The Rifle Company
It is with the Rifle Company that the true nature of tactics and their myriad variations begins to emerge. Compared to the relatively straightforward deployment of the Rifle Squad and Platoon, the Company presents a much more complicated proposition.
The Rifle Company provided the perfect platform for augmentation by numerous supporting arms; mortars, machine guns, anti-tank guns and tanks and assault guns themselves. There is an argument that, unlike today's technologically advanced armies, the average Company Commander of World War Two was ill equipped to coordinate such an array of firepower effectively. Infantry and armour co-operation was an especially unpleasant experience in Western armies, with few men having the opportunity to train with tanks prior to actually fighting alongside them.
I had intended to discuss the relationship between the Rifle Platoons and their various support weapons in this segment. However, after having numerous attempts repulsed by writers' block I have decided to seek the line of least resistance. As a result, this examination will consider the interaction of the Rifle Platoons within their parent Company only. Fire support, and the peculiarities of the mortars, machine guns and anti-tank weapons mentioned above, along with specialist elements such as Universal Carriers and assault pioneers, will therefore be considered separately.
To some readers, this may invalidate the exercise. However, the support assets actually available to a Company Commander would vary notably dependent upon the situation, objective and theatre, as well as losses and replacement. Besides, it is far more sensible to walk before attempting to run in such matters.
Makeup of the 'typical' Rifle Company
Compared to the Rifle Platoon discussed previously, the Company tended to share a much more uniform structure across the armies of World War Two.
The practically universal format was of a Company Headquarters controlling three Rifle Platoons. The deployment of support weapons varied, but in Infantry units they were usually located in dedicated weapons Platoons or Sections.
Company Headquarters was generally split between command functions and admin and supply duties. These latter, least glamorous elements of military study were usually confined to a few cooks and supply personnel. In the German Army, they were deemed vital enough to warrant a separate Company Train, which increasingly had to act as a de facto Rifle Squad and was issued a light machine gun as such. In the Red Army, admin personnel at this level were non-existent.
The Company Command staff
The burden of command was normally shared between two officers, the Company Commander and his Second in Command or Executive Officer. German practice differed here again, with there being only one officer at Company HQ, his deputy actually being the commander of the 1st Platoon.
The typical Company Commander could have anywhere from 100 to 200 men under his command dependent upon circumstance. To lead them effectively required a very different approach to that of a Platoon Commander.
As mentioned above, the Company Commander could normally expect to have various units attached to support his force. There was no way he could personally lead this number of elements spread across a frontage measured in the hundreds of metres. He had to exercise command and control as much through delegation to subordinates as through personal leadership.
The Company Commander needed to brief his subunit leaders on the mission in hand and ensure each understood his role within it, including any attached assets. Once his force deployed, his attention needed to focus on the overall progress of the battle, determining where success was being made and where efforts were faltering. He had then to decide how to best exploit or reinforce these areas. Simultaneously, he would be in touch with his Battalion superiors, who would be demanding updates and monitoring progress. He would also be acutely aware of developments on his flanks, where the fortunes of neighbouring troops could demand his men intervene in aid, or find themselves exposed by a sudden reverse. Quite a stressful job all in all.
Helping to alleviate this load was his 2inC or XO. His deputy in effect allowed the Company Commander proper to attempt the trick of being in two places at once. One could maintain the company command post while the other went 'topside' to judge the situation for himself. In the event of the loss of the Commander proper, the 2inC naturally took over his role.
As with the Platoon, Company HQ also contained the senior NCO of Sergeant's rank. His role was to aid in the issue of orders and intelligence to the forward troops, maintain discipline and set an example within the ranks, and generally do what Sergeants do best; ensure everyone is doing things right and leave them in no doubt as to when they are doing it wrong.
The communication options available to the Company HQ were largely those available to the Platoon, only writ larger.
The Red Army apart, a mixture of radio operators and runners kept the information flow moving. There would usually be at least two radios; one tuned to the Battalion net while the other received reports from the Platoon sets. Company radios were more powerful and somewhat more reliable than the light Platoon models, and could be issued direct from the Battalion signals unit. Likewise, the Communications Platoon could also set up far more reliable landlines where the Company HQ adopted a static position.
At least three runners were available, sufficient for one per Platoon, and could be increased by orderlies, clerks and the like, where they did not already double as signallers. Platoon runners could also be placed under Company command.
The sole dissenting description can be found within the Red Army, who by 1943 had reduced Company HQ to two officers and two NCOs. Presumably runners were found by taking men from the Rifle Platoons and radios did not figure at all.
The Company Command Post
The Company Command post was normally a fixed position from which the Commander could direct his Platoons and contact adjacent and higher formations. It was staffed by the Commander, and normally his senior Sergeant, signaller and runners. In the assault, the Commander would take with him his Sergeant, runners and signallers, and possibly some men to act as an escort.
The 2inC would establish a reserve post, or in the offensive a fixed position to which messengers could head in the event they could not find the mobile CP.
The Company in the Offence
Trying to do justice to the complexities of deploying a full Rifle Company in action is quite a daunting proposition, though not quite so daunting as leading one. As an amateur, there is a temptation to think of the Rifle Company as a somewhat one-dimensional tool, heavily reliant on supporting fire to allow it to close with its objective. While it is perfectly true the Company worked at its optimum in concert with other arms, it still had an innate flexibility that gave its commander several deployment options. The ones actually used ultimately depended on the doctrine of the army involved, tempered by the experience of the men employing it.
The formation used in the opening phase of the assault directly impacted on the Company Commander's ability to effect events further along in the battle.
What concerned him most was the division of his force between the assault echelon and the reserve or support element. The Company Commander had to think of the battle as a developing struggle, and had to harbour his assets to enable him to affect its outcome two or more moves down the line. To that end, he could only commit a portion of his troops to the initial assault, holding a number in reserve. Commanders tended to think of their unit as whole Platoons rather than individual Squads. Mathematically speaking, the decision was fairly simple, one Platoon upfront, or two?
The V shape provided the most popular method of handling the Rifle Company in the attack. Its logic was founded on the maxim that a reserve should always constitute at least one third of the force available.
Two Platoons would advance in parallel, the third held back in support. The lead Platoons would observe a boundary between themselves to prevent Squads becoming mixed up, but their commanders would still seek to maintain contact with their flank protection.
It was felt that this advance on a twin axis allowed the greatest flexibility. The two Platoons could offer each other mutual fire support, one covering while the second moved. Within the Platoons the tactics described in the previous segment would be enacted.
The role of the third Platoon was pivotal in the development of the assault, and its usage could vary considerably dependent upon the situation.
The simplest role it could fill was as the Fire Platoon in British terminology. The Platoon would provide suppressive fire enabling the two forward Platoons to advance upon their objective. The movement Platoons would also be using fire and movement within their own Squads. The fire Platoon was encouraged to make use of manoeuvre to limit the effectiveness of return fire from the defenders, though this had to be somewhat restrained if they were to keep up the necessary volume of cover fire. The deployment of a fire Platoon was especially important in those Company types which lacked integral weapons support, the British and later Red Army units coming to mind. It could provide cover either from its position astride the imaginary borderline of the two lead units, or more effectively from a flank, mimicking the deployment of the light machine gun at Squad level so it could fire for as long as possible before the attackers crossed their sights.
As well as fire, the third Platoon also provided a manoeuvre element. It could be used to outflank a position being fixed by the fire of the forward Platoons. Likewise, it could filter in to replace one of these Platoons in the fire role, while the original unit attempted the flanking movement.
The platoon could also be kept back in a reserve role, waiting to move through one of the forward units following a successful breakthrough of the enemy line, providing fresh legs to exploit the opening. In this instance, the unit it relieved could then become the new reserve as it gathered its strength and reorganised. Once the reserve element had been committed, the Company Commander would need to assemble a new one as soon as possible.
The third Platoon could also be used to mop up areas by-passed by the main Company advance, or those only discovered after they had passed. Most importantly perhaps, when advancing against an aggressive defence, the reserve could be thrown in to reinforce the efforts of the advance units in repelling a strong local counterattack.
The V shape advance was a staple Company tactic. It combined the advantages of placing a strong force in the vanguard, while keeping a decent element in reserve.
There was also a problem though, in that as the bulk of the company was in the leading echelon, once battle was joined it had a tendency to become engaged in the firefight. There was a school of thought which reckoned the assault force should present itself more like an iceberg, in that the majority of its strength was kept uncommitted, until the true dispositions of the defender had been revealed.
The arrowhead placed just one Platoon in the advance. The logic was that the enemy would engage it as surely as they would two such units. The lead Platoon itself could also deploy in arrowhead, placing the advance on a single Rifle squad.
With two Platoons in the advance, the Company had already committed the larger part of itself to the action without even having probed the enemy line. A single Platoon advance reversed this position, and kept the greater part of the Company under control. The Commander could then decide how to develop the attack with a far more capable reserve still in hand.
The drawback was the obvious reduction in the frontage of the Company involved. But that frontage would increase as further Platoons were committed to the struggle. It was a slow and deliberate advance, unsuited to a fast moving assault. It was though of great benefit against a true defence in depth, where there were several lines of resistance to be breached.
One of the priorities of the post assault has already been touched upon, namely gathering a new reserve.
Following a successful assault, the Company would find itself in possession of a possibly large chunk of territory the enemy knew quite well and would be trying to get back. The Platoons themselves would already be regrouping and assessing their situation, while digging in in preparation for the inevitable artillery response.
The Company Commander would be trying to establish the status of his Platoons, their positions and losses. He would also be trying to find out what had happened to any units covering his flanks, in case they had faltered and he needed to protect a vulnerable approach by redeploying his own men. He would also have to report all this back to his Battalion Commander, while awaiting or receiving new orders.
At this point, if the advance was to progress no further, the Company may find some of its attached support units pulled back for other duties, or new ones added to aid in the next phase, the defence.
The Company in the Defence
Defence in depth could truly begin with the Rifle Company. A Company would normally occupy a frontage of at least two Platoons, with the third held as reserve. It was not uncommon though for the situation to demand the Company defend a line in length rather than depth. This was a particularly unappealing prospect, as it gave the Commander little way of responding to an incursion into his position.
In a normal defensive position though, the Company would adopt a horseshoe style stance, with two Platoons placed forward, and the third again adopting a reserve role. It would be placed between and to the rear of the forward units. Conducting the defence in depth gave the Company a greater chance of repelling the assault.
As always, the Commander would place his Platoons to give them the greatest possible advantage from the terrain. He would want a clear field fire for his forward line. In a well established position, time could be taken to remove obstructions from the ground, fell trees, uproot bushes, level anything that could be used as cover by an advancing foe. In their place would be set obstacles, barbwire, landmines and even tank traps. Guns and mortars would be sited on predetermined points where it was felt the enemy would form up for the assault, and where they would be slowed down by the obstacles.
If the defensive positions were extensive, the forward lines would be linked to the rear area by communications trenches or at the least routes concealed from enemy observation.
Outposts have been touched upon previously, but demand further examination. The concept of the outpost was to provide advance warning of an enemy assault. It could not hope to stall it unaided, but what it could do was rob the enemy of surprise.
The outpost would usually consist of only a small number of men drawn from the Squads of the Company, perhaps provided with a light machine gun. If enemy infantry were allowed to infiltrate close to the Company line, it would heavily compromise the use of friendly artillery against them. The job of the outpost was to provide a 'speed bump' which would slow the enemy and alert the main line of its advance. Upon contact, the outpost would quickly be withdrawn, though the obvious problem lay in how they achieved this feat under often intense enemy fire.
In extreme situations, a whole Platoon could be placed in outpost position. As such, they were more likely to be required to hold their ground, and would be heavily reliant on artillery fire to support them. The Platoon Commander would be responsible for coordinating these strikes where no forward observation officer was provided.
The principle of a smaller subunit providing early warning for a larger one could also be found during a Battalion march, when one Company would be tasked as the vanguard.
The company in the Vanguard
The principle of the vanguard was to allow an Infantry Battalion to move across unfamiliar or uncertain terrain without falling prey to an enemy ambush.
The Battalion would nominate one Company to lead the advance. This unit would normally be reinforced with detachments of mortars, machine guns and even anti-tank weapons where necessary. Dedicated reconnaissance troops, such as horsed or mechanized cavalry, could also be added.
The advance would be lead by a single Squad, itself preceded by several scouts. A short distance behind the Squad would follow the rest of its Platoon. A further distance behind that would follow the remaining two Platoons. The units would be linked together by individual soldiers, or 'files', who could quickly pass reports either way along the chain.
How aggressively the vanguard was handled depended largely on circumstance and the overall character of the mission. It would normally be able to overcome isolated pockets of resistance, outposts left by the retreating foe. It was also responsible for intelligence gathering, quickly sending prisoners to the rear for interrogation and most importantly scanning the unfolding country for the threat of concealed enemy positions.
Alternatives to the typical Rifle Company
Apart from the variations in support weapons, the three Platoon Company was fairly typical during World War Two. There were though a couple of deviations beginning with the two Platoon unit.
This could be found especially in the Red Army, but also in the British Commando and American Rangers. The most obvious effect was the loss of the important reserve. In the Western light infantry forces, this was a deliberate ploy. The intention was to hit the enemy hard and fast, so the units were stripped to the bare minimum. Such men could almost be expected to be in two places at once.
In the Red Army however, the reduction was simply a way of absorbing the horrendous casualty rates. The two Platoons would be extremely reliant upon each other for mutual support. The loss of an uncommitted reserve must have impinged greatly on the Company Commander's tactical flexibility. The only recourse would have been to strip one Squad from each Platoon as a reserve. However, many Platoons were themselves notably understrength and perhaps could only muster two Squads already.
The other type of Company was the Sturm model, in which the Germans deployed two submachine gun equipped Platoons and one Rifle Platoon. The balance of units would suggest the two close range Platoons lead the assault, while the more conventional Rifle Platoon provided support and the Company reserve.
The Red Army increasingly fielded two rifle and one submachine gun Platoons in their Companies (aside from those entirely armed with the SMG). This has some interesting possibilities, as it was unsuited to provide fire support if the two Rifle Platoons lead the assault, but if it could manoeuvre close to the enemy under their covering fire it could prove devastating at short range.
The Rifle Company marked the first step on the way to the fully integrated 'all arms' team. Despite the ever increasing layers of fire support which existed to underpin its mission, it always had to be capable of doing the job alone.
For the most part though, the Rifle Company acted in concert with the heavy weapons which made up the rest of the fighting strength of its Battalion and above. Some may be located in the Weapons Platoon of certain types of Company, but the bulk would be held in the Weapons Company of the Battalion proper.
The Rifle Squad
The Rifle Platoon
The Infantry Battalion
Small Unit Formations
Infantry Tactics of World War Two