Lord of the Rings Debate: How the Battle of Helms Deep Was Won

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Lord of the Rings Debate: How the Battle of Helms Deep Was Won

The forces of Rohan were able to mount a successful defensive operation at the Hornburg through mutually supporting positions, clearly defined fallback criteria, and sound leadership using mission command.

At dawn, Theoden initiated a PSYOP fires operation (see the Fires section for more information) which halted enemy offensive action. This was followed by a strong counterattack by his heavy cavalry which drove into the enemy mass and seized the initiative in the engagement. Seeing this attack, Eomer led a similar assault on the flank from the caves. Using speed, surprise, and audacity, this attack drove the enemy back to the walls of the fortress and beyond. The two pronged assault retained momentum but seemed doomed to fail in the face of heavy enemy numbers.


Task Force Gandalf, now consisting of 1,000 infantry and innumerable Huorns – a living forest – had concealed its existence from Saruman’s intelligence operations via speed and surprise. Ents had attacked Isengard itself, pinning Saruman into the tower of Orthanc which tied all his attention to that one location. Unable to gather new information, Saruman lost control of the battle and was unable to direct its course.

TF Gandalf timed its assault at the Hornburg to coincide with the cavalry counterattack. Thus caught between three assaulting elements, one of which resembled a walking forest, the enemy defense disintegrated. The Dunlendings – men who had joined with Saruman out of grievances against Rohan – were so terrified that they dropped their weapons and surrendered. Aragorn, Eomer, and Gandalf directed their ground forces against the orcs, pushing them towards the Huorns. Denied any avenue of retreat save this, the orcs fled into the wood never to be seen again. The intelligence coup brought off by Gandalf was now complete. The enemy land force was effectively annihilated.


Neither side brought any significant direct or indirect fires assets to the engagement, minus some siege weaponry that was more effective for suppressing fire than anything else. However, friendly forces did retain the Horn of Helm. This was a PSYOP weapon that could be sounded in Helm’s Deep and was a significant psychological deterrent to enemy attackers. When this was sounded at the coming of dawn, it checked the enemy advance, causing them to be caught off-balance when the counterattack happened. Non-lethal fires thus played a significant role in the effectiveness of the defense of the Hornburg.


Defenders in the Hornburg and Glittering Caves could count on plenty of Class I and Class V that had been built up over the years. Lack of Class IV meant that obstacles could not be repaired in a timely manner and that the task force engineer Gimli would have to improvise. And with no good medical facilities, wounded defenders could really only rely on combat lifesavers among the force.

The force also lacked good weapons and armor for the civilian auxiliaries pressed into the defense of the Hornburg. Many soldiers lacked properly fitting body armor or effective weapons. With minimal repair facilities, soldiers had to make do with what they had. Gimli himself notched his axe and had to wait until after the battle for it to be properly repaired. Forward support elements of armorers could have alleviated some of this strain on the operational force.

In his role as task force personnel officer, Gandalf quickly realized that force regeneration was going to be his main priority. He conducted personnel accountability operations throughout Rohan during the night of the battle, collecting small units and coordinating their movement to the forward line of troops under the direction of Erkenbrand, the surviving light infantry commander. Task organizing this force proved crucial for the eventual counterattack and is a model for all S-1 officers everywhere.


The Hornburg consisted of three distinctive obstacle belts which also served as protective fighting positions for defenders: the outer dike, the main wall, and the fortress itself. Built into a mountainside, the position could not be outflanked and would have to be taken by frontal assault. Historically, it had never fallen to an enemy attacking from the outside.

Weaknesses in the position had been identified early in the engagement by Theoden, who had asked his task force engineer to look to improving some of the defensive positions. But like so many task force engineers, Gimli was not given the time or the assets needed to bring the positions into the proper state of repair as he would have liked, given his professional reputation in the matter. Gimli instead relied on his secondary role of fighting as an infantryman to seal many of the breaches. This brought great credit upon himself, Task Force Rohan, and the Corps of Engineers.


In conclusion, the forces of Rohan were able to mount a successful defensive operation at the Hornburg through mutually supporting positions, clearly defined fallback criteria, and sound leadership using mission command. This enabled a quick transition to the offense. Synchronization was the key to success in the end, as fires, maneuver, and intelligence combined to destroy the enemy assault on the Hornburg. This resounding victory enabled Rohan to protect its forces from further attacks from Saruman, which were themselves a part of Sauron’s shaping operations against Gondor. Free from Saruman’s hybrid warfare attacks, Rohan was able to rapidly mobilize its remaining forces and project power all the way to Minas Tirith. Their arrival on the battlefield there played a key role in defeating the army of the Witch King and allowed the Captains of the West to seize the initiative and begin a campaign into Mordor.

My continued apologies to Tolkien who surely just wants to rest in peace.

About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

This article by The Angry Staff Officer originally appeared on The Angry Staff Officer in 2019.

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Image: NineLine Films/The Two Towers/YouTube Screenshot