The burden and rigour of battle – Part 5


Battlefield decision-making in World War 2 was based on the assessment of terrain and other physical circumstances, the perception of enemy capabilities and intentions, and those of friendly forces. Tactical planning was traditionally derived from these assessments. Natural terrain was highly varied, and could be supplemented by extensive man-made enhancements, including concealment measures, obstacles, field and permanent fortifications, flooding, smoke, mines and booby traps. Many of these circumstances demanded specialist attention, through engineers, for example, or assault troops, specifically trained for a mission. The full spectrum of weapon types on the World War 2 battlefield included small arms and light support weapons, heavy support weapons such as mortars and heavy machine guns, tank guns, anti-tank guns, artillery and various flavours of air power. These weapon types gave troops the capability to project fire effects at different targets more or less efficiently at different ranges, through direct fire observed by the firer, and indirect fire, either observed by specialist spotters, or fired from map co-ordinates or at known positions. Air power by the end of the war gave the capability to carpet bomb large “boxes” on the ground with an effect similar to tactical nuclear weapons though without the radiation.

At company level and below, it was likely that troops would use or meet at any one time, only a limited range from the spectrum of weapon types. An infantry company would not contain all these weapon systems, but only the sub-set designated for use by an infantry company, primarily small arms, light and a few heavy support weapons. It might encounter other weapon types through specific support assets for specific missions, for example from artillery or armoured vehicles.

At the local level many weapon types might not be considered relevant, and modelling at this level can be considered less complex than at battlegroup level for this reason. For example, Phil Sabin’s excellent simulation Fire and Movement covers a 1943-4 WW2 British infantry battalion attack (12 rifle platoons and a machine gun platoon) against 6 depleted German rifle platoons. Weapon systems depicted include only small arms (primarily rifles and light machine guns grouped together), specialist support machine guns and off-map 3” and 8cm mortars. There is also a brief initial artillery bombardment by the attackers. The limit to the types of weapon systems included in the simulation is understandable, as it is “a simple grand tactical simulation of an attack by a British infantry battalion”, and it is designed to model “the interdependence of fire and movement” (quotes from Phil Sabin’s book, Simulating War). In support of my argument here, Phil Sabin admits that “Attacks would usually be supported by divisional artillery and by attached tank platoons, but this would add significantly to the complexity of the system…”. In fact, I think that this simulation better illustrates the style of attack at infantry company scale than at battalion or higher levels. Though the introduction to the simulation states that it focuses “on the employment of Fire and Movement tactics to exploit and overcome the terrifying suppressive effects of modern firepower”, it deliberately does not include some significant weapon systems delivering those fire effects, explicitly to simplify the simulation.

Conversely at higher levels, the impact of different weapon systems has to be more abstracted in a model, because the wargame is likely to deal with the combat power of larger units, at divisional size or above. This combat power is usually represented by numerical values, and perhaps variation in movement capabilities for armoured units.

At battlegroup level, capabilities and encounters would often cover the full spectrum of weapon types, with the exception of aircraft, which were generally controlled in WW2 either by independent or semi-independent air forces or by commands at army or higher level. Decisions at battlegroup level were therefore based on this full spectrum of weapon types, and it was the interplay of the weapon types and the efficient use of their combined effects that had a direct impact on the combat effectiveness of both sides and therefore on combat outcomes. At this level, co-ordination of the people with the different weapons systems was vital for maximising combat effectiveness against identified opposing people with their weapons systems. It is how to model this co-ordination, or the lack of it, that forms a critical part of the difficulty of wargame modelling at the battlegroup level.

Taking the Normandy campaign as an example, both sides had difficulty getting to grips with the terrain, especially the bocage country. New units invariably went through a learning process. On the Allied side, units were either green, having arrived from the USA or been recruited and trained in the UK, or were from a very different theatre, primarily from North Africa, and experience there was of little help in Normandy. On the German side, experience was primarily from the Eastern Front against the Soviet Army, where space could be traded for time, and the nature of combat was quite different from the close terrain and restricted beachhead conditions of Normandy, coupled with overwhelming British and US air and artillery dominance. These conditions at variance from expectations led to a gap between the doctrine in the books, the training and past experience on the one hand, and actual practical application of combat capabilities in Normandy on the other. For the Allies there was an initial expectation that the Germans wouldn’t defend, or at least, wouldn’t be able to defend, right at the beachhead, so that a mobile armoured style of warfare could be adopted, where the Allies’ fully motorised forces, coupled with air power, would have the edge. When this expectation failed to materialise early in the campaign, the lack of a combined arms doctrine from the British and the lack of experience of the US troops, added to the complexity and confusion in the practical application of the various weapon systems. For the Germans, few of their troops had experience of fighting against the British and Americans – very few units had any experience from Italy, which would have been relevant, and commanders from that theatre were not used much in Normandy. They also failed to apply their own operational and strategic doctrine effectively, partly due to interference from Hitler and others in the high command. This background demonstrates the complexity of implementing combined arms combat methods at battlegroup level in Normandy, and there is no reason to believe that other theatres and time periods in WW2 were less complex. Modelling this level of complexity is problematic. If critical elements are over-simplified or abstracted, incorrect inferences might be drawn from the model.

Modelling the effect of the combinations of weapon systems is necessary at battlegroup level, if we are to achieve insights from the modelling. Effects required include the destruction of vulnerable enemy forces by artillery, air power, and direct fire from tanks and other armoured vehicles; the suppression of defences before and during attack by artillery and direct fire from heavy weapons, finding out where the enemy is and isn’t (reconnaissance, including combat reconnaissance), finding and exploitation of gaps (reconnaissance and armour for speed, infantry to follow up in vehicles or not, and to hold ground), concealment (engineers, and the skilled deployment of infantry and other troops), protection from and destruction of armoured attack (anti-tank guns, hand-held anti-tank weapons, medium and heavy artillery, naval guns), destruction of infantry attacks (artillery, other support weapons, such as machine guns, mortars), defence from air power (anti-aircraft guns), creation, maintenance and enhancement of defensive positions (infantry with supports, plus minefields and other obstacles). Omitting some of these weapon systems from the battlegroup level model may result in false conclusions.

For example, if we omit the use of relatively few, relatively static armoured vehicles in defensive situations from our model of late war combat, we might conclude that defensive positions can be fully compromised in depth by artillery bombardments closely followed by armoured attacks with infantry support and a sufficiency of heavy weapons for direct fire suppression. Examples from late in the Normandy campaign (Operations Totalise and Tractable) tend in that direction, and led to conclusions about the efficacy of attacks using armoured infantry fighting from within their vehicles. However, it is clear from German evidence that, wherever possible, their positions were supported with relatively few, relatively static armoured vehicles, because without these, their scanty infantry forces did crack, even though the combat power of the very small number of vehicles might seem insignificant.

Different weapons systems were often in different units for command and control purposes. So, co-ordination via inter-unit communication was essential, for without this, disaster could happen. Modelling this aspect of combat is also critical.

Some examples from the Normandy campaign may help to illustrate this importance. On 7 June 1944 Canadian 9th Brigade continued with its D-Day orders, despite the circumstances having changed for the following day. Their advance was a narrow one by an infantry battalion operating as an advanced guard lacking in close anti-tank gun and artillery support. Though there was a supporting tank regiment, they were late coming up, and operated relatively independently down flanking roads, but without rigorous cross-country reconnaissance or co-ordination with the infantry. Accounts of the advance guard’s fate suggest little direction from brigade or division down to battalion level, a rigid adherence to a pre-set plan and insufficient co-ordination between infantry, tanks and artillery. Anti-tank and other heavy weapons were left in positions far back, where they were unable to support forward units, and the battalion command had to rely primarily on its infantry assets, being unable to co-ordinate the other arms, owing to failures of communication (with the artillery) and control (with supporting heavy weapons). In addition brigade was not able, or was unwilling, to deploy supporting units in time to prevent the forward battalion from destruction in detail. The advance guard was badly mauled and forced back to its start line by a strong attack from elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division.

Such failures of co-ordination were by no means the privilege of Commonwealth forces. The very next day, 12th SS Panzer Division’s highly rated and experienced regimental commander, Kurt Meyer, carried out a hasty night attack with a Panther battalion against the Canadians. His infantry support was limited to a small number of reconnaissance troops, because he had failed to ensure support from 26th SS infantry regiment, in front of the main target of his attack. Unsupported tanks were able to enter the target village, but lost many vehicles to accurate Canadian tank fire on the un-reconnoitred approach, and from anti-tank guns and PIATs within the built-up area. The attack was beaten off with loss.

It is difficult to model these actions in wargames. Wargamers, even armchair hobbyists, are unlikely to plan operations of this nature, because they may have already read the histories. In the cold light of day, they can appreciate the risks of unsupported advances and hasty attacks. Their own experience of wargames often exceeds the combat experience of real-life commanders, but the conditions of their combats are less stressful and therefore perhaps less prone to error.

Real life commanders at battlegroup level usually had some training at this level and often some experience, although the start of a campaign or the opening of a new theatre would frequently result in on-the-job learning from a low base. In most armies, training usually involved the inculcation of national doctrine. However, hobby wargamers usually don’t have this training or experience, and often have little background in military history. In addition, real commanders had more or less extensive staffs to help with planning, communications, logistics, intelligence and a myriad of other vital functions. Again, wargamers usually lack these experts, so much of the supporting infrastructure to the commander has to be abstracted in a wargame.

A couple more linked elements help to explain the difficulties of the human aspects of battlegroup level modelling: preconceptions and the fog of war. I’ll address those briefly in my next post.


2 Responses to “The burden and rigour of battle – Part 5”

  1. 1 John D Salt January 20, 2018 at 23:37

    “Air power by the end of the war gave the capability to carpet bomb large “boxes” on the ground with an effect similar to tactical nuclear weapons though without the radiation.”

    This was really a Normandy-only special; once the breakout had begun, Bomber Command and the Mighty Eighth were returned to what they considered their main effort, bombing Germany. No other campaign in WW2 employed strategic bombers in this way.

    • 2 benthamfish January 21, 2018 at 11:21

      Agreed. I confess that as my current wargaming work has been focusing on Normandy, I’m getting a bit too Normandy-centric. My statement is technically true, but I’d add a caveat.

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