Skip to main content

Urban Warfare: A Practitioners Annotated Bibliography


A Practitioners Annotated Bibliography


“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana 1905

Building Destroyed during the 1980’s fighting on The Suq el Gharb Ridge above Beirut © CAH Knight

Every few decades a generation of soldiers learns the ‘lessons’ of urban warfare the hard way. Yet it seems that those lessons disappear from the institutional memories of their armies. The experienced, tough Filipino soldiers who marched directly from fighting Communist guerrillas in the jungle into battle on the streets of Marawi in 2017 were, by their own admission, unprepared to fight in and around buildings. They learned. One discovery was that to advance along open streets covered by fire was death. They report having ‘innovated’. To progress they knocked holes in walls.

Yet such innovation is but ‘discovery’ of a forgotten basic technique. Manual breaching of walls to avoid being shot on the street is recorded as long ago as 15th century Castile. It was ‘discovered’ in 1846 by the US troops who were being shot down by the Mexican army on the streets of Monterrey. It was ‘discovered’ by General Radetzky’s troops on the streets of Milan two years later. The pattern of bloody re-discovery goes on: by the Bavarians slaughtered by French Marines in Bazeilles in 1870, the Japanese in the alleyways of Shanghai in 1937, the Canadians at Ortona in 1943 and after World War II in places as far afield as Beirut, Jaffna or Khorramshahr.

Building Destroyed during the 1980’s fighting on The Suq el Gharb Ridge above Beirut © CAH Knight

There are other ‘innovations’ that are rediscovered, applied and taught in wartime while urban battles remain an immediate prospect. Then in times of peace, while some tactics and techniques survive the culling as doctrine is superseded, they are decreasingly practised in training and may eventually fade from corporate knowledge. Examples include the use of: instant smoke or constructed physical screens to fully conceal movement; breaching with small arms fire; explosive charges on poles, through-wall/floor/ceiling engagement; improvised ladders to attack through upper levels or across roofs and employing direct fire artillery at close range. Each of these ‘lost’ techniques were needed again in Marawi in 2017, and they re-emerged during that five-month battle.

This ‘forgetting’ of proven fighting techniques is mirrored by the discarding of proven fighting machines without replacement. The classes of heavily armoured self-propelled guns and engineering vehicles that enabled progress with limited casualties on the streets of Europe in World War II have long since left service without replacement. Soldiers may be exposed to the basics of urban operations in training, but they typically practice their craft in rural or jungle terrain. For cost and risk avoidance reasons, urban training facilities tend to be small and not represent the destruction, hazards and clutter of an urban battlefield. Will leaders once again find themselves tactically, technically or psychologically unready for urban combat? The US Marine Corps officers tasked to eject the North Vietnamese from the streets of Hue in 1968 skimmed old pamphlets in the hours before battle. Yet to be better educated on urban war is a challenge. Professionals who would follow the advice of Napoleon - “know your manoeuvres” or Suvorov - “study unceasingly”, have few prominent sources to turn to. The practical military neglect of urban war reflects a theoretical aversion. In 1973, SLA Marshal noted;

“We run into a curious void in the literature of warfare. Those practitioners of the art who were also its ablest theorists, scholars and writers dwelt on its varied aspects to the limit of their imaginations. One thing, however, they did not touch upon -- combat where life is centred. Run through the list of writers and their works -Frederick, de Saxe, Clausewitz, Jomini, Kuropatkin, Bernhardi, Henderson, Foch, Fuller, Hart, et al. Not one has anything to say about military operations within or against the city.

Fortunately, there are accessible resources for those who would understand urban warfare. While the great military thinkers looked elsewhere, veterans and a thoughtful cohort of practitioners remembered, examined the record, reflected or pondered. Their writing is a trove of insights, methods and potential lessons. Its value can only increase if urban warfare is becoming more likely and more difficult, as almost all analysts suggest.

This annotated collection is for those who will fight the next war - and those who support, train and equip them. It offers readers the chance to follow Bismarck’s advice to “learn from the mistakes of others” and mentally prepare for an urban fight.

LTCOL Charles Knight PhD

Attachment Size
A Practitioner's Annotated Bibliography.pdf (5.19 MB) 5.19 MB