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OUT OF NOWHERE A HISTORY OF THE MILITARY SNIPER
By MARTIN PEGLER
Osprey Publishing Copyright © 2004 Trustees of the Royal Armouries, Leeds, LS10 ILT
All right reserved.
Chapter One THE SNIPER IN PERSPECTIVE
Since mankind first invented projectile weapons, he has devoted considerable time, effort and expense attempting to make them deliver their stones, arrows, shot and shell further, faster and more accurately. The singling out of an individual as a target by an archer or bowman is as ancient as the use of the weapons themselves, as the skeleton of an ancient Briton excavated at Maiden Castle showed, for embedded in its spine is the iron bolt from a Roman ballista. Whether he was targeted by accident or design is impossible to say, but there is no doubt in the case of King Richard I during the Crusade of 1199, when a Swiss mercenary crossbowman named Peter de Basle fired a carefully aimed shot that struck the King in the shoulder. Richard subsequently died from infection of the wound. Of course, such events were undoubtedly rare, and even 300 years later, when the handgonne or early hand-musket had become more commonplace in warfare, its use for the specific purpose of killing at long range was virtually unheard of. While it is sometimes reported that Leonardo Da Vinci used a rifle to help repel besiegers of Florence during the siege of 1520, there appears to be no actual proof of this. However, it does seem certain that another great artist, Benvenuto Cellini, worked as a sharpshooter whilst a soldier of Pope Clement VII in 1527. Fighting alongside other defenders of the Holy City during the siege of Rome, he used a large bore, heavy matchlock musket. Writing later of his experiences he stated:
'I will give but one particular which will astonish good shots of every degree, that is, when I charged my gun with powder weighing one fifth of the ball, it carried two hundred paces point-blank. My natural temperament was melancholy, and while I was taking these amusements, my heart leaped with joy, and I found I could work better than when I spent my whole time in study.'
One of the shots he fired almost certainly killed the Constable of Bourbon, although Cellini admitted that the heavy fog on the day made accurate aiming very difficult and a great element of luck was involved. Such accounts must be kept in proportion of course, for the smoothbore muskets of that time were generally not well-suited to accurate long-range shooting. However, this is not to dismiss entirely the early use of firearms for such activities, for organised target shoots were a regular event in Europe, and were certainly well established in Holland and the German States by the 16th century, where smoothbore and rifled muskets were used for competitive shooting matches. The term generally used for these men was scharfschutzen, or 'sharpshooters.'
by the late 18th century the word 'sniper' was being used in letters sent home by English officers serving in India, some of whom took to referring to a day's rough shooting as 'going out sniping'. The snipe is a small, fast-flying game bird with mottled black and brown plumage and a particularly erratic, twisting flight that make it difficult to see and even more difficult to hit. It took a skilled sportsman with a flintlock gun to bring down a snipe in flight. Such an accomplished shot was regarded as above average and inevitably during the 18th century the term 'snipe shooting' was simplified to 'sniping'. However, in a military context, soldiers who were particularly able shots were referred to as sharpshooters or marksmen, but never snipers, and its use appears to come from the press during the early months of the First World War. From this date onwards the word specifically implied a soldier equipped with a rifle that was generally (but not exclusively) fitted with a telescopic sight, who fired at military targets from a concealed position. Sadly, as Harry Furness mentioned so appositely in his foreword, the term has now become so debased that some dictionaries are using it as a secondary term for 'murderer'. At the time of writing there have been a couple of incidents in the United States where deranged individuals have been randomly shooting people at relatively close range using hunting rifles, an event widely referred to by the American media as 'sniping'. Such inaccurate terminology does disservice to highly trained and dedicated military snipers who were, and are still, fighting for their countries. One sniper training establishment in Virginia was so incensed at the abuse of the word that they invited members of the press to a demonstration. They were asked to find a camouflaged sniper in a field, which, not surprisingly, they were unable to do. At a signal, the invisible rifleman fired at a target 220 yards away, placing the shot straight through the forehead of the image. The astonished press were duly reformed that that was sniping and they were requested to use the term 'rifleman' in subsequent news reports.
The skills required of the true sniper are manifold and training is intense. On average, over one third of potential candidates fail the rigorous selection to become a fully fledged sniper. To pass they have to master a complex range of interrelated skills that will enable them to survive, often alone, in the most hostile of combat environments. Camouflage, movement, observation, map reading, communications, intelligence gathering and accurate shooting must all be mastered. It is also a prerequisite to have the ability to remain alert in cramped, uncomfortable surroundings for days on end, as well as having strong personal discipline and unlimited patience. Among those requirements it is of fundamental importance that all become highly competent shots. They, will have to master not only range estimation, accurate to within a few feet at 800 or 900 yards, but also those most difficult of skills, wind, temperature and humidity judgement, and target movement. Added to this is the extreme stress of constantly working on the edge of, or inside, enemy territory and the knowledge that they are always surrounded by soldiers to whom the concept of 'surrender' is an alien one where snipers are concerned. It is fact that the fate of a captured sniper is almost inevitably death. As one commented matter-of-factly, if he were caught he would 'become the main source of entertainment for the next day'. There were many accounts of riflemen captured during the American Wars of Independence being summarily executed, although this was strictly against the accepted rules of warfare, and an interesting sentence in The New York Times showed the way in which sharpshooters were regarded during the US Civil War, the first conflict in which they were specifically employed. Commenting on the early use of Colonel Berdan's Sharpshooters by the Union Army, the writer stated the primary dangers for the sharpshooter in battle, 'by which they take the risk of being cut off by cavalry, or executed, as they certainly would be if taken'. This comment on their fate is an illuminating one at this early date and gives an insight into the antipathy ordinary soldiers had towards sharpshooters. It has always been the case that infantry under sniper fire will go to extreme lengths to find and kill their assailant, even if this includes calling on artillery fire, direct tank assault or even ground strafing by aircraft. George Mitchell, an Australian infantryman, serving at Gallipoli, wrote in his diary: 'May 7th. The Turk gets very little mercy from us. Whenever a sniper is caught he is put to the bayonet immediately.' Harry Furness, after shooting a high ranking German officer, was subjected to an artillery barrage of such length and ferocity that on several occasions he was blown out of his foxhole and flung to the ground. He escaped stunned, deaf and shaken, only by sheer luck. Nowhere else was the shared hatred of the sniper more openly demonstrated than in the war on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1945, where snipers invariably carried a pistol, not for personal defence, but to prevent themselves falling alive into the hands of the enemy.
THE EFFECTS OF SNIPING
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the outcome of an entire battle could be shaped as the result of sniping, it often had profound effects on the ability of one side or the other to function effectively. During the American Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, two Confederate sharpshooters working on Little Round Top killed two Union generals, badly wounded a third, then killed a colonel and up to four other senior officers. It caused consternation in the Union camp and artillery were called upon to try and flush them out, with little success, reinforcing two main problems for infantry. The first was in finding the sniper and the second, dealing with him. Never more true was the old adage 'it takes a thief to catch a thief'. 'Countersniping', the seeking out and killing of enemy snipers, became the main priority of every army. Once enemy snipers were silenced, the successful snipers could then concentrate on finding specific targets, and the vital tasks of observation and intelligence gathering could be undertaken. These tasks have increasingly become a core part of the sniper's role. So why did the infantry fear the sniper so, and expend so much time and effort in attempting to eradicate him? The answer lies in the complex psychology of war, where an infantryman accepts with a certain fatalism the chances of death or wounding, however it may occur, as the capricious and impersonal fortunes of combat. This is regarded as being outside the control of the individual and most men are mentally protected by their innate belief that 'it won't happen to me'. Of course, comrades do get killed and wounded, which is their bad luck, but few soldiers will ever accept that they could be the next casualty, believing that their chances of survival are reasonably good. The appearance of the sniper changes all of that in an instant. Suddenly, everyone is the target and war has become personal. Frontline soldiers find this very hard to accept as well as being both frightening and debilitating. A bullet that comes apparently from nowhere and kills with clinical accuracy is unnerving in the extreme. The friend a soldier was talking to one second would be lying at his feet the next, and worse, such events often happened away from the heat of battle, where men believed they were comparatively safe. To come under sniper fire was an utterly debilitating experience for most soldiers. A Falklands veteran, Ken Lukowiak, wrote vividly of his first experience of being a target:
'We crossed another field and approached a hedgerow. As we met the hedge we turned left and began to follow it to the corner of the field. A bullet shot past my face. It was so close, I felt it physically. All of us automatically dived to the ground and crawled up to the hedge in search of cover. A voice shouted out, "Can anyone see the enemy?" Slowly, one by one, we began to look over the hedge. There was nothing there. Just an open field and another empty field beyond that. Another shot flew by, Tony screamed and fell to the ground. Fear began to push thoughts into my mind. If he could be hit behind the hedge, then so could I. Where would I be hit? In the head? in the chest? I became aware that I was working myself into a state of panic. I began to try and talk myself into becoming calm. If I were to be hit then I would be hit, that was that and there was nothing I could do about it. Someone called out, "It's a fucking sniper".'
The shock of becoming a sudden target frightened soldiers more than anything else. It was not only individuals who were demoralised, but as men cowered in foxholes or trenches, reluctant to obey any orders that meant exposing themselves to accurate fire from an invisible enemy so chains of command became broken and discipline impaired. Small wonder that a captured sniper's life was generally regarded as forfeit. A rare glimpse during the First World War at the reaction of infantrymen upon capturing a sniper is contained in the laconic diary entry by Lieutenant S. F. Shingleton, an Officer in the Royal Field Artillery, who noted that on 16 July 1916, 'Royal Scots catch and hang one sniper. Shelling and great deal of sniping'. A British sniper had a similar experience after flushing a German sniper from a house during the advance through France in 1944. The German had run out of ammunition, thrown his rifle from the window and walked out of the back door with his hands up. A British officer, whose men had suffered grievously from the sniper's accurate shooting, walked past and shot the German dead with his revolver. On occasions even senior officers made it clear that they did not entirely approve of sniping in warfare. In 1944 Genera] ()mar Bradley let it be known that he would not disapprove of snipers being treated 'a little more roughly' than was the norm. After all, 'a sniper cannot sit around and shoot and then [expect] capture. That's not the way to play the game'.
Perhaps more curious is the dislike many frontline soldiers showed for their own snipers, for one of the great ironies of a sniper's life was the fact that he was often disliked almost as much by his own men as he was by the enemy. This originated in the trenches of 1914-18 and was simply because of the explosive retribution that was brought down upon the heads of the hapless occupants if a sniper was operating in their sector. This could manifest itself as a hurricane of shells or trench mortars as enraged enemy soldiers attempted to avenge the death of a comrade, often inflicting heavy casualties on the resident infantry, who quite reasonably believed they did not deserve it. Yet there was a deeper and darker side to the open dislike many men had for the sniper and his profession. In civilian life we are all brought up to regard human life as sacred, yet this most fundamental concept of the value of human life must be suspended in wartime. Generally, most soldiers can abandon their peacetime beliefs, when faced with killing to survive or to protect comrades, and such a choice is regarded as morally acceptable. Yet the concept of a soldier deliberately stalking a human quarry as one would an animal was to most infantrymen a repugnant one. One reason for the discomfort of combat soldiers was undoubtedly that among them the sniper was unique in literally having the ability to hold life or death in his hands and, suddenly, death was personal. One German sniper wrote that he had but a single rule when out sniping, and that was once he had a target in his crosshairs he would shoot, regardless of who the individual was or what they were doing. Few other soldiers ever had the questionable luxury of deciding whom to kill or when. To the average soldier war was a matter of obeying orders, so the majority were able to treat fighting as a relatively impersonal job to be done as quickly and at as little risk as possible.
Excerpted from OUT OF NOWHERE by MARTIN PEGLER Copyright © 2004 by Trustees of the Royal Armouries, Leeds, LS10 ILT. Excerpted by permission.
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