Allanea’s Handy Guide to Urban Combat for NS Players

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Allanea’s Handy Guide to Urban Combat for NS Players

Postby Allanea » Wed Jun 08, 2016 7:21 pm

Allanea’s Handy Guide to Urban Combat for Nationstates Players


Urban combat is the most brutal, and one of the most well known forms of combat. As a greater percentage of both population and industry moves into the big cities, more and more battles are fought in cities. For modern news watchers, Grozny, Falluja, and Aleppo have become bywords for relentless, merciless combat. Students of military history remember Stalingrad, Berlin, and the holy city of Hue. It is also portrayed extensively in fiction - Enemy at the Gates, Stalingrad, Full Metal Jacket all portray urban combat, as does The Hurt Locker. Science fiction includes the Clone Wars TV show (and Revenge of the Sith has a scene portraying urban combat),the Ciaphas Cain series of novels, the Warhammer 40,000 Cities of Death sourcebook.

As such it is inevitable that anyone who does large amounts of military roleplays on Nationstates will encounter some degree of urban combat. Because it seems that the same sort of questions have been asked again and again over at the various military realism discussion threads, I have taken it - perhaps somewhat presumptuously - upon myself - to try and summarize the guiding principles that should inform players in both planning and writing for roleplays that are set in urban areas.

The iron rule of any military decision making - and thus of the decisions that both your characters and you will have to make in this context - is to understand the nature of the various weapons and tactics, and their meaning within a broader military and historical context. While this short post cannot - and absolutely does not aspire to - teach you everything you need to know, it does summarize the basics. At the end of it, you will find a list of books, films, and manuals that you can read to expand your knowledge and allow you to add details to both your roleplays and worldbuilding.

Principles of Urban Warfare

The first guiding principle of urban warfare is that it is to be avoided if at all possible. For reasons that we will explain in detail in this manual, urban warfare is not merely extremely lethal for both the attacker and defender’s forces, nor merely destructive of the physical infrastructure of a city and lethal to its inhabitants, but it is disruptive to the very fabric of economic activity. A developed country might lose far more money in the furnace of urban war that can be quantified simply in terms of the physical destruction of homes and factories and the medical care of those wounded.

An attacker, on the other hand, is likely to expend more troops in urban combat than he is in open terrain. The nature of the urban landscape makes it difficult to wage war without killing thousands of civilians - but even if they have been evacuated, or the attacker is ruthless, the defensible nature of the city environment makes urban combat incredibly costly to the attacker. As such, a nation that is at a military disadvantage, eithe due to losing a war or due to being a third-world country without access to modern military technology and training, will attempt as a last resort to pull invaders into urban combat, where it can remove some of their advantages and drag out the fight as long as it can.

Urban combat is defined by the fact that it is much harder to spot one’s enemy in a city. This means that opponents are often not spotted until they are literally shooting at you - typically at a very short distance. This means that the actual fights themselves are much more lethal.

The short distances involved, the natural protection given by many buildings, and the fact that the urban landscape causes military forces to break down into smaller units makes it hard to reach a decision by virtue of a single engagement - rather ,the urban combat battle is often broken down into a series of drawn-out, bloody fights between relatively small units. Unlike battles in the open, which are sometimes decided within hours or days, urban battles can last weeks and months on end.

Urban Combat Tactics

By its nature, urban combat challenges the organizational coherence of large military units. That is to say, in large cities, big military units tend to be broken up into smaller ones. The reasoning is simple - in a city, large military groups are divided by the limitations imposed by the city landscape. In other words, houses get in the way. While it is possible in some cases to shoot through a wall (some walls are flimsier than others), and in some cases with some special equipment to even see through a wall, it’s probably impossible to see or shoot through an entire house or a group of houses. If Squad A is walking down one street and Squad B is walking down another street, it’s going to be nearly impossible for them to be interacting with each other. Even radio communications are somewhat limited when a large solid mass is interposed in the middle.

Moreover, the urban landscape provides cover and concealment for combatants. Not only is it rather difficult to see through a house, but many buildings provide a degree of protection as well. A concrete wall can protect fairly easily from at least shrapnel (and shrapnel is the main killer in conflicts), and often also from rifle fire. If you hide in your basement you’ll be probably safe against anything that’s short of a bomb falling on your house directly. (Remember those Cold War survival manuals that recommended hiding in your basement during atomic war? Those guys knew what they were talking about.).

It’s important to stress here that when we discuss ‘safety’ we are discussing a different concept of safety than what is applied in the civilian world. We all know the stories of families in crime-ridden areas of the world hiding in bathtubs in their house to avoid being hit by a stray bullet from a gang gunfight that’s not even targeting them. A soldier in a combat zone, by his nature, routinely takes risks far beyond those considered acceptable in peaceful life. If a civilian were living in a city that was the site of massive urban combat, no doubt it would be cold comfort to them that the walls of their house can take a .223 bullet. But a soldier or a guerilla fighter can turn an urban apartment in a sturdy building into a fearsome fighting position, especially if they strengthen the walls with some cinderblocks and sandbags. (Additional interior supports can also be built, to reduce the chance of the building collapsing on top of the defenders during an artillery strike.)

Beyond this, urban environments make it extremely easy for a defender to limit mobility. A street is fairly easy to block with barricades, concealed landmines, IEDs, or just by blowing up a house so it collapses across the street. Manholes can be used to hide explosives that are triggered when an enemy soldier passes nearby,any number of objects that can be found in a city (that is to say - absolutely anything that your mind can think of) can be used to hide mines.

The above facts force very specific changes to combat tactics both on attack and defense (in this context, it’s wise to remember that attack and defense are fluid - it’s possible for a faction that is defending a city to send out troops to recapture some building or area of the city, and it’s possible for faction that’s currently attacking to have to defend a key position from counterattack).

When moving, it’s best for soldiers to be spread out in what is sometimes called a ‘checkers’ formation - with one man moving ahead on the left side of the street, another man walking slightly behind him on the right side, and so on. Vehicles move similarly - one on the right, one slightly behind it on the left. The soldiers and vehicles scan constantly with their guns and turrets, with the goal of noticing threats and warning their comrades.

Measures should be taken to avoid walking past first-story windows (for example, by ducking under them) and basement windows (by jumping over them, walking around them, or tossing in grenades if something is suspicious). When attacking buildings it’s best to approach them from the direction of the shortest wall. It is best to take an effort to maintain communications with other units wherever possible for mutual assistance, as well as to have a knowledge of what’s ahead.

People who defend static positions (such as buildings, warehouses, underground complexes), must take the time to plan and prepare their defense. Firing positions for weapons should be made ready ahead of time if at all possible (not all weapons can be fired from inside a room - an SPG-9 or RPG-7, for example, has a powerful backblast. There are a few memetic Youtube videos of terrorists from various groups injuring their compatriots horribly with the backblast of an RPG-7.). You should be clearly aware of all entrances to the facility - and if possible, block any entrances you are not using or cannot defend with barricades - or better yet, build an actual wall. Placing explosives, landmines, booby traps of any kind throughout the building is useful but of course defenders must have a clear knowledge of where they placed the mines. (It is easy to imagine what happens if you place landmines and forget to tell other people where you put them!)

Defenders should keep in mind the overall map of the city, and the routes from which enemies are most likely to approach. It is best to pick a location from which one can see and shoot as far as possible (to make it harder for enemies to sneak up on you), and to consider ahead of time the need to fire anti-tank weapons. Tanks are most vulnerable when anti-tank weapons are fired at them downwards from steep angles, targeting the top of the tank, or upwards from basements, targeting the treads. At close ranges tank crews will have difficulty seeing things that are very close to the tank or located on high stories. This can be mitigated by having the commander open the hatch and look out, but, obviously, the commander can then be shot with regular small arms.

Conversely, defenders might have their own tanks. They can use them as regular tanks are used (in that case, the previous rules for vehicle movement inside cities apply) or they can hide them (or other similar vehicles) inside actual buildings. You can conceivably hide a tank inside a building and have it remain utterly hidden from observation until enemy troops and tanks are in range of it firing a surprise shot at them.

It’s important to note that there is a myth oft-repeated in discussions of urban combat that tanks are useless in cities. This is entirely and completely untrue. It is true that tanks used unwisely or without infantry support have sometimes incurred great casualties. But that’s fundamentally not a problem with the tanks, but a problem with the military commanders at hand. The most famous example is Russia’s participation in the 1995 Battle for Grozny. That was badly planned, the tanks lacked infantry escorts, many tank commanders lacked detailed maps of Grozny (and indeed quite a few had no maps at all), resulting in them getting lost in the city. This is should not be the experience of your tank crews unless you wish to roleplay your commanders being incompetent (actually, a valid choice).

Tanks are extremely useful for urban combat due to both their incredible survivability (they can survive being struck by RPGs and similar rockets if they’re not hit in their weakest spots, and there are recorded incidents of even the rather elderly T-72 tanks soaking up as many as 72 RPG hits) and due to their incredible firepower. Very few direct-fire weapons can compete with the sheer destructive power of a tank’s gun. In fact, research by the United States Marine Corps suggest that assault units making use of tanks and infantry are the single most effective form of tactical organization and has been a central element in 75% of urban operations that involved assault teams.

Beyond what has been said, to maximize the usefulness of tanks in urban combat, they should operate in conjunction with infantry, preferably staying somewhat behind the lead infantry elements, and constantly accompanied by infantrymen. This allows the infantry to warn tank crews about dangers, defend them from enemies trying to get too close and throw grenades and Molotov cocktails, and shoot at RPG gunners located too high or too low for the tank to get at. Conversely, the tank gunner can shoot at snipers and machine gun nests that endanger the infantry with its main gun or heavy machine gun. As long as it stays somewhat back, it can engage even the higher stories of buildings with its gun. (If it drives too close, it cannot elevate its gun to target the topmost levels of buildings).

Both defenders and attackers in urban combat must be heavily armed, far more so than in regular combat. While in open spaces, you can depend always on fire support from other units or even from your IFV, this might not always be available in urban terrain. The separation of units that we described early on in this chapter creates an incentive for commanders to put as much firepower in the smallest units possible.

During the Second World War, Soviet assault teams operating in urban combat comprised small, company-level organizations (for laymen, this means 100-150 troops) that were armed with submachineguns, tanks, flamethrowers, and even artillery pieces that were hastily adopted to be fired in direct-fire. Explosive charges, some as large as ten kilograms, were carried by hand to demolish Nazi-held positions. Late in the war, captured Panzerfausts were also issued to these units. To this day, urban combat revolves around the same principle - take lots of heavy weapons and use them at short range.

Vasily Chuikov, well-known for his involvement in the Battle of Stalingrad, summarized his tactical insights from that battle as follows:

Get close to the enemy’s positions: move on all fours, making use of craters and ruins: dig your trenches by night, camouflage them by day; make your build-up for the attack stealthy, without any noise; carry your Tommy Gun on your shoulder; take ten to twelve grenades. Timing and surprise will then be on your side. …Two of you get into the house together – you, and a grenade; both be lightly dressed – you without a knapsack, and the grenade bare; go in grenade first, you after; go through the whole house, again always with a grenade first and you after…

There is one strict rule now – give yourself elbow room! At every step danger lurks. No matter - a grenade, then on again! Another room - another grenade! A turning - another grenade! Rake it with your Tommy Gun! And get a move on! …Inside the Object of attack, the enemy may go over to a counterattack. Don’t be afraid! You have already taken the initiative; it is in your hands.

Act more ruthlessly with your grenade, your submachinegun, your dagger, your spade! Fighting inside a building is always frantic. So, Always be prepared for the unexpected. Look Sharp!

Very few things have changed since 1943. To this day, urban combat is a brutal affair, in which fighting is carried out at close range, often among determined, fierce opponents. A lot of it is indoors - another issue which we must cover.

Indoor fighting is among the most vicious forms of combat, ranking alongside trench combat among the fiercest and most inhuman combat experiences known. It is easy to understand why. On one hand, it typically occurs at the closest ranges - imagine fighting to the death inside your living room. At this distance, soldiers and guerillas often find themselves closing the gap between themselves and their enemy to fight them with their bayonets, smash them in the face with their guns, or even attempt and choke each other with their hands. On the other hand, the short distance (in terms of combat, practically any indoor distance is ‘extremely short’) makes small arms and hand-grenades even more lethal than usual. Finally - once again - because combatants are hidden behind the walls of a building, it’s often possible for them to surprise each other.

To some degree, confusion can be mitigated by carrying maps or plans of the city and its building. Any modern city has the plans of every house in the city on file (they are filed when planning permission is sought) and while there are sometimes minor difference between these plans and the real building (for example, it might have been illegally altered by the owner) these are obviously very useful. While the attacker will probably not have access to these plans, detailed city maps and satellite photography are reasonably easy to procure (the USSR had elaborate plans of major US city down to having notes on the ground pressure capacity of specific city streets and locations of restaurants). Not having maps at all can turn out to be lethal.

When moving indoors, soldiers must exercise great care to avoid being surprised by their opponents. In some cases, explosives can be used to breach new entrances through walls to avoid doorways (obviously, defenders will be watching any doorway). When this is not possible, care should be exercised when passing through doorways. Often a tactic known as ‘slicing the pie’ is used, in which one moves carefully in a semi-circle around a corner, gradually expanding one’s field of view of what’s around it while minimizing one’s own exposure:

Defenders (or attackers) can deliberately demolish buildings, or parts of buildings, for a variety of purposes. Rubble can be used to block roads, and, if a building’s lower levels can support the weight of rubble, it’s possible to demolish the upper floors of a building to create a thick level of broken-up concrete on top of the defenders’ positions, which will shelter the bottom floors from shrapnel and even artillery impacts. Moreover, buildings can be demolished by either side to allow for clearer fields of fire. (The downside is that the opposing side’s commander can spot these deliberate demolitions or their consequence and use that to learn about one’s intent or position.) Rubble can be cleared away in combat using armored bulldozers like the D-9 or dozer blades mounted on tanks.

Slicing the pie (graphic found online)

The United States Army manual on urban combat refers to the activity of coming into a room and capturing it as room clearing. The U.S. Army believes this activity to be divided between high-intensity room clearing and precision room clearing. In the former case, vast levels of firepower are applied to (hopefully) kill everyone in the room through the use of hand-grenades, rocket launchers, and - if available - heavier weaponry. (In other words, shoot a tank gun through the window and get it over with.) This is the same principles as used attacking trenches and bunkers. In the case of precision room clearing, however, firepower levels are reduced somewhat, with the soldiers attempting to first check what is in the room - to reduce potential civilian casualties. Surprise and stealth are utilized to be able to do so.

Soldiers attacking buildings must utilize surprise to the best of their ability. If it is possible, it is best not to enter a building via the door, but to climb in through a window, use a ladder, or even rappel through the roof. In some cases explosives can be used, or even vehicles. Once inside the building, the soldiers divide into teams (as large as a dozen men or as small as two or three) which advance up staircases (it is not impossible defenders would have blown up any staircases they don’t absolutely need) and down hallways. Just like when moving on the street, the soldiers are to look into different directions, scanning for threats. It is best to avoid touching any items which one doesn’t absolutely have to handle - anything can be used to hide a bomb or a hand-grenade.

Defenders, of course, would be holed up in the most defensible parts of the building, ready to fire their weapons at the attackers. If the attacking soldiers are lucky and they’ve managed to sneak into the building without anyone noticing them they might be able to sneak up to the defenders and kill them all, but a brutal fight is most likely. The attackers will be seeking to clear the floor they are on, and then proceed upwards or perhaps downwards, while the defenders will be pushing to repel them.

Urban Combat Operations
Soviet commanders at Stalingrad

As we have covered in previous chapter, urban combat is a highly undesirable activity. A military force wishing to engage in urban combat regardless should strive to do so as quickly as possible, to limit the time that the enemy will have for preparation. The best conclusion would be to rapidly drive one’s forces through the main city streets, capture everything important (power plants, major government buildings, etc.) and claim victory.

The most-difficult scenario is as follows:

The defender, upon planning urban operations, will prepare his defensive based on a detailed map of the city. He will prepare a line of defense outside the city, to delay the enemy’s entry as much as possible. Meanwhile all the key areas (and preferably the entire city) will be divided up between military units (or elements of your guerrilla faction). These units will prepare their areas of responsibility to be defended - by blowing up bridges, fortifying important buildings, planting mines and booby traps. Some units will be kept in reserve, to rapidly move to assist anyone who needs assistance (and to avoid paratroopers or heliborne troops landing in city parks etc.). Artillery and mortars, where available, will be kept back to fight the enemy’ artillery. Tanks and infantry fighting vehicles will be hidden inside buildings. On major city streets, where enemy vehicles are most likely to make an appearance, anti-tank weapons can be hidden and prepared for ambushes.

The attacker will, to the best of his ability, encircle the city to cut off any resupply. Upon accomplishing this, and after procuring detailed information about the city (via spies, reconnaissance troops, drones, etc.), one should begin the attack by having aviation and artillery fire on key locations in the city. The goal is NOT to level the city - leveling the city won’t kill your enemies and will not make your life easier - ruins are as hard to fight in as intact buildings, and covering the streets in rubble will make movement harder. The goal is to destroy suspected or known enemy fortifications and other things of use to the enemy (telephone stations, power stations, key buildings) with precision firepower. (If guided weapons are unavailable, precision strikes with unguided bombs and shells will have to do.).

Finally, the attacker’s force is divided into groups with areas of responsibility (similar to the defender’s division). They begin to move in along major roads, hoping to cut the defender’s forces up into separate units, and gradually capture the city. Heliborne and airborne troops can be landed inside the city to strike by surprise, and conversely they can be shot down with anti-air weaponry or destroyed by the defender’s mobile groups.

Support Activities in Urban Combat

As we have begun to cover in previous chapters, urban combat is extremely taxing on any military outfit. This is not only taxing on the frontline troops (infantry, tankers, and other combat branches), but also on combat and support troops who assist them in their missions. Here are some concerns that should be addressed in planning:

Detailed knowledge of the events is hard to get even for really advanced militaries. If one is writing about guerrilla fighters it’s quite reasonable to assume that they won’t have this detailed knowledge (though the people that defended Grozny in 1995 did). That said, such detailed knowledge is not necessary to hold on to a building for several days. Winning battles without it is rather hard, however - and this is why professional militaries put so much effort into reconnaissance - having photographs of the city taken, having it scouted out by foot scouts and drones, having spies provide as much information as possible. If you manage to steal copies of building plans, that would be a massive coup for your side.

Communications are very difficult. If the city’s phone system (or even cellphone system) is still up, using it, or even parts of it if it’s gotten wrecked, is probably best. Military communications will get partly blocked by house walls, and of course both sides will be operating jammers.

In an urban environment, bringing up food to the troops is a major problem. Logistics trucks may get intercepted. During the Second World War food runners - men literally running to the lines with thermoses full of soup - were used for this purpose. Defenders, of course, can have ample food stored up in their improvised forts.

While decent countries try to evacuate civilians to avoid them being exposed to urban combat, it’s often impractical to do so, and some governments or terror groups won’t care - leaving thousands of people exposed to the violence. If urban combat is prolonged, citizens are likely to be suffering from food shortages - storing enough food to feed the population of a modern city for more than a week or two is very difficult, distributing it during combat night impossible. What this means for your military is up to you - perhaps you feel your military is responsible to aid the civilians, or perhaps you just don’t care.

Urban combat is more psychologically stressful than most other types of combat activity. Some claim this is due to the more intense nature of urban combat. Whatever is the case, soldiers serving in an urban combat zone need to be rotated to the rear after two months at the most, even if they have not been participating in intense combat all this time.

A special note: Tactical nuclear weapons can in fact be used in urban combat. However, due to the possibility that enemy troops will survive the nuclear attack in trenches or basements, or move rapidly to recapture the crater (and indeed, modern concrete structures are far sturdier than most of the buildings in 1945 Hiroshima), these do not solve urban combat. Artillery and aviation strikes on the crater are advisable, before infantry can finally seize it.

A Special Note on Sieges
Written with the aid of The Akasha Colony, Purpelia, Imperializt Russia and The Kievan People

A form of combat very famous in the middle ages and less so today is sieges. In the past it was common to have military forces pin down defenders in a city or fortress and wait until starvation did them in. In modern days this is less successful and less common - cities are much bigger both in terms of their size and population, and thus harder to besiege. The siege of Leningrad, which lasted for an amazing 900 days and killed hundreds of thousands of Leningraders, failed to actually take the city and bring the citizens to submission, and so did the siege of Sarajevo.

Cutting off supplies to a city entirely is very difficult (indeed, the Nazis failed to completely cut off Leningrad, and supplies were continuously delivered by land and by lake - there just wasn’t enough). It is however possible to temporarily restrain the mobility of a force holed up in a city, or to stop military resupplies in some conditions (the Ukrainians succeeded cutting off the resupply of Slaviansk - a city that sits in a swamp with access available only by road, eventually forcing the rebels to carry out a breakout). It’s not a viable tactic to actually take ost cities in the modern world - if you need to take the city for some reason you’ll probably need to engage in urban combat.

Reading List


Front Line Stalingrad - a classic work of fiction written by a veteran who’d seen it all.


Stalingrad (1993 film) A very gritty, but realistic, account of the horrors of urban combat.
Stalingrad (2013 film) While decried by many in Russia, this film is more realistic than one might think. Indeed the scene that seems the strangest is in fact based on detailed witness testimony of real events.


Battleplan: Urban Warfare
The Soviet Storm: Battle of Stalingrad - an award-winning documentary.
CNN Presents: Urban Combat - a visit to the US Army’s urban combat training facility
War Games: Israeli Urban Warfare


MCWP 3-35.3 Military Operations in Urban Terrain - USMC Manual
FM 3.06-11. Combined Arms Operations in Urban Terrain - a US Army manual
Soviet Tactical Doctrine for Urban Warfare
Guerrilla Warfare Tactics in Urban Environments
Nuclear Weapons in Urban Warfare - an exercise log.
Are The Lessons of Chechnya Being Learned? - a veteran’s take on the events of the Chechen wars
Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1941-1943 - Antony Beevor’s classic account.
The Fall of Berlin 1945 - an excellent book by Antony Beevor
Ragnar Benson’s Urban Survival - a well-researched, if a bit overdramatic, book about surviving in a city during urban combat. An excellent inspiration for the sort of overdramatic world NS is.

If you have any input, or know any good novels, films, documentaries, or other sources that I should add here, don’t hesitate to contact me.
Last edited by Allanea on Wed Jun 08, 2016 7:27 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Dostanuot Loj
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Postby Dostanuot Loj » Thu Jun 09, 2016 7:57 am

Excellent read. I highly recommend this for NS players to come to an understanding of what modern urban warfare actually involves.
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Postby Deutschess Kaiserreich » Fri Dec 07, 2018 3:04 am

great advice!
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