Image Courtesy of Noclador
Breaking a fortified line is what every soldier fears and a commanders last resort. It means attacking defences head on that are dug in, protected and cannot be outflanked. The enemy is well armed and well prepared and are expecting the attack.
The defender gets to choose the exact ground he wants to defend and he often has time to prepare and maximise his use of weapons. The attackers know that they will take heavy casualties thus the troops must be clear as to why they have been asked to sacrifice themselves. Therefore the most important aspect about breaking into a fortified line is morale. The infantry has to have the drive and morale to get through the obstacles. Otherwise if the attack bogs down they are as good as dead resulting in defeat.
Commanders who initiate to break a fortified line can have a range of objectives; either to simply seize ground, to destroy the enemy army in that position or to break through to begin a different type of battle. Once initiated commanders must seize the initiative and maintain that advantage from the first moment and must not allow their attack to stall or slow. They must keep it moving. They also must be flexible enough to cope with unforeseen problems or exploit unexpected advantages.
Such an example was the Second battle of El-Alamein where the German Field Marshall Rommel - the commander of the Deutsches Afrikakorps had made the allied 8th Army withdraw and setup a FDL at a point adjoining the Qattara depression and the Mediterranean sea. From here the allied 8th Army launched unsuccessful counter attacks at Rommel's africa corps. As a measure of defence Rommel too setup his own FDL facing the allies. This allowed his exhausted troops to regroup before a final assault. Even though he had planned for a regroup, constant allied raids were crippling his supplies across the sea by two thirds. Knowing very well the allies were regrouping with uninterrupted supplies, Rommel decided to breakthrough while the allied buildup was incomplete. However the allies managed to halt the advance at Alam el Halfa ridge. Expecting General Montgomery - the commander of the 8th Army to strike and capitalise on the victory, Rommel dug in a fortified line.
Rommel's frontline was 40 miles long. The desert ahead of the FDL was largely flat and open so any movement can be seen for miles. At the front lay a minefield 5 miles deep covered with barbed wire. This was code named devil's garden. Behind this were the formidable German anti-tank guns in well concealed positions designed to withstand heavy artillery and aerial bombardment. Following classic military doctrine Rommel's defences avoided being linear. Instead it was built to be a defensive web allowing the defender to fight at every direction. Behind this web Rommel concealed his armour to counter any breakthrough of his defences.
Classic military doctrine suggests that attackers need 3:1 ratio against defenders. Against well entrenched positions it jumps to 5:1. At El-Alamein Montgomery had 200000 men, 1000 tanks and 900 aircraft. Against him Rommel had 100000 men, 500 tanks and 350 aircraft. This is in addition to the minefields. In military parlance minefields are known as a combined arms weapon. They are designed to channelise armor and men into predetermined kill zones. To deal with mines the offender has to slow down and that makes him very vulnerable for the enemy. To avoid the enemy counter fire he needs to speed up, but this makes him vulnerable to mines. But this did not deter Montgomery. Despite the heavy odds, he and his men had no other choice. A flank was not available to exploit. From the South was the impassable Qattara depression and from the North was the Mediterranean sea. Montgomery was also not comfortable with the superiority of the force ratio. But he was getting his supplies freely through the Mediterranean whereas Rommel's supplies were successfully intercepted by air strikes. Montgomery also enjoyed the intelligence advantage with Enigma decoding German transmissions.
It is very rare for any commander to have the 3:1 let alone 5:1 force ratio which military theorists consider essential to break a fortified line but it is possible to gather the necessary superiority at least locally by using deception and surprise.
First General Montgomery takes a bold decision to attack the line from the North when his earlier predecessors attempted at the South thereby trapping the enemy against the Mediterranean coast. This was while his deception battleplan set about to convince Rommel that he was indeed following his predecessors and was attacking the South. He positioned dummy trucks and tanks. A dummy oil pipe was built from El-Alamein to the South slowly enough to convince Rommel that the allies will not initiate an assault (on the South) till the pipe was complete. False radio traffic made the German listeners focus on the South. In the North immense efforts were underway to camouflage troops and tank concentrations. The deception was so successful that Rommel left for Germany for medical attention with just a month before Montgomery's D day.
On the approach to D day Montgomery conducted an diversionary attack on the South to pin down half of Rommel's forces. At the north in Operation Lightfoot infantry were tasked with cutting two corridors through the devil's garden. Engineers were to clear a path under the over of artillery for tanks and mark them with white tape and hooded lanterns. The objective of the two tank divisions was to cross the devil's garden by dawn and strike.
On October 23rd 1942 at 2140 hours under the cover of a barrage of 1000 guns, the Allied infantry advanced towards their objectives. The artillery and infantry advanced in a creeping barrage. In military parlance it mean artillery moves 100 yards every 3 minutes with the infantry following. In a creeping barrage coordination has to be precise. At the battle of El-Alamein the 51st Highlanders advanced too fast, running into friendly fire from the allied barrage. Nevertheless Montogomery's initial assault had gained sufficient impetus until the tank divisions were to churn along the route cleared by the engineers. Unfortunately the path cleared by the engineers was only one tank wide. Once the first tanks were hit by 88mm anti-tank weapons, the entire pathway was blocked trapping the tanks within the devil's garden. The gun flashes of the incoming troops made picking up the targets easier for the Germans and battered the bogged down tanks with artillery. As the sun rose the advance faltered. The tanks had failed to clear the minefields and make headway to support the infantry who had crossed the minefields by dawn. Instead of moving on without losing momentum, they were forced to dig in. Within a few hours Montgomery had lost the impetus to Rommel. During the first 48 hours of battle Montgomery lost over 200 tanks and he called off operation Lightfoot.
One of the key requirements in breaking a fortified line is not lose the momentum created by the initial impetus and to be flexible in changing tactics when their plans go wrong or to exploit advantages when they go right. All attacks lose impetus with time. Clausewitz wrote about this as being the Culminating point. The key is to be smart enough to recognise that point, rapidly refuel, rearm and get your men moving again towards the objective or re-plan the assault.
Once Montgomery called off his large scale offensive, he switched to a series of small scale assaults on enemy strongpoints along the defence line code named crumbling. Montgomery was the master of deliberate attack. His crumbling attacks were aimed at getting amongst the enemy and to force the enemy's defensive cohesion to flood away. He also used his force ratio supremacy of the air. He used over 800 bomber sorties and over 2000 fighter bomber sorties each day on pre-identified targets.
With these crumbling attacks, Rommel's forces were pinned down with supplies running out fast, giving Montgomery room to manoeuvre. Trying to assume Montgomery's next move, Rommel moved a large part of his Africa core over to the Mediterranean. But the allies learn this through intelligence intercepts and plans the assault further towards the South than planned. It is code named Supercharge.
Monty's Supercharge Image courtesy of Noclador
By the time - November 2, 1942 - Supercharge is begun, Montogomery has 800 tanks left with plenty of fuel. Rommel was left with only 102 tanks with fuel and ammo critically low. Despite the initial breakthrough as before, Montgomery lost some 200 tanks at the day's end due to heavy resistance and mines. The attrition had however reduced Rommel's tanks to less than a 100 and at breaking point. Once the line was broken, despite Hitler's orders of not to retreat, Rommel orders his men to retreat and take up defensive positions 60miles to the rear to counter the break out stage of the Allied 8th Army.
The Sri Lankan theatre:
If General Montgomery had a stretch of 40 miles to manoeuvre his units deceptively or otherwise, the Sri Lankan battleplanners have only a narrow stretch of only 7 miles to successfully manoeuvre its units. With no available flank - at least on ground - they have to meet the Tamil Tigers head on. The narrow stretch also makes it far more easier for the Tamil Tigers to coordinate their fire support.
With the Tamil Tigers having more than 5 years to perfect their defences along the 7 miles stretch spanning from KILALY to NAGARKOVIL, this front provides the most fortified line in the current Sri Lankan conflict. Like Rommel the Tamil Tigers have tried their best to increase their force ratio using minefields, trenches, camouflaged boobytraps, highly mobile artillery and mortar units which have littered the coastline spanning from KILALY to POONERYN. They have used the minefields successfully as a combined arms weapons, channelising the armour units of the 53 and 55 Divisions to take the path through pre-planned kill zones. The largely open flat area of no man's land means, any troop movement is easily spotted by the Tamil Tigers. On these kill zones the Tamil Tigers on previous occasions were known to employ the box barrage where the artillery/mortar would rain on 3 or 4 barrages forming a box thus trapping troops within. Such a barrage can only be conducted on pre-registered locations and was successfully conducted to trap 1GR and 5VIR during the April 08 offensive. This is the Sri Lankan Devil's Garden.
As my previous briefs have mentioned, the biggest challenge the Sri Lankan forces face in this sector is the neutralisation of the enemy indirect fire support. One method is to conduct suppressive counterfire at targets identified by their trajectories (ie firefinders). The second method is to use close air support by the SLAF using its superior platforms to target mobile artillery/mortar units and the third is to thin out the enemy's limited resources by conducting a multi axis approach. With the Sri Lankan armed forces moving steadily within the KILINOCHCHI district towards the sectors that houses the artillery/mortar units - POONERYN/PARANTHAN/KILALY axis - the Tamil Tigers may be forced to deploy some of its assets which otherwise could be used to halt an advance in the MUHAMALE sector. The effects of this method is already evident since the Tamil Tiger commander who was based at MUHAMALE was known to be appointed in charge of defending the KILINOCHCHI district from the 57 and 58 divisions.
Emulating the crumbling operations of General Montgomery, the 53 and 55 Divisions have been carrying out successful small scale assaults on the Tamil Tiger FDL on a constant basis. The main aim of such attacks is to destabilize the FDL defences causing the cohesion and morale of the defenders to flood away. Further such a series of crumbling operations allows the Sri Lankan battle planners to master their opening game as well as shore up the morale of its soldiers. In addition they have been conducting daily training exercises, honing their coordination and skills.
Just like General Montgomery successfully used his superiority of the air to enhance his force ratio, the SLAF too needs to be taken into consideration for future battles in this sector since it can significantly increase the force ratio of the Sri Lankan armed forces within this sector. The intention of SLAF air strikes are to cause widespread destruction with the aim of depleting target numbers thus reducing the number of forward targets for the infantry to engage. This is particularly important for areas that are out of SLA's artillery range i.e the deep battle space where ammo dumps, transit camps for reinforcements etc are likely to be located. Further it can also reduce the number of fire support assets the Tamil Tigers may have access to.
Lastly the commanders must be skilled enough to recognise the all important Clausewitz's culminating point - the point at which the force is unable to perform well enough to achieve its objective - as well as be flexible with the overall battleplan. The last thing a commander requires is his strike force to stall or slow in the midst of a Devil's garden as happened during April 08 when 55 were ordered to stall till 53 caught up. The only way this culminating point be recognised early on, is through experience and practice. The War Gaming process is important in this aspect since it allows the battle planners to test their operational plans without committing troops thus allowing the planners to determine high pay-off targets, define critical events, rectify any flaws in planning and coordination, synchronize fire support with other battlefield operating systems and gives a rough estimate of the expected casualties.
Breaking a fortified line was always an option of last resort when sacrificing waves of soldiers was a choice commanders couldn't avoid. In the Southern Wanni the armed forces have been breaking fortified line after line till they met the NACHCHIKUDA-AKKARAYANKULAM line. The fact that differentiates this line from the rest of the lines is the one single fact that this line falls perfectly within the defensive umbrella of the Tamil Tiger artillery/mortar units - the same units that have proved anathema to the combi of 53 and 55 Divisions elsewhere since October 2006.
With territory shrinking thus limiting space for manoeuvrability to shoot and scoot and with superior SLAF platforms dedicated to hunt such units prowling day and night, tougher testing times are ahead for these dedicated Kutti Sri Mortar units of the Tamil Tigers. Only time will tell...
PS: To get a better understanding of the battle from a logistics and general strategy point of view, I would highly recommend reading Mr. Bailey's Racing against the clock: The LTTE's logistical gamble