Current headlines are replete with stories of urban warfare. Be it Aleppo, Ramadi, Tripoli or some Ukrainian city you only learned of last year, there appears to be no shortage of combatants that want to fight in/over/for some piece of urban terrain. Perhaps a brief step back in to the history of urban warfare will generate some useful perspective.
On the Western Front in 1944, the August Allied sprint across France had quickly slowed to a methodical advance in September, in part because the Allied logistical system could not keep up. Part of that advance included the assault on Aachen, just across the German border and the first German city to fall on either the Eastern or Western Fronts.
A recovered Wehrmacht was putting up fierce resistance by October 1944 and most American forces were needed to hold the line. Only two infantry battalions from the 26th Infantry Regiment (1st Infantry Division) were available for the assault itself. American commanders did what came naturally: They substituted machines for men and emphasized firepower, heavily reinforcing the two infantry battalions with artillery, engineers, air support, and most importantly armor. M4 Shermans and M10 tank destroyers were integrated with the infantry down to the small-unit level, sometimes a single vehicle with a squad. Senior commanders even went as far as to assign each battalion an M12 self-propelled 155mm gun (not a howitzer) — a corps-level asset.
Two items can help us connect back to that time. The first is a rare photo of an M4 Sherman tank and an M10 tank destroyer together on the battlefield as they worked together in Aachen during the assault (below). The U.S. Army Signal Corps photo was probably never published, but can be found among the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. The second item is an account of the battle from one of the infantry battalion commanders that took the city, Lt. Col. Derrill Daniel. The Capture of Aachen was written by Daniel for a course he was taking at the Army’s Command and Staff College (Ft. Leavenworth) in the late 1940s. For both current and future historians, the digitization of old military school papers is a rich vein of primary sources, where one can read accounts of those who were there, but written when they had the time to do so without dodging incoming artillery.
The two battalions methodically advanced across the city, halting each night, employing firepower extensively and assuming every building was a German strongpoint until proven otherwise. It took 10 days to clear the city, and the two battalions suffered nearly 500 casualties (approximately 30 percent of authorized strength), but it was an impressive feat considering they were outnumbered 3 to 1 by the 5,000 German defenders.
In addition to the emphasis on machines and firepower, another American trait was key at Aachen — adaptability. U.S. forces had little experience in urban warfare to this point in the war. There was U.S. Army doctrine on urban warfare at that time (FM 31-50), but it had just come out in January 1944. While that doctrine got many things right, it was patently wrong about the role of armor in urban warfare, describing it as only occasionally useful when dealing with some enemy strongpoints. The Americans at Aachen had learned in the hedgerow country of Normandy that armor and infantry that wasn’t joined at the hip was critically vulnerable.
The designs of the M4 Sherman and M10 tank destroyer form an interesting subplot to the story of Aachen. The much-maligned Sherman did fare poorly against the more advanced German designs (e.g., Panther) in open terrain, but in a close-range urban fight supporting the infantry it was in its element — no coincidence considering the Army’s infantry branch had designed it for infantry support. In contrast, the M10 was designed to deal with enemy tanks, with little thought to combined arms. And yet, a role for the M10 was found as well. Its high-velocity 3-inch (76mm) gun worked better against targets with particularly thick walls, and the close cooperation with the infantry mitigated the vulnerabilities from its roofless turret.
The adaptability demonstrated by the American soldiers at Aachen can be traced back through many field manuals. The Field Service Regulations of 1923, for example, stated the expectation for men of all ranks to “show initiative in meeting different situations as they arise.” But one can argue that adaptability wasn’t so much a trait of the American military but American culture writ large. The American meritocracy has long given the freedom to innovate to a broad base of individuals.
As one ponders the many ongoing conflicts in urban terrain, consider the past. While factors such as equipment and force ratios certainly matter, less obvious elements such as a culture of innovation can also play a key role.