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Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam

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In an increasingly urbanized world, urban terrain has become a greater factor in military operations. Simultaneously, advances in military technology have given military forces sharply increased capabilities. The conflict comes from how urban terrain can negate or degrade many of those increased capabilities. What happens when advanced weapons are used in a close-range urban fight with an abundance of cover?

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Introduction

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The industrial age changed the relative value of land. Development meant relatively small areas could often be of more value to a nation than vast tracts of undeveloped land. Advances in technology and changing economic patterns both enabled and demanded that populations concentrate. Expanding cities were the manifestation of that trend, particularly their substantial growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From 1900 to 1950 the aggregate population of the world's five largest cities increased 110 percent, while the overall global population increased only 52 percent (see Table A).2 The proportion of the urbanized global population increased from 13 to 29 percent between 1900 and 1950. That trend continued, reaching 49 percent by 2005, and is projected to reach 60 percent by 2030.3

As the size of cities grew, so did their military importance. Four factors characterize this increasing importance. First, urban areas became more numerous and physically larger, increasing their proportion of the overall terrain mix. Cities also possessed two key commodities needed for waging warfare in the industrial age: population and materiel. In addition, they acted as the hubs for increasingly advanced modes of transportation. Finally, urban terrain muted some of the key advances in military technology, namely lethality and mobility. These factors began to emerge in the nineteenth century, but their impact was not fully felt until the twentieth century.

 

Chapter One: Urban Warfare in American Military Thought Before Aachen

ePub

Prior to World War II

Prior to World War II no nation's military seriously studied urban warfare against conventional military opponents, including the military establishment in the United States. World War I taught many lessons but urban warfare was not one of them. Open warfare received the bulk of the US Army's attention as it assessed operations during World War I, as opposed to what it perceived as the failure of trench warfare.1 For the interwar Army, urban warfare had presented itself as a problem so rarely as to be a theoretical issue, dwarfed by larger and more tangible challenges such as airpower, mechanization, and mobilization. The paucity of global attention to this topic during this period meant there was little chance for the Army to take intellectual shortcuts by borrowing from others.

Be it the American apathy toward national defense in the 1920s or the fiscal famine of the 1930s, the Army had few resources to expend on apparently nonessential requirements. Army leaders focused on absorbing the lessons of the Great War, the most important being how to rapidly expand force structure for industrial-age warfare. Austere budgets forced hard choices on the Army's leadership, and the Army prioritized manpower over equipment or concept development for future warfare. Even for an area of mainstream interest such as mechanized warfare, the Army's budget for its armored forces, from 1920 to 1932, annually averaged an amount equal to the cost of just two new medium tanks of the period.2

 

Chapter Two: Aachen—October 1944

ePub

The assault on Aachen marked a new phase in the American Army's drive eastward from Normandy into the Reich. The slow, grinding hedgerow fighting of June and July 1944 had given way to frenzied pursuit in August. In September, however, as US forces approached Germany itself, the pursuit phase ended as quickly as it had begun. The slower tempo in turn shaped how American forces encircled and captured Aachen. Aside from the symbolic value as the first German city threatened by Allied ground forces, Aachen was also a useful military objective. The city was the gateway to the Aachen Gap, an avenue into Germany's industrial heart—the Ruhr.

Initial US plans were to bypass Aachen, cut it off, and then mop up the weakened defenders, but those plans were thwarted by unexpectedly dogged German resistance, forcing a more methodical approach. The US effort then shifted to a better resourced pincer movement by two corps, to isolate the city in preparation for the final assault. Strong German counterattacks, and the fortifications of the Siegfried Line, made the encirclement far more demanding and slower than expected. With many forces dedicated to the encirclement and holding off German counterattacks, US commanders strained to find manpower for the assault, and they compensated with extensive armor, artillery, and air support. While German forces were less short of manpower, their troops were of doubtful quality. Most formations were ad hoc groupings of hastily assembled units of non-infantry personnel, or the shattered remnants of larger formations. German armor was scarce, and air support almost non-existent, although artillery support was relatively abundant.

 

Chapter Three: Manila—February 1945

ePub

To make full use of the Philippines in their drive on the Japanese home islands, US forces needed to capture the northernmost island of Luzon; to make full use of Luzon, US forces needed to capture Manila. However, the attention given to Manila itself was minimal during US planning for the Luzon campaign. A mixture of hope, denial, and faulty intelligence reports led General Douglas MacArthur to believe the Japanese would not fight for the Philippine capital city, but rather would declare it an open city, as he had done three years earlier. That was not to be, contrary to even the wishes of the top Japanese commander on Luzon, General Tomoyuki Yamashita.

After US forces landed in Lingayen Gulf on northern Luzon on 9 January, it took them almost a month to move south across the Central Plain to Manila. Waiting there was a mixed Japanese army-navy force, thrown together by local Japanese commanders from the manpower scraps available. It took another month of hard fighting for two reinforced US divisions to clear the city. The end result was significant losses for the US forces, the elimination of the Japanese force, large-scale civilian casualties, and heavy damage to the city.

 

Chapter Four: Urban Warfare in American Military Thought after World War II

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After World War II

In the post-World War II era, the US military for the most part went back to its pre-war apathy toward urban warfare. Shortly after V-E Day (Victory in Europe), the US Army's European Theater Headquarters commissioned a sweeping lessons collection effort that resulted in 131 General Board reports on a wide range of subjects, with distribution throughout Europe and the Army's school system.1 In these reports urban warfare was rarely mentioned and never presented as a serious challenge needing future attention. In Study No. 1, on the strategy employed by the United States and allied militaries in Western Europe, a section on the terrain obstacles facing the allied forces in August 1944 did not mention cities. In a later section, assessing the same issue of terrain obstacles for November 1944, terrain features around Aachen were mentioned but not urban terrain as such. Brest was mentioned, although in terms of siege operations, and Aachen only in terms of being the location where the Siegfried Line was first penetrated. The study listed Lt. Col. John Corley, a battalion commander at Aachen, as one of those interviewed, so it is not that those with first-hand experience were not consulted.2 The report on tank battalions never mentioned urban warfare and the report on infantry divisions stated that overall US doctrine was proven sound without any mention of problems with urban terrain.3 The report on tank destroyer units stated, “Fundamentally, there was no such thing as different employment of tank destroyers in various types of operations.”4

 

Chapter Five: Seoul—September 1950

ePub

General Douglas MacArthur's bold Inchon landings on 15 September 1950 were but a means to an end. The true objective of Operation CHROMITE was Seoul, as its capture would simultaneously cut off the bulk of the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) in the south from its primary supply hub and its principal escape route back north. An added incentive, especially for someone with MacArthur's flair for publicity, was the notoriety of recapturing an allied capital city.

Most of the defenders of Seoul were North Korean units that had been recently assembled, with little experience or training for the rank and file. Some of these units were leavened with experienced officers, and a few other units rushed up from the south. However, the caliber of most of these defending forces was not the same as those NKPA units that had crossed the 38th parallel four months earlier.

Unlike Aachen and Manila, which involved forces seasoned by several years of war, US forces at Seoul were a hastily assembled collection of units that included some personnel with World War II combat experience, but many without. Another difference from the two World War II battles was the reduced level of effort by US commanders to seal off the city. Unlike the combination of skill and luck that allowed American forces to avoid the primary enemy defensive positions guarding Aachen and Manila, the primary American thrust into Seoul would run headlong into the primary NKPA defensive position holding it.

 

Chapter Six: Hue—February 1968

ePub

The battle for Hue began with US and South Vietnamese (SVN) forces in possession of the city. The initial communist assault rapidly captured most of the city, but this chapter focuses on the subsequent four-week US/SVN counteroffensive that followed. During the initial assault there were so few American forces present in the city that an examination of that phase would shed no useful light on American capabilities. The communist forces at Hue comprised both North Vietnamese Army (NVA) regulars and Viet Cong (VC) guerrillas. Hue would also be unlike the other urban battles as US forces could leverage their control of the sea to lend extensive naval gunfire and logistical support. The American forces in Vietnam had benefited from advances in air strike, air mobility, and aerial resupply capabilities since Korea, although those advances created a greater dependency on fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft by the ground forces. That dependency would cause difficulties when the weather at Hue seriously hampered US air operations.

 

Conclusion

ePub

The central three-part question this study sought to answer was: When the need arose to fight in urban terrain in the mid-twentieth century, how effective were US forces, why, and how did that performance change from World War II to Vietnam? The four battles analyzed were chosen because they each tested the US military's capabilities in a major urban battle while together presenting a range of conditions across three wars and over three decades. And yet, despite the variations in conditions, resources available, and foes, US forces successfully executed their mission to capture the city in every case. American losses were certainly not light, civilian casualties were often extensive, as was damage to the city, and the tempo of operations was typically slow, but each battle ended with US forces victorious.

Urban warfare was of only episodic importance to the US military for the period of this study. Prior to World War II it was generally ignored, and after the war given only modest attention, mostly in doctrine. Outside of the World War II years, urban warfare had little impact on training, organization, force structure, or equipment decisions in either the US Army or Marine Corps. Absent evidence of any serious effort to prepare specifically for urban warfare, one can instead trace the successful results of all four battles back to two factors: transferable competence and battlefield adaptation.

 

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