Urban Battlefields: Lessons Learned from World War II to the Modern Era

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Release Date: 
April 15, 2024
Naval Institute Press
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All these case studies are extremely well-written and offer a variety of unique and common lessons learned for future study.”

The ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine point to the continuing importance for both political and military leaders to understand the changing nature of urban combat. While historically militaries have often tried to avoid pitched battles in cities and built-up areas, recent trends indicate that they will be the focus of combat for numerous strategic and political reasons. In this volume, the Naval Institute Press provides an overarching look at both the changing nature of urban warfare and some enduring principles using a number of case studies primarily from World War II to the present.

As the editor notes, although each case study has its own unique background, combatants, and eventual outcome, by careful analysis, critical lessons can be applied to future challenges. Each case study was chosen to showcase a particular aspect that makes urban combat so arduous both for the attacking and defending force and how changes to technologies, organization, and tactics have influenced how armies fight in this environment.

The first case study is actually from the Mexican-American War, but was chosen to show that some features of fighting through narrow city streets endure. The hastily planned attacks by American forces into the Mexican city of Monterrey incurred heavy casualties as the troops became pinned down and were taken under fire by artillery and infantry firing from rooftops and stone buildings that made excellent fortified positions. After regrouping, the American forces under General Zachary Taylor began a more methodical attack and used the superior firepower of rifles versus muskets to tactically maneuver to avoid becoming trapped in narrow killing zones with no ability to overwhelm the defenses.

The four case studies from World War II examine a variety of operational and tactical issues, particularly the use of firepower versus civilian casualties and collateral damage and the need for combined arms and tactical innovation by the attacking force to overcome the advantage the defender has in preparing fortified positions and defenses. The role of cities as not only logistical and transportation hubs to supply mechanized forces but political symbols is examined in the battles from both the European and Pacific Theaters.

In the Cold War era, the expectation that atomic weapons would mitigate the need for conventional conflict and urban combat fell apart in the Korean conflict as American and South Korean forces found themselves in a pitched battle to recapture the city of Seoul after the successful landing at Inchon in September 1950. The hard lessons learned in World War II reemerge as U.S. forces overcome a dysfunctional command structure while relearning lessons on infantry-tank coordination and the use of direct firepower to reduce fortified positions.

The post-Cold War battles offer some interesting insights as the combatants were not always conventional militaries, but in the case of Mogadishu in 1993 militias and civilians of various factions that united to fight a common enemy, U.S. forces of Task Force Rangers. What started out as a seemingly straightforward special operations raid quickly devolved into a prolonged firefight where the usual American advantages of firepower and maneuver became a block-by-block struggle for survival that exercised a disproportionate strategic response when President Clinton ended the UN mission in the country due to the high U.S. casualties.

The battles of Fallujah and Raqqa chronicle two of the major urban battles between U.S. forces and insurgents in Iraq and Syria. Both of these battles show the need to deal with large numbers of civilians that become more than innocent bystanders but may be used by defending forces as de facto human shields, allowing the insurgents to hide within the population to conduct attacks or to be used as propaganda when they become casualties in the fighting.

The analysis of the battles in Grozny and Gaza are eerily similar to the current conflicts occurring in Ukraine and Gaza. During the First Chechen War in the mid-1990s, Russian troops, many of them poorly trained conscripts, tried to drive into the capital of Grozny in vulnerable tank columns and were nearly annihilated by Chechen forces. The Russians, stung as they would be in 2022 by the unexpected level of resistance and the lack of tactical ability of their forces, turned to indiscriminate artillery and air power to pulverize the defending forces with no regard to collateral damage. After an uneasy truce ended the first war, the Russians returned to Chechnya in 1999 under their new leader Vladimir Putin and simply leveled what remained of Grozny from the start, substituting firepower for tactical skill and grinding their way to a more enduring victory.

The prolonged Israeli campaigns in Gaza form the most prophetic chapter of the book. Beginning in 2008, Israel has launched a number of assaults into the densely populated region trying to destroy the Hamas terrorist group, and each attack has become more complicated as Hamas heavily fortified the region with an extensive system of tunnels dug under hospitals, mosques, and apartment buildings. More critically, these conflicts have shown that modern urban combat will be as much about imagery and narrative as it is about tanks and infantry. As Israel has learned once again, the proliferation of cell phones and the internet has allowed the quick distribution of unfiltered video that is often accepted at face value to become a powerful weapon in the battle for world opinion.

All these case studies are extremely well-written and offer a variety of unique and common lessons learned for future study. With the high likelihood that future conflicts will primarily occur in urban and built-up areas, this volume is highly recommended for obtaining a historical perspective on this challenging area of military operations.