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Inspired by this question about The Last Jedi, I wanted to get clarification on a part of The Empire Strikes Back that has bothered me for years.

In the beginning of the film, on Hoth, it looks like hundreds of Rebel soldiers set up in trenches to hold off the Empire until the transport ships can get away.

The thing I don't understand, is if these soldiers are defending the escape ships, what did they do after all the ships got away?

Was the plan to fight to the death? Or did these soldiers have some other way to get off the planet without getting caught by the Empire? Considering how much trouble the Millennium Falcon ran into, I find that unlikely.

  • (don't have a definitive answer) IMO, mostly dead or captured by the Imperial forces. – Max Jan 10 '18 at 19:16
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    They were given an all-expense paid trip Tatooine – Machavity Jan 10 '18 at 19:54
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    @Machavity I'd be willing to believe Vader would do that to his prisoners as a form of torture. I hear he hates sand. – DaaaahWhoosh Jan 10 '18 at 20:10
  • Darth Vader (wait for it)....iced them. Badoom tish. – Valorum Jan 11 '18 at 23:05
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The film's canon novelisation indicates that Luke heard sounds of battle after the final transport (and the X-Wings carrying the remaining pilots) left the planet.

Given that Luke's ship was the last to leave and given that the soldiers had no capacity to leave the planet and no incentive to surrender, I think we can reasonably assume that any that were left behind fought valiantly to the death, knowing that every shot fired was a hammer-blow against the hated Empire.

Then, overhead, you see it: Han’s rickety old ship, still supposedly “the fastest in the galaxy,” shoots out of the south hangar and climbs up through the atmosphere. You smile. At least Han got out. Hopefully the princess, too. Yes. She’s in that ship. You can tell.

And then an explosion presses you into the ground. A wave of heat courses over your body. You are lying on your back, the snow rapidly melting around you, fire licking your chest. Then it subsides. You raise the blackened visor of your helmet. The snow walker is dangling from its own legs, a blackened husk. You get up and run.

On a remote part of the ice field, far away from the battle and the now-ruined rebel base, you trudge through the snow. A short distance farther sits your X-wing, a spaceship outfitted for one pilot and one droid. R2 is in his place. He’s the one who piloted it out here to the muster site, to wait for you. The last of the other pilots are taking off, leaving a strange sight: a spaceship, small and lonesome, sitting on the edge of a frozen wilderness. The sounds of battle seem very distant out here.

The Empire Strikes Back: So You Want to be a Jedi

The older junior novel mentions the soldiers being ordered to abandon their positions and flee for the remaining transport/s. It's certainly possible that some were successful.

Back in the trenches, the situation had become dire.
“Begin retreat!” shouted the Rebel trench officer.
A second officer commanded, “Fall back! Fall back!”
The troops responded, fleeing from the battle as the snow-covered ground exploded around them. The Imperial walkers fired their lasers at the running Rebels, continuing their advance toward Echo Base.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (junior novelization)

The original novelisation confirms the withdrawal of the troops (from their positions) but makes no mention of their success.

He tried to stand, but fell back against the snow, hoping he would not be spotted by any of the walker pilots. His comlink whistled, and somehow he found the strength to flick on its receiver.

“Forward units” withdrawal complete,” the broadcast voice reported. Withdrawal? Luke thought a moment. Then Leia and the others must have escaped! Luke suddenly felt that all the fighting and the deaths of loyal Rebel personnel had not been for nothing. A warmth rushed through his body, and he gathered his strength to rise and begin making the long trek back toward a distant formation of ice.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back - Official Novelisation

Interestingly, the Radio Drama puts a rather more hopeful spin on things. The evac groups were successful in pulling back and the destruction of the main tunnel slowed down the Imperials sufficiently that the final transport was able to leave with all remaining (e.g. living) Rebel troops on it.

WEDGE: This is the last evacuation group.

LUKE: You should be gone already. How come you're still hanging around?

WEDGE: Well, we sort of got delayed—a little of this, a little of that, while we were, uh—

LUKE: While you were waiting for me. Thanks, boys. What about the base?

WEDGE: The stormtroopers are already inside. Everybody who still could, got clear.

The Empire Strikes Back: Radio Drama

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They attempted to evacuate - some made it, some ran into Vader, the 501st or otherwise fell to the Imperial attack. The transports that we see leaving in The Empire Strikes Back do not represent the entirety of the transports off Hoth.

From the canon book Battlefront: Twilight Company

"What's our status?" The man rose on his toes over the trench wall and fired a volley of bolts before answering. 'Most of the transports made it out, but that shield's going down any second. Last word from command center was to fall back and finish evac - all troops, all positions'.

The hanger wasn't more than a hundred meters ahead of them. Whatever happened next, they'd be able to run for safety......the light at the far end had been blotted out by six humanoid figures. Five of them were dressed in white...flanked by the five stormtroopers was a figure in black. "Vader's here. Vader is here."

-Chapter 14

"He [Namir] was less certain whether his friends had died. He had seen the bodies of [character] and [character], could picture images of slaughter, of an Imperial walker crushing [character], of a blade of energy bisecting [character]..."

-Chapter 18 (names removed for possible spoiler prevention)

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    It might be better to just spoiler the whole Chapter 18 section. You removed a bunch of names, but you intentionally added one in and spoiled that this character lives. =) – jpmc26 Jan 11 '18 at 3:53
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    Not really a spoiler that the main character of the book would still be alive halfway through @jpmc26 :) – NKCampbell Jan 11 '18 at 14:16
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They left on the last transport. You can see it taking off as Luke (who had to walk back to the south slope) gets ready to leave in his fighter.

C-3PO confirms in his dialogue ("... we must take this last transport") that the ship in question is the last. A few people remained as long as possible on the ground, guarding the fighters, only embarking just as the ship departs. (The only person left for Luke to talk to at the take-off point after the transport leaves is Wedge, who is departing by X-wing.) In one of the books, it mentions that the ion cannon that protects the craft as they leave, was set to automatically fire one last volley to cover the final transport.

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The Battle of Hoth is a classic example of a delaying action, specifically a fighting retreat. The Rebel infantry units/defensive positions, as well as the snowspeeder air units, functioned as the rearguard for the planet-based portion of the withdrawal of Rebel forces. The ground-based defenses of Echo Base consisted of a planetary shield to protect agaisnt bombardment from orbit, and an ion cannon capable of (temporarily) rendering capital ships combat ineffective (with an honorable mention to the stay-behind operation involving fiercely loyal wampas). Since the Rebels went to the trouble of maintaining both systems in a defense-in-depth, they likely doubted that either one on its own would be sufficient protection (the shield alone wouldn't protect the transports in space and Imperial ground forces were capable of destroying the generator at range, while the ion cannon alone probably doesn't disable space-based destroyers long enough to complete an evacuation). An argument could even be made that the shield generator was also "bait" to keep the Imperials' attention occupied, in order to distract them from discovering the ion cannon (after all, once the shield is down, what's stopping the Empire from pulling back the ground troops and having the star destroyers level the place?).

Rebel Command recognized the fact that any Imperial offensive action directed against Echo Base would be comprised of an overwhelming force, and assumed they would have no real chance of a successful defense (as in a repulsion of the attack). As soon as they realized the Imperial transmission they detected was from a probe droid, the reaction was "We'll begin the evacuation." No gathering of senior command to discuss the situation, no waiting for enemy forces to arrive to gauge the tactical advantage, instead they had standing orders stating: if we are detected, immediately initiate an evacuation.

I say all that as evidence that the Rebels never intended to prevent the destruction of the shield generator, or to defend the base from an assault. They didn't have any delusions that they could accomplish that. Nor did they intend to make a last stand, as with the Battle of Yavin IV (first Death Star), where no evacuation was attempted (excluding the Millennium Falcon). Instead, the rearguard appeared to have two objectives: delay the Imperial ground forces advancing to within firing range of the shield generator, and following that, delay the assault of Echo Base until the transports are loaded and ready to withdraw.

You might think that a fighting retreat sounds very risky and difficult to pull off, and you would be correct. Historically, successful ones seem to be the exception rather than the rule. However, modern western-style militaries (which the Alliance and Empire seem comparable to) have generally developed fairly effective techniques, such as suppressing fires to try to force the enemy to halt their advance to find cover, coupled with bounding maneuvers (half your force shoots while the other half scoots, switching as needed) to move your own forces away and break contact. For an asymmetric conflict like the Rebel Alliance is fighting, there is often significant evolutionary pressure toward a high level of competence in that particular discipline.

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    Can you offer any evidence to back this up? – Valorum Jan 12 '18 at 18:19
  • @Valorum I don't have a statement by Lucas or anything, but it makes more sense to me than any other in-universe explanation. – Juggerbot Jan 12 '18 at 21:04

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