A flying column is a small, independent, military land unit capable of rapid mobility and usually composed of all arms. It is often an ad hoc unit, formed during the course of operations.
The term is usually, though not necessarily, applied to forces less than the strength of a brigade. As mobility is its raison d'être, a flying column is accompanied by the minimum of equipment. It generally uses suitable fast transport; historically, horses were used, with trucks and helicopters replacing them in modern times.
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Flying columns are mentioned by Sun Tzu in his Art of War in such a fashion that indicates it was not a new concept at the time of his writing. This dates to at least the middle 500's B.C.E, and possibly the late 700's B.C.E.
Boer kommando in 17th-20th-century South Africa, may be regarded as a form of flying column (unlike commandos in the more recent sense). The mobile columns employed against Boer forces, by British Empire forces in the South African War of 1899-1902, were usually of the strength of two battalions of infantry, a battery of artillery, and a squadron of cavalry, almost exactly half that of a mixed brigade.
Flying columns have also been used in guerrilla warfare, notably the mobile armed units of the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence 1919-21. Mention is also made of flying columns in a number of Irish ballads, notably "The Galtee Mountain Boy" by Patsy Halloran and Christy Moore.
In the 1920s Defence Scheme No. 1, the proposed Canadian response to an invasion by the United States, Lt. Col. James "Buster" Brown suggested "immediate dispatch of flying columns on the declaration of war" in order to counter-invade across the border and enact a scorched earth policy, forcing the USA to divert military resources towards the defense of its northern cities.
During and shortly after the Anglo-Iraqi War of 1941, British forces employed flying columns code-named Kingcol, Mercol and Gocol. Kingcol advanced into Iraq from Jordan and Palestine.