Streets as Battlefields and Towns as Forts

The War Illustrated, Volume 8, No. 185, Page 142, July 21, 1944.

Towns defended with determination can most effectively hold up a modern army a lesson slowly and painfully learnt by ourselves and the enemy during the course of this war. New methods of attack are being evolved and, as suggested in this article by DONALD COWIE, are now being applied to problems of this nature facing our liberating forces in Western Europe.

"You found little Cassino a tough nut to crack. Well, I hope you have considered, when estimating the duration of the war, how many Cassinos there will be on the way to Berlin!" That remark was made to the writer by a neutral military expert, who had carefully studied the methods of the Germans in this war. And it was, if only for the moment, like the shock of cold water.

Had it not been firmly established by Cassino, in confirmation of the lesson taught at Stalingrad and so many other battles in built-up areas, that towns held with determination could halt the progress of a modern mechanized army more effectively than any other means?

Thus the writer remembered another conversation he had had with a tank commander who had fought in many campaigns. This man had been asked why tanks were so "timid" in towns. And he had replied: "You just try driving a number of tanks into an urban area defended by troops in the houses and office-blocks and cellars. Not only are you partly blind, with your gunlayers' and aimers' visions restricted to lamp-posts and walls, with occasional downstairs windows and doors, but you are terribly vulnerable. Anti-tank artillery can snipe at you from devastatingly close quarters, having the clear vision that you lack. Even the crudest methods, such as the dropping of petrol bombs from rooftops and upper windows, the toppling over of coping stones, can destroy you before you have an opportunity to hit back.

"Meanwhile, your greatest asset, mobility, is countered by the rubble in the streets, or the actual narrowness of them. Why, I once saw a Sherman hopelessly jammed in one of those little Sicilian towns. It had become wedged between buildings in a narrow street, and could go neither backwards nor forwards. Ugh! No built-up areas for me!"

Is the tendency of this article clear? Perhaps it may be put briefly in this way, that if towns have been proved by the experience of the present war to be more defensible than any other kind of position against modern attack, then we can expect that north-western Europe, studded with towns, will present some very ticklish problems to our invasion forces. And that is just exactly what is now happening in Normandy.

There is little doubt about the fact of towns being easily defensible. First revealed in the Spanish Civil War by the prolonged resistance of Madrid and other cities, it should have been recognized by ourselves as a most useful discovery. Then we and the French might have stood longer in the blitzkrieg storm of 1940; certain Malayan towns, and finally Singapore and Rangoon, might have delayed the Japanese for months if defended street by street.

But the Russians watched and understood. "No city should be otherwise than in complete ruins when an enemy takes possession", was their virtual commandment to military subordinates, and so the German flood was eventually halted and turned back, not in great pitched battles, not on the open plains or on the river banks, but amid the remorseless rubble of cities, towns and their suburbs Leningrad, Smolensk, Rostov, Voronezh and, what will remain the classic text-book instance, Stalingrad!

What was the reason? An answer has been partly given in that tank commander's remarks. Since modern strategy and tactics depend almost entirely upon mobility, anything which "grounds" tanks, lorries and other vehicles is fatal to the success of their missions. But there is more to it than that. Second in importance to mobility is fire-power, the terrible capacity of modern artillery and automatic small-arms for destroying anything soft in the open. The Germans had to retreat in Italy till they reached Cassino, or our superior fire-power would have broken their line. Upon reaching the town, however, they could defy our fire-power for many months.

They could also defy our bombs, sometimes rained down in the heaviest concentrations of history. This was because they always had some protection in this as in other towns, and it is remarkable what man will endure provided that he does not feel altogether naked. In every town there are strong buildings. When they are blasted to shells the defenders descend to cellars, tunnels, and catacombs. Meanwhile, they excavate still deeper refuges, and the rubble above provides them with fortifications from behind the midnight shelter of which they can sally forth in raids and counter-attacks.

That the Germans have appreciated the military significance of these facts has been revealed not only by their defence of Cassino but also by the system employed by them in Russia to hold certain locations. This "hedgehog" system, as it was called, used towns as nuclei defence, surrounded by artificial strongpoints, all connected by trenches or tunnels so that the garrison could be switched quickly from one sector to another.

Therefore it is but realistic to assume that the enemy will try to halt our progress in north-western Europe and elsewhere by a series of stubborn stands in certain key towns such as, for example, the Channel ports, then Rouen, Amiens, Arras, and Lille. The desperate German defence of Caen in Normandy suggest that this is, indeed, his intention. Above all, he will almost certainly hope to defend his own towns of the Rhineland and Ruhr Valley, where he will not suffer from the handicap of a hostile local population. And it is feasible that if we played his game, and sat down as besiegers before each of these strongpoints in turn, then our journey to Berlin would indeed by protracted.

Fortunately we will not do so; or we will not if we observe what Cassino and Russia taught us. Undoubtedly that Italian town and those Russian "hedgehogs" protected the enemy for a long time, so long as we and the Russians took them seriously and attacked them frontally. But once we left Cassino temporarily alone and attacked elsewhere, and once the Russians learnt to by-pass the "hedgehogs", the enemy was checkmated. He could continue to hold out for a while in an island of resistance, but with the knowledge that he could obtain no more supplies and must ultimately surrender if he did not retreat. Usually he retreated, and the town was no longer a fortress.

The moral has been for us, accordingly, that the road to Berlin may be a surprisingly swift and direct one, provided that the forces of retribution, like the Pilgrim on his progress, keep straight on. That is the answer to the neutral military expert; while our tankmen, always steering as clear of the rubble as possible, should not be prevented from fulfilling their true functions of smashing the enemy's armour and isolating his impotent "hedgehogs" one by one.