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Analysing the Urban Attack: Insights from Soviet doctrine as a ‘model checklist’

4 March 2020
Urban conflict
Soviet soldiers attack house, Stalingrad.
Soviet soldiers storming a house at Stalingrad (RIA Novosti archive, image #44732 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

The acute difficulties of urban operations epitomised by the struggle in Stalingrad recurred in Mosul, Raqqa and Marawi, exhibiting that the fundamental requirement for slow, systematic and deliberate clearing building-by-building is no easier 70 years later. In fact, the shift is in the other direction—things are now more difficult.  The enduring complications imposed by physical structures are now compounded by the presence of populations and informational factors, rendering the modern urban fight truly complex and resistant to understanding and analysis.

These new challenges are articulated within the Chief of Army’s construct of accelerating warfare, which an Army in Motion seeks to overcome by leveraging new technology and new thinking. Emerging technologies offer great promise, but are only a start and require suitable new concepts to exploit their potential. The start point is for technologists and soldiers to have a clear and common understanding of the problems.

While the overarching human and informational factors must be addressed, their inherent complexities make it more effective to begin with the underlying tactical problems. Because the methods for clearing an urban area have changed little over the years, we are able to confidently use tactical models of the actions and effects that were proven in the past. These offer understanding and give insight as to where new methods might be especially helpful.

The Soviet Doctrine—what can we learn from it

The idiosyncratic urban operations doctrine of the Soviet Union that evolved in the latter stages of the Second World War and was refined during the Cold War offers a particularly helpful step-by-step task break-down for urban offensive operations.

Soviet doctrine was prescriptive, and norm based. Soldiers were trained in a very narrow skill set—one weapon, one job. Tactical groups were taught what to do, when, where and how. The position of a callsign in a formation did not change, neither did the numbers of shells fired at a particular type of target. This approach addressed both an undereducated workforce and the cognitive impact of continuous combat operations. While other armies evolved similar, broadly urban, tactics under loose guidance, Soviet doctrine specified what was required in detail. Crucially they identified essential tasks to be carried out in an urban assault and assigned each task to a descriptively labelled element. The actions of each element, right down to what they would shoot at and at what stages in a plan, were prescribed. In effect, this provided a ‘checklist’ or recipe whereby the commander had the scope to vary the size and number of the key groupings and tasks. Counterintuitively, this prescription also included the use of groupings whose task was maneuverist in nature.

Soviet maneuverist concepts

As the Soviets swept West in 1944, they sought to avoid fighting within urban areas because the terrain reduced their advantages in numbers and firepower. One innovation was the forward detachment—a fully mechanised force that broke through and raced ahead to prevent Germans withdrawing into cities. Otherwise, towns and small cities were dealt with by:

  1. bypassing,
  2. besieging, or
  3. destruction with massive levels of artillery and air firepower.

When larger cities had to be captured, the method was to encircle and isolate, then thrust inwards on multiple axes to divide the city into segments with a regiment (Bde) on each street. What differed from mass-based open warfare practice was the employment of four special-purpose elements: the above-mentioned forward detachments, as well as storm groups, storm detachments, and seizure groups.

‘Storm groups’ and larger ‘storm detachments’ were all-arms groupings of heavy weapons, engineers and sometimes individual artillery pieces or armoured vehicles—with commanders given a freedom of action, unprecedented in open warfare. Their crucial role was to unbalance, deceive and disrupt the defence by maneuvering off the main axes to envelop, isolate and—where possible—eliminate enemy strong points or larger centres of resistance.

A maneuverist effect was also delivered by ‘independent’ seizure groups. These were dismounted infantry and engineers who infiltrated ahead of the advance, avoided resistance and then seized unoccupied but defensible buildings in the depth of the German positions. From there they could interdict resupply by fire, psychologically isolate defenders, and disrupt counter attacks.

Soviet soldiers climbing through rubble
(Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R74190 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Soviet urban groupings and their tasks: a step-by-step guide to clearing

The list below describes the role of each of the different urban combat groupings as well as short amplifying notes. Read together the items explain the Soviet urban attack, but the list can also be used as an analytic and development tool to explore alternative approaches for addressing each of the identified roles.

Advanced/Forward Detachments and Desant forces

Purpose: To deny terrain well ahead of main forces in order to disrupt enemy preparations for urban defence.

During the Cold War the Soviets refined their Second World War pre-emptive forward detachment concept, emphasising the use of engineering equipment and mechanical minelayers to create rapid obstacles and defensive positions on the outskirts of urban areas. As their strategic lift capability grew, such disruptive maneuver was increasingly conceived as a desant—the Soviet term for a ‘coup de main’ by a parachute or amphibious insertion.

Seizure group

Purpose: To infiltrate within urban terrain in advance of the main body, avoiding defenders, and seize unoccupied key terrain in order to disrupt enemy defensive integrity.

Like forward detachments, a pre-emptive concept was also applied at the tactical level, using dismounted engineers and infantry with portable support weapons.

Storm detachment

Purpose: To secure multiple urban objectives (blocks/buildings) in order to enable the advance of main force.

A storm detachment was typically based on a motor rifle battalion accompanied by its routinely assigned company of tanks and, in addition, it was assigned a company of engineers and self-propelled guns.  The detachment formed a fire support group, between three and six storm groups and a reserve.

Fire support group

Purpose: To neutralise defenders on and beyond the objective and breach structures in order that assault elements can reach objectives unhindered and have a combat power advantage when clearing.

Effective direct fire into the next objective building for an element attacking on one side of the street is usually only feasible inwards from the other side of the street or the flanks. Conversely, the threat to attacking elements from buildings on the flanks that overlook the next objective can usually only be engaged outwards from close to the attack elements. The support group was divided into at least three sub-groups.

Fire support sub-groups

Purpose 1: Apply inwards direct fire onto and into objective buildings in order to provide multiple entry breaches in walls and ‘accompanying fire’ preceding and during the assault.

Purpose 2: Apply outwards direct fire onto and into buildings over-watching the approach and objective building in order to protect any exposed final assault.

Purpose 3: Apply high explosive direct and indirect fire effects beyond the objective in order to isolate the immediate battle.

Direct fire sub-groups were based on tanks or self-propelled guns with infantry and engineers to provide close protection and clear routes to fire positions; in the simplest case a sub-group would be deployed on either side of the street, and other sub-groups, including mortars, would be deployed slightly to the rear.

Storm group

Purpose: To seize and hold, or destroy (demolish) nominated objective buildings.

The basis of a storm group varied between an infantry company and a platoon, reinforced with up to a platoon of engineers and—in those units where available—heavy machine guns and automatic grenade launchers. The storm group always consisted of an assault sub-group and either a consolidation, or a ‘coveraging and holding’ sub-group (see below) and other groups as required.

Assault/attack sub-group

Purpose: To enter the objective building, locate and destroy defenders and secure at least the vital ground (lower floor and cellar, main stairwell and the top floor) in order to make the defence untenable.

Closely following an intense, high explosive bombardment this group would rush into the objective building with ‘accompanying’ fire support continuing into the upper stories. Led by the sub unit commander, one element would secure the stairwell and top floor and another the lower floor and cellar.

Consolidation sub-group

Purpose: To follow the assault sub-group and systematically clear the interior parts of a building in order to secure it against counter-attack.

The consolidation sub-group followed the assault, moved to the commander and then—under his direction—would clear the remainder of the building.

‘Coveraging and holding’ sub-group

Purpose 1: To provide direct fire outwards and inwards in order to support the assault.

Purpose 2: To provide direct fire onto the approaches to securing buildings in order defeat counter-attacks.

Storm groups might form a ‘coveraging and holding’ sub-group that carried heavier weapons and followed assault sub-groups. They provided fire both over the heads of the assault group as they approached the objective building and concurrently outwards towards overwatching buildings.

Smoke/flame demolition sub-group(s)

Purpose 1: To operate smoke generators in order to screen the approach to the objective building from enemy within and in over watching positions.

Purpose 2: To destroy nominated buildings by burning.

The use of smoke generators and flamethrowers was the responsibility of chemical warfare troops who were attached for urban operations and an emphasis was placed on flame for demolishing buildings by burning them.

Obstacle clearance sub-group

Purpose: To breach clear pathways into and within objective buildings in order to ensure assault groups were not delayed.

The vital role of small teams of engineers emphasised two techniques: stealthy mine clearance preceding night attacks, and the use of Bangalore torpedoes—both pushed by hand and pushed by AFV on the approaches to and within buildings.

Soviet troops in urban combat.
(Attribution: RIA Novosti archive, image #602770 / Zelma / CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Conclusion

Soviet urban doctrine is not just of historical interest. It can be considered the product of an extended battle-lab experiment conducted between Stalingrad in 1942 and Berlin in 1945. It evolved as different formations variously did or did not apply specific and different tactics, with the benefits measured in relative losses amongst hundreds of thousands of soldiers’ lives. Apart from explaining the functions of elements within the urban attack, its great value is as a clear model of the effects required; which can be used to systematically examine how new technologies might deliver comparable effects faster, cheaper and—above all—at lower risk.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Discussion

Thomas Rose on 24 March 2020 - 3:50pm

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.

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