Sunday, 15 February 2009

The return of the sniper

On September 20th 1942 Vasiliy Zaitsev came to Stalingrad with the 284th Division. In his youth Zaitsev had hunted deer in the forests around Elininski, his home in the foothills of the Ural mountains. In Stalingrad he was a sniper and hunted different prey. His success made him a national hero (a Hero of the Soviet Union, no less), his exploits followed avidly in the papers by Soviet citizens eager for some good news.
Not only did his fame reach the Germans but the psychological impact of the "bullet from nowhere" was having an immensely demoralising effect on soldiers of the 6th Army, so much so that the German High Command brought in their own ├╝ber-sniper, SS Colonel Heinz Thorwald, head of the Wehrmacht Sniper School, to hunt him down. The duel between the two snipers symbolised the death-struggle being fought between the two nations themselves and even Hollywood, never one to recognise the decisive part played by the USSR in the defeat of Nazism, produced the film "Enemy at the Gates" about it.
Jumping forward 70 years, the age of the sniper has returned to the battlefields, this time in Helmand, Afghanistan, and it's the British High Command that has come to recognise the demoralising psychological impact that snipers can have on the enemy. The "clean" effectiveness of the sniper is also seen as a way of reducing civilian casualities in the warzones, a major concern of UK Armed Forces. Snipers are now playing a major role in the fight against the Taliban with one sniper already reported to have made 39 kills (Zaitsev's verified score was 242).
The British Sniper School in Wiltshire has a queue of applicants eager for one of the 120 places available each year and there are now 330 trained snipers serving with the Army.

Zaitsev won the duel with Thorwald.

The Guardian: Army returns to an old tactic to defeat resurgent Taliban: sniping
The Telegraph: New sniper rifle boosts British Army operations against the Taliban