A tactical withdrawal or retreating defensive action is a type of military operation, generally meaning retreating forces back while maintaining contact with the enemy. A withdrawal may be undertaken as part of a general retreat, to consolidate forces, to occupy ground that is more easily defended, force the enemy to overextend to secure a decisive victory, or to lead the enemy into an ambush. It is considered a relatively risky operation, requiring discipline to keep from turning into a disorganized rout or at the very least doing severe damage to the military's morale.
A withdrawal may be anticipated, as when a defending force is outmatched or on disadvantageous ground, but must cause as much damage to an enemy as possible. In such a case, the retreating force may employ a number of tactics and strategies to further impede the enemy's progress. This could include setting mines or booby traps during or before withdrawal, leading the enemy into prepared artillery barrages, or the use of scorched earth tactics.
In warfare, the long-term objective is the defeat of the enemy. An effective tactical method is the demoralisation of the enemy by defeating their army and routing them from the battlefield. Once a force had become disorganized, losing its ability to fight, the victors can chase down the remnants and attempt to cause as many casualties or take as many prisoners as possible.
However, a commander must weigh the advantages of pursuit of a disorganised enemy against the possibility that the enemy may rally and leave the pursuing force vulnerable, with longer lines of communications vulnerable to a counterattack. Thus the value of a feigned retreat.
The act of feigning a withdrawal or rout in order to lure an enemy away from a defended position or into a prepared ambush is an ancient tactic, and has been used throughout the history of warfare.
Three famous examples are:
- William the Conqueror used a feigned retreat during the Battle of Hastings to lure much of Harold's infantry from their advantageous defenses on higher ground, at which point they were annihilated by a charge of William's Norman cavalry.
- Medieval Mongols were famed for, among other things, their extensive use of feigned retreats during their conquests, as their fast, light cavalry made successful pursuit by an enemy almost impossible. In the heat and muddle of a battle, the Mongol army would pretend to be defeated, exhausted and confused, and would suddenly retreat from the battlefield. The opposing force, thinking they had routed the Mongols, would give chase. The Mongol cavalry would, while retreating, fire upon the pursuers, disheartening them (See Parthian shot). When the pursuing forces stopped chasing the (significantly faster) Mongol cavalry, the cavalry would then turn and charge the pursuers, generally succeeding. This was used partly as a defeat in detail tactic to allow the Mongols to defeat larger armies by breaking them into smaller groups.
- Early on in the Battle of Kasserine Pass in 1943, tanks of the US 1st Armored Division followed what appeared to be a headlong retreat by elements of the 21st Panzer Division. The advancing US forces then met a screen of German anti-tank guns who opened fire, destroying nearly all the American tanks. A US forward artillery observer whose radio and landlines had been cut by shellfire recalled,
It was murder. They rolled right into the muzzles of the concealed eighty-eights and all I could do was stand by and watch tank after tank blown to bits or burst into flames or just stop, wrecked. Those in the rear tried to turn back but the eighty-eights seemed to be everywhere.
Withdrawal of a military occupation is anticipated and therefore tactical but may be subject to political rather than operational variables. The purpose of 'troop withdrawal' from occupied territories may not involve engagement with an enemy and may be conducted during a period of ceasefire or relative peace as in the cases of Palestine.