Urban warfare

Urban warfare

Military history

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Urban warfare is combat conducted in urban areas such as towns and cities. Urban combat is very different from combat in the open at both the operational and tactical level. Complicating factors in urban warfare include the presence of civilians and the complexity of the urban terrain.

Some civilians may be difficult to distinguish from combatants such as armed militias and gangs, and particularly individuals who are simply trying to protect their homes from attackers. Tactics are complicated by a three-dimensional environment, limited fields of view and fire because of buildings, enhanced concealment and cover for defenders, below ground infrastructure, and the ease of placement of booby traps and snipers.


Military terminology

JGSDF soldiers from 20th Infantry Regiment practice MOUT tactics in the Ojojibara Maneuver Area of Sendai, Japan during Exercise Forest Light 2004 with US Marines.

The United States military term for urban warfare is UO an abbreviation for urban operations. The previously used US military term MOUT, an abbreviation for military operations in urban terrain, has been replaced by UO, although the term MOUT Site is still in use.

The British military terms are OBUA (operations in built-up areas), FIBUA (fighting in built-up areas), or sometimes (colloquially) FISH (fighting in someone's house),[1] or FISH and CHIPS (fighting in someone's house and causing havoc in people's streets).[2]. A lesser known term is used by the S.A.S. for their specialist first strike and reconnaissance team, known as FART (First Assault Reconnaissance Team).[citation needed]

The term FOFO (fighting in fortified objectives) refers to clearing enemy personnel from narrow and entrenched places like bunkers, trenches and strongholds; the dismantling of mines and wires; and the securing of footholds in enemy areas.[3]

Israel Defense Forces calls urban warfare לש"ב (pronounced LASHAB), a Hebrew acronym for warfare on urban terrain. LASHAB in the IDF includes large-scale tactics (such as utilization of heavy armored personnel carriers, armored bulldozers, UAVs for intelligence, etc.), CQB training for fighting forces (how a small team of infantry soldiers should fight in close and build spaces). IDF's LASHAB was developed mainly in recent decades, after Operation Peace for Galilee (1982) included urban warfare in Beirut and Lebanese villages, and was further developed during the Second Intifada (2000–2005) in which IDF soldiers entered and engaged in fighting in Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps. The IDF has a special large and advanced facility for training soldiers and units in urban warfare.

Urban operations

Battle of Stalingrad fighting for a factory
Manila, the capital of the Philippines, devastated during the Battle of Manila (1945)

Urban military operations in World War II often relied on large quantities of artillery fire and air support varying from ground attack fighters to heavy bombers. In some particularly vicious urban warfare operations such as Stalingrad and Warsaw, all weapons were used irrespective of their consequences.

However, when liberating occupied territory some restraint was often applied, particularly in urban settings. For example, Canadian operations in both Ortona and Groningen avoided the use of artillery altogether to spare civilians and buildings,[4][5] and during the Battle of Manila in 1945, General MacArthur initially placed a ban on artillery and air strikes to save civilian lives.

Armies are bound by laws of war governing military necessity to the amount of force which can be applied when attacking an area where there are known to be civilians. Until the 1970s this was covered by customary law and IV Hague Convention "The Laws and Customs of War on Land" of 1907 and specifically articles 25–29. This has since been supplemented by the "Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International and Non-International Armed Conflicts."

Sometimes distinction and proportionality, as in the case of the Canadians in Ortona, causes the attacking force to restrain from using all the force they could when attacking a city. In other cases, such as the Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Berlin, both armies considered evacuating civilians only to find it impractical.[6]

When Russian forces attacked Grozny in 1999, large amounts of artillery fire were used. The Russian Army handled the issue of civilian casualties by warning the inhabitants that they were going to launch an all-out assault on Grozny and requested that all civilians leave the city before the start of the artillery bombardment.[7]

Fighting in an urban environment can offer some advantages to a weaker defending force or to guerrilla fighters through ambush-induced attrition losses. The attacking army must account for three dimensions more often,[8] and consequently expend greater amounts of manpower in order to secure a myriad of structures, and mountains of rubble.

Ferroconcrete structures will be ruined by heavy bombardment, but it is very difficult to demolish such a building totally when it is well defended. Soviet forces had to fight room by room; while defending the Red October Steel Factory during the Battle of Stalingrad, and in 1945, during the race to capture the Reichstag; despite heavy bombardment with artillery at point blank range (including 203 mm howitzers).[9]

It is also difficult to destroy underground or heavily fortified structures such as bunkers and utility tunnels; during the Battle of Budapest in 1944 fighting broke out in the sewers, as both Axis and Soviet troops used them for troops movement.

Urban warfare tactics

Urban warfare is fought within the constraints of the urban terrain.
Home Army soldiers assault a fortified house in downtown Warsaw during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944

The characteristics of an average city include tall buildings, narrow alleys, sewage tunnels and possibly a subway system. Defenders may have the advantage of detailed local knowledge of the area, right down to the layout inside of buildings and means of travel not shown on maps.

The buildings can provide excellent sniping posts while alleys and rubble-filled streets are ideal for planting booby traps. Defenders can move from one part of the city to another undetected using underground tunnels and spring ambushes.

Meanwhile, the attackers tend to become more exposed than the defender as they must use the open streets more often, unfamiliar with the defenders' secret and hidden routes. During a house to house search the attacker is often also exposed on the streets.

Battle of Monterrey, Mexico

The Battle of Monterrey was the US Army's first major encounter with urban warfare. It occurred in September 1846 when the US Army under Zachary Taylor invaded the town. The US Army had no prior training in urban warfare and the Mexican defenders hid on rooftops, shot through loopholes, and stationed cannons in the middle of the city's streets. The houses at Monterrey were made of thick adobe, strong double doors, and few windows. The rooftops were lined with a two foot tall wall that acted as a parapet for the defending soldiers. Each home was a fort unto itself.

On September 21, 1846 the US Army which included some of its best soldiers, recent West Point graduates, marched down the city's streets and were cut down by the Mexican defenders. They could not see the men hidden behind walls, loopholes, or rooftops. They tried to march straight down the street until the intense fire drove them to hide in adjacent buildings. Taylor tried to move artillery into the city but it could not hit the well-hidden defenders any better than the US soldiers could. Two days later the US again assaulted the city from two sides and this time they fought differently.[10]

Not wanting to repeat the mistakes of the 21st, General William Jenkins Worth listened to his Texan advisers. These men had fought in Mexican cities before at the Battle of Mier in 1842 and the Battle of Bexar in 1835. They understood that the army needed to "mouse hole" through each house and root out the defenders in close combat.[11][12]

Worth's men used pick axes to chip holes in the adobe walls of the homes, or sometimes in the roof of the house from where the soldiers could drop in. Or they used ladders to climb to the top of a rooftop and assault the Mexican defenders in hand to hand combat. The typical assault on a home would include one man who would run to the door of the house and chip the door away with a pick axe while under covering fire. Once the door showed signs of weakening, 3-4 other soldiers would run to the door and barge in with the revolvers blazing. Worth lost few men on the 23rd using these new urban warfare techniques.[12]

Battle of Berlin

A Soviet combat group was a mixed arms unit of about eighty men, divided into assault groups of six to eight men, closely supported by field artillery. These were tactical units which were able to apply the tactics of house to house fighting that the Soviets had been forced to develop and refine at each Festungsstadt (fortress city) they had encountered from Stalingrad to Berlin.[13]

The Reichstag after its capture in 1945
A devastated street in Berlin city centre, 3 July 1945.

The Germans tactics used for the urban warfare that took place in Berlin was dictated by three considerations. These were: the experience that the Germans had gained during five years of war; the physical characteristics of Berlin; and the tactics used by the Soviets.

Most of the central districts of Berlin consist of city blocks with straight wide roads with several waterways, parks and large railway marshalling yards. It is predominantly flat but there are some low hills like that of Kreuzberg that is 66m above sea level.

Much of the housing stock consisted of apartments blocks built in the second half of the 19th century. Most of those, thanks to housing regulations and few elevators, were five stories high, built around a courtyard which could be reached from the street through a corridor large enough to take a horse and cart or small trucks used to deliver coal.

In many places these apartment blocks were built around several courtyards, one behind the other, each one reached through the outer courtyards by a ground-level tunnel similar to that between the first courtyard and the road. The larger more expensive flats faced the street and the smaller less expensive ones could be found around the inner courtyards.

Just as the Soviets had learned a lot about urban warfare, so had the Germans. The Waffen-SS did not use the makeshift barricades erected close to street corners, because these could be raked by artillery fire from guns firing over open sights further along the straight streets.

Instead they put snipers and machine guns on the upper floors and the roofs because the Soviet tanks could not elevate their guns that high and they put men armed with panzerfausts in cellar windows to ambush tanks as they moved down the streets. These tactics were quickly adopted by the Hitler Youth and the First World War Volkssturm veterans.[14]

To counter these tactics the Soviets mounted sub-machine gunners on the tanks who sprayed every doorway and window, but this meant the tank could not traverse its turret quickly. The other solution was to rely on heavy howitzers (152 mm and 203 mm) firing over open sights to blast defended buildings and to use anti-aircraft guns against the German gunners on the higher floors.

Soviet combat groups started to move from house to house instead of directly down the streets. They moved through the apartments and cellars blasting holes through the walls of adjacent buildings (for which the Soviets found abandoned German panzerfausts were very effective), while others fought across the roof tops and through the attics.

These tactics took the Germans lying in ambush for tanks in the flanks. Flamethrowers and grenades were very effective, but as the Berlin civilian population had not been evacuated these tactics inevitably killed many civilians.[14]

First Chechen War

During the First Chechen War most of the Chechen fighters had been trained in the Soviet armed forces. They were divided into combat groups consisting of 15 to 20 personnel, subdivided into three or four-man fire teams.

A fire team consisted of an antitank gunner, usually armed with a Russian made RPG-7s or RPG-18s, a machine gunner and a sniper. The team would be supported by ammunition runners and assistant gunners.

To destroy Russian armoured vehicles in Grozny, five or six hunter-killer fire teams deployed at ground level, in second and third stories, and in basements. The snipers and machine gunners would pin down the supporting infantry while the antitank gunners would engage the armoured vehicle aiming at the top, rear and sides of vehicles.[15]

Initially the Russians were taken by surprise. Their armoured columns that were supposed to take the city without difficulty as Soviet forces had taken Budapest in 1956 were decimated in fighting more reminiscent of the Battle of Budapest in late 1944.

As in the Soviet assault on Berlin, as a short term measure they deployed self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (ZSU-23-4 and 2K22M) to engage the Chechen combat groups, as their tank's main gun did not have the elevation and depression to engage the fire teams and an armoured vehicle's machine gun could not suppress the fire of half a dozen different fire teams simultaneously.

In the long term the Russians brought in more infantry and began a systematic advance through the city, house by house and block by block, with dismounted Russian infantry moving in support of armour. In proactive moves the Russians started to set up ambush points of their own and then move armour towards them to lure the Chechen combat groups into ambushes.[15]

As with the Soviets tank crews in Berlin in 1945, who attached industrially produced wire mesh screens (commonly confused with bedsprings in the west) to the outside of their turrets to reduce the damage done by German panzerfausts, some of the Russian armour was fitted quickly with a cage of wire mesh mounted some 25–30 centimetres away from the hull armor to defeat the shaped charges of the Chechen RPGs.[15][16]

Close-quarters battle

US Marines fight in the city of Fallujah during Operation Phantom Fury/Operation Al Fajr (New Dawn) in November 2004.
Simulated city used for training on San Clemente Island

The term close-quarter battle refers to fighting methods within buildings, streets, narrow alleys and other places where visibility and maneuverability are limited.

Both close-quarters-battle (CQB) and urban operations (UO) are related to urban warfare, but while UO refers mainly to the macromanagement factor (i.e. sending troops, using of heavy armoured fighting vehicles, battle management), CQB refers to the micromanagement factor—namely: how a small squad of infantry troops should fight in urban environments and/or inside buildings in order to achieve its goals with minimal casualties.

As a doctrine, CQB concerns topics such as:

  • Weapons and ammunition most suitable for the mission
  • Extra gear, such as bulletproof vests and night vision devices
  • Accurate explosives
  • Routines and drills for engaging the enemy, securing a perimeter, clearing a room, etc.
  • Team maneuvers
  • Methods and tactics

It should be noted that military CQB doctrine is different from police CQB doctrine, mainly because the military usually operates in hostile areas while the police operates within docile populations.

Armies that often engage in urban warfare operations may train most of their infantry in CQB doctrine.

See also




  1. ^ Sengupta, Kim (2008-03-24). "The final battle for Basra is near, says Iraqi general". London: The Independent. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-final-battle-for-basra-is-near-says-iraqi-general-798409.html. Retrieved 2008-04-11. 
  2. ^ Hunter, Chris (2009) [2007], Eight Lives Down: The Most Dangerous Job in the World in the Most Dangerous Place in the World (Delta Trade Paperback ed.), Random House, ISBN 978-0-553-38528-1 
  3. ^ FOFO. Retrieved December 7, 2007.
  4. ^ "Ortona". canadiansoldiers.com. Archived from the original on 2008-01-09. http://web.archive.org/web/20080109192120/http://www.canadiansoldiers.com/mediawiki-1.5.5/index.php?title=Ortona. 
  5. ^ Stacey, C.P. Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War Volume III: The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North West Europe 1944-1945 who wrote "In spite of the severe fighting ... great crowds of (Dutch) civilians thronged the streets (of Groningen) — apparently more excited than frightened by the sound of nearby rifle and machine-gun fire. Out of regard for these civilians, the Canadians did not shell or bomb the city, thereby accepting the possibility of delay and additional casualties."
  6. ^ Beevor, Antony. Berlin: The Downfall 1945, Penguin Books, 2002, ISBN 0-670-88695-5 p.318
  7. ^ Staff. 'Russia will pay for Chechnya' BBC 7 December 1999
  8. ^ Staten, C.L. (2003-03-29). "Urban Warfare Considerations; Understanding and Combating Irregular and Guerrilla Forces During A "Conventional War" In Iraq". Emergency Response and Research Institute. Archived from the original on 2006-06-13. http://web.archive.org/web/20060613032538/http://www.emergency.com/2003/urban_warfare_considerations.htm. Retrieved 2006-07-22. 
  9. ^ Beevor, pp.354,355
  10. ^ Urban Warfare - Battle of Monterrey.com
  11. ^ Chris Dishman, "Street Fight in Monterrey," Military Heritage Magazine, August 2009.
  12. ^ a b Dishman, Christopher, A Perfect Gibraltar: The Battle for Monterrey, Mexico," University of Oklahoma Press, 2010 ISBN 0-8061-4140-9
  13. ^ Beevor, References p. 317
  14. ^ a b Beevor References pp. 316-319
  15. ^ a b c Grau,Lester W. Russian-Manufactured Armored Vehicle Vulnerability in Urban Combat: The Chechnya Experience, Red Thrust Star, January 1997, See section "Chechen Anti-armor Techniques"
  16. ^ Beevor References p. 317 "Then they went in again for festooning their vehicles with bedsprings and other metal to make the panzerfausts explode prematurely"

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