The burden and rigour of battle – Part 4

Command, control and communications difficulties

Information could flow from sections, platoons and companies to battalion or brigade fairly quickly, owing to proximity, so decisions on action could be fast, usually verbal, and these levels of command could exploit tactical success rapidly. From there, communications upward to division and onwards were often slower. Distances were greater, the volume of information was greater, as it was coming from many subordinate units, and there was more analysis of the significance of information by staff on the way up. High command needed an overview of the situation, rather than excessive detail, so that it could give orders at divisional and corps levels, and this usually meant waiting for the big picture to come into focus. So, intervention from high command hour-by-hour was not usually carried out, and a wargame at higher command level can avoid the clutter of immediate communications friction by having longer game turns and representation of only larger scale units.

Examples include, on the Allied side, the need to wait for clarity of outcomes of the initial assaults on D-Day before changing orders (Dempsey’s halt order is one example). On the German side, the whole question of tardy intervention at the level of corps and above was influenced by a perceived lack of good quality information at that level of command, and particularly by Allied deception measures. Battalion, regiment and division commanders found this extremely frustrating, because they sometimes had clear and urgent information that they were unable to impress upon higher commands.

Information flow at battlegroup level was extensive. It was up, down and sideways to the flanks. Representing these information flows and their impact on decision-making at battlegroup level in a wargame model is tricky. In reality, communications took time. Either a commander or runner went to a command post to make or receive a personal briefing, often resulting in changes or clarifications of orders in response. Alternatively, telephone (landline) or wireless contact had to be made. Time was spent encrypting and decrypting messages, or in rare cases risks were run with messages in clear, using forms of verbal coding, such as code names for locations and units. Communications upwards went through many levels of the organisational hierarchy, with each level adding or taking away (or distorting) the messages, and each step adding to the time taken between initial transmission and receipt, let alone decisions on action in response. While direct communications between flanking units could be carried out relatively quickly, for example via liaison officers appointed to the task, co-ordination of the actions of units in different battalions, regiments, brigades or divisions, often required messages first going up the hierarchy, then back down a different strand of it. For example on 7 June 9th Canadian Brigade’s advance guard was unable to communicate directly with its supporting artillery regiments, and was also unable to liaise with additional available units that were not directly attached to it, because routing communications through brigade, division, corps, then to the full artillery command and control hierarchy proved impossible to carry out. This type of situation led to common difficulties in the meshing of activities at the joins between different divisions, corps and armies, and the vulnerability of troops at these joins. The British breakthrough in Operation Bluecoat was caused by a “joins failure”.

In place of this necessarily imprecise and sometimes flawed communications network, wargaming can have the problem of the “bird’s eye view”, where all those involved can see much of the contextual information about the situation on the tabletop or the board without the necessity for formal communications at all. Instead of difficult communications and combinations, it is often readily obvious to wargamers what actions could and should be taken, and an informal chat – “out of game” as it were – can resolve these difficulties without the modeller’s knowledge.

Command and control of subordinate units in the field was usually exercised in a formal sense, with command instructions flowing down the hierarchy, even though discussions between levels of command could and did happen. Wargaming, particularly hobby wargaming, is less serious than the real business of war, and the authority of senior versus junior commanders can be diluted, or in some cases, dissolved by the “game”. It’s rare that sanctions – such as dismissal on the spot! – can be taken, even in cases of gross violations of command and control norms, as this type of intervention by senior commanders or umpires could be seen to violate the social aspects of wargaming, and could wreck the continuation of the exercise.

Even more, the changing intentions of a group of players as a team on the same side, may be continually moulded and clarified by informal commentary during the wargame, in circumstances where communication and the exercise of command and control in the field would have been impossible. It is certainly possible to address this issue by arranging for the separation of command teams, or individuals, though difficult in hobby wargames. In one of our wargaming groups, we have regularly attempted to remove commanders-in-chief from direct interaction with the tabletop, so that communications about the current situation can only be via player interactions and reporting, but this is difficult to enforce. This should be easier in a professional wargaming environment with trained military personnel.

As we would expect, command, control and communications in a face-to-face wargame may be easier than on the battlefield, yet a wargame should attempt to model the real life difficulties. Typical solutions to this problem in analogue miniatures wargames have used player initiative points (PIPs), or some other method of randomising the vagaries of command, control and communications. In short, a dice is rolled or a card drawn, and the result is the activation of more or less units, or a specific but not predetermined sequencing of activation. This can reflect the inability of all units to act all of the time, or in the “right” order. However, there are difficulties with these outcome-based design solutions, because, though the effect may be to make the activity or inactivity of combat units look more “realistic”, a randomised method leads inevitably to the gaming of the probabilities concerned – “I calculate only a 1 in 6 chance of failure”, for example – rather than addressing the genuine concerns of communications, which were about both predictable and unpredictable delays, and friction caused by known factors, as well as by random ones. For example, the exercise of command and control during intense combat was more difficult than well behind the lines. A response to a request for artillery support may be delayed because of conflicting demands, but this is rather different from “I failed to roll a 5 or 6”, and seems pernicious if, in fact, the artillery was a dedicated support asset, on-call and with no conflicting demands.

Next…Capabilities…

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