Canada in the Second World War

Arms & Weapons

Basic Infantry Tactics

Canadian troops moving anti-tank gun into position during street fighting in Ortona, 21 December 1943.

Canadian troops moving anti-tank gun into position during street fighting in Ortona, 21 December 1943.
Photo by Terry F. Rowe. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-107935.

The Attack
In action an infantry battalion commander, for example, would receive orders from his brigade commander to carry out an assignment. To carry it out he would formulate a plan based on his specific task and reconnaissance of the ground, and then hold an “O” or Orders group to convey instructions to his officers. The plan would depend, in part, on the dispositions of friendly and enemy troops as well as the supplies and supporting weapons available-for example, a plan might be dependent on tactical air support from fighter-bombers.

In basic terms, an objective or objectives would be chosen, usually some tactically or strategically important feature like a ridge or a town. The use of ground for concealment and to allow the greatest amount of covering fire to be brought to bear was of utmost importance while troops proceeded from assembly areas to the “forming up place” or FUP and thence into battle. Supporting artillery fire plans would be drawn up to help cover movement by forcing the enemy to keep his head down. The infantry used fire and movement tactics to manoeuvre, i.e. one sub-unit would fire to cover the advance of another. By these methods the attackers would close to their objective, where unless the enemy had withdrawn, close-quarters fighting would ensue. Assuming the attack to be successful, the next steps were consolidation-reorganization of survivors and preparation of defences to repel counter-attacks-and “mopping-up” to clear the area of any remaining enemy soldiers. One of the key concerns in both the selection of objectives and the preparation of defences once objectives were reached was to ensure that anti-tank guns could be swiftly moved up, as German doctrine called for defence in depth with lightly-held front line positions which would, upon penetration, be immediately subjected to armoured counter-attack. A reserve force would always be maintained to allow some flexibility in the execution of the commander’s plan. It is important to remember that despite the text-book methods laid down in training manuals, casualties, the fog of war, and not least the enemy often played havoc with the most carefully thought-out plans.

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in action over a rise, near Valguarnera, Sicily, 20 July 1943. Enemy heavy trucks are ablaze in the distance.

Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in action over a rise, near Valguarnera, Sicily, 20 July 1943. Enemy heavy trucks are ablaze in the distance.
Photo by Frank Royal. Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada, PA-163670.

Defence
It having been recognized that linear defences like the trench lines of the Great War would be unable to withstand a modern attack, British doctrine during the Second World War prescribed a system of defended localities where the ground commanding a given area would be manned by infantry and their supporting arms, setting up positions of all-round defence to prevent the enemy from moving through that area. A mobile reserve was to be maintained to counter-attack any enemy penetration. Front line positions, therefore, were not continuous as in the earlier war, but fluid and mutually-supporting. As with the selection of objectives in the attack, defensive positions were determined in accordance with the anti-tank plan. Defensive methods included, aside from the obvious weapons fire, concealment and camouflage to gain surprise, use of ground-particularly reverse slope positions-to allow freedom of movement without fear of enemy observation, deception techniques such as the use of “dummy” defences, observation posts to gain information about the enemy, outpost lines forward of main defences to create depth, and the building of obstacles covered by fire, such as minefields or anti-tank barriers, to channel the enemy into areas more favourable to the defenders, the goal being to “[lead] the enemy into areas where he can most effectively be destroyed” (War Office training manual, 15 January 1944).