Now that you have an idea of how a rifle platoon is organized, let’s talk about how it moves on the battlefield. Well, that’s easy. It moves by foot (this may be a very, very short post…).
The problem is, the easy things aren’t always so simple. For the platoon leader to control his platoon, he can’t just have a gaggle of folks running around pell mell around him. In order to control the platoon, provide it with the best ability to react to an ambush or other attack, and help it execute its mission, there are a variety of prescribed formations for the platoon on the march. These formations extend down to the smallest element, the fire team.
The basic formation of the fire team is the “wedge.”
The wedge provides the best balance of control, ease of movement, security and dispersion. The wedge gives the formation good ability to fire to the front, and even to the sides. When a team moves out, it automatically assumes the wedge. Normally, in open terrain, the soldiers have about 10 meters between them. This dispersion makes them a less attractive target, but leaves them close enough to see and hear orders from the team leader. The wedge if flexible as well. In dense vegetation, the members automatically close up the formation, and in open terrain they spread out again. As needed, the wedge can collapse into a column, or if directed, can move into a line abreast formation. Line abreast gives the most firepower to the front, while column gives the least. But moving in a column is normally the fastest and easiest to control. Each variation on the formation is a tradeoff between ease of control, speed of movement, and ability to fire in certain directions. The team leader has to make a judgment based on the likelihood of contact with the enemy, terrain, and the time available for movement.
Similarly, the squad can generally moves with teams in the wedge, but can either place those teams in column, or line abreast.
Here we see a squad in column formation, while the fire teams of the squad are both in wedge formation. Note that the lead team is using the grenadier and rifleman to navigate with a compass and a pace count.
When the platoon as a whole moves, we generally see a similar formation throughout the platoon, with the teams in a wedge, and the squads in column. The weapons squad, home to the platoon’s two medium machine guns, is treated a little differently. Since the machine gun teams are the heart of the platoon’s firepower, they are kept under control of the platoon leader. But you don’t want all your machine guns bunched up, either. So generally, you’ll see one gun team travelling with the platoon leader, and one moving with the platoon sergeant. Here’s a typical movement formation for a rifle platoon.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve moved as part of a platoon in this formation.
Notice that each fire team is “mirrored” to the other team in the squad. That is, if the Automatic Rifleman is on the right side in the lead team, the second team has its AR on the left. This gives the formation balanced firepower. Also note, with the platoon leader directly behind the lead squad (the one most likely to make contact first) he’s in a position to rapidly move up and asses the situation. When he does move up, he’s also bringing with him a machine gun team, and his forward observer. This lets him immediately start placing heavy fires on the contact, and get the ball rolling on calling in artillery or mortars. We’ll cover more of that in a later installment on battle drills.
The platoon leader has several option on which formation to choose. For instance, he may have each team in the wedge, and the three squads also in a wedge formation, that is, one squad forward, and one behind. Or he may choose to move with two squads forward, and one behind. In fairly dense terrain, he may choose to have each team and squad move in a column formation, but with all three squads line abreast of one another. He can choose any variation of the formations, based on his judgment and his assessment of the situation.
We’ve talked about the various formations for movement, now let’s talk about the techniques of movement.
Based on how likely contact with the enemy is, and how important speed of movement is, there are three main techniques for movement of the rifle platoon:
- Travelling overwatch
- Bounding overwatch
Travelling means the entire unit is moving simultaneously, with a small gap between the squads. This is the fastest and easiest to control. Generally, you’ll see the teams in wedge formation, the squads in column, and the platoon as a whole in column. Travelling is used when speed is important, and contact with the enemy is least likely.
Travelling overwatch is similar to travelling, but the distance between squads is increased so that if the lead squad comes under fire, the trailing squads won’t be pinned down by the same fire. This gives the platoon increased flexibility to respond to contact while only minimally slowing the unit down.
Bounding overwatch is used when contact with the enemy is likely or imminent. In bounding overwatch, one or two of the squads take up hasty positions and prepare to fire on likely or suspected enemy positions while the remaining elements move forward. Once the squad on the move has reached a defensible position, it takes up a defensive posture, and covers the trailing units while they move forward. This technique is the slowest and the hardest to control, but gives the platoon the best security and ability to react to contact.
Generally, the closer the platoon gets to its objective, the more “secure” the formation and movement technique. For instance, a platoon might set out in a column formation using travelling, but as it approaches its objective, switch to a platoon wedge using bounding overwatch. The technique used is based on the platoon leaders judgment of the situation.
Moving as a member of a team, squad and platoon are basic, but critical skills for the infantryman. Even experienced platoons practice this skill regularly. It is the basic skill that leads to more complex drills and techniques. It is not at all uncommon to see a platoon at its home station beginning its training cycle by going out to an open field and walking through the basic formations and techniques. Much like a football team starts its training season with basic drills and formations, so does the platoon. Once the fundamentals are mastered, more complex techniques can be built upon them.