The burden and rigour of battle – Part 6

Preconceptions

History, including military history, is partly about story-telling. A compelling narrative is important to making a point, and unfortunately this can lead to inaccuracies that look like compelling truths. Much popular experience of WW2 is gained from books, films and indeed popular wargames. Taking Hollywood films as an example, simple narratives are key. A classic example is the film The Longest Day. Here we see, at Omaha Beach, that frontal assault by bravely tenacious engineers, led by charismatic officers, wins the day against the odds, whereas in reality frontal assaults invariably failed, and almost all the strongpoints were taken by infiltration through flanking areas that were undefended or poorly defended, so that the strongpoints could be taken from flanks and rear. On other defended beaches, similar tactics worked, with the addition that close-in naval gunfire and direct fire from tanks, were able to carry out the essential suppression of the defenders. This is not to question the bravery of the assaulting infantrymen, who had a daunting task, but to note that the complexities of the combat situation can get overlooked in the need for a compelling narrative, and thereby the wrong lessons are drawn.

The popular wargaming audience is strongly influenced by the frontal assault narrative, which goes back through the First World War, and back to the era of the Napoleonic column attack. The WW2 Hollywood wargame needs there to be a good chance of success for the brave charge at the machine guns, and who can forget the famous Polish cavalry charge at the Panzers in 1939? For the simulation model, we need a better approach.

Fog of War

In reality, the WW2 battlefield could look extremely bare. Even in the midst of combat, often no enemy could be seen. There are many first-hand accounts that attest to the loneliness of the WW2 battlefield, the unseen enemy, even when the enemy was actually using heavy and noisy machinery up to 3 metres in height. A simple look at pictures of concealed infantry shows camouflaged positions could be nearly invisible, even very close up and in good weather. If we add a bit of mist, rain or even the shimmer of a heat haze, we have genuine fog of war. It seems a truism then, that hidden troops and hidden movement are essential parts of wargaming.

The fog of war caused by hidden troops and hidden movement is difficult to model in board wargaming, wargaming with maps and in miniatures wargaming. A popular solution within the miniatures and maps genres has been to use 3 sets of representations: one for each side and one master copy for the umpires. However, this is expensive in terms of time, resources and manpower. In many cases, and particularly in board wargaming, proxy solutions are used, such as dummy counters and hidden strengths. Proxy solutions can lead to ‘gamey’ problems, such as chasing shadows on the basis of limited evidence, rather than encouraging real life actions, such as effective reconnaissance. On the other hand, with umpires managing the fog, it is quite possible to arrive at realistically misplaced minefields and friendly fire incidents.

A particular issue that is difficult to replicate in a wargame is when a unit is shot at by troops it can’t see. In first-hand accounts from Normandy, this happened commonly, but only very rarely in many wargames. There is a spotting issue: the Normandy battlefield was often very bare, and even an enemy unit firing at you might not be seen. But in a wargame, we need to represent the troops somehow; there is a strong desire to put them on into play, although in reality they are “in play”, just not visible. Particularly in the miniatures world, there is a stress on the wargame as spectacle. Miniatures games have to look good to players and potential audience, at least in part because a visible, definitive narrative is perceived to be important. By contrast a more realistic simulation wargame may often leave the defenders hidden for most of the game, and only a small proportion of the enemy may be made visible to the other side at any time. In this circumstance there is much less spectacle, though there might be more understanding of the real situation modelled.

Next time… some conclusions.

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