Underground war, from the tunnels of the Vietcong to those of Hamas

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The hundreds of kilometers of tunnels built by Hamas in Gaza are the main weapon that this organization can wield against a much superior enemy for whom this underground labyrinth is, however, a significant difficulty from an operational point of view. Faced with armies like the Israeli one with great military capacity, tunnels are a tool that does not require a high level of technology, which explains why they have been used in many conflicts and not only in contemporary times. From Antiquity to the Ukrainian War, through Vietnam or the Great War, the underground has been another front in which episodes of unusual cruelty have been experienced.

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Tunnels are a resource in guerrilla warfare strategies. One of the best-known examples was Vietnam, where the Viet Cong's underground networks were a headache for the US military. Since the war with French troops and for decades, North Vietnamese forces have built a dense underground complex to hide troops, command posts, supplies and even entire populations. They were effective as a defensive means – against US bombings – but also offensive.

Vietnam-Nov.2009 Vietcong?s Cu Chi Tunnels (near Saigon City). (Photo by Jose-Fuste RAGA/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

One of the entrances to the Cu Chi tunnels photographed in 2009

Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

These networks were spread across various areas, but the best-known complex is Cu Chi, in the region of Ho Chi Min City (then Saigon), in South Vietnam, which can still be visited today. The tunnels were especially important in the Tet Offensive (1968), in which the south was attacked in areas where until then it seemed unthinkable.

This strategy allowed US troops to be hit without them knowing where they had received the attack from or where the North Vietnamese had fled to. “We could fight the Americans from any angle,” former Colonel Chau Lam noted a few years ago, adding that “they didn't know where we were coming from and that allowed us to inflict more damage and limit our casualties.” The US military even unknowingly built a base right above one of those tunnels, which, according to defense analyst Arthur Herman, was conveniently attacked and looted by the North Vietnamese before disappearing like ghosts.

The tunnels allowed the North Vietnamese to surprise US troops and flee like ghosts

The US response to this strategy was to intensify the bombing and enter the underground networks with the infantry, but the traps they faced were very dangerous, from devices with poisonous snakes or stakes in the purest Indiana Jones style. , even explosives. A unit created for this purpose, the so-called tunnel rats, made up mainly of soldiers from ethnic minorities, was used as cannon fodder in high-risk missions to destroy these infrastructures. His success, however, was moderate.

The word tunnel falls short to define the intricate galleries in the subsoil of Vietnam or Gaza, since they contain weapons depots, hospitals, shelters, infrastructures or rooms of various uses and sizes. But neither the Vietcong nor Hamas invented underground strategies. The most immediate antecedent of these enormous complexes is found in the First World War, when underground operations experienced their moment of splendor, if splendor can exist among the mud, darkness and horror of those networks excavated underground.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY DAVID COURBET A photo taken on April 6, 2017 shows stairs in one of the tunnels of the underground museum Wellington Quarry (Carriere Wellington), part of many kilometers of tunnels dug by the British Army during WWII, in Arras .. Some 24,000 soldiers of the British army emerged from these tunnels for a surprise offensive at dawn on April 9, 1917. (Photo by DENIS CHARLET / AFP)

These stairs lead to one of the exits of the Welligton Quarry tunnels, near Arras (France)


In a conflict bogged down in trench positions, strategists on both sides thought that a possible way to unblock it was to look for shortcuts underground. Mining units were formed that dug dozens of kilometers of tunnels below enemy lines, but they were very dangerous operations, either because of the environment itself, or because it was not uncommon for opposing units to meet by chance and engage in underground skirmishes. On other occasions, when a mining unit heard one of the other side's digging, they simply planted explosives to kill them and then fled quickly.

The underground strategy was often based on simple brute force. In the Battle of Messines (1917), for example, British engineers dug a tunnel under the German trenches in which they detonated explosives with a death toll that some sources put at around 10,000. The set of 19 mines used gave rise to what is today considered the largest non-nuclear explosion caused by man.

Engineers dug tunnels frequently in the Great War to try to overcome enemy trenches

On other occasions, however, the strategy was more sophisticated. Today you can still visit the Wellington quarry in Arras (France, near the Belgian border), an immense cave that housed for several weeks in 1917 more than 24,000 Allied soldiers in precarious conditions, waiting for the start of a battle that was to be decisive. The troops had to emerge behind the German lines and, relying on the factor of surprise, win easily. The plans, however, did not work as expected, the battle bogged down and ended in a stalemate after weeks of fighting that claimed up to 4,000 daily casualties.

The list of examples of underground fighting is surprisingly long. The Japanese used a dense infrastructure of tunnels to fiercely resist the American push in the battle of Iwo Jima, just as the Taliban took refuge in networks of grottoes and caves in the mountainous areas of Afghanistan during the last invasion. All this without forgetting the recent battle for control of the Mariupol steel plant, in Ukraine. But long before, in the Crimean War, violent clashes occurred in the underground networks created during the siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855) and in the United States, war episodes were also experienced underground during the Civil War. . This is the case of a chaotic clash known as the Battle of the Crater (1864), named for the explosion caused by Union soldiers under Confederate troops.

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The vanguard


Tunnel warfare is not the heritage of the industrial age. In the Middle Ages it had been used in sieges of fortresses and in Antiquity the Romans already had to face, in the 2nd century, ambushes that were carried out using underground networks. The authors of these entrapments were, by the way, the Jews who rebelled against imperial power.

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