Infantry Assault: Flanking vs ‘Saloon Door’

The primary teaching in the UK and US military is to use the flank to assault an enemy position. At least that used to be the case before everything was dumbed down to simply assaulting forwards to reduce the complexity of the art of infantry warfare. There are many advantages to using the flank. What I specifically mean by using the flank is to imagine that the enemy position is at the center of a clock. You would situate your support by fire location at the 6 o’clock position, shooting at the center of the clock. Your assaulting element would move to either the 9 o’clock position (i.e. left flanking) or the 3 o’clock position (right flanking). This would create a roughly 90 degree angle based on the position of the enemy in the center of the clock. The key here is not to go too short or too long (based on the assault element being roughly at the 9 or 3 o’clock positions), because as the assaulting element moves in towards the center of the clock, they would more quickly mask the fire of the supporting element. Thus, a 90 degree angle is optimal and will allow the support fire element to suppress the position for longer before they would have to cease fire, or shift fire, away in front of the assaulting element. Or you would end up potentially shooting at the position when your assaulting troops were on the position, thus putting them at risk of fratricide.

Where going to a flank gets complicated is where there are mutually supporting or depth positions, or effectively due to the scale of the enemy position and the necessary use of larger formations to attack it. If we are talking about a platoon attack, utilizing three squads, we might have a squad in support fire and a squad in the assault. The third part of the assault cycle is reserve, or often flank protection. Assault cycle: assault, support fire, reserve (flank protection). If we came across a mutually supporting or depth enemy position, then there are a couple of options. Within the assaulting squad you may deploy a ‘point of fire’ with the task of suppressing the depth. Or, you take the third squad around to the flank with you, and set them down to suppress any depth or mutually supporting positions, to allow you to assault the initial objective. The other big issue is tied to this, where the objective is larger and we are assaulting with a larger friendly formation, that simply does not allow the freedom to maneuver to a flank.

The advantages of a flank assault are both physical and psychological. Physically, you end up on the flank of the enemy and put them in a crossfire where fire is coming at them from two directions, which also may make use of cover problematic for them. Psychologically, you may cause the enemy to surrender or flee when faced with a flank assault, because now you have appeared to their flank, and they may feel that the defense is now untenable. Never underestimate the psychological effect of the flank assault! In 1982 at the Battle of Goose Green, the 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment had been bogged down overnight assaulting a dug in and and numerically superior enemy, as they tried to move towards the settlement along a narrow isthmus. The following morning a company strength element of Paratroopers outflanked the enemy by moving to the right along the beach. Faced with this enemy on their flank, the Argentines surrendered.

I was in correspondence with a gentleman form the Danish Army. He was a great fan of what he called the ‘saloon door’ assault. It is trained in the Danish Army in preference to the flank attack. Contrary to standard teaching for the British and US Army, this Saloon Door technique will utilize a three element formation (based on a platoon of three squads) to suppress the enemy position from both sides of the assaulting element. Imagine now rather than a clock, a graph. The x axis goes left and right of the y axis, so it’s negative and positive. Your assault element begins at the intersection the the x and y axis. Your support by fire sits on the x axis to the left and right of the assault element. The enemy is at the top of the y axis. Thus, there are two squads on support by fire, and the assaulting element will approach the objective between those two supporting fire elements. This does not mean they will never use a flank, but this is a big part of their infantry tactical teaching. The assaulting element will approach inline up to the objective, then get online and assault – and if there is scope, they will use a small scale flank attack within that if they can. What this means is that the objective is suppressed by two squads, but that the squads have to shift fire away early in order to prevent blue on blue with the assaulting squad – and there cannot be any support fire going in while the assault team is assaulting.

Effectively, depending how far away from the assaulting element the support fire elements are, they might have to shift or cease fire on the objective immediately the assault element moves forward of them. At which point all suppressing fire on the objective is the responsibility of the assault element, and the support fire elements can only suppress depth and mutually supporting positions off to the left and right flanks of the assaulting element.

At first this seems nuts, but it really isn’t. It also isn’t that far off what we would do anyway. If you think about it, the squad (section) attack drill, with just one squad, is pretty far fetched unless you have a truly isolated enemy position. In the context of a platoon, you would use the other sections (squads) to suppress depth and mutually supporting positions while the assaulting squad went in. This is an echelon attack and will preferably also use the flank when assaulting their own limited objective. So imagine three bunkers, and two of them are being suppressed by supporting squads, while the assaulting squad conducts a squad battle drill on the initial objective. Once taken, we execute another attack on one of the remaining bunkers, just rotating who is doing what. Make sense?

The problem with the saloon door is that if you have two supporting elements, and they are relatively flat to the enemy, and you go up the middle, pretty quickly you would have to shift fire away to each side. Even if you have your two supporting elements at 90 degrees to each other, and then you go up the middle at the 45, it is pretty quick that they have to shift away. However, what it does give you is great flank protection to either side, something that is always the danger in a true (90 degrees) flank attack.

At squad tactics I was explaining when the class was faced with a somewhat complex system of enemy defenses that it does no good to attack from a flank if there are further enemy in depth who have an enfilade shoot onto your flanking attack forces. In that case, you have to suppress them. In terms of the numbers of people available (a three team squad), that would involve part of the fireteam being a ‘point of fire’ suppressing the depth. This is covered in the tactical manual. There was a position of ‘bunkers’ (deadfall-built positions) where there was, from the attackers perceptive, a forward bunker and then further in depth a line of bunkers. This made the line of bunkers in depth ideal to be rolled up from one side or another by a flank attack. But the central forward bunker was an issue – it would do not good to attack it from the flank, and come under fire from the line of three depth bunkers, as happened, to the loss of several students. What needed to happen was suppress the depth on each side, and then attack forward onto the forward bunker. Once that was taken, the flank attack was ideal to roll up the depth.

Going 90 degrees to the flank will give you the best angle for the assault, with support fire hitting the objective for the longest possible time before lifting or shifting. It also has the psychological effect (never underestimate) of a true flank attack. However, your weakness is unidentified depth enemy. This can be mitigated by organic use of a point of fire (looking outward, into depth), and use of flank protection forces above your element, such as another squad.

The saloon door will give you organic flank protection on both sides, but early shifting support fire, which means that the assaulting element has to be able to take care of the objective entirely organically. However, in a complex battle space it does protect the assaulting element better, between the two support by fire elements. The summary to that is that it is less protection from the objective itself but greater protection from flank and mutually supporting enemy. Now, this is nothing new if we step up our game from independent squads to larger battles, such as echelon attacks by companies onto objectives, where we don’t have the freedom of maneuver at squad level. At that level, any flanking by a single squad may need to be in miniature and freedom of movement to the flank is limited by the flanking friendly fire forces.

In fact, if anything, this made me think of stormtrooper tactics in WW1. With long trench lines limiting the use of the flank, you suppress on both sides and your assault element goes forward using whatever covered approach it can before assaulting. Or, you are in an urban area and are limited to use of the flank due to not knowing what is out there, so you suppress and go forward up the middle. Or, you are trying to get to a compound in Helmand, to breach the walls, and you suppress to either side (multiple enemy firing points) and send a squad up an irrigation ditch to get alongside the compound.

I think all in all this is a great technique to have as an option, where use of the flank is limited. You have to keep an eye for potential blue on blue like a hawk, and coordinate the point where the assaulting squad reaches the assault line, and will deploy from inline to online. For us normally, that is on the flank – here, with saloon door, that is right up the middle and will impact support fire really quick.

Having read this article, if you feel that I need to explain any of the concepts better, let me know in comments. Thanks.

3 responses to “Infantry Assault: Flanking vs ‘Saloon Door’”

  1. AntMan Avatar

    Good stuff as always! Thanks

  2. wheelsee Avatar

    Another tool in the tool box. Thanks for the “examples” of when would be used.

  3. Hessian Avatar

    Excellent article not too many people talk about the enemy having depth positions.

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