Human wave attack
The human wave attack, also known as the human sea attack, is an offensive infantry tactic in which an attacker conducts an unprotected frontal assault with densely concentrated infantry formations against the enemy line, intended to overrun the defenders by engaging in melee combat.
According to U.S. Army analyst Edward C. O'Dowd, the technical definition of a human wave attack tactic is a frontal assault by densely concentrated infantry formations against an enemy line, without any attempts to shield or to mask the attacker's movement. The goal of a human wave attack is to maneuver as many men as possible into close range, hoping that the shock from a large mass of attackers engaged in melee combat would force the enemy to disintegrate or fall back.
The human wave attack's reliance on melee combat usually makes the organization and the training of the attacking force irrelevant, but it requires either great physical courage, coercion, or esprit de corps for the attackers to advance into enemy fire. However, when matched against modern weaponry such as automatic firearms, artillery and aircraft, a human wave attack is an extremely dangerous and costly tactic in the face of devastating firepower. Thus, for a human wave attack to succeed on the modern battlefield, it is imperative for the attackers to charge into the enemy line in the shortest time and in the greatest numbers possible, so that a sufficient mass can be preserved when the attackers reach melee range.
However, this solution usually means that the attackers must sacrifice concealment and cover for numbers and speed. Because of this trade-off, human wave attacks are normally used by an attacker with a lack of tactical training, or one who lacks firepower and the ability to maneuver, but whose main advantage is motivating and controlling their men.
The term "human wave attack" has been used to describe the infantry assault tactics used by several armed forces around the world. These included European armies during World War I, the Imperial Japanese Army and Soviet Red Army during World War II, the Chinese People's Liberation Army during the Korean War, Vietnamese insurgents during the Indochina Wars, and the Iranian Basij during the Iran–Iraq War.
People's Liberation Army
During the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist Chinese accused the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) of using unarmed civilians as human shields with the intention of draining Nationalist force's ammunition supplies during battles. This practice is often referred to as "human sea attack" by the Nationalist Chinese.
Later, the term "human wave attack" was often misused to describe the Chinese short attack — a combination of infiltration and the shock tactics employed by the PLA during the Korean War. According to some accounts, Marshal Peng Dehuai—the overall commander of the Chinese forces in Korea—is said to have invented this tactic. A typical Chinese short attack was carried out at night by small fireteams on a narrow front against the weakest point in enemy defenses. The Chinese assault team would crawl undetected within grenade range, then launch surprise attacks against the defenders in order to breach the defenses by relying on maximum shock and confusion.
If the initial shock failed to breach the defenses, additional fireteams would press on behind them and attack the same point until a breach was created. Once penetration was achieved, the bulk of the Chinese forces would move into the enemy rear and attack from behind. During the attacks, the Chinese assault teams would disperse while masking themselves using the terrain, and this made it difficult for UN defenders to target numerous Chinese troops. Attacks by the successive Chinese fireteams were also carefully timed to minimize casualties. Due to primitive communication systems and tight political controls within the Chinese army, short attacks were often repeated indefinitely until either the defenses were penetrated or the attacker's ammunition supply were exhausted, regardless of the chances of success or the human cost.
This persistent attack pattern left a strong impression on UN forces that fought in Korea, giving birth to the description of "human wave." U.S. Army historian Roy Edgar Appleman observed that the term "human wave" was later used by journalists and military officials to convey the image that the American soldiers were assaulted by overwhelming numbers of Chinese on a broad front, which is inaccurate when compared with the normal Chinese practice of sending successive series of five men teams against a narrow portion of the line. S.L.A. Marshall also commented that the word "mass" was indiscriminately used by the media to describe Chinese infantry tactics, and it is rare for the Chinese to actually use densely concentrated infantry formations to absorb enemy firepower. In response to the media's stereotype of Chinese assault troops deployed in vast "human seas", a joke circulated among the US servicemen was "How many hordes are there in a Chinese platoon?"
Although abandoned by the PLA by 1953, the Chinese army re-adopted this tactic during the Sino-Vietnamese War due to the stagnation of the Chinese military modernization programs during the Cultural Revolution. Their use in the Sino-Vietnamese War is a rare example of an army with superior firepower, in this case the PLA, throwing away its advantage.
Vietnam People's Army
US Army sources have claimed that the human wave attack tactic was adapted by the Viet Minh, and later by the Viet Cong and the Vietnam People's Army during the Indochina Wars on the advice of Chinese military advisers. Later, the North Vietnamese forces reportedly abandoned this tactic after Soviet military advisers displaced their Chinese counterpart during the Vietnam War.
- Attrition warfare
- Banzai charge
- Cannon fodder
- Column (formation)
- Highland charge
- Force concentration
- Swarming (military)
- Pickett's Charge
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