The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative.
- Sun Tzu
If the general is unable to control his impatience and orders his troops to swarm up the walls like ants, one-third of them will be killed without taking the city.
- Sun Tzu
It is military doctrine that an encircling force must leave a gap to show the surrounding troops there is a way out, so they will not be determined to fight to the death.
- Tu Mu
From the siege of Troy to the siege of Stalingrad, attacking cities has always been a difficult and costly enterprise. In prepared cities, the defenders have arranged that every attack will be an expensive frontal assault against ready positions.
But, as these illustrations show, battles in and around cities need not always lack subtlety.
Lu Küng Ambushes a Besieging Army
Sun Chien, goaded into invading territory held by rival warlord Liu Piao, made a successful amphibious landing by collecting the arrows shot at his river boats from the shore, then clearing the landing area with his enemy's own arrows. He then won two battles and bottled up Liu Piao's disheartened troops in Hanchiang and Hsiangyang.
With daily assaults by Sun Chien's troops, the situation in Hsiangyang was desperate. So, after a conference, Lu Küng was sent on a dangerous mission with two possible objectives: bring help or ambush Sun Chien's forces.
With 500 archers, Lu Küng stole out of the city at dusk on a nearly moonless night, then dashed through the opposing army.
One hundred of his men hurried ahead, making for Hsien Hill, where they prepared an ambush. The rest repeatedly fought and withdrew along the road among the hills as Sun Chien and a body of his troops pursued.
As the road turned up Hsien Hill and the pursuers began their ascent, gongs suddenly sounded and Sun Chien and his troops were killed to a man in a hail of stones and arrows from the hill and surrounding forest.
Then Lu Küng exploded a set of small bombs, signaling his victory, and the troops emerged from Hsiangyang and fell upon Sun Chien's army, throwing it into disorder.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 69-71
Chou Yü is Tricked Into a Trap
Chou Yü was proud; his army and fleet had defeated a tremendously stronger force led by Ts'ao Ts'ao, an excellent commander. Now Chou Yü wanted to press his advantage by taking the city of Nanchün.
But Ts'ao Jên, outnumbered and no longer full of bravado after several defeats, opened a letter of instructions given him by Ts'ao Ts'ao for just such a time of peril. He smiled and ordered his men to be awakened early in the morning.
Meanwhile, Chou Yü climbed an observation tower overlooking the city and looked inside, seeing flags along the battlements, but no men behind them. In the town he saw the soldiers with packs on their backs. "Jên must be prepared for a long march," he thought.
Apparently thinking Ts'ao Jên was ready to abandon the city, he ordered part of his army to prepare for an attack, and the other part to prepare to pursue his defeated enemy if the first group met with success.
As Chou Yü advanced toward the city, Ts'ao Jên marched out onto the plain to face him. But when Yü attacked, Ts'ao Jên's forces were thrown into confusion and retreated pell-mell, but instead of re-entering the city, they retreated to the northwest, leaving the gates of the city wide open.
Yü, seeing the path open, galloped through the gate with about 60 horsemen.
But at a signal, archers and crossbow men in ambush around the inside of the gate let fly a shower of arrows and bolts, while the leading cavalry plunged into a deep ditch. Chou Yü barely escaped with his life.
The defenders of the city then attacked, driving off Chou Yü's soldiers in confusion and causing many of them to fall into the ditches prepared near the gate of the city.
Then the troops from the city who had retreated to the northwest returned to battle, and Chou Yü's troops were caught between two units and badly defeated. Even Chou Yü was injured by a crossbow bolt.
Satisfied with his victory, Ts'ao Jên re-entered the city.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 531-532
Chiang Wei Anticipates an Attack
After taking the cities of Anting and Nanan, K'ung-ming layed a plan to capture T'ienshui, but his opponent, Chiang Wei, guessed his plan.
Chiang Wei guessed that K'ung-ming would secretly send a body of troops to the rear of T'ienshui, then approach the front of the city with his main body, tempting the garrison to attack. Then, he guessed, when the men of T'ienshui were busy fighting in front of the city, K'ung-ming would have the troops hidden behind the town rush out and seize it.
To counter this plan he sent 3,000 men further to the rear of the city than he expected K'ung-ming's soldiers to be hidden, then ordered the commander of the town to cautiously leave the city with the majority of the force, as if to attack K'ung-ming's main force, but to be ready at a signal to reverse direction, quickly move through the town and attack the force on the rear side.
The battle progressed as Chiang Wei expected. When the commander of K'ung-ming's hidden troops learned that the main body of defenders had left T'ienshui, moving towards K'ung-ming's main army in front of the city, he approached T'ienshui from the rear and said to the few defenders left on the wall: "You have fallen into our trap you know."
"On the contrary," he was told, "you have fallen into our trap; only you do not know it yet."
But he soon did know it. As the troops assaulted the walls of the city, the defending troops hidden behind the city suddenly attacked the attackers in the rear with fire and sword.
At the same time, the troops who had cautiously left the front of the city quickly reversed direction, marching through the city and joining the attack on K'ung-ming's soldiers. Caught between these two forces, they were defeated and driven away..
Failing that attempt to take the city, K'ung-ming marched quickly on the city with his entire army, with orders to assault it immediately. But Chiang Wei had foreseen this and set the army in ambush around the city, leaving the common people on the walls, but with the banners of the regular army.
Seeing the city apparently so well defended, K'ung-ming's army hesitated. Then about midnight, the armies in ambush started fires all around K'ung-ming's army and shouted, scaring K'ung-ming's men, who bolted toward safety.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 342
K'ung-ming Prepares a Reception
K'ung-ming expected Ssuma I to arrive at the city of Luch'êng and attack it that night, so he prepared a surprise.
Hidden at the four corners of the city, outside and at some distance, were four units of 2,000 men each.
When Ssuma I approached, he examined the fortifications and decided to attack that night across a shallow part of the moat.
That evening Ssuma I surrounded the city and moved in to attack. But as his army approached the wall the defenders fought valiantly and kept them away. Then a signal bomb exploded and the four hidden units attacked toward the city, catching the Wei army in the rear. At the same time the defenders of the city made a sortie. Pressed from front and rear, the Wei army was driven off at great loss.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 431-432
Chang Fei Loses his Temper
Chang Jên had lost two of his captains in a battle against Yüan-te and Chang Fei. But now, safe in his city, he decided to risk a battle against his two opponents.
He decided to make a sortie against his foes, then pretend to retreat; but instead of retreating into the city, he would retreat around its north side.
The plan went well initially. It was easy for Chang Jên to tempt fiery Chang Fei into an immediate attack. But after a few bouts, Chang Jên pretended to be defeated and galloped off, past the city gate and off to the north.
Chang Fei followed, but when he had ridden past the gate, the defenders of the city made a second sortie, coming up behind Chang Fei's unit and cutting it off from the main body of his troops.
Then Chang Jên and his troops ended their feigned retreat and returned to the attack. Chang Fei was caught between too forces and might have been captured or killed if not for the sudden appearance of a friendly unit of cavalry, which rescued him.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 36-37
Ssuma I Leaves Open a Path of Retreat
Chuko Tan, though beaten in battle, apparently heavily outnumbered, and besieged in the city of Anfêng, was nevertheless in a strong position. His army had plenty of food and water, there was the possibility of a relief force coming to its rescue, and in their surrounded position, the men had the courage of desperation.
Therefore, at the advice of a subordinate, Ssuma I decided on an immediate attack, but on three sides only, leaving the south gate of the city unguarded. If the Wu forces fled by that direction, they figured, they could attack them without difficulty.
The attack was forestalled by an unsuccessful attack by the besieged army, but was later successful.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 537-538
Hsiahou Pa is Reassured
As Hsiahou Pa approached the city of T'aoyang with the vanguard of the Shu army, he noticed that it appeared abandoned.
The gates were open and there were no flags flying from the walls.
But he was suspicious. He reconnoitered around the town, then noticed that the road to the south of the city was crowded with fugitives.
He concluded that the city was indeed empty, and rode in the open gate with his men. But as soon as they entered, hidden Wei soldiers raised the drawbridge and rained stones and arrows down on the trapped men and killing Hsiahou Pa.
With the commander of the vanguard dead, the Wei men attacked from the city, defeating the Shu vanguard until the main force came to its rescue.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 564
Kuan Yü Chooses the Wrong Road
Kuan Yü was in desperate straits, surrounded in a city with his men deserting daily and with his enemy, Sun Ch'üan, attacking on west, east and south sides.
He decided to break out and retreat to Hsich'uan, and concluded that the poorly defended north side would be the best breakout point. In that direction were little-used trails by which he could get to Hsich'uan.
But because Sun Ch'üan knew Kuan Yü's weakness, Kuan Yü's advisor guessed that the north side of the city was being kept unguarded to tempt Kuan Yü to leave by that route and fall into an ambush. He suggested Kuan Yü take the main road instead.
But Kuan Yü decided to continue with his original plan, and that night he left the city and headed to the hills. But about 20 li (6.2 miles) from the city a troop of men debouched from a gap in the hills.
Kuan Yü, who could not engage such a large number of men, fled toward the town of Linchü, losing more and more men as enemy troops constantly attacked the rear of his column.
A few li (about a mile) further, as he approached the town, a second ambush awaited him, and he escaped along a mountain trail with just ten men left.
Then he fell into the last ambush. Men with hooks and ropes dragged him from this saddle and captured him.
Kuan Yü and his son were brought before Sun Ch'üan, who asked them to join his side. But both father and son refused to change their allegiance, so Sun Ch'üan had them executed.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 176-178
K'ung-ming Surprises Friend and Foe
K'ung-ming heard that the capable commander of the city of Ch'ên-ts'ang was gravely ill and in this saw his opportunity to seize the city.
Calling two subordinates, he ordered them to take half a legion and begin marching on Ch'ên-ts'ang in three days. If they saw a fire, he said, they were to attack the city.
A short time later the Wei forces in Ch'ên-ts'ang found Shu troops suddenly at its walls. Then fires broke out at the gates and the Shu troops quickly broke in and occupied the city.
But the attackers were not the two generals K'ung-ming had sent. Those officers arrived shortly after and found the city silent. Then a signal bomb went off, flags sprouted on the walls and K'ung-ming himself stood there and cried out, "You have come too late."
He then told his commanders that he had sent them to fix the attention of the enemy scouts, then sent spies to set fires when the Shu troops arrived, and finally had quietly but swiftly taken another unit by forced marches to the walls of the city.
Thinking the enemy still some distance away, the forces in Ch'ên-ts'ang were completely unprepared, and due to his illness, the commander of the city was unable to react in time to hold off defeat.
This maneuver, K'ung-ming explained, followed one of the rules of war: "Do the unexpected; attack the unprepared."
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 402-403
A "Mere Scholar" Takes a City
Kuan Yü, of the Kingdom of Shu in western China, was busily campaigning in the north against the Kingdom of Wei. His base was the town of Chingchou on the north side of the Yangtse Kiang River, a city held by Shu but legitimately claimed by the Kingdom of Wu, in southern China.
Realizing that Shu was not going to abide by its treaty and return Chingchou peacefully, the Kingdom of Wu decided on a sudden attack to capture it while Kuan Yü was far to the north.
However, Kuan Yü had left a strong guard in the city and pickets along the river to signal with bonfires any landing of Wu forces.
So the commander of the Wu forces in the area, Lü Mêng, played sick, and was transferred to a new place where he could "recover."
In hopes that Kuan Yü would despise the new commander, the Kingdom of Wu selected Lu Hsün, a virtual unknown.
The hopes of those who appointed Lu Hsün were confirmed. Kuan Yü regarded Lu Hsün as "a mere scholar," unfit to lead an army.
Lu Hsün encouraged Kuan Yü's low opinion of him by sending him gifts and a message saying he hoped the kingdoms of Wu and Shu could be friends.
Kuan Yü, feeling no threat from this "mere scholar," transferred half his troops north to help besiege Fanch'êng.
But Lu Hsün was only a figurehead. Lü Mêng took control of the Wu forces again, then set his plan in motion. He sent a letter to Ts'ao Ts'ao, the ruler of Wei, asking that he cooperate by attacking Kuan Yü in the north. Then he concealed soldiers in the holds of a few transport ships, dressed the sailors in the costumes of merchant sailors, and readied his army.
Lü Mêng sent the "merchant" ships across to the north shore of the river, where the sailors told the guards along the bank that contrary winds had forced them in to shore. They gave the guards presents and were allowed to anchor near the shore until the weather was better.
But that night the soldiers emerged from the holds and captured all the guards, preventing them from lighting their signal fires.
With the guards in custody, the Wu forces made a major landing and marched quickly toward Chingchou in the darkness.
Lü Mêng persuaded some of the guards to betray Kuan Yü and help him capture the city. So when the force approached Chingchou, the guards called to the watchmen on the walls, who recognized their voices and opened the doors. But once inside, they shouted and lit flares to signal to the men of Wu that the gates were open.
The soldiers rushed the gate and occupied the city.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 161-163
Ts'ao Ts'ao Expresses Too Much Interest
Wily Ts'ao Ts'ao had defeated Lü Pu when Lü Pu accidentally let him know what he was thinking, but Ts'ao Ts'ao was not beyond making the same mistake himself.
After chasing Chang Hsiu's forces into the city of Nanyang, Ts'ao surrounded the city, then personally reconnoitered the walls.
But Chang Hsiu's subordinate, Chia Hsü, was watching. He saw that Ts'ao Ts'ao noticed that the wall at the southeast angle of the city had recently been repaired, but with inferior mud bricks, and that the abatis (a hedge of felled trees with sharpened branches pointing toward the enemy) was badly out of repair.
He guessed that Ts'ao Ts'ao's preparations to fill the moat at the northwest corner of the city with earth, brush and grass were a diversion and that Ts'ao would mount his real attack, at night, on the weak opposite corner.
Chia Hsü persuaded his commander to dress the townspeople in soldiers' garb and send them to the northwest corner, thereby persuading Ts'ao Ts'ao that his diversion was working, then hide his veteran troops near the weak southeast corner.
Ts'ao Ts'ao saw that his diversion appeared to be successful, so he continued the fake attack on the northwest, then quietly sent his best troops by night to the weak southeast corner of the city, where they climbed the wall without opposition.
All was quiet; so they descended from the wall into the city. But suddenly a signal bomb exploded and the best of the city's troops descended upon the invading soldiers.
Surprised and outnumbered, Ts'ao Ts'ao's troops fled out of the city and into the countryside, pursued until daybreak by Chang Hsiu.
With heavy losses, Ts'ao Ts'ao abandoned the siege and retreated.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 184-185
Sung Chiang Answers a Message for Help
Sung Chiang and his band of robbers had beaten Kao Lien's army, chasing it into the city of Kao T'ang Chou. Realizing he needed help to raise the siege, Kao Lien wrote to two neighboring cities, asking for assistance, then sent men off on horseback to deliver the messages.
The robbers saw the messengers leave the city and guessed where they were going and for what reason, but instead of capturing them, decided on a ruse.
Several days later, the watchers on the wall of the city saw two troops of horsemen coming toward the city, throwing the besieging robbers into apparent confusion.
The two units were robbers pretending to be troops from the two cities from which Kao Lien had requested assistance. But Kao Lien didn't know that, and believing they had come to rescue him, he quickly put on his armor and led his remaining troops out to help destroy the robbers, who were already running away.
As he approached the robbers' camp, he saw Sung Chiang and other bandit leaders riding off along a small path, so he galloped off in pursuit, falling into an ambush where 1,000 horsemen attacked him. He then retreated toward the city, but noticed the robbers' banners were flying atop the walls. Turning away, he led his few, defeated troops off along a small path, where he encountered a second ambush and was killed.
AMB Vol. 2, pgs. 973-974
T'ien Tan's Supernatural Oxen
The State of Yen had virtually defeated the State of Ch'i, having captured all but two cities under Ch'i control, Chü and Chi-mo. Having failed to capture Chü, the Yen army turned its attention to Chi-mo, which it imagined would fall more easily.
But T'ien Tan, the commander of Chi-mo, had a plan. He let it be known that he was very afraid the Yen army would cut off the noses of its Ch'i captives and make them advance in front of the attacking Yen troops.
But far from frightening the Chi-mo troops, it enraged them, and made them fight all the harder in defense of the city.
Then T'ien Tan said he was terrified that the Yen army would desecrate the graves of the ancestors of the people of Chi-mo.
Thinking again to discourage the defenders of Chi-mo, the Yen army dug up the graves and burned the bodies in front of the walls of Chi-mo.
Again, the defenders were not at all discouraged, but enraged, and anxious for battle.
Then T'ien Tan fed his soldiers what little was left of the food, replaced the soldiers on the walls with old men and women, disguised as soldiers, then sent a message to the Yen commander, saying Chi-mo wanted to surrender. Further, he sent a gift of 1,000 taels of gold as a gift to the Yen general.
The Yen army rejoiced and let down its guard.
Then T'ien Tan collected more than a thousand oxen, tied knives to their horns, covered them with red silk cloth like dragons and attached reeds soaked in grease to their tails.
At night he lit the oxen's tails and drove them out through 20 or 30 holes that had been bored in the city's walls. The oxen, crazed with pain, charged out bellowing among the Yen army, killing all in their path. And, with the flickering of the torches on the costumed oxen, they gave the frightening appearance of supernatural beings.
Behind the oxen the 5,000 Chi-mo soldiers attacked the Yen army, while in the city the people began drumming and yelling.
The terrified Yen army fled, pursued by T'ien Tan's troops.
RH, pgs. 32-33
© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.