Archive for the 'Miniatures' Category

Horses for Courses: cavalry charges in miniatures wargames

This post has been inspired by Dr. Brett Devereaux’ blog, A Collection of Unmitigated Pedantry – a look at the history of battle in popular culture. Brett is an academic historian (ancient history) at North Carolina State University. While his research interests are Roman economy and the Roman military, he has a broad and deep understanding of ancient Mediterranean history, including “the nuts-and-bolts” of everyday life in the ancient world, and a broad and deep understanding of military history too. His blog examines films, TV series, books and other artifacts of popular culture and their portrayal of battle and other military topics, critiquing them against his understanding of the topics as an historian. This is important in his view, and I concur, because the popular understanding of the ancient and medieval worlds – and later periods I might add – is coloured by their portrayal by Hollywood and Netflix. If you’ve not seen his blog before, I recommend you go and have a look at it – for cavalry in general, here; and those famous cavalry charges in Lord of the Rings here and here.

I’m going to be a bit of a pedant myself here. I want to examine in some detail how cavalry charges against formed infantry ready to accept the charge are depicted in miniatures wargames, and how these representations match with some historical evidence. I should stress that I’m not a historian, and my research is not comprehensive. Some of the issues here are controversial amongst military historians (and wargamers!), so I will start by saying that there may not be “a single simple truth” out there – it may be impossible to dissect the minutiae of cavalry charges because of the lack of incontrovertible evidence.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m restricting this blog post to cavalry versus infantry, and further to what I will term “heavy cavalry” versus “heavy infantry”. By the former, I mean cavalry armed with spears, lances, or swords whose tactical purpose was to charge and destroy infantry (and secondarily other cavalry), and who were often armoured and usually mounted on large horses trained for war. By heavy infantry, I mean close order infantry, whose tactical purpose was to form the front line in the battle, and to defeat the enemy’s front line in the battle (and secondarily to defend against heavy cavalry). In pre-musket days, these would usually have been armoured in some way and armed with long pointy objects – mainly pikes, spears, and the like. Later, these would be armed with muskets and bayonets. You might notice that I’ve not specified any particular period. I’m hoping that what I’ll say will cover the generality, from Alexander’s Companions (Hetairoi) to Napoleon’s Cuirassiers, though I’m remaining more tentative when thinking about very heavily armoured cavalry in the early modern period, particularly with fully armoured horses.

What happens when cavalry charges infantry in a miniatures wargame? I’m interested in a fairly typical wargame situation, where a line of heavy cavalry launches a charge at a line (or square in Napoleonics) of heavy infantry that is more or less ready, so I won’t be examining different formations, or cases where one side has been outmanoeuvred. My main examples here are the Napoleonic rules called General de Brigade (GdB), designed by David Brown, with De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM; by Phil Barker and Richard Bodley Scott) and Fields of Glory (FoG) by Richard Bodley Scott, Simon Hall, and Terry Shaw, as more generic examples each covering both ancient and medieval battles. There are many other rulesets out there that are relevant, and I cannot claim to be familiar with all of them! Don’t worry, I won’t descend simply into the “this is unrealistic” stance. I’m intending to be more nuanced.

Typically in a miniatures ruleset, a cavalry charge is governed by distance – is the cavalry close enough, but not too close – the morale of the cavalry, and the morale of the target infantry. Terrain, formations of the units, surprise, and fire at them, will almost invariably affect morale, as you might expect. If both sides have good morale, a melee ensues, and after some time, dependent on period and rules, one side will prevail. If the cavalry has bad morale, then its charge generally won’t go ahead. If the infantry has bad morale (usually strongly influenced be the observable fact that it is being charged by heavy cavalry – a discouraging circumstance), then the cavalry win the day, with greater or lesser certainty and decisiveness, again dependent on period and rules.

In General de Brigade, to charge, the cavalry must be within charge range of the target infantry and the infantry must be to their front. The cavalry formation will typically be a line. A formed regular body of infantry in close order receiving cavaly would typically be in square formation, though line with protected flanks is not unheard of. In simplified form, the charge sequence in GdB is as follows.

  • Cavalry must declare their charge, then they move half of the distance to the target.
  • They then receive fire from the target and any others in range.
  • At this point, the cavalry must roll morale dice, and they can only proceed with the charge if their morale is still OK.
  • If they succeed with this test, they “charge home”,
  • and the target infantry must roll morale dice too.
  • If the infantry succeeds, they stand, if they fail, they might retreat or rout. They might instead “falter”, possibly the most dangerous result, because they do not fall back, but suffer disadvantages in the subsequent melee.
  • If both units’ morale is good, a melee happens later in the turn.
  • If the infantry retreated or routed, the cavalry charge might still catch them, in which case a melee happens with the infantry at a terrible disadvantage.
  • The cavalry may be able to pursue.

In DBM, each individual element in the game acts as the smallest unit capable of independent action, though there are features that permit blocks of elements to act together. These features are vital in DBM, lest an element be flanked, leading to often critical attacker advantages against some unit types. There is no distinction between close up shooting (rather than at a great distance) and melee; it’s all assumed to be close up enough combat to count. This is important, because it means horse archers attacking infantry are not in melee with them! There is also no real concept of morale checks for charging cavalry or for charged infantry in DBM – these are to an extent factored into the d6 dice-vs-dice run-off at the element level, with modifiers for situation, terrain, and element type of attacker and defender. Instead, formal morale stuff is handled at the higher level of a ‘command’ – a significant proportion of an army – and then at army level itself. Heavy cavalry are represented by ‘knight’ elements, with ‘cavalry elements’ usually a combination of melee weapons and bow, though occasionally they could be classed as heavy cavalry. Heavy infantry would be primarily ‘spears’, ‘pikes’, or sometimes ‘blade’. A bunch of knight elements charging a line of spear-armed infantry elements from the front will be able to close to hand-to-hand combat. Combat factors (all other things being equal) favour the infantry; the knights gain +3 to the dice roll v other foot, the infantry gain +4, but with an additional +1 for extra ranks (pikes get even more for extra ranks). Each overlap (adjacent element with no enemy element to its front) gives +1 to the dice roll, so tactical factors like this are very important, particularly on the flank ends of a formation, even if the contact is front to front. On average, the infantry will win. However, we know that “on average” doesn’t happen all the time, and it can be worth charging and hoping, especially if you have a lot of cavalry. My own example is a number of Scythian light horse of mine, inexcusably trapped between my lines and the enemy lines; a charge into the enemy spears should have resulted in their demise, but they managed a rather unlikely breach, and we won the battle.

Field of Glory offers a further example, like DBM covering ancient and medieval battles. FoG has battle groups as its smallest formation that can act independently, each usually made up of several bases of the same troop type. Like General de Brigade, a cavalry charge has several stages:

  • Declaring charges
  • Responding to charges
  • Moving chargers to contact
  • Resolving combats for battle groups in contact

While there are complexities around wheeling, units that may charge without orders, and formation changes to avoid other battle groups, in essence a frontal charge is literally straightforward. Once it is established that a battle group can charge, the target can opt to receive the charge or evade (technically, there might be interception charges, but that involves more units, and not infantry ones at that). As it happens, heavy infantry cannot evade, so they must receive the charge. There is an Impact Phase for when the contact occurs, then later in the sequence of play, a Melee Phase, presuming that neither side has broken. There are Points of Advantage (modifiers, PoA) for combat dice rolls. In short, spearmen (“Heavy Foot”) get a PoA against “Knights”, “Cataphracts”, and other cavalry that we might term as heavy cavalry. A PoA basically gives the spearmen 4+ to hit on a d6, whereas the cavalry have 5+ to hit, and as it happens, this PoA is relevant for both Impact and Melee phases, though if one has heavier armour it will cancel out a PoA in the melee. Deep formations of pikemen will get an extra PoA to the great detriment of charging cavalry. If a battle group loses a close combat (Impact or Melee), then it must take a morale check – in FoG, this is called a Cohesion Test and reflects both morale and organisation, or lack thereof. Losing is a result of taking more hits than your battle group inflicted. Failure to pass a Cohesion Tests drops the battle group a cohesion level – Steady > Disrupted > Fragmented > Broken. Against Steady spearmen, the heavy cavalry charge is not expected to result in victory, though this would be an uncommon occurrence, rather than a rare one. Against Steady pikes in deep ranks, it’s very unlikely that the cavalry will prevail, because of the double disadvantageous PoAs (3+ versus 5+ in rolls). However, FoG like DBM is a d6 dice game, and with enough combats, very unlikely results are possible.

Let’s review this against some historical evidence, with particular focus on the close quarter interaction between the cavalry and the infantry, the part where contact is or is not made. Some of the best evidence derives from John Keegan’s seminal work The Face of Battle. His section on Agincourt is not really relevant to our example, as it deals with cavalry against archers, and I am not. Chapter 3, Cavalry versus Infantry, which provides examples from the battles of the Waterloo campaign is certainly relevant. The focus of the chapter is on French heavy cavalry – mainly Cuirassiers – charging British infantry, which happened several times at Quatre Bras and Ney’s cavalry charges at Waterloo, and British cavalry charging French infantry, famously through Uxbridge’s overthrow of d’Erlons attack columns. The main thrust of Keegan’s argument is that formed infantry invariably got the better of cavalry. “Formed” in this case means that they kept their formation and cohesiveness, presenting a bristling front of bayonet points and occasional volleys of fire towards their assailants. The key point here was that the infantrymen’s morale was not shaken sufficiently to disturb their cohesion as a unit. Where there was disturbance to morale through the unexpected appearance of cavalry, or where the infantry was caught changing formation leading to a collapse in morale (for example, 69th Foot at Quatre Bras), or a freak occurrence (for example, at Garcia Hernandez in the Peninsula War a dead dragoon horse “did not collapse until directly above the bayonets of the front rank”), the infantry could disintegrate. Infantry casualties could be great in these cases – possibly as much as 2,000 prisoners were taken from D’Erlons Corps during the charge of the Union Brigade at Waterloo – although many could escape by playing dead or forming small groups to discourage the horses. When in square with flanks protected, cavalry was invariably unable to engage the infantry at Waterloo in hand-to-hand combat, and instead suffered casualties from musketry till driven off.

Scottish Highlanders at Waterloo

A couple of rather older examples may suffice for further illustration. At the battle of Hastings, the English well-formed infantry remained safe from William’s knights on Senlac Hill, though not from his missile-firing infantry nor his own heavy infantry. Early in the long battle, only the attacks of the Norman infantry could help the Norman cavalry make any impression on the shield wall by creating gaps to be exploited. This was insufficient to shift the English, until an initial flight of the cavalry (whether feigned or not) encouraged parts of the English infantry line to pursue. After this first occurrence of “feigned flight”, William continued with these alternating tactics of infantry attack, cavalry support and flight, to provoke pursuit by elements of the English line that lacked the discipline to remain in place.

A bit of the Battle of Hastings, showing Norman knights

The third example is from the wars of Edward I against the Scots. At Falkirk in 1298, the Scots formed their heavy infantry – primarily pike-armed and used in deep formations (schiltrons) – in an all-round defensive position behind a swamp. The English knights quickly dealt with the Scottish cavalry and archers in combination with Edward’s longbowmen, but they could not readily disturb the schiltrons. There must have been contact, because accounts talk of heavy losses in horses at least. Several charges were made by the impetuous knights before Edward put a stop to it. Then, the English brought up their archers and the battle was effectively lost from the moment the shooting started, as the pikemen had no answer. As gaps began to appear in the ranks, the formations started to break up and the knights shattered them.

A charge at Falkirk

My small contention in this post is that our wargaming rules enable effective cavalry charges against formed infantry from the front, while the historical evidence suggests that this is nigh on impossible. Designers have properly recognised that heavy cavalry charging formed heavy infantry from the front will suffer from a disadvantage, but it seems to me that the extent of that disadvantage is often downplayed.

Unarmoured horses, such as French Napoleonic cuirassiers or Norman knights at Hastings, were, I believe, generally unable to make effective contact with the heavy infantry, which would have required urging a horse onto a wall of spikes. By “effective contact”, I mean the reality of a physical attack with a sword against infantry brandishing bayonets at the end of muskets, or with a lance against a shield wall bristling with spears. There is no evidence that unarmoured horses carried out effective impetus attacks by charging into and through lines of formed heavy infantry. This would not be expected, on two grounds: firstly, by definition there are no gaps for the horses to penetrate, and secondly, the horse is not a battering ram, and any attempt to use it as one would be disastrous for the horse. So, the horseman’s weapon has to be used against the defending infantryman, and the horseman with a sword is at a terrible disadvantage. From shoulder to end of sword is insufficient to reach an infantryman across his horse’s shoulder in a charge movement, and to lengthen his reach by avoiding the horse’s head and shoulder, he has to turn his horse, thereby denying it impetus. This then leaves him and his horse extremely vulnerable to a bayonet or spear thrust.

The Norman lance is a slightly better proposition, though it is worth bearing in mind that in the 11th century, this is not the couched lance of the high middle ages or Renaissance, but the overhand thrusting or even thrown spear. This might have some chance of damaging the shield wall, as these thrown spears could probably penetrate the Anglo-Saxon shield. However, this would not result in hand-to-hand combat, as contrary to Hollywood presentations, formed infantry do not immediately break up into a multitude of one-on-one personal duels, but rather they stay formed up and will happily deal collectively with any horseman careless enough to try to get within spear, sword or battle axe reach.

Heavy cavalry with armoured horses may be a slightly different case, though I remain to be convinced. It’s clear from Falkirk, and probably other late medieval or early modern battles, that impetuous (foolhardy?) knights did charge into pikes, and predictably suffered many killed horses and men doing so. I looked at Charles the Bold’s battles against the Swiss that he famously lost despite having ostensibly the most powerful army in Western Europe at the time, including many knights, eventually dying at Nancy probably at the hands of a Swiss halberdier, but in these examples the Burgundians seem to have been uniformly outmanoeuvred and scarcely able to mount a knightly charge at all. Most of the melees seem to have been instigated by the swiftly moving Swiss heavy infantry in situations where the knights were unable to manoeuvre effectively.

I would like to see our wargame rules cover this types of situation better. I contend that heavy cavalry on unarmoured horses cannot charge into contact against formed heavy infantry; charging heavy cavalry on armoured horses can make contact by some form of short-lived impact attack, but it would be extremely rare for this to do damage to the infantry. In neither case should formed heavy infantry be engaged in melee with heavy cavalry, as this is simply not a practical proposition. If the heavy infantry’s cohesion and morale remain good, the cavalry can do nothing, and should at least retire from contact, if not flee.

The implication for General de Brigade is that it matters not if the heavy cavalry pass their morale test; if the heavy infantry to their front stand, the cavalry will not complete their charge, and no melee will ensue. This is likely to be disadvantgeous to the cavalry, and the designer might well choose to have cavalry automatically fall back if this happens.

DBM seems more abstracted, more chesslike if you will, but nevertheless the outcomes are perhaps reasonably accurate at the element level, and the design of DBM does neatly do away with some of these difficulties in the interests of game play. With the concept of “recoil” in DBM, an element can separate from its opposing element, though the winner may sometimes choose to follow up and stay in contact. Knights recoil from spears and pikes if beaten (though are destroyed if well beaten), and cavalry will usually recoil from these troops if the cavalry don’t beat them. Only if the modified dice rolls are equal will full contact be maintained. However, it looks to me as if DBM has avoided the difficulty here by abstracting the concepts of formed troops and morale at anything higher than the element level. In practice, a bunch of knights/cavalry and infantry can still look like they are meleeing in circumstances where a melee would not have occurred historically, with the possible exception of knights with fully armoured horses. Instead, either the cavalry should bounce – recoil with no follow up, or flee – or the infantry should be destroyed. In fairness, it is quite possible that DBM’s potentially chaotic outcome, but favouring the infantry, has it right, but with no strict concept of ‘units’, it’s difficult to assess it conclusively.

In the circumstances described above, FoG has a much more organised view of things, as it depends on its battle groups for battle structure. The whole charge, impact and melee process is as structured as GdB, possibly more so. This makes for a good game experience, but has the same difficulty as GdB, in that we have formed heavy cavalry charging into formed heavy infantry, with impact followed by melee, and the attrition of losses causing one side or the other to collapse. Unfortunately, this seems to be historically incorrect, as shown by examples above, with the previously noted possible exception of cavalry with fully armoured horses. It’s possible to envisage an Impact Phase to reflect the charge, but if the infantry hold, melee is not practical, and the cavalry should be forced to fall back.

In conclusion, I’m proposing that charging cavalry will not close to effective contact with formed heavy infantry, with the possible exception of cavalry with fully armoured horses. By “effective contact”, I mean a melee engagement with the disorder of the cavalry and infantry that this implies. For the rather long-winded “heavy cavalry with fully armoured horses”, an impact is perhaps possible, but no follow-on melee unless the infantry break or at least lose cohesion. An advantage of this change is that the purpose of battlefield heavy cavalry becomes much clearer and more historically accurate. It is to place the heavy infantry at a sufficient disadvantage that it becomes disorganised or demoralised or both, and therefore vulnerable to a charge. This can be effected by manoeuvre, typically to flank or rear, or combination with other arms. A good cavalry commander will try to manoeuvre, not carry out a direct charge, except where the infantry are wavering. With the type of change I am suggesting, it may still be possible to carry out a speculative frontal charge. Perhaps the formed heavy infantry in front of the cavalry will not unreasonably quail at the sight of the massive horses bearing down on them, will lose their cohesion, fail to stand their ground, “falter” in GdB terminology, “disrupted” or “fragmented” in FoG, with terrible results for them. On the other hand, if the heavy infantry are able to stand firm, points to the fore, then all would be well for them.

Why might this be important? It’s not as important as the focus of Brett’s blog, which is to reduce the impact of misconceptions about history in the public mind. Wargamers are hardly the general public, after all. However, there are some aspects of some wargames rules that seem to me to take a mechanistic, or “gamey” if you like, view of some aspects of combat. Often, these issues are established by a false reading of history, or at least one lacking in nuance. There is a tendency for rules to enable offensive action, often risky offensive action, as a way of injecting more drama into the game (I like a good cavalry charge as much as the next wargamer!). But, commanders were often more circumspect than we plastic soldier heroes. And I think our rules should reflect this more, while still allowing the Marshal Ney in us to escape occasionally, but with predictably disastrous results.

Obviously, I have not here presented overwhelming evidence, but simply a small sample – as ever, further research is necessary.

Combined arms and command in hobby wargames – early thoughts

The following comments are a few early thoughts on combined arms and command in hobby games. I wrote a version of this brief note a while back; now I’ve finished reading Piercing the Fog of War: The Theory and Practice of Command in the British and German Armies, 1918-1940 by Martin Samuels, I hope to add a bit more depth to these reflections. I wish I’d read that book before Pete Connew and I wrote the Mission Command Players Manual, because it has an excellent analysis of British and German doctrinal development prior to and in the early part of WW2. It would be interesting to take this forward into the late war period, when practice, on the German side at least, was severely restricted by a lack of experienced officers and men, and a lack of resources in comparison with the Allies. Much of our development of the Mission Command game was focused on how the armies used combined arms to try to deliver successful outcomes. My comments below cover combined arms in WW2 and Napoleonics, owing to my recent activities.

In practice in the real world, co-ordination of combined arms is difficult, and this should be reflected in a model that includes command and control as significant features. This is both a mechanics issue and a decision-making issue for a game-as-model. Mechanics simplified for playability can make co-ordination easier or too easy, or too predictable for players. For example, in a WW2 game, calling in artillery by rolling for availability at point of use is over-simplified. You know in advance the probability of success and can factor that into your planning. Alternatively, if you must put the request in in advance, it has to be co-ordinated in space and time, requiring player decisions and possibly player interactions.

Changing and issuing orders takes time. This is doubly so, if you are trying to co-ordinate more than one unit. Again, in a WW2 context, withdrawing under cover of smoke requires co-ordination of the smoke and the withdrawing unit, which is probably under pressure! Command elements need to communicate both up and down, and sometimes sideways. Commanders must be free to communicate, and inability to or restrictions on communications is part of what Clausewitz called ‘friction’. Where mechanics in the game take away the human interaction element, they impoverish the environment’s friction. I’m suggesting that ‘rich friction’ is good in wargames!

It happened inadvertently in a game I played on Saturday. This was a General de Brigade 2nd edition game using the Katzbach 1813 scenario. Towards the end of the game the Prussian C-in-C changed the orders of a brigade to send it in a different direction – but the player moving it failed to implement the change and the brigade kept going on its previous trajectory. When this was discovered, the Prussians were allowed to rewind a turn and correct the move – in accordance with the changing orders mechanic. It would have been better to have retained the realistic friction generated naturally by the players.

More in some later blog posts.

Airfix Battles: Juno Regina

I’ve been dreaming up some scenarios for Open Battles, our working title for the extension to Airfix Battles. These are mainly D-Day ones (or shortly thereafter), based on a mixed old and new set of Unit cards and rules.

Rather than getting carried away with the expensive acquisition of actual terrain models, I decided to playtest using map boards derived from artwork from the original game, plus some fairly lame extra pieces of terrain that I’ve created in Photoshop. This all makes it easier to focus on design and playtesting rather than the looks of the thing, so bear with me.

My current Juno Beach board represents a piece of Nan Green beach, assaulted by the Regina Rifle Regiment supported by 1st Hussars. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve not attempted to replicate the full intricacies of either the defences or the attacker’s plan – this would complicate the scenario immeasurably and might threaten to turn it into more of a simulation that we would expect or enjoy.

junoBoard

A Piece of Nan: Draft Juno Beach board

This board has a fairly narrow beach; the beach landing squares are water+sand, the beach proper is 1 square deep. Then, there is the sea wall, displayed here as a normal wall Edge Cover, but tracked vehicles cannot traverse Sea Walls. Note that the slipway “road” is blocked by a concrete block, also Sea Wall Edge Cover. On the grassy “promenade” are a couple of pillboxes, providing inter-locking fire to the front. Behind them is a line of single storey beach huts, then a beach-side road – I think this would now be Avenue de la Combattante, but presumably a different name in 1944!

Courseulles is fairly flat, but there is a slight rise as you move into the town, as you’d expect coming up from the sea front. The buildings are also more substantial. Therefore, I’ve allowed that this would enable firing from the village itself towards and into the beach area over the beach front properties. Though not something you’d normally call a “hill”, I’ve represented this slope as a Gentle Hill in Open Battles terminology. This will be common in our Normandy representations where a few metres of height would be of great importance. More houses continue beyond this rise.

In terms of defences, I’ve provided the Germans with a couple of pillboxes on the beach front and a bunker on the rise into town. The Germans will also be able to stick down some barbed wire. For a more flexible game, you could allow the Germans to place all their Static Defences wherever they liked – mine is a starting suggestion.

In this scenario, I wanted both players to get some experience of the new equipment in Open Battles. For the Germans, this is primarily the Static Defences, and they have very few actual troops: a couple of PaK 40 guns, an MG section and some Osttruppen. Therefore the German player’s actions will be mainly limited to selecting targets, rather than any game of maneouvre. However, the bunker has height advantage on the beach area, so troops in there get +1 range, which may be significant.

I’ve also given the Canadians (using the British Unit cards) fixed Units for this scenario. Sometimes, you just have to work with what you’ve got. In this case, they’re fairly officer-heavy with a Captain for their tanks and a Captain for their infantry. New men and equipment include a Preparatory Artillery Barrage – unlikely to destroy the fortifications, but you may pin the occupants – Engineers, a Sherman DD tank (hull down when in water!), a Churchill AVRE (with Petard Mortar firing AT8) and a Churchill Bridge Layer.

 

Intro to 6mm

Being my first major effort at portraying Mission Command: Normandy troops in 6mm scale.

I’ve started with Mission Command: Normandy’s Introductory Scenario, which pits a British Regimental Group against a German outpost. This blog post just covers the ad hoc British Regimental Group used in the scenario.

IntroScenario_British_6mm

The whole shebang

The Regimental Group consists of an infantry battalion (called a regiment in British terminology) with a tank battalion (ditto), plus supports of a couple of batteries of 25-pounders, one of them self-propelled. The infantry battalion has 3 rifle companies together with a large support company containing 3″ mortars and 6-pounder anti-tank guns, as well as a hefty chunk of universal carriers with machine guns. The tank battalion has 3 Sherman squadrons, each with a 17-pounder armed Firefly element, plus an HQ with a couple of elements of Stuarts for reconnaissance.

TankRegiment

This shows the tank regiment. Each model represents 2-5 real tanks – at full strength, the regiment is over 70 tanks strong. We don’t model the internal structure of the squadrons, so each is represented by 4 models. The Fireflies were distributed on a ratio of 1:3 to the squadrons for the Normandy campaign. Although these were often distributed to troops, we show this as a single Firefly for each squadron. These squadrons are NOT deployed for combat (except perhaps for use in Operations Totalise or Tractable, as these used very unsophisticated tank tactics).

artillery

British artillery

Artillery: Here we have a battery of towed 25-pounders and a battery of Sextons. Note that British field gun batteries at this time were of 8 guns (in contrast to the German’s 4-gun batteries), so each is represented by 2 models. Each has a forward observation officer, the towed battery FOO is transported in a universal carrier, the SP gun battery in a Sherman for protection – for simplicity, we represent the latter as an unarmed Sherman; technically, they were armed, but in any case they had only 1 tank, so this cannot be used as an extra free tank element.

AtGuns

Anti-tank

This is the anti-tank component of the support company, consisting of 2 elements of 6-pounders, plus a couple of PIAT elements. One slight problem with 6mm is that it can be difficult to tell at a glance the PIATs from the LMGs, particularly Brens. These elements would often be parcelled out to rifle companies, rather than centralised.

InfCompany

Infantry Company

The British infantry company is modelled with 7 elements. 2 of them are full-sized integrated infantry elements, represented by 5 figures, usually 1 with a Bren. Then we have 4 reduced size elements: an LMG element, a PIAT element, a 2″ mortar element, and command element; plus a jeep for transport. This construction gives the company a lot of resilience. Each full-sized element can take 5 casualties – 3 will result in replacing it with an LMG element, then each reduced size element can take 2 casualties. So the whole company can take 18 casualties (plus the jeep). It also has some flexibility, as it can move its PIAT element under cover of terrain to protect tank-threatened areas, while the 2″ mortar can give supporting fire to most company areas in the form of smoke or HE, though for decent fire support the company relies on the regiment’s 3″ mortars and the MGs on the universal carriers.

The Regimental Group can easily be run by 3 players: a C-in-C in command of the artillery and maybe support company, while 2 players handle the infantry and tank regiments. A single player can run the whole thing – I’ve done this several times when teaching the game; take it relatively slowly with suitable umpire suggestions, and it works well, especially with wargamers already experienced at other systems. The important point to put across during the game is the command, control and communications situation; the tanks and infantry cannot communicate easily with each other once the action has started, and their lines of command do not link below the regimental group HQ.

Hell on Wheels 2: Frome Big Game for May 2019

Our Frome Big Game for May 2019 was a second version of the Mission Command: Normandy game we ran at Salute – All Hell (on Wheels) Broke Out. It was set in the area south of St Lo on 27 July 1944 during Operation Cobra, the American breakout
from Normandy. The scenario is mostly historical, but simplified for ease of play. The US aim for this stage of Operation Cobra was to break through the German positions south-west and south of St Lo, then strike to Coutances and the coast, thereby cutting off the majority of the German 7th Army and opening the way to Brittany. The German aim was to prevent the breakthrough, and later, to escape the encirclement. In the previous 2 days in the area of the front for the scenario, US 30th Infantry Division had cleared the way for the armoured advance, and the CCA of 2d Armored Division (Hell on Wheels) had broken through due south to Canisy. Now, CCB must create an angle of advance to the south-west and the roads to Cérences and the coast. The scenario starts in the morning of 27 July with leading units of US 2d Armored Division’s CCB advancing from Canisy.

The purpose of the scenario was to set the American players the problem of co-ordinating their forces quickly against a much smaller German force. Historically, CCB more-or-less brushed aside the mixed force of Panzer Lehr that the Germans pushed desperately at them here, then motored forward encountering little resistance for the rest of the day. For our purposes, we modelled the Advance Guard of CCB/2d Armored Division, consisting of a couple of tank companies, supported by 2 companies of armored infantry, 1 of tank destroyers, plus some reconnaissance and self-propelled artillery. It also had fighter-bomber support from P-47 Thunderbolts. To make a game of it, we boosted the Germans a little from their historical forces and gave them a day to dig in – so, only simple entrenchments and a small number of alternative positions. The Americans win if they can exit 3 companies (including 1 of tanks) off the German end of the table within 12 turns (2 hours of game time). This is effectively a 4 kilometre+ advance through the last German resistance and then off into open country.

For the Salute game, the Germans had a few tank obstacles, which had the effect of funnelling the American vehicles. This led to a bottleneck that enabled the Germans to focus their defence. With masterful play from Richard, one of our best MC:N players, the Americans failed to complete their conversion of the breakthrough to a quick exploitation. Holding up CCB would have meant that other components of 2d and 3d US Armored Divisions would have had more work to do. However, the purpose of the Salute demonstration game was to show off the MC:N system and that worked very well.

At Frome, we removed the rather unhistorical tank obstacles, widened the table a bit and modified both sides forces slightly. The Americans gained the rest of the tank battalion – as 2d Armored Div was a ‘heavy’ version, this consisted of a company of Stuarts – and the rest of the Field Artillery Regiment. The Germans gained a StuGIII element.

We had 6 American players, 2 German and myself as umpire. A few players had played at Salute, so knew the scenario. In fact, Richard switched sides to become the American C-in-C, while Lloyd flipped from American to German.

AmericanSetup2

American setup

North is at the top of the board for simplicity! The Americans took note of the cramped nature of their development in the previous game, so their setup involved an infantry and tank company (in MC:N, ‘joint activation’) in the south, a second such grouping in the north, with recce supplied across the full length of the stream, with the Stuarts concentrated also in the north. A second echelon was to be provided by the tank destroyers and various assets of HQ units.

Artillery firepower was concentrated in a regimental force, for smoke (initially) and then for pounding various targets. Though it didn’t cause many casualties during the day, this was because the Germans were not forced to defend in static positions – and the artillery fire did make them move once they had been discovered.

The American recce was extremely unlucky. The Germans had put troops well forward, including their tanks, so some recce were hit as they crossed the stream. Unfortunately, each separate recce group managed to fail their morale tests, so they were largely thrown back and unable to report on the situation till the follow-up troops had already crossed. In fact, this joint infantry and tank group in the north should really have been delayed, owing to lack of the recce information, but it was hit almost immediately by flanking tank fire, so it started to lose Shermans. Therefore, it launched its attack despite the recce failure.

Standing orders from the American players for these experienced troops was always to have significant elements in overwatch to respond to fire. This worked very well and the Germans quickly lost most of their tanks in forward positions… leaving some StuGs as their sole remaining armour component.

Note the knocked out armoured car element in the stream above. In the distance is a knocked out Panzer IV element that had been giving flank fire onto the Shermans, defiladed from attack by the southern group. It was destroyed by the northern group’s overwatching units.

The northern companies ran into entrenched panzerfausts in a patch of brush. Although they inflicted losses, the Germans were relatively quickly overwhelmed. The yellow cubes are suppression markers. Note the empty entrenchment marker next to the panzerfaust element – an HMG element has just legged it, as it could do very little against the armour. The tank destroyer second echelon is just crossing the stream.

DSC_0220

Southern companies advance by bounds

The southern companies advanced swiftly and by bounds against little opposition. The German tanks in the way were fixed on the northern advance and were dealt with by them, leaving the southern units with a relatively clear route.

In the picture above, the 2 leading Sherman elements (representing half a company) have taken up a position on the ridge – they will go into overwatch so the other elements of the companies can pass through to the village just out of shot to the south. Note the mortar elements at the back ready to give support by smoke or HE.

PoundingLeSault

Pounding Le Sault

This is one of my own iPhone pictures to show an overview of the early part of the American advance. Note the good spacing of the tanks in the bottom right of the shot, contrasting with the necessarily bunched up vehicles near the road. If the Germans had had medium artillery, this bunching would have been a problem for the Americans.

The StuG towards the top of the picture has engaged the Shermans with opportunity fire. IIRC, return fire was inhibited, because of the shoulder of the woods. Hence, the importance of supporting artillery and air power – Thunderbolts were used to try to shift the Germans. Although the aircraft didn’t do much damage, they were a concern for the Germans, as it proved difficult to impossible for them to hold their positions. Without time to dig in properly, the Germans were to find it a very hard day.

The village of Le Sault above was being pounded by US artillery. Meanwhile the leading infantry of the southern group was hit by mortar fire – red cube is a casualty, yellows are suppressions. This was a well coordinated advance. If there *had* been opposition here, the Americans were well prepared.

DSC_0232

Another advantage the Americans had was the ever-present Piper Cub spotter plane for the artillery. It was used primarily to continue to report the whereabouts of the StuGs, which therefore had to keep moving (largely back) to avoid reprisals from aircraft or artillery. Under MC:N rules, the spotter plane can stay in the air for 6 turns, so this was half of the game. It would have been vulnerable to antiaircraft fire, but in this scenario the Germans only had MGs and preferred to remain concealed. 2cm auto-cannons would have probably discouraged this brazen Piper Cub.

DSC_0236

Taking the center

Part of the northern group of companies flooded over the raised ground in the centre, accepting some light casualties, primarily from mortar fire. Personally, I would have been a little more circumspect, but fortunately the Germans were unable to respond with an artillery strike (they had only 1 battery of Wespe, and limited ammunition).

DSC_0237

The final ridge

The final ridge contained the main concentrated German infantry force – a single coherent element (in MC:N, this type has integrated MG and panzerfaust – this unit also has a command function).  An attempt to overrun it with half-tracks failed. It might have been better to have simply shot it to bits, but as speed was of the essence, I think an overrun attempt wasn’t a terrible idea. Note that it has now been suppressed thoroughly; each suppression is -1 on its chance to hit. As it is surrounded, it’s likely to surrender (in MC:N, if an element is forced to retire or retreat with no clear route, and enemy is within 5cm (100 metres), then it surrenders).

DSC_0242

Smoke at the enemy position

This smoke (above) was used to prevent the StuGs from engaging the Americans in the centre. It’s good practice to put the smoke close to the enemy position, to minimise their field of fire.

FinalAdvance

Final position

By the end of the game, the American infantry and tank companies in the south had exited to the left (west), to continue the exploitation with no resistance ahead of them. They were quickly joined by the tank destroyer company to confirm the American victory. Only mopping up remains to be done, while the StuGs will pull back north and west to try to fight another day. Note the empty abandoned entrenchments over the battlefield.

The last action of the game was a massive bombardment of the woods to the bottom left of the picture. As luck would have it, this was the exact position of the German kampfgruppe. They managed to flee with only light casualties; it could have been much worse.

For a more historical version of this game, keep the Americans as indicated, but remove the German’s StuG element, give them no alternative positions and no proper tank positions. It’s important then to focus very much on American command control. We now prefer to separate the C-in-Cs from the tabletop, so they have rely on subordinates to tell them what’s going on.

Pictures: mainly from Neil Ford’s excellent work.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 5

Blowing Hot and Cold

A key concept in Mission Command is that of a hot situation or a cold situation. Our reasoning is that when it gets “up close and personal”, troops react differently. There’s a strong tendency to keep down, to remain out of sight as much as possible, and generally to avoid being targeted. So, this leads to some changes in actions that troops can take.

A situation is defined as “hot”, if there’s a visible enemy within 25cm or you are shot at within 25cm. This is 500 metres on the ground, so danger is imminent. In some circumstances, you can be shot at within 25cm without being able to see the firing element sufficiently to return fire – you know that they’re “over there”, but cannot pinpoint the fire. You’re still hot. If 1 element in the group is hot, the whole group is hot. Otherwise, the situation is cold.

To understand what this means in practice, it helps to know what you can do with the elements under your control. An element has 2 actions in a turn, unless it’s suppressed, in which case it gets only 1 action. The main actions are things like Move, Shoot and Communicate, and there’s also a bunch of specialist actions like Hedgerow Gapping, Overrun, Demolitions and so on. There are some important restrictions on when an action can be carried out. For example, a Shoot action is only a first action. This means that it’s Shoot then Move, if you want to do both in 1 turn. In this case, the firing element will take a -2 modifier on the firing, representing the reduced time spent shooting because it’s also moving in the time period. So, it’s best to do some forward planning with your elements. Moving in 1 turn, then setting up in Overwatch in the next turn, will enable your forces to immediately engage an enemy group with fire when it comes into view, for example, by moving or by firing itself and thereby revealing its position.

In a cold situation, an element can Move Twice (capital M, capital T) as 1 action. This means it moves up to 2 times its normal movement rate in 1 action. It can then do another Move Twice action as its second action, resulting in it moving 4 times its normal movement rate in 1 turn. An infantry element has a normal movement rate of 5cm (100 metres on the ground), so in a cold situation it can move up to 20cm or 400 metres. This enables us to overcome a common wargame difficulty that troops are fixed to a single, usually relatively low “combat movement rate” regardless of the actual circumstances. As a contrast, in a hot situation, our infantry element cannot do Move Twice actions, but only Move Once actions. It could therefore move up to 10cm or 200 metres in a single turn (2 Move Once actions), half the rate when it’s cold. But doing 2 Move actions in a single turn counts as moving fast, which makes the element more vulnerable to fire, so a more cautious movement is to do a single Move Once action in the turn. Furthermore, if the element has been shot at and suppressed – a relatively common occurrence – it only has 1 action anyway, so can only carry out 1 Move Once action, for 5cm or 100 metres in 1 turn.

Communication is a vital part of Mission Command, and is carried out through Communicate actions. It’s worth noting here that, with only 2 actions, an element cannot Shoot, Move and Communicate in the same turn – you have to choose. In a cold situation, Communicate can be a first action, a second action, or conceivably both. An element receiving a new order as its first action can then start to do it as its second action. However, in a hot situation, troops are more keen on staying alive than communicating, so Communicate can only be the last action of the 2 actions allowed for the element. So, it’s slower to change orders, report back or share information when bullets are flying round your head. This includes Forward Observation Officers in particular, as it can slow down calling in artillery support.

We give numerous examples of hot and cold situations in the Reference Manual and in the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement.

p25_tanksSmoke

A bit of a hot situation

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 4

21 into 6 Won’t Go

hh:mm, 6 June 1944

The evening for the Germans has been unpleasant. Although our weather experts had suggested that the invasion was possible during 5 and 6 June, the weather hasn’t been particularly good, so we hadn’t really anticipated it. Some of our troops had even been on exercises overnight, with blank ammunition. The waiting was expected to continue, and everyone has been enjoying the Normandy butter, cheese, ‘crème freche’ and cider.

05:30 variant: From soon after midnight, local commanders received reports that paratroopers were dropping and gliders were landing in the area of operations. All units were alerted, and local resistance ‘in situ’ was ordered. Very soon the first prisoners were taken. Interrogation has revealed that the British 6th Airborne Division jumped during the night in order to take the bridges over the Orne at Ranville intact. In addition, paratroops have been reported from near Bayeux through to the Seine estuary, with many obviously targeting bridges across the Dives. It’s not yet clear whether this is a raid or the start of the invasion.

It is now 05:30. General Feuchtinger (CO 21st Panzer Division) has been in Paris for a few days and has not yet returned. Unfortunately the Division’s chief of staff is also away, so the Division’s overall leadership has not yet got a grip on the situation. Fortunately Rommel at Heeres Gruppe B HQ has acted quickly, has placed the 22 Panzer Regiment commander (Oberst Oppeln-Bronikowski) in temporary command and given direct instructions to the more junior staff at post. Rommel himself is expected at Divisional HQ in St Pierre sur Dives shortly. Combat formations of 21 Panzer Division have set up all round defensive positions during the night, and have started local counter-attacks. Our standing orders are to go into action immediately in the event of an airborne landing, using all available local forces, and including the whole division. In the absence of Feuchtinger, Rommel, via 7th Armee, has attached the Division to 84th Korps (General der Artillerie Erich Marcks) and ordered it to attack the airborne troops in its area, including in particular those around the Orne bridges to the north and those threatening Caen and the Dives bridges.

10:00 variant: As paragraph 1 in 05:30 variant above, then…

Fortunately, Rommel had managed to persuade Hitler that a face-to-face conference initially planned for early June should wait, so the German high command has been able to get some grip on the situation. Unfortunately, communication with Heeres Gruppe B during the night has been disrupted, and orders for a night attack had not been given. So 21st Panzer Division had set up a defensive front during the night and early hours of the morning, while the coastal division (716) has been subjected to extreme assault. General Feuchtinger has been in Paris for a few days, but has returned immediately on receipt of news of the attack. He has received orders from Rommel to organise an attack by the entire Division against the easternmost beaches and the airborne forces to the north. It is now 10:00.

Historical variant: As paragraph 1 in 05:30 variant above, then…

“Gradually we were becoming filled with anger. The clearance for an immediate night attack, so as to take advantage of the initial confusion among our opponents, had still not come… The hours passed. We had set up a defensive front where we had been condemned to inactivity… But clearance was strictly denied… If Rommel had been with us instead of in Germany, he would have disregarded all orders and taken action… Finally, [we’ve been ordered] to attack at once, with the whole division, east of the Orne…” [from Panzer Commander, The Memoirs or Colonel Hans Von Luck]

But now new orders have come from 7th Armee: “The bulk of the 21st Panzer Division will attack the enemy forces that have landed west of the Orne; only elements of von Luck’s combat group will attack the bridgehead east of the Orne.”

It is now 16:20 (!) and the attack starts.

Frankreich, Rommel bei 21. Pz.Div.

Rommel inspects the 21st Panzer Division

The purpose of this scenario, or rather set of scenarios, is to give some insight into the tactical situation facing the 21st Panzer Division and British 6th Airborne Division on 6 June 1944. As there is more coherent information about what happened on the eastern side of the Orne around Ranville than the western side around Bénouville, I’ve focused most of the action on the Ranville side. With up to 4 players per team, we recommend that the forces should consist of around a Brigade or so; roughly 2 to 4 battalions plus supports. Historically, Von Luck’s kampfgruppe (east side of the river) consisted of:

  • 4th Company, Panzerregiment 22 (Kortenhaus’ outfit, which is one reason his book covers this in some detail; see Notes from the Front 3)
  • 2nd Battalion, 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment
  • 9th and 10th companies
  • 3rd Company, 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment
  • Assault Gun Battalion 200
  • Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 21 (though this didn’t arrive till after midnight, so can effectively be discounted)
  • Elements of 716th Infantry Division

The British had 5th Parachute Brigade. On the eastern side of the Orne, this consisted of 12th and 13th Parachute Regiments, plus D Company, 2nd Battalion, the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry, who had taken the bridges in the night. Plus supports. This, again, provides a solid set of forces for up to 4 players. With more players, it’s relatively easy to add in a small force on the western side of the bridges; 7th Para Regiment for the British and some companies from 192nd Panzergrenadiers, including their 8th heavy company for the Germans.

Both parachute battalions were comparatively weak early on, but later in the day they got stronger as more paras rallied to the drop zone. Therefore, it’s important to increase the parachute battalions’ starting strengths when playing later variants. For example, 3rd Company of 13th Regiment was dropped wildly astray, so this unit can either be omitted entirely or included as a fairly random late reinforcement.

One of the important things to bear in mind in this set of scenarios is that the British forces here are by no means the lightly-armed troops surrounded by masses of Panzers that legend would have us believe. Supporting forces included a strong battery of AT guns landed by glider that we represent by 3 6-pounder models and 1 17-pounder model. The paras also have access later in the day to 3 25-pounder batteries of the 76th Field Artillery from 3rd Infantry Division, as well as 6″ and 4″ naval gun support from HMS Mauritius. The naval guns are the equivalent of 4 medium artillery models and 2 field artillery models. So, from mid-morning at the latest, 5th Parachute Brigade will be able to use as much artillery firepower as the whole of 21st Panzer Division’s complement. However, in the earliest time variant, this firepower will not be available at the start.

HMS_Mauritius_firing

HMS Mauritius firing

Both the inaccurate drops of the paras and the disparate left behind elements of 716th Division can be modelled by the use of pre-written Event Cards. These can be pre-programmed as timed “injects” into the scenario, or used through the umpires judgement to spice things up. A further fun event that we’ve used is the intervention of the German navy, as depicted in this photo (in contrast to the one above).

GermanNavyInAction

German gunboat on the Caen Canal – 6 June 1944

Details of 21 into 6 Won’t Go are on our website.

Mission Command: Normandy – Update on production

The Reference Manual is now being printed! Copies should be here in less than a week. A second proof of the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement is due shortly, then I’ll press the button on that one as well. I needed a second proof because I’ve made a few last-minute additions I’d like to check on paper.

The lead times have always impressed me (I’m easily impressed!) about producing wargames rules, rather than my more usual board games. With the wargames books, once the layout is done, I can have copies here from Lulu within a week (sometimes quicker), whereas making board games – wooden pieces, much cardboard, cards, rulebook, and so on – can take up to 10 weeks from a UK or Europe manufacturer, not to mention further flung factories. Even a small card game can take 4 weeks, though a print-on-demand outfit can be quicker.

What do you get in our Mission Command: Normandy package? The Reference Manual and the players’ supplement are full-colour inside and out A4 paperback books. In addition, we have lots of support materials – scenarios, chits, area fire templates and play aids – available for free download from our website (http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand/).

The Reference Manual is 128 pages long, aimed at umpires, those running or organising games and keen players. In addition to the sections you’d expect about the rules (sequence of play, actions, command, terrain, movement, shooting, spotting, morale and air), it has a section on how to umpire the game, including how to write your own scenarios. It has extensive tables at the back for reference, plus some sample unit organisations. The umpires section has an introductory scenario for umpires to use as an introduction to new players.

Playing Mission Command: Normandy is the supplement for players. It’s 80 pages long and is aimed at introducing the game, but without overwhelming players with the technicalities. It’s focused very much on getting inside the game quickly and easily. However, it’s not absolutely essential to read or own the book to play the game – it’s a helping hand. The introductory scenario in the Reference Manual is repeated here, but naturally only the material for players is included, and there’s a wealth of information about how to get started. The book also has sections on how to fight using the three main national forces in Normandy, the British and Commonwealth, US and German armies. We’ve focused on differences between these armies and how they’re reflected in the command, control and communications setup. The final part of the book is a fairly extensive example of combat, for which we’re also producing a video.

All this means that we’ll be ready for Salute in just over 3 weeks time! Now, where’s that scenario I’m writing…

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 3

21st Panzer Division, neu

An early part of my research into Normandy ’44 for the game was to look at 21st Panzer Division. As the closest Panzer division to the beaches, I figured it was a reasonable place to start, especially in the light of the controversies  – or discussion points at the very least – about the division’s D-day counter-attack. I thought it might be an idea to present a multi-variant “what-if” set of scenarios looking at this. It also meant I could indulge in getting hold of models of some of those French conversion vehicles produced by Major Becker’s workshop; the U304(f) half-tracks, Hotchkiss tank chassis with PaK 40, the 10.5 and 15 cm guns on Lorraines, and so on. This mini-project was assisted greatly by the publication of Werner Kortenhaus’ history of the division, initially in German and later in English. This source gives authoritative details of the strength and deployment of the division, so could form the basis of the scenario from the German point of view. There are, of course, loads of books in English on the British, Canadian, French and Polish units.

21PzDiv-PzGr-125-1-1Ko-3

Most of a “gepanzert” Panzergrenadier company

Representing these units for 6 June 1944 in Mission Command: Normandy isn’t particularly difficult, though some care is needed in regard to some of the French converted vehicles and the tanks of II/Panzerregiment 22. At this point the division was pretty much wholly up to strength; there’s even a 1 June strength return to refer to. A Panzergrenadier company looks like this in our command card structure:

  • Coherent infantry element with command
  • 2x coherent infantry elements
  • HMG element
  • 4x U304(f) half-track elements
  • U304(f) half-track element with 3.7cm gun
  • U304(f) half-track element with 8cm mortar (with support element for dismount)

The “coherent” elements each have small arms, LMG and Panzerfaust capability and can fire 2 of these 3 weapon systems each turn. Most U304s had a forward-firing LMG mounted on it and a further pintle-mounted one on the back, and this multiplies up the number of MGs in the company considerably. Also, these French conversions (the original vehicles were unarmoured, the German ones are armoured) count as small vehicles, so they’re slightly harder to spot. Theoretically the vehicles can give supporting fire. However, that’s a dangerous practice, because they are very vulnerable. They have only Armour Class 1 (the weakest class) and can be knocked out by almost any AT weapon that hits; even an HMG has a 50% chance up to 300 metres away. The LMGs on the half-tracks were often used to supplement the AA defence of the battalion, which consisted of 3 2cm FlaK 38 mounted on half-tracks. The 3.7cm gun model (at the back in the picture above) represents the platoon leaders’ vehicles. I suspect the 3.7cm gun wasn’t used much at this stage of the war. The mortar could be used from the vehicles, or the element can dismount and use it conventionally.

21PzDiv-PzGr-125-1-1Ko-5

Close-up of the U304(f), converted French Unic P107

The full Panzergrenadier Battalion has 3 of these companies, plus a 4th heavy company with PaK 40 guns on Somua half-tracks, plus the U304s with FlaK 38. Unusually, the first battalion of each of 125th and 192nd Panzergrenadier Regiments was “gepanzert”, the other 2 battalions were lorried. The Regiments also have a 9th company with 15cm guns on the Lorraine tractor and a 10th company with “Reihenwerfer” (20 French mortar tubes on the Somua half-track). The other artillery pieces of the division are mainly 10.5cm field guns on the Lorraine tractor, with a smattering of horse-drawn (!) 122mm Russian guns.

21PzDiv-125-1-advancing

Panzergrenadier Regiment advancing; Reihenwerfer and 15cm guns on Lorraine tractors at the back

The tanks of Panzerregiment 22 are quite interesting. While initially the division wasn’t allowed to have German equipment, hence the French conversions, by June 1944 the division had been strengthened by replacing obsolete French tanks with Panzer IVs (not Panthers and Tigers as Allied intelligence surmised). Incidentally, the reconnaissance battalion was equipped, I think entirely, with German vehicles, probably because there were no suitable or reliable French equivalents. The 1 June strength return suggests that the whole of the 1st battalion of Panzerregiment 22 was equipped with Panzer IVHs, while the 2nd battalion still had only about 40% Panzer IVs, the rest being a mix of Somua S35 and Hotchkiss H38 vehicles. On the other hand, there are references to the rest of 2nd battalion having Panzer IVs “in June”, so I like to think that a couple of companies of Panzer IVs were rushed to the regiment at Falaise still in their factory paint jobs! There seems no evidence that the French tanks of the division were used in anger, which must have been a relief to the crews.

Our representation of Panzerregiment 22 would be as follows (roughly 4 real vehicles to each model):

Regiment HQ: Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen III (command)

1st Battalion

  • Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen III (command)
  • 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th Companies: 4 Panzer IVH

2nd Battalion

  • Panzer IVH + Panzerbefehlswagen Somua S35 (command)
  • 5th: 2 Somua S35, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 6th: 3 Somua S35, 1 Hotchkiss H38, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 7th: 3 Somua S35, 1 Panzer IVH
  • 8th: 2 Panzer IVE (with short 7.5cm gun)

Or, replace the Panzerbefehlswagen Somua S35 with a Panzer III and all obsolete tanks with Panzer IVH; for the 6 June scenarios, paint them with the dark yellow factory paint only and no camouflage, presuming the crews had no time to paint them up properly.

More about the scenario next time.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 2

Scales

One of the first questions I hear from fellow wargamers is often “What scale (of miniatures) is it for?”

As a member of the “cardboard chits are fine” school of wargaming, I’m not offended by the use of unpainted figures on the tabletop, or the use of a block of wood with “Sherman” scribbled on it for a tank . I’m not really concerned about over-sized or under-sized models, or whether a piece of cloth can adequately stand in for a cornfield. So, as you might suspect, the design of Mission Command is not focused on a particular scale of figures. Instead, it’s basing that is important; not absolutely vital, but important.

We use 50mm frontage bases for full-size infantry elements, and around half that for reduced-size support elements. This means you can use troops from various other popular game systems. The full-size infantry elements have 5 or 6 figures, the reduced-size support elements 2 or 3; these are just for ease of recognition, so you could use other numbers of figures on the bases. With a 1 millimetre to 2 metre ground scale, this gives us an infantry element of 25 to 50 men a frontage of about 100 metres. A closed up company group could have a frontage of, say, 200 metres on the ground, while it could be extended, with up to 5cm gaps between elements to maintain communications, to about 500 metres, and even more with fixed line communications. The important thing is that players can readily see what the stuff represents. Similarly with vehicles. Frontage for vehicle models, each model representing 2 to 5 real vehicles, is 25mm to 30mm. Depth of bases isn’t critical.

Main Attack

The fairly minimalist approach to visuals

We don’t track time accurately. This is quite deliberate, because we were conscious of that “hurry up and wait” feeling expressed by many in combat; not much happens for a long time, then it all happens at once. So, a round (1 turn per side) is a variable length anywhere between 2 or 3 minutes up to a quarter of an hour. If the scenario requires people to know about durations, we use an average of 10 minutes per round. Interestingly, this gives us real time and game time at about the same pace in a moderately sized game with experienced players.

How to model infantry organisation was a bit of a challenge. We wanted to show different weapon types, so that decisions on where to deploy troops was important, but we didn’t want to overload players with micro-management. Our compromise was to make a “group” of elements of company size the smallest unit that would normally receive orders. This meant we didn’t need to model organisational structures below company level (platoons, and so on), but we could show the firepower capabilities of a company, together with its resilience. In addition, players can quickly “do the same thing” with all the elements in a company for speed of play. We have the full-size infantry elements with small arms and integrated LMG firepower (together sometimes with anti-tank, such as bazookas), and the reduced-size with only 1 weapon type, LMG, HMG, PIAT, flamethrower and so on. The larger element has the ability to absorb 3 casualties, then be replaced by a reduced-size element. These smaller “support” elements can only absorb 2 casualties. This means that in total a company group can absorb between 15 and 20 casualties. In contrast, a tank squadron would be about 4 models, each 1 representing 2 to 5 real vehicles. But each hit destroys a model, so armoured vehicle elements have a lot of firepower and manoeuvrability but little resilience, so they can’t really hold ground.

Gun elements are similar to tanks, 2 to 5 real ones per model, usually with separate vehicle tows represented by vulnerable vehicle models. Aircraft too are the same numerical scale as tanks (2 to 5 per model), but pretty much any physical scale will do – they’re up in the air after all.

In essence, the purpose of the figures and models is simply to represent the real thing, such that a participant can recognise what they are (though a German tank can always be represented by a Tiger till it can be seen close-up!). The game is not prescriptive about cosmetics, though we do try to make it look good for exhibition games.

A tanker's eye view from our Villers-Bocage scenario at Salute 2018. Courtesy of Neil Ford.

One of my favourite pictures. A tanker’s eye view from our Villers-Bocage scenario at Salute 2018. Courtesy of Neil Ford.

Oh all right… we normally use 15mm figures, because that’s what our main Frome group of players generally wants to use for WW2. However, I also recommend using 6mm figures, because its much cheaper.

Mission Command: Normandy – notes from the front, 1

The full colour, final published release version of Mission Command: Normandy will be launched on 6th April 2019 at Salute in the London Excel centre. It’s been many years a-coming; my archives go back to 2007, and our first game approximating to Mission Command took place on 5th April 2008. In recognition of this very long gestation period and the release of the final Reference Manual and Playing Mission Command: Normandy players’ guide, I’m writing a few blog posts to describe the game.

Mission Command: Normandy Reference Manual cover

Reference Manual cover

In short, Mission Command is a system for umpired World War 2 tactical and operational level simulation-style wargames using miniatures. It’s designed by myself and my brother-in-arms Peter Connew. Pete leads the Abbeywood Irregulars, a now Frome-based wargamers group. Both of us have been playing and designing wargames for several decades in a variety of periods. Although we’ve played the Mission Command system across several theatres – mainly late war Normandy and Eastern Front, but also dabbling in the North African theatre with our late friend Stephen Welford – when we decided to publish something, we focused on Normandy 1944. This was largely because we’d played more games in this theatre than any other, and we had ready access to figures and interest from our compatriots in the Abbeywood Irregulars.

Part of our reason for starting and finishing this project was that we (and our fellow Frome-ish wargamers) were dissatisfied with the then-existing WW2 miniatures rules back around 2007. This is, I hope, reflected in our stated Mission Command approach, which:

  • captures the essence of tactical and operational combat command from roughly company level to division level without real warfare’s bloodshed, fear, death and destruction
  • models the differences in how different armies fight
  • reflects World War Two practice of tactical and operational command, control and communications.

Looking back at a designer diary I wrote back in 2015: “We favoured gritty realism over slick presentation, and historical authenticity over ‘hollywood wargaming’. We weren’t afraid of weighty tomes (for Napoleonics, our favoured rules were General de Brigade), nor did we shy away from excessive versioning or as some might put it, correcting, of published rule sets (DBM with slips of amendments stuck in was favoured over the more professionally presented Field of Glory).” So, we were prepared to go for more of a simulation approach than most modern wargames, while still retaining the idea of a “fun, but serious” experience.

The Mission Command system is not a “professional wargame”. It’s not been designed with the education and training of military people in mind, nor for the purposes of analysis, and therefore it lacks explicit evaluation and debriefing sections. The game system can, I believe, be readily adapted through scenario design to more educational or analytical purposes, and we do try to “offer a safe, vicarious reflection of some of the situational and decision dynamics associated with armed conflict” (Professor Phil Sabin, Connections UK, 2013). We hope that our umpires and players might learn something, as well as participating in an enjoyable and challenging wargame.

Mission Command addresses a problematic command level for wargames, namely between battalion and division. So, it doesn’t have only a small number of troops, as in a skirmish game, and neither does it go up the scale sufficiently to abstract out the difficulties of different troop types and their interplay. Quite the opposite: we attempt to take on the difficulties of command, control and communications (as well as the mechanics of moving the troops around and shooting at things) at the level where there is immense articulation of units, and where local tactical success might be converted into operational achievement. Regarding the complexity of this task, we worried about throwing the baby out with the bathwater, something that we fear can happen with wargames that over-simplify combat at this level for reasons of playability. On the other hand, we naturally wanted a playable game, so we’ve simplified things where necessary in an attempt to keep the baby in the bath, while reducing the water to manageable levels. Ahem.

In terms of playing Mission Command: Normandy, it’s all about scenarios. While the Reference Manual gives the umpires or other game organisers guidance on setting up and running the game, and the Playing Mission Command: Normandy supplement describes the game for players, the experience of a specific game lies in the historical or pseudo-historical scenarios designed for it. Some of these are available on the Mission Command website, and others will be designed by other groups. Our hope is that the processes of designing, playing and reflecting on these scenarios will lead participants to a greater understanding of combat in World War 2.

Oh, and if you’re at Salute in April, do drop by and have a chat; we’re at GC15 for our demo game, and TC16 for our trade stand.

PBI US!

At last, I’ve completed the painting of a 15mm regular US Rifle Battalion (1944), in time for our 10 November Frome Mission Command: Normandy game. Pete’s making the other pertinent miniatures: most of a light armoured Division Combat Command. Scale: 1 figure is 5 to 10 men, 1 vehicle/gun/heavy weapon is 2 to 5 real ones.

For those that care, the figures in the figures below are mainly from the Plastic Soldier Company, with a smattering of Peter Pig (57mm gun and crew, most officers) with transports purchased from Mr Ebay. PSCs are Late War US Infantry 1944-45 – I quite enjoyed putting together and painting these – plus US Infantry Heavy Weapons – not so much. I found the latter very fiddly, sometimes seemingly unnecessarily, and some of the weapons are over-sized. But I would stress that the Late War US box is great. The Peter Pig stuff is good, but again the gun itself is over-sized, with a barrel nearly long enough to be a 17-pdr.

Figure 1 – US Rifle Company attacking

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Figure 2 – Close up

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Figure 3 – HQ with some heavy weapons

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Figure 4 – US Rifle Company configured for AT wtih 57mm gun attached. In Mission Command: Normandy, you can supply one of your Rifle Companies with all the spare bazookas held at Battalion (making 4 elements, one’s unfortunately out of shot); the downside is you have to crew them with your own riflemen, so small arms fire is significantly reduced. But that’s a lot of bazookas!

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Figure 5 – the Full Bradley (well, it’s not a Monty, is it?).

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Open Battles Solo Mode: GI Joe versus the Romans

This post is about testing the solo rules in Open Battles with aircraft, using the 2-player version of the scenario I designed for the first anniversary of the Airfix Battles Appreciation Facebook group: GI Joe versus the Romans. Open Battles is our working title for the new game under development by Nick Fallon and I (for Modiphius) as a follow-up to Airfix Battles.

The historical background in brief is that on 15 July 1944 the hard-fought, intense battle for St Lo had not yet been won by the Americans of General Bradley’s 1st Army. XIXth Corps had attempted to outflank Hill 122 to the north-east of St Lo for several days, but stubborn German defence had blunted his lead divisions. Therefore, he called upon the recently-arrived 35th Division to carry out a more direct attack. Approaches to Hill 122 were covered by the villages of Emilie and Les Romains. The scenario represents part of the attack of the Nebraskan National Guard 134th Regiment on the hard-core survivors of the German 352nd Division, the same division that had opposed the Americans at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

I opted for the US in this game, as I’d already played (and lost) as the Germans. For the 2-player and solo versions we use only about half of the battlefield, so that we can limit each Force to 19 Stars apiece.

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Initial German set-up

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German troops. The Captain’s Air Defence Controller attachment is, as you can see, a very new card. He allows the player to buy a Field Fortification in any scenario without needing a Unit tab.

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US set-up. The half-track contains my Engineers led by a trusty Lieutenant. I also have off-table Spitfire and Thunderbolt. Also, my Captain has a Forward Air Controller who can call in air strikes anywhere in line of sight.

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My US troops. I have a preparatory air bombardment – this represents a few Marauders helping out before we go in.

Preparatory bombing: I chose to bomb the known field fortifications, hoping to pin the 88. But not particularly effective, caused a couple of German losses and pinned the PaK40.

My first card is Rolling Thunder, so I launched an immediate air raid on the PaK40 to clear the way down the left flank. Rolling Thunder permits 2 vehicles to Move then Fire, so it’s perfect for a couple of planes. I can target the PaK in the Field Fortifications only because I have the FAC attached to the Captain in LoS of the enemy square; normally aircraft cannot spot things in cover. The A-OK 88 starts the scenario ready to fire, so it opened up on the Spitfire. Brilliant flying from the pilot meant he avoided all 3 potential hits from the gun, completed his strafing run and caused a casualty on the PaK. The Thunderbolt following up decided to strafe and finished off the crew (terrible cover save rolling from the Germans, because they do get +1 on their cover saves in the trenches there).
However, on the very next turn the 88 fired again at the Spitfire (using its normal Order), scored 3 hits again, and this time the pilot’s luck ran out and he was shot down.

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Honours even?

End of Round 1: With the PaK knocked out, both US Infantry Squads have moved up ready to assault down the left flank. German fire has been intense and both have lost men and are pinned.

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End of Round 1: First US attack. Note the barbed wire – these “model” pieces are actually extraordinarily sharp! Handle with care because they’re very realistic!

Calamity in Round 2: My assault got under way, and eventually we pinned the dug-in Grenadiers #5 in front of us by using all our firepower including the half-track; the enemy was also down to 3 men. Then disaster! My engineers were hit by an artillery strike and forced to retreat; my plan had been to get them to clear the barbed wire so Squad 11 could get through. Then the 3 German Grenadiers rallied and charged my pinned squad 8, forcing them back as well. It’s not looking good.

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First attack beaten off. It was so hairy there that my Captain had to engage directly and beat off the Grenadiers himself.

Situation stabilised a bit. US troops regrouped. Another Thunderbolt strike failed, and the plane was damaged . But we eliminated the German Grenadier Unit #5 as well as the PaK, and caused casualties on their other Grenadier Unit (#4). However, that German Unit in the multi-storey building is tough – extra dug-in, plus it has height advantage, so better range than us and can fire over the hedges without them blocking LoS. We suffered a lot from flanking fire.

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Getting ready for another assault.

Round 5: Thunderbolt’s last attack . Coupled with the loss of another squad that retreated off the board in the face of MG fire, it was nearly over for the good guys. I was hit hard by the Engineers’ failure to rally for 3 Rounds – they were supposed to be the mainstay of my attack!

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Got to dig deep now! Squad 11 is about to retreat off-table.

Sudden change of fortune in Round 6: Our attacking Engineers, having eventually been persuaded to get back over the hedge, were immediately pinned in the open again, this time by the enemy’s command team consisting of their Captain and an Air Defence Controller (with just a pistol)! Fortunately, this was a very temporary setback. An Artillery Strike on the pinned German Grenadiers holding us up in the centre of the battlefield caused them to rout, so the flank fire was neutralised. At the same time our engineers rallied straight away (!) and shot down the German commander and his side-kick. This meant we just needed half-a-Star to demoralise them, and this was achievable by taking the empty Field Fortification. So, it looks like the US may have pulled victory from the jaws of defeat!

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German command team is killed.

Final position: Technically, the game ends when the halftrack enters the field fortification square. I’ve adjusted the duration of the game by changing the victory conditions to – Game ends when all Forces of one side are demoralised; so, in a 2-player game, demoralisation of one side automatically means the other side wins. However, you can always play for the final denouement of taking the Pillbox. In this example, the Engineers have AT(6) + 1 for the Mechanised Assault + 1 for the flank attack. They manage to just about knock it out in this example. It’s quite possible that this will take more than one go, so it’s best to be prepared .

This was a very close game. I’d taken 8 Stars of losses, the Germans 9.5 by the end. For a proper assessment of balance, we’d need to play it a few more times.

The Solo Rules seem to be working fine. Important points to remember when reading the Enemy Behaviour table: aircraft are Vehicles! If the enemy is in a good position, don’t override that by interpreting the Enemy Behaviour table in your favour – for example, an enemy Unit in Cover won’t Move as a result of a Default Order if moving doesn’t improve its position or enable it to Fire.

One important point is to add a Default Order clause as the 1st clause of the current version: If the enemy has an unprepared AA gun, carry out an Air Defence Order to prepare it. For aircraft, I’m introducing a method within the AI for enemy planes – but not yet shared with my co-designer Nick Fallon, so I’m keeping it up my sleeve for now.

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Final denouement: a very close finish, the US just squeaked it.

It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

What wargamers know – 2

WW2: It takes 5 Shermans to kill a Tiger!

This one has been debunked across the internet, so why do I include it? Well, it still forms a backdrop to many wargamers appreciation of the Normandy battle and later in the war, encapsulated in the overall statement “German tanks were superior to Allied tanks”.

However, other similar comparisons in WW2 should lead to questioning of this whole approach. For me, a good counter-example is the comparatively poor quality of German tanks in the early part of the war, particularly in 1940 but also extending to mid-1941. We don’t ask the question, for example, “How many Panzer IIs do you need to kill a Char B1?”

It’s something of a truism that the Germans had relatively inferior tanks, in both quality and quantity, to the French in the early war and it was their use of radio, their combined arms doctrine, high level of training and leadership that helped the Germans to win the 1940 campaign. So, a more useful approach to these tank versus tank questions is to take a look at how the tanks were used in combat.

Interesting questions to look at include:

  • Deployment – tanks were not deployed singly, but sometimes in squadrons/platoons of 3 to 5, or more usually in companies of a dozen to just over 20.  In fact, most armoured doctrines specified “mass”, which meant division-sized formations at least. This means you’ll very rarely find a combat between x Shermans and a single Tiger, whatever Brad Pitt might make you think.
  • Training – Fighting successfully in tanks was very difficult. Fighting in a Tiger tank was extremely difficult – just starting the engine and moving it required a very high level of expertise and care, because of its engineering complexity. Shermans were technically easier and more reliable. For a good example of the importance of training, see accounts of the Battle of Arracourt (September 1944), when the highly effective US 4th Armoured Division met relatively untrained 111th and 113th Panzer Brigades (Shermans v Panthers).
  • Leadership
  • Methods of fighting – by which I mean both formal doctrine and actual practice. Shermans very rarely met Tigers, but then again “every tank was a Tiger”, so there was a massive perception problem (probably caused by early German successes such as Villers-Bocage). What was the Allied reaction to encountering German tanks, and how did they cope?

I’m hopeful that some of our wargaming encounters in Mission Command can help with a useful perspective on these types of question.

Air Today, Done Tomorrow

Update on the Open Battles draft

Open Battles rules drafting continues apace. I’ve written up the resolutions to the air rules – now a bit simpler, I hope, so more fitting for the Airfix Battles oeuvre. I’m also quite pleased with my little icon for air Units: BlackPlane, though it will probably need to be re-drawn better, so it’s iconic at smaller size. Nothing says WW2 aircraft like a Spit!

Airfix Battles, The Introductory Wargame, didn’t have aircraft. We’re adding them in to Open Battles, but keeping it simple, because it will remain a basically on-the-ground game. I’ve shown 2 or 3 draft Unit cards on the Official Airfix Battles Facebook group, so folks can get a preview of how we see the aircraft operating in the game.

SpitfireIX ME109G

The basic anatomy of the aircraft rules is that each Unit is 1 plane, and they start off-table at their airfields. You use a Vehicle Move Action to bring a plane on, which changes its status from “Ready for Take-off” to “Engaged”. You can place the plane model anywhere convenient on the tabletop, because they don’t obey the same movement rules as ground troops. To carry out an attack, play a Vehicle Fire Action – then put your aircraft next to the target (no extra Move Action required) and shoot, using air to ground or air to air as appropriate. Most of the late war aircraft have AT and MG as well as AA weapon types. Rockets and bombs are commensurately better AT, as you’d expect.

Once you’ve carried out a ground attack, you turn the Unit card to show RETURN TO BASE, and it automatically goes away in Clean-up (no further Order needed). Turn the Unit card again to show REFUELLING, so your planes effectively skip the next Round and then can come back.

These cards are not yet final. We’re currently thinking that the “basic” late war fighter, like the Spitfire IX, should be 2 Stars, rather than 1, so that early war planes can be just a single Star, and obviously less effective. Perhaps MG(8) is a bit too much as well, so this might get dialled down a tad. The Me109 Ace would then be 3 Stars.

You’ll need Commanders with Air Unit tabs, so we’re developing these as both Officer Pilots and ground-based air controllers with Forward Air Controllers too.

We’ve also covered anti-aircraft fire. After wrestling a little with the balance of guns like the 88, we decided that AA guns can fire usually fire in 2 ways. First, they can shoot like normal Gun Units, using an Order with a Fire Action. For an 88 on the tabletop, that means you can target any aircraft over the battlefield, owing to its range – smaller AA guns are more limited, but we cannot miss out the 88! Second, you can use an ability called “Defensive Interrupt Fire”. This allows you to shoot at an attacking aircraft before resolving the aircraft’s attack. However, we didn’t want this to be a way for the 88 to shoot down everything that moves as a kind of permanent Interrupt Fire, so you have to prepare the Defensive Interrupt Fire by carrying out a Basic Order that places any Command card from your hand under the AA Unit card – a bit like a glorified Stay Frosty. Then your AA Gun is ready to shoot at aircraft carrying out a Fire Action, but you’ll only get 1 shot of this prepped fire before you have to prep it again. If you can inflict 2 hits on the aircraft, it has to take a Morale Check, and a fail result makes it return to base even though it might not be destroyed. This gives us, subject to more playtesting, a balanced set of Units, I think.

Reflecting the use of MGs against aircraft, we’ve given a blanket AA(1) versus aircraft attacking your square or an adjacent one to all Units with MG weapon types. Again, these Units will have to prep the Defensive Interrupt Fire, so that’s something to look out for if you’re playing against an opponent with aircraft. There will undoubtedly be some 50 cals around in future! Some vehicles might explicitly NOT get this, for example if they’ve only got a Hull MG; that will be on the new Unit cards.

Aircraft don’t follow exactly the same rules as ground troops for Morale results. The Morale Checks are the same, but if they fail, they can’t be Pinned or Retreat or Rout, they simply change to RETURN TO BASE and if they’ve not yet done their mission, they lose it.

Aircraft are likely to be very useful in your Force. However, you’ll need some skill to make them highly effective. For example, you can only see troops in the Open from the air, so you may well need spotters on the ground to help via Attachments and other Units with the Forward Air Controller ability. The enemy might have their own Fighters to keep yours away, so dog-fights can happen in the skies above the battlefield.

Any comments from AB players are very much welcomed!

USA soldiers painted

First batch of US soldiers painted. These are 15mm Plastic Soldier Company figures to be used in our Mission Command: Normandy game. I expect to have at least a battalion of regular US infantry done by our November 2018 game.

Speaking of which, we’ve not yet designed the scenario, but I’m keen to do something in Operation Cobra – envelopment and escape.

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Don’t put tanks into built-up areas!

What wargamers know – 1

This is the first  a post in series that I plan to do when I can’t think of anything else!

WW2: Don’t put tanks into built-up areas!

Because they’re vulnerable to hand-held infantry AT weapons, right?
Except, all armies did it during WW2, even late war when bazookas, PIATs and Panzerfausts abounded.

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Some possible reasons, in no particular order:

  • The tank crew cannot see what’s in the built-up area, so it’s quite possibly empty. If we don’t take it now, the enemy will occupy it, and then we’ll have to assault it later at much greater cost in lives and effort.
  • In any case, orders are to take the built-up area, and we’ve outstripped our infantry support, so we have no choice.
  • The tank crew are experienced and it’s worked before.
  • Infantry are scared by tanks, so often panic and flee (even if they have AT weapons).
  • Our infantry need close support from direct fire heavy weapons in built-up areas. Tanks are good at that. Especially if artillery is re-deploying forwards, so unavailable.
  • We accept the risk and the opportunity.
  • For the Germans in Normandy: it worked against the Russians, so it should work here.
  • For the British in Normandy: We need to keep infantry casualties down, so we’ll use armour.
  • For the US in Normandy: If we lose some Shermans, we’ve got plenty more. Besides, bocage is just as bad, if not worse.

Caen at Last? Mission Command: Normandy at Abbeywood

On Saturday we gathered together again for our regular Abbeywood Irregulars June Mission Command: Normandy game at the Bennett Centre in Frome, Somerset. Owing to unforeseen (and wholly understandable) circumstances, we were light a couple of players, so we didn’t make as much progress as we all intended. However, there were very complementary comments at the end, so, thank you to our Canadians – Mat, Jon and Pete (stepping up to the plate as artillery controller) – and to John, Lloyd and Richard – our Germans. Additional thanks to Neil who took time out from a busy day elsewhere to take some piccies.

I’d decided to experiment with a highly asymmetric scenario to see how Mission Command rules (and players) coped with the extreme stresses of the fighting around Caen in early July. The idea was to see how a thin line with mobile tactical “fire-fighting” panzers might work. Rather than starting at the beginning of an operation, I picked a final push at the end of a day’s fighting. I chose a  nearly but not quite historical setting of 8 July 1944 (Operation Charnwood) when the Canadians of their 3rd Division were trying to force a way into northern Caen via the well-pounded ground around Authie and Buron. Opposition was provided by their most common foe, 12 SS Panzer Division.

By this date the Germans were over-stretched everywhere, and most senior commanders knew that collapse was only a matter of time. Front line forces were ridiculously thin, occasionally down to just some pioneers, scanty recce troops acting as infantry and even security forces acting as the sole reserve in some sectors. 12 SS Panzer Division tank strength was down to less than half a battalion, and without their Panzerjager battalion (still training in Germany) significant numbers of tanks had to be used in the anti-tank role. 12 SS was due to pull out as soon as possible and relocate elsewhere, conceding all the ground they’d been fighting over for the last month in order to shorten the line. However, the withdrawal was supposed to be under the cover of night; without darkness it’ll be a rout and the rest of the troops to the flanks will be overrun, losing their weapons and equipment. The scenario starts early in the evening; the Germans must keep a toe-hold till nightfall, using their scanty mobile strike force to keep the Canadians at bay.

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Surely enough to hold a 3 kilometre front? Just to show that you can play Mission Command with relatively small numbers.

It was not easy for the Canadians either. Although they had most of 7 Canadian Brigade, plus nearly 2 battalions of tanks, 2 full regiments of field artillery and 2 squadrons of Typhoons, they were up against a highly motivated opponent on ground the Germans were completely familiar with, dug deep into their bunkers, with many alternative positions, fully prepared defensive fire plans, and covered approaches for counter-attacking tanks, not to mention anti-tank mines and wire. Even though the fighting earlier in the day had broken into the main line of resistance (taking both Authie and Buron – or at least the ruined remains of them), the Canadians hadn’t broken clean through. And 7 Brigade’s orders were to follow up by moving through Caen to take the bridges over the Orne.

I had been a little concerned about whether the scenario was too unbalanced in favour of the Canadians. I need not have worried. It’s very difficult to fight an opponent who you can’t see till they shoot at you (and sometimes not even then), who is dug in and therefore difficult to suppress and who also can shoot-then-move-away (out of sight).

Highlights included

  • very good planning by both sides
  • some very adept manoeuvring by Panthers in particular
  • good mobility from the Germans, even their infantry (but Hitler wouldn’t have been pleased)
  • very good use of smoke by both sides
  • company movement by bounds from elements of the Canadians and very great determination to keep going despite discouraging casualties (good work by Mat in particular). Tanks eventually followed suit, as Jon learned the ropes – his pinning job was successful.
  • a couple of notable Typhoon strikes (Hummels knocked out by rockets, Panthers by dive-bombing)
  • Crocodiles smoking Germans out from bunkers (well, they got out just before they were to be roasted)
  • an in-depth knowledge of the rules by some players – Richard in particular (many thanks for the effort there!).

An overview of the Canadian attack, with bunker-busting Crocs. The Germans are still in the woods just behind the burning bunker, and behind the woods is the massively well constructed Ardenne Abbaye (in smoke), long-standing observation post of the Germans since 7 June. Eventually the Allies took it and used specialist demolitions to level it to the ground.Overview

By the end of our real-time afternoon, we’d run out of time for a definitive conclusion. It looked like the Canadians would make it to their objective, as the Germans had only a single Panther element and a Hummel element in the path of the main attack. But the Germans could argue that they might have managed to engineer a counter-thrust as light fell.

I’ll stick this scenario on the website later in the summer.

I’ll see if I can get some of Neil’s pictures soon!

21 into 6 Won’t Go – scenarios for Mission Command: Normandy

10:00, 6 June 1944
The evening for the Germans has been unpleasant. Although our weather experts had suggested that the invasion was possible during 5 and 6 June, the weather hasn’t been particularly good, so we hadn’t really anticipated it. Some of our troops had even been on exercises overnight. The waiting was expected to continue, and everyone has been enjoying the Normandy butter, cheese, ‘crème freche’ and cider.
Standing orders were that in the event of possible landings by Allied commando or airborne troops, our forces were to attack immediately and independently. We heard the roar of aircraft at about midnight – in fact rather lower than usual…

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21 into 6 Won’t Go is a series of scenarios for Mission Command: Normandy. The first one I’ve published envisages an attack by 21 Panzer Division on 6 Airborne Division at about 10:00 on 6 June, rather than in the late afternoon. Rommel didn’t go to visit Hitler or celebrate his wife’s birthday; the situation was too tense for that. Also, 21 Panzer Division’s standing orders were received and implemented by each part of the Division. This scenario pits a German Kampfgruppe against 5 Parachute Brigade in the area to the east of the canal and Orne bridges. There will be future variants for an even earlier attack, and for a later, more historical one.

A scenario pack can be downloaded from the bottom of the Mission Command page on our website.

Mission Command: Normandy – tech

One of the criticisms of some wargames, particularly some miniatures games, is the need for look-up tables. Poring through reams of tables can disrupt the flow of the game. However, with a relatively complex simulation game such as Mission Command: Normandy, we do need to differentiate between various weapon systems, as differences did have a profound effect on historical outcomes.

For ease of play, we provide a range of aids for download from our website. But more than that, we also supply a technical means to look up much of the information on your smart phone. Here’s an example of a Command Card:

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It happens to be a German one for our scenario 21 into 6 Won’t Go. We wouldn’t expect people to remember the stats for the U304(f) variants here. There’s variants with LMG, with 3.7cm AT gun, 8cm Mortar and FlaK 38. If you don’t have the paper Reference Card for the U304(f) printed out, you can simply turn over the Command Card…

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… and use your smart phone camera or QR scanner app. Centre the title of the unit you want to look up in the camera, then slide across to the right, and you’ll find in your screen this information…

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This is a scrollable PDF (2 pages only for each troop type) that gives standard information. Each scenario we publish has Command Cards showing the units involved on each combatant and Reference Cards with the relevant stats. You’re free to download this information, or to use it electronically direct from the website.

In the case of the U304(f), page 2 of the Reference Card shows:

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From this Reference Card information, it’s simple to see that, if your little half-track is behind a hedge some distance from that approaching enemy Sherman, you’re OK, because it won’t spot you unless you open fire. But you cannot seriously engage it from the front (it’s Armour Class 5), even if you have the platoon leader’s version with the anti-tank gun, so you’d better get out of there!

Salut, mes amis!

Last Saturday saw the regular gathering of friends (or, as it’s wargaming, enemies? Nah, we’re all friends here!) at the Salute exhibition in London’s Excel centre. This year, SSG Wargames and Abbeywood Irregulars teamed up to present Mission Command: Normandy, our WW2 miniatures simulation game that we’ve been concocting since 2017.

So, after more than 10 years of exertion, we have the beta version of our Reference Manual actually printed. I should point out that, although it’s labelled as a beta, it’s near-as-dammit final, just it has black and white inside rather than the full colour that I’m aiming for with next year’s 1st edition pack. The panoply of stuff isn’t just the Reference Manual though. We have on our website a draft of the Players’ Manual, scenario packs (many more to follow over the coming weeks), downloadable chits, area fire templates and Play Aids.

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At Salute, we had a fulsome team consisting of myself, Pete Connew (co-author of Mission Command and all-round knowledgeable chap, as well as effectively head of the Abbeywood Irregulars wargaming group based in Frome, Somerset), Ed Gilhead (shipped over from Hamburg!), Lloyd Carey (an experienced player of MC and other wargames) and Neil Ford (photographer extraordinaire and also experienced wargamer). Having both a demo game table and a trade stand, we split into 2 parts: Neil and myself manning the selling bit, and Pete, Ed and Lloyd demoing.

We’d chosen to demo the famous Villers-Bocage battle of 13 June, which, as every skoolboy know, is Michael Wittmann’s Tiger attack on the 7th Armoured Division. Naturally, most wargamers at the show recognised it instantly from the terrain setup .

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Terrain overview: Michael Wittmann’s Tiger (and rest of 2/101SS heavy tank company) at the top right; A Coy / 1 Rifle Brigade in half-tracks on the road down towards Villers-Bocage; A Sq / 4 County of London Yeomanry out of sight beyond the top of the pic.

OrdersGroup

British advance guard having a jolly orders group just before Wittmann attacks. Unfortunately, this meant the command elements were mostly separated from the troops, leading to, shall we say, “adverse morale effects”. Note that some tanks of A/4CLY are handily deployed blocking the road, and you can also just make out 1RB vehicles handily queuing up on the road further down.

Bang

Speaking of which … bang. 

DoomApproaching

Looking up the road from Villers-Bocage, doom is approaching. However, though 22nd Armoured Brigade did get beaten this day, the German attack on Villers-Bocage was not entirely successful, and several tanks were lost by both sides in the streets, including Tigers.

For our demonstration, we scripted Michael Wittmann’s attack and provided the option of a continuation for a proper game with more or less historical forces. The scenario is published here: http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand/beta-files/Villers-Bocage.zip. It’s quite possible to play it without the script – the starting position suggests strongly what the Germans should do, but of course implementation always throws up its own challenges. It’s important to get the command, control and communications right, because, although the players have a bird’s eye view of what’s coming, the chaps on the ground do not, and our rules take this into account.

Our demo table was almost constantly occupied all day by 2 or 3 groups of discussions, all very positive. We were slightly less active on the trade stand – but the game sold well, considering its relatively niche position as a simulation game.

We also sold quite a few copies of Northampton 1460Graham Evans‘s excellent board game on that Wars of the Roses engagement. Proceeds to Northampton Battlefields Society.

I was particularly happy to meet up with several members of the Airfix Battles Facebook group for the first time in person. Also worth name-dropping Professor Phil Sabin, who stopped by for a chat. As a Kings War Studies alumnus, it’s always a pleasure to meet up with folks from my alma mater!

Neil took a few excellent photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/smudgypixels/albums/72157689939427650/with/41451973832/

Tony also gave a plug on his daily BGG blog: https://www.boardgamegeek.com/blogpost/75844/irregular-expression

Mission Command: Normandy – mission accomplished!

MissionCommand

Random design lessons from the front: Contrasting views on flank attacks

During Operation Perch, after failing to push the Germans back from Tilly-sur-Seulles 7th Armoured Division attempted a “daring right hook” through a gap round the left flank of the Panzer Lehr Division. The change of direction of the attack took more than 24 hours and was characterised by a lack of knowledge about what was in front and to the flanks during the new attack. Hinde, the brigade commander, issued orders that the attack be made with all speed – this was transformed into “no time for reconnaissance”, so the advance guard of the brigade (A Company, 4th CLY, rather than the recce Stuarts) moved through Villers-Bocage to Point 213 without checking its flanks (in fact, pretty much not checking what was in Villers-Bocage either). During the engagement Hinde appeared at Villers-Bocage, but not Point 213, then went back to brigade HQ. The Divisional commander and Corps commander were nowhere near the action. Owing primarily to slow execution and lack of reconnaissance 22nd Armoured Brigade was ambushed by the Tigers of 101st Heavy Tank Battalion and after a couple of days was withdrawn from Villers-Bocage back more-or-less to its starting positions.

In contrast, Guderian’s narrative of part of his first action in the Polish campaign: “Messages from the 2nd (Motorised) Infantry Division stated that their attack on the Polish wire entanglements had bogged down. All three infantry regiments had made a frontal attack… I ordered that the regiment on the left be withdrawn during the night and moved to the right wing, from where it was to advance next day behind the 3rd Panzer Division and make an encircling movement in the direction of Tuchel… I decided…that I must visit this division the next morning… I placed myself at the head of the regiment… and led it personally as far as the crossing of the Kamionka  to the north of Gross-Klonia [about 15 miles beyond the Polish front]. The 2nd (Motorised) Infantry Division’s attack now began to make rapid progress.”

The contrast for me in these 2 narratives is striking. We have the most experienced British armoured division making an unsuccessful frontal attack, then, as ordered by Corps, changing their action to a flank attack through a known gap, but executing the attack slowly, badly and failing. The idea of the attack is characterised in accounts frequently as “daring”. Senior British commanders seem to have a very “hands off” approach to command. On the other hand, we have a German commander quite naturally and without fuss ordering one of his divisions to carry out a similar flanking manoeuvre, then personally making sure it’s carried out. The German units were all untested in battle at this stage, as was the commander.

3 aspects of this seem relevant and are borne out in some of our historical wargames: (1) Doctrine matters. (2) Reconnaissance matters. (3) Leadership matters.

Random design lessons from the front: troop representation

It’s comparatively easy to put together a vaguely credible way of representing troops at low level for a WW2 wargame. For example, with Airfix Battles we did a 1:1 representation, so each infantry figure or tank model represents 1 infantry man or real tank. As John Salt has pointed out in an earlier comment on this blog, it is not “at all easy to find out how combat really works at the lowest tactical levels”. However, for Airfix Battles, we were aiming at “credible”, not a simulation, and our approach has been well received; there are some heartening comments on Bob Cordery’s blog here: https://wargamingmiscellanybackup.wordpress.com/category/airfix-battles/, and the Airfix Battles Appreciation Group on Facebook gives us a certain seal of approval.

Modelling stuff at a higher level – by which I mean tactical representation, not making and painting figures – has needed more work, especially if I’m trying to capture a bit of the command, control and communications aspects, while ending up with a playable wargame. Taking company level as an example, a primary difficulty is the extent of articulation in a WW2 infantry company. A company might be highly concentrated in one place or spread thin in defence; it might be focused on where to place its mortars and MGs to support a neighbouring unit, or it might be focusing on all-round defence with its rifle components. Some companies might provide components as attachments to other troops, and some might be acting on their own entirely. The platoon and section/squad structure enables these sublties to be implemented. Providing a single answer to this conundrum is problematic.

Some wargame rules get around this by allowing on-the-fly creation of groups. So, you have a “centre” for a specific command function, typically representing an officer, and all or a proportion of troops within a specified command range can be used. I’m not keen on this type of solution, because it gives the player much more flexibility than the commander on the spot would have had. It also concentrates the leadership function on one area, when leadership and the command of sub-components were dispersed via officers and NCOs. Perhaps it’s more playable, but that type of solution loses some of the essence of command and control for me.

Alternatively, you could implement a representation of the internal structure of the company – platoons, and so on. This has the merit of structural accuracy at the expense of greater complexity.

p9-infantry-deployed-c

German infantry company deployed to attack

Our solution in Mission Command was to represent “the group” as the lowest sized unit that would be given orders, with a group in the Normandy incarnation of the game being a company or squadron – less flexible Soviets might have battalion groups. Even though our groups have multiple elements – with an element being the smallest separately movable item – the elements don’t model the internal company structure. Rather we’re modelling the combat capabilities of the whole company, and we try to reflect differences in the capabilities of groups from different armies in different periods of the war.

p10-infantry-in-defence

British infantry company deployed in defence

There are some implications for players, as you might imagine. It’s quite OK for a player handling a lot of groups to manage each company as a unit without paying unnecessary attention to the details of each element. This is particularly true with broad brush deployments. On the other hand, if you’re playing a small German kampfgruppe, where the positioning of heavy weapons is vital for defence, then you can and should focus on the individual elements and how they fit with the wider group – especially as you almost certainly haven’t got many of them. And you need enough players in your team to handle the size of your force efficiently.

Most importantly, the Mission Command framework allows us designers to focus our attention on the composition of groups within the scenario we’re designing. It’s quite rare that a force will have all its groups straight out of a standard table of organisation and equipment. Variation by scenario is vital to model that portion of reality we’ve put under the microscope. For example, a German panzergrenadier company may “normally” have 3 coherent elements (full sized elements with small arms, LMGs and panzerfausts), with a supporting HMG element and a 8cm mortar element, plus its transports, but it’s easy to vary this overall capability to a more realistic field strength. A 17SS group in Normandy would have integrated elements (just small arms and LMGs), because they weren’t issued with panzerfausts. For most scenarios a German panzergrenadier group might have only 2 coherent elements, or even only 1 with a separate command element and LMG support element, representing the normal coalescing of the infantry around their most effective weapons.

We have a lot of evidence from our games that this approach discourages micromanagement. Players (well, good players anyway) tend to focus on how the group relates to other groups at battalion level and above. There is also very much less tendency to intermingle companies, because that leads to realistic confusion, and elements that become separated from their group suffer bad morale effects. In addition, I’ve found it’s very easy to represent the particular effects of Normandy bocage terrain – simply, each element in bocage but not in a prepared position is immediately considered separated, with all the communications and morale effects that entails; this models well the sense of isolation and lack of support reported by all troops in the bocage, regardless of their company organisation.

Random design lessons from the front: figure scales

A couple of months before Salute may not be the time for this, but why do wargamers focus so much on how it all looks on the table? We’re as guilty as anyone else at our group in Frome, and it’s the same at the Huntingdonshire Wargamers too. Big miniatures, so the paint job looks good. Big scenery, so that it looks pretty. Notwithstanding that the scale of both is all wrong. 15mm figures with a typical wargame tabletop game are outlandishly large. For tanks, depths of the units are huge, even if the frontage is correct, because that’s how the models have to be. Houses and trees are gargantuan size. For Mission Command, we have a ground scale of 1mm:2m, so narrow roads are 60m wide and our narrow streams are like the Rhine in flood.

I’ve recently decided, on grounds of cost, to switch to 6mm for some of my Mission Command stuff (not Frome, because we’re committed to 15mm there). I’ve been surprised that the problem still exists here. The figures and models are better scaled, but the scenery is still massively oversized. 6mm roads are commonly 2 to 5cm in width. Just doing the maths: a popular brand has the narrowest road (called a “narrow dirt road”) with a width of 2cm plus a further 1cm of verges. The widest is the “medium [sic] metalled road” at 3.5cm plus 1 cm of verges. As 6mm is 1/300 scale, these translate to 6m carriageway for the narrow dirt road and a whopping 10.5m for the medium metalled road. Bearing in mind that modern lane widths are approximately 3.5m to 3.75m for major roads, making 7m to 7.5m for a standard 2-lane highway (an A road in the UK), these scaled versions are 50% to 100% too wide. Probably more in fact, because WW2 roads (and more so in earlier periods) were not as wide as modern highways. Just checking my own reality, the B1040 outside my house (a 2 lane medium metalled road) is less than 6m across – at a pinch this could be represented by a 2cm wide piece. But this is not a narrow dirt road.

Oversized terrain in 15mm. The road is supposed to be a narrow road, but the infantry element has a frontage of 100 metres. Also the men will have trouble getting into that church, which is far too small for these figures, though it is about 150 metres long (Notre Dame is 128m long for comparison).

Other scenery in 6mm is not much better from many manufacturers. One leading company I investigated advertised 6mm scenery, but the size was effectively correct for 15mm figures, not 6mm.

Why is this a design problem? In my view, it heavily distorts the wargamers’ perception of scale when playing the game. There’s a tendency to assume a tank model represents a single tank or a single figure represents a single soldier – even if we know, intellectually, that the model represents more than one thing (unless it’s a skirmish game with 1:1 representation). So, shooting at a tank model might “knock out” the tank; but it may represent more than 1 vehicle, so you haven’t actually KOed all those tanks. Similarly, eliminating an element doesn’t represent causing all those guys to be casualties – some may have been killed, some wounded, maybe some captured, but many will have run off, helped the wounded back to safety, got lost, and so on. In fact, looking at tank losses during large engagements – Goodwood springs to mind, as I’ve been delving extensively into Normandy campaign materials – it’s clear that a tank unit can be rendered entirely combat ineffective without having all its tanks destroyed. When 1 of our tank models in Mission Command, representing say 4 vehicles, is removed, this might mean that 1 tank was burnt out, another was seriously damaged (maybe requiring 3rd line workshop repairs out of theatre), another maybe was repairable within 24 hours, and another was pretty much fine, except the crew bailed out, or it made tracks away from the scene. In a later loss report, these might go down as 1 or 2 losses only, depending on how that army recorded such events.

That road on the tabletop also skews our perception of distance. The position in front of my troops can’t be very far, because this (overly wide) road my guys are on is only a foot or so away from it! But a foot may not be close at all – with Mission Command, a foot on the table represents about 600 metres on real ground, and in Normandy an advance of 600 metres could take 3 hours of intense fighting, or even more in the bocage.

For an appreciation of what our toy soldiers are doing, if we’re reflecting reality, we need to be aware of the distortions of scale that our “pretty modelling” portrays.

Rather better 6mm terrain. That single storey farm is about right against this Panzer IV.

Random design lessons from the front: air stuff in a land battle

If your focus is on the land battle, keep the air stuff simple! But on the other hand, do include it!

AirRaids

In our fictional Russian assault on Pleskau/Pskov in June ’44 (April 2017), a bunch of Sturmoviks attacked the inevitable Tractor Factory defended by the Germans. It was quickly apparent that actually using 8.8cm FlaK as AA guns was effective – but how many times do we see flak used entirely in AT role in wargames? In this situation, fields of fire for AT were restricted, so 88s in AT would have been very vulnerable (high silhouette and suchlike), but very good for AA, and later for counter-mortar fire.

Our AA rules are pretty straightforward. All air attacks come at the start of the turn, and have dive, low, medium or high altitude. 88s fire out to horizontal range of 150cm and all altitudes (not interested in high flying heavies!). As standard in Mission Command, roll d20 to hit, if hit then roll d20 for effect. Any aircraft not damaged or destroyed complete their mission. Ground attack uses the same templates as guns, but oriented portrait rather than landscape. Roll for deviation, which is riskier the higher up the aircraft. It’s area fire, so for anything with majority of base under the template roll a d20 for effect.

For simplicity we don’t differentiate between aircraft models, just fighter, fighter-bomber, dive bomber, medium bomber, heavy bomber (though really medium and heavies don’t show). A whole air attack rarely takes more than 5 minutes to do, but can be quite exciting and certainly adds a realistic tension, especially if the deviation is a bit wild; blue on blue *has* happened.

The only difficulty we’ve had is reconciling the feeling that Typhoons should be effective against tanks with the reality that they weren’t as effective as the pilots reported. We’ve settled on using values at the edge between player expectation and actual stats – bearing in mind that German tankers were often more scared of Typhoons than they needed to be, we’ve factored in the fact that some crews abandoned their tanks when under air attack, even if the tanks themselves survived.

Uncombined arms

Dateline: 1 Feb 2018. A Mission Command scenario to test a strong infantry attack against a (weak?) combined defence.

The scene was an area 75cm x 100cm, so quite small, merely 1.5km x 2km. The scenario was designed to take 2 – 3 hours with 1-2 German players versus 1-2 British players. In this game Pete was Brits, I was Germans.

terrain

British attacking from the north (bottom of pic). Mission: push in the German outpost in and around the village, so that the area can be used to assemble troops for a major attack on the main German position to the SW – the large slope in the top right leads to the main German position. The stream is fordable along its entire length, the orange patch is a small hill, and the woods are open to the south, but dense on a rocky outcropping to the north. There’s a sizeable patch of bocage before we reach the village.

It’s a couple of hours before dusk, and the Divisional commander wants this outpost cleared before nightfall. The Brits have an infantry battalion and (off-table) a couple of batteries of 25 pounders. British recce suggests the Germans have only a company, but probably with some limited supports, possibly including AFVs.

fire in the bocage.JPG

Fire in the bocage!

Rather inaccurate British artillery opened the engagement to cover the advance of the troops. It was quickly corrected by Forward Observation Officers and was moved forward to the crest over a couple of turns.

B_company.JPG

B Company advanced – rightmost 7 elements, with C Company to the left. Each of the 4 companies had 2x integrated (rifle+LMG) elements, a command element with jeep, plus light supports of PIAT, LMG and 2″ mortar. 2 companies have an additional PIAT element attached from Support Company. 3″ mortars are giving support with the artillery from off-map. 2″ mortars of each company are dishing out limited smoke.

D_company.JPG

D Company advanced on the other side of the stream. Half out of shot is a Sherman with the FOO for the off-map battery of Sextons.

advance.JPG

The full battalion en avant! Note the 6 pounders from Support Company deployed in the centre.

unfortunateAT.JPG

On turn 3 German artillery picked on the 6 pounder position, having been easily spotted by Germans on the crest of the bocage ridge before the smoke and barrage intervened. It took a while for the transmission of orders to the battery of Wespes off table, and it was to an extent a lucky shot (1/3 chance of being on target using predicted fire). 1 6 pounder model destroyed, the other moved away.

B_company_continues_advancing.JPG

B Company (nearest) continued its advance protecting the left flank of C Company attacking directly into the bocage, C level with A Company on the right. Things were very murky in the bocage at this point, because the barrage reduced visibility by one state – partially obscuring terrain becomes obscuring, so it was very hard for the attackers to see what was in front.

However, the 3″ mortar fire in front of B Company wasn’t enough to prevent Germans not in the bocage from seeing them coming.

overrun1.jpg

A dug in StuG Zug used opportunity fire on the lead element of B Company, then overran it. Surprised, having taken a few casualties and with only relatively distant PIATs immediately available to deal with the assault guns, B Company reeled back, many of their riflemen being captured.

You can also see at the top of the picture that C Company were taking fire from panzergrenadiers around the ridge line in the bocage. The Germans were suffering greatly from the artillery, so the effect of their fire was keeping British heads down rather than causing casualties.

overrun_aftermath.JPG

The aftermath of the overrun was that the British left wing had gone. The remaining 6 pounders – still limbered up from the earlier move away from the Wespe fire – was hastily unlimbered, but (shoot then move!) the StuGs had the initiative and quickly shot them up. The StuG’s orders did not include a lone Zug attacking a battalion, so they disappeared back to their secondary position out of sight.bocage_cleared.JPG

Meanwhile A and C Companies’ fire and the supporting indirect fire had driven the German defenders out of the bocage with considerable losses. D Company were established on the undefended ridge on the far side of the stream, ready to push on towards the village from the north west.

This was the situation after 90 minutes of play and game time (the objective for Mission Command is that real time and game time should be about the same). With the StuGs somewhere around the ridges at the bottom of this picture, further Germans undoubtedly not yet discovered directly defending the village, and only 30 minutes of daylight left, it would be a tall order for the British to clear the village before nightfall. Unfortunately we had run out of time – our Thursday sessions are only 2 hours at the moment. I would have liked to have run the remaining bits, but real life can get in the way!

The purpose of this brief scenario was to investigate the difficulty of attacking a combined arms force without armoured support in the late war period. Although this was not a scientific approach and was only one game, I think it is an example of how a few AFVs in a defensive position can strengthen a numerically weakly held position, if the attackers have no armoured support themselves.

With only towed AT guns, rather than armoured tank destroyers or tanks, it’s difficult to co-ordinate against a potential limited counter-attack, while maintaining a decent pace to the attack. With 20-20 hindsight it might have been better for the British to deploy as follows:

  1. Set up the 6 pounders as 2 batteries, 1 on each flank, in overwatch, so they could deal with any armoured forays from the village, from either ridge or the bocage, then move them up to the slopes on each side when captured.
  2. Put PIATs and LMGs on overwatch during the advance, moving forward by bounds, rather than continuously. Then, if there’s a counter-attack or indeed German op fire, the British have an immediate response.

Having said that, it’s still difficult to co-ordinate, because the movement forward of the AT guns will require time, and that’s very limited in this scenario. The British have enough artillery and mortars to suppress the German infantry and thereby support their own infantry onto the position and through to the village. But the German armour changes the nature of the engagement completely. It’s no longer a classic fire and movement situation, but contains a more complex set of problems coordinating anti-tank weapons against armour as well.

Many thanks to Pete P for accepting the short straw of being the attacker!

 

Explosions!

Someone mentioned that the previous few blog posts have been a bit long and with no pictures. So here’s some explosions we’re going to be using in Mission Command…

Print

These will be used in the Area Fire templates that we’ll make available for download. We will include Mike and Uncle templates, but don’t expect to use them very often!

I’ve been working on the Reference Cards as well. Example here:

StugIIIG

Finally, some pictures to illustrate some aspects of playing.

p11-Inverted Wedge-c

A company of Panzer IVs in “breitkeil” (inverted wedge). Note the space this formation covers, roughly 500m x 500m. This enables the rear elements space to manoeuvre against a threat without the whole company being engaged simultaneously. Each model represents an inverted V formation of (usually) 4 tanks.

p10-infantry-in-defence

British infantry company in defence. It has 2 integrated infantry elements (large elements), a company HQ element (back from ruin) and 3 light supports, 1 LMG element (left), 1 PIAT element (in ruin) and 1 2” mortar element (centre). It occupies a frontage of 50cm (1km). It is entrenched in position, and each element would be connected by field telephone land lines, so all its elements can communicate. The left element (LMG) can give flanking fire to support the main central position. The 2” mortar can support the whole position, or retire if attacked. Ideally it would be supported by a further position to the rear!

p9-infantry-deployed-c

This German panzergrenadier company has 3 coherent infantry elements and 2 heavy support elements, 1 HMG and 1 8cm mortar. It physically occupies a frontage of 15cm (300m), but its small arms fire allows it to dominate a further 5cm (100m) each side, while its fire still remains effective out to 15cm (300m). There are many alternative formations, including echeloning elements back from either flank, attacking with 1 element leading, and deploying heavy weapons to either flank.

Credits: Vicki Dalton for the explosions; Neil Ford for the pix.

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 7

Concluding Remarks

One of the good things about wargaming is the lack of real danger. Unfortunately for simulating war, it’s also a bad thing, because danger is a major determinant in how people react. In short, there can be a tendency to hurry in wargames, where caution would be the watchword in real life, because of the danger of hurrying. Reconnaissance and planning save lives, but wargamers (or at least hobby wargamers) want to “get on with it”, even to “get on with the game”, as if reconnaissance and planning aren’t vital parts of the event. Real danger focuses the mind. Direct personal risk of injury or death was present at all levels in World War Two, so I don’t believe that it’s a significant factor per se in the difficulties of battlegroup wargaming compared with higher or lower command levels. However, it does affect playing battlegroup wargames significantly.

I will use my wargaming experience with a tabletop miniatures wargame called Mission Command to illustrate some of my conclusions. Mission Command is a World War 2 simulation wargame that I’ve been designing and playing for over 10 years. It’s a co-design with fellow enthusiast Peter Connew. We design, develop and play scenarios with the Abbeywood Irregulars wargamers in Frome, Somerset, a group of ex-military bods and experienced amateur wargamers (it is an all-male group, unfortunately). As we state in the introduction to the wargame:

“Mission Command attempts to capture the essence of combat command from roughly company level to division level without the bloodshed, fear, death and destruction normally associated with actual warfare. The rules concentrate on helping players to learn more about the effectiveness (or otherwise) of a national army’s way of fighting during the Second World War using tabletop miniatures. The focus is primarily on tactical implementation within an overall operational context; games generally reflect up to a day or two of real combat involving up to a division or two on each side.”

In our Mission Command simulation wargames we often present tabletop situations with no visible enemies, so our players have a lot of experience of not being able to see things to shoot at, or that shoot at them. For this reason, we now have much more realistically cautious players, in planning, reconnaissance and in simulated combat. In place of “I’ve rolled to spot into that piece of terrain, so I know there’s nothing there”, we now have “I haven’t searched physically through that piece of terrain, so there might be something in it.” And in place of “That AT gun shot at my tank, therefore I can quickly knock it out before it gets more shots off”, we now have “that piece of hedgerow might contain an AT gun, so I’d better use smoke or suppressive fire.” However, this does raise the serious practical difficulties I’ve mentioned earlier, and it’s only with the use of information technology – specifically very easy digital photography and printing – that we’ve engineering a relatively slick method of handling this issue in a manual wargame without recourse to poorer proxy methods such as dummy units or rolling dice. Of course, the handling of this aspect is one of the advantages of computer wargaming.

Modelling the complexity of command and control at the battlegroup level is difficult, more difficult than at higher and lower levels of command. This level of command presents a set of complex, interlinked communications problems, so mechanical solutions like command points are tricky – rolling few PIPs on a d6 is a crude reflection of command problems, as is rolling a dice to see if you get artillery support. Sometimes the effect may work, but the impact of randomising away the issue is profound, if part of what we’re trying to do is to learn the nature of the problems. For example, with a randomising mechanic, it may be worth carrying out a “suicidal” attack, hoping that the opponent’s dice will fail; in the wargaming environment no harm done, but also no lessons learned. Somewhat worse, many wargaming systems will “work” using tactics that, history shows, would almost certainly fail if used in reality.

In Mission Command, we attempt to model the constraints on command and communications, by organising forces using realistic information about the command structures of different national armies, by imposing appropriate delays in the transmission of information and new orders, and by reflecting tactical circumstances. But, as our players know from our early play tests, communications systems are hard to model and still have a playable game.

Similarly, modelling the co-ordination of all the multitudinous different weapons systems available to the battlegroup commander is difficult, more difficult than at higher and lower levels of command. This is particularly so, because analysts and military historians are still discussing and revising our understanding of the nature of WW2 tactical combat at this command level.

In Mission Command, we decided that we had to condense or abstract out much of the detail, in order to retain a sense of the battlegroup scale aimed at, but without losing what we considered to be essential elements. For example, we believed it was important to retain relatively fine-grained definition of AT weapons, lest we lose the evidentially certain impact of more advanced weapons, such as the German 7.5cm L70 on the Panther, as compared with the 75mm L48 on the Panzer IV, while we also believed that it was not necessary to include fine detail of the armour on different areas of individual tanks; our armour classes run from 1 (worst) to 10 (best). We don’t include details of whereabouts any individual tank was hit, but we have retained the basic notion that it’s harder to destroy a tank from the front.

Credibility of the model is also important, in a very popular wargaming period where players can be incredibly knowledgeable. A specific problem for example was in relation to the effectiveness or otherwise of air attacks, particularly by rockets. Here we saw a direct clash between what we now know and what was thought at the time. After action operations analysis of rocket attacks, particularly during the destruction of forces in the Falaise Pocket and during the Ardennes counter-attack, demonstrated that, contrary to the claims at the time, a very small percentage of tanks was destroyed by such attacks. However, rocket-firing Typhoons are often a stalwart and highly effective air asset in World War Two wargames, and there is an expectation amongst players that they should be more effective against armour than they actually were. The situation is complicated by the tendency of inexperienced German tank crews late in the war to abandon their tanks in the face of this type of attack. For our Mission Command implementation, we have adjusted and re-adjusted values in our model, until we have a solution that maintains reasonable historical accuracy, but does not render the rocket-firing Typhoon ineffective. This satisfies the players and the designers, but it has meant balancing opposing viewpoints.

When wargaming at battlegroup level, we can present our players with highly complex situations that were very challenging even for the trained, experienced and supported commanders facing them in World War Two. By doing this through good quality wargames, designers can, I believe, provide a means for gaining insights into the nature of battlegroup level warfare in World War Two. These insights can be gained through all the processes of the game – design, research and development, play and post-action analysis. I’ve been struck by the willingness of players and umpires to engage seriously over long periods with these complexities, to try out ideas both historic and less so, providing more material to aid our understanding, often through failure, which is one of the best ways to learn.

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.

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 5

Capabilities

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.

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…

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 3

Continuing my battlegroup wargaming article, “The burden and rigour of battle” – for earlier ones in the series, see the sidebar.

Here are few illustrative examples of what I mean about the significance of combat outcomes at various levels, drawn from the history of the early part of the 1944 Normandy campaign.

The D-Day assault itself was planned at high level, and plans cascaded down to units at all levels of command prior to the assault. In terms of the fighting, it was the actions at company level and below generally that established troops on the beaches. At the initial assault stage the higher levels of command, including battlegroup level, were very much dependent on their smaller units carrying out their assigned tasks within a matter of hours and even minutes. However, I suggest that it was decisions by battalion and brigade commanders (particularly the latter) that led to exploitation with decisive effect during D-Day itself. Decisions on where to put reserves were taken at divisional level (for example 3rd Canadian Division on where to put their reserve brigade). Decisions on where to push battalions were often taken at brigade and even battalion level (for example manoeuvres on the day around Courseulles, Bernieres and inland). The timing and precise routes of commandos coming off Sword Beach moving inland were directed on the basis of leadership from officers, such as Lord Lovat. 3rd British Division, it has been argued, was hampered by the more cautious than expected approach from its battalion and brigade commanders, so it wasn’t able to follow its plan. However, it was decisions at this level that were critical. Reports that ‘enemy tanks were advancing from Caen’ were relayed back from the Staffordshire Yeomanry via 3rd British Division to 2nd British Army. The divisional commander “ordered a battalion of 9th British Brigade to hold at Perriers-le-Dan and ensure that the Sword bridgehead could not be rolled up from the west”. Despite the fact that the German attack was stopped, the reports of German tanks directly influenced Dempsey’s decision to issue the order to halt his 3 assault divisions in place at some time after 7pm, in case of further counter-attacks. Here we have an example of battlegroup level command decisions and reports directly affecting higher command decisions, at variance to the overall plan.

6th Airborne Division’s brigades and battalions were mustered by battalion as they landed on 6 June, and led off on their missions at the instigation of battalion commanders. Precise timing was decided by battalion COs (or other staff if COs were absent), using their judgement as to how long they could wait for assembly prior to moving off to their positions. It was also battalion and brigade commanders who made the decisions about the details of their deployments, within broad constraints of divisional and brigade plans, but necessarily adjusted to the real-life circumstances on the ground that were sometimes at variance with the plans. Similarly, when US battalions were landed at the wrong places on Utah Beach, it was commanders at battlegroup level that adjusted the deployments to meet reality.

A potential counter-argument might be Operation Deadstick, the taking of the bridges over the Orne and the Caen Canal, which was a company level action, and was decisive. But it’s worth noting that this was a tactical implementation of a coup de main within the context of the wider Operation Tonga (the airborne landings) and subsequent vital relief operation at battalion and brigade level by 7 Parachute Battalion, 5th Parachute Brigade and commandos of 1st Special Service Brigade that converted the company level action into a firm left flank for 2nd Army. Battalion and brigade commanders made decisions on how to set up their defence within the context of the divisional plan, and brigade made decisions on how to manage reserves and switch manpower in the light of attacks.

The German side also provides illustrations of the importance of this level of command, and I’ll return to these examples in the context of wargaming later. 21st Panzer Division’s activities on D-Day were heavily constrained because, in the view of regimental commander Hans von Luck, vital decisions about movement were not taken; delays were imposed by paralysis from above. But, I would argue that there is a useful comparison between the relatively supine stance of 21st Panzer Division during the morning of 6 June, and the more pro-active command decisions by 12th SS Panzer Division. The latter’s assembly was accompanied by extensive reconnaissance and planning for deployment, whereas 21st Panzer Division’s reconnaissance battalion was almost its last unit to be deployed. Management of the 21st Panzer Division’s probes during the morning and early afternoon were handled entirely at regiment and battalion level, in the absence of coherent senior direction. So, actual combat decisions were taken at regiment and battalion – battlegroup – level, while more senior commanders were critically unable to impact the combat, and I would argue it was failures at battlegroup level that contributed to the Division’s relatively poor showing. The handling of the late afternoon and early evening counter-attack was by kampfgruppe commanders, even though the main force was initially accompanied by the corps commander. Each of 21st Panzer Division’s 3 kampfgruppe had from roughly a reinforced battalion to roughly regimental strength (brigade in British parlance). In response, British defence decisions by elements of 3rd British Division and supports, were taken at the same level. These included deployment on Periers ridge, movement of supports, the balance of infantry and tanks, and assessment of threat and risk.

Next… a bit more on command, control and communications difficulties…

Photoshoot 2

The photoshoot was successful! Many thanks to Neil and Pete. I now have over 200 images to fiddle with. In fact, thanks in advance are due to Charlie, who will be doing the fiddling :).

Our photos will be designed to illustrate the mechanics of the game. Looking at other rules I find it a bit surprising that there’s a tendency towards pretty diorama style photos that don’t really show the workings of the game, rather than illustrating how a more normal wargame might look. I suspect that’s because people like Osprey have a different focus; though Osprey does some nice drawn diagrams for their’s.

The “after” shot of the Panzer IV breitkeil is:

Distance overlay to be added. I prefer this because it’s more active and less like a diagram than the previous one.

 

Photo-shoot

I’ll shortly be setting out across country from Warboys, Cambs, to Frome, Somerset, for a couple of wargame-related matters. Tomorrow (Saturday 6 January) we have the Abbeywood Irregulars monthly game – an American Civil War battle run by Jer. Recently, I’ve been restricting my outings to Frome to Mission Command games and occasionally Napoleonics, largely because it’s a bit of a trek, and also I’ve been focusing on design rather than playing. However…

On Sunday we have a photo-shoot for Mission Command, courtesy of Neil, for the photographic expertise, and Pete, for the miniatures and layouts. This is the first time I’ve really got involved in photographic illustration for a game. The idea is that the illustrations in Mission Command’s Reference Manual and Players Manual will be a combination of Vicki’s half-page illustrations for each section (more of that another day) and photos of examples of how to play – plus some generic pleasing action shots. I’ve done a few piccies with the iPhone of the kind of thing that I think we want, but our team should be able to come up with a professional “look and feel” for the production version.

Our beta version of Mission Command: Normandy (release date – April 2018, at Salute) will have black and white inside. However, we’ll have some samples of colour and a full colour cover. Final version will be colour throughout.

Here’s an example of my iPhone version (NOT the final version) of a photo showing a company of Panzer IVs in an inverted wedge. Hopefully I’ll be able to show an “after” shot for contrast!

p10_breitkeil_2

Achtung! Spitfeuer! Air combat in Open Battles

Open Battles update: Nick and I had a good session over the hols. We’ve focused on the basics at the moment. This is all about how to retain the essence of Airfix Battles within the context of a new Open Battles system without squares. We’re keeping the Unit cards, Command cards and the fundamentals of the combat system, so that the new game will be recognisably similar to AB – components will be compatible. But you’ll be able to use whatever WW2 miniatures and terrain you happen to have, or wish to acquire for the new game.

We are retaining the numerical movement points and ranges. These then convert into an appropriate distance on the tabletop depending on the scale of your minis. Typically, this would be 1 movement point or 1 range equals 4″ for 1/72 scale or 15mm scale figures. There’s a bunch of “how to…” things that we’ve drafted, which I’ll go into in a later post.

Open Battles will include Air Movement and Air Combat, and we’re looking for your comments on our current work. I’ve stuck a file called OpenBattlesAirCombat.pdf here, plus some aircraft unit cards here. Any comments would be very welcome!

Unfinished Wargames – A New Hope

New Year’s Resolution: I will attempt to post here every day about some aspect of my wargame designing and / or experience. Posts may be short but hopefully of interest!

As a short stocktake, the wargames I’m currently working on are:

  • Mission Command – my big WW2 simulation miniatures game. C0-design with Pete Connew.
  • Open Battles – follow-up of Airfix Battles. Co-design with Nick Fallon.
  • The March of Progress – micro-game inspired by Clausewitz’ On War.

I have an article about wargame design that I’m working on at the moment. Over the next few days, I’ll post a bit about that to give me a few head start posts.

Mission Command: Pleskau / Pskov, June ‘44

The Eastern Front. For the Soviet Army, it was a long way and a costly way to retreat, and now it’s a long way and a costly way to push forward to Germany. But after Kursk it’s just a matter of time and blood. For the German Army, the endless steppe is no longer the front, now it’s back nearly to the Baltic States and Poland, trading space for time, so that the Army can be re-built.

Though we were a tad short of players, Pete and I decided to push on with the full version of our Pleskau game from 2012, with the 2 of us playing as well as umpiring. So we ended up with roughly 3 v 2 for most of the game; somewhat pressured, but we all coped fairly well. This was our first outing to the Eastern Front for a while, and also the first with the relatively settled beta version of the Mission Command rules. For the Soviets, it looked like an interesting proposition, I think, using battalion-sized groups with hardly any radios, instead of company-sized groups with lots of radios, as in Normandy. For the Germans, a chance to hole up in heavy stone buildings, cover your ears and hope!

This account is largely from a German point of view, as that’s what I was playing. Apologies if I am at all unfair to the Soviets! No doubt their propaganda will give a different version of events.

Terrain

The town consists of primarily stone buildings in a rough equilateral triangle about 5km per side with one side running north-south and the triangle pointing towards the east. A river runs through the town, entering at the NW corner and flowing mainly south, forming an effective barrier about a kilometre from the western edge of the town. The only easy routes across the river are a road bridge in the middle of the town and a rail bridge in the south. A tributary with a couple of bridges meanders from east to west, joining the river in the northern poorer part of town. The main road to Riga also cuts the town in two from east to west about a kilometre south of the stream. The railway runs from NE to SW, with a few smaller lines branching at the edges of the town.

RussianAerialSketchMost of the town’s buildings are one or two storey stone town houses. The northern area beyond the stream has poorer quality, smaller buildings. There is a large imposing tractor factory in the south part of town beside some railway sidings and close to the rail bridge. Similar very sturdy buildings are on the west bank by the road bridge, but these are not so high. The centre of town also has a few tall municipal buildings that stretch along much of the main road. There are also two tall churches, one facing the road bridge, the other across the stream to the north.

DSC_3777

Outside town to the east lie some areas of higher ground, one of which is wooded. To the north, east and south the region is mainly open ground and scrub with few buildings. To the NW some buildings continue to run alongside the river. A few buildings continue beyond the western edge of the town proper, and there is some high ground a couple of kilometres to the west.

The town itself has many small streets and several quite large open areas, including a tree-lined boulevard that runs NE to SW through the centre.

The map’s slightly misleading, in that we shrank the size to about 7 km wide (North to South) and 4.5 km deep (East to the river). This had the effect of enabling the Germans to concentrate a bit more, but for the Soviets to do so too and have less far to travel.

German Commander in Chief, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment, Major Walter Meindl

Strategic situation and orders

The date is sometime during early June 1944. Your battalion has been moved to Pleskau (Pskov in Russian) on the north of the Eastern Front (the “Panther Line”) to help to stem a Russian offensive that may (eventually) threaten Riga. Pleskau is an important rail junction and also, with its position near the southern shores of a series of lakes, prevents the German lines being outflanked from the north. However, the weight of the offensive cannot be stopped by your battalion, and your orders are to conduct a delaying action, by carrying out a ‘delaying defence’. See your sketch map.

Your delaying action is a temporary measure, designed to inflict high losses on the enemy and to conserve friendly forces. You have freedom of initiative to act according to local circumstances – for example, limited counter-attacks are permitted, as are feints, deceptions, and so on. Your primary requirement is to conduct a delaying defence for as long as possible (at least a whole day), while enabling extraction of your forces across the river to the west at the end of the action. Timing of withdrawals is a matter for your decision. Night-time withdrawal of men can be achieved via bridges and boats – the latter are pre-positioned for that purpose. Note that this means you should NOT destroy the bridges over the river.

You do not have active supporting units on the eastern side of the river. All supporting units of the Division have been withdrawn behind the river. Once your troops have crossed to the western side of the river, they will be secure from further attack except from troops to your immediate front.

Your forces consist of a full strength German Parachute Battalion, plus some supports. All your Fallschirmjäger elements are elite. All your other elements are veterans. You have complete confidence in your troops and officers.

Your reconnaissance suggests that the opposition has a full Russian Tank Corps. Each of 3 Tank Brigades has about 8 tank models (representing 30 or so actual tanks), plus supporting assault troops. Artillery barrels tend to be extensive, but inflexibly used. You will also realise that, even though it’s called a Tank Corps, that doesn’t mean it’s short of PBI.

The enemy has complete air control – you have no air assets, though you do have some flak to knock the enemy aircraft down with.

Any of your elements and / or vehicles can be in concealed positions. This means that they will not be spotted till they fire, and even then, only if the enemy is close enough.

Each of your company commanders may indicate ONE building or part-building (of size to be occupied by one standard element plus one supporting gun if desired) as a ‘bunker’, which has received specific reinforcement attentions from engineers. Bunkers will have all round fire and will count as strong structures (fortified) against attacks; for example, Soviet field guns with normal indirect fire would need a 20 to cause a casualty to a defending element in firing position.

You can win some sort of victory for the German side by hanging on to any areas to the east of the river at the end of the game.

Russian Tank Corps commander:General-Major Belaborodov, 32nd Tank Corps

Strategic situation and orders

The date is sometime during early June 1944. Your Tank Corps is the spearhead of a Russian offensive that intends to open the way to Riga. In front of your forces is Pskov on the north of the Front against the Fascists. Pskov is an important rail junction, and if we take it we may (eventually) threaten Riga. Unfortunately we cannot flank it to the north, because of its position near the southern shores of a series of lakes, while the river that runs through it is unfordable, and the only bridges are in the town. The enemy has occupied the town with elements of a parachute regiment. You’ve cleared forward positions occupied by regular Wehrmacht infantry, but you expect the parachute infantry to be more of a problem.

Your mission is to take the town as quickly as possible, so that the momentum of the offensive can be maintained. You are an experienced commander, and Stavka is happy to let you get on with it. Losses are not of any particular concern, though you do appreciate that your more experienced troops are valuable for future operations. Your primary requirement is speed. The faster your success, the more pressure it will put on the Germans and the better the momentum of the follow-up.

You have no worries about either flank or rear. There is no possibility of any major German counter-attack, because other units are protecting these spots. Local counter-attacks are a possibility (they always are with the Germans). You have access to more troops if needed, so you’re not going to run out, and you’re quite aware that reinforcements will probably be necessary. Your star will rise quicker, the quicker you can complete the mission.

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Your forces consist of a full strength Tank Corps (see attached command cards). Each player on your team represents a Brigade Commander. The Motorised Infantry Brigade is the one formation which you have issues with, they are little better than raw conscripts at present having only just replaced the previous brigade which was decimated earlier in the month. This brigade needs to be used carefully. You have the option of further reinforcements if needed.

In addition, you have air control – the Luftwaffe hasn’t been seen in the area for weeks. You have been allocated a couple of air raids (dive bombers: 4 models), because Stavka has allocated most air power further south. Before the game starts, you must choose a time and target for these air raids which cannot be altered or stopped.

Air reconnaissance shows that the enemy has parachute infantry dug in inside the town and support units beyond the river to the west. Enemy strength is unknown. Ground recce has discovered that elements of the 326th infantry division occupied forward screening positions to the east of the town, and that men of the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Regiment are certainly in the town itself. German Kampfgruppe organisation means that you could be facing a mixed force.

You can win some sort of victory for the Russian side by taking and holding as much as possible (preferably all) areas to the east of the river by the end of the game.

The Battle

Prep on the German side was somewhat frenetic, as I was on my own for the planning stage, before I was reinforced by Mike. For planning purposes, and for showing hidden positions and hidden movement, we had A2 colour printouts of the sketch maps.

With only very limited man-power, I was forced to stretch the companies quite a bit. I put 5th company all the way from the bridge roughly at 010020 across to the strong points down the road from 012011 to 005014. 6th company was holding the tractor factory (there’s always a tractor factory) and all the way over to 5th company positions, but with some forward LMG outposts on table F. 7th company was behind the other two in reserve and holding the main river crossings.

I put a couple of StuGs with 5th company to give the Soviets pause if they came steaming down either main road, but the remaining AT (2 more StuGs and the PaK40) were positioned to cover the main river bridges directly. I didn’t want to lose too much useful AT stuff in the outskirts, because that would just give easy targets for the Soviet heavy guns.

I chose to place our precious 8.8cm FlaK off-map, and not in an AT role. The problem with the AT role was that they would have been very difficult to conceal, and unable to use their range advantage, so we would have lost them pretty quickly. No doubt we would have knocked out some tanks, but unfortunately the Soviets can afford tank losses, or else they wouldn’t be attacking a town with a Tank Corps! So the 8.8s were in FlaK role – they were Luftwaffe after all.

We had bunkers at 008016 (on the corner of two main roads), 008009 and 003019 (by the joining of the 2 waterways). Knowing the heavy weight of Soviet artillery, we placed most troops in the strongest buildings, in the basements where they were to a large extent protected, and where we had decent ambush positions. Otherwise, we were relying on ambushes from panzerfausts, StuGs and even our rather pathetic recoilless guns.

We had anti-tank roadblocks on the main thoroughfares, 1 extensive minefield in an open strip in the middle of town, and also a very well booby-trapped block of houses that we figured they might use as cover against our strong points.

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The Soviets came in using several prongs. 1 brigade was to try to push across the bridge at 010020 down the road, another (motorised with heavy tank support) frontally due west and a third via the factory, but flanking it to the south. Recce preceded the last prong down the railway line and round the southern side of the large wooded area. Early on, artillery pounded various buildings, but to little effect, as we were either not there (we’d not manned the outskirts) or were in strong buildings. In Mission Command, we cater for light, medium and strong buildings, with 3 height levels, in addition to full blown fortifications. The main structures in Pleskau were strong stone structures (industrial, primarily), so they might lose a top storey, but troops in basements would be relatively hard to get rid of, especially as our troops were all elite paratroops. I had half-expected a couple of hours of massive bombardment from the Soviets prior to their sending in the attacks, but their guns were restricted to brief preliminaries, and some smoke, while their troops advanced to contact.

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The attack across the bridge at 010020 was rather effectively blunted by Mike’s very smart idea to blow the bridge immediately after their first couple of elements crossed it. The Germans had specific engineer assets for this task, nicely pre-positioned with covering fire from 5th company and StuGs to hit the cut off troops. For much of the rest of the game this attacking brigade was getting up engineers to repair the bridge, while pushing on with infantry – this wasn’t the main river, so we settled that the terrain across the now defunct bridge counted as ‘difficult’ for infantry. A heavy weight of artillery fire came down on the built-up areas close to the bridge over the next hour or so, with the result that we did lose most of our 2 models worth of StuGs eventually – in reality, these were likely to have been immobilised or damaged by falling masonry and such like, rather than destroyed outright, but in wargame terms they counted as KOed. Since we had 5th company’s bunker behind this position, but not embroiled, the Germans felt reasonably content with this sector.

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In the centre, the Soviet motorised brigade smacked into our booby-trapped area and lost very significant casualties; I think they had orders to keep going regardless. When they sorted themselves out and flowed round the danger area, our forward troops were able to keep them back by forcing them to take morale checks that they were very likely to fail because of prior losses.

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Support for this prong of the Soviets came from their heavy tank battalion (KVs), which was a big problem for the paratroops, as we didn’t have much that could stop them till they got close to the bridges. Eventually the Soviets here did get a reasonable foothold in the town, but they weren’t able to move forward on the bridges past the 6th company bunker. To be fair, the motorised brigade was made up of green troops, so this attack was always going to more of a pinning affair than a penetration. It certainly made sure that part of 6th company was pinned. Later in the day, I suspect that the heavy tank brigade would have approached the northern main river bridge. We had a couple of surprises up our sleeves, including some more StuGs concealed at the bridge. Although the ambushing recoilless guns were going to be a surprise, I suspect they were not going to be effective in stopping the KVs, so we would have been very reliant on the StuGs.

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The southern prong attack towards and round the tractor factory was more successful for the Soviets. A couple of Soviet air strikes on the factory turned out well for the Germans – the FlaK shot down several aircraft (2 models) and the bombs themselves were mostly ineffective. That’s one of the few times we’ve had successful FlaK defence. Lesson: don’t always use 8.8cm FlaK for anti-tank – they’re pretty good FlaK guns! That aside, the German forces in the factory were woefully inadequate to defend such a large area. We repelled the initial couple of attacks, but supporting fire from tanks, bren carriers and lots of infantry caused casualties on the defenders, and in the end we had almost nothing left, the remaining paratroops surrendering to the final assault. A mortar team held out in the middle of the factory for a while, but I figure that it too would have surrendered on the approach of the attacking battalions.

As the Soviet tanks came round the factory to head for the bridge, our StuG position held them up. Owing to the range, the Soviets couldn’t discover exactly where the firing was coming from, so they had to lose a small number of vehicles to find out which built-up area concealed the StuGs. Their recce troops were very useful here, and of course their tank numbers told.

Shortly after this a tank battalion and supporting truck-borne infantry dashed for, and across, the bridge! We had insufficient blocks on the edge of the table (I plead shortage of time!) to outright prevent this. However, covering fire from the concealed PaK40 knocked out almost all the Soviet tanks, and their motorised infantry also lost their lead vehicles. By the end of the session the Soviet infantry were only precariously holding a couple of buildings on the western bank. Mind you, achieving this forward position was quite an accomplishment (though technically not a Soviet objective!), so credit to those guys. Almost the whole of our 7th company was defending this area, so my suspicion is that the Soviets would have been pushed back.

The final German success of the day was to knock out some Soviet mortars using the 8.8cm guns in counter-battery role. So, even though the Soviets did manage to reach the river, it was, I feel, a well-contested affair by both sides.

Some conclusions

We’ve kept a note of the outcome of this engagement, so that we can continue with a post-Pleskau Soviet breakthrough later in the year. I think the Germans did quite a bit better this time around than in our 2012 version of the game, though we had a different setup and much better developed rules in 2017, so perhaps not entirely comparable. The Germans didn’t suffer huge casualties this time, but there was an inevitable attrition owing to Soviet artillery fire. This felt about right (to me at least). The Soviets suffered rather more casualties, as expected, in all areas, but then again, they had the material advantage, and were in a position to spend it for ground gained.

I would have preferred longer to plan and more players to help. For defensive positions, I think we’ll need to supply some parts of the plan in advance, so that the defenders aren’t overly taxed, particularly as we usually have fewer players on the defensive team than the attacking one.

Players should be encouraged not to hurry. I think the Soviets could have carried out a more concentrated fire plan for a longer period, and could have attacked more slowly, more methodically and with less risk – but still this would have been quite fast, but not break-neck speed. Re-organisation of attacking troops takes time, and you can, in fact, realistically take that time.  Positioning of specialist assets, such as engineers, needs a lot of thought, especially if there might be bridges to repair or mines / booby-traps to remove.

I got the impression that the Soviet Tank Corps was a different kettle of fish to our more usual Normandy forces. However, I’d like to invite comments from our Soviet players on that. Certainly the motorised brigade looked very different, with lots of elements but a need to keep them close together, so vulnerable.

For the future, A2 printouts of the actual table layouts would be far superior to our sketch maps, and would have speeded up our interpretation of where everything was, but this requires access to a printer on the day. Not impossible, but would need organising. It’s important to keep track of where hidden elements are located, so a closer approximation to the real layout would be advised.

Bearing in mind the relatively small number of players that we had, I think it went well, and there were no particular difficulties with the game mechanics.

Airfix Tanks

A little bit of prep for Airfix Battles happened over the hols.  Only a little, but the objective is to get a whole set of figures and minis in Airfix for use in Airfix Battles.

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Mission Command: The Joy of Research

I’ve been reading shed-loads of books and articles about Normandy ’44 over the past few months, as I stumble forward (and occasionally back) with the design and development of Mission Command: Normandy beta version. Sometimes a little snippet of “new” information comes to light that seems to have been overlooked by many a professional historian (or, indeed, gamer). My latest read is Ben Kite’s 2014 book “Stout Hearts, The British and Canadians in Normandy 1944”, now available in weighty paperback from Helion & Co.

For best credibility of scenarios in historical games like Mission Command: Normandy, it’s important to do careful research, lest you get held to account by, shall we say, “gamers who have great attention to detail”. I’ve been researching and playing a set of scenario variants for the 6th Airborne Division’s actions north of Caen for some while. One thing that’s struck me is the amount of firepower available to our paras. Apart from the naval gunfire support from a cruiser and a destroyer for each parachute brigade, they had 9x 6 pounder and 2x 17 pounder AT guns.

It’s often assumed that the AT guns, particularly the 17 pounders carried by Hamilcar gliders, were not available when the main para drop arrived early in the morning, because the principal glider landing was famously at 21:00 in the evening of D-Day. Hence the particular danger of the potential counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division during D-Day.

Ben Kite mentions this in his book: “Sergeant ‘Jock’ Simpson was a second pilot on a Hamilcar which landed on Phase three [the 21:00 landing] of operation TONGA with a 17-pounder anti-tank gun..”. However, a reading of Ben Kite’s quote from Sergeant Simpson shows that he landed with the Phase one gliders in the early morning: “A short time after midnight we rolled down the runway and took off…”. As the crossing by towed glider was only a tad more than 2 hours, it’s clear that Sergeant Simpson was not going to land at 21:00, but round about 03:30.  Moreover, it’s recorded in 5 Para Brigade’s diary that 4 Airlanding AT battery, including attached 17 pounders, arrived safely (as ordered) about 03:30, confirming  its operational orders.  So, assuming it might take a couple of hours to deploy the guns, from around 05:30 in the morning of 6 June, 5 Para Brigade had 11 AT guns, including 17 pounders capable of dealing with Panthers and Tigers, more or less ready for action.  Our Mission Command scenario variants take this into account.

This information is nowadays happily available online, but this type of potential error does show the importance of double-checking the evidence.

The Day After D-Day: part 2

Last post focused on the narrative, this post will focus more on what we learned, in particular, tweaks required in the Mission Command: Normandy documents.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following my Mission Command posts, we’ve not yet reached the final version of the game.  All sessions so far have been play tests, resulting in various tweaks or more far-reaching changes.  I’m hopeful that we’re nearing the end of that particular road, and we’ll have a stable beta version later this year.  This session threw up a small number of points.

Artillery control boards worked very well.  Jerry ran them for the Germans, John for the Canadians.  From their notations and looking over their shoulders during play, the boards helped to ensure that time delays for comms and for prep were appropriately handled.  John’s thought was to make sure that the C-in-C was centrally involved and received communications, so he ran the artillery himself.  This was particularly necessary for the Canadians, who had 6 batteries each, plus 3x 3” mortar batteries.  While we didn’t make inclusion of company level mortars compulsory, we’re coming round to that view, especially with a view to controlling the type of ammunition, and possibly a bit more delay when tubes are not ‘on call’.

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A well-used Artillery Control Board

There were a couple of “umpire glitches” that I find it worth recording, so it doesn’t happen again.  Smoke was used a lot in this scenario (our slogan “smoke is your friend” seems to be working!).  I was allowing smoke to lift at the end of a whole turn, which, when you think on’t, gives one side quite a big advantage.  Our mechanics actually have each smoke screen lifting at the end of either *turn* (even friendly, odd enemy), so that neither side knows exactly when it will lift.  Much more equitable, especially on a calm, still day.  Secondly I foolishly allowed German counter-battery fire at a rather long range; it’s quite possible this was beyond the range of the German field artillery, so let’s just say this was a battery of mediums.

It’s probably worth noting the effect of our spotting rules, which rely on distance and circumstances, rather than dice rolls.  The Puma armoured cars pre-positioned in light woods near Bretteville were able to see advancing infantry at 500m, whereas the Pumas themselves were only visible at 250m (halted in partially obscuring terrain) – of course, when they fired they were visible to all and sundry.  It’s worth remembering this kind of thing for effective recce.

The most major point that arose, I think, was illustrated by Si’s panzer force versus the Canadian Regina Rifles.  The panzers had skilfully advanced under cover of some light woods to the west of Putot and were confronted by a company of the Regina Rifles retiring from attacking the village, having just been beaten off by the German recce troops there.  As the panzers had just moved up, the tanks couldn’t fire in that bound, even though they were very close to the enemy infantry.  The Canadian infantry fell back in their bound.  While the tanks could then have fired and advanced, there was a little mix up with movement and spotting ranges, I think, and the opportunity was missed or handled incorrectly.

It seems reasonable to assume that in this type of situation, the tanks would conduct some form of overrun attack (getting in amongst or even through the infantry), but current rules don’t permit any friendly element to move onto or through an enemy element.  We don’t have a different mechanic for melee or overrun, largely because at very short ranges the normal firing is very bloody.  Reaction tests with close up enemy AFVs (within 100m) are taken at -3, and a Retreat result within 100m of enemy AFVs is surrender instead, so it seemed OK on the surface.  However, infantry will normally get to move (possibly using both their action) before their reaction check, so they may well move out of sight, or at least out of the 100m range for the “100m of enemy AFV” modifier.  Even if they fail a reaction test, they may simply retire and continue to block AFV movement.  So this doesn’t quite work.

We have had many discussions about overrun mechanics now, including at our meal on Saturday evening after the game, when toothpicks were taking the place of infantry and tanks.  Our current position is perhaps best illustrated by a couple of illustrations:

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Overrun!

This example shows a Panzer IV company overrunning some retiring British, much like our failed op during the game. Here the Panzers are carrying out the proposed new “overrun” special action that enables them to move through infantry in the open, then fire at them with MGs.  It’s the rough equivalent of a Move Once action followed by a restricted Shoot action (only MGs and only at the overrun element).  The overrun also suppresses the target element and any infantry element behind that might have to be displaced.  The Panzers have to survive any opportunity fire from overwatching elements – in this case a PIAT team shoots up the left hand tanks.  After this, the Brits have an unenviable reaction test at lots of minuses (that’s -1 for each of 5 suppressed elements, -2 for the element lost (3 casualties), -3 for being shot at by AFVs within 300m (changed from 100m to make it more effective), for a total of -10, though they do get +1 for knocking out the vehicles).  In Mission Command you roll a d10, then make adjustments.  6 is Obey Orders, 1 is Halt / move to cover, 0 or less is bad.  So the British are going to be in a bad way.

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Ultimate overrun?

This one is even worse for the British.  Here the overrunning force is a mixed group of panzergrenadiers and tanks, utilizing the German joint activation capability. Direct area fire has further suppressed the bottom British element.  In this case the PIATs were not on overwatch, so the Germans don’t take fire.  The British reaction test is further reduced by enemy infantry advancing within 100m, so Retreat or Rout immediately followed by surrender is the likely result.  A couple of useful tactical notes: always back up your infantry line with proper depth, including AT guns, to hinder this type of tactic; also, in attack, you can use smoke behind the target line to attempt to isolate it – co-ordination of planning and implementation is essential though.

Finally, we had another breakthrough on the hidden units front.  For this game I provided large printed maps of the playing area, upon which teams were encouraged to place the HQ elements of units not yet visible to the enemy – the HQ representing the forward position of the company.  This mechanism (with the printouts oriented the same way as the playing tables) worked very very well to indicate the position of hidden units without having to show every single element.  As long as you have a spare table for each side, this mechanism is less cumbersome than using dummy markers, and more efficient and accurate than scribbling on small maps.

The Day After D-Day: part 1

On 7 May 2016 the Abbeywood Irregulars gathered for our monthly Big Battle – Mission Command: Normandy, The Day After D-Day. For those not in the know, Mission Command: Normandy is a set of World War Two wargaming rules for use with miniatures.  What we try to do is:

  • Capture the essence of tactical and operational combat command from roughly company level to army corps level without real warfare’s bloodshed, fear, death and destruction.
  • Model the differences in how different armies fight.
  • Reflect WW2 practice of tactical and operational command, control and communications.

This scenario pits the advancing Canadian 7th Brigade, 3rd Division, with supports against a hasty attack by elements of Panzer Lehr.  It’s a pseudo-historical scenario, presuming that Panzer Lehr was further forward than it was in reality.  It is designed to challenge both sides with roughly equal forces (though the Canadians have more artillery and the Germans more tanks), and a similar operational and tactical situation to that experienced by Canadian 9th Brigade and 12 SS Panzer Division further east.  This situation has been displaced west, so that players cannot know exactly what will transpire by reading the history books.

The idea on both sides is that their forces are part of broader advances covering their flanks.  The purpose of structuring the scenario in this way was to limit the inevitable nervousness about edge-of-table flanks, which in this game were not compromised.  An additional restriction (unknown to the players) was ‘no air power or naval guns’, simply to limit our attention with literally no overheads.

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Playing area looking north to south, with Putot front right, Bretteville front left, and the main Bayeux – Caen railway line bisecting the table.  Above this picture is a larger shot of our hall, the Bennett Centre, Frome.

The area consists of mainly flat fields with occasional villages, woods and hedges.  The terrain in front of us is cut by the main railway line from Bayeux to Caen.  All built-up areas have some 2-storey town houses.  Hedges are all normal hedges not bocage.  Owing to standing corn, and bumps and lumps in the fields, visibility along the flat open terrain is a maximum of 1,000m.  However, from ridges, buildings or trees, you’ll be able to see out to normal distances.  All wooded areas are open woods.  Roads are metalled and are supplemented by tracks that aren’t indicated specifically.  Open ground counts as firm and level.  The playing area is about 3km wide by 3.5 long.

Canadians

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Canadian 7th Brigade HQ, showing its command card. Non-combat troops not listed.

The orders for the Canadians are roughly historical. 7th Brigade is to continue to carry out its D-Day orders to establish a ‘fortress’ defensive zone around Putot-en-Bessin and Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse, linking up with 9th Brigade on the left and British 50th Division on the right.  Contact was made with 50th Division at Creully yesterday evening, and 50th Division will be moving forward in parallel to 7th Brigade.  Supports are in the form of AT guns, most of which will be coming up over the next 48 hours, and artillery, 2 regiments of field guns being already available.

The Canadians were led by John, a highly experienced player, with Richard, Mat, Pete (resiling from umpiring this time), Toby and Alex.  Both our teams this day were slightly larger than expected, which meant we went with the full regimental / brigade groups, rather than toning it down.  We usually estimate that a team of 3 or 4 can handle a brigade group, but it’s a squeeze, so more is better, especially as most units on both sides were at full strength with a fair few supports.  The Canadians had 3 infantry regiments (note: regiments = battalions) with half a battalion of tanks, supported by  12 and 13 RCA Field Artillery Regiments with M7 Priests (105mm howitzers), plus a battery of Achilles SP anti-tank.

Canadian General Synopsis

3rd Canadian Division has successfully landed on Juno Beach and penetrated inland about 4 kilometres to a line stretching from Creully in the west to Anguerny in the east.  8th Brigade is to the left (east).  According to the Allies overall plan, the division’s fresh 9th Brigade will pass through 8th Brigade and advance to its ‘fortress position’ in and around Carpiquet.  In concert with this, 7th Brigade (Canadian team’s forces) will advance to its ‘fortress position’ in and around Putot-en-Bessin and Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse to the west of Carpiquet.  The object of the Division’s defensive plan is to prevent the enemy exploiting the open ground to the west and east of the Mue valley, the Mue being a stream that runs south to north, spilling into the sea at Courseulles-sur-Mer, which the Canadian’s own 7th Brigade took yesterday.  9th Brigade will advance today to their position almost due west of Caen, so as to defend the east of the Mue valley, while 7th brigade will advance in line with them to defend the west of the Mue valley.  When in position, the German panzer attack will break on the Canadian’s overwhelming anti-tank and artillery fire power, supported by mobile armoured forces, while strong infantry holds the covering line.

To the right is the British 50th Infantry Division.  The Canadians met up with elements of their 69th Brigade at about 18:00 on D-Day at Creully.  To the left is 9th Brigade, who will be advancing up the other side of the Mue.  Behind are the rest of the artillery and anti-tank supports landed or due to land and come up from the beaches over the next couple of days.

Germans

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Some Germans, Kampfgruppe HQ at top.  M3s substituting for some (unused) Engineer vehicles in the foreground. Note the Pumas and 2nd Ko 130 Recce, deployed prior to game start.

The Germans have a combined force of roughly half a panzer division in size (perhaps slightly smaller) – bearing in mind that Panzer Lehr was missing its Panther battalion and a battalion of field artillery.  The idea is that this force forms the right-hand side of an attack by the whole division, coupled with 12 SS to the right.  So the kampfgruppe’s left is secured by the attack of the other half of the division, and the right by 12 SS. The Germans’ orders are to advance quickly, find gaps in the Allied deployment and penetrate as rapidly as possible northwards towards the coast with armoured forces.  Infantry are to secure the gaps, to mask resistance initially and then to mop up.  The whole corps (Panzer Lehr, 12 SS and 21 Panzer) is being committed, and every unit will have to show flexibility in supporting the most favourable opportunities.

The German team has almost the whole of 901st Panzergrenadier Regiment (2 battalions with almost all of their transport and support vehicles intact), half of 2nd Battalion, 130 Panzer Regiment (46 Panzer IVs – represented by about a dozen models), 2 companies of the 130 Aufklarungs Battalion, a company of 130 Panzerjager, a battalion of Field Artillery (3 batteries), and a flak Battalion.

German Current Situation

D-Day has happened.  The Allies have a lodgement on the coast and a shallow bridgehead.  Little detail is known, except that Americans have established themselves to the west, threatening to cut off the Cotentin peninsula, while British and Canadians have landed north of Bayeux and Caen.  Most of the German coastal defence forces have been wiped out in the overwhelming air, naval and artillery bombardments, and there has been significant disruption to command caused by paratroopers all over the immediate rear areas of the Atlantic Wall in Normandy.  Immediate counter-attack by 21st Panzer Division to the north of Caen has not been entirely successful, but that Division has created the basis of a new line of resistance north of Caen.  The original main line of resistance from the Cotentin to the Orne has effectively been destroyed and overrun, with only some pockets surviving, and the Germans had to put in hasty reinforcements in dribs and drabs from Brittany and even a battalion or two from 15th Army.

Even though the Atlantic Wall has not proven tough enough to stop the Allies cold, Rommel’s primary Army Group B reserves are, except for 21st Panzer Division, intact and in position.  It was fortunate that Rommel was able to persuade OKW and Hitler to move the Panzer Lehr Division forward before the Allies could launch their invasion, so that it can now join with 12 SS Panzer Division in an armoured Corps attack.  Both Divisions have reached their assembly areas between Bayeux and Caen in good time to counter-attack this morning (7 June), utilising the open ground on both sides of the Mue valley, as previously wargamed.  The overall intention is to strike north hard and fast, so as to reach the sea, then to exploit as the situation suggests to east or west.

Plans

Canadians

A classic 2-up 1-back advance with a gap in the centre for the Shermans of the Hussars of Ontario to use and exploit as they came up (they were delayed, so not available at game start).  The Canadian objectives were Bretteville and Putot, with (I’m guessing) permission to push on to give more depth if opportunities arose.  Finally the Canadian Scottish were to push through behind the Hussars of Ontario and move on Le Chateau and Le Mesnil-Patry.  Support from their massive artillery was to be provided at each stage.

Germans

Focused on getting tanks and supporting infantry rapidly down the left flank through Putot, primarily using all the tanks (2 companies) and 1st battalion of the panzergrenadiers, with the 2nd battalion supporting from the centre between Le Chateau and the railway farm.  This rapid advance was possible because Panzer Lehr 130 had a couple of companies of recce at the railway line at game start.  These were able to scout forward rapidly and report back.

What happened

The engagement began at 07:00 with the German recce already at the railway line in the hope of seeing the direction of the Allied movement.  The Canadians started with heavy smoke screens to shield the advance of the Regina Rifles on the right towards Putot and the Royal Winnipegs on the left towards Bretteville.  The Germans put down a brief barrage on Bretteville and Putot, covering the advance of their recce, in case either of those villages had been occupied.

RoyalWinnipegsDeployed

Royal Winnipegs 2-up. Rest are behind the carriers and cannot be seen yet. Smoke has lifted and they’re going into overwatch.  3rd company will deploy through the front 2 companies into Bretteville (or attack it if occupied).

German 2nd company 130 recce (infantry in Sdkfz 250s) pushed into Putot to have a look-see, initially only seeing a smoke screen.  Similarly the Pumas of 1st company, only seeing smoke, took up a position in light woods near Bretteville.  The lifting smoke revealed leading companies of both Canadian battalions (Royal Winnipegs 2-up, Regina Rifles 3-up).  Each German recce company left single elements to cover the withdrawal of their main body.  HE from the Puma damaged the 6 pounders of the Winnipeg’s Support Company, but the armoured cars were rapidly dealt with.  Spotting: Pumas hidden in the woods were able to spot the advancing infantry and AT guns, while remaining unseen themselves, *but* of course as soon as they fired, they could be seen and picked off by the 17 pounders of the supporting Achilles (would have been tempting for the Pumas to simply Fire-then-Move, and reverse out of trouble, I’m thinking).

PumasEngaged

Puma rearguard engages the 6 pounders with HE.  Canadians placed smoke in front of Bretteville, but the Germans are cannily in the woods, and Bretteville is unoccupied.

The Royal Winnipegs used classic fire-and-movement by companies – one on overwatch while the others advanced – and were well supported by properly cautious Achilles SP guns.  Caution was definitely important in this scenario.  Almost the entire ground was flat with occasional open woods and villages, so cover was at a premium.  Standing crops meant that spotting from flat ground to flat ground was a maximum of 1,000 metres, so no long-range sparring here.  With most AT weapons being long 75mm guns, pretty much any hit was a kill – there being only Panzer IVs and Shermans, no Panthers and Tigers.  Despite not having much opposition to start with, the Royal Winnipeg advance to Bretteville seemed very much by-the-book, resulting in complete success and little loss (a 6 pounder, a carrier and only very light casualties, if I recall correctly).  There was some Puma activity, a little artillery fire, but nothing too troubling.

The Regina Rifles, having suffered heavily on D-Day, also suffered today in front of Putot.  Their leading company was beaten off by 2nd / 130 Recce, then subsequently struck by the leading tanks of 130 Panzer Regiment.  Reinforced and rallied, the battalion eventually forced its way into Putot, thanks to its 6 pounder battery, supporting field artillery, and the late-arriving Shermans, who were able to knock out the Panzer IVs.  Smoke played a big part in this action (as did a rules glitch that we’re looking at now).

ReginaRiflesBeatenOff.jpg

Regina Rifles rightmost company beaten off by recce rearguard in the woods in front of Putot.  Red pawns are casualties, purple are suppressions.  The Canadians suffered several Cease Fire and Retire results here, but no Retreat or Rout; they proved to be tough.  Note the smoke, which unfortunately has prevented supporting fire from the centre company.

The fight around Putot was the main battleground of the day.  The Germans had committed all their tanks and almost the whole of the 1st battalion, 901st Panzergrenadiers here.

OverviewOfAttackOnReginas

Overview of the German attack on the Regina Rifles.  Note the Panzer IVs on the right – there’s a company of infantry behind, but not visible to the Canadians yet.  The vehicles crossing the railway line and heading south are the withdrawing recce.  The vehicles on the left are from another company of 1st battalion, 901st. German vehicle by the tree at the top is dropping off a FOO, who stayed up the trees in that wood, giving the Germans a view beyond the northern table edge.

There was some confusion in the attack, and it was not quite clear to the 2nd echelon of 1st battalion exactly where they should be committed.  By the time they’d shaken themselves out to the right of Putot, the tardy Shermans had arrived, and a tank duel around the railway line behind and around Putot ensued.  PIATs from the Regina Rifles also joined in.  The Germans came off badly, as the Shermans refused to over-stretch themselves – Jagdpanzers in ambush behind the railway farm languished with no targets, and eventually came forward into the general attack, only to be knocked out by 17 pounders (Achilles and / or Fireflys).  The German 1st battalion 2nd echelon unwisely moved forward into the open killing ground at much the same time, and the Germans ended the game with only a handful of operational tanks, while the Canadians still had more than half of theirs remaining.

2Co_1_130Pz.jpg

2nd Company, 1/130 Panzers support 1st Company. Just after this movement, most were destroyed by Canadian Shermans and 6 pounders.

UnhealthyForTanks

Burning tanks.  Mostly German, but this pic shows that the 1st Company 130 on the right got past Putot (in fact there’s another wreck further forward to the right as well).  If they’d been able to overrun the Canadian infantry … (of which more later).  Note many casualties flagged up, mostly from artillery – see white and orange 105mm template in the background.

In the centre, 2nd battalion, 901st Panzergrenadiers were unable to develop their attack, in the face of withering 105mm fire directed from Bretteville.  The grenadiers pushed through the shells, but were halted before they could reach the village.  Many vehicles were destroyed, and by the end of the day the Germans here were effectively stopped and forced back towards the cover of Norrey.  Canadian occupation of Bretteville gave them a fairly clear view from the buildings right across the German deployments behind Putot, and their artillery made this very uncomfortable.  On the other hand, a German FOO, concealed in the woods to the north of Le Chateau was making life unpleasant for the Canadians advancing between Bretteville and Putot.

WinnipegsInBretteville

Winnipegs in Bretteville.  Lead units have already pushed on.  This is a great pic of the Achilles that supported the Winnipegs. Shermans (Fireflies with the longer barrels) in the background are winning their tank duel.

Towards the end of the game the German artillery switched from direct support of the German attack to counter-battery fire.  During the day the Canadian field artillery batteries were intent on deploying to their proper firing positions, so they had to move up while keeping guns on call.  The Germans were fortunate to catch a couple of batteries of the Royal Canadian Artillery during a period of heavy supporting fire, which enabled the German counter-battery fire to score some damage on temporarily stationary Priests.  The counter-battery operation did have the disadvantage of denying the Germans artillery support for the last 30 minutes or so of the game.

SmokeCoversNervousShermans.jpg

Smoke covers nervous Shermans facing the remains of 1st Company, 130 Panzers. PIATs of the Regina Rifles helped to finish off the last few, despite German artillery pounding the crossroads.  Note lots of blue overwatch markers – it’s important to be ready!

The final game positions, by about 09:15 to 09:30 saw the German panzergrenadiers deployed in the hedges and woods to west of Putot, resisting the attacks of the Regina Rifles infantry, but with no effective answer to the extensive Canadian artillery.  Hanging on was the best they could hope for here.  The Royal Winnipegs were pushing on towards Norrey behind their artillery barrages, but it was relatively slow progress, and German infantry guns were keeping them in check.  The Germans could hope to hold Norrey, Le Chateau and le Mesnil-Patry, but their attack had certainly been stopped.

NearlyTheEnd

Nearly the end.  Putot has been taken by the Regina Rifles, but the German landser are resisting just to the west.  The Hussars of Ontario have a commanding position in the centre, and it’s difficult to see how they’ll be shifted.  Most of the jagdpanzers in Normandy are currently burning at the top right centre by the railway farm.  Note the command cards in the strip of table to the top left.  We encourage players to put them right in front, because they have relevant lookups for moving and firing on them.

Arty Control

WW2 – it’s an artillery war. And in that light, I’ve been addressing Mission Command’s methods for enabling players to control artillery. Forward Observation Officers, or others, who want to call in shoots of artillery batteries have to communicate (in other words “do a Communicate action”) to make it happen. The time delay between request and shells in the air depends on the efficiency of that communication, and in Mission Command we’ve previously handled it by messages with a delay in turns run by players, umpires or both, often relying on memory and the accuracy of individuals. As you might imagine, this has resulted in muddle, even with our one-message-box-per-turn experiment in our last game.

Now I’ve decided to try a lesson from the Euro game book – a ‘player board’. We have a simple artillery control board for the commander of the artillery. It lists the batteries down the side and the turns along the top, so that a very brief order can be written straight into a cell. Each battery has a wooden cube on the left hand side of the board to indicate whether the battery is Moving, Preparing or Ready/Firing; and these must be carried out in that sequence.

Arty_4

In this example 12th Field Regiment (Self Propelled 105mm guns, known as Priests) started the game On Call to the FOO of 11th Battery. It’s now Turn 3, so the turn at the top of the board is circled. 11th Battery has been directed to fire at 026040 with 11th and 16th batteries. This order will have come in, and been written on the board, on Turn 2 at the latest, as artillery cannot fire on the turn the order is received (in Mission Command, a Shoot action is always the first action of the two actions an element does). The shoot is planned for 2 turns duration, then the two batteries will prepare for fire elsewhere. 43rd Battery has been ordered to prepare to bombard the same target. Bombarding is the most intensive, highest rate of fire and takes 2 turns to prepare. When the other two batteries Prep on Turn 5, 43rd will bombard the same target. Meanwhile the medium guns of 5th Battery, 15th Regiment have been carrying out a rolling barrage close by.

If desired, you can also control battalion mortars through the control board, as shown. Mortars don’t need a turn to prepare, so the player has crossed out the Prep box for the mortars.

The current status cubes give a quick overview of what’s happening now, and they also remind you that you have to Prep after Moving the battery.

My plan is to use this for our game on 7 May to see if it works ‘live’.

Testing times in Normandy

On Thursday Pete and I had a quick play test of the proposed new group activation rules for Mission Command (see the previous post).  We each had about half a battalion of infantry with supporting tanks, AT, and artillery.  We played fairly slowly to make sure we had the mechanics of communications and control correct.  Even so, we managed 9 turns in an hour and a half of play, which is roughly game time = real time, so good pacing.

The Germans (Pete) had the first bound and advanced rapidly to the cover of a wood in the centre of the area of operations.

GermanAdvance

First Panzergrenadier company is in the woods, second panzergrenadier company is forming a single group with the Panzerjager on the German right (our left), while the Panzer IV company (with HQ company in the rear) takes up a wedge formation by a hedge for partial concealment.  Note the tank formation – owing to the 1 model = 3-5 vehicles scale, the front 5 models represent a standard wedge formation, albeit they are too closed up; an artillery strike would possibly kill more than one model if they’re this close together.  Width of the this tank wedge is rather less than 200m; better if it was 250m, and it could easily be double the depth for ease of later deployment.  Panzergrenadier vehicles are also very vulnerable here, but then again, it does mean they were able to move up quickly.

The British advanced from the other side of the table, using the right hand side.

BritishAdvance

I also used a wedge, and mine also are rather too close together!  The infantry are two companies with some depth.  Note that an infantry element in a company group has to be within 100m of another group element chaining to the command element, in order to be in command.  As this was a play test, I deployed from a random part of the base line, when I should have gone for the cover of the ridge (top left).

The Germans develop their position. The tanks halt and go into overwatch (they can’t see anything for the moment).  On the German left, the FOO with 1st company prepares to call in artillery on the village.  On the right the jagdpanzers initially form up across the ridge with 2nd company infantry, but as they see Shermans advancing just under 1000m away, they take up hull down positions at right angles to the infantry instead.  Unfortunately for my Shermans, I can’t see them, as they’re partially obscured by the ridge – if only I’d had some scouting Stuarts!

Jagdpanzers!

I made the mistake of leading my tank squadron with the command vehicle (which was a very stupid mistake!).  As I came round the right side of the village, I spotted the enemy tanks at under 500m (fortunately they weren’t yet in overwatch).  My command vehicle was forced to use its second action to reverse back out of sight.  Unfortunately this meant that the commander couldn’t use a communicate action to inform or re-deploy the squadron quickly, nor to inform the overall commander straight away.  We’d also not seen the jagdpanzers on the ridge, and soon lost several tanks (the rear smoking turret being my sole Firefly model).  Then the artillery came down on where the German FOO thought my tanks were going to be, but of course they’d backed off.

You can just see the little blue marker between the right hand Sherman and my bottom infantry element.  This marks that this infantry element was separated last turn, as the infantry advanced into the Sherman company’s area splitting the infantry company.  Fortunately we were able to regroup the company quickly with no particularly bad effects, as the company was not closely engaged.

The action continues.  British artillery puts in a smoke screen against the flanking jagdpanzers, though it comes down a bit too far to the left and I have to supplement it with the company’s 2″ mortars.

My second (left) company had nearly reached the village, but mortar fire from the 2nd panzergrenadier company hit and destroyed the 2″ mortar element.  This element had been linking to the company HQ in the rear, and the separated forward elements failed a reaction test and fell back.  The leaderless Shermans meanwhile have tried to rally back to the second company HQ, but lost more tanks, this time to the Panzer IVs at just over 1000m.  The few remaining Shermans call it a day, because it’s just too open to deploy here.

SmokeButTooLate
Meanwhile the German FOO moves the German 10.5cm artillery barrage forward in 100m steps, and my 1st company manages to advance through towards the woods, taking some casualties from the artillery.  These are veterans, so they don’t give up easily.

At last my infantry have closed up to engage the enemy in the woods.  The German FOO drops the artillery back onto them, so it’s not going well for the Brits.  Finally the tanks move forward, and it’s beginning to look like my 1st company will be overrun (though I do have a PIAT element in the right place).

German strength isn’t going to be broken this day, so we call the game at this point.  I never brought on my 17pdr battery, because I needed to possess some cover to put it in.

Denouement

I’m very happy with this play test.  It shows that a relatively clumsy British advance without good co-ordination and reconnaissance has very little chance against a well co-ordinated opposition.  In fact, the Germans would have won (on this showing) without any tanks at all.  The key was to take up good positions and not get carried away.  Pete, quite correctly, spent a lot of time sitting on his hands, on the grounds of “don’t interfere when the enemy is making a mistake”!

The joint group activation wasn’t crucial, but could easily have helped the Germans if I’d attacked on the left.  Also the disadvantage of mixing up companies came out in the delay to 1st company and slight confusion in my 2nd company area when the Shermans fell back.

Thanks for the game, Pete!

 

 

The Day After D-Day

Not a zombie game, but a new scenario for Mission Command, to be played on 7 May 2016 at Frome, Somerset.  It will be a psuedo-historical affair, so that reading up on the history won’t be relevant.  Set around Caen it pits the Canadians against the Germans.

Since the Canadians have more or less the same lack of doctrine as the British in this period, it’s an opportunity to see how British and Commonwealth forces and Germans fight differently, and of course, how that’s reflected in the game.  The basic smallest ‘unit of command’ in Mission Command is the company-sized group, and we describe command and control via orders of battle that specify which company-sized groups are within which battalions, etc, going up the hierarchies to brigade and division.  Generally each company has its own command card with details of the elements in it, plus their capabilities.  Where units are within kampfgruppen, combat commands or regimental groups, these are specified in the command cards, and players have these in front of them as they play.  Control on the table-as-battlefield is exercised through the activation of each group, one after the other.  So, for example, a battalion of infantry may have an HQ company and 3 or 4 rifle companies, represented by 4 or 5 groups, each successively carrying out its actions during a side’s bound (or turn).

A new restriction that we’re testing is to limit company operations, so that random or convenient mixing of groups has bad effects. If a player moves one company into a position occupied by another company, some elements in the line are effectively put out of command, because their normal voice and runner communications are disrupted by the new unit.  Once the offending company has gone, the company in line will have to spend actions to re-establish the normal communications between the rifle elements and their command element.  Of course if these companies should be attacked while this confusion is on-going, bad stuff may well happen.  What we want players to do, is to keep their companies organised and separated, as they would have been in reality, so as to avoid confusion.

Doctrine and experience affect these command and control issues.  The advantage the Germans had was their more integrated combined arms training and experience within their panzer divisions in particular.  So German kampfgruppen can arrange for 2 groups to work together with no penalty, typically panzergrenadier and tank or assault gun companies.  Also these jointly activated companies take reaction tests (morale checks) together, ignoring the worst result.  This reflects the advantage of fighting alongside familiar partners.

British and Commonwealth troops learned these practices very much later, so do not gain these advantages.  I suspect, and hope, that the need to keep the companies organised and separated should focus the minds of our players on maintaining battalion and brigade-scale overviews of the fighting, rather than the minutiae of each element.

We’re also testing out a new method for handling artillery, involving simple planning sheets.  Previously we’ve tried to get players to remember things and scribble notes, but using artillery requires some planning and integration with the rest of the combat – particularly for the Canadians, who’ll typically have more resources than the Germans.  We’re testing a planning sheet that  lists the batteries, which FOO they’re allocated to, and their planned fire by turn (if any).  This is a bit like a simple Eurogame player board (yes, with black cubes!) for the artillery commander to use.

Although these developments look like added complexity, I think they’ll make the game management (by umpires and players) more streamlined.  Speaking of streamlining, we’re amending armour classes, so that each vehicle element has one AC only – side armour is simply front armour -1.  This reduces the need to look things up in tables and fits in better with our scale (1 vehicle equals 3 to 5).

Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be finishing off all the briefings, command cards, etc for the scenario.  It’s definitely flesh on the bones time!

Airfix Battles @ Frome

Saturday 2 January saw a group of Abbeywood Irregular wargamers enjoying the open fire, the mulled wine and the mince pies at our first start-of-the-month session at the Bennett Centre in Frome, Somerset. Many thanks to Pete for laying on the vittals. Not a Big Game session, but a collection of Small Games was the tune, owing to the season.

Saga was played, as was some DBM / DBMM / DBA as a precursor to a campaign to be joined later this year. But for me it was an opportunity to play test Airfix Battles with some more unsuspecting gamers, even though it involved a 3.5 hour trek each way!

We managed 3 AB games during the day, focusing more on the intro scenarios, though I did push the boat out on a complex one with Pete and Colin at the end. Honours were more or less even amongst the opponents, which at least suggested we had balanced scenarios – a good sign. More importantly the game was well received and enjoyed. There was plenty of cheering and anguished cries as a result of the vagaries of dice rolls! But also some nicely executed coups of tactical finesse too. One of the best was an On The Double race by a sole surviving German officer onto the unoccupied objective in the final turn, only for an artillery strike to lay him low at the last moment.

Our final scenario involved 3 Shermans and a couple of US squads attempting to resist some German panzergrenadiers and Panzer IVs. The Panzergrenadiers special ability enables them to Move immediately after disembarking from their transport, typically to dive into cover. Sure enough, they grabbed one end of the village before the Yanks could say ‘coca-cola and French fries’. However, this did lay the panzergrenadiers open to concentrated fire, and though they bravely resisted for a while, in the end they were pushed out. Meanwhile a US squad carried out a Rapid Advance to the flank of one of the Panzer IVs – surely a dangerous move, as they’re armed with a couple of bazookas, as well as rifles. But no, despite maintaining a constant fire for 4 turns, and hitting several times, no penetrating hits were scored – questions will be asked in Congress about the quality of US ammo! Some days things never go right, and the US forces were beaten by the narrowest of margins, in a battle that was bloody for both sides’ infantry, but strangely not for the tanks, only one Sherman KOed.

As a result of the test we’ve tightened up the wording on 3 or 4 Command cards, and we’re looking at a final tweak or two on the Assault rules. Assaulting permits a rapid elimination of Units with poor morale, but woe betides you if you try it against a prepared enemy. Vehicles can overrun infantry by using Assault, but you’ve the risk of KO by their AT weapons.

We’re now finalising the precise details of how to engage soft skinned vehicle targets. In earlier versions we gave them Hit Dice like armoured vehicles but with no need for penetration rolls. Our discussions currently centre on what weapons should be able to engage them, and how to make this consistent and simple, bearing in mind that these have to relate to Towed Guns, which are also soft skinned targets.

Our Frome session was very successful, and everyone had a fun time with the new game. Can’t wait to get the final “real” set now!

Mission Command: Scenario 1 – 21 into 6 won’t go?

At long last, I’ve produced the first “proper” scenario for Mission Command.  This is now an addition to the Introductory teaching scenario in the Umpire’s Manual.

This first scenario is one of a set called “21 into 6 Won’t Go?”.  The set presents some “what if?” situations on D-Day 6 June 1944 in the area around the bridge over the Orne canal that came to be known as Pegasus Bridge. The Abbeywood Irregulars wargaming group has played variations of this several times over the last few years, taking advantage of the relatively easy availability of British paratroops (thanks to Pete) and 21st Panzer Division vehicles (thanks to yours truly), supplemented by the many extras in the collections of our players. I like to think we’ve had a lot of fun experimenting with timings and sizes of the opposing forces, and no doubt we’ll continue to experiment in the future.

Historically the British 6th Airborne Division’s role was to protect the left flank of the invasion beaches. Specially trained elite British glider troops captured the Orne canal bridge and the Orne river bridge via a coup de main (Operation Deadstick). The major part of the division landed by parachute or glider to the east and south of Caen as well as at the crossings over the River Dives further to the east. The main opposition to the 6th Airborne was from elements of the German 716th Infantry Division, a relatively weak “static” division, and the 21st Panzer Division, both of which were not concentrated and were hampered by a combination of parachute landings over a wide area, German command confusion, Allied air supremacy, Allied naval gunfire and determined fighting by 6th Airborne. The Germans were sufficiently disrupted – partly through enemy action and partly through their own failings – that they didn’t carry out a large scale counter-attack until late in the afternoon. Although part of the counter-attacking forces reached the coast at Lion-sur-Mer at about 19:00, the main armoured components of 21st Panzer Division attacking to the west of the Orne were beaten off by the 3rd British Division, and the German troops at the coast were withdrawn when further British airborne landed in the late evening. 6th Airborne was reinforced by commandos and by elements of 3rd Division, and the Germans were never to see the sea again.

What if the German 21st Panzer Division had launched a major attack on the British 6th Airborne Division during the morning of 6 June? This was after all the expectation not only of the British high command but also of many of the senior officers of 21st Panzer Division at the time.

The first scenario, now available for download at http://www.surprisedstaregames.co.uk/MissionCommand, suggests that a Kampfgruppe of 21st Panzer Division was able to attack at 10:00 on 6 June. The sequence of events as a result of the airborne landings shows that the Division was formally alerted at about 02:00 and that most elements, including its tanks, were ready to move by 04:00. An examination of the pre-invasion deployment of 21st Panzer Division and its routes of march suggest that a 10:00 start time for an attack towards the Ranville area would have been very reasonable – if anything, rather late. The first scenario is restricted to the area to the east of the Orne, so that the size of the forces on each side and the area of battle can be handled by relatively small teams of players. The second scenario is intended to cover both sides of the Orne, and includes larger forces on both sides, together with British reinforcements from the invasion beaches. The third and final scenario suggests that the German concentration was very rapid, so that an attack can happen very early in the morning before the invasion itself has started.

Researching this particular scenario has been a fascinating exercise. The major source for 21 Panzer Division (“neu” as the re-built division was known) is Werner Kortenhaus’ book “The Combat History of the 21 Panzer Division”, initially available only in German.  Having acquired this excellent publication a few years back and made use of my limited knowledge of German, I made a reasonable (with a dictionary!) stab at the historical reality, as far as one can go, and reinforced by other less detailed sources. Then the book was translated and published in English by Helion & Co, so reference became a lot easier!  Herr Kortenhaus was in 4th Kompanie of the 21st’s Panzer regiment during the invasion and supplemented his own personal recollections by collecting unpublished accounts from other survivors.  Exact details of equipment and numbers of soldiers are, of course, impossible, despite the publication in the book of the 1 June 1944 monthly strength report. Interestingly there are some differences between the monthly report and the equipment inventory for 5 June also published in this volume.  For a wargame designer this is a bit of a relief, because it means that many of the potential factual errors in the listings that we use in our scenarios are at least defensible.

One specific detail of 21 Panzer’s equipment is the situation regarding French tanks in its second tank battalion.  About half of the battalion is listed as Somua S35 and Hotchkiss conversions.  However, I’ve not found evidence of them being used in combat (if anyone out there has evidence, please let me know).  Kortenhaus, being in the first battalion, may not have known, and he suggests that second battalion was in the process of converting entirely to Panzer IVH.  I rather like the idea that a couple of companies of II Abeilung Panzer Regiment 22 had Panzer IVHs straight from the factory with no camouflage paint and untrained crew – truly green!

Of course a major point of interest in 21st Panzer division is its reliance on Major Becker’s French vehicle conversions. This scenario allows you to deploy the Unic P107 (f) half-track and the assault guns made from old Hotchkiss tank chassis, as well as SP artillery mounted on the Lorraine Schlepper.  It’s also worth bearing in mind that this “fully mobile” Panzer division had a battalion of horse-drawn guns.

On the British side we engaged in extensive research on the composition and orders for 6 Airborne Division.  Much of this material is available on the web from the excellent Paradata website (http://www.paradata.org.uk/). This huge body of information enabled us to confirm what landed when, and in particular that 5 Brigade had a strong battery of AT guns from 03:30 onwards, including 17 pounders.  One of the advantages the paras had was the availability of heavy weapons, certainly unexpected by the Germans. Support included not only the AT guns to add extra punch to the usual PIAT, but also a dedicated battery of 25 pounders from 3rd British Infantry Division (with the rest of the regiment in extremis), and importantly the dedicated support of significant naval gun assets.  This is by no means to denigrate the performance of 5 Brigade, which accomplished its tasks on the day (pretty much the only brigade to achieve all its D-Day objectives, I think).  It helps to explain why 21 Panzer Division had such a hard time against the supposedly “lightly-armed” paras.

We hope that this set of scenarios will shed some light on why events unfolded as they did, and some understanding of what might have happened if the actors had made different, and still very reasonable, decisions.

Airfix Battles – oldie models, new games

Though Mission Command has been taking up a lot of my 2015, what with launch of the alpha version, another little project was offered to me by that kind Mr Birch at Modiphius Entertainment. Airfix Battles!

Airfix! Certainly a name to conjure with for those of us of a certain age. Like most wargamers of my vintage, I was brought up on those 1/72 and 1/76 scale figures and models. I’m not ashamed to say that I still have a few trays of Airfix Napoleonic Line Infantry that I can use alongside the more conventional lead stuff acquired over the years. It was only at my last house move that I decided to ditch a swathe of 40+ year old Airfix plastic – huge numbers of ACW and Napoleonic soldiers consigned to a skip :(. But enough of reminiscences.

Nick Fallon and Chris Birch asked me to give them a hand with ‘One War’ as Airfix Battles was initially labelled. My credentials were mostly as a WW2 buff – I’d introduced them to Mission Command earlier, so I wasn’t an entirely unknown quantity – so I was brought in to help out with historical details in the first instance. I found the project very interesting and a great contrast with Mission Command. The latter has focused very much on detailed simulation, whereas Airfix Battles is all about playability. Yes, theme has to be accurate and the ‘feel’ of the game is vital. However, the Airfix Battles Introductory Set has to do what it says on the tin – introduce newbies to the wargaming hobby, specifically WW2 land battles, while also appeal to the, ahem, older fan. Players have to be up and having fun within minutes.

After a few weeks of tinkering and developing, I was honoured to be asked to co-design the system with Nick and Chris. How could I refuse?

To be entirely fair the Airfix Battles system had been at least sketched out by the time I got involved. It’s a D6 system based on squared maps with only 1 Unit – primarily infantry and vehicles – allowed per square. Movement and shooting are configured on the basis of squares, where a more complex board wargame might use hexes, and a tabletop game would use tape measures. It uses Unit cards to describe the troops themselves. In the first set these cover stuff you’d see in a late war Normandy game – Shermans, Panzer IVs, basic infantry squads, MG sections, snipers and the like.

Players take actions with their troops by playing Command Cards from a limited hand. Actions are what you would expect – primarily about moving and firing – but we have interesting and fun combinations with additions to movement points and variations to firing, so that the unexpected can easily crop up and challenge the unprepared. IMHO the system does a good job of representing ‘fire and movement’. Keeping the enemies’ heads down really pays, especially if you’re aiming to assault a dug in squad!

Airfix Battles has preconfigured small scenarios to teach the rules gradually. More experienced players can dive into larger fare and design their own forces, as each Unit has a points value dependent on its weapons, abilities, and importantly its ‘War Dice value’, a number that must be rolled to succeed when the Unit fires or rallies. You can play with a single player on each side, or with 2 or more players per side taking team decisions. There’s also a solo play mechanism.

The Intro Set will come with counters for those who don’t already have Airfix models. But it’s really time to break out the old Airfix collection, base up those WW2 infantry, re-paint those Panzer IVs, and declare ‘Panzer Marsch!’

Mission Command at Frome, Somerset, 7 Nov 15: a brief write-up

Well, that was fun! Thanks to all the participants. As usual, we had a good turnout, 12 of us – 6 German players, 4 British, and Pete and I umpiring. The group included a fair smattering of players new to Mission Command, but now they’re proper vets!

We started just before 10:00 with a brief briefing from yours truly. This was intended to give an overview of the terrain and the game mechanics. We played on 2 tables with a nice split in the middle that allowed everyone to get at the troops easily. In this scenario it was relatively easy, because it split naturally between the Orne Canal and the Orne River. For the very knowledgeable that comment confirms the location, we were at and around Pegasus Bridge on 6 June 1944.

The East Side
East Side

The West Side
West Side

By about 10:30 we were into the planning phase. This is an important component of Mission Command (and any significant wargame, I feel). Both sides had a moderately extensive written background sheet, but hadn’t been given material in advance. This was deliberate, because we wanted to put some time pressure on. So the longer their planning, the more time the other side had to prepare!

The British paratroops are basically defending the bridge area on both sides of the waterways, with D Coy, Ox & Bucks, in reserve after their heroics of taking the bridges. The rest of 5 Brigade have arrived, but the game starts at 05:30 before they’ve had long to prep the positions. The British team established the locations of their elements, we then photoed them and removed them, so that the Germans couldn’t see them at all, till spotted. This mechanism worked really well – the British commanders could easily refer to their smart phone pictures to see exact locations and inform the Germans when they were spotted.

The scenario assumes that, contrary to history, 21 Pz Div has moved out very quickly and a sizable Kampfgruppe (reinforced panzergrenadier battalion, half a tank battalion, plus lots of heavy weapons, supports and artillery) has been assembled to attack northwards, primarily on the East side of the waterways. This is before there is a clear indication of the invasion, using standing orders to attack airborne troops vigorously.

The Germans quickly identified the bridges as their ‘schwerpunkt’ and indicated a focused infantry attack on Le Bas de Ranville, with the tanks swinging wide to the right bypassing Ranville to attack the bridges from the East and North East. The infantry advance was covered by a smoke screen from the German artillery Regiment. The artillery was later switched to a general On Call stance in response to FOO requests.

On the West Side the Germans pushed through the open woods close to the canal, but unfortunately led with their vehicles. These were engaged by concealed PIAT teams and several were lost. There seemed an undue concentration on using the gunboat on the canal as a recce vehicle – it was of very limited effectiveness, only having a 3.7cm gun, and it did find some British positions, coming under fire from most of a company at one point. On the West Side the opponents became rather bogged down, but it seemed like the German artillery pressure would eventually tell.

The German Navy is beaten off!

German Navy

The German infantry attack was pushed in, but only after the smoke screen had lifted, exposing the attackers to considerable mortar and small arms fire. Again the Germans led with their vehicles, losing a high proportion of them by the end of our game. The infantry, with 3 lines of one company each fairly closed up, were repulsed several times. German artillery was the main killer of the British defenders of Le Bas de Ranville – the paras morale was high, but firepower eventually routed the company out of its position with high losses. The German advance here was also put under intense pressure by naval gunfire (leading the German commander to inform Rommel that it seemed likely a prelude to the real invasion).

German infantry attacks despite heavy losses.

German infantry attack despite heavy losses

On the right flank the German panzers moved out in two fairly closely arranged lines and attempted to push round Herouvillette. Just after they’d passed the village they were engaged by PIATs from the hedgerows and also by longish range AT fire from both 6 pdr and 17 pdr guns. The lead company was wiped out in fairly short order, largely because the Germans were relatively slow to use their own firepower in response. The AT guns were knocked out by artillery (bravely staying put rather than bugging out?!), so the remaining tanks were able to continue ‘on mission’. The PIATs were very effective at close quarters, “PIAT Pete” making something of a name for himself, and a likely posthumous VC.

Panzer, marsch!

Panzer, marsch!

By the end the situation was still very much in the balance. The British were desperately trying to redeploy their remaining 6 pdr to the east bridge (having moved it over to the West Side), having very little to resist 2nd Kompanie, 22 Panzer Regiment. It seemed likely that the Germans would also eventually penetrate to the bridge to the West of Ranville – I suspect the paras would have had to counter-attack here to stabilise the position.

I’d said at the start that we should take it slowly, but I’d anticipated rather more progress. We called the game at around 16:30 (real time) having played 10 turns. With the planning phase this meant the game ended at about 08:00 in game time – not as much as I’d hoped. However, we did gain a great deal from the play test, including further insight and testing of new methods for communications mechanics (particularly for calling in artillery), clarification of how to fight at night and in smoke and some additional points of detail.

PBI re-write

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 4

Although Pete and I were very happy with the experience of our Eastern Front Big Game, we were conscious that the infantry side hadn’t gone particularly well. That game had been focused on tanks (which WW2 gamer doesn’t like a tank-heavy game?). But we also knew that WW2 armies were based on the PBI, the Poor Bloody Infantry, and we’d more or less fudged the modelling of this side of the coin.

Our infantry had the same 1:3-5 ratio as the tanks, took a hit to kill, and were crudely represented as large bases or small support bases. They noticeably melted away under fire, so that unlike their historical counterparts they couldn’t hold positions very well, and they had no stamina in a fight. We also had the movement rates all wrong for our rather lengthier turns, so that the infantry could scarcely make it to the fight. The last thing players want is to spend all day moving up shed-loads of infantry bases to no apparent purpose.

Bullet points

Our basic assumptions for the new infantry rules were covered in a few statements. We wanted to represent the command, control, firepower and morale effects of a company, not individual figures or individual elements. Using individual figures and elements provided far too much detail and was terribly time consuming. Our game covered company up to division sized units, not smaller. Therefore we had no need to model the internal structure of companies, but only its capabilities and to show any differences in doctrine. So an element didn’t represent a platoon, but instead part of a company’s capability.

It was expected that a company (or in some armies, possibly Russian, a battalion) would be expected to remain close together, or at least in some way in direct communication, and would suffer casualties and morale effects together. The company was the smallest unit to which players might be expected to give separate orders (with some exceptions, such as designated support elements from higher up units). This had the added advantage that we didn’t have to track losses at individual figure or at element level; it could all be done by companies.

The scale of the problem

We standardised on 1 millimetre to 2 metres ground scale instead of our original 1 millimetre to 1 metre, which gave us more room to work with on a standard 6’x5′ table. We also adjusted the figure scale, so that 1 infantry figure was roughly 10 men, 1 vehicle model was roughly 3 to 5 real vehicles. These figure scales were very approximate and referred to combat capability rather than actual numbers – so we could happily claim slightly larger or slightly smaller companies without having to add more figures. An extra element would only be needed if capability increased. Our large infantry elements therefore had 100m frontage, using 50mm bases, while small elements had about half that. Depth was not so relevant, so we allowed pretty much any depth.

Modelling company capabilities

Constructing an infantry company was then a question of modelling that particular company’s capabilities. WW2 infantry companies varied considerably in terms of numbers men, of MGs, rifles and sub-machine guns, as well as portable AT weapons, such as AT rifles, and later, PIATs, bazookas and panzerfausts. We were designing a method to cover all the war and each nationality. There was also variation in their flexibility and resilience. To enable modelling of these characteristics, while giving players the means to use existing basing systems, we decided to limit the ‘essential basing’ to just full sized elements with 50mm frontage, with the option of 40mm + space, and small elements with 25 – 30mm frontage. Full sized or ‘basic’ infantry elements came in 4 main flavours:

  • Coherent elements – 6 figures of which 1 is a LMG gunner and another an AT weapon (both LMG and AT may be depicted as the team rather than single figure). Otherwise rifles.
  • Integrated elements – 5 figures of which 1 is a LMG gunner, and the rest rifles.
  • Assault elements – 4 figures with SMGs
  • Bare elements – 4 figures with rifles only

Any of these basic elements could also have a command function depicted by an officer figure.

Coherent and integrated elements could shoot twice, once with small arms and once with one of their specialist weapons. This gave the basic elements a lot of flexibility and a considerable firepower. Later in the development we gave assault elements the ability to fire their small arms twice to reflect their specific training and weapons.

Even later on we added an enhanced assault element type to represent MP44 armed German infantry, British Commandos and US Rangers. Enhanced assault elements can fire as assault elements at short range and as integrated elements at longer ranges to reflect the effect of automatic assault rifles and the wide variety of weapons acquired by commandos particularly (sometimes unofficially).

While a full sized infantry element might represent around 50 men, the small sized ones were designated support elements with specialist weapons, such as MGs, HMGs, mortars, AT weapons like bazookas, and also specialist command elements with no combat capability. In keeping with our vehicle scale, support elements represented 3 to 5 support weapons, so we modelled the infantry figures for these as 3 to 5 too, rather than the approximately 10 per figure for the full sized elements. So a small element might be about a dozen soldiers. Again we’re stressing capability not headcount.

BritParasCutWithBorder

Here we see a late war British Para company deployed for all round defence. It has two full sized assault elements plus 4 support elements – its company HQ, two LMG elements and a PIAT element. Frequently it would be reinforced by a second PIAT element attached from battalion HQ.

Casualties

The figures on the bases were purely illustrative, not definitive, because casualties were to be taken at company level. After multiple casualties were inflicted on a company, we chose to consolidate them down by removing elements from the company (owner’s choice) to show reducing capability. 3 casualties kills a full sized element, but it’s replaced by a small one from the specialists on the base. For example a coherent element could be replaced by an LMG element, an AT element or, if it had the command function, by a command element. A further 2 casualties kills a small element. In a final relatively recent tweak, we permit players to allocate 2 casualties to a full sized element, reducing its firepower to one rather than two shots per turn. This standardises the concept that 2 casualties has a perceptible effect – it will reduce the company’s capability.

This method of creating elements had two key capability effects that were vital to our infantry model. It gave them resilience in combat – no longer did we just kill off a unit if it took a casualty. And it tended to concentrate the support weapons as the company took losses, as happened historically. As the company numbers decline, the riflemen get fewer, but troops elect to keep the LMGs and AT weapons. It also gave players interesting choices; for example, do I keep the panzerfaust or the LMG? It also meant that players could use their already based figures simply by designating the meaning of the figures on the base – it’s not essential to use our configuration of figures, as long as the players know the type of element each base represents.

Architecture

Now we could construct companies, taking into account the period in the war, the nationality and its methods. A late war German infantry company ran out as 3 coherent elements, one with command, plus an HMG support. A late war British rifle company was 2 integrated elements, a command element, a PIAT, a 2″ mortar, an LMG, and some trucks for transport. These differences reflect the continued presence of the light mortar at company level in the British Army, while the Germans had mainly moved to 8cm mortars concentrated in heavy weapon companies. The Germans had more generalised training and more blanket use of the Panzerfaust than was typical of the PIAT in the British company, the PIAT being a notoriously temperamental weapon. A panzergrenadier company had an additional 8cm mortar element, plus a light AT gun and PaK 40, with appropriate extra MGs on half-tracks (if armoured), and trucks if not armoured.

In contrast, early war Russian companies would be primarily bare elements, and we represented their smallest ‘commanded group’ as the battalion rather than the company. Russian companies in the same battalion therefore had to stick relatively close together to avoid adverse morale effects, reflecting their lack of radios and the lower level of initiative of junior officers and NCOs. Late war British paratroopers (see picture above) became 2 assault elements, a command element, 2 LGM elements and a PIAT; nicely different from the standard British infantry and very different from the Germans.

Deploying a company for attack, you close up the main elements with little or no gaps and have a second line of supports. This gives historically realistic company frontages of 300 to 500 metres in attack, but enabled companies in defence to spread out to 750 to 1,000 metres while still maintaining command ranges. Of course with wired telephones and fixed positions defensive positions could be much wider.

InfantryDeployment

Infantry company deployment example

Next: Researching Mission Command