Crisis in battle

Many military units look good on paper and in exercises - but I'm sceptical, and for a reason: The real quality of a unit isn't shown in its preferred mode of operation, at full strength. Great and not-so-great units can instead be told apart in crisis.

Sometimes just about everything goes wrong; the organization can fail due to a lack of x or y to meet the situation and the people can fail by allowing the events to break their will (and they flee or stop the assault).

The ability to master a crisis in battle is at least as important as the theoretical performance at near-full strength. It is possible to prepare for such crisis situations, and that shall be the topic of the day.

Redundancy of capabilities (and geographical spacing of these redundant capabilities) enables a unit to keep fighting after losing important parts of its own. A loss of a HQ needs to be compensated by a reduced HQ capability elsewhere. A loss of secure radio comm due to compromised codes would need to be compensated for by a second mode of communication. Especially valuable and rare items need to be arranged in a fashion that prevents their total loss at once (radars, for example).

Redundancy by versatility
Versatility allows others to take over the tasks of specialists that aren't able to master the situation on their own. An air defence unit with long-range anti-tank firepower and support troops equipped with short-range anti-tank weapons are examples. A basic infantry training (defence of position against conventional attack, breaking contact, exfiltration at night) for all support troops helps as well.

The procedures can also be a risk in a crisis. A staff that's fixated on planning will miss the right time to switch to rapid, on the spot decisions that are driven by intuition instead of by planning procedures.

Choice of key personnel
I found a passage of a memoir written by Manstein to be especially noteworthy. He was describing different characters that he had worked with, and praised a certain chief of staff of some corps that was part of Manstein's army group.
No matter how serious and superficially hopeless a situation was - that chief of staff simply said that they'll somehow get through it and always stayed optimistic in the most terrible crisis situations when no reserves were left.
Such characters in the right positions can make a huge difference to networked semi-politicians who rose to flag rank with an optimized career path and who are always preparing for the next job instead of focusing on the current one.

All solutions in crisis are improvisations. It's no true crisis if orthodox actions can end it.
Some army cultures discourage improvisation, while others encourage it.

Finally, the most important preparation: Leadership reserves.
Leaders die in heavy combat like flies, especially junior officers. The performance of an army unit is in large part defined by the performance of its platoons, so it's hugely important to keep these functioning.

The answer is simple; overqualified soldiers.
The German armies began around 1906 to train Gefreiten (lance-corporals, PFC) as replacement squad leaders. Junior NCOs were capable of leading their platoon in a crisis. Senior NCOs were capable of taking command of their company in crisis if all officers and the company NCO (Spieß, most senior NCO of the Coy) were unavailable.

This requires more than courses back in garrison, though. It requires that everyone is informed about the intent two levels above his own. A NCO needs to know what the Coy needs to do. Senior enlisted personnel needs to understand the mission of the squad and platoon.

The extreme resilience of the Wehrmacht came in great part from such provisions (American scholars usually focus at the Auftragstaktik to explain that resilience - that's another, less complete angle for looking at it).

There are numerous anecdotes that show the extremes the German armies were capable of thanks to this system.
Rommel writes in his book about how he took command of several companies (total more than battalion strength) as a 1st Lt and led them successfully in a relatively deep attack.
Another anecdote is about a junior NCO who took command of his officer-depleted company on the attack, took a dominant hill, repelled a counter-attack and then assaulted enemy positions that held up the neighbour Coy. His attack enabled the regiment to meet its assault goals for the day.
Another anecdote tells about an enlisted soldier who took over his platoon in defensive combat and held the position in the midst of a powerful Russian assault till exfiltration.
NCOs taking command of a Stoßtrupp (assault team in squad to platoon strength) and continuing with the mission were a quite regular occurence - one example led to the success of the Meuse crossing operation at Sedan in 1940, a critical action for the quick fall of France.
Many people talk about how snipers can paralyze units by taking out their leader - that didn't work nearly as well against Germans as against Russians, for example.

The ability to keep fighting - forward, backward or in position - after repeated decapitations is awesome. It's what makes the difference between armies that excel and fragile ones that can be broken with enough pressure.

This was even more visible in earlier ages up to the early 19th century when wars were waged with great battles and these battles were decided by routs. Often times an army leader or king fell or fled - and the whole army failed. Frederick the Great fled in his first battle after his cavalry got routed - but Prussia still won the battle because his 2nd in command ordered the infantry to attack.
King Darius III fled twice in battle when threatened directly by Alexander's heavy cavalry charge and lost an empire.

The Bundeswehr still remembers World War experiences, but I'm not positive that it does more than paying lip service to these lessons. The main reason for my doubt is rank inflation; today's junior NCOs are the equivalent of 80's senior (volunteer) enlisted personnel due to watered down training and wrong recruitment practices. Lieutenants were more respected by their superiors during the 80's as well.

The ability to master a crisis in battle separates a truly good force from a fair weather force.


edit 2011: I'm so sorry, I completely forgot to mention cohesion in this text!

edit 2012: related http://www.jhuapl.edu/ourwork/nsa/papers/SmallForceTheory.pdf


  1. "It's no true crisis if orthodox actions can end it."

    Which brings us to the US army. There's not a case in recent memory when we've not been able to use our TTPs to end a fight. Not since Vietnam have we faced a core competitor who comes close to matching us in resources, personal, communications and an intact chain of command. I fear that the day is coming in Afghanistan when we'll be over-matched. All solutions in the US military involve heavier resources. What happens when they're not available?

  2. 'The German armies began around 1906 to train Gefreiten (lance-corporals, PFC) as replacement squad leaders. Junior NCOs were capable of leading their platoon in a crisis. Senior NCOs were capable of taking command of their company in crisis if all officers and the company NCO (Spieß, most senior NCO of the Coy) were unavailable.'

    I could quite easily swap the word German for American (and the appropriate ranks too) and this would be entirely true. The German army isn't anything special. In fact, I could say exactly the same thing about the US and British Armies of WW2, who by the time they got to Normandy had been training for literally years, in a lot of cases had significant combat experience and regularly panned the Germans despite the massively advantageous terrain the Germans were defending.