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An ambush is a long-established military tactic, in which combatants take advantage of concealment and the element of surprise to attack unsuspecting enemy combatants from concealed positions, such as among dense underbrush or behind hilltops. Ambushes have been used consistently throughout history, from ancient to modern warfare.
In ancient times, an ambush often might involve thousands of soldiers on a large scale, such as over a mountain pass. Ambushes appear many times in military history. One outstanding example from ancient times is the Battle of the Trebia river. Hannibal encamped within striking distance of the Romans with the Trebia River between them, and placed a strong force of cavalry and infantry in concealment, near the battle zone. He had noticed, says Polybius, a “place between the two camps, flat indeed and treeless, but well adapted for an ambuscade, as it was traversed by a water-course with steep banks, densely overgrown with brambles and other thorny plants, and here he proposed to lay a stratagem to surprise the enemy”.
When the Roman infantry became entangled in combat with his army, the hidden ambush force attacked the legionnaires in the rear. The result was slaughter and defeat for the Romans. Nevertheless the battle also displays the effects of good tactical discipline on the part of the ambushed force. Although most of the legions were lost, about 10,000 Romans cut their way through to safety, maintaining unit cohesion. This ability to maintain discipline and break out or maneuver away from a killing zone is a hallmark of good troops and training in any ambush situation. See Ranger reference below.
Another famous ambush was that sprung by Germanic warchief Arminius against the Romans at Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This particular ambush was to have an impact on the course of Western history. The Germanic forces demonstrated several principles needed for a successful ambush. They took cover in difficult forested terrain, allowing the warriors time and space to mass without detection. They had the element of surprise, and this was also aided by the defection of Arminius from Roman ranks prior to the battle. They sprung the attack when the Romans were most vulnerable- when they had left their fortified camp, and were on the march in a pounding rainstorm.
They did not dawdle at the hour of decision but attacked quickly, using a massive series of short, rapid, vicious charges against the length of the whole Roman line, with charging units sometimes withdrawing to the forest to regroup while others took their place. The Germans also made use of blocking obstacles, erecting a trench and earthen wall to hinder Roman movement along the route of the killing zone. The result was mass slaughter of the Romans, and the destruction of 3 legions. The Germanic victory caused a limit on Roman expansion in the West. Ultimately, it established the Rhine as the boundary of the Roman Empire for the next four hundred years, until the decline of the Roman influence in the West. The Roman Empire made no further concerted attempts to conquer Germania beyond the Rhine.
In modern warfare, an ambush is most often employed by ground troops up to platoon size against enemy targets, which may be other ground troops, or possibly vehicles. However, in some situations, especially when deep behind enemy lines, the actual attack will be carried out by a platoon, a company-sized unit will be deployed to support the attack group, setting up and maintaining a forward patrol harbour from which the attacking force will deploy, and to which they will retire after the attack.
Ambushes are complex, multi-phase operations, and are, therefore, usually planned in some detail. First, a suitable killing zone is identified. This is the place where the ambush will be laid. It's generally a place where enemy units are expected to pass, and which gives reasonable cover for the deployment, execution, and extraction phases of the ambush patrol. A path along a wooded valley floor would be a typical example.
Ambush can be described geometrically as:
- Linear, when a number of firing units are equally distant from the linear kill zone.
- L-shaped, when a short leg of firing units are placed to enfilade (fire the length of) the sides of the linear kill zone.
- V-shaped, when the firing units are distant from the kill zone at the end where the enemy enters, so the firing units lay down bands of intersecting and interlocking fire. This ambush is normally triggered only when the enemy is well into the kill zone. The intersecting bands of fire prevent any attempt of moving out of the kill zone.
- Ambush predator
- Viet Cong and PAVN battle tactics
- Flanking maneuver
- Flypaper theory (strategy)
- List of military tactics
- Extract from Lt Col Anthony B. Herbert's Soldiers handbook
- US Army Ranger Handbook section 5-14 for ambushes and 6-11 for reaction to ambushes