The Last 300 Yards

by Capt Daniel J. O’Donohue

The frontal attack is the most frequent form of attack.

-German Tactical Doctrine

20 December 1942

FMFM 1, Warfighting has spurred a tactical renaissance in the Marine Corps that largely ignores the problems of assaulting the enemy. This preoccupation with maneuver overshadows the squad leadership, fire support techniques, and tactics that propelled divisions across the beaches of Iwo Jima and Inchon. Maneuver warfare seeks to bypass and collapse the enemy’s resistance. Using soft spot tactics. Marines exploit gaps or critical vulnerabilities, thus negating the need for direct, frontal attacks. Some even argue that this warfighting philosophy demands light infantry units that specialize in patrolling, raiding, and infiltrating. The focus is on stalking rather than assaulting skills. In short, the tactics of closing the last 300 yards of an infantry assault is losing pride of place in our training and doctrine. This approach risks leaving fire team and squad leaders unprepared for the chaos and confusion of their first combat assault.

Closing the last 300 yards of the infantry assault is one of the most demanding tactical maneuvers. The accuracy, range, and lethality of modern weapons magnify the inherent difficulties of moving while under fire. Almost every enemy infantryman is armed with at least an automatic weapon. An enemy squad, equipped with only assault rifles, can deliver 6,000 rounds a minute during these last 300 yards. Over the same ground, the assaulting unit’s supporting fires lose their effect. Artillery, air, mortar, and machinegun fire must shift as friendly troops mask or assault into the kill radius of these weapons. The difficulty of closing this ground without an obscene number of casualties is a compelling reason for maneuver.

Unfortunately, maneuver is not always an option, and proficiency in the close assault is essential. Against competent opponents, gaps will not be readily apparent. Surfaces may be disguised as gaps and vice versa. Additionally, the unpredictable meeting engagements of a chaotic battlefield are won through rapid assaults. Finally, a “soft spot” is a relative term. A battalion may plan a flanking movement to exploit an enemy weakness. For the assaulting squads, however, the battle may be a frontal attack, possibly against a well-prepared position. In fact, the smaller the unit the greater the likelihood of frontal attacks. For the private first class, every attack is a frontal attack.

Despite 13 years of debate and 3 years of doctrinal support, maneuver warfare theories within the Corps have not successfully addressed the problem of the last 300 yards. The most glaring disconnect between theory and practice is the parade-deck method of squad and fire team rushes. This method is still widely practiced in the fleet and taught in some of our schools. During the course of the attack, the squad leader directs his squad from the rear through voice and hand and arm commands. The emphasis is on inward control of the squad as fire team and individuals move in choreographed formations dictated by the squad leader. This form of positive control might work on quiet, linear, and open battlefields. However, this inward precision takes the focus off the enemy, ignores the impact of terrain on movement, and stultifies the initiative of fire team leaders. The centralized control and rigid techniques practiced in our most fundamental fighting unit are a damning indictment of our implementation of FMFM 1.

An infantry assault can occur under a wide variety of circumstances. An assault at night in urban terrain to clear a building against infantry clearly differs from a daylight attack in a forest against a mechanized unit. Still, a common tactical approach, true to the principles of FMFM 1, is essential to fielding squads that can rapidly close the last 300 yards.

The Squad as the Fundamental Tactical Unit

The first point to emphasize is that squads are the focal point of the assault. A battle is shaped to allow these units to work their way across the objective successfully. The true measure of an army is, in fact, the esprit and tactical proficiency of the squad. The strength of German arms in World War II was built as much on superb infantry squads as the more widely publicized panzer divisions.

By any measure, the size of the basic tactical unit has decreased over time. Napoleon’s battalions were replaced by companies in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 (The Captains’ War), and the companies by stormtroop squads of World War I. A basic tactical unit is the smallest element capable of:

* Independent action or performing a simple combat task.

* A personal relationship between the unit leader and his men.

* Voice control by the unit leader.

Today, the squad is the highest level of organization that meets these three criteria. The increased range and lethality of weapons is forcing greater dispersion of units on the battlefield. In his book On Infantry, John A. English estimates that from 1800 to the present, the number of men required to defend a mile of battle front has diminished from 20,000 to 1,000. Thus the squad is the basic fighting unit.

Additionally, the squad is the lowest level at which a unit can fire and maneuver simultaneously. The squad leader can employ his three fire teams and squad weapons to achieve the correct balance between suppressive fires and maneuver units. A decentralized battle fought by squad and fire team leaders provides flexibility to the attack. These small-unit leaders are in the best position to hunt for the line of least resistance. They can exploit the advantages afforded by microterrain and the enemy’s defense.

The last 300 yards of the assault, however, presents more than just a tactical problem. The moral problems of the assault are equally as important and best solved by the squad. On a dispersed battlefield, it is the moral authority of the squad leader and the cohesiveness of his squad that will cause men to assault. The fighting spirit of the Marine Corps is built on the cohesion and small-unit leadership of squads.

The NCO as a Decisionmaker

Within the context of a decentralized and dispersed assault, the squad and fire team leaders become key tactical decisionmakers. Their role is to penetrate lines of least resistance and maintain the momentum of the assault. The squad leader leads from the front, focusing the squad’s efforts forward. Instead of using rigid command and control procedures, squad leaders designate a base fire team from which the other two fire teams guide.* Squad leaders expect fire team leaders to do much more than relay commands. A fire team leader should grab ground with initiative, using every advantage terrain and enemy dispositions afford him to pull the attack forward. Fire teams do not have to stay on line but can leap forward if the opportunity permits. The base fire team provides a general reference to the direction and speed of the attack. It should not, however, restrict the tempo of the attack. The pull from the front, not the push from the rear, decides the speed and direction of the assault.

Under these conditions, squad and fire team leaders must rapidly orchestrate the best line of attack, speed, and combined arms effect for their weapons. Among the most difficult and subtle decisions is deciding whether the squad is winning or losing. Many engagements are won by the leader who takes the “longer breath” and continues the assault despite seemingly insurmountable difficulties. As Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift noted in World War II “. . . there comes a point in every close battle when each commander concludes that he is defeated. The leader who carries on wins.” It takes a skilled squad leader, however, to tell the difference between intestinal fortitude and pressing a doomed attack. An equally difficult task is determining when to call for help. Deploying a platoon or calling for artillery fire to remove a sniper is time-consuming and wasteful. The squad leader must develop a feel for the threats he can handle without slowing the attack to employ outside assistance. Moreover, squad and fire team leaders must decide these issues while employing their personal weapons, for they are fighters as well as leaders.

On the maneuver warfare battlefield, noncommissioned officers (NCOs) must make decisions based on tactics, not just rigidly apply techniques. The decisionmakjng requirements are stringent. As was noted in Infantry in Battle, published in the 1930s:

. . . the leader who would become a competent tactician must first close his mind to the alluring formula that well-meaning people offer in the name of victory . . . he must learn to cut to the heart of a situation, recognize its decisive elements and base his course of action on these. The ability to do this is not God-given, nor can it be acquired overnight; it is the process of years.

Fire Support

The suppression of the enemy’s weapons on the objective during the assault is normally the most critical task of company fire planning. Within this context are two critical decisions-when to initiate indirect fires and when to shift supporting fires in order to prevent friendly casualties.

* Initiating Indirect Fires: Indirect fires are an important component of the combined arms effect called for in FMFM 1. This combined arms effect, however, is much more responsive when achieved with organic weapons. At the lowest level, the bursting power of the hand grenade complements the direct fire of the M16 rifle. Hand grenades drive out and destroy an enemy driven to the ground by a fire team’s direct fire weapons. German stormtroopers of World War I and Marine infantrymen of the Vietnam War were alike in their keen appreciation for the grenade as an indirect fire weapon. The M203 grenade launcher increases the fire team’s indirect fire range from 50 to 300 meters. The shoulder-launched multipurpose assault weapon (SMAW) and AT4 can also be employed to complement the squad’s M 16s and squad automatic weapons. Although these are direct fire weapons, their concussion and bursting power simulate the effects of an indirect fire weapon. All these weapons can be directly controlled by the squad or fire team leader.

The company 60mm mortars, battalion 81mm mortars, and the artillery battalion provide the rifle squad increasing firepower. but at a price. The cost is decreased responsiveness-the additional time required to call for and adjust these weapons. A squad leader should aggressively employ his organic weapons to achieve fire superiority during the essential first moments of a firefight. An excessive reliance on supporting arms will slow the assault. In both Vietnam and Grenada, units would needlessly halt the attack in order to employ nonorganic supporting arms.

This is not to say that artillery support should be forfeited in all circumstances. Rather, the desired combined arms effect should be initially built using the organic weapons of the lead units in contact. The supporting arms of companies will therefore build on the firepower of squads, and battalion’s firepower will build on the company’s. The combined arms effect is thus built from the frontlines to the rear and from lower units to higher. This method fosters the aggressiveness, maneuver, and initiative of forward units. Moreover, a little well-organized violence now is better than a lot later, especially during a hasty attack when speed is essential.

In all cases, supporting weapons should be pushed forward to maximize their responsiveness to lead units. Rommel, for instance, would position his artillery with his assault troops. Even at the company level this practice is not always followed. The 60mm mortar is a case in point. Company mortar sections can use the improved range of this mortar to fight from more secure (and rearward) firing positions. From these positions, however, they are subject to the uncertainties of radio communications, lose situational awareness, and are incapable of directly engaging targets (direct lay). The company commander’s “hip-pocket artillery” should be just that, well forward in his hip pocket.

The obscuration and suppression effect of supporting arms is often required to cover an assault. If at all possible, however, surprise should be preserved. The closer an assaulting force gets to the objective before opening up the better. Not only is the enemy put off psychologically, but he has had less time to bring his heavy weapons systems to bear.

* Shifting Supporting Fires: In many cases, surprise is not possible and supporting fires must be used to cover the assaulting force. At approximately 300 yards, the assaulting force must begin shifting the supporting fires that cover its assault or risk friendly casualties. Therefore, just as an assault leader is subject to the bulk of the enemy’s firepower, his own fires diminish. There are several methods to counter this effect:

– Establish a gun-to-target line that is perpendicular to the direction of attack. This placement minimizes overhead fire and the masking of fires by lead units.

– Maximize the employment of organic direct and indirect fires in the final stages of the assault. The relatively small bursting radii of the 60 and 81mm mortars allow them to be fired much closer to the assaulting units than artillery. The Mk19 automatic grenade launcher, SMAW, and AT4 can apply bursting munitions with still more precision.

– Use effective signals to shift base of fires. “Leaning into” your supporting fires is possible by either allowing a certain amount of fratricide or by devising an effective signal for shifting fires at the last moment. One method is to mark an assault’s advance by using infrared chemical lights that can be observed through a night observation device at the base of fire. These infrared lights can be strapped to the helmets of a flank or lead unit. Larger chemical lights can be thrown on the deck.

Minimum Essential Control: The Role of Platoon and Company Commanders

The infantry assault is a series of nested battles that begins with the squad sector and works up to the platoon, company, and battalion battle. The platoon commander assigns sectors, protects squad flanks, shifts the main effort of his attack when required, and acts in general as an onthe-spot problem solver for his squad leaders.

The company commander is also up front controlling the suppressive fire of his machineguns and mortars. His job is to shape the battle for his nine squads. He sets the framework for the attack and the employment of company-level combined arms. Supporting fires are used to protect flanks and isolate the battlefield for platoon commanders and squad leaders.

Once the company is in the final assault, the company commander cannot retain positive control, nor should he. Once supporting arms are shifted, it is a squad leader’s battle. How then does the company commander prevent a company attack from dissolving into a series of independent squad actions? A company commander must retain the minimum essential control that ensures a coordinated attack without limiting the aggressive actions of his squad leaders. There are several ways to do this.

* Above all is a commander’s intent that includes a clear end-state for the attack. This commander’s intent started the day the company commander assumed command and was consciously reinforced during training. By the time of the assault, unit leaders should know how their commander operates in general and his specific expectations for the attack. When the company commander unleashes his assaulting squads, this intent will guide the attack.

* An effective leaders’ reconnaissance and rehearsals are also important to synchronize the assault Contingency plans and coordination problems can then be worked out.

* A base unit, the main effort, can be used to guide the attack rather than detailed timetables. Units can move, begin firing, and shift fires in relation to the base unit. By controlling just one squad, the base squad in the platoon with the main effort, the company commander can control his company.

* A follow-and-support unit can be used to reinforce the main effort. This unit can be task organized to provide engineering support enemy prisoner of war teams, first aid and litter teams, and demolition teams. This unit can also destroy bypassed units and, in general, support the rapid advance of the main effort.

* A company commander can also train his subordinates to think two levels up. In the attack, squad leaders are considering the company when looking for attack positions, directions of attack, and likely enemy weak points. When stalled in their attack, they can fix the enemy and scout for a company attack. By thinking two levels up, squad leaders provide the reconnaissance pull for the company, not just their squads.


* The tactical responsibilities of NCOs as decisionmakers must be recognized by increased status, training, and education. Meritorious and regular promotions to NCO should be based on these moral and tactical responsibilities. Squad leader’s school should be expanded to include fire team leaders who are now expected to be tactical decisionmakers in their own right and must fill the gap if the squad leader is hurt or killed. Company training should focus on squads. In short, NCOs must become the “backbone” of our Corps in fact as well as name.

* Company training should focus on squads. The pull of higher level commitments must be resisted. Once the company commander has unleashed his dogs of war into the assault, he has lost positive control. His responsibility is to train the squads realistically, provide a clear commander’s intent from the day he arrives, and frame the battle. A company commanders attempt to control the final assault personally is doomed to failure. In the words of S.L.A. Marshall:

. . . no commander is capable of the actual leading of an entire company in combat. . . . therefore [he must] determine which are the moral leaders among his men when under fire, and having found them, give all support and encouragement to their effort.

* The art and science of employing weapons as combined arms must be emphasized at every level, but especially within the squad. Regular and realistic live firing drills are the key. Hand grenades must be integrated into live fire assault courses. If not, we risk fielding Marines hesitant in the employment of a key infantry weapon. The exceptional weapons handling of our individual Marines in Somalia is, in large part, a tribute to the training and ammunition invested at the Schools of Infantry. Are our squad and fire team leaders equally adept in the combined arms employment of their organic weapons? At a minimum. Fleet Marine Force ammunition allowances and live-fire ranges must be maintained during budget cuts to ensure this proficiency.

* Finally, Marine Corps doctrine and training should recognize the complexity of closing the last 300 yards of an infantry assault. Doctrinal guidance within the maneuver warfare context must be provided and training standards should be developed.


Although it is not the preferred form of maneuver, the frontal attack is one of the most likely and demanding. Squad leaders and company commanders alike must prepare for the technical, tactical, and moral problems associated with closing the last 300 yards of the assault. Although maeuver warfare seeks to bypass units and obstacles that cannot affect the mission, organized resistance must be anticipated. This is especially true in an age when even Third World armies are fielding excellent infantry. When infiltration, envelopment, or bypass are impossible, maneuver warfare tenets still apply to the execution of a frontal attack. Leadership from the front, reconnaissance pull, combined arms, and the enhanced role of junior leaders will ensure squad leaders of the future are ready for the chaos and confusion of their first attack under fire.