Monday, May 5, 2014

Trench Fighting

One of the more strenuous combat skills we learned during NS time did not involve long distances. Instead, it was all centred atop a small, bald hill.

That hill in question was FOFO hill - a less than polite acronym standing for Fighting On a Fortified Objective (and not that one asking someone to f*** off twice). The fortified objective in question was a trench system linking various utility posts (small cabin dugouts) and protected by some neutral but very nasty razor-sharp wire concertina fences.

We learned pretty quickly that fighting in a trench was indeed physically very tough. One had to stoop to avoid the head be exposed and be blasted away by an enemy bullet! Worse still is for that head to invite a hand grenade over!

I think our FOFO training took up more than two weeks. You can imagine the massive thigh muscles we eventually built up walking so much like ducks for that extended period of time.

We didn't like the training but we also didn't mind the thunder-thighs we got to show off to our girlfriends and sisters at the end of it. "See, didn't we tell you that army training was tough?" we would boast. For me, being a competitive badminton player, I was glad to resemble Liem Swee King for once. He was the original Mr Thunder Thighs in professional badminton, able to leap very high to effect a jump smash. Or change a ceiling light (haha).

Now, FOFO is basically suicide if you are the assaulting force. Assaulting any fortified objective always is: the enemy is entrenched in a superior position to yours. In real war, my advice is best to write that last letter to a loved one before any FOFO action starts.

Remember Hamburger Hill in Vietnam? That 1968 uphill assault by American and South Vietnamese troops incurred a massive 70% casualty rate! After ten assaults, 100 Americans were killed with 400 wounded. And that's just over a 10-day period.

Edward Kennedy called that battle "the most irresponsible military operation in history" and held then-President Nixon culpable for the deaths.

Certainly, we were taught not to assault a FOFO without air or mortar support. Or even proper recce. You really need to know where the deadly weapons (eg. machine guns) are in order not to be mowed down before you could even yell "Kaninabeh!".

During our time, our platoons were equipped with 60mm mortars. Though these buggers were tough to lug about, they were pretty effective as short-range weapons.

Well, I hope the powers that be today are more savvy in assaulting a FOFO. We should first blast that thing to kingdom come with artillery before sending the troops in to at least even up the odds!

During our training, I don't remember being taught how to grade an FOFO objective, you know, like how well it is protected, fortified, etc., i.e. do a proper 'pro vs con' evaluation. I remember being taught a battle being a numbers game. Was it 3-to-1 for any fortified objective? If history is any guide, I think a 100-to-1 ratio is the more likely the successful do. This is especially so when many of our cities are in built-up areas with many high-rise buildings and complexes. It's going to make any future war costly in terms of human casualty not to mention property loss. Our governments should really be serious about encouraging folks to have more kids to fill up those National Service ranks!

You know, I'll be damned if I am asked to send someone's son up a FOFO to be told later that the damn place is no longer strategic. This was what happened at Hamburger Hill. That place was later quickly abandoned to be occupied by enemy forces once again. It made the earlier battle seemed pointless and the losses even more tragic than it already is.


How does one fight on a FOFO that has a trench system?

Well, it does take a lot of coordination to prevent the whole exercise from descending into chaos or confusion.

For that period of engagement, we were basically fighting like rats in a maze, but with a key difference: we rats could get out of the maze anytime by climbing out of the trench or enter from somewhere else. That itself cut both ways because your enemy can do the same too. So, a FOFO assault could literally become a cat-and-mouse game!

And the battle gets worse when the area is blanketed by smoke. No one can tell who is friend or foe.

To combat that we consipred to communicate in codes and secret calls.

"Orange! Orange!" was the codeword for an enemy grenade landing nearby. "Apple! Apple!" for a friendly one about to be thrown. 

Haha, it became more like a salad war after a while with all those fruit names! Or a Sunday outing at the local wet market.

And like all diet wars, it's darn confusing.

The best you can hope for is to move fast, kill-and-clear as efficiently as possible and get the hell out of there.

Communication is key in such situations. It is not an operation for reticent folks. You have better shout to make your presence felt or to get some action done!

One assault method is to do it sector by sector, wave by wave.

In a training exercise, nobody dies of course. We were all heroes at the end of a FOFO exercise, which is hardly realistic. In actual battle, dead bodies would block up the trench and you would have to throw them out. People would be shot at close range; guts and body parts would be splattered all over. More people would be shot in the head than anytime during combat. Blinded also from stone splinters coming off the trench top edge.

No wonder trench fighting during WWI became so traumatic for many. Seeing your best buddy die is one thing. Seeing his body cut up like being put through a meat grinder is another. And being stuck with a dead body days on end.

This is one reason why I think giving each soldier a bullet-proof shield is such a wondrous thing. It would be especially so out in the field and in a trench! You can also peek out from behind a shield and not worry about getting your eyes shot out or hurt by splintering rock and sand.

The only casualties we had during FOFO training were some cadets breathing in too much hand grenade smoke. It was all very acrid, I tell you; and it burns the throat. And we all had to undergo a Chamber Smoke Acclimatization exercise on that FOFO hill, with each section taking turns to enter and stay in a smoke-filled command post. Wearing a gas mask was of little comfort in such a small room. The thick smoke that engulfed would sneak in and make everyone gag.

An alternative to the gas mask is to use a damp cloth or camouflage scarf. Also have plenty of water on standby to wash out those painful eyes stung by smoke. More importantly, come out with guns blazing, not as a wimpy, teary soldier. For us, it was really one of those "kenna sai" moments during our NS life.


FOFO is about winning by small margins; it is a patient war. But really? In this modern age of technological warfare of drones and sky cameras? What does a FOFO even mean in this context? Do you still want to sit atop a hill to wait for an assault? Get rained on by arty bombs, smart bombs and what not? (which was what happened at the battle of Dien Bien Phu between the Vietnamese and French).

One of the scariest thing in battle has to be being bombarded by cluster bombs or some incendiary device. Being a sitting duck is no fun.

I don't think the assaulting force feels any better.

Can you imagine a trench post being guarded by a machine gun totting, crab-like robot that could scamper away and come back to haunt you? Or trenches that are booby-trapped?

Maybe I am getting ahead of my time but FOFO will always be the same I feel. Lots of hard fighting, close-quarter fighting (hand to hand combat and bayoneting) that would result in high casualties on both sides.

And do even electronic jamming devices come into play?

I think the simplest thing is to just drop wasp nests into the trenches and let nature run its course. Oh man, I sometimes hate to be fighting me, haha. War does bring out the best and worst in some people!

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