Generally, he who occupies the field of battle first and awaits his enemy is at ease; he who comes later to the scene and rushes into the fight is weary.
- Sun Tzu
Now the crux of military operations lies in the pretence of accommodating one's self to the designs of the enemy.
The effectiveness of the ambush and planned counterattack have been well known in both the East and the West. Hannibal destroyed an entire Roman army at Lake Trasimene in one of the great ambushes of history, and at Austerlitz Napoleon used a well-timed counterattack to split and destroy the Austrian-Russian army.
The advantages of the ambush and counterattack are similar. In both cases a commander is often able to pit fresh, unengaged units against a foe who is surprised, weary, and out of battle order due to marching or an extended attack that has disrupted his formations.
One of the geniuses of this type of warfare was K'ung-ming of the Kingdom of Shu, and if half of what is written about him in Romance of the Three Kingdoms is true, he is one of the world's great and most overlooked captains. However, as portrayed in the Romance,his ambushes and counter-ambushes sometimes appear embroidered upon to make him appear even greater than he certainly was. The sheer complexity of some of the tactics seems to ensure they would frequently have broken down in the confusion of battle.
K'ung-ming Stays a Step Ahead
The army of Wei had lost one of its generals, and therefore its commanders anticipated that K'ung-ming, commander of the opposing Shu forces, would take advantage of their grief and discouragement to launch a night attack.
Therefore the new army commander, Ts'ao Chên, decided to set an ambush. He sent two legions into hiding along the path the Shu troops would take to attack the Wei camp, and set two other units in hiding near his camp. The camp itself would be held by very few men.
If the men of Shu passed along the road to raid the Wei camp, Ts'ao Chên figured, the two legions in hiding would let them pass, then go the other way along the road and raid the Shu camp. And when the Shu soldiers reached the Wei camp they would fall into an ambush.
But K'ung-ming knew that Ts'ao Chên was an experienced soldier and would be expecting a night attack, nevertheless he ordered an attack, but one with a twist.
Guessing Ts'ao Chên's plan, he set four units of his army in ambush around his camp.
Then he ordered two units to march along the road toward the Wei camp, making sure they were observed passing the point where the Wei forces were in hiding, then stop and hide.
K'ung-ming ordered that when they saw a signal, one of the two units would return along the road toward the Shu camp, fight briefly with the Wei troops retreating from the Shu camp, then let them pass
He told the second unit of Shu soldiers to block the retreat of the Wei raiders while the first unit followed the Wei troops and attacked them in the rear.
Then K'ung-ming sent a third force of two units into hiding along the road near the Wei camp, with orders to let the men of Wei pass, then to attack their camp (apparently when they heard fighting there).
That night the Wei soldiers approached K'ung-ming's camp and dashed inside, only to find it deserted. Suddenly, flames leaped up, stoked by straw and wood that had been prepared there. The Wei unit began to retreat, and encountered a second Wei unit coming up behind it. They fought briefly until their commanders recognized each other. But then the four units of Shu troops attacked from ambush.
The Wei troops retreated and encountered the first unit of Shu troops. Though battered, the men of Wei battled their way around them and pressed on toward their own camp, followed by the troops they had just passed. But then they encountered the second group of Shu troops. Pressed now from both front and rear, the men of Wei broke and ran madly toward their own camp. But when they approached, the guard at the camp thought they were the Shu troops sent to raid the camp, so the Wei units in ambush came out and attacked their own men.
In this wild confusion, with the Wei soldiers battling each other, three units of Shu troops came up (the two units in hiding near the Wei camp and the combined unit that had just defeated the Wei raiding party) and attacked from three directions, inflicting a serious defeat on the Wei army.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 351-352
Ts'ao Jên Loses a City
Ts'ao Jên was furious. He had just sent half a legion to defeat an insignificant opponent, but instead his own force had been virtually destroyed.
Wanting revenge, he foolishly emptied his base town of Fanch'êng of virtually all his troops, then crossed a river to attack the city of Hsinyeh.
But his opponent, Yüan-tê was expecting him. Yüan-tê marched out of Hsinyeh with his army and fought against Ts'ao Jên. In two days of battles, Ts'ao Jên's army lost heavily, so he decided on a surprise night attack to make up for his losses.
As Ts'ao Jên approached Yüan-tê's camp that evening, he saw the camp was on fire, and realized he had no hope of surprise. As he turned quickly away, his army was suddenly attacked and the road back was cut. So Jên turned north with his troops and made his way to the river, but there his diminished force was attacked again while the men were getting into their boats. Many were killed or drowned.
Nevertheless, Ts'ao Jên managed to make his way back to Fanch'êng. But when he arrived at the gates, he found his opponents had already occupied it. Then, as he turned away toward another city, he was attacked in the rear by the forces in Fanch'êng.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 374-378
Chang Fei Defeats an Ambush
Chang Fei's lieutenant, Lei T'ung, was killed when Chang Ho marched out from his stronghold in Wak'ou Pass, fought a halfhearted battle with Lei T'ung, then pretended to retreat and drew him into an ambush.
Now Chang Ho tried the same trick against Chang Fei, but it was too soon and too obvious, so Chang Fei declined battle but decided to turn the trick against Chang Ho and so avenge his fallen comrade.
The next day Chang Ho again advanced from his stronghold, and offered battle, but as Chang Ho advanced Chang Fei secretly sent a unit of his army behind Chang Ho to chase the soldiers in ambush into a valley that had been filled with wagon loads of combustibles.
Chang Ho, unaware of this, fought with Chang Fei, and then retreated to the place where he had set his ambush, where he turned around to fight Chang Fei.
But the troops Chang Ho expected would ambush Chang Fei had already been driven into the valley, which was even now aflame.
By desperate fighting, Chang Ho fought his way back to Wak'ou Pass.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs.106-107
Lu Hsün Anticipates a Trap
In hilly country the army of Wu waited as the troops of Wei advanced. After losing a preliminary skirmish, the Wei commander, Ts'ao Hsiu, sought to surprise the army of Wu by hiding two legions to the south of his main army and two legions to the north. He planned to engage the Wu army on the following day with his main force, retreat between the hidden units, which would then strike the flanks of the advancing Wu army.
But Lu Hsün, commander of the Wu troops, suspected an ambush and that night ordered two of his subordinates to each take three legions and attack toward the Wei camp from the north and south sides. Then, when they set a signal fire, the main army would advance as well.
As the two flanking groups approached the Wei camp from north and south, they both encountered hidden troops.
Surprised and outnumbered three to two, the hidden Wei troops fled to their camp and in the confusion the men of Wei began fighting each other.
Then the attacking Wu troops lit a signal fire and the main army joined them in attacking the Wei camp.
Fighting among themselves and attacked from three sides, the Wei army was badly defeated and fled, abandoning much of its equipment.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 383-384
Hsing Tao-jung Breaks a Promise
Hsing Tao-jung, a great warrior, had been captured by K'ung-ming, an advisor to General Yüan-tê.
Yüan-tê decided to execute him, but K'ung-ming advised against it and instead told Hsing Tao-jung that his surrender would be accepted if he would help capture the commander opposing Yüan-tê.
Hsing Tao-jung agreed, but with no intention of keeping a promise extracted under duress. He said he would return to his camp and help Yüan-tê and K'ung-ming's forces if they would attack the camp that night.
Hsing Tao-jung was set free, but told the whole story to his commander, Liu Hsien. They decided place an ambush outside their camp and capture K'ung-ming when his troops advanced for the night attack.
But that was what K'ung-ming expected.
Instead of advancing into the ambush, he sent a troop of soldiers with torches by an unexpected route and set fire to Liu Hsien's camp. Seeing the soldiers setting fire to their camp, Liu Hsien's troops broke cover and attacked them, chasing them 10 li (3.1 miles). Then K'ung-ming's men disappeared, apparently into the woods or brush near the road.
Liu Hsien's troops turned to go back to their own camp - but as they did they were followed quietly in the darkness by Chang Fei, apparently in command of a small squad. Finding the camp still burning and perhaps deciding he had nowhere better to go, Liu Hsien decided to attack K'ung-ming's stockade. His army turned again toward his enemy, still followed in the darkness by Chang Fei.
But as Liu Hsien's troops made their way along the road toward K'ung-ming's camp, a troop emerged onto the road and attacked the advancing army, throwing it back.
Turning to flee, Liu Hsien was captured by Chang Fei.
K'ung-ming then told Liu Hsien to go to his father, Liu Tu, the Prefect of Linling, and persuade him to surrender the capital of the prefecture. If Liu Tu didn't yield, K'ung-ming said, the entire city would be destroyed and the entire population massacred.
Persuaded by this barbaric logic, Liu Tu submitted.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 541-542
Ts'ao Ts'ao at Bay
There are times when having no place to go is the best place to be. In this battle against Yüan Shao, Ts'ao Ts'ao adopted this strategy, deliberately backing himself into a corner.
After a drawn battle with Yüan Shao, Ts'ao Ts'ao decided on a plan that would give his troops a much greater incentive to fight.
After placing five ambushes on the road behind his army, Ts'ao Ts'ao made a feint on Yüan Shao's camp during the night.
As intended, the attack failed and Yüan Shao's troops counterattacked, driving Ts'ao Ts'ao's troops back, through his own camp, along the road past the ambushes, and to the river at his rear.
With the troops in ambush still hidden, Ts'ao Ts'ao brought his planned retreat to a stop at dawn, with his army's back on the river and nowhere to go but forward.
Faced with drowning or fighting, Ts'ao Ts'ao's entire army turned around and fought furiously. (Most likely this pitted the entire strength of Ts'ao Ts'ao's army against just the advance units of Yüan Shao's army as there was, presumably, limited room for fighting along the road. Therefore most of Yüan Shao's army must still have been on the road advancing toward the battle.)
At this onslaught, Yüan Shao's vanguard fell back toward the rest of his army, throwing it into confusion and retreat.
As Yüan Shao's disordered, defeated and tired army returned toward its camp, it fell easy prey to the first of the ambushes.
Yüan Shao and part of his army cut their way through and pressed down the road. But many were lost.
Ten li (3.1 miles) further, what remained of the army fell into the second of the ambushes. Then after another ten li, a third ambush.
With virtually all of his army destroyed, Yüan Shao left the road and fled, closely pursued by Ts'ao Ts'ao.
RTK, Vol. 1, pgs. 328-329
Lü Pu Reveals His Suspicions
Lü Pu, brave but impulsive, accidentally telegraphed his thoughts to his opponent by expressing too great an interest in a patch of woods.
On the run from Ts'ao Ts'ao, Lü Pu moved what remained of his forces to the city of Tingt'ao for refuge. But Ts'ao Ts'ao pursued him and camped by a forest some distance from the city.
As it was harvest time, Ts'ao sent his men to gather grain from the fields around the city, apparently to deprive Lü Pu of food and to supply his own forces.
Aggressive Lü Pu did not wait for a siege to begin, but went out to reconnoiter Ts'ao Ts'ao's camp. However, when he saw the stockade was next to a forest, he suspected that if he attacked the stockade he would be struck in the rear by forces hidden in the woods.
But Ts'ao Ts'ao was watching. He saw Lü Pu's interest in the forest and guessed that he was concerned about an ambush. So he decided to lay the ambush - but elsewhere.
Guessing that Pu would set fire to the woods, Ts'ao Ts'ao tried to confirm Pu's suspicion that his troops were deployed there. He placed flags in the wood and had peasants loiter in his camp as if it was empty. Then he hid the bulk of his force in a dry gulch near his stockade.
When Lü Pu came out of the city he saw the flags in the woods and concluded his suspicion of an ambush was correct. He spread out his men to set fire to the forest at various points, then waited to cut down Ts'ao Ts'ao's men as they ran back to the stockade.
But they didn't.
Instead Lü Pu heard the beat of drums and saw a company of soldiers marching out from the stockade. Then signal bombs exploded and Ts'ao Ts'ao's forces attacked from the gulch, completely surprising Pu's army, which was in position to attack troops running from the forest, not in position to fend off an attack from another direction.
Lü Pu fled into the countryside with a few troops, and the remnant of his army retreated to Tingt'ao. But two-thirds of the army had been lost and Pu's subordinate, the commander of the city, decided, "An empty city cannot be held." He abandoned it to Ts'ao Ts'ao and joined Lü Pu in retreat.
RTK, Vol. 1, pg. 120
Teng Ai's Subterranean Attack
Teng Ai, commander of the Wei forces, was expecting the Shu army to appear.
He considered the lay of the land and calculated where the Shu forces would camp, then dug a tunnel from a point safely in his control to the rear of where he thought the Shu camp would be.
Exactly according to his expectations, one of the Shu units camped in the spot he predicted.
While the Shu troops prepared their fortifications that night, Teng Ai launched a double attack, sending men directly toward the Shu camp, and sending another body to the rear of the camp through the tunnel.
Though the plan was good, Chiang Wei, the Shu commander was vigilant and his men were not surprised. When he saw the camp being attacked on both sides, he threatened his men with death if they moved from their positions.
Due to his excellent defense, the camp stood and the Wei forces had to retreat at daylight.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 551
Ch'iang and the Pits
Fighting the Ch'iang tribesmen in their iron chariots might have been a frightening experience, but they were known for their bravery, not their skill, so K'ung-ming was confident.
Seeing that the winter snows would soon arrive, K'ung-ming planned his battle accordingly.
As the Ch'iang approached in the snow, K'ung-ming sent two units of his army into ambush to the right and left and a third unit out to give battle, but with orders to retreat when pressed.
As the chariots advanced, K'ung-ming's center unit retreated to the camp, which was fully bedecked with flags, but no soldiers.
The Ch'iang paused, suspecting a trap, but in the process let K'ung-ming's troops escape. Then they pressed on, just in time to see K'ung-ming, strumming his lute, get aboard his chariot and disappear into the woods.
The Ch'iang commander was unimpressed with the lute-playing commander and ordered his men to continue their attack quickly.
Then seeing K'ung-ming's troops moving quickly away, he sped up his attack along the snow covered roads.
Suddenly the lead chariots began falling into pits covered with snow, one after the other, on top of each other.
Stopping, the chariots in the rear began turning around, but suddenly K'ung-ming's two flanking units came out and attacked from the sides, routing the Ch'iang army.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 356-358
Huang Chung's Investment Collects Interest
Huang Chung lent several fortified camps to his enemy, then took them all back after they had been well stocked with supplies.
Huang Chung was an old man, and clever, but because of his age, his opponent, Han Hao, found him contemptible.
And Han Hao's opinion was confirmed when rode out and personally attacked Huang Chung. Huang Chung fought briefly, then retreated 20 li, abandoning his camp to Han Hao.
Han Hao brought up troops from the rear to occupy this newly acquired camp, then on the next day pressed on against Huang Chung, again chasing his army back and again capturing the temporary camp he had built.
Chang Ho, who had been repeatedly defeated by Chung, warned Han Hao to beware of tricks, but Han Hao just called him a coward.
The third day the same thing happened. Han Hao chased Chung back 20 li, out of his camp and back to a stronghold, a pass in the mountains.
Han Hau then made a camp nearby and watched the pass. For several days there was no movement, and he because careless.
At that point Huang Chung left one force to guard the pass and made a night attack on Han Hao's camp with another. The attack was unexpected and Han Hao's troops fled in confusion.
By morning all three of the camps Huang Chung had abandoned were recovered.
The recovered camps had been newly stocked with military equipment, horses and their gear, which Huang Chung transported to his stronghold in the pass.
RTK, Vol. 2 pgs. 110-111
Yüan-tê Lures the Yellow Turbans Into a Trap
Yüan-tê was hurrying to relieve the city of Chingchou, which was besieged by a rebel Yellow Turban army and was on the point of collapse.
Seeing the relief army approaching, the numerically superior Yellow Turbans immediately attacked it, and Yüan-tê, seeing he could not win the battle, retreated about 30 li (9.3 miles).
Then - perhaps a day or more later - he tried by strategy what he failed to do by force, sending his lieutenants, Kuan Yu and Chang Fei, each with a large party of troops, into the hills to the right and left of his main army, where they hid.
Then, with the roll of drums, Yüan-tê's main army again advanced against the Yellow Turbans, and the rebels - likely anticipating a repeat of their previous victory - also advanced to the attack.
In accordance with his opponents' expectations, Yüan-tê fell back once again and the rebels pressed against his army, which retreated into the hills.
Then, at the sound of gongs, Kuan Yu and Chang Fei emerged from the hills and attacked the rebels from the left and right while the main force stopped its retreat and returned to the attack.
Embattled on three sides, the rebels fled back towards the city, but the commander of the besieged forces, seeing the rout, led his forces out of the city and completed the defeat of the Yellow Turban army.
RTK, Vol. 1, pg. 7
Huang An Encounters an Aquatic Ambush
Government soldiers had been sent to destroy a nest of robbers in their hideaway among the marshes.
The troops seized boats along the shore and set off across the water toward the robbers' lair.
But as they neared the far shore, the sound of a horn arose, and the commander, Huang An, paused his advance and listened, seeing in the distance three boats with five men in each, and each clothed with the red turban and coat that was the uniform of the robbers. And on each of the boats was one of the robber commanders.
Huang An began to pursue the three boats with his fifty, shooting arrows at them, but without effect as their occupants shielded themselves with skin shields and rowed away into a narrow waterway bordered by reeds on either side.
Huang An pursued some distance into the waterway before he was dissuaded from going further by a boatman who told of an earlier attack that had been ambushed and destroyed in a narrow waterway.
But it was too late. As his boats turned to retreat, the boats they had been pursuing - now joined by another ten - turned and came sailing quickly at them.
As they hurried away, red banners waved from the reeds and forty or fifty boats came from the small waterways on either side, spraying arrows.
The government expedition was destroyed.
AMB, Vol. 1, pgs. 324-327
Chu Huan Awaits His Guests
Chu Huan, a commander of Wu forces, discovered that the vanguard of a Wei army under Ch'ang Tiao was making a forced march toward the poorly-defended town of Juhsü.
Chu Huan hurried to the town and made a speech of encouragement to its frightened garrison, explaining the town's strong position and how weak Ch'ang Tiao's troops would be when they arrived.
"We are as hosts at home awaiting the arrival of our weary visitors," he said. "This will give us victory in every fight."
Then he ordered all the banners to be furled and all the drums to be silent, as if the city was undefended.
As Ch'ang Tiao's troops approached they saw the city quiet and hurried forward to capture it quickly, no doubt hoping for a complete surprise.
But as they neared the gate a bomb went off, a forest of flags arose and Huan's troops charged out and inflicted a complete defeat on Ch'ang Tiao, killing many soldiers and capturing many weapons and horses.
RTK, Vol. 2, pg. 256
Chang Fei Keeps His Temper
During Liu Pei's conquest of Shu, his subordinate, General Chang Fei, was given the city of Loch'êng as his objective. But between Chang Fei's army and Loch'êng was the fortified town of Pachou. He approached it and camped about 10 li (3.1 miles) from its walls.
Yen Yen, the prefect of the city, decided to stay put behind the walls of the town. Chang Fei, he wisely noted, was far too ferocious to oppose face to face, and besides, by keeping still he hoped to anger the violent-tempered Chang Fei and cause him to take out his frustration on his soldiers, perhaps even inciting a mutiny.
Settling on this course, Yen Yen then decided to increase Chang Fei's anger by cutting off the nose and ears of the messenger who had come to demand the surrender of Pachou.
And it worked, to a degree. Chang Fei become furious and every day challenged the men of the city to come out and fight. But to his increasing rage and frustration, they just mocked and remained safe in their fortifications.
So Chang Fei tried sending just a few men close to the city gate, to tempt the defenders into attacking. But that did not work either and he became more angry. But remembering the words of an advisor, he did not mistreat his men.
Then Chang Fei sent his men into the woods to cut firewood and explore the paths that surrounded the city.
But Yen Yen wanted to know what Chang Fei was doing and sent spies disguised as woodcutters to find out and to mislead him. The spies approached Chang Fei and told him they knew a secret path he could use to bypass the city.
Chang Fei, who was not at all taken in, pretended to be excited at the opportunity and said the army would march past the city that very night.
The spies returned to Pachou and told Yen Yen what Chang Fei planned to do.
Yen Yen was thrilled that the "old fool" had fallen into his trap. He planned to set his men in ambush, letting all Chang Fei's troops pass along the narrow path and through the ambush, then cut off the baggage train as it followed in the rear, depriving Chang Fei's army of food and other supplies.
But Chang Fei guessed that while Yen was afraid to face him in direct combat, he would love to attack his baggage train, so he set up his order of march like this: first came a soldier dressed as himself, followed by the bulk of the army, then the supply train, and finally Chang Fei and another troop of soldiers.
As night fell Prefect Yen Yen and his army hid in the brush and trees along the path. They watched as what appeared to be Chang Fei and his troops rode past. Then, several li behind them, they saw the supply train approaching.
When the soldiers had safely passed and the supply train was directly before them, the drums rolled and Yen Yen's troops attacked the wagons.
But then, unexpectedly, a gong sounded behind the supply train and Chang Fei and his soldiers appeared, attacking Yen Yen's men.
"Old rebel," Chang Fei said, "do not flee, I have been waiting for this chance for a long time."
While Chang Fei battled with Yen Yen, the troops ahead of the supply train turned and attacked, catching Yen Yen's men between the two forces.
Yen Yen was captured and his troops fled to the city, pursued by Chang Fei's men, who entered the gates right behind the fleeing troops and captured the town.
RTK, Vol. 2, pgs. 29-32
© Copyright 2003, Brad Haugaard.