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Posted on Aug 11, 2007 in Front Page Features, Tactics101

Tactics 101: 018 – River Crossing Operations

By Rick Baillergeon and John Sutherland

“A river will in any case enable the defender to gain time, require the attacker to make special technical preparations, and warn the latter to be cautious. As a prerequisite for success in effecting a river crossing, the deceit of the defender as to the real intentions has always been considered essential". Baron von Freytag – Loringhoven


Let’s get the obligatory joke out of the way. Why did the unit cross the river? Well, obviously to get to the other side. There are a few things missing in the punch line. First, is to get to the other side with not a total loss of momentum. Second, is to get to the other side with without significant losses in personnel and equipment. Finally, is to get to the other side always realizing that the river crossing is not an end but a means to an end (your final objective).


Last month, we dissected breaching operations. This month we will tackle a similar operation – river crossing. You will find some of the concepts are comparable, but they each have their own uniqueness. The crossing of a river (unopposed and especially opposed) can truly be an emotional event for all those involved.

We will focus this article on the following: the purpose of a river crossing, brief history of river crossing operations, types of the river crossings, fundamentals, common terminology, planning and execution of a river crossing, and how the battlefield operating systems contribute to success.


Although it seems elementary, the purpose of a river crossing is to move combat power across the water obstacle in an expedient manner losing minimal forces. A successful river crossing is one in which the process of getting across the obstacle does not adversely affect the unit’s ability to accomplish its’ final objective.


Throughout warfare, the crossing of rivers has been the decisive point for many units when attempting to achieve their ultimate objective. Here are a few examples from history:



Just as in obstacle breaching, there are two distinct types of river crossings. First, is a hasty river crossing. A unit (normally at brigade level and lower) conducts a hasty river crossing when the water obstacle is relatively small, there are already ford sites available to cross the river, and there is a relatively weak enemy defending the river. Because of these characteristics, a hasty river crossing is truly a decentralized operation executed with whatever organic equipment the unit possesses at the time. During the hasty crossing, the unit is striving to maximize speed, surprise the enemy, and not lose the momentum of the attack.

The second type of river crossing is the deliberate crossing. The deliberate crossing is the antithesis of a hasty crossing. It is conducted when the water obstacle is significant, ford sites are not readily available, the river is defended by considerable enemy forces, or a hasty river crossing has not succeeded. A deliberate river crossing is characterized by detailed planning, centralized control, (unlike a hasty river crossing which is normally a decentralized operation), will generally require additional assets (predominately engineer, military police, air defense, and smoke) for a unit to conduct the operation, and may utilize a comprehensive deception plan to assist in the operation. Needless to say, the crossing of a well-defended, major river is PHD level work.

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