The infantry platoon usually consists of two to four squads, three or four being average. The platoon is usually commanded by a junior officer, or if none are available, a senior sergeant. If a platoon is lead by an officer then he will always be assisted by the platoon sergeant. The platoon sergeant will act as the second in command of the platoon and assist the lieutenant in commanding and controlling the platoon. The platoon sergeant will also be responsible for many of the administrative functions of the platoon.
A platoon usually has an incredible amount of firepower and the platoon leader almost always has a long range radio and a radio operator. In addition to what a platoon leader (or in the Marines a platoon commander) has in his regular squads, the company commander may assign special units to him. These units are usually medium machine gun teams and rocket teams. They might also include anti-tank or anti-air teams.
Sometimes the platoon commander will keep these units under his direct control but sometimes he will assign them to squad leaders.
In combat, a well trained and led platoon is very dangerous. Aside from the organic weapons, the radio allows the platoon commander to call for artillery, mortars, close air support or reinforcements. In effect, if the platoon cannot destroy a target with its regular weapons (or even if it can!) it can lay waste to a target area by accurately calling in supporting fires.
When the shooting starts the platoon commander frequently deploys his squads like the squad leader deploys his fireteams. In my opinion the platoon commander has one of the most difficult jobs on the battlefield. The platoon is too large for him to control it from a central location so he must move around giving orders and receiving reports. In addition he must move around and try to figure out what is going on and how he can exploit any advantages. He must also be willing to lead his men from the front.
What this boils down to is the fact the junior officer moves around a lot under enemy fire. To make matters worse, officers are a prime target for enemy shooters. Moving around a lot while the enemy is firing at you tends to be fatal. Trivia devotees will note the very large number of junior officers that did not survive in Vietnam. Platoon commanders usually had a very short life span when the shooting started.
Deploying squads is not like deploying fireteams. For starters a much larger area needs to be considered and in rough terrain, the lieutenant is unlikely to see everyone in a squad, just smaller portions of it. This means the lieutenant has to build a mental picture of the battle field and what is occurring. Frequently this mental picture is slightly flawed because of all the confusion. If a squad leader doesn’t know exactly what is going on, how many of the enemy there are, where the enemy is at, he can’t pass on that information to the platoon leader. As more information becomes available the platoon commander begins to get a better grasp of what is going on and how he should deal with it.
Then, when he thinks he has figured out what to do, he has to let the squad leaders know so they can carry it out. The best method is if everyone has radios, otherwise he has to find the squad leaders, while they are moving around directing their squads, avoid getting shot and issue his orders. The platoon sergeant can help a great deal by going after one or two squad leaders.
Fireteams almost never separate, squads do so only rarely. In a battlefield environment, with units remaining dispersed, squad members may not see their buddies in another squad for hours, maybe days, even though they are not really far apart.
I learned from personal experience that while in garrison NCO’s and Officers may have several advantageous perks but on the battle field they more than earn those perks. While most of the squad members are sleeping, the NCO’s and officers are planning, briefing each other or checking on their people.
Usually, the platoon leader will try to keep at least one squad in reserve until he knows what is going on. If he doesn’t keep one squad back from all the firing he will not have anybody to protect the flanks or attack the enemy’s flank. Nor will there be anyone to reinforce a squad that is being overrun.
The radio operator usually stays close to the platoon commander. When the shooting starts higher headquarters needs to be notified. An experienced radio operator can pretty much figure out what is going on and report it but usually the platoon commander has to make the report, in addition to figuring out what is going on, give orders and avoid getting shot. The enemy also likes to target radio operators because the radio can call for all manner of lethal unpleasantness like artillery and reinforcements.
Because of his many responsibilities the platoon commander, like the squad leader, usually does not have time to shoot at the enemy. To the enemy, a platoon commander can be compared to a duck target at the shooting range that goes back and forth until you shoot it down.
Platoons like squads, have standard operating procedures (usually) so everyone usually has some idea of what to do in a given situation. However, figuring out what the situation is can often lead to confusion and errors. For instance, if the SOP calls for first and second squad to lay down a base of fire when the shooting starts, while third squad envelopes the enemy everyone knows what is happening. If third squad tries to envelope and runs into an enemy force that is enveloping then everyone is probably going to start wondering where third squad is until third squad sends back a report. At that time the platoon commander has some decisions to make. Sometimes the platoon commander will lead the flanking maneuver.
Pulling back troops that are under fire is never an easy proposition. The enemy will be happy to shoot the troops in the back as well as in the front. Furthermore, if the enemy sees their targets retreating they are likely to assume their targets are running away and pursue them. This can open up another squad’s flank to an aggressive enemy and that can lead to disaster.
A platoon commander will also (in most cases) have special attachments like machine gun teams and rocket launchers. Again this makes his job more difficult because he has to deploy them so they do the most damage to the enemy. By assigning them to a squad leader he lightens his work load, or the platoon sergeant can take responsibility for them.
If (or maybe when) the platoon commander becomes a casualty the platoon still has to figure out he has become a casualty. If one fireteam sees the officer go down, they still has to pass it up the chain of command. This can take time and during that time the enemy is not going to be sitting still just returning fire.
The platoon sergeant is the next in the chain of command to lead the platoon. If the platoon sergeant is on the ball and knows what is going on the fight can continue effectively. In formations where NCO’s are not encouraged to display initiative the loss of an officer can bring the attack to a grinding halt if it doesn’t already have orders.
Unit morale comes into play here. If the unit is composed of unwilling conscripts they will likely remain in place and return fire, or more likely run away if there is nobody to stop them. Soldiers with high morale, or conscripts who really believe in their cause will usually be more aggressive and willing to stand and fight. Well trained, and motivated leaders will be aggressive and use every little advantage to get the drop on the enemy.
For example. A good fireteam leader may notice a ditch leading into enemy lines that is not covered by enemy fire (maybe because the team leader directed his team to take out the person guarding it). He will notify his fellow team leader, or squad leader if possible and then lead his squad as they low crawl through this ditch and into enemy lines. With a fireteam popping up among them the enemy will have to readjust to the new threat and more gaps will open in their battle line, gaps others can exploit. The fireteam leader could also have his saw gunner cover the rest of team while they crawled into enemy lines. A squad leader might send in his whole squad. This is one way major firefights can be won by aggressive action. During one of the World Wars a German squad managed to fight its way across a river and breach the French lines. Because the squad leader continued the attack instead of waiting for reinforcement, the French (Battalion or Regimental?) Commander feared the Germans had penetrated his line in force and retreated when he could have held the line.
A poor unit might notice the route into enemy lines but would be unwilling to try and exploit it because of the many dangers. They might also mistrust their fellows ability to provide covering fire. Unmotivated troops would find a great many reasons not to exploit such a weakness, like ‘it might be booby trapped, what if someone else is guarding it, it is too exposed, ect.”
It is a well know fact that warfare is about risks. Nothing is ever risk free and usually, the bigger the risk the bigger the gain. Sometimes the risk is greater than anticipated and sometimes it is less than anticipated. Either way, someone must make the decision and carry it out. If the person is an unwilling participant in the war he will be more interested in survival than anything else and getting such a person to take risks will require more than kind words.
A combat officer is usually more educated than his troops. Officers are usually heavily indoctrinated to believe in the cause (like the Soviet military), or they are dedicated professionals. Most militaries have a combination of the two. Either way, the officer is responsible for commanding his troops. If the officer is good he will motivate his troops, whether they are conscripts or not, and encourage them to fight well. If the troops really like the officer they are more likely to take risks for him. If the troops dislike the officer they might ‘have an accident’ that insures he does not survive the fight.
In a platoon, the lieutenant has, perhaps, the greatest impact on his troops. He is with them almost constantly. The troops will see him inspecting their lines, talking with their leaders, and giving orders. Company commanders and up are frequently little more than voices on a radio, especially on a battle field. It is the platoon commander that frequently gives his troops morale courage because he is the most visible authority figure.
As a marine I served under good lieutenants that I would die for and at least one lieutenant I wished would die. While a company commander might be highly visible in garrison, it was the Lieutenants that would have the most impact on a platoon. As the most senior man, all NCO’s would defer to him (even if he was younger and less experienced then them). As professionals the NCO’s would enforce his rules and regulations regardless of how they felt about it. As the mouthpiece of higher ranking officers, if the troops didn’t like the lieutenant anything he said would not be trusted and that mistrust would extend up the chain of command in most cases. Troops would not be willing to go that extra mile that could often spell success or defeat on the battlefield.
Loyalty is a two way street. Not all officers (or NCO’s) realize this. If the troops are not taken care of they will not strive to maintain anything other than minimum standards. NCO’s are people too, and if they are poorly lead they will frequently lead their troops poorly (but not always!)
This is one reason it is so important to have good, quality officers. Good officers can train good NCO’s and good NCO’s can train good troops.
A great deal goes on at the platoon level. Combat platoon commanders are frequently junior officers, fresh out of training. They have a very difficult job and no amount of training in the world can fully prepare them for it, their responsibilities and duties are enormous. Any military with a poor officer corps is bound to be defeated. If it is not initially defeated then it is likely that natural selection will mold the officer corps into an effective organization. Bad officers will end up killed, either by their troops or by the enemy, maybe even their commanders. Good officers will lead their men to victory. Politicians will frequently destroy the a military by degrading the quality of its officer corps. Officers, more than enlisted, are more vulnerable to politics, especially as they reach higher ranks. History shows this time and time again, from the Romans to the Russians to the USA.
Because their presence can have such an impact on the regular soldier this is the main reason good officers lead from the front. By willingly shouldering more danger and responsibilities than the regular soldier, the officer earns the respect and trust of his men. By leading from the rear the officer is all but telling his troops they are expendable and he is expending them rather than endanger himself.
Warfare is more about psychology than bullets, especially at the smaller unit levels. Not many people recognize what a powerful effect morale has on combat effectiveness. Morale is not a tangible thing and is usually very hard to understand. For instance in Saudi during Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield I, and many of my fellow Marines believed morale couldn’t be any lower. Stuck out in the middle of nowhere with no civilized benefits, we felt like forgotten savages. When the war started however, we couldn’t wait to get in there and kick Iraqi butt. Casualties probably would have dampened the mood a bit but we were fired up and anxious for combat despite a poor platoon leader and platoon sergeant, neither of which anybody really respected. The major saving grace was the Company Commander who was viewed as a tactical genius by his men.