Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Fighting Positions

Tricks, Traps and Arrow Slits
The defense of a piece of dirt fortified or not, is directed at multiplying the protection and firepower of the defense and minimizing that of the attacker.  It is the manifestation of the adage that when faced with superior forces, Passive: Dig In, Spread Out, and Hide   Active: Duck, Dodge and Run
It means that the mobility of the enemy to maneuver is restricted to move to kill zones by barbed wire, sharp stakes, moats, and obstacles to present the attacker’s weakness to defensive fires. 

Expose the Attacker's Right 

In ancient days, this meant that the approach to a castle or part thereof, the defender forces the attacker to attack with his right side exposed which absent the shield on the left , left the body open to fires by bolt or arrow. Thus the stairwells in a fortification force the enemy to move clockwise up the up stairwell and down the down stairwell, which constricts his sword arm.  It also messes with guns, bows, and cross bows for the same reason.

The placement of walls is best when placed close to the military crest of a convex slope which moves the wall placement forward onto ridges (fingers-high ground), or in concave slopes the military crest is farther back as the valley low ground approach to the line of knuckles. Collectively this places those on a convex slope to face grazing fires while those in the low ground approach face plunging fires from multiple directions. 

The purpose of moats and minefields is to hold the attacker in position to be destroyed by fire and/or maneuver as well as keeping the attacker away from the walls (or foxholes).  An obstacle not covered by fire and/or maneuver is a waste or resources.   In ancient times, the function of barbed wire was taken by sharp stakes pointed in the direction of the attacker’s advance.  This still works. 
Once an attacker is positioned right and in a kill zone, the plan of fires is based on redundancy of fires from different directions: front, top, sides and rear.  When studying a fortification, look for the alternate places fires would come from to any one place.   This is the study of walls and towers and their fields of fire. 
The tops of walls in your average Hollywood/Bollywood costumer film shows the crenellated walls with hordes of archers, and hurling of rocks and fire at those below.  This did happen, particularly with fortifications allows to mellow with time, for the stones of ancient fortifications no longer have the wooden structures used to enhance overhead and flanking fires on the attacker.

When touring Europe from the hatch of my M113, or from my Austin Healy 3000 a lifetime ago, I noticed a line of pigeon holes about two meters apart and about two meters down from the top of the walls.   It turned out that those holes were where the defender anchored his wooden structures called “hoarding” having nothing to do with storing.   Hoardings were used to extend the defensive structure so that objects could be dropped directly through the floor onto people operating against the base of the walls. In addition, the hoardings had protected firing positions firing bolts or arrows through what were called “loops”.  There were archer’s loops, and crossbowman’s loops; archer loops were vertical, crossbowmen loops were horizontal. 

Normally any loop cut into wood or stone had a narrow opening on the outside to reduce the odds of an arrow or bolt hitting the archer/crossbowman.  The inside was wider to allow the archer to move left and right for a better shot.  Guns made too much noise and smoke so any gun ports have the wide side outside, narrow inside.  The Fort San Juan de Ulloa at Vera Cruz Mexico shows both.

Hoarding became so critical to place fires onto the base of the fort that they were eventually made of stone and called “machicolations” of which there were varieties. The Archer’s Loops were cut into the upright stone of the top of the walls, called “merlons”. And gradually the wooden outworks became scare, to be rebuilt for study today.

In places like gates, holes were cut into the overheads, or ceilings called “Murder Holes” that added to the misery of anyone who got to the front door.

The narrowness of the loops of ancient/medieval defenses suggests that sniper fire was alive and shooting during sieges. Moving about a fortification or the besiegers positions in range of a bow was a hazardous proposition.  Richard the Lion Heart was a sniper’s victim.   In the Japanese film ”Kagemusha” about how Takeda Shingen, Lord of Kai, was shot by a sniper in 1573, lured by his love of music to his favorite spot. 
In addition to sniper fire there was harassing and interdiction fires (H&I) as a constant activity on both sides to keep both sides alert.   In Vietnam my first week in the field, my position was next to a section of 4.2” mortars firing H&I fires all night. Imagine now the constant working of siege engines day and night creaking and groaning with an accompanying thud or crash of a big rock into something or someone.
Towers were principally a way to provide flanking fires across the face of the walls also called “curtains”  and also as a reinforcement in places most likely to be attacked. Towers were the principal component of gates. So as to make passage a pain.

Towers or turrets in ancient times were usually square, a practice that continues.  This created a point of attack at the corners which could be struck from two or three directions. But upon exposure to Eastern Technology of the time of the Order, round towers were found to be harder to knock down, and were easier and less expensive to build. 
Towers were often designed to stand alone if the walls were breached, and others had an open backside in case the tower was taken so that positions in the rear could fire on those who took the tower. Defense in depth!
Access routes to firing positions on walls and towers were often tightly controlled to minimize the vulnerability of the whole structure being taken from one level up or down.  Often the top level was accessible only from a stairwell going up from ground floor. These stairwells, designed for the defender to force the attacker to attack clockwise down with sword arm constrained.
 The fortification of cities (cookie jar behind) typically had less depth than fortifications for the purpose of protecting a military resource in which the cookie jar is in the fort or in front of a fortification in over-watch position like most Templar fortifications were.  In these cases, there were normally a defense in depth with successive works which often were the most deadly.  This is the tall tower so prominent in fact and fiction.
In the cases where the cookie jar is inside the walls as with the seats of power, a person, treasure, or object  the fortifications are placed where most of the approaches are unapproachable usually somthing deep or steep.   This is the castle at La Latte in Brittany built in the 12th Century and is the location used to film "The Vikings" 1958. MGM with Kirk Douglas, Janet Leigh,  Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine.  The film is an excellent presentation of an attack of a fortified position.

The defenses are arrayed in depth with outer works to defend the gates, fortified gates, inner courts and the castle "keep", donjon, or citadel which is the last line of defense.

There are a few objects de guerre on the walls not used for firepower, but for waste disposal both garbage and the other stuff.  The latter were called “garderobes” of the pre-flush days depending on gravity without updraft.  These look just like machicolations or hoarding except the firing port is a bit larger.
Combat Service Support (logistics)
Other features provided essential logistics support in the way of water, food, fodder, fuel, ammo and spare parts. 
A key to survival first depends on water. As such catch basins for rain water and large cisterns dug to maintain a water supply.  An essential part of defense was an adequate food supply at hand to sustain months of siege.  Extra weapons, arrows and a maintenance facility for ordnance repair made for a more successful defense.
Given the impressive array of defense measures, it was not uncommon for a defense against odds of one hundred to one to be successful.  The expense of sieges by an attacker was part of the grand strategy of fortifications. 
It forced a serious attacker to muster massive resources to take the place.  It also detracted from the attacker’s forces needed to face threats or challenges away from the fortification.  Thus any attacker had to face a counter attack from inside as well as a attack by relieving forces coming to rescue those in the castle.  The timing of these maneuvers was critical.  Sometimes, the attacker had to build two lines of fortifications himself. One to keep the defenders inside, and the other to keep the relief force outside.  These were called circumvallation and contravallation with contra being against the relieving force.  The gold standard of this sort of siege was set by Ceasar

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