Urban warfare is very different from conventional combat in the open. Clearing a city full of determined defenders is a very difficult task, as the urban environment negates the effectiveness of many of the most powerful weapons of modern militaries (such as tanks and aircraft), leveling the playing field somewhat for not-so-well equipped forces that might oppose them. Armored vehicles have difficulty maneuvering in tight streets and are vulnerable to attack from above, and artillery and air support won't do you any good if the enemy keeps changing positions, not to mention the high potential for collateral damage. Forget the rules of "gentlemanly warfare". It's all guerrilla tactics here. Ambushes, snipers, booby-traps, and shotguns.
As an unfortunate side effect of the dirty, casualty ridden, and momentum killing nature of the fighting, armies are often forced to simply leave the job half done by avoiding it all together (usually due to political implications of such a prolonged, bloody conflict). At other times, they simply flatten as much of the city as possible before/while/instead of fighting over it, thereby neutralizing the "urban" aspect, and usually rendering the place strategically worthless in the process, as well as being, shall we say, problematic to any remaining citizenry.
Seen at least as early as World War II (especially the Battle Of Stalingrad), though there are several Napoleonic war battles (most notably the siege of Zaragoza) that foreshadowed the urban warfare of the 20th century and such battles likely occured even earlier than that. Unfortunately this kind of warfare still takes place in various conflicts around the world, most notably in the Middle East.
Urban warfare is a nightmare in modern times. Even untrained militia can stand against highly trained troops in the confusing twists and turns of a high population center. It is war at its dirtiest, with collateral damage difficult to avoid and a high potential for confusion. Units often find themselves in a confused tangle of friend and foe.
Keep in mind that a battle for a city doesn't necessarily count as urban warfare. In urban warfare, the city streets and buildings themselves are the primary battlefield. Not to be confused with the online game.
Anime and Manga
- Many comic books based on WWII have urban combat scenes.
- The battles in former-Reykjavik during Operation CATO in Aeon Natum Engel.
- About 90% of the first act of Tiberium Wars is brutal urban combat in the area around Washington D.C. The second act also features combat in Rio and Alexandria.
- The Siege of Crassus in Enemy of My Enemy begins with a four-day battle outside the city. When the Covenant Loyalists breach the city on the fifth day, one of the characters realizes that none of that prepared him for "the horrors of urban warfare".
- A Bridge Too Far: Features the British attempting to hold on to the town of Arnhem during Operation: Market Garden.
- The film Enemy at the Gates shows you some of what it was like in Stalingrad.
- One or more of the battles we see at the beginning of Soldier is in an urban area.
- A few scenes from To Hell and Back.
- The 1948 film Border Street.
- A Generation by Andrzej Wajda.
- Also Kanal.
- Roman Polanski's The Pianist shows the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
- Full Metal Jacket had some urban scenes where a sniper takes out one of the Marines, leading to others being shot when trying to save him.
- Similarly done in Saving Private Ryan where Vin Diesel's character is shot by a sniper. The final scenes in the movie are combat scenes in an urban environment.
- Every single combat scene in Black Hawk Down is urban warfare.
- The Kingdom certainly has its share.
- The German 1960s film Die Brücke (The Bridge) has a group of Hitler Youths defending a strategically unimportant bridge against American tanks. They manage to hold off multiple Shermans for 24 hours with little more than a day of professional training. Sure, all but one tragically die, but it does prove how much Urban Warfare can differ from conventional combat.
Live Action TV
- Stargate SG-1 has several instances of this.
- Firefly had a flashback to an urban battle, the main set piece appearing to be the ruins of a Buddhist temple.
- Many a Cop Show, quite naturally has if not urban warfare, urban gunfighting. Sometimes the tactics used, though Hollywoodized more than a bit, look like something that could come out of an Urban Warfare field manual. At least the situations (besieging buildings, clearing rooms, etc are the same). Of course if there were as many gunfights in real cities as there are on TV we would presume civilization to have collapsed.
- The Zone novel series by James Rouch was set in a fictional World War III Europe, so naturally included a lot of this. Most noticably in "Blind Fire" and "Overkill".
- House To House, a memoir by an American infantryman set in the Second Battle of Fallujah, depicts the horror and chaos of urban warfare.
- The Discworld novel Night Watch notes some of the things which men on horseback are and aren't suited for...such as how they fare in Urban Warfare against an enemy without a uniform.
- World War Z necessarily has a lot if this happen.
- In the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove Sam Yeager remarks that during WWI, he thought trenches were the worst and most nightmarish place to fight possible, but after a taste of city fighting, he's not so sure anymore.
- Red Storm Rising sees the battle of Alfeld turn into this. To make things worse, the civilians weren't done evacuating when the 20th Guards Tank Division rolls into town complete with trademark Soviet artillery spam, making the battle an absolutely confused and very bloody mess. Relatively unusual example of the trope in that it involved large-scale tank-on-tank combat within the confines of the city.
- Beachwalker takes place in the middle of a war between an unnamed army and similarly unnamed rebellion. The protagonist is forced to dodge firefights in the streets of her hometown several times.
- In the Belisarius Series there are several instances of this. In most cases breaching the outer fortifications is the main worry as it was historically(most local leaders are more interested in their town then the larger war and the garrison commander will be hopelessly outnumbered otherwise he would not have bothered to stand siege in the first place). However there are internal suppressions of revolts in Alexandria and Constantinople the former of which requires specially trained riot squads and clever diplomacy to avoid causing casualties(In Constantinople and some parts of Alexandria the rebels are pretty obviously gangsters who deserve what they get and don't need a gentle hand for the sake of PR). There is also the climatic end of the Siege of Charax where Belisarius simply gives up his curtain wall and uses the long-abandoned city itself as a fortress.
- In Barrayar the War of the Vordarian Pretendership was an attempted usurpation that stalemates itself into a combination of a siege and a hostage crises after the critical first phase when most of the military and the aristocracy have been gotten aboard the child-emperor's succession. It ends with the assassination of Vordarian, the rebel candidate, causing the general collapse of the attempt.
- Warhammer 40,000 has a supplement rule book just for urban combat. Cities of Death. Also, all of the urban terrain sold by Games Workshop for Warhammer 40K is imperial buildings, of which about 1/4 of the parts are used to show where the building took a direct artillery round.
- In Drowtales, the Nidraa'chal War sixteen years before the start of the main story took place entirely in the city of Chel'el'sussoloth, and resulted in heavy civilian casualties. This was especially devastating because the rules of clan warfare had been, until that point, designed to minimize civilian casualties as much as possible, but the Nidraa'chal threw this out the window not only through their choice of battlefield, but by also using the civilians as weapons by forcibly tainting them and turning them into demons that they sicced on the warriors sent to fight them.
- Call of Duty does this, especially its Modern Warfare incarnations. The Rio De Janeiro levels, especially the first one, are infuriatingly difficult and often referred to as "Urban warfare hell".
- Most of the Russian missions in World At War were fought in cities.
- Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, set mostly in one of the textbook examples of this trope - the barely standing ruins of Stalingrad.
- The Battlefield series has a number of maps being set in a town or city, including the spinoffs of Bad Company 1 & 2 and Battlefield Heroes.
- Dawn of War, being based off the Warhammer 40,000 tabletop game, of course has them.
- A good portion of Half Life 2.
- Including one of it's multiplayer mods, Iron Grip : The Oppression, where it's the entire focus of the game.
- Valkyria Chronicles has a few battles taking place inside cities.
- Seen in the first chapter of Metal Gear Solid 4. Depending on your perspective, a few examples in chapters 2 and 3 as well.
- Represented in the Hearts of Iron series by incredible negative combat modifiers and high attrition from attacking an "Urban" province. Most brigade types suffer heavy combat penalties, with armor and artillery taking the worst, while infantry take the least. Adding combat engineers to a division greatly reduces the penalties.
- Crysis 2. The whole game is set in New York City.
- Nintendo Wars: Cities(and bases) are tied with mountains for cover rating, meaning that any unit placed on one has takes far less damage. Add onto this that units on friendly cities are substantially healed every turn, mix in some artillery, and battles to capture cities can become very bloody.
- The end of Mass Effect 3 takes place in mostly-destroyed London, with brutal fighting from building to building trying to clear the streets for vehicles to get through.
- The Halo series has several instances of this:
- Halo 2 has one level which takes place in the fictional African city of New Mombasa, which the Covenant has occupied.
- Halo 3: ODST is set entirely within this city as a Lower Deck Episode, in which the ODST team navigates through the thoroughly wrecked metropolis.
- Halo: Reach also has a few levels set in the doomed city of New Alexandria, where he has to help evacuate civilians, among other things.
- Everything but the last level of Turning Point: The Fall of Liberty, set in an alternate WWII where the Nazis won in Europe and invaded the US, is urban warfare.
- Assaulting a city in the Total War games leads to the medieval version of this, and is suitably bloody even after taking the walls. The narrow streets and limited routes available render the classic field tactics of flanking and cavalry charges nearly useless, and the buildings frequently force archers to use indirect barrage fire that inflicts a fraction of the casualties of direct fire. Frequently, your troops are stuck slugging it out with enemy soldiers face-to-face until one side breaks due to attrition, which is why heavy infantry is a must for urban combat. Other good troops for urban combat are javelin-throwers who can stand behind the fighting infantry, and light/missile cavalry who can take unguarded streets quickly and flank defenders or fire over your troops' heads.
- Urban combat is frequent in Fallout 3 when you're roaming the streets of Washington DC. Super Mutants, human raiders, Talon Company mercenaries, and eventually the Enclave love to engage you from overhead cover in the bombed-out buildings. The outskirts of DC also have thier share of urban combat, and the few decent-sized ruined towns in the wasteland itself feature this as well. The Pitt DLC also has this in the ruins of Pittsburgh.
- Fallout: New Vegas has far less urbanized warfare going on, as the only heavily built-up areas are around New Vegas itself, and that area is well-secured by Mr. House's Securitrons and the New California Republic. Nonetheless, the ruined urban area west of Camp McCarren is overrun by the drugged-out Fiend raiders, and provides some fairly vicious urban combat if you go after their leaders and the Vault housing them.
- The amount of friendly fire during the first Chechen war was astronomical.
- The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the Jewish resistance that arose within the Warsaw Ghetto in German occupied Poland during World War II. The resistance was so successful, even with almost no supplies and after being starved for years, that the Nazis resorted to systematically burning houses block by block using flamethrowers and blowing up basements and sewers.
- To further prove the point, the Ghetto resistance in one district lasted nearly as long as the entire Polish military did against the Wehrmacht across the entire country!
- An the Warsaw Uprising the following year which lasted more than twice as long. The Germans responded by flattening almost the entire city.
- Large portions of WWII were fought in cities in Europe. It's interesting to note that the German/Soviet situations in city fighting earlier in the war, such as at Stalingrad, the Germans had superior firepower and air support while the Soviets were under equipped and fighting desperately for their lives, were totally reversed in its late stages, such as in Berlin in 1945.
- Some of the fronts of World War I saw similar heavy urban warfare, particularly the Western one in some of the Belgian (Ypres) and northern French cities. Many were shelled so badly over the years that they had to be rebuilt almost entirely from scratch (much like Stalingrad after WWII).
- Knowing the difficulty of this style of warfare, in the later stages of WWII US forces would often attempt to avert it. They would approach (relatively strategically unimportant) German towns and villages and before entering, demand the surrender of any defenders. If the offer was accepted, the defenders would be disarmed, a small garrison left behind, and they would move on to the next objective, leaving the village unharmed. If the defenders refused and fought back, the US forces would level the place from long range using artillery and aircraft, and move on to the next objective.
- Although it's noted that in the attack on Aachen, US forces did creditably well, although their opponents fought with nowhere near the fanaticism of the Berlin defenders. Special note goes to the use of the 155mm self-propelled howitzer, in direct-fire, to reduce German strongpoints.
- One of the main problems was that not only did regular Wehrmacht officers often have a short-sighted and rather pig-headed idea of their supposed soldierly duty as opposed to the true interests of Germany(not to mention everyone else) in a war already lost, SS death squads were going round executing anyone thinking of capitulating. Thus during the Rhine crossing there was in effect a three way war between the Allies, the Germans who wanted to give up but couldn't and the Germans who didn't want to give up or allow anyone else to.
- This kind of warfare was used by the Israelis during the War of Independence to hold off the (then better-equipped) Jordanian Arab Legion in Jerusalem. Because of this, before 1967 the IDF had a reputation in some quarters for only winning wars by sheer willingness to take casualties.
- In What Every Person Should Know About War, war correspondent Chris Hedges points out that as the populations moves towards the cities, so do the battles. He predicts that in the future, there will be more Regulars vs. Guerrillas battles in cities than Regulars vs. Regulars battles on open terrain.
- The battle of Mogadishu, popularized in the movie and book Black Hawk Down, was the modern American military's first real experience with urban warfare.
- There was also the battle of Hui in Vietnam.
- In the face of serious setbacks in rural South American insurgencies Carlos Marighela wrote the Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla. However, to date urban guerrillas don't seem to have much success.
- During the conquest of Constantinople several neighborhoods were spared the rigors of a sack by barricading themselves in and making a separate peace when the Turks showed up. This was less urban warfare and more survival by the threat of urban warfare.
- One of the earliest examples of United States troops fighting gun battles in urban terrain came during the Mexican-American War during the Battle of Monterrey. Mexican defenders used firing holes and rooftops to great effect and used the narrow streets to channel US troops into cannon fire. Since the buildings were built out of sturdy adobe, shooting through the walls with cannon and small arms was difficult. US troops eventually improvised house-clearing tactics by chipping down the adobe walls with pickaxes and then barging in with revolvers.
- There was a tradition in The Laws and Customs of War as understood pre-nineteenth century that if there is no surrender after the wall is breached then the invaders have three days to sack it without it being considered a war crime, because Urban Warfare was feared so much that preventing it by intimidation was considered justified.
- The Siege of Sarragossa in the Napoleonic Wars was an example of what would happen on such occasions when surrender was not forthcoming. The French got in and found the populace willing to continue resisting. The result was a long and costly mess which cost the French dearly. In this case it was an ideological war whereas in the eighteenth century at least it was often just a job for soldiers, and just something to avoid for civilians
- In the Siege of Lucknow during the Sepoy Rebellion a number of English residents barricaded themselves in a school and held it against rebel soldiers until relief arrived.
- "The worst policy is to attack cities. Attack cities only when there is no alternative." Sun Tzu, Chapter III verse 7, circa 500 BCE.
- In the Tet Offensive the Viet Cong ingeniously smuggled large forces into South Vietnamese cities and activated them on a signal. Despite the admirable craftsmanship with which they began they could not match US firepower and were so crippled that as the war went on the NVA simply took over. The effect looks in fact suspiciously like a Uriah Gambit and conspiracy theorists can make what they will of it. It is of course just as likely that the North Vietnamese got lucky and had their own mistake recoil weirdly in their favor.