Background

The Battle of Hoth is a fictional battle occurring at the beginning of the movie Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. The Battle of Hoth is thematically unlike the epic battles of Yavin and Endor in that it occurs at the beginning, rather than the end of the movie. This means the story elements that occur in Empire are the effects of the this battle, rather than the events that lead up to it.

After the destruction of the Death Star, the Galactic Empire redoubled its efforts to destroy the Rebel Alliance. Not only did they prove themselves a credible threat to their rule of the galaxy, which would draw additional allies to their side, but Darth Vader became aware of Luke Skywalker, a Jedi in training, after nearly shooting Skywalker down during the third and final Death Star trench run. It was his developing Jedi skills that allowed Skywalker to overcome the electronic countermeasures that rendered his X-Wing's targeting system useless, and he was able to manually aim his proton torpedoes into the massive battle station's one small vulnerable spot, destroying the entire station and everyone on it. Darth Vader, being the sole Imperial survivor, saw the potential of the young Jedi and sought to either convert him to the Dark Side of the Force or kill him.

Darth Vader seems to have undergone a substantial promotion after the Empire lost much of its high-level military leadership in the Death Star's destruction — he was second only to the Emperor himself at this point. This is evident in his authority to execute Admirals for incompetence and bestow field promotions to replace them. Taking command of a fleet of Star Destroyers lead by his massive flagship Executor, he launched thousands of automated probe droids to scour the galaxy for the Rebellion's new base of operations. Two of these probes landed on the ice world of Hoth VI, and a picture of a power generator one sent convinced him, despite the misgivings of Admiral Ozzel, that this was the Rebel base (reliable intuition being one of the powers of the Force).

Theater Resources
  • Galactic Empire (Commanded by Darth Vader)
    • Orbital forces lead by Admiral Ozzel, later by Admiral Piett.
      • 1 Super Star Destroyer
      • 5 Star Destroyers
      • Sufficient drop ships to land the ground assault force
      • Thousands of probe droids
    • Ground forces lead by General Veers
      • 5 AT-AT Assault walkers
      • 2+ AT-ST Scout walkers
  • Rebellion (Commanded by Princess Leia Organa)
    • Echo Base
      • 1 Ion Cannon
      • Theater Shield
      • 3 Heavy Transports
      • 7+ X-Wing Fighters (2 escorts per Transport)
      • Fixed line-of-sight heavy artillery
      • Entrenched Infantry troops with heavy and light blasters
      • 9+ Modified T-47 Snow Speeders (Rogue Squadron)
      • 1 Jedi-in-training (Luke Skywalker)
      • 3+ Wampa Snow Beasts

The Battle of Hoth

Preparations

The Rebellion managed to find and destroy one of the probe droids, tipping them off to the impending assault and allowing them to make preparations. They set up artillery, dug infantry trenches, and began loading their heavy transports for evacuation. Carefully watching the system, they detected the Star Destroyer fleet coming out of hyperspace and immediately applied full power to their theater shield, an energy field large and strong enough to protect the base from orbital bombardment and forcing the Empire to wage a ground assault. Darth Vader, believing the fleet would have arrived undetected if it had entered the system from farther out, executed Admiral Ozzel for his poor judgment. Captain Piett then received a field promotion to Admiral and took command of the orbital forces. The Star Destroyers were to form a blockade against evacuation attempts while the ground forces under General Veers destroyed the Rebel's theater shield.

Imperial objectives
  1. Destruction of Echo Base.
  2. Capture of as many prisoners as possible.
  3. Capture of Luke Skywalker.
Rebel objectives
  1. Evacuation of all personnel to a still undisclosed rendezvous point.
  2. Defend theater shield power generator until evacuation is complete.
    Survival of Echo Base was deemed unrealistic.
Imperial Ground Assault

Before the Imperial ground forces came into range, the Rebellion launched the first of the heavy transports with two X-Wing fighters for escort, dropping the energy shield briefly to allow it to escape. As it was entering orbit, the ion cannon fired two well-placed shots, disabling the Star Destroyer which was guarding the escape path, allowing the transport to make a clean escape. The Empire was apparently unaware the Rebels had a weapon capable of attacking targets in orbit, as it seemed to take the Star Destroyer entirely by surprise. This well-timed success gave the Rebel morale a much-needed boost immediately before the ground assault began.

The Rebels launched their squadron of two-person snow speeders to intercept whatever forces were coming to attack, backed up by the artillery placements back at the North entrance to Echo base, attempting to slow the Imperial advance and allow the other two transports enough time to escape. Scouts detected a group of AT-AT assault walkers, supported by a smaller number of AT-ST scout walkers, advancing on their position as the final snow speeders were getting ready to launch. These were landed outside the theater shield by drop ship and were headed for the shield generator. At this point, the Battle of Hoth truly began.

Rebel Defense

The snow speeders enjoyed the advantage of low-altitude flight, speed, and maneuverability over the Imperial walkers, and attempted to use these to avoid their heavy blaster fire long enough to make a good approach and make strafing runs on any weak points they could find. They broke the squadron into pairs, one attacker and one wingman, and began their attack.

It quickly became apparent that the Imperial AT-ATs were far more advanced than the outdated Rebellion equipment. Their armor was too strong for either the snow speeder blasters or the artillery emplacements to penetrate, and they carried main guns that could destroy a snow speeder with a single direct hit, if they could manage to hit the fast-moving targets. The Rebel trenches fared worse, as any weapons or equipment they had not only shared the snow speeders' vulnerability, but were fixed emplacements. As soon as the AT-ATs were within their effective targeting range, they would be overrun effortlessly.

Rebel Resourcefulness

In an act of desperation inspired by Luke Skywalker, the snow speeders attempted to use their tow cables to tangle the huge top-heavy walkers' legs, causing them to trip and fall over. Skywalker lost his gunner to a grazing blow, however, before he could attempt the maneuver. Wedge Antilles, one of the few survivors from the Battle of Yavin, and his gunner Jansen were the only ones able to successfully employ this risky tactic, which required flying several very close pylon turns around the walker's legs before detaching the tow cable. Its armor compromised by the fall, the walker was rendered vulnerable to snow speeder fire and destroyed when either its ammunition supply or power reactor exploded.

Regardless of this one success, the snow speeders were not able to delay the AT-ATs appreciably, and the decision was made to launch the final two transports simultaneously — a risky move because there was only one ion cannon to provide cover fire. The remaining ground staff were evacuated and the Rebel defense was called into full retreat. Now firing from closer range, the AT-ATs were able to target the artillery and trenches much more effectively and obliterated the Rebel defenses.

Several more snow speeders were shot down as well at this point, including Luke Skywalker's, who barely managed to escape before being trampled by another walker. Rather than retreating, however, he used a grapple to pull himself up to the belly of one of the AT-ATs and, slicing open a hatch with his lightsaber, threw a grenade inside before dropping back down to the soft snow below. The grenade ignited the AT-ATs ammunition, destroying it from inside. This was the only other major equipment loss the Imperials suffered during the ground assault. Shortly thereafter, the lead AT-AT walker came within range of the Rebel generator and destroyed it with its main guns, disabling the Rebel theater shield.

Theater Shield Down

With the shield down, Darth Vader personally lead a platoon of Imperial Stormtroopers (specially trained for cold-weather operations) to sweep Echo base room by room and take whatever prisoners they could find. Fortunately for the rebels, however, the transports were nearly loaded and the only ones left in the base were General Han Solo, his wookiee co-pilot Chewbacca, Princess Leia (who held the command station until the last possible moment), and the protocol droid C-3PO. Although publicly denied by the Rebellion, there is evidence that C-3PO was able to delay the Snow Troopers by removing a warning sign from a room serving as a confinement area for the dangerous wampa snow beasts the rebels captured to prevent them from eating their domesticated tauntaun mounts. Whatever the reason they opened the door, several Snow Troopers were reported to have been viciously mauled by the creatures.

The Millennium Falcon was able to escape with Solo and his crew as the Imperials were setting up an artillery piece to disable it, lifting off into orbit just before the remaining two transports were ready to launch. The Imperials were too late, other than the fleeing Corellian freighter, they found the base evacuated.

What went wrong?

The Battle of Hoth was most notable in that both the Imperial forces and the Rebel forces considered it a failure. The Imperial forces, although stronger in number and having access to higher levels of military technology, were forced into a back-up plan when the Rebellion was alerted to their presence prematurely. The Rebels meanwhile were hopelessly outgunned and using obsolete equipment. Their weapons were all but entirely ineffective against the heavily armored AT-AT walkers, and only two highly unusual and difficult to implement tactics were at all effective against them.

  1. Lost the element of surprise
    Any hope of taking the rebel forces by surprise was lost when Admiral Ozzel brought the fleet out of hyperspace too close to the planet. Despite the Rebels sighting the probe droid, they did not begin evacuation preparations until they sighted the fleet. If they had approached more cautiously, there was a good chance they could have bombarded the shield generators from space and raided the Rebel base before the evacuation was underway. Instead, one of the three transports was successfully launched before the battle even started.

  2. Strength valued over speed
    The Imperial forces relied a great deal on intimidation and loss of morale in their opponents, and often this would end a battle before it even began. To this end they relied heavily on massive, seemingly invulnerable weapons such as the Star Destroyers, AT-AT walkers, and of course the ill-fated Death Star battle station. However, although the AT-ATs used in the ground assault were indeed all but impervious to the standard Rebel weapons, their slow rate of advancement gave the Rebels enough time to finish evacuation procedures. Likewise, the Star Destroyers lacked the speed necessary to pursue the fleeing transports once they had a good head start. They might have been more successful using small, faster weapons if they were willing to accept a certain amount of casualties.

  3. Secret weapon
    The Imperial forces appeared to be caught by surprise by the Rebel's ion cannon, which disabled at least one Star Destroyer long enough for the transports to successfully escape. This powerful weapon was able to fire into orbit from a hidden ground position to support the evacuation, and served as the figurative ace up the Rebellion's sleeve. Still, the advantage would likely have been lost had the Rebel gunners not shown sufficient discipline to hold their fire until it could do the most good. This can be considered a failure of Imperial scouting to detect it, as one probe droid remained on the planet which could have discovered it.

Aftermath

The Rebels lost their Hoth base and a great deal of expensive equipment, but this was apparently considered inevitable, given enough time, as they had a contingency plan ready for immediate implementation. Their forces gathered at an undisclosed, secret rendezvous point somewhere in deep space to regroup and find another base. They lost nearly all of their snow speeders and heavy artillery in the battle, and many men died defending the base. However, no prisoners were taken alive and all the upper-echelon leadership survived.

The Empire lost two AT-AT walkers, their crew, and the troops and equipment they were transporting to Echo Base. Several Snow Troopers were killed during the sweep by wampas and the Millennium Falcon's light antipersonnel weaponry. At least one Star Destroyer suffered damage from the ion cannon. Admiral Ozzel was executed by Darth Vader for incompetence and Captain Piett was promoted to Admiral on the spot. General Veers proved himself admirably in battle against the Rebel ground forces, destroying the shield generator as quickly as possible given the circumstances. Ultimately, however, the Empire accomplished nothing of significant or lasting importance.

Disclaimer
This analysis of the Battle of Hoth does not take into account any of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, only the movies.

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