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Guerrilla Warfare

Updated on December 18, 2016

The term 'guerrilla warfare' is one of several terms used to describe the efforts of small, unstructured bands engaged in irregular warfare against a stronger military opponent.

Guerrilla forces often achieve success by combining surprise, unorthodox aggressive tactics, sabotage and psychological warfare. They are strengthened by their speed and mobility, knowledge of terrain and participation in conflicts in which the odds of success are heavily weighted in their favor. They are generally loosely knit and spread over a large area and do not have the disadvantages of fixed camps, nor are they reliant on supply lines. In previous centuries, guerrilla warfare was a common means of fighting larger, heavily armed armies or repelling invaders. In recent times, it has often been used for deposing established governments. In the twentieth century Asia, Africa, South America and the Middle East have been the main centers of such warfare.


The first to formulate doctrines on guerrilla warfare was the German theoretician Karl von Glauswitz. In On War (1833) he formalized the tactics involved in guerrilla warfare and stated that success in such conflicts depended upon a number of factors, including support for 'guerrillas' by the indigenous population and repeated victory in many small skirmishes rather than in a protracted battle. Communist leader Mao Tse-tung is recognized as the originator of modern guerrilla tactics.

In Guerrilla Warfare (1937) and On the Protracted Conflict (1938) he described the guerrilla war as having three phases. The first phase is the 'strategic defensive', in which the irregular forces initiate strikes and draw the fire of the superior forces; constant surprise strikes lead to a tiring and weakening of the opponent's morale. In the 'stalemate' phase, the guerrillas increase the force and number of attacks against the weakened army and begin to claim victories. In the final phase or 'strategic offensive' the guerrillas band together to overrun and defeat the shattered adversary.

Later, revolutionary strategist Che Guevara formulated the urban guerrilla tactics that have become more common in recent decades.

History of Guerrilla Warfare

Guerrilla warfare has been used for centuries.

One of the most successful guerrilla wars was the one that resulted in the liberation of Scotland by Robert Bruce in the early fourteenth century. Modern guerrilla movements date from the period 1780-1814 when Napoleon's occupying army in Spain encountered repeated small skirmishes with the scattered forces of the defeated national army and Spanish civilians.

The term 'guerrilla', from the Spanish guerra meaning 'war', originated during this conflict. The consistent efforts of Spanish irregulars, aided and funded by England under the duke of Wellington, eventually led to the Peninsula War and Napoleon's defeat. Examples of later applications of guerrilla tactics are the Greek insurgent raids against the Ottoman Empire (1821-27) and those of the Boer nationals against the British (1898).

Female Soviet partisans in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.
Female Soviet partisans in Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

Twentieth century

The Chinese Civil War (1926-49) saw the employment of Mao Tse-tung's strategies to conquer China and establish a communist regime. During World War II, the Soviets formed a 150,000-strong guerrilla movement against the 1941 Nazi invasion.

In recent decades, the threat of nuclear war has prompted major world governments to adopt guerrilla tactics to control rivals without direct confrontation. The communist regimes have extensively used this ploy in Asia, particularly during the early stages of the Vietnam War. In the United States in 1964 there was a public outcry at the revelation that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had paid and trained Cuban exiles to invade Cuba and attempt to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro.

Urban guerrilla movements have become more common in recent years. Such bands as the Symbionese Liberation Front in the United States, the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland and the International Red Army have brought guerrilla activities to many countries, despite the efforts of highly trained counter-guerrilla agencies.


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    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 5 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      Hi again, this is a really good, well written article! I learnt a lot of things I did not know, like the origin of the word. I never associated it with the Napoleonic era, I thought it was brewed in Latin America! Also, reading through these concepts, brought to mind so many experiences! I was actually in the US for the Bay of Pigs, and I witnessed JFK's address to the nation on TV after it failed. Awesome! And of course, I lived through the unrest in Chile, from 1970 up to 1989, during the Socialist (Allende) and Military (Pinochet) governments.

      Also, I would think the French Resistance during WW2, would be considered as "guerrilla" tactics? Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. Voted Up.