The square structure issue

There's a rare and very interesting category of books on military affairs that appears to be provoked by defeat in war: Veterans who write about the war with the intent to preserve knowledge for a future generation. German WW2 officers - mostly officers who served in higher HQs (such as Middeldorff) - and American Vietnam vet NCOs wrote such books.

These books are unique in touching on aspects that the entertainment books for enthusiasts, research books for historians and official military professional training literature do not cover.

I'll quote one excerpt here that's most interesting. It deals with mechanised infantry / Panzergrenadiere and is from "Die Panzergrenadiere" (1961) written by later Bundeswehr general Dr. F.M. von Senger und Etterlin, a low level aristocrat born into a family with hundreds of years of military tradition.
(German original from page 99 first, BE translation follows)

"Die 3 Grundprobleme

Mechanisierung bedeutet Einsatzmöglichkeit aller Waffen zum Kampf vom Fahrzeug. Mechanisierung bedeutet aber nicht die Aufgabe der Befähigung zu allen Kampfarten im Fußeinsatz. Die harmonische Vereinigung beider Fähigkeiten ist das Ziel der Entwicklung. Dabei ist klar, daß die Kampfweise mit Fahrzeugen  von der Kampfweise zu Fuß erheblich verschieden ist. Jene ist der Kampfweise der Kampfpanzerverbände sehr ähnlich und wickelt sich in der Hauptsache in enger Zusammenarbeit mit diesen ab. Jede Überlegung zur zweckmäßigen Gliederung der Panzergrenadiere wird daher auf die geltenden Grundsätze für die Gliederung von Kampfpanzerverbänden zurückzugreifen haben. Dabei tauchen im wesentlichen drei Hauptprobleme auf.
Einmal bedingt der mechanisierte Kampf erfahrungsgemäß grundsätzlich die Viergliederung, während sich für den Fußkampf die Dreigleiderung bewährt hat. Der Panzerkampf spielt sich zangen- und schachbrettartig ab, zur Raumausnutzung müssen die Verbände auf das ganze Gefechtsfeld verteilt sein und die Ausscheidung von Reserven spielt nicht dieselbe Rolle wie im Fußkampf oder in der Abwehr.
Zum zweiten ist der mechanisierte Kampf vornehmlich Angriffskampf. Das organisatorische Element der schweren Schnellfeuerwaffen in Gestalt von sMG-Einheiten wird hier nicht benötigt. Zudem ist es möglich, die Schützenpanzer mit einer großen Zahl von sMG als Bordwaffen auszustatten. Besondere sMG-Einheiten für den Kampf vom Fahrzeug sind deshalb überflüssig.
Beide Probelme heben sich jedoch gegenseitig auf, indem unter grundsätzlicher Beibehaltung der Viergliederung für den mechanisierten Kampf der vierten Einheit eine Zwitterrolle zugeteilt wird. Beim Übergang zum Fußkampf kann sie nämlich als sMG-Einheit zur Unterstützung der übrigen drei Einheiten auftreten.
Das dritte Problem liegt darin, daß die Gliederung und Ausrüstung zu Fuß kämpfender Infanterie gewöhnlich verhältnismäßig starr zu sein hat, während der mechanisierte Kampf vermöge der Ausstattung mit Panzerfahrzeugen eine weniger starre Gliederung erlaubt. So müssen für den Fußkampf jeder schweren Infanteriewaffe von vorneherein eine gewiße Anzahl Träger oder Munitionsschützen zugeordnet werden. Das Verhältnis der schweren Waffen zu Normaleinheiten muß ebenso bereits kriegsgliederungsmäßig festgelegt werden. Die Mechanisierung erlaubt es jedoch demgegenüber, z.B. schwere Waffen und Munition durch die Fahrzeuge bis in die Stellung bringen zu lassen. Der Munitionsnachschub ist sehr erleichtert, die Gepäckfrage kein Problem."
("The 3 basic problems
Mechanisation means the ability to use all weapons from the vehicle. Mechanisation does not mean to give up the ability to fight in all modes when dismounted. The harmonic fusion of both abilities is the aim of the development. It's obvious that mounted combat and dismounted combat differ very substantially. The former is very similar to the way of combat of main battle tanks and mostly happens in close cooperation with these.
All reasonings about the purposeful structure of mechanised infantry thus has to be based on the structure of main battle tank formations. Thus three main problems appear:
First, according to experiences mechanised combat does in principle lead to a square organisation, while the triangular organisation has proven itself for dismounted combat. Tank combat happens with pincers and chessboard-like, the formations need to be dispersed across the entire battlefield to exploit the space and to create reserves does not play the same role as in dismounted combat or on the defence.
Second, mechanised combat is primarily offensive combat. The organisational element of heavy support weapons such as heavy machinegun units is not needed for this.Its furthermore possible to equip infantry fighting vehicles with a large quantity of machineguns as vehicle weapons. Dedicated HMG units for mounted combat are thus dispensable.
Both problems neutralise each other if one keeps the square structure for mechanised combat and assigns a hybrid role to the fourth unit. It can act as HMG unit in support of the other three units after a transition to dismounted combat.
The third problem is that the structure and equipment of dismounted troops has to be rather fixated, while mechanised combat allows for a more flexible structure thanks to the equipment with armoured vehicles. All heavy weapons require a certain quantity of porters or munitions gunners in dismounted combat. The relationship between heavy weapons  to normal units has to be fixated in the wartime TO&E. The mechanisation meanwhile allows to move heavy weapons into the firing positions with the vehicles. The resupply with munitions is much easier, and the baggage issue no problem.")
There's a lot of obsolete things in this text, but the quality and obvious intent is remarkable compared to both the professional literature (which hardly ever explains anything and tends to simply present doctrine) and the entertainment literature (which would have neglected the "why?"as well, and the authors would usually not notice such issues at all).

I'll summarise the obviously obsolete things quickly to avoid disinformation;
- modern infantry battalions do not make use of HMG units
- modern mechanised infantry hardly ever uses its weapons while mounted
- modern IFVs hardly ever have multiple machineguns

The chapter still motivates me to write about the triangular/square structure debate after all.
There was a nice article by one of the usual suspects in one of the American journals - sadly I cannot find it again. Essentially, it made the case that a square structure offers much more tactical flexibility.
With a triangular structure you can distribute between left wing, right wing and reserves as follows:
1-1-1 / 2-1-0 / 1-2-0
With a square structure you can do
2-1-1 / 2-2-0 / 1-2-1 / 1-1-2 / 3-1-0 / 1-3-0
(v.Senger-Etterlin counted a triangular structure with a fourth heavy weapons support unit as still triangular, for only the manoeuvre elements are counted, not support elements.)

Much has been debated and written about this for over a hundred years, and I have little if anything to add. What I do want to comment on the issue is that there's a systemic bias in favour of the (nowadays dominant) triangular structure that may have caused us to deviate from a possibly superior square structure.
This bias is that even if you have a square structure based on experiences and reasoning, you may still end up with a triangular structure after a round of cuts. I already wrote that cuts are not necessarily done in a way that optimises efficiency or effectiveness. German mechanised infantry battalions even lost their heavy weapons (mortar) company years ago, leaving them with nothing in between 40 mm grenades and 155 mm divisional artillery in terms of high angle fires and even no brigade-organic high angle fires above 40 mm.

Neither any high ranking officer jobs nor any headquarters need be cut when battalions are changed from square to triangular structure in a round of cuts. Divisional and even army organisational structure charts still look the same, with identical quantities of battalions, for nothing changes at the formation level. It's only units (and possibly small units) that are cut if you reduce from four to three companies.

It's difficult if not impossible for an individual to make a case that the seemingly collective wisdom of professionals has lead to a wrong result based on pro and contra points only. Yet it's a fairly powerful tool to identify suspected inefficiencies based on looking at biases. Theories of bureaucracies can help in this, and this blog post showed another way.


P.S.: In case you consider blogging; blogging doesn't need to be super time-consuming. I wrote this blog post in 70 minutes after occasionally thinking about the two main topics covered. Originally, I meant to describe more categories of mil literature, but that may become a different topic sometime.


  1. So old man Ferdinand was with the 1st cavalry division? I remember those guys, they were part of Heinz Guderians 2nd panzer group during Barbarossa. The other day, I was reading about how Guderian took the 16 divisions under his command and swung them around 90 degrees to go after Moscow. Kindof like George Patton would later do during the Ardennes offensive. I wonder if a modern force can pull off those kinds of maneuvers anymore? They'd probably need a week just to plan it, given all the dead weight in their HQs.

    Its a pity I can't read German, these old books look interesting (even if some of the observations are no longer valid for todays). But WRT mechanised infantry, are you still of the opinion that mounted combat is obsolete? Is it strictly an issue of technology, or is there a tactical component too? I remember you once said that the Americans were never able to grasp the essence of panzergrenadier tactics...

    1. Administrative marches can be done very quickly in theory (though it's most tricky with field hospitals in operation), but it's not part of practical training on a large scale. Even during the Cold War an administrative march of an entire brigade was a major event.

      I may have quoted DePuy on the Panzergrenadier thing. The essence is rather the rapid switch between mechanised and dismounted actions than the use of small arms from APCs/IFVs. This is easy to understand once you think at battalion battlegroup level rather than at the small unit level.

  2. One interesting example for an conversion of square units to triangular units is the imperial japanese army in the time between the world wars. This topic was discussed from the japanese in this time more than in any other army.

    The main argument that won the day was to spare quantity and therefore moeny to introduce newer and better weapon systems, especially to built up the Air Force. One other argument was to improve the ratio between support troops and combat troops. The idea was to cut the compat troops but to keep the support troops.

    But the imperial japanese army then began also to cut artillery units which is widely unknown. Many artillery units and especilly the greatest part of the heavy / long-range artillery were disbanded. New units of artillery were formed then mainly of light / field artillery which costed less and was more mobile which leads to the third argument: improved mobility. According to the japanese doctrine of high speed and high mobility of even infantry divisions the triangular divisions proved to be faster and more mobile. Instead of 4 Regiments of infantry and 1 Artillery Regiment (with a high portion of medium / heavy artillery) the triangular divisons with 3 regiments of infantry and still 1 artillery regiment (of mainly light / field artillery) were much faster, had a higher (but weaker) portion of artillery and were much cheaper.

    The savings were then invested even in new divisions (builded from the spared regiments so that the transformation of 3 square divisions formed 4 triangular ones) and in the air-force.

    This was all done out of theoretical thinking, manouvere experience and so on and not from practical experience.

    The doctrine did come first in this case, then the triangular units were build because of the doctrine and arguments were searched and used to legitimate what was the logical result of the doctrine.

    I think that such an order is quite usual. Without practical experience units are formed according to an doctrine and then arguments are searched to legitimate this. Other good examples would be the Pentomic Army or the use of only two combat units by the us army in the last decade (1 Recon, 2 Combat, 1 Artillery).

    In the japanese case all the arguments looked logical and good. But first did come a new doctrine and then arguments were searched to justify this and then the unit structure followed.

    The practical result in the japanese case was in reality, that only few moeny was saved by the reorganisation and the costs for the army increased heavily because so many new divisons were formed from the spared regiments, the fighting of the divisions decreased especially because the artillery became much weaker although the numbers of the artillery stayed the same (but now mainly light artillery) and the army still had to invest much moeny into the new weapon systems lik new combat air planes.

    As the war started some of the square units were still not transformed. Interestingly this square units showed no difference to triangular divisions in mobility or speed, the fighting power was bigger and this units achieved better combat results. But i must add, that many of this units were regarded as elite formations and some even had practical combat experience before (shanghai incidence and so on) and that many of the triangular divisions were newly formed units. As the war went on, the differences between the remaining square or triangular units become very fast nonexisting.

    1. >The main argument that won the day was to spare quantity and therefore moeny to introduce newer and better weapon systems, especially to built up the Air Force.

      You can't save any money if you don't disband units. And no units were disbanded during conversion from 4- to 3-regimant divisions.

      >Many artillery units and especilly the greatest part of the heavy / long-range artillery were disbanded.

      No heavy / long-range artillery were disbanded.

      >Instead of 4 Regiments of infantry and 1 Artillery Regiment (with a high portion of medium / heavy artillery) the triangular divisons with 3 regiments of infantry and still 1 artillery regiment (of mainly light / field artillery)...

      Portion of medium / heavy artillery increased in the triangular divisions, as now 1 heavy battalion was to support 3 and not 4 regiments. However, IJA lacked heavy artillery so they had to form divisional artillery regiments entirely of light artillery battalions.