The first step in a maneuver warfare attack is generally to find or make a “gap” in enemy lines while avoiding or bypassing the “surfaces” (i.e., strengths) in the enemy lines. In rough terrain an infiltration operation (undetected movement through enemy lines), or a penetration operation (creating and exploiting a gap through enemy lines), and the extensive exploitation operations that should subsequently occur behind those lines, require a degree of stealth, crosscountry mobility, flexibility, independent operations, logistic austerity, and training that is characteristic of the light infantry. Infiltration operations in particular are “natural” light infantry techniques which play to the light infantry’s strengths.
At the operational level, good operations security and deception plans are essential to support penetration operations. Prior to the 12th Battle of Isonzo the Germans went to great effort to conceal the movement of their infantry divisions from enemy observations as they conducted the approach march to the front, moving their forces only at night and concealing them by day. In a modern operation of this nature such a deceptive movement would be much easier to accomplish with light infantry forces (vice armor or mechanized forces) since they can be so much more easily concealed from satellites, radar, and thermal imagery devices.
At the tactical level, light infantry penetration and infiltration operations such as Rommel conducted tend to blend into each other. Prior to any attack, a careful reconnaissance of enemy lines was always conducted to find gaps or areas where Rommel’s forces could closely approach enemy lines. During the execution of the attack, he always tried to take advantage of terrain, weather, and weaknesses in enemy deployment to move his forces through enemy lines with a minimal amount of contact. In other words, he always tried to infiltrate. If he could infiltrate without any contact or by quietly surprising and dispatching a small enemy position or section of the line, then he did so. If the infiltration option failed, he was always ready to execute a penetration by: (1) having a supporting element, usually consisting of massed machine guns, in position to suppress enemy forces while (2) a small penetration element created and widened a gap and (3) his exploitation element (which usually consisted of the bulk of his forces) passed through the gap and moved deep into enemy lines.
The infiltration or penetration was not the objective, it was simply a means to an end. The objective was to get through enemy front lines in order to get to logistic and command post areas and key terrain in the enemy rear. Rommel’s reconnaissances were usually made while the men rested, and were almost always conducted by officers and NCOs. These leaders were more lightly equipped and did not suffer the fatigue that the men did, making them available for scouting missions.
The leaders conducting these patrols were usually given the freedom to make and secure gaps in the enemy lines if possible. If these reconnaissance patrols came across enemy elements that were not sufficiently alert, the recon patrol would capture them and thus create their own gap. Often these recon elements, in the purest form of “recon pull,” made the gaps, sent back a runner, and “pulled” the rest of the unit through. Such gaps are a tenuous, ephemeral commodity, and Rommel always took immediate advantage of these opportunities, communicating back to his men a sense of urgency and the feeling that “a second’s delay might snatch away victory.”
In support of his recon pull, Rommel made extensive use of visual observation, using his binoculars more than any other single piece of equipment. In later operations he made excellent use of a powerful (captured) telescope and an ad hoc observation squad to conduct visual reconnaissance prior to attacking. In similar operations today’s light infantry leader must make creative use of all available visual observation assets — such as TOW and Dragon thermal night-vision sights.
During the passage of his forces through three enemy lines of mountain defensive positions, Rommel made repeated use of stealthy approaches to surprise the enemy and infiltrate into his positions. On several occasions he took advantage of adverse weather, the fog of war, and fluid front line situations to deceive the enemy into believing that his troops were Italians. In one situation he prepared careful fire support and disposed his troops for a penetration operation, but in hopes of taking it by surprise he ordered a select squad under a handpicked leader to “move up the path as if he and his men were Italians returning from the front, to penetrate into the hostile position and capture the garrison… They were to do this with a minimum of shooting and hand grenade throwing. In case a battle developed they were assured of fire protection and support by the entire detachment.” In this instance they succeeded in silently capturing a hostile dugout with 17 Italians and a machine gun. The gap was widened as dozens of additional Italians were captured by approaching their positions from the flank and rear, and the way was opened to move even deeper into the enemy positions — all without firing a shot.
The stealth of these attacks was maintained at all cost, and if some enemy soldiers chose to run rather than surrender, Rommel’s men “did not fire on this fleeing enemy for fear of alarming the garrisons of positions located still higher up.” Rommel found that “The farther we penetrated into the hostile zone of defense, the less prepared were the garrisons for our arrival, and the easier the fighting.”
Recent large-scale night infiltration/penetration operations into Kuwait by the U.S. Marine Corps during the 1991 Gulf War have proven again the value of this classic technique. In this operation the 1st Marine Division under Major General Myatt executed a classical light infantry penetration with two regimental task forces (TF Taro and TF Grizzly), with a third, mechanized, task force (TF Ripper) passing through their gap and acting as an exploitation element which didn’t stop until it reached Kuwait City. This operation and extensive operations in the 7th Infantry Division (Light), combining infiltration operations with imaginative use of passive night-vision devices and thermal imagery devices in rough terrain, demonstrate the tremendous potential for successful execution of light infantry infiltration operations on future battlefields.