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Sunday, October 22, 2006

In combat, small incidents can have decisive effects

STEVE PETRICK WRITES: Sometimes small incidents can have a telling effect.

During one wargame (real soldiers maneuvering across real terrain), a defending battalion had been assessed crippling losses. It had one company remaining, and that company was holding a critical choke point. If the company could hang on until dawn, an armored unit would come up and counterattack. But if the choke point was lost, the armor would not be able to maneuver.

The enemy (two other battalions) launched an attack on the choke point, driving the defending company back. The defending company managed to break into the attacker's communications and call their own artillery on to them, then launched an attack. The result was the resecuring of the chokepoint, but the company was down to barely a platoon in strength.

At this juncture, the attackers used helicopters to land another company behind the chokepoint to attack it from the rear.

The defending battalion had no more troops to send, and the battalion commander was "missing". At this juncture, the battalion intelligence officer proposed to the battalion operations officer that a platoon be organized out of the Headquarters elements and sent to reinforce the choke point. Two squads were hastilly formed, and departed to try to reach the choke point under the cover of the night and before the airlifted in enemy force attacked.

In the darkness, the scratch platoon stumbled into the airlifted enemy unit. At the end of the brief firefight, the scratch platoon fell back and returned to the battalion headquarters, leaving several "dead" on the field. The mission had failed, the battle was lost.

Then a strange thing happened. The air lifted enemy unit froze. This was a company sized unit, more than five times the size of the small headquarters detachment it had beaten off, and more than three times the size of the battered force at the chokepoint it was to attack. But for five critical hours it did not move.

Dawn came, and the armored unit arrived. The defending battalion had won the decisive battle in holding the chokepoint.

What had happened?

It turned out that, among the "dead" left at the end of the midnight brush was the battalion intelligence officer.

The "dead" man was an infantry officer (while assigned as the battalion intelligence officer, he was actually an infantry officer himself), and was a captain.

Aprised of the fact that an infantry captain had been "killed" in a fight on the flank of their advance on the chokepoint in a fight involving a platoon-sized element, the company commander decided that an enemy company (captains lead companies, not platoons) must have been maneuvering against him. With the threat of being hit in the flank by a defending force company, the commander of the air lifted company decided to set up a hasty defense to repel that attack before continuing on to the chokepoint.

For five critical hours his company held defensive positions against a threat that did not exist anywhere but in his own mind.

However unintended, the "death" of one man had proved to be the decisive turning point of the battle.