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Patrol Operations under Winter Conditions
The winter operations of Divisions in Italy were confined to mountainous sectors where the enemy front lines were relatively close to our own lines and where the situation was static and relatively quiet.
2. Skis and Snowshoes
Mention of winter patrols naturally suggests the use of skis but this was not practical for several reasons. First, unless a man was expert on either skis or snowshoes (and experts are not made overnight nor during a single winter season) this additional equipment was usually more of a handicap that a help; second, the distances covered by patrols seldom were over a few thousand yards, eliminating the necessity for rapid long-distance movements across country; third, with the terrain so cut up by deep draws and defended ridges, patrols had to follow routes which were unsuitable for the use of skis. During much of our winter operations the snow had melted leaving a great portion of the ground covered by sharp rocks and deep mud.
3. Areas to be Patrolled
A general policy covering the type, strength, and frequency of patrolling was given to the Regiments. The Regiments determined which areas would be patrolled and the type and strength of patrol to be employed in each case, and submitted their daily intentions to Division Headquarters for approval. Information obtained from front line units, prisoner interrogation, and Artillery, ground, and Air OPs was studied to determine the enemy-occupied areas and the weak spots in his defenses; and together with large scale (1/12,500) maps and the latest aerial photos, suitable routes of approach were selected.
Patrol leaders and their key personnel made an actual ground reconnaissance on at least one night before the operation to confirm the depth of the snow, [and] to select control points, assembly areas, recognition points, and routes of withdrawal.
4. Selection of Routes
The terrain in "no man's land" was made up of woods, open fields, or ravines. In the woods the shelling of several months had broken the trees and littered the ground with branches and twigs. When the ground was frozen it was practically impossible to walk through these areas quietly. The only satisfactory way to go through these areas was to crawl, the lead man clearing a path for the patrol to follow. Woods such as these provided little or no concealment and were avoided as much as possible
Open fields were also to be avoided except on the darkest of nights, and even then they were most difficult to cross because of the machine gun fire which the enemy used to keep them covered.
On this account the deep ravines were usually selected as patrol routes. The use of this rugged terrain with its steep and slippery banks called for double the usual exertion. Men tired quickly and, if not careful, lost their footing.
The lack of suitable routes and room for maneuver sometimes required the repeated use of the same general routes, Trackage in the snow and mud was very noticeable and routes had to be altered, if at all possible, to avoid ambush. By varying the route by as little as 25 yards, ambushes often were successfully by-passed without detection. This was made possible by the use of the numerous small draws branching off from the larger ravines.
Smaller draws were favored because they provided defilade from the machine gun and mortar fire which the enemy had accurately zeroed in on each of the larger ravines. However, they confused patrols as to direction, distance, and interpretation of sounds.
Once in a draw there were no short cuts. It was necessary to proceed to the end of it in order to secure the flanks. Except in emergencies, it was not practicable to climb to the top of the ridge and look to the flanks, and the banks were too steep and too much noise was caused by the falling of loose dirt.
There was little chance to fight back or avoid machine gun or machine pistol fire in a draw. It was hard to disperse, except in depth.
Snow seldom stuck to the steep banks of the draws, though the bottoms were well covered. This made it necessary to remove snowsuits to conform with the background. Patrols often changed into and out of snowsuits several times in one night.
When working in winding draws with many tributaries, it was impossible to find prominent landmarks for guidance and checkpoints. This was overcome by a prior study of the positions of searchlights which, when lit, were quick and accurate means of orientation.
It was not hard to walk quietly on muddy ground if pools of water could be avoided. The only handicap mud gave was in its sticking to the boots, making them heavy, which caused the men to tire faster. The slippery conditions made footing treacherous.
The changing picture of terrain from night to night caused some trouble. As the snow melted it bared shellholes, trees, rocks, and trails that had not been seen before. Recognizable landmarks would disappear. A patrol leader, though he had passed over the same route several times, sometimes would find such a changed picture of the terrain that he was easily confused as to his location.
Crusty snow had to be broken carefully. Once broken through it was possible for every man to follow in the same footsteps.
The static winter situation gave the enemy ample time to lay minefields. Patrols had to be briefed from air photos about newly mined areas as well as reminded of old minefields. Mined areas were avoided by patrols, and when this was not possible, a mine-lifting party accompanied the patrol.
The same qualities desirable for any patrol were desirable for winter patrols. In addition, men needed exceptional endurance. Once the men became heated, coughing always followed. Patrol members carried half of a Codine tablet (the equivalent of a dose of cough syrup) which did well in tiding them over the coughing spell.
In order to maintain efficiency and to meet combat emergencies during the return, patrols were seldom expected to lie in ambush or in observation for longer than one hour after becoming overheated and soaked by the rain, slush, and mud.
The British-type snowsuit was preferred to our parka for several reasons: it is lighter; does not impair the hearing during the movement of the head; furnishes cover for the dark legs which are otherwise outlined against the snow; may be removed and easily carried when the color of the background changes; and fitting loosely obscures the outline of a man's body. It can be easily washed and rapidly dried.
Wrapping shoepacs in burlap sand bags to avoid slipping was also recommended. This proved much more satisfactory than the snow cleat, which did not fit the shoepac and which continually worked loose in the steep terrain.
Suitable shoes and clothing must be worn if the tendency toward overheating during the strenuous movement and chilling during the "lying-in-wait" was to be overcome. The wool sweater and M-43 jacket without liner proved satisfactory. Clothing and shoes must not fit tightly as that impeded circulation during the long periods of lying inactive.
The selection of weapons was important. Some Regiments preferred the BAR, the sub-machine gun, and the M-1 rifle. Care was taken not to burden down the men with a lot of excessive ammunition or grenades. Keeping the weapons in working order was a problem. A small piece of cellophane was placed over the muzzle of a weapon to keep out snow and mud. A loose cloth over the working parts furnished protection in case a man slipped and fell in the mud or snow. Weapons were kept well oiled.
During a raid, communications between the patrol and higher headquarters was maintained by the use of phones, assault wire (W-130), and a relay point. The wire was reeled out as the patrol moved toward its objective. From this point fire was adjusted and reports on the patrol's activities were sent. By a series of knots in the wire at 100 yard intervals, the patrol in going out could estimate its nearness to its objective, regardless of visibility. The wire also prevented the patrol from becoming lost in its reorganization and return to our lines. The relay point was selected as near the objective an practicable to afford observation of as much of the enemy position as possible.
It was advisable to have an SCR-300 radio at the relay point in case the assault wire went out. However, radio was used only in an emergency. A code was used to inform higher headquarters of the routine progress of the patrol to its objective. A coded series of taps on the transmitter proved satisfactory.
As a means of communication, flares were used as a last resort. In firing them the location of the patrol was revealed to the enemy, and counter-flare activity on the part of the enemy afforded a chance of misunderstanding and confusion.
Patrolling under winter conditions requires special equipment, and great physical endurance. Difficult terrain, confusing surroundings, and bad weather are all time-consuming obstacles which must be considered when planning a patrol action. Careful and detailed reconnaissances and preparations are essential.
A Military Encyclopedia Based on Operations in the Italian Campaign, 1943-1945,
Chapter 2: Intelligence (pp. 77-82);
Section 15: Patrol Operations under Winter Conditions.
A Military Encyclopedia: the Web collection entry point,
Chapter 2: a 100K PDF file download.
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