Defending while encircled

Years ago I blogged about how certain aspects of military art appear to be neglected, amongst them such unpopular topics as defending while encircled. It's much more popular to envision oneself as the encircler (but that's not well-covered in field manuals either).

So I decided to run an experiment: I compared several sources with the American FM 3-90, paragraphs 6-27 to 6-82 (which cover defensive encirclement). That's an unusually long field manual section for this topic, and I was curious how well it compares to what I can compile from various sources about the topic.
My reference is inevitably German stuff, since the German army of 1942-1945 had more experience in resisting in and breaking out of encirclements than probably any other army of the world, ever. This performance was in part driven by fear of captivity in Russia, but they must have done something 'right' and learned a lot as well.
The American field manual is a convenient FM for comparison because it's published and available in a new edition (December 2012).

from FM 3-90
The results

The American manual devotes much space - 56 paragraphs - to the topic, which is really a lot.

A comparison with the July 2001 version of the same FM yielded few substantial differences other than reworked graphics:*

(1) The line "The encircled commander also centrally controls his air defense assets, ensuring that the forward units have sufficient short-range air defense coverage." was deleted.

(2) The Pentagonese was updated ("sustainment" instead of "CSS").
(3) The line "The commander counters enemy PSYOP by conducting defensive information operations." was deleted.

(4) "It [the breakout] differs from other attacks only in that a simultaneous defense in other areas of the perimeter must be maintained (ADRP 3-90). A breakout is both an offensive and a defensive operation." added.
(5) "FM 3-34.2 defines these breaching fundamentals and provides guidance regarding the organization of forces, control measures, and planning, preparation, execution, and assessment considerations of combined arms breaching operations." was deleted.
(6) "The commander must dedicate air defense systems to cover critical points through which the encircled force will pass." was deleted.
The richest alternative source I found was the 1950's book "Handbuch der Taktik" by Eike Middeldorf. The lead author was responsible for lessons learned in the German army's general staff during late WW2, and this book reflects this very much. My other sources did not yield much. It appears that the American FM 3-90 covers the international consensus on the pocket defence and breakout topic and added more to it. It features much more about linkup procedure, organizing of fire support and similar procedural topics than my other sources, for example.
The following additional points covered by Middeldorf show how FM 3-90 placed much less emphasis on psychology** and leadership. It's also evident to me that Middeldorf's guidances were derived from experiences, especially in the details.
Additional interesting guidances found:***
(a) Separation of the staff into one staff for defence, one for preparing the breakout and one for both logistics and discipline. These may be officers instead of staffs in small pockets.
(b) Tanks need to preserve enough fuel for the breakout. (The 6th army at Stalingrad did not attempt a breakout because it discovered its tanks had not enough fuel left.)
(c) Both local and central reserves shall be created.
FM 3-90 advices only the creation of a central reserve for blocking attacks and counterattacks.
(d) Defensive perimeter should be shortened prior to the breakout in order to free up more strength for the breakout action.
(e) A simple division of forces during the breakout in attack force, combat-incapable forces and rear guard.
FM 3-90 advises rupture force, follow-and assume force (including flank security), main body, reserve, diversionary forces and rear guard. Its advice about staging a diversion and keeping reserves may be overoptimistic.
(f) The commander of the pocket shall not necessarily be with the attack force during a breakout, but rather show himself more in the rear in order to bolster morale and confidence there. (Commanding officers as local morale boosts and the careful choice of their location to this end were typical ideas of the German army.)
(g) Breakout attack should happen in short leaps to near objectives in order to maintain cohesion of the entire convoy.
FM 3-90 rather advises to push as quickly as possible and without interruption. (Sounds fine in theory, but it also sounds less informed by experience than the other advice.)
(h) It's especially important during the breakout action to maintain discipline, to care for the troops and to keep them informed in order to avoid a breakdown of morale and possibly a panic storm.
I didn't compile what FM 3-90 does better than other sources; one reason is that it's really not interesting (I am in general more concerned about what goes wrong than about what's fine). Another reason is that its length inevitably includes much that other sources did not include.
Overall; a mea culpa from me.
I would have expected a much less complete chapter on pocket defence and breakout in the field manual. The waning attention to air defence, the emphasis on fire control, the mere lip service to morale and the near-total neglect of cohesion were no surprise, though.
*: My method of comparison of these very similar texts was superficial. I compared the beginning, the end and the size of paragraphs to find differences. Subtle differences such as individual words were likely overlooked.
**: Covered briefly in FM 3-90  paragraphs 6-40 and 6-41. This makes it sound like check list tasks. Middeldorf meanwhile created the impression that discipline, cohesion and confidence concerns have to pervade the leadership in general.
***: Applied method; reading of full texts.

edit: It appears that since 2014 pocket defence and breakout have gotten more attention in German army field manuals as one of the special combat situations.


  1. More posts like this, please. Some good stuff here, in particular (partial) translations of Middeldorf's work. As an aside: the very phrase "panic storm" is interesting.

    Does point G emphasize cohesion over movement tempo? That is, it is preferable to keep tight than to seize these short objectives faster than the enemy can react (increase defensive depth by deploying reserves to counter the breakout) or is it the other way around? Is there a minimum movement tempo suggested? ("As fast as you can without becoming strung out and getting fucking wrecked by mechanized cossacks" seems likely here.)

    1. To embed funny videos is less laborious than this kind of posts. ;)

      The context for the breakout is that not all troops would be on motor vehicles, at least not off-road-capable motor vehicles. The convoy may be stopped in some places (and torn apart) by artillery fire, too.
      So the concern was that the attack force should not make good its escape at the expense of the bulk of the forces, which would likely be delayed in their movement.

      This requires no mandatory speed, but rather the demand that the attack force doesn't leap forward without allowing the main body to catch up soon thereafter.

    2. OK, that makes perfect sense, thanks. I would interpret that as "cohesion over tempo" then, with the preference being to keep everybody together(-ish) and thus protected, even if that means having to continuously attack through a reinforcing enemy to break clear.