. If both sides defend then there really isn’t a war. In order to win a war one side must attack and in attacking take a risk. If the attacker fails he may be vulnerable to a counter attack.
When armies clash they do not involve hundred of thousands of men running at each other with rifles. When one group attacks another Fire and Movement is not the only deciding factor.
In Korea for instance, a Marine Corps company of fewer than two hundred men (they had taken a lot of casualties earlier) attacked a hill defended by well over a thousand North Koreans (I think the number was around two thousand). It may be surprising to note that the Marines were not massacred and actually managed to take the hill when the Marines were outnumbered by about twenty to one, attacking up hill, and into defended positions.
This may sound impossible but it is not. When the Marines attacked that hill they knew what they were doing. They knew there was an enemy there and the knew the enemy would not run away when a few shots were fired.
The methods of attacking vary according to what is available and the enemy. Before those Marines attacked that hill they called in for fire support. While the hill was being flattened by artillery they moved into attack positions. When they advanced the artillery fire shifted away from them. When the Marines eventually moved in to occupy the hill there was some fighting and a lot of North Korean bodies.
Good Commanders do not just throw troops at the enemy, they usually have a method to their madness. Standard Operating Procedures keep planning to a minimum but there is always planning and coordination required.
When a unit moves into the attack it has to start from somewhere and it has to get to the enemy. This is where the enemy can do the most damage. Because units must move to meet the enemy they might arrive tired and tired troops don’t fight as well.
Offensive Operations usually have three distinct phases. The Prepatory phase, the Conduct Phase and Consolidation and Reorganization Phase and each one is basically self explanatory. Night operations are different.
In most operations a unit will start in the assembly area. Here they plan the attack, coordinate who does what and when, and get sleep, food, water, ammunition, ect. Fire support, in the form of artillery, mortars, strike fighters, attack helicopters and bombers may begin firing on the enemy location at this time and continue to do so until the attacking unit is too close to the explosions. Fire support may not start until the last minute to maintain surprise. In general however, the more the better because it does more than kill the enemy, it also attacks his morale.
When the unit is ready, and done planning, they will saddle up and move out. The formations may vary according to the terrain but in general there will be a forward element shielding the rest of the unit, elements on either flank, and a rear guard. It is less tiring to follow someone than it is to make your own path, maintain a formation and watch for the enemy. Security must be provided however and if the enemy calls for artillery fire on the formation you don’t want them bunched up because one round can kill several.
Usually there will be a covered and concealed area that scouts have designated, just before the unit comes in contact with the enemy. In this area, the troops, still somewhat safe from enemy fire, (but not patrols or spoiling attacks!), may make final preparations, ditch packs, ect. From here, the unit may continue toward the enemy or if it is close enough deploy into the combat formations.
As the unit advances one of two things will occur. Lead elements will make contact with the enemy (which is not good) and the unit will deploy on line to start their attack OR the unit will reach a point and deploy on line. When the unit moves into their combat formations they are in a position to attack.
There are two types of attack, Frontal and a Single Envelopment. The Frontal attack is the least preferred. The Single Envelopment, also called Flanking the enemy is better. See small unit tactics.
During a Frontal attack a leader may designate a base sub unit. For instance a platoon may use a squad, or fireteam. This allows everyone to adjust off that unit and it allows the leader to control the rate of advance more easily because everyone will fight to stay online with that base unit. The disadvantage of this is a unit near one of the flanks my not be able to take the initiative because it is more concerned with staying on line with the base unit.
In general, most attackers prefer to have three to one advantage. A platoon would attack a squad, a squad would attack a fireteam, ect. See small unit tactics and The Defense for details of the actual attack.
Once the troops get near the enemy positions the leader may opt for a charge. First he will give a prepatory command, like “Prepare to charge!” or “Fix bayonets!” This is the best time to fix bayonets and reload so a full magazine is available instead of maybe a half full mag. On command the troops may charge at the enemy positions screaming bloody murder and firing all they’ve got. The end result is a lot of chaos and confusion. Someone might run right past an enemy position, others might run into it. One person might see his buddy to his side fighting with a bad guy and go help, leaving his front open, ect. There are far too many ways for a line to dissolve at this point.
Or units can be more methodical and controlled in their attack by lobbing grenades into fighting holes and after the explosion, following them in to make sure the position is clear.
Regardless of how the final attack is conducted, a limit of advance should be designated, usually this is the reverse crest of a hill, or some other identifiable feature so troops know when to stop advancing. If no limit of advance is designated a unit can get spread out all over the place, some going too far, some not going far enough. With casualties and confusion a LOA can be critical because it gives the survivors a line to organize on and repel on enemy attack. Once the attackers have reached the LOA a great many things happen. Leaders place their troops to deal with an enemy counter attack and might send out security elements. The commander might order the unit to pursue fleeing enemy, ect.
Either way, teams will be organized to make sure the captured area is secure and no enemy troops are still alive. Prisoners and wounded will also have to be taken care of. Ammunition will have to be redistributed and any casualties in the chain of command will have to be replaced.
This is when a unit is most vulnerable to an enemy counter attack because it is trying to reorganize, figure out what happened and what the current situation is. People are also tired, thirsty and trying to deal with the deaths of their fellows and/or commanders.
The Soviet military is designed to maximize this environment by using waves. While the victorious wave is reorganizing, the second wave keeps on rolling to exploit the initial attack.
The night attack is a lot more different because of the bad visibility. A smaller force can be much more successful in the night attack if it well trained.
At night people are usually more frightened because they can’t see as well and begin to suspect the enemy is everywhere.
There are two ways to conduct a night attack, illuminated, and non-illuminated.
An illuminated attack is almost like a day attack because the attackers and defenders can see because of the flares. A non-illuminated is a lot more difficult but there are ways to increase the success.
When the attacker decides to conduct a night attack scouts are sent out to find routes. These scouts need to become familiar with the area and may mark routes that they can follow at night. The designated scouts use control points. For instance, a platoon proceeds to a control point where three scouts meet the platoon and each scout takes a squad and leads the squad to a position in a line facing the enemy and has another squad on the right or left. Or, scouts may take control by platoons. Regardless of the unit size, the scouts should coordinate things so that when deployed units form one big line without gaps.
As troops are being put into position facing the enemy they must be as quiet as possible. Teams may be designated to take out enemy listening/observation posts or other sentries. Artillery fire may be called on to pin down and demoralize the enemy while the unit deploys.
Eventually, the unit will be on line and facing the enemy. Finally the commander will give the signal. At first everyone will be laying down facing the enemy. Then when the commander gives the signal one person will get to one knee or his feet and the person to his right and/or left will do the same until everyone is up. When the lead person starts moving forward so will everyone else. By controlling one person, and having everyone watch the person to their right (or left) a commander can control the movement of the entire attack force.
The attack force will then advance on the enemy position until the firing starts. When the enemy fires it allows the attackers to zero in and concentrate fire on the muzzle flash. Tracer fire also helps the attackers fire accurately and suppress the enemy.
Because it is night and visibility is limited, the attackers are usually closer together. This is both a boon and a curse. It is good in that it increases the amount of weapon fire on the enemy. It is bad in that it is more likely the enemy will score a hit and the attack is more vulnerable to explosives and machine guns.
Before the night attack, enemy machine guns and defenses should be targeted and prepared for. Safe routes through mine fields and barbed wire are a must to avoid heavy casualties.
Planning is both a boon and a curse. Planning is good because it can decrease casualties and increase the effectiveness of the attack. Planning is a curse in that it allows more to go wrong.
In a night attack it is also important to designate a LOA that can be seen in the dark otherwise people will get lost and start shooting each other.
During the consolidation and reorganization phase is the most vulnerable time for the counter-attack because of the additional confusion and disorientation of the night attack. This is the primary reason dawn attacks are so popular. Most military units go to full alert an hour before dawn. A lot of soldiers wonder why do a dawn attack everyone goes on alert.
Sleep is usually deepest during dawn and so soldiers of ten think this is why a unit goes to full alert because the enemy will try to attack when sleep is deepest. This is not the case. While the enemy may be a little more alert and rested, he still cannot see well and a night attack can be very effective. The dawn attack is preferred because it allows the attackers to reorganize and consolidate in the morning light. The light also makes it easier to repel an enemy counter attack.
During an attack supporting fires can be critical for both the defender and attacker. If the attacker has it he can pound the enemy and inflict horrible casualties so that fewer casualties are taken during the attack. Also, supporting fires can be used to keep the enemy from escaping by forcing him to retreat through a wall of fire.
If the defender has it he can spoil and hamper an enemy attack. If things really get bad for the defender he can call in artillery on top of his own position. Anybody without protection (usually the attacker) will take severe casualties. However, this is a last resort because it will inflict friendly casualties.
If both sides have artillery support, the batteries may start firing at each other and leave the attackers and defenders until one battery or another wins. But this can depend on the situation, numbers and the effectiveness of counterbattery fire.
One variation of an attack is where elements on one hill, heavily armed with machine guns, attack the enemy on the other hill while friendly troops attack from below.
No matter how well planned an attack is, something will invariably go wrong. It can be something as small as someone misunderstand an order and has to get clarification, to friendly artillery accidentally firing on the wrong location, like the location occupied by friendly forces.
A machine gun bunker can halt an advance pretty effectively and a mine field can cripple one. Barbed wire usually does little more than slow down an attack but if it is set up right and covered by machine gun fire, it becomes a lethal barrier.