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Bracketing the Enemy: Forward Observers in World War II

Bracketing the Enemy: Forward Observers in World War II

by John R. Walker

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After the end of World War II, General George Patton declared that artillery had won the war. Yet howitzers did not achieve victory on their own. Crucial to the success of these big guns were forward observers, artillerymen on the front lines who directed the artillery fire. Until now, the vital role of forward observers in ground combat has received little


After the end of World War II, General George Patton declared that artillery had won the war. Yet howitzers did not achieve victory on their own. Crucial to the success of these big guns were forward observers, artillerymen on the front lines who directed the artillery fire. Until now, the vital role of forward observers in ground combat has received little scholarly attention. In Bracketing the Enemy, John R. Walker remedies this oversight by offering the first full-length history of forward observer teams during World War II.

As early as the U.S. Civil War, artillery fire could reach as far as two miles, but without an “FO” (forward observer) to report where the first shot had landed in relation to the target, and to direct subsequent fire by outlining or “bracketing” the targeted range, many of the advantages of longer-range fire were wasted. During World War II, FOs accompanied infantrymen on the front lines. Now, for the first time, gun crews could bring deadly accurate fire on enemy positions immediately as advancing riflemen encountered these enemy strongpoints. According to Walker, this transition from direct to indirect fire was one of the most important innovations to have occurred in ground combat in centuries.

Using the 37th Division in the Pacific Theater and the 87th in Europe as case studies, Walker presents a vivid picture of the dangers involved in FO duty and shows how vitally important forward observers were to the success of ground operations in a variety of scenarios. FO personnel not only performed a vital support function as artillerymen but often transcended their combat role by fighting as infantrymen, sometimes even leading soldiers into battle. And yet, although forward observers lived, fought, and bled with the infantry, they were ineligible to wear the Combat Infantryman’s Badge awarded to the riflemen they supported. Forward observers are thus among the unsung heroes of World War II. Bracketing the Enemy signals a long-overdue recognition of their distinguished service.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
U.S. Army veteran Walker, who has a PhD in history, describes how the army's Forward Observers (FOs) in World War II—soldiers on the frontline—directed artillery fire by means of actual identification of a target and by spotting where the shots hit. This now-standard practice was based on the army's evaluation of the massive but often poorly aimed and ineffective artillery fire of World War I. Walker argues that, when combined with central control of artillery pieces and improved communication equipment, the new system significantly contributed to U.S. success in World War II. His case studies are the army's 37th Infantry Division in the Pacific and the 87th Infantry Division in Europe, vivid demonstrations of how FOs brought deadly and accurate artillery fire on Japanese and German forces. In addition, Walker includes a brief overview of the history of U.S. artillery, the evolution of the FO system, and descriptions of German and Japanese artillery doctrine. His section on artillery men awarded the Medal of Honor emphasizes just how integrated FOs were with frontline combat infantrymen. VERDICT Covering a topic not usually addressed, this work will be of interest to serious World War II and U.S. Army history buffs.—Mark Jones, Mercantile Lib., Cincinnati

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University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Bracketing the Enemy

Forward Observers in World War II

By John R. Walker


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5034-5


The Evolution of Forward Observation

For the first nine hundred years of the history of artillery, direct fire was the main way of using field guns in battle. The term "direct fire" means that the men aiming the weapon could observe their intended target, in contrast to "indirect fire," where the intended mark could not be seen. Certainly over this period of time, there were numerous instances when armies fired projectiles over the tops of trees, hills, and walls at an enemy unseen. The effectiveness of such shots generally was greater in those circumstances where an enemy remained confined within some limited space such as a walled fortress.

During the era of direct fire and even to this day, the ability to mass bombardments effectively has depended to a large extent on what Jonathan House calls the three "Cs" of combat: command, control, and communications. Historically, mobility has also been a key factor. Napoleon's use of horse or flying artillery was a prime example of this. Through their rapid mobility, he could mass fire quickly to generate overwhelming destruction at a decisive point to support his main effort. Napoleon typically placed his artillery a few hundred yards behind the infantry it was supporting, sometimes even ahead of it. From this advance position, his gunners could see their targets and exert a psychological effect on both his army and the enemy's.

Nineteenth-century field guns included the cannon, the howitzer, and the mortar. The cannon has a flat trajectory, while that of a howitzer follows an arc. The trajectory of a mortar is a very high-angle parabola. The mortar and the howitzer enable an army to rain down shells on an enemy positioned in or behind concealment, while the trajectory of a cannon shot cannot do that. Because most early artillery fire involved aiming the guns at the targets, the armies of the world relied upon the cannon.

By the time of the American Civil War, the effective range of cannons had reached a distance of over a mile, making it frequently impossible for the gunners to see their targets unless they were sitting on top of a high hill or if their enemy appeared before them across a long, flat, open stretch of terrain. Yet there is no advantage to longer range if an artilleryman does not know if he has hit his intended target. To use indirect fire effectively required an observation and communications system that would allow for aiming adjustments. In short, it required an observer forward of the guns.

The introduction of the rifled musket around this same time was an early contributor to the eventual transition to indirect artillery fire. Tactical offensive doctrine of that day called for cannons to be positioned in front of lines of infantry, aimed for a range of about 300 yards, and fired directly into ranks of enemy infantry. While smoothbore projectiles from small arms could carry farther than 50 yards, the accurate range of opposing infantry was not much more than that, leaving cannoneers relatively safe from enemy musketry. The introduction of rifles with increased range and accuracy put cannoneers near the front lines at risk from infantry fire. How much this altered the tactics used in that war is another question, however.

The prevailing orthodoxy among historians is that rifled muskets with a range accurate up to 1,000 yards tipped the balance of power between attack and defense on the Civil War battlefield. How many first-time enlistees might have been able to hit a human target beyond 250 yards consistently, let alone 1,000 yards, is questionable. Recent research, however, suggests that the practical effect of rifled muskets on combat was far less than it was previously thought to be. In the days before motorized field artillery, horses supplied the power to move field pieces. The availability of horses, then, was a prime factor in determining the mobility of artillery, and because the Confederate army had fewer horses than the Union army, its artillery was less effective. During World War II, German and Japanese artillery would suffer the same lack of mobility for much the same reason. In any case, rifled muskets unquestionably increased the effective range of infantry small-arms fire. They and the high powered bolt-action rifles that would soon follow forced armies over time to consider placing their batteries beyond enemy small-arms range or risk losing their gun crews or horses during battles.

The increased range and accuracy of the rifled musket also hastened the tendency to dig trenches, although not until the latter stages of the Civil War did this become more common. Generals from both sides came to appreciate the difficulty of making frontal assaults against fortified troops and encouraged their own armies to dig trenches. As this practice became more widespread, the overall effectiveness of direct or low-angle flat-trajectory artillery fire decreased since cannoneers were unable to see a dug-in enemy. So the appearance of trenches for protection and concealment also contributed to the eventual switch from cannons to howitzers and from direct to indirect fire.

The history of forward observers in the United States also began during the Civil War. Probably the first recorded instance of using a forward observer to direct artillery fire occurred in May 1862. Maj. Albert J. Myers used signal flags from a tugboat to direct Union artillery against a coastal fort held by the Confederates at Sewell's Point near Norfolk, Virginia. Signal Corps balloons were used in similar fashion throughout the war.

J. B. A. Bailey claims that both North and South started the war with no coherent doctrine, adding that American artillery saw its own importance significantly reduced by "a mismatch of received tactics and new infantry technology." He does note that although field artillery was not the predominant arm during the Civil War, at certain critical times it played a clearly decisive role in the outcome of particular engagements.

The Battle of Malvern Hill on July 1, 1862, provides a good example clearly illustrating the advantages of massed fires used defensively. Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet attacked Union positions over a 1,500-yard front without consulting their chief of artillery, Brig. Gen. William Pendleton. Lee and Longstreet had presumed they would have the support of 120 guns, but only 16 participated in the artillery duel preceding the assault; these were answered by the fire of 50 Union cannons. The North's artillery reserve played an important role in the battle, decimating the Confederate offensive. Maj. Henry Hunt, Union chief of artillery, used every available gun at his disposal. Twenty-five Union batteries caused more than half of the 5,000 Confederate casualties. By the efficient use of his resources, Hunt helped destroy the attackers at Malvern Hill and established the artillery reserve as an important artillery organization.

Although defensive artillery played a positive role for the North at Malvern Hill, it had its negative side as well: friendly fire killed many Union soldiers that day. Army of the Potomac cannoneers fired over their own forward lines even though the soldiers were close to the enemy. This was considered to be a safe practice assuming that no ammunition was defective, every battery knew the precise location of its targets, the gun crews had set their weapons at the proper elevation, and the men never cut a fuse too short. If even one assumption proved false, shots could fall short. As the rate of firing increased, heavy smoke enveloped the battlefield. Consequently, Union fire most likely fell among friendly troops. How many is not as important as the fact that it happened. To make matters worse, Union naval gunfire also hit Federal troops. Around midafternoon, gunners onboard the USS Galena and Mahaska began firing at an enemy they could not see from more than two miles way. Shots from one or both ships landed close by Col. Robert O. Tyler's battery of the 1st Connecticut Heavy Artillery, killing or wounding a few of his men. Members of the Signal Corps promptly sent the message by way of flags: "For God's sake; stop firing!" This may be the only instance during the entire Civil War where officers of two separate services independently reported the same friendly fire incident.

While the army's friendly fire incidents at Malvern Hill could be categorized as aimed fire used blindly, it nevertheless was a good example of the tragedy that could result when firing long-range artillery unobserved. It underscored how using indirect fire effectively would require a designated observer forward of the guns who could see the target and communicate the results of the fall of shots. The importance of massing fires would continue into the twentieth century, but the eventual transition to indirect fire would make it much more difficult to achieve successfully.

During the last thirty-five years of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Army divided its efforts between maintaining a frontier constabulary and numerous coastal garrisons. Maintaining the coast artillery took precedence over field artillery, although the army did reestablish an artillery school at Fort Monroe, Virginia, in 1868. Important technological advances during these decades included wrapped-steel gun tubes, breech-loading guns, and modern carriages that absorbed recoil so that guns did not have to be repositioned after every shot, thus increasing the rate of fire. Yet despite these various improvements and even greater increases in range, the field artillery, like that of other armies throughout the world, was reluctant to abandon direct fire.

Throughout the Spanish-American War in 1898, U.S. field artillery continued using direct fire. During the campaign to capture Santiago, Cuba, Capt. Charles D. Parkhurst's gunners had difficulty hitting their targets because they could neither see the enemy nor tell where their shells were landing. Once, just as Parkhurst's battery prepared to fire shot at a position on the crest of a hill, he realized that American troops already had occupied the spot. In another instance, U.S. artillery could not break up an enemy counterattack because the guns rested on the reverse side of a slope—the gunners could neither see the enemy nor fire low enough to hit them because all their batteries consisted of high-velocity, flat-trajectory field pieces. This episode demonstrated not only the suitability of howitzers for modern warfare but also the need for an observer to adjust indirect fire.

As the new century began, the major armies of the world remained committed to direct fire because of expediency and tradition. It was easier to use the old method than the new one. But two wars that would erupt during the first decade of the new century would challenge the wisdom of maintaining that tradition. The Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War served notice to the armies of the world that they could no longer position their artillery in full view of the enemy.

The Japanese use of artillery particularly impressed an American army officer who observed the Russo-Japanese War. Maj. Joseph E. Kuhn noted the emphasis the Japanese placed upon fire control. One officer directing all the siege artillery had telephone lines to observers who reported the results of each shot. They also used large-scale maps marked in one-centimeter grids, enabling them to fire by reference to specific grid coordinates. In addition, they made an effort to conceal their batteries and to fire indirectly from behind cover, making it difficult for the Russians to detect the location of their guns.

Japanese field artillery greatly influenced the thinking of the U.S. chief of field artillery, Brig. Gen. John P. Story, who attributed its success to their use of indirect fire. At the same time, American artillery underwent other major changes in organization and training. In January 1907 Pres. Theodore Roosevelt signed a bill separating field from coastal artillery. In May the War Department reorganized the field artillery into six regiments, with two battalions per regiment, and incorporated it into the infantry division. In 1910 the War Department assigned Capt. Dan D. Moore to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, to organize the School of Fire for Field Artillery. In September 1911 the school began teaching its first class of artillerymen.

That same year Maj. William Snow, who would later become the first chief of field artillery, translated an article for Field Artillery Journal describing the system in which the forward observers communicated the results of the shot to the battery by using a series of arm motions and hand signals. This system could only work, however, if the artillerymen adjusting fire and the gun crews remained in sight of each other. For example, the observers indicated the shot was over if both extended one arm toward the target, or if one extended both arms and the other pointed one arm at the target. Within a year, however, each field battery had three field telephones and each regiment and battalion two, which greatly improved the ability to transmit fire commands from the forward observer. But the one great drawback of telephones was that enemy shellfire frequently cut the lines.

Not long after World War I began, static entrenchments replaced mobile operations due to the new intensity of infantry firepower, mainly from machine guns. So for the remainder of the war, field artillery became the most important weapon used to trump the effects of infantry firepower. In defense, it could break up attacks, but if deployed too far forward the guns would be lost. This forced the transition from direct to indirect artillery fire in most combat situations.

In the early offensives, commanders expected massive artillery barrages to destroy enemy emplacements. These bombardments had a devastating effect on troops caught in the open. But attacks lost momentum when troops climbed out of the trenches and immediately lost contact with their supporting artillery. Maneuvering infantry had no way to shift or concentrate artillery support spontaneously on unanticipated areas of resistance or even to coordinate the timing of a preplanned barrage to keep pace with the momentum of an attack.

The transition to trench warfare lead to what Bruce Gudmundsson calls "the great divorce" between infantry and artillery that took place between 1914 and 1915. Instead of looking to cooperate with each other, the two combat arms each looked to solve their own unique tactical problems. This same "divorce" would take place in the American army after the United States entered the war.

By 1917 U.S. field artillery had realized major improvements in weaponry and gunnery techniques but was still mired tactically in its old role of making light cannons available to support infantry at close range. Rather than achieving a combined-arms effect that could be attained with artillery firing continuously in support of maneuvering infantry, the fire taught to be used was still direct. Infantry and artillery trained to fight separate battles.

U.S. artillery doctrine vacillated between preparing to fight trench warfare or campaigns of maneuver. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) commander, Gen. John Pershing, believed that trench warfare would eventually give way to what he called "open warfare" and that his troops must be trained to fight under both conditions. In the general's mind, the infantryman on the offensive with his rifle and bayonet was the sole key to victory, a view his staff accepted. By 1915, however, artillery and machine guns had already demonstrated their tremendous killing ability on the defensive. When the United States entered the war, its military leaders faced a major problem of how to restore tactical mobility to the battlefield without losing men in the same numbers as the Europeans.

Nevertheless, in 1917 the Americans still favored mobile warfare, which meant that they had to be able to shift artillery around the battlefield quickly using observed fire. The battery was the standard firing unit, and the battery commander directed and adjusted its fire. Typically positioned midway between the guns and the target, he ordered adjustments either by voice commands, telephone, or even hand signals. In addition, other artillerymen called "forward observation officers" stationed themselves in the infantry trenches or at designated observation posts. Being closer to the target than the battery commander, these men conveyed the results of shots to him to aid his instructions. They also used the same methods of communications by which he contacted the battery.


Excerpted from Bracketing the Enemy by John R. Walker. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John R. Walker, a Vietnam veteran of the U.S. Army, holds a Ph.D. in history from Kent State University, Ohio.

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