The burden and rigour of battle – Part 2

Why might the modelling of combat at higher or lower levels be less problematic?

At higher levels (corps, army, army group, theatre), the focus of command was on the operational and the strategic. Decisions were vital at this level, but people in the higher commands relied on their subordinates at division and below to report on the situation on the ground and to carry out the nitty-gritty implementation of plans and variations on them. So, higher command decisions during a battle were dependent on the flow of tactical information to answer questions about how battalions, brigades and divisions were doing, and to provide information about the enemy. There was inevitably a loss of the granular detail of combat events in the transmission of information upwards, if nothing else to prevent overwhelming the senior commanders and their staffs with information, and thereby paralysing decision-making.

Reflecting this flow of information upwards in wargames at operational and strategic level means modelling through abstraction, typically through providing fewer unit representations (for example, counters in board wargames, elements, stands or blocks in wargaming with miniatures, unit graphics in computer wargames), and using numerical values to represent combat effectiveness, rather than delving into the characteristics of weapons or even of weapon types. In addition, time scales in game for operational and strategic level models are usually longer – a day, a week, a month – skating over detailed tactical events. These abstractions reduce the complexity of the combat aspects of an operational and strategic model, even if other elements, such as political context, logistics and strategic deployments, might make the overall strategic model more complex. Combat doctrine and the details of the organisation and utilisation of units below division level are generally not included, though they might be reflected in tweaks to the numbers. Examples of WW2 hobby wargames at this level include: World in Flames, Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, Axis & Allies, World War II: Barbarossa to Berlin, War in the East.

At a lower level – section, platoon, company – combat events were important for purely tactical outcomes, and there was only rarely operational or strategic impacts from the result of any single action. For the soldiers concerned, this was the sharp end of their personal experience, so I wouldn’t belittle its importance to them as individuals and small groups. However, in terms of the wider picture of combat outcomes and their impact on the results of operational and strategic engagements, decisions at the battlegroup level were vastly more significant. It is noteworthy that reading first-hand accounts from frontline soldiers who were not commanders at battalion or higher level, reveals little about the impact of small scale tactical engagements in the wider context of an operational or strategic action.

The complexity and type of wargames at the tactical level varies from the introductory (for a recent example, see Airfix Battles) to the highly detailed (for example Advanced Squad Leader) to the innovative (for example Up Front, Fighting Formations). The details of combat at the individual level are relatively easy to come by through the vast array of memoirs and first-hand accounts published and popularised. In addition, there is the canon of secondary sources to read and popular films to see. When we talk about World War 2 wargaming, this is very much the typical experience for players, and there are well-worn design mechanics, as well as significant innovation, in this aspect of the topic, with a lot of variation in the accuracy of the models, many preferring a good thematic feel and a high level of playability over realistic modelling of tactics. What might be referred to as “Hollywood wargaming” is the mainstay of tactical World War 2 commercial wargames design in board wargames, miniatures wargames and computer-based wargames.

There is a flood of examples of popular hobby board wargames at this level, including: Panzer Blitz, Advanced Squad Leader, Combat Commander, Memoir ’44, Tide of Iron, Conflict of Heroes and many more. Popular World War 2 miniatures wargaming rules include Flames of War, CrossFire, Bolt Action and many more.

There is also a small number of simulation wargames, rather than only thematic offerings. One example is Phil Sabin’s simulation game Block Busting, which models an attack by a reinforced infantry company in an urban area with the intention “to reflect more directly the key variation within the urban environment, namely the difference between the buildings, on one hand, and the open spaces…on the other.” This game is a variant of Professor Sabin’s game Fire and Movement. An important point about Block Busting is that it was designed with a specific purpose in mind, namely to model the problem of infantry combat in urban areas in World War 2, whereas the game systems of the earlier examples tend to be more generically about what could be termed “skirmish level” combat, often using unit sizes of 1 vehicle and a handful of men.

To follow, some examples from Normandy…

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1 Response to “The burden and rigour of battle – Part 2”


  1. 1 John D Salt January 20, 2018 at 23:36

    Mr. PIcky feels obliged to drone on at some length.

    “Decisions were vital at this level, but people in the higher commands relied on their subordinates at division and below to report on the situation on the ground…”

    Not really. See Martin van Creveld’s idea of the “directed telescope” for senior commanders in his “Command in War”.

    Monty had his “Phantom” GHQ liaison regiment; the Sovs assigned elements of ravzvedchiki directly to senior command levels, so they reported to them without intermediaries; the Wehrmacht in general, and Rommel and Guderian in particular, were famous for getting right up to
    the pointy end to find out what was going on, and Kesselring flew over the front in an Fw 189 to put himself in the picture.

    “So, higher command decisions during a battle were dependent on the flow of tactical information to answer questions about how battalions, brigades and divisions were doing, and to provide information about the enemy.”

    The information-processing view of how command systems work is popular, in the age of information-processing technology; but it is not the whole story.

    “The details of combat at the individual level are relatively easy to come by through the vast array of memoirs and first-hand accounts published and popularised. In addition, there is the canon of secondary sources to read and popular films to see.”

    I strongly disagree that it is at all easy to find out how combat really works at the lowest tactical levels. If it were, presumably defence analysts would not content themselves with combat models that are know to differ from reality in important respects — shots needed to score a hit, or length of a direct-fire engagement, say — by two orders of magnitude. If there is one thing that is certain about modern minor tactics, it is that confusion predominates. Old Nosey remarked on the difficulty of writing the history of a battle, comparing it to the history of a ball, in an era before nitrocellulose propellants, spitzer bullets, and high explosive had combined to empty the battlefield and make the tactical picture more muddled yet. Even if people recollect and report their experiences accurately, it is hard enough to make sense of them; and they don’t, partly perhaps because they do not want the whole truth known (for example Tolstoy in War and Peace says “He knew that this tale redounded to the glory of our arms and so one had to pretend not to doubt it”, even though one’s own recollection may differ), and partly because they don’t remember at all, as the stress response of their endocrine system mercifully washes away the memory in a tide of corticosteroids (see the passage in James Jones’ “WW2” about the inability of veterans to remember any detail of their experience on Guadalcanal).

    There’s a reason VN-era vets referred to combat as “Disneyland”.


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