By now we’re all familiar with the battle tactics in Game of Thrones: Confront your enemy head on—usually in some nicely arrayed lines—and hack at them until no one’s left alive or someone has won. It’s a tried-and-true method, with little in the way of actual operational depth. And as Sunday night’s Battle of Winterfell showed, it's particularly ineffective against an endless army of the undead. Spoilers ahead, obviously.
As the 82-minute episode opens , the allied forces of the living are ready to make their final stand against the undead forces of the Night King, a paramilitary commando who leads a death cult with a penchant for destroying everything you love. In military terms, the Night King is the center of gravity for the forces of the living: If they kill him, they have a shot at surviving the horde of the undead.
For his part, the Night King has an eye on Bran Stark, the S-2 intelligence officer for House Stark, what with his abilities to look backward and forward through time. Understanding his value as a target—he’s a good intelligence officer—Bran volunteers himself as bait to trap the Night King. The council of war agrees that this is the best option; it’s the only way to lure the Night King out from behind his forces. Plus, it falls into the hallowed military tradition of throwing the intelligence officer under the proverbial bus.
So far, so good. It’s at least a plan. From there, though, the allied forces are a mess.
This move, sometimes known as a “Custer,” predictably ends in ruin for the Dothraki cavalry.
Their first step should have been to establish an engagement area—a space in which they establish obstacles to disrupt and canalize the enemy so that they can be destroyed with direct and indirect fire. Using engagement area development, they could have used the time they had to incorporate a network of complex obstacles in front of Winterfell to slow and disrupt the waves of the undead. Instead, they left the field wide open. And what little strategy they did employ breaks down before the battle even begins.
Take the Dothraki cavalry. Putting that squadron forward of the main line of infantry was doctrinally correct, but the allied commanders did not put it to proper use: screening the allied lines and gaining active intelligence on the enemy. Instead, the Dothraki are ordered forward into an attack before the enemy situation is even known. This move, sometimes known as a “Custer,” predictably ends in ruin for the Dothraki cavalry, who get chewed up and spat out in an unsupported frontal attack. This destruction of the cav squadron leaves the allied forces without their reconnaissance assets.
Next we come to the issue of indirect fires. Any able field artillery officer could tell you that heavy-caliber indirect-fire weapons need to be positioned such that they’re both protected and mutually supportive of surrounding units. But the allies placed their batteries of trebuchets all along the lines, between the cav squadron and the infantry units. After a single initial barrage in support of the cav attack, they abandoned those mass-casualty producing weapons entirely. Had the batteries been positioned behind the anti-personnel ditch that protected the castle, they could have continued to execute both explosive and illumination fire missions. Yielding their indirect capabilities early left the infantry to fight alone, without the help of “stone rain.”
Speaking of which: The company deployed both heavy and light infantry, with their leadership in the front. This single line could merely slow the wave of enemy troops, while ensuring that allied leadership would be overwhelmed along with them. Forming their lines behind some protective obstacles would have ensured a longer defense.
Behind the infantry, the rear guard of the Unsullied ensured a defense in depth. And behind them, an anti-personnel ditch with chevaux de frise—anticavalry spikes—served as a protective obstacle before the outer wall of Winterfell. But placing this obstacle between the main body and the stronghold meant that a retreat would have to go through it, causing a choke point.
After the ditch came the walls, then the courtyard—filled with situational obstacles—protecting the inner courtyard and the crypt. Women and children had been moved to the crypt, in the mistaken belief that this area would be safe.
You might have noticed that we haven’t yet talked about the allied forces’ most powerful—and most misused—asset: close air support. At the outset, Daenerys Targaryen maintains two dragons for direct support to the ground defense and for air interdiction against the Night King’s single zombie-ice-dragon. While enjoying a two-to-one superiority in air assets, Daenerys attempts to use her dragons as multirole platforms, a risky move that means her forces cannot maximize their firepower on one single mission. This will eventually translate to ground commanders being denied close air support when they need it most.
Both Daenerys and Jon Snow fly initial sorties over allied lines, but neither attempts to conduct reconnaissance of enemy lines. Nor do they attempt to initiate first strike capabilities against the forces of the Night King. Both loiter over the area for far too long before becoming directly engaged. Soon enough, the White Walkers initiate a whiteout, forcing both dragons to disengage. Failure to properly establish friendly dragon-marking measures almost causes a green-on-green incident. Perhaps painting alternating white and black stripes on the wings—as the Allies did before D-Day in WWII—would have mitigated this confusion.
While unconventional, Arya's attack falls into the clear confines of the allies’ overall objective.
With intelligence failures, indirect capabilities lost, and the dragons experiencing white air, the full brunt of the attack now falls on the dismounted infantry. The undead quickly breach the first line of defense, then slam into the Unsullied, who fight a rear guard action to allow a rear passage of lines for the surviving infantry to attempt to flee to safety within the castle walls. At this point in the action, the ground fight is so obscured by bad weather that the fire-breathing air support cannot see the signal from the walls to ignite the anti-personnel ditch. With their primary plan unsuccessful, the allies move to their alternate plan of firing flaming arrows, which fails, and their contingency plan of runners, which also fails. As a last-ditch emergency effort, witch lady Melisandre finally activates the fire.
The lit ditches succeed in marking the lines for a dragon sortie, which incinerates undead along the entire perimeter. Finally, the allies have established an obstacle between themselves and the undead. However, an effective obstacle needs overwatch with direct and indirect fires. Although archers man the walls with direct overwatch of the fire-ditch, neither they nor the dragons engage the unmoving undead. This is a clear missed opportunity.
On the Night King’s signal, the undead breach the fire-trench the Soviet way: with their bodies. Only upon initiation of a successful breach do the defenders attempt to suppress the force. By then it is too late, and the assault force strikes the walls.
Sheer numbers, as well as one devastating sortie by the Night King and his dragon, are sufficient to breach the wall. The undead offensive now reaches the castle courtyard, where individuals or small groups conduct military operations in castle terrain, or MOCT. At this point in the operation, all tactics and strategy go out the window: it's every woman and man for themselves. Lady Lyanna Mormont neutralizes one enemy giant with a targeted strike on its ocular network, but falls in the attack herself.
In the skies, a dogfight—well, dragonfight—ensues, with the Night King making the unconventional choice to attack from below. The maneuver throws the friendly air force into confusion, and ultimately both Jon Snow and the Night King are forced to eject. With the Night King grounded, Daenerys rightly attempts a close air support strike against him. However, the battle damage assessment reveals that the strike was ineffective.
Snow then moves to encircle the Night King, who raises up an entirely new army from the dead and undead alike. As part of this action, the dead in the crypts and castle also come back to life as enemy combatants. With no security element placed in the crypts, the civilians and logistics stores become a vulnerable target.
As if that isn’t bad enough, Daenerys Targaryen undergoes her own Blackhawk Down—or rather, gray dragon down—as she is forced down to fight on foot. Jon Snow gets pinned down by enemy dragon fire and cannot maneuver. At this juncture, the White Walkers and Night King infiltrate Winterfell and move on Bran, their High Payoff Target. The battle —what there was of one—is basically over. However, both sides have achieved their end states: The Night King has isolated Bran, while the allies have drawn the Night King out from amongst his forces to stand alone.
At this critical moment, Arya Stark follows the commander's intent: to neutralize the Night King. When she engages from above, the Night King blocks her effort, but does not see that this is merely a feint. Arya strikes from below, hitting the Night King’s vulnerable torso and killing him. The strike wipes out the White Walkers and the army of the undead, bringing victory out of sure defeat. While unconventional, Arya's attack falls into the clear confines of the allies’ overall objective, and she should be commended for taking the individual initiative to carry out the final plan.
Had the coalition of the living actually followed the fundamentals of engagement area development, they might have had a fighting chance. However, since their opponent could literally raise the dead, they had to rely instead on a dragon wing and a prayer of “not today.”
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Angry Staff Officer is an officer in the Army National Guard and a member of the Military Writers Guild. He commissioned as an engineer officer after spending time as an enlisted infantryman. Angry Staff Officer blogs at www.angrystaffofficer.com and tweets at @pptsapper.