***This post gets into some detail about fighting a war in a Canadian City, which raises certain ethical questions and issues. My post discussing these issues can be found here.***
So like the title says, this post is going to look at the terrain aspects of Alex Gabriel’s Winnipeg battle plan. To this end we’re going to shift our focus to the south to the famous intersection of Portage & Main (the windiest intersection in Canada!). Portage & Main (P&M) is going to be the central strongpoint of Alex Gabriel’s defence, the linchpin that will connect his troops to the north with the ones seizing the Provincial legislature in the south.
Portage and Main, besides being Canada’s windiest corner, is the heart of Winnipeg’s financial district. In Stevenson’s scheme to hold the down-town core and attract a counterattack, Lombard Square was the hard nut in the centre of the chocolate….
Winnipeg Square is the key terrain to controlling the downtown area, he thought to himself. Whoever controls these high buildings controls the Square, whoever controls the Square, controls the city centre, and whoever controls the city centre more or less controls Winnipeg. Which was all find and good, but the Square presented a tricky tactical problem. He gazed around, trying to pull the complex of buildings, streets, and avenues into a pattern.
A closer view (we’ll come back to these shortly):
So as we can see, Portage & Main is central to the City, as well as being the financial heart of Winnipeg. It is also a heritage site the loss of which will have a tremendous psychological impact upon the provincial and federal government. I want to point one thing out right off the bat. As much as Alex/Bland talk about it being the heart of Battle Group Riel (BG-Riel) mission, I don’t think he fully grasps how crucial it may be.
We’ve already covered how holding the Norther Boundary Triangle (NBT) will take something like a hundred people to hold, and that’s not counting Winnipeg City Hall (just to the south). Meanwhile, at the far south-west corner of the AOR, the Manitoba Legislature will probably take another hundred or so. The key defensive feature that links these is Portage & Main. As long as BG-Riel holds this, these two positions can communicate with each other and (in theory) move with impunity within the AOR. If P&M is captured (or effectively contested) then these two forces are cut off from each other. Not only will this make it difficult to coordinate the AOR activities, but it’s going to make it difficult for BG-Riel to evacuate at the end of their mission.
Remember that part from the orders? Alex Gabriel is expected to be able to get his warriors out once the mission is complete. The AOR he’s holding here offers a number of options for escape, but if P&M is captured it’s possible half his warriors won’t even have a chance when the time comes.
This piece of ground isn’t just vital, it’s everything. So let’s take a look at Alex Gabriel’s assessment:
Six main buildings offered themselves as strong points, he decided. Control of one or two, even the most central, would mean nothing if the police or the army controlled the others and got snipers high up, dominating my positions. But controlling and defending all six would take a lot of people. Too many. More than I have. I could cause enough trouble to keep a fight going for a while, but not nearly long enough. I’d have to put too many of my people in the Square, then the army would wipe me out here and roll up the other positions.
Alex got up and strolled about the Square, trying not to be conspicuous….
After a minute, he glanced across the Square to the TD Bank building. It wasn’t much of a fortress, despite its imposing height, especially because of the car garage behind it, overlooking Main Street. He drew a quick sketch of the area, awkwardly holding his notepad as he thought a street artist might, and marked imaginary interlocking arcs of fire from building to building.
He shook his head-the sketch confirmed his fears. If the police got into that garage, and they would, his guys wouldn’t be able to move anywhere along the street or down lower Main Street. The Manitoba Telephone and the Scotia Bank buildings provided firing positions northwards if they fell to the police, and they would. If he couldn’t hold or neutralize the TD building, life in the open Square would be miserable and short. A difficult situation, he thought. Too many options demanding resources and skills and people I don’t have.
Alex followed the civilians and tourists making their way from one segment of the Square to another via several flights of stairs leading down into the underground hub connecting all the streets together. After a few confused attempts, he surfaced at the Main Street exit at the Richardson Building and strolled past it, trying to visualize a plausible capture and defence of that site. Damn. There just didn’t seem to be a way.
…And suddenly he saw the way. He had his plan. So simple it was brilliant, or, if your prefer, brilliant because it was simple.
Why fight it out above ground? He asked himself gleefully. Why control all the buildings? He spun quickly in a tight circle, taking in the Square all at once. The aim was to tie down the police and the army. So start by grabbing a few city buses to barricade the streets, pick a couple of well-protected sites to cover those barricades, and control everything not from above, from the buildings, but from below, from the underground concourse.
On his notepad he drew a circle linking all the surface exits from the underground mall. If I can seize the Union Tower, he thought, I can control the intersection and that troublesome car garage easily. Just a few snipers in the high windows of the Bank of Montreal give me the cross-fire I need. But the key is the underground – with that in my hands, my people can move rapidly under cover from the various parts of the square. I’ll need a few commanders in high buildings to control the action and direct traffic.
So the plan is to hold two dominant buildings in order to cover the barricades, and the underground concourse to enable his warriors to move around without being exposed to fire from government forces that might take up position in any of the other four major buildings at the intersection. So far, so good. Although I’m not sure why Alex is congratulating himself so much for seeing the obvious. I mean, the underground concourse is there specifically to get people off the streets.
***The building North West of the intersection (with the Good Life Fitness) is the CanWest Centre and was still under construction when Bland was writing. It now blocks the line of sight on the parking garage. The previous building did not.***
So here’s our terrain study. To keep things simple, we’re going to focus on one of the buildings (since they’re both pretty similar in terms of characteristics, they will require a similar number of troops to hold) and the underground concourse. Understanding how these pieces of terrain will radically dictate tactics for BG-Riel will allow us to extrapolate outwards to understand what this will mean for the rest of the AOR and why Alex Gabriel isn’t grasping the problem as fully as he needs to.
So let’s start with the building. We’ll use TD Bank for the sake of argument.
Looks pretty usable. It’s got 31 stories and it’s an older type of architecture which means that the structure will have a fair bit of concrete and stone on the outside. This will make fortifying it easier, although concrete has an increased risk of injury from bullet fragments and ricochet, and carving loopholes and mouseholing is a lot more difficult.
So not bad to start. Now let’s consider what those ‘couple of snipers’ are going to have to cover. There’s four major road entrances, making up Portage & Main itself, plus Pioneer & Notre Dame (to the west and east respectively) which link up close to the intersection and will need to be watched as well. So a minimum of six teams covering six possible lines of attack. It might be possible to combine a few of these arcs, having the team watching Portage west also watch Notre Dame. Nevertheless, you’re talking at least twenty people (as snipers) and maybe another 4-6 as your anti-armour team (assuming they can relocate quickly enough to engage threats from all directions).
So basic coverage for the barricades is going to take platoon minus levels of strength. But as far as those points are concerned, Alex Gabriel is right in that a fairly small body of troops can hold up a much larger police force by occupying positions from the building.
Now let’s look at the parking garage that’s north west of the intersection. Looking down on the garage from above can offer something of an advantage, but the internal levels will be sheltered from above unless there’s snipers positioned to be able to fire across the length of the level. So another 2-3 teams making for another 6-10 troops needed to prevent police from seizing this key structure. Okay, still a workable number for starters.
So now he’s got to defend the building.
Those barricades on the streets will do the job for blocking street traffic. But they’re not a forcefield that will prevent government forces from creeping in via unoccupied buildings and side streets. A sniper staring through an optical sight is vulnerable to other snipers outside of their field of view, not to mention direct attacks if the enemy manages to enter the building.
As you can see from the image, while Portage & Main is a fairly wide open area, but it’s only about 75-100m of ground to cross at its longest point. Even a fully kitted out soldier can cross this kind of ground at a run in about a minute, if not less. If all those other buildings aren’t going to be held, then it’s reasonable to expect government troops to occupy them and get within that kind of distance. This initially means that snipers on upper floors will have to be careful as to when they show themselves, since they’re going to be vulnerable to being shot from snipers across the road. But it also means that the ground floor of the building is going to have to be heavily defended and fortified in case government forces decide they need to bum rush the position and send 20-30 people charging across the open ground.
So there will have to be ground floor sentries covering all directions, and enough troops on standby to be able to put up a serious defence if there’s an attack against the ground floor. This force will have to be separate from the snipers and anti-armour teams above, since at a certain point the power is likely to be cut, which means there won’t be enough time for the snipers to scramble down several flights of stairs.
This is where we get into the complexity of keeping an eye on multiple directions of attack, and holding enough people in reserve to repel an assault. The lobby of the TD Bank building will have to be fortified (requiring some serious work in and of itself) and there will have to be people posted there continuously. The usual tactic of barricading the ground floor and defending from the second flood is not going to be doable since the basement of the building contains an entrance to the underground concourse, meaning that government forces cannot be allowed to enter the ground floor at all. So while fighting positions can (and should) be sited on the second floor, the ground floor will have to be able to withstand a direct, head on attack.
Allowing for sentry rotation and the ability to face attacks from multiple directions, the ground floor could easily absorb another twenty people to hold it.
So by now we’re pushing 40-50 NPA warriors, and we haven’t even gone below ground. But before we can do that, there’s still another piece of above ground real estate to worry about: The roof.
Throughout the novel Bland has presented the existence of Blowpipe missiles (like the ones Alex Gabriel seized in the opening chapter) as some kind of magical get-out-of-jail-free card. Blowpipes mean that nothing can fly, period. Regardless of the actual limitations of the weapon.
Leaving aside the question of just how many Blowpipes does the NPA have, and how many will BG-Riel be given when the greatest need will be at the Winnipeg Airport, there are drawbacks to the system. Other than their limited range and obvious launch profile, it’s a two-man system to fire, and requires spotters to locate and warn about targets. Meaning that if Alex wants to defend the roof of the TD Centre, he’s going to need several spotters watching the skies to alert them of an attack.
This is assuming also that the choppers don’t try to come in low and fast, rising above the edge of the building only when they are within small arms range and have the chance to return fire against any warriors on the roof.
So this puts the minimum number of NPA needed to hold the building at over sixty above ground. To cap it off, there’s going to have to be some kind of headquarters element in charge of the whole thing, meaning another half dozen at a minimum, plus medics, plus some kind of support element to move supplies and equipment. So maybe seventy? At a minimum?
This brings me back (again!) to that central complaint I made about Bland not giving enough details in his novel. How many troops does BG-Riel have? Because Alex Gabriel’s plan to hold Portage & Main could easily be gobbling up 10-20% of them for one building.
Terrain dictates, and in the urban battle space that dictate is: Feed Me!
Now let’s talk about the underground concourse.
The area under Portage & Main is essentially a pedestrian walkway with a number of stores and kiosks that not only allows people to cross the intersection without risking traffic, but also move from one building to another without having to be outside. This does give the NPA an easy way to move around the intersection without being seen, as well as a lot of space to store supplies and shelter themselves.
Here’s the problem: Wanting to use this walkway means you have to be able to defend it.
There’s a lot to defend.
So according to this lovely map, the actual roundabout has four main entrances, but over a dozen actual exits to ground level. If the plan is to use this route to pop up wherever they want, these entrances are going to have to be guarded and secured. Oh yeah, that’s a lot of manpower.
Once you step back from Portage & Main, there’s even more to deal with. Take a look at the expanded map:
Alex does actually take note of these skyways at other points in this section, noting that they will enable him to link the Hudson’s Bay Company Store with Portage & Main. Multiple buildings are linked along Portage and the parallel Graham St, with another dozen potential access points to street level. These routes do present a valuable route by which to travel, although their value will drop somewhat once government forces begin deploying snipers to fire upon people crossing the glass enclosed walkways.
Not to get too far into it, but if the concourse has a dozen entry points, the skywalk adds twice as many more. It may be possible to have engineers destroy or permanently block some of these entrances, except that BG-Riel only seems to have four sections of these and one of the key tasks will be to clear the streets of abandoned cars and build barricades.
Just south of P&M is Winnipeg Square, a shopping mall that links P&M underground concourse with the rest of the skywalk network. Another piece of ground that will need to be defended and holy fuck this is not going to end if I keep staring at the maps!
Okay then! Back to the underground concourse. It’s important not to underestimate what it would mean if the government forces manage to capture one of the entry points and gain access to the concourse. First of all, it means BG-Riel’s main communications route is cut for Portage & Main. Parties carrying supplies or evacuating wounded could be ambushed, and (since they’ll be watching in the wrong direction) so could the sentry points at other entrances. The chance of a catastrophic collapse, with panicking warriors abandoning their posts or surrendering would be a very real thing, especially if there wasn’t a very tight chain of command.
That means it’s not going to be enough to post sentries at these entrances, there will have to be a quick reaction force (QRF) that can rush to the site of an attack to repel the enemy. 8-10 people might be enough for this job (provided that they are well armed and all have body armour) but even so the concourse is going to need a bunch of intermediate positions selected and fortified so that the QRF can contain an attack that manages to overwhelm the sentries at the entrance.
Movement within these areas is going to be essential, by the way. Especially once the shooting starts.
In the world of Battle Procedure, the category of Service & Support is often both the most essential as well as the least appreciated. Ammo goes fast in a modern firefight and, as time goes on, food and water is going to need to be pushed out as well. You might initially think that this can all be pre-positioned as the warriors take up their stations in the first place, but that’s forgetting just how uncertain a battle can be.
No plan ever survives first contact. That crucial defensive position where you expect the battle to rage? Maybe the enemy’s going to hit somewhere else. You could have a whole pile of ammo sitting in the wrong place unused while troops elsewhere are looking for some rocks to throw. If one area gets cut off from another, a large stockpile of ammo could become lost or inaccessible, and if it suddenly becomes necessary for the troops at one location retreat in a hurry, they may not be able to carry everything with them.
This is why ammunition and other supplies needs to be stored in a secure, central location and pushed out to the front line units on an as needed basis. Some of this can be done by vehicle, but at a certain point (especially in a city) individual runners will have to carry supplies to the troops who need them. In other words, someone is going to have to drag ammo cans, cases of rations, and water jerries up many flights of stairs.
This is why reorganizing after the battle, and managing resupply is one of the crucial tasks of army leadership. Especially if you want to survive more than one encounter. Of course, managing resupply is, in the CAF, an NCO’s job. So maybe it’s not so surprising that Bland hasn’t thought about it.
So the NPA forces holding P&M are going to need a whole bunch of dedicated runners on standby to move ammunition.
A similar problem arises when it’s time to deal with casualties.
For readers who’ve served in the military: Remember those ruck marches where they decided to make things realistic and give you a weighted stretcher to carry? Imagine it’s your buddy, and you have to carry him down all thirty one floors of the TD Bank.
So what’s it going to mean to fight it out for the underground?
…And suddenly he saw the way. He had his plan. So simple it was brilliant, or, if your prefer, brilliant because it was simple.
Why fight it out above ground? He asked himself gleefully. Why control all the buildings?
But if the police want to fight it out at close quarters underground, so be it. Let’s see who has the stomach for knife fighting in the dark. And anyway, win or lose, it would take hours for them to clear the area, and that would serve my aim just fine. I’m sure I can “hold until relieved,” even in a messy cat-and-mouse fight in the underground mall and in the cellars of the buildings. Especially if I can keep my people off the street and tempt the army and the police into the killing grounds. [Emphasis mine]
‘Knife fight in the dark?’ Okay then. Half a point for realizing that the power was likely to fail or be cut off at some point, but minus ten for realizing that darkness will be equally deadly for attackers and defenders.
Fighting in the dark will be a nightmare for anyone involved, and any light being brought in will be a double edged sword in that it can give away the source as easily as it can identify a target. That having been said a) BG-Riel is going to have to have some light in order to use the concourse to move around, and b) with everyone effected equally, I would expect the least trained and most inexperienced people to be worse off. Put simply, this isn’t the death trap for government forces that Alex Gabriel thinks it’s going to be.
Really? Fighting underground is a game-breaking act of genius?
This neat little pictures above (along with all the other illustrations in this post) are from the interim Canadian Forces Urban Ops manual which was last updated in 1991 but somehow got scanned into a pdf format. As near as I can tell from reading it, all attention was being focussed on the final, permanent CF Urban Ops manual, meaning that this little gem was cobbled together in a hurry without a lot of editing. Making it a fascinating window onto our past.
What I’m saying here is that this manual was old news thirty years ago, and it was a hold over from something even older. Fighting underground is not a grand, tactical revelation. Especially not when the underground theatre you’re looking at is an actual pedestrian walkway and shopping mall.
So to wrap things up: The point I’m trying to make in this post here is twofold. One, Alex Gabriel’s battle plan, despite successfully identifying some key pieces of terrain, fails to grasp the manpower requirements that will be required to pull it off. He envisions ‘a handful of snipers’ and doesn’t bother to examine just how many troops it will take to keep those snipers in place. He spots an underground walkway and doesn’t realize that such a piece of ground must be defended, and that access is a double-edge sword.
The other point ties into the larger thesis of the novel itself. The notion of the sheer vulnerability of Canadian society. Sheeple logic is based on the notion of a society that is soft and weak, and that will prove helpless when set upon by the wolves. To reinforce this premise, it must be clear just how easily it could be done. A handful of snipers…that’s all it would take…and Winnipeg itself would be held hostage! It’s a terrifying prospect to consider. Having to plan for a 200-person occupation, with all the confusion and logistics that this entails dampens the effect somewhat.
Things are more complicated than that. These complications are old and well understood. As delighted as Alex Gabriel may feel, he hasn’t broken any new ground in his plan.
 I’m not sure if there’s some confusion in place names, but I couldn’t find Lombard Square on Google Maps (Lombard Ave connects to Main a couple of blocks north, and there’s a Lombard Place in front of the Fairmont Hotel to the east) and Winnipeg Square is the name for the shopping mall just to the south of P&M. It’s possible there were some changes in place names that aren’t tracked online, so don’t be surprised if current maps don’t quite line up with the description.
 Officially, there are dozens of places where government forces could infiltrate small patrols to engage in ambush and sabotage. Realistically, this would take a lot more manpower (so you could spare the loss) and a lot more commitment. Creeping through the proverbial wire with the proverbial knife in your teeth takes a kind of fanaticism that’s not likely to be present in the first few days of fighting.
 This seems to be an error in the text, since the Union Trust Tower is about two blocks north of P&M. The TD Building is located at 360 Main and controls the south west corner of the intersection. The Bank of Montreal Building is located at 355 Main and controls the south east. The Union Trust Tower is not connected to the underground concourse, and is not really in a good position to cover much of the square, although it has an excellent field of fire onto the parking garage.
 ‘Mouseholing’ is a term popularized by Second World War Canadian soldiers fighting in Ortona. It refers to the process of moving from building to building (or room to room within a larger building) by carving holes through the wall instead of using doors or windows, thereby avoiding snipers, booby traps and ambush.
 I’m not trying to claim that this wouldn’t be a desperate tactic, even with diversions and/or a smoke screen, but as we discussed before, at this point the surviving police and militia will be out for blood.
 That’s not even my idea, by the way, but the tactic used by the FBI guys in the original Die Hard movie.
 I only found this as a random file on a shared drive one day, but it’s reference number is B-GL-302-006/FP-001 and it’s turned up once or twice since then so it might still be possible to find e-copies.