Battle Formations

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Battle Formations


groupings of forces for waging battle. Depending on their designation, tactical and technical capabilities, and weaponry, units of all sizes utilize their battle formations to accomplish combat missions. Troop strength and equipment jointly performing a combat mission in a certain region (zone) ordinarily constitute a single battle formation, which includes the battle formations of all mutually supporting units of whatever size. Each type of combat action requires the employment of the battle formation appropriate to it. The structure of the battle formation of troops in any situation should correspond to the aim of the upcoming battle and should take into account the state and fighting capabilities of one’s own forces and equipment, grouping and nature of actions of the enemy, and other conditions of the combat situation.

The configurations of battle formations have improved in accordance with the development of the forms and methods of waging battle. Changes have resulted from the appearance of new means of armed combat and from the qualitative changes of personnel, which have taken place because of the development of the society’s method of production and social order. Under the primitive communal order where the army as a special military organization did not exist, conflicts among tribes would be waged by crowds of people using their implements of labor and hunting—sticks, stones, clubs, and so on. When the primitive communal order began to collapse and class society began to rise, not only were all members of the clan armed but the bodyguards of the clan aristocracy appeared as well. They later became the nucleus of standing armies. Means of combat also became more refined; the stick and the stone were replaced by spears, swords, arrows, and other silent weapons. The desire for the better utilization of these weapons led to the necessity of arranging troops more purposefully in a general formation by ranks and files. Thus the first configurations of troop combat formations appeared. Their further evolution is tied to the development of silent weapons, firearms, and, in the 1940’s and 1950’s, nuclear weapons.

The troops of the slave-owning states of the ancient Orient (ancient Egypt, Assyria, Persia, ancient China, India, and others) were broken down into infantry, cavalry, and detachments of fighting men that operated in war chariots and on elephants and camels. Spears, axes, swords, bows, and so on served as weapons. The extent of the effect of these weapons on the enemy was directly proportional to the number of warriors participating in the battle. The forms of troop structure were selected with this in mind. For example, the Egyptian heavy infantry originally fought in column-type, deep mass formations. Later, with refinements in weaponry and the accumulation of combat experience, the front of their combat formation was enlarged and its depth was reduced to ten ranks. With the appearance of war chariots, battle formations were structured to make effective use of their mobility. They were primarily disposed in the first line in extended order. The bowmen (light infantry) moved in front. An analogously constructed battle formation, but with cavalry, was utilized in Assyria and Persia.

The art of war of ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Carthage produced even more refined configurations of battle formations. In the slave-owning states of ancient Greece—Athens and Sparta (sixth to fourth centuries B.C.)—the primary combat arm was the heavy infantry (hop-lites), armed with spears and swords and with coats of mail, helmets, and shields for protection. This was reflected in the combat formations of Greek troops. From the sixth century B.C their primary battle formation was the phalanx, a tightly closed, monolithic formation of hoplites. Light-armed infantry and cavalry were disposed in front of and on the flanks of the battle formation. However, the phalanx was not maneu-verable and could only wage frontal battle on level terrain. At the same time it possessed great strength in its initial strike against the enemy. This feature of the phalanx was used skillfully by Greek military leaders at different times. For example, at the battle of Leuctra in 371 B.C the Greek commander Epaminondas used a new battle formation. He established a powerful striking force on the left flank, disposing there a column of elite troops 50 ranks deep, which went against the enemy’s strong right wing and defeated him. In this way the tactical principle of uneven distribution of troops along the front in order to concentrate forces for the main attack in the decisive sector was discovered. This principle was further developed in the army of Alexander the Great (fourth century B.C). The basis of the battle formation of his troops was made up of phalanxes of heavy and medium infantry with cavalry disposed on the flanks. The cavalry was the attacking wing and delivered the major strike against the enemy in combination with a frontal assault by the phalanx, thus deciding the outcome of the battle. The medium infantry, which formed the second line, increased the depth of the battle formation, and its purpose was to fight an enemy that had broken through. It was here that the idea of the reserve was first conceived. The battle of Gaugamela in 331 B.C. is an example of this construction of a battle formation.

A major step forward in comparison with the phalanx was the transition in ancient Rome to the so-called maniple tactics (fourth century B.C.). The Roman legion was formed along the front and in a depth of three lines of maniples (units of 60–120 men each) arranged in a chessboard pattern. Dividing the legion into maniples made the battle formation more mobile and maneuverable and permitted battle to be waged on rugged terrain.

In the battle of Cannae in 216 B.C. the Carthaginian commander Hannibal utilized a battle formation which permitted him to employ his numerous cavalry and infantry for powerful flank attacks. In the center of the battle formation he placed a line of infantry a few ranks deep; he set infantry and cavalry in deeper formations on the left and right wings. Constructing the battle formation in this way made it possible to create the conditions for encirclement and almost complete defeat of a numerically superior enemy army. After the Punic Wars (264–146 B.C.) the Roman Army adopted a new organization and tactics. The role of catapults in field fighting increased significantly. The legion began to be divided into ten cohorts (with three or four maniples in each). The legion’s battle formation was constructed on the basis of the cohorts, at first in two lines and then, under Julius Caesar, in three. The third line of cohorts formed the general and local reserve, which, introduced into the battle at the necessary moment, would decide its outcome.

The battle formations of the troops of the Eastern Slavs (sixth and seventh centuries) were distinguished by original features—deep mass formations in the shape of columns or of a line of columns. Later, in the tenth century the battle formations of the troops of the ancient Russian state were built in the form of a “wall,” that is, a tightly closed phalanx with cavalry detachments on the flanks.

In the 11th and 12th centuries the role of cavalry in the army of Kievan Rus’ increased, although infantry maintained its combat significance. The troop battle formation was deployed along a front and in depth (by regiments) and usually included a center regiment and regiments of the right and left wings with an advance regiment of light infantry (bowmen) in front. In the Battle on the Ice of 1242, Alexander Nevsky used a battle formation similar to this. The battle formation of the Russian Army was further developed in the Battle of Kulikovo in 1380. The establishment of an ambush regiment (general reserve) by Dmitrii Donskoi was an important event in this development.

In Western Europe by the end of the tenth century the heavy-armed feudal cavalry became the main combat arm. For the attack against other knights, the feudal troops were formed in a line (“palisade”); against infantry the wedge (“pig”) was mainly used. With the growth in productive forces and the development of cities, feudal cavalry lost its significance (beginning in the 14th century), and the role of infantry increased. By the 16th century infantry had again become the main combat arm. Although their invention was not immediately reflected in tactics, the appearance of gunpowder and firearms in Western Europe and Rus’ (14th century) exerted a strong influence on the development of the configurations of battle formations. For a long time cumbersome battalions of pikemen remained the basis of the battle formation; arranged by file, they were reminiscent of a massive phalanx. Only some of the fighting men were armed with firearms. As firearms were improved, the number of musketeers increased, and the number of pikemen decreased; when the rifle with bayonet was introduced (end of the 17th century), pikemen were eliminated. Artillery was improved significantly during the 15th to 17th centuries; its mobility increased, the art of laying was improved, and explosive shells replaced balls. In order to make the fullest use of the capabilities of firearms, the battle formation was expanded along the front and reduced in depth. There were several types of battle formations (Hungarian, Spanish, and Dutch), which represented different combinations of columns of pikemen and lines of musketeers. In the battle formations of the Dutch infantry, square columns were replaced by linear formations, which marked the beginning of the new, linear tactics.

In Russia’s wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, battle formations usually included three lines; the first was the advance regiment and the ertoul (forward reconnaissance cavalry) regiment, the second was the large regiment (infantry) and the right- and left-hand regiments, the third was the reserve regiment. The infantry was formed into two lines each four to six ranks deep. Thus elements of linear tactics were born in the Russian Army in the 16th century. Linear tactics and linear battle formations took full shape in the Swedish Army of Gustavus Adolphus in the first half of the 17th century. The appearance of an improved hand firearm and improved artillery contributed to this. The linear battle formation made it possible to carry on simultaneous fire from the largest number of weapons possible. Troop tactics amounted basically to a frontal clash. Linear tactics underwent its classical development in the 18th century, especially in the armies of the Prussian king Friedrich II, who used the method of oblique attack, which had been used long before by Epaminondas. The Russian military leaders of the 18th century—Peter I, P. A. Rumiantsev, A. V. Suvorov—taking into account the superior combat qualities of Russian soldiers, used the linear battle formation in a more refined form. Peter I established a reserve in the linear battle formation (Battle of Lesnaia in 1708, Battle of Poltava in 1709). Suvorov used the linear battle formation against the mercenary armies of Western Europe; against the Turks he used the square (battle on the Rimnicu River, 1789), and later against the French, who operated in columns, he used columns (Battle of Trebbia in 1799). In some battles (the storming of Izmail in 1790) all of these forms of battle formation were used in combination.

The revolutionary wars of the end of the 18th century were a new stage in the development of the configurations of battle formations. During the war for independence in North America (1775–83), the loose order appeared, since the linear battle formation, requiring a high level of troop training, was not suitable for the revolutionary troops, which were made up of common people. But elements of the loose order were initiated somewhat earlier in the Russian Army and were used by Rumiantsev and Suvorov. The loose order in combination with columns achieved its greatest development during the Great French Revolution (1789–94) and the Napoleonic Wars (beginning of the 19th century).

In the second half of the 19th century the rifled weapon appeared. The rifle with sliding breech (1870) made it possible to increase the range of aimed fire and the rate of fire. The increase in firepower made it impossible to employ the linear formation and battalion (after 1870, also company) columns. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the linear battle formation was further broken down into the combat troops and general reserve. Combat troops were in direct contact with the enemy and operated in loose order (in a “chain”); the reserves were in extended order or in columns depending on the terrain and the distance from the enemy. The experience of the Anglo-Boer War of 1899–1902 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–05, in which magazine rifles, machine guns, and rapid-fire cannon were used for the first time, demanded even greater dispersion of battle formations and a transition from dense structures to skirmish lines.

At the start of World War I (1914–18) the battle formations of the warring armies continued to consist of the combat troops and reserves. Companies and battalions were deployed in a dense skirmish line with intervals of one or two paces between each soldier. The development of means of fire during the course of the war and the war’s static nature (after 1915) led to the further splitting of the battle formation. Divisions began to be formed with two regiments in the first line (battle sectors) and one or two regiments in the second line (reserves). When there was a break through the deeply echeloned and strongly fortified defense, the first line regiments would establish several echelons of skirmish lines (“waves”) one after the other at a distance of 50–75 meters with an interval of 1 meter between each soldier. In 1916 near Verdun light machine guns included in the composition of small subunits, rifle grenade dischargers, and flamethrowers were used widely for the first time. The density of artillery fire increased significantly. It was at this time that the group battle formation began to take shape, and toward the end of the war it was widely utilized. This formation involved splitting continuous rifle chains into small infantry groups (squads, platoons). The appearance of tanks and accompanying artillery in the fall of 1916 increased infantry firepower and shock power in breaking through the defense.

During the years of the Civil War and of military intervention of 1918–20 there were a number of peculiarities employed in the tactics of the Red Army troops, which were creations of the revolutionary spirit of the personnel and the just nature of the struggle. As a result of the insufficient supply of combat materiel to the troops, bold initiative and large-scale maneuvering played an important role in battle. This was reflected in the structure of troop battle formations, which consisted of combat sectors and a general reserve on the offensive and in defense. Elements of antitank defense appeared for the first time in the defensive fighting of Soviet troops near Kakhovka in 1920. These were antitank land mines and special “mobile” artillery platoons and batteries designed to fight enemy tanks.

In the period between World War I and World War II changes in the battle formations utilized by all the armies of the world proceeded on the basis of the further development and adoption of new combat material—that is, artillery, tanks, automatic weapons, and other means of warfare. The theory of in-depth offensive combat was worked out in the Soviet Army (1932). The battle formation of the rifle corps and division of the Soviet Army included the striking and holding forces (for actions on the main and auxiliary operational axes, respectively), reserves, and bases of fire (artillery). In 1940–41, based on the experience of fighting in the region of the Khalkhin Gol River (1939) and the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939–40, the division of the battle formation into striking and holding forces was abolished. The battle formation of the rifle corps began to be formed into one echelon; the formations of the division, regiment, battalion, company, and platoon had two or three echelons. In addition, the battle formations of larger units included artillery groups (infantry support, long-range, demolition, and antiaircraft artillery), a group of tanks for direct infantry support, and also reserves—that is, general, tank, and antitank reserves. For defense the battle formations of larger units usually consisted of two echelons, artillery groups, and tank and antitank reserves. In-depth construction of troop battle formations on the offensive and in defense was also typical of the German armed forces. For example, the battle formation of a division of the fascist German Army (according to the 1940 regulations) consisted of two echelons, artillery and tank groups, and an antitank reserve. For defense, the depth of the battle formation of a division reached 10 kilometers, and the frontage was 6–12 kilometers. The battle formation of an infantry division in the French Army was constructed in one echelon with an artillery group and reserves. Tanks formed into three echelons (according to the instructions for 1933–39) were attached to the division on the main operational axis. Approximately the same battle formations were used in the English Army.

During the course of the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45 the battle formations of the Soviet Army were developed further. In the fall of 1942 excessive echelonment of the forces and equipment of units of all sizes was abolished. The battle formations of the company, battalion, regiment, and division began to be constructed in one echelon; rifle platoons and squads were deployed in a chain. This made it possible to have more means of infantry fire in the first echelon and to reduce losses suffered by infantry in reserve. The switch to deep trench defense by the fascist German Army in 1943 made it necessary to again increase the depth of the battle formations of the larger units. On the offensive they began to be constructed, as a rule, in two echelons, having also artillery groups, tanks for direct infantry support, mobile obstacle-laying detachments, and reserves. Antitank defense became greatly developed. After July 1941 antitank strong points began to be established, and from the fall of 1942 antitank fortified areas were set up and the significance of antitank reserves grew. By the end of the war the battle formation of the Soviet Army rifle division included two echelons, regimental and division artillery groups, and antitank and tank reserves, with a depth of 8–10 kilometers. The battle formations of the English and American armies were also subjected to significant changes. For example, the English infantry division on the offensive usually consisted of two echelons plus some field artillery groups, tank groups, and a group of mobile antitank reserves. If the division advanced in a zone 1–1.5 kilometers wide, its battle formation would be built in three echelons. The battle formation of the US Army infantry division was built in two echelons and also included artillery and tank groups.

A new stage in the development of configurations of battle formations began in the postwar period with the appearance of nuclear weapons, the adoption of new means of warfare (missiles, supersonic aircraft, and other combat materiel), and the improvement in the combat qualities of conventional weapons, means of communication, and engineering and other equipment. The characteristic feature of battle formations on the offensive and in defense is deep construction and great dispersion of their elements along the front and in depth. For example, the battle formation of the US mechanized division on the offensive includes two echelons or one echelon and a combined arms reserve, a missile unit (or subunit), artillery, air defense means, and various types of reserves. Advance and special detachments and tactical airborne landing forces are sometimes included in the battle formations of modern large units for the accomplishment of special missions. The battle formations of companies and battalions have also changed. For example, the battle formation of the Soviet Army battalion consists of one or two echelons, a reserve (in the single echelon formation), and fire means in direct subordination to the commander. Companies within a battalion can operate in a line, echelon to the right or echelon to the left. During an attack using armored personnel carriers (combat vehicles), the battle formations of the company and platoon are built in a line formation; when attacking on foot, companies and platoons are deployed in the “chain.” During the course of an advance the position of platoons in the battle formation of the company may vary—in a line, echelon to the right (or to the left), or arrowhead (or inverted arrowhead). Artillery that operates as part of larger combined arms units is combined into artillery groups (two, three, or more battalions) for the period of the battle. The battle formation of a unit (or subunit) of tactical missiles, as well as of antiaircraft missile facilities, usually consists of the battle formations of batteries, the control post, and the support subunits. The battle formation of the battery includes guns (infantry mortars, launchers) disposed at fire positions and the battery control post.

In defense, the battle formations of larger units can consist of one or two echelons. There is a strong reserve for the single echelon configuration. For example, the battle formation of the US infantry division in positional defense under current conditions includes a first echelon; a second echelon (or division reserve); fire positions for the missile battalion, artillery, and air defense means; tanks; various types of reserves; and antitank obstacles. The large units of other armies construct their battle formations similarly. Missile, artillery, tank, and other units and subunits occupy places in the general battle formation and, when disposed on the terrain, construct their own battle formations.

The battle formations of air force units and subunits are constructed with regard to the mission being performed, the method of operations, the weapons of destruction being used, expected counteraction by enemy air defense, the combat qualities of airplanes and helicopters, and the level of training of flight personnel. Unlike the ground forces, air force battle formations have three measurements—that is, distance, intervals, and elevation. Depending on the values of these parameters, the battle formations of the subunits and units of different air arms may be close, open, or dispersed. In close combat formations the crews (subunits) perform the combat flight at the minimum distances and intervals permissible under safety conditions; in open combat formations they increase the distances and intervals within the limits of visual observation; in dispersed combat formations they are not in sight of one another. Pairs of aircraft and flights performing combat missions usually operate in close and open combat formations—an echelon of planes (pairs), a column of planes (pairs), a wedge of planes, and a front of planes (pairs); squadrons operate in open or dispersed combat formations forming an echelon of flights (pairs), a column of flights (pairs), a squad file of flights (pairs), a wedge of flights, and a circle. The regiment operates only in dispersed combat formations consisting of the battle formations of squadrons which, depending on the situation and the combat mission being performed, may fly in open or dispersed formations. Where air force units are performing a general combat mission jointly, their battle formations may consist of groups of aircraft of different tactical designations. In this case, one or several of the groups are designated for the direct destruction of the target, while the others support their action.

The battle formations of large naval units have changed in accordance with the development of the ships themselves and their weaponry. Oar-propelled ships used a battle formation with the configuration of a front order (single or double) or a semicircle with the flanks advanced forward. Such battle formations made it possible to use ramming and boarding most effectively in battle. Sailing warships in the 17th century began to form themselves for battle into the wake column (line), which was considered the main battle formation for a long time. Changes took place in battle formations with the appearance, in the second half of the 19th century, of the armored steam fleet and the new classes of ships, that is, ironclads and destroyers, and with the appearance of submarines at the end of the 19th century. The appearance of communications technology and especially radio communications, naval aviation, and aircraft carriers led to even greater changes; battle formations became increasingly dispersed. Thus, for example, the battle formation of an aircraft carrier striking force in World War II covered an area of several thousand square meters. It included several strike and support groups and ships called on to ensure deeply echeloned antiaircraft and antisubmarine defense of the main objectives, the aircraft carriers. Under current conditions, large naval units carry on combat actions in strike and support groups or in detached ship strike groups and individually.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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