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Sunday, February 07, 2010

A Gamble for Command

This is Steven Petrick Posting.

One of the experiences I had as a young lieutenant was a struggle to be the "man in charge" of my own platoon. This started while I was teaching my platoon tactics. One of the sergeants (actually, the senior NCO present, but not my Platoon Sergeant who was on Leave a the time, and my senior Squad Leader was also not present) started to tell the men that I had no idea what I was talking about.

It must be understood that my "platoon" was woefully understrength (the aftermath of Vietnam left many units understrength), and while it was authorized one officer and 42 "other ranks", its actual strength (on paper) was one officer and 20 "other ranks", and of that number only one officer and 18 "other ranks" were "present" (two men having been more or less permanently detached to other duties, but still counted as part of my platoon) and two were "non-deployable", i.e., they were in my platoon, but if the platoon was deployed to a combat zone, these two men would have to be left behind due to their profiles. (And of course two other men were not present that day, my senior NCOs.)

At this juncture, I responded to the NCO's challenge by making one of my own: I would take one man and set up a defense, the NCO would have the other 12 men of the platoon (my two most senior NCOs were not present you will recall) to attack.

The NCO had a lot of advantages, not just a six to one edge in numbers, but we were in a local training area which he was familiar with and I was not (I had been with the platoon less than two weeks while he had been training in the area over a year). I was laying out my "defense" based on the "reconnaissance of the ground" I was performing right then as I led my "detachment" in search of a defensive position.

As we moved back, we encountered and had to cross a gully, and about three hundred or so meters beyond it there was a conical rise of ground, a hill, that dominated the immediately surrounding area.

With this, my plan of battle was set.

I deployed my one man on the hill, designating it the "main battle position", then I called the NCO on the radio and announced we were ready. I then deployed my "screening force", i.e., I went back to the gully and found myself a concealed position above it. I chose me as the screening force because it was the "critical task" requiring command supervision.

Then I waited.

After an interval of time I began to hear men jumping the gully (as I had had to do). Now I began using some of the intrinsic intelligence I had of the enemy, i.e., I knew how many men the NCO had, and when the number of men who had jumped the Gully equaled half that number (from the impact of each individual landing), I opened fire. Blindly, yes, and only in their general direction. I switched the weapon between semi-automatic and full automatic, firing a few single shots and then a short burst to create the impression in the NCO's mind that I was making my stand at that point. I could hear confusion, as the gully separated the two elements, and the NCO was clearly totally unprepared to come under attack at that location. Once the magazine was empty, I abandoned the "screening position" and hastily withdrew, first to an interim position where I would fight if there was an immediate pursuit (there was not) and then back to the "main battle position".

Once at the main battle position, I told my one man that he was NOT to expose himself to enemy fire, but place fire on the enemy to fix their attention. I then moved to the rear of the hill at its base placing myself "in reserve" and again waited. Again, the reserve force was the most critical task as the use of the reserve had to be carefully timed.

Another interval passed and I heard weapons fire as the NCO began his assault on the hill. I listened to the volume of fire and the noise level, and when it "seemed about right", I initiated my counter-attack, sweeping around the base of the hill and arriving in the left rear of the NCO's assault. I found that, as I had anticipated, the NCO had committed all of his men to a frontal attack: there was no over-watching element or base of fire set up.

I was hoping to at least inflict heavy casualties (the likelihood that I would get all 13 of the attackers even with the advantage of surprise was pretty small), but here I found that my "covering force" action had paid a major dividend. The platoon had been split at the gully, and the NCO (even with squad radios) had made no effort to reunite the two elements. He had only half the troops with him, the other half was (as it happened) doing the right thing and "marching to the sound of the guns", but they were too far away to even see what was going on (due to intervening terrain and vegetation), and by the time they arrived, the action was over.

With the absolute numbers in the assault greatly reduced, my counter-attack actually achieved unqualified success, wiping out the entire assault element before they even knew I was there. The last to fall was the NCO, literally "shot down" as he turned to give orders to his men only to see the Lieutenant he had been disparaging standing behind him with a leveled weapon and all the rest of his men already eliminated.

After disposing of the NCO, I continued to the top of the hill rejoining my "command". Shortly afterward the other half of the platoon arrived, saw the "casualties" on the forward slope of the hill and, literally, broke on Morale and decided that they did not want to attack the hill. (Truth to tell, had I been with that element I would have tried to attack the hill, but I would have left about half of it to provide cover and supporting fire, a thing that would have destroyed my "counter-attack" had the NCO done so.)

It was a gamble that, honestly, I should not have taken. That it worked out so well was a major plus for me although the NCO never forgave me (and I had enough brains never to give him another chance to try to beat me in tactics, I knew I had been lucky, and stupid to even take the chance, but at the time I really did want to settle the issue).