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Tactical Withdrawal
"They are extremely powerful, and quite frankly we haven't a snowflake's chance in Vulcan's forge of winning. I suggest a *cough* tactical advance away from the enemy!"
Roman General, Rome: Total War

Although this has been used as a euphemism for "legging it", this is not quite the same thing. This is a managed retreat rather than an all-out rout, with forces withdrawing in good order to fight another day. They may have actually done their job, i.e. a Delaying Action.

A move like this could, if done right, be almost as effective as a battle victory, at least in terms of damage to the opponent's morale. Indeed, the attacking soldiers, hyped for battle, will often find themselves confused and frustrated if their intended target is not where they expected it to be, and chances are that the higher command will be disappointed at being cheated out of what they saw as an easy victory, and the development can possibly force them to change parts of their strategy, if not throw it completely out of the window. More importantly, an orderly retreat is always less costly than a rout. A routed force is broken. A retreating force is merely leaving and often has reasonable hopes that it will be able fight another day.

Common in guerilla warfare. Also a necessary first step in a Defensive Feint Trap. Compare with Attack! Attack... Retreat! Retreat!


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Abridged Series 

     Anime 

  • In episode 10 and the first part of episode 11 of Oda Nobuna no Yabou, Yoshiharu does this to buy time for Nobuna to escape.
  • In Girls und Panzer, Miho Nishizumi does this on a regular basis, both out of preference and necessity, given that most of her tanks are heavily outgunned by their opponents. This is in stark contrast to her mother's school, which believes in constant advance, though that's because they usually outgun their opponents.

    Literature 

  • In The Third World War, it is stated in the description of the first TV footage of Soviet and US forces clashing in Slovenia (smuggled out from the battlefield by a reporter) that a military observer would note the Soviets were performing a textbook withdrawal under fire. It also notes that this looked to the layperson as a defeat for them and bolstered Western morale.
  • One scene from Lord of the Rings describes Faramir attempting to do this and leading his men back to Minas Tirith in an orderly retreat despite having already lost one battle and continuing to be harassed by the enemy cavalry. Then the Nazgul get involved and it does turn into a rout until Gandalf and some Gondorian knights do the Big Damn Heroes thing.
  • Almost every large-scale battle in Codex Alera involves the heroes doing this at some point when things are ready to progress to a later stage of the battle. A few times it even gets subverted into the withdrawal turning into an all-out rout.
  • Death to the French: The British are withdrawing to the lines of Torres Vedras. This results in Dodd being accidentally left behind to fend for himself.
  • Alluded to in Night Watch:
    "They were not used to marching. Their normal method of progress was the stroll, which is not a recognized military manoeuvre, or the frantic withdrawal, which is."

    Live Action TV 

  • In Red Dwarf the crew must "Obtain" a new engine part, and after negotiations with a local tribe fails they attempt to steal it and sneak away, after this fails Lister grabs the part and runs back to the ship, as he passes the other crew members that are waiting he shouts... "Change of plan — leg it!"
  • In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, with the Dominion decisively losing their war against the Alpha Quadrant, their forces are pulled back from the Federation alliance forces which have recently learned to adapt to their energy-dampening weapon.
    • The season 5 finale of the show features the station fighting off the first wave of a Dominion assault in order to give them time to complete their deployment of a minefield around the Wormhole to prevent Dominion reinforcements from coming in from the Gamma Quadrant. The Delaying Action also served to pull the Dominion forces out of position while a joint Starfleet-Klingon fleet launched a Pearl Harbor style raid on several important Dominion shipyards and bases.

     Tabletop Games  

  • A mechanic in Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000, and other Games Workshop games - units that take losses or have scary things happen to them and subsequently fail a morale test will fall back, fleeing towards a friendly table edge. If on the next turn the unit passes another morale test and still has the numbers to form a squad, they rally and can continue to fight as normal, turning last turn's flight into a retroactive Tactical Withdraw. If they fail that second test then they'll continue to leg it off the table.
    • Depending on the edition, you can choose to voluntarily fail a morale test and hope that next turn you'll be able to rally. This is referenced with the "General Staff" asset from the Apocalypse rules for 40k, which lets a commander roll three dice and choose which two to use for a Leadership test. The rules explicitly state that a commander choosing the two higher dice to fail the test is ordering his troops to withdraw.
    • Space Marines have the "And They Shall Know No Fear" special rule, which means that they always perform a Tactial Withdraw and regroup after falling back. As of their latest Codex, they also have the "Combat Tactics" special rule, allowing them to voluntarily "fail" a morale test, fall back, and then rally thanks to the aforementioned special rule.
    • A related special rule, new to 6th edition, specifically deals with infantry who find themselves in a fight with a monstrous creature or vehicle that they literally cannot harm. Since Failure Is the Only Option, these units are allowed to intentionally fail their morale checks (risking destruction in the process) and disengage, rather than have to stick around.
    • And then some units don't bother with a Tactical Withdraw. Fearless units never fall back, preferring to fight to the last man, while sufficiently zealous units like the Black Templars or Sisters Repentia will charge the enemy if they fail a morale test.
    • While they suffer from the same mechanics as any other non-fearless race (especially if the local Ethereal just got whacked), the fluff for the Tau states that this is their preferred battle strategy: shoot anything coming at you until it stops moving, but if it doesn't stop moving then fall back before it can eat your head. Preferably, still shooting at it. Then, once you've regrouped and reinforced, shoot it a lot more and retake your land. Considering that standard-issue Imperial Guardsmen can kick their butt in melee combat, this is pretty sound strategy. The Tau also don't believe in holding ground, so they will gladly abandon their positions and instead use it as bait to draw enemy forces in.
      • Fittingly, the Tau once had this used against them to great effect... by the orks, of all species. During the War of Dakka, the Warboss Ironteef, having failed to secure victory through the typical method, came up with "da kunnin' plan" to lure the impetuous Tau Commander Farsight into the open with a fake retreat, opening up the commander's support troops to ork fire and nullifying his considerable firepower advantage. It worked, in large part because Farsight had grown used to the normal ork method of warfare and wasn't expecting a withdrawal of any sort, let alone a fake one.
    • This was also used to win a battle in fluff by the Black Templars. Outnumbered by a Khornate cult, the Black Templar Castellan (Captain) repeatedly retreated in the face of the enemy, as much as his men wanted to take the fight to them. Khornate cultists being servants of Khorne, they eventually got fed up with not fighting the Astartes and turned on one another, leaving the Black Templars to pick up the pieces.

     Video Games  

  • Often a good idea in Rome Total War: Barbarian Invasion, if you are moving away from the vast Barbarian hordes, the AI often charges in with its fastest and lightest units, allowing you to inflict some losses on the horde before taking position on a hilltop or something to make your last stand.
    • The AI will commit its forces to a tactical withdrawal if you force it into a pitched battle with a superior army — it deploys as far away from your army as possible and heads for the edge of the map as fast it can. With a good cavalry force, you can often take down some of the stragglers before they disappear off-map — the AI is not very good at regrouping just to try and kill your advance cavalry.
  • Company of Heroes has a retreat button for all infantry so they can reinforce and regroup at your base. Also useful if you just want them to get back there or somewhere close by.
  • Dawn Of War 2 used a similar system - but make sure you initiate it before enemy engages in melee, if you don't want your retreat to become a slaughter barely better (or possibly even worse) than fighting a losing battle anyway, because retreating units take more melee damage.
    • Even better, since units will always retreat to the nearest captured point, you can actually use this to your benefit. Sneak a stealth unit through enemy lines to capture a point, then get the rest of your army over halfway there. Hammer X, and... well, retreat in the opposite direction.
  • Part of normal combat in Warcraft 3, with heroes or armies attacking, doing some damage to the enemy base/expansion/army , then pulling out, except when in a strong enough position to just annihilate the opposition. Sometimes done via Town Portal Scroll if walking is not an option, or would result in losses.
  • Lampshaded in World of Warcraft, with one of the achievements being titled, "We're Not Retreating; We're Advancing in a Different Direction".
    • World of Warcraft also makes it possible to "reset" a boss during an ill-fated fight without all the players dying, and sometimes without any player dying. Mages have the Invisibility spell to help with this, while other players have to run out of the room and survive any damage they take along the way.
      • Paladins have the infamous bubblehearth which consists of turning invincible via a special spell, then using their hearthstone , (a special item all players get, which teleports them to an inn after a long and easily interrupted cast).
  • Necessary in Battle for Wesnoth. Not withdrawing near the end of your strong time-of-day generally results in heavy losses, unless you're already in an overwhelmingly strong position. Particularly important for the Loyalists, Undead and Drakes, whose strength varies drastically with the time-of-day.
  • An option in the Hearts of Iron games when it is clear that a division cannot win against an enemy force but still has enough organization to maintain contact. It is entirely reasonable to withdraw a defending division when attacked, as at the very least the enemy division will have to delay several days before its next attack, and is an essentialy element of setting up encirclement traps. Pulling an attacking division out of an assault that is clearly not working will save organization and manpower as well. This can also be pulled off as a tactical maneuver during battle by generals. It shortens the front, and gives the attacker an attack penalty and the defenders also a smaller penalty (which still ends in a net win for the defenders.)
  • Titanfall has a unique feature: unless a game ends in a tie, when a round ends, the losing team is tasked with escaping the battlefield via dropship, while members of the winning team are tasked with stopping them from escaping, either by killing all opposing players or destroying the drop ship when it appears.
  • Fate/stay night's Lancer has a C rank in the Disengage Personal Skill. While this may not sound like much, he's the only Servant in the Fifth War with that skill at all, meaning he'd be perfect for scouting if not for his Blood Knight personality, and his sense of honor. Unfortunately for him, Kirei cares not one jot about Lancer's personality or honor, and Command Seals Lancer into acting as a scout, making him engage each Servant to test their strength before disengaging and stepping out of the War, leaving the other six to fight it out. While this normally would be a suicidal tactic in the Grail War, it helps that his Master also has access to the Game Breaker Fourth War Servant Gilgamesh.
  • In the Codex of Mass Effect, this is stated to be a favorite tactic of the turians. Turians never retreat, even if the line collapses, instead withdrawing in an organized fashion. As they do so, they set traps and ambushes to wittle down the pursuing enemy. Thus creating the in-universe saying "You will only see a turian's back once he's dead."
  • With war as its focus, the Suikoden series places a great deal of narrative emphasis on orderly retreats—they are frequently executed by all sides in a conflict. Rule of thumb: whenever The Strategist suggests a Tactical Withdrawal, do not argue.
  • It is a common tactic in Xenonauts, employed by human fighters fighting a powerful UFO (or a formation of them). After unloading all missiles to wound the enemy, the planes are supposed to disengage, return to base, load more missiles and engage the enemy again. Needless to say, this presents many problems, sometimes including escaping the alien ship.
  • Starbase Orion has two methods of leaving a battle. Giving the ships an order to Retreat is, basically, a rout. The ships will attempt to flee as soon as possible and will set course for the nearest friendly colony (in most cases, ships at warp can't be redirected). Using the "Withdraw" option allows the player to choose the next location after the battle ends, although this method is significantly slower and may allow the enemy to destroy your ships.

    Webcomics 

  • Erfworld has the protagonist conduct a number of hit-and-run attacks that technically count as "losses" by the world's rules, but his opponent loses far more valuable siege units.
  • Last Res0rt technically pulls this one off after the players realize they're not equipped to take Gabriel's ship in their current condition thanks to Tone attacks and 'unreliable' equipment. The fact that they end up having to leave both Team Andromeda AND Team Corvus behind does NOT help matters.
  • ''The Order of the Stick"": The eponymous party pulls one when faced with the Linear Guild in Girard's desert fortress/pyramid. At first the Linear Guild attacks with spells from the air, and easily keeps the Order pinned down when they try to get back at them. When the Order is hit with spells again after being brutalized by Tarquin disguised as Thog in melee combat, they decide to retreat into the building in order to lay an ambush instead.

     Western Animation  

  • The Penguins of Madagascar has the team face Officer/Agent X:
    Skipper: Kowalski, options.
    Kowalski: A strategic retreat, Skipper?
    Skipper: Explain.
    Kowalski: It's like running away but manlier.
    Skipper: Execute.

     Real Life  

  • It generally requires well trained troops to pull this off, the details vary with the terrain, but it generally involves some sections breaking off and others laying down suppressive fire. Militia and less professional armies generally break and run if overwhelmed, but with proper organization and planning, they merely disperse, re-group, and get back into the fight under more favorable conditions. These tactics are particularly important for guerrilla forces, which can expect to face overwhelming odds on a regular basis if they don't pull out before their stronger enemy rallies additional forces if the fight stays in one spot for too long.
    • Generally it's a sort of reverse leapfrog (used while advancing) where those in front retreat to the rear of the group while the rest fire forward. Once settled into the rear, those now in front retreat to the back of this. Repeat.
      • Alternatively, if one's army is severely out manned or out gunned, and the terrain sufficiently rough, a dispersal followed by a rejoining of forces in a pre-determined location may prove more effective. Standing your ground for even a delaying action is not always an option.
  • George Washington was particularly skilled at organizing tactical retreats during The American Revolution. He realized that preserving the revolutionary army was a higher priority than defeating the British in battle. His most impressive withdrawal would be him managing to literally sneak his entire army out of Brooklyn, New York under the noses of the British forces that surrounded him.
  • Similar to the above example, the American Civil War lasted for years due to the well-executed retreats by either side after losing a battle. Defeated armies were almost always able to get away. No army was forced to surrender in the open field until the remnant of Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was brought to heel in the final days of the war.
  • The small but well-trained British Expeditionary Force at the start of World War One made a famous fighting retreat from Mons, repeatedly holding up the German advance in 1914 while the French got their defences on the Marne organised.
  • The (disastrous) retreat of the British from Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass in 1842.
  • Xenophon's Ten Thousand Mercenaries.
  • The Parthians, and later the Mongols, were experts at using tactical withdrawals and feigned retreats to make their enemies overstrech their forces. They would send in light horse to harass the enemy and 'flee' once the enemy sent in their own cavalry to counter. The enemy cavalry would give chase until they were out of reach of the rest of the army — at which point the 'fleeing' army would regroup, surround them and crush them, or simply pepper them with arrows as they led them further away from friendly lines.
  • Happened a couple of times in the Peninsular War (depicted in Sharpe). At the Retreat to Corunna, the British expeditionary force retreated from the superior French army, giving battle before Corunna long enough for them to escape. Later, British troops retreated from another large French force by delaying them long enough to build the Lines of Torres Vedras, a massive series of fortifications protecting the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. The French were left facing an impenetrable city and a huge army to try and feed with a country whose crops and livestock had deliberately been destroyed.
  • On a grander scale, the 1812 campaign from the Russian point of view. Through a series of tactical retreats, the main armies managed to elude Napoleon's attempts to pin down, outflank and overwhelm them. Napoleon attempted an orderly retreat from Moscow, but the Russian armies then forced to march back the way he came, through lands that had already been devasted and bled of resources during the French advance, and the retreat eventually turned into a shambles.
  • During the early stages of the autumn campaign of 1813 Wars of Liberation, the allied forces on the whole successfully pursued the strategy of executing tactical retreats when faced by armies led by Napoleon himself while attacking armies led by his marshals. They did lose the battle of Dresden against Napoleon himself, but this defeat was more than offset by the simultaneous victories of Großbeeren and the Katzbach, as well as the battle of Kulm where the defeated allied main army brought the pursuing French I Corps to grief.
  • The Prussian army executed a good one after the battle of Ligny, which enabled them to decisively join the battle of Waterloo two days later. As an added bonus, they managed to do it in a way where the French lost contact with them so they had no idea where Blücher's men had gone.
  • The British were able to spin the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II as "The Miracle of Dunkirk," in which the British Expeditionary Force and some part of the French managed to escape the Nazis to fight another day. In fact it was a panicked retreat to the coast and onto the boats for home, although the BEF getting away did leave Britain better able to defend against a German invasion.
  • The Kokoda Campaign of World War Two was one long series of these, with Australian militia (and later, regular army forces) engaging the Japanese and then falling back steadily. The Japanese got close to Port Moresby, but they were eventually done in by heavy casualties, severe illness and an unsustainable supply line.
  • The Vietnam War ended in 1975 when one of these failed. The South Vietnamese, their morale at an all-time low as American aid was petering out, elected to abandon much of the less productive areas of their country and concentrate their forces in the more important areas. But what was supposed to be a series of tactical withdrawals led to panic, rapid collapse, and total victory for the North Vietnamese.
  • The retreat of the Italian Third Army during World War One. When the Austro-Hungarians, with some German help, crushed the Second Army at Caporetto, the Third Army's commander the Duke of Aosta, knowing his position was untenable, ordered a retreat, first to the Tagliamento river, and then, finding that the enemy was too close to establish a defensive line, to the Piave, during which it repulsed that came too close. Between this and the Third Army's role in the following battles (including the one that caused the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), the Third Army was nicknamed the Undefeated Army, and its commander the Undefeated Duke.
    • Parts of the Second Army during the same battle did the same, as the First Army did. Units of the Second Army, upon being ordered to retreat, would occasionally stop and fight, slowing down the Austrians with their defeat until the rest of the Army noticed that Italian civilians were escaping the invaders and decided to fight at the Piave river, while the First Army, realizing their mountain positions were about to be bypassed by the Austro-Hungarian advance in the plains, retreated to the Grappa massif, a group of fortified mountains whose supply lines weren't threatened.
  • The US Marines at the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. When the Chinese 9th Army crossed into North Korea in December 1950 and surprised the UN forces, much of US and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces were overwhelmed and forced to retreat in disarray all the way back to South Korea, suffering heavy losses along the way. However, the US X Corps, centered around the 1st Marine division, managed to both resist the initial assault and then retreat in good order back to the port city Hungnam, where they were evacuated largely intact, along with most of their equipment and a large number of civilians. This is all the more impressive when one considers that they were massively outnumbered and at several points, completely surrounded. General Oliver P. Smith, in charge of the 1st Marine Division, summed it up famously: "Retreat, hell! We're not retreating, we're just advancing in a different direction!"


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