Posts Tagged 'Mission Command'

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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 – 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…

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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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.

VB

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To follow, some examples from Normandy…

The burden and rigour of battle – Part 1

As I’ve been developing Mission Command over the past 10 years or so, I like to believe that I’ve learnt something about wargames design, particularly in the field of WW2 land combat. There are probably some wider lessons learnt more generally, but I thought I’d focus a bit on some thoughts about modelling battlegroup tactics. Wolfgang Schneider has a relevant quote in his book Panzer Tactics: “The technical literature includes countless competent presentations at the level of operational / strategic command (army and higher). That also holds true at the tactical / operational level of army corps and division. Totally underrepresented are factually correct descriptions of the level of command that bears the actual burden and rigor [sic] of the battle, that of the regiment – generally, the brigade in modern usage and the battalion.

In World War 2, the level of command from battalion through regiment or brigade up to division was the level at which combat decisions and outcomes occurred that translated into decisive operational and strategic results. It was the foundation of, and implementation method for, operational and strategic decision-making interventions by the higher command levels. I have called this ‘battlegroup level’, as it encompasses formations variously called ‘kampfgruppen’, ‘combat commands’ or ‘battlegroups’, varying in size from a few companies up to whole divisions, and usually containing troops with a combination of different weapons systems.

I argue that designing wargames to model with reasonable accuracy the principal elements that impact decision-making with respect to combat at this battlegroup level is very challenging. It is perhaps more challenging than at higher, operational and strategic, command levels or lower intrinsically tactical command levels. Why this is so, requires some explanation, and may help to provide an insight into World War 2 combat and the modelling of it in this context. My approach is primarily using board wargames and miniatures wargames, rather than computer-based models. However, some of the general insights should also apply to computer-based models.

More to follow…

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.

Researching Mission Command

Mission Command Designer Diary Retrospective: 5

Wow! Rather a long gap between Retrospectives 4 and 5. Very sorry for the hiatus between June and September. Hopefully the remaining Retrospectives will follow on a bit quicker. In my defence, I’ve been working away at another couple of projects – a Euro board game called ‘Dolphin Adventures’ and an introductory board wargame, possibly the subject of a different post at a later date.

This post is a little bit of an interlude from describing how we developed the mechanics and implemented our approach, to talk about research. As there are a lot of very knowledgeable WW2 buffs in and around wargaming, we figured that it was important to do extensive research, so that we have defensible positions for the decisions we’ve made. We’re keen to make the game based on reality, but on the other hand, it cannot be so complex in its reflection of reality that it becomes less than attractive to play. So, as in all simulation games, we’ve made some compromises, and electing to present an umpired game, we do rely to an extent on the unknown umpire to use judgement to keep the game flowing, rather than to stick rigidly to the letter of the rules.

Mission Command is primarily about command, control and communications. I describe it sometimes as a means of demonstrating that combined arms tactics – co-ordinating infantry, artillery, tanks, AT guns, other supporting weapons and air power – was fiendishly difficult. Pretty much any of the thousands of secondary source military history books show this, a good starting point being Antony Beevor’s best-selling books on Stalingrad, Berlin, D-Day, The Second World War as a whole, and his latest one, Ardennes 1944. John Keegan’s books are also excellent for an overview of the military aspects of the topic. This is just a small sample from an overwhelmingly long list.

For the type of detail that we need for Mission Command, we have to go to primary sources, for which the Internet is a godsend. When I was writing my first wargames rules back in the ’70s (not for publication, I hasten to add!), detailed source material was in very short supply, unless you had access to the British Library or university collections (which I did not at that stage). Now, a search online can pull up vast amounts of material, and it’s a problem of sorting the wheat from the chaff – information overload is a common problem. There are numerous collections, including the Bundesarchiv and the US War Department, as well as commercial, semi-professional and amateur sites with relevant materials. Various US organisations have published vast numbers of de-classified briefings on their own forces, and translations of German, Italian, Japanese and Soviet documents from WW2, which are invaluable. For example Lone Sentry and other websites have all the US Intelligence Bulletins, issued monthly from September 1942 to the end of the war. Combined Arms Research Digital Library has a whole collection of “obsolete” military manuals, and the US War Department makes much of this information freely available.

For how it’s supposed to be done, we consulted various descriptions of national doctrines, for instance the German “Truppenführung” of 1933/4, and the US Field Service Regulations for Operations. Fortunately many such documents are now published (in English) and readily available on the Internet. However, theory and practice varied considerably, so eye-witness accounts and good quality detailed narratives are essential for investigating what actually happened – or might have happened. Divisional histories now abound – simply look up your favourites on Amazon for a flavour – and can give some detail, though often lacking the precision in terms of units, numbers and outcomes that are needed for accurate modelling. Some of these are devoted to praising their subject and many are purely descriptive rather than analytical, so I’ve found that cross-referencing from several sources is essential. It’s helpful to have divisional accounts from both sides. For example, for some of our Normandy scenarios we’ve compared the History of the 12th SS Hitler Jugend (Meyer), the Combat History of the 21 Panzer Division (Kortenhaus), the accounts of 43rd Wessex, 51st Highland, 3rd Canadian, and so on, to give us multiple perspectives on the same combat actions.

For orders of battle, it’s tempting to go for easily available ‘official’ ones. However, while units might have been at their pristine best at the start of a campaign (though that’s debatable), once the fighting started, the formal orbats, numbers of men, and amounts and types of equipment were quickly reduced or varied. In addition, it’s important to remember that quoted strengths, particularly at division or higher levels, often included support troops in addition to combat troops, and in many cases the ‘tail’ outnumbered the fighting men. Written material was not necessarily accurate – even the legendarily bureaucratic German Army monthly reports were suspect late in the war – but sometimes that’s all the evidence available. An example of this classic issue that we encountered was how to establish the composition of a late war German Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion: there are several published ‘official’ orbats from 1943 through to the end of the war, but shortages of equipment, adequately trained men, and the simple fact that it took several months to change from an older pattern to the new one, meant that in many cases we’re using a best guess of its actual composition. Equipment lists would often state, for example ‘armoured car’, or perhaps ‘light armoured car’, because the precise type was not considered important. Non-standard divisions, like the 21st Panzer (neu), are even more difficult to pin down, owing to use of converted equipment from conquered countries, in this case mainly French. For this reason our scenarios may have listing that are quite different from “official” sources, as we’ve attempted to take into account likely attrition rates, and the statements of eye-witness combatants.

For the potentially controversial issue of the effectiveness of weapons, we’ve reviewed multiple sources, including other wargames as well as primary sources with judgements of combat effectiveness and documents with field test results. Our view was that we’d go with our assessment of the ‘inherent military probability’ of effectiveness, taking into account as much evidence as we could realistically review. Fortunately the scale of our game (a vehicle model = 3-5 vehicles; an infantry figure = about 10 men) means that we don’t look specifically at individual shots at individual vehicles or men, but rather at the effect of a bunch of shots on a bunch of vehicles or men. At this scale, a KO on a vehicle doesn’t mean that all the vehicles have been knocked out, but simply that that group of vehicles is rendered ineffective – probably one or two have been brewed up, the others perhaps damaged, or the crews have removed themselves from the action. Similarly casualties amongst infantry are split between killed, wounded and ‘had enough’.

However, in relation to tank and anti-tank guns, we still wanted to differentiate between types across the range of light, medium and heavy tanks, and across the whole war. We felt that the relatively coarse-grained approach of small, medium, large, very large guns (or similar) didn’t do justice to the variations from our research. There was a reason why guns were upgraded by increments sometimes within a single tank type, and that’s to do with their effectiveness in action. So we have a fairly large gun table – though it reduces a lot in any one scenario. In fact, there’s even more variation by type of ammunition used, but we shrank from that complexity – it’s far too complex to track the availability and selection of ammo type at our scale. In a couple of areas we would have liked to do that (specifically the 6 pounders in Normandy and later with discarding sabot ammunition, and the US use of Pozit fuses in late ’44), but we decided the additional complexity didn’t warrant it.

Using similar reasoning our armour table has armour values from 1 to 10 to give sufficient variation to take account of strengthening armour across various models of medium tank over several years (for example the Churchill or Panzer IV), and giving realistic values to weakly armoured half-tracked troop carriers, stretching up to heavy tanks, such as the Jagdtiger.

Our research into scenarios has also been very lengthy, though I’ve not yet been able to turn many of our play test versions into published ones – these will be following over the coming weeks. As I’ve mentioned, the divisional histories, especially those written by eye-witnesses are very valuable for reasonably accurate accounts of units involved, what happened where – corroborated against other evidence – and evidence of what combat was like. Some books written by military historians are strong on overall narrative of the ‘arrows on a map’ style, which don’t often cover actions at company, battalion or brigade level in enough detail for a coherent scenario. Some books can be very misleading (for example those by Stephen Ambrose), as they may be focusing on a good story, peddling a particular theory or simply repeating another person’s view without analysing it, instead of giving an account with evidence. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s story of German ‘tanks’ at Pegasus Bridge early on 6 June is entirely misleading, but has been followed in several accounts, and the exaggeration distorts the undoubted achievements of the forces taking the Orne bridges and those relieving the coup de main force there.

Perhaps the most important part of our research is that as the game design, development and production continues, we also continue to collect, read, absorb and analyse new material. The game will likely change as a result until the final production version, and even then, as is the case with many wargames, contact with many many more players will result in further information and perhaps more revisions.

The Auld Game Design Cupboard

As we’re moving house soon, I’ve had to clear out the over-stuffed game designs cupboard. A bit of nostalgia, a bit of catharsis, maybe a bit of frustration.

Result: 2 large boxes dating back to 1968 for the games room in the new house. 1 large box (equivalent) into the skip. A small box of old play test copies for Tony’s nostalgia cupboard.

“Orca” and “Mission Command” designs retained in the meantime, so they can be worked upon!

Mission accomplished.

Mission Command: Paras in Normandy, Another Outing, 2013-07-29

Well, we managed a 2 player Mission Command (plus myself as umpire). Unfortunately Alan M and Shawn couldn’t make it for various (perfectly fine) reasons.

David and Chris were the players, the British command team. David being obviously very experienced took the lead, while Chris, as a newbie to WW2, aided very competently.  I ran the Germans as umpire. The Germans are pre-programmed by the scenario design, both in terms of starting positions and range of actions. The game is designed to teach the basics of the Mission Command rules in a fun way. There’s no expectation that the British won’t ‘win’.

The British players have a battalion of elite British paratroopers in Normandy, a few days after the landings. They’re supported by a squadron of Shermans, a battery of 6 pounders and a couple of batteries of 75mm pack howitzers. The enemy, reported by recce, is a company of panzer grenadiers from 21 Panzer Div, somewhat mauled already, but with supports expected. Terrain is typical Normandy terrain – not the full bocage, but plenty of thick hedges, patches of wood, the odd farmhouse and quite a lot of open terrain, mainly flat but some ridges. The physical area of the game is only 1.5km by 2km (1mm to 2m), so it would fit on a fairly large dining table. The British objective is to get to the ridge on the southern edge of the board.

I tend to stress the idea of ‘having a good plan’ (revolutionary, eh?). David rose to the challenge, and the British had a fairly standard first phase of 2 companies leading the attack on an intermediate ridge objective, with a third company and the AT guns supporting and some reserves standing by. Mortars supporting from just on-table, artillery off-table. I permitted them to attach a couple of tanks to their left-hand C Company (possibly a stretch, because British didn’t do this type of integration till later in the campaign), while the other 2 Shermans were supporting from the centre, so could be brought to fire in support of either lead company. Following on from phase 1, the team planned for a phase 2 assault of the final ridge.

The first 3 turns or so were very quiet – in MC terms this is ‘cold’, and movement can be doubled. The left-hand company reached the isolated farm and found it unoccupied. Two companies prepared to storm the first ridge, though interestingly it turned out that the supporting company led in the end, as the initially proposed lead company was not quite as close to the enemy as suspected. The Germans, concealed in dense woods beyond a hedge, reserved their fire till an element of paras crossed the hedge, then opened up with small arms and LMGs. This element was pretty much wiped out, but David had sensibly withheld the rest of the battalion, so damage was limited to the combat recce guys.

David’s response to locating the first group of Germans was fairly typical (I think) of Normandy actions. Call in the artillery, oh and the mortars, and a couple of Shermans, and most of two companies worth of small arms fire. There was a very big risk of friendly fire with the artillery bombardment, which might have been very costly, but all the shots went in accurately, somewhat against the odds. The Germans were in cover, so weren’t immediately destroyed. They also had high morale (perhaps misguidedly), stayed put and shot wildly back to no effect.

German outpost takes a pounding

German outpost takes a pounding

The remaining Germans in that outpost were wiped out in place, though some transport – the French conversion U307(f) – got away back to the main German position on the south ridge. Supporting German 10.5 cm fire came down on the right flank of A Company, so they ‘avoided it’ into some woods.

U207(f) (Becker conversion) flees from the carnage.

U207(f) (Becker conversion) flees from the carnage. German artillery strike in the background.

About an hour had passed. The lead company on the left with no opposition had moved cautiously forward about a kilometre and the final objective was another kilometre in front. There was a pause as new orders were required for everyone at the achievement of phase 1 objectives. Some desultory MG42 fire from ‘somewhere’ kept their heads down. Most of the British casualties had been taken by A Company, so David switched to B Company to lead the main assault from the phase 1 ridge towards the final ridge, while C Company (Chris) outflanked the final ridge from the west. A Company was to support from the east, but keep behind hedges if possible. The reserve tanks to stay concealed at the edge of the woods and engage enemy vehicles. Mortars to give smoke in front of C Company and the 2 Shermans, all the artillery to plaster the ridge, then go in on ‘lift’ of the bombardment. Good plan actually.

Deploying for the attack, it was (naturally) A Company that encountered the enemy – a flanking force in ambush to the east opened up on them and A Company retired precipitately back into the woods. This had the potential to slightly slow up the co-ordination of the artillery bombardment, because the FOO was with A Company, however, as throughout this scenario the RA did the biz marvellously (I don’t think they failed to hit first time at all). David switched the 2 Shermans in the woods to the support of A Company and this force spent the remainder of the game exchanging fire with the ambushing Germans, who failed to give way or to advance.

Final Position 1: Shermans and A Company ready, but Germans have fled. Note red markers = casualties, blue markers = suppression. B Company have retired from German artillery strike.

Final Position 1: Shermans and A Company ready, but Germans have fled. Note red markers = casualties, blue markers = suppression. B Company have retired from German artillery strike.

Denoument: Explosions rippled all along the ridge line, while the mortars maintained the smoke screen for C Company outflanking to the west. Just to the south of the smoke beyond the ridge line, a Sherman pushed forward and and was discovered with extreme prejudice by a Panzer IV on the far side of the reverse slope of the ridge. The German panzer then unwisely moved forward to engage the second Sherman and was brewed up in turn.

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Final position 2: at southernmost ridge.

The weight of the barrage had fallen on the remains of the German company only hurriedly dug in (no prepared positions in this scenario). As you might have expected, they attempted to flee, leaving the burning wreckage of a couple of PaK 40s on H39s and some U307s hull down on the ridge. The PaK 40s might well have been important if the Shermans had pushed out of the woods; they’re lethal at up to a about a kilometre range. The British captured a couple of elements of Germans fleeing on foot, while some in transports managed to escape. Overall the British lost about half a company (mostly from A Company) and 3 or 4 actual Shermans (one model), while the Germans lost about 2/3 of their force including Kampfgruppe Klein’s commander in the Panzer IV.

Final position 3: the whole field. German prisoners top right.

Final position 3: the whole field. German prisoners top right.

The British performance (IMHO) was very good. They had a plan, adapted it to circumstances, and importantly didn’t do anything impetuous, making excellent use of their artillery and mortars. The Germans in the outposts paradoxically could have done with failing a few morale rolls, as it would have got them out of danger quicker, and back to the main line of resistance.

I enjoyed it, and I hope David and Chris did to. Next time, we should have two sets of players!

Conference of Wargamers 2013: MySummary

The Conference of Wargamers is a group of about 100 wargamers of long standing (for which read ‘oldies’) that get together at Knuston Hall in Northamptonshire for a long weekend every year to play experimental, innovative and above all enjoyable wargames developed by the participants. For how it all started in the mists of time, see the Wargame Developments website, or alternatively just buy John Curry a drink.

This year’s gathering (5 to 7 July 2013) started with a plenary ice-breaker session run by Mike Young about the oldest war: Homo Sapiens vs Neanderthals. This involved much running around and ‘ughing’; there were two mechanics: the lower browed brethren were permitted to communicate only via grunts, whereas the intellectual side had full language. Combat did not involve clubbing each other to death – though optional inflatable clubs were carried by some. Simple numerical comparison at the point of combat drives back the inferior side. The Homo Sapiens had to kill off the Neanderthal babies by crossing off a space on plastic sheets placed around the site, while the grunters had to use their superior numbers to beat off the sapient raiders. So a simple genocide game really. Good fun on a warm (!) July eve, followed by beer and chewing the cud with folks I’d not met since my last attendance here in 2010.

I managed to sneak into Graham Evans’ talk on the Xian Terracotta Warriors. He gave a very informative and fun presentation on his recent trip to China, focusing on an in-depth review of his visit to the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor. Some very good photos brought the thing to life (as it were).

Saturday also dawned fine and began with the excellent Knuston Hall breakfast – good enough to last beyond lunch, except that in their fine tradition our hosts also provided mid-morning coffee and biscuits and a hearty lunch too. Good food and plenty of it is part of the CoW experience.

My first session was with Graham Evans again – and once again in China, but now at the time of the Taiping Rebellion. We fought a Brits v Chinese battle of 1860, using his EDNA (Ever Decreasing Numerical Allowance) based rules. They fitted the period very well, despite the contrasting fortunes of myself and Mike – in a game with dice, such vagaries are bound to happen. Though the Brits duly won the battle (EDNA d12s for true Brits, d10s for Indians, versus the Chinese d6s and Manchus d8s), there were parliamentary questions about the losses. The movement system was based on squared off terrain, which caused the odd difficulty with diagonals, resolved easily with goodwill on all sides, but I suspect might cause rather more difficult with pernickety rules lawyer types.

After lunch I played Sue Laflin-Barker’s Gentlemen Go By game, largely because it seemed rather too hot to play the War of Freedonian Succession outside, and there seemed an imbalance of players. As it happened, we managed 4 smugglers and 2 Revenue players. As a player of many Eurogame board games, this had a definite Eurogame collect-and-deliver feel, though played with minis. It worked OK, but I suspect more development and balancing is required. This type of game is a tough call.

In the evening was the first of my own two offerings: Carrier Strike! I’d run an earlier version at CoW 2010, which, though rather hand-to-mouth, had gone down quite well (thank you particularly to John Salt and Alex Kleanthous for comments back then). This new version was more fully developed with actual written down rules and even some 1/3000 scale figures. Many thanks to Chris Ager, John Armatys and Bob Plumb for being willing victims. After an explanation somewhat coloured by [state=after-dinner] the players got stuck into combat. The intro scenario is effectively ‘first blood’ on the enemy carrier. Chris and John as Blue managed to sneak a recce patrol through the inexperienced Japanese (sorry, Red) fighter screen, to spot the location of the enemy CV group. They launched a full-scale attack with 2x strike and 1x escort squadrons, which forced a hurried re-arming from Bob. He was in time to intercept with 3 CAP squadrons, which forced the escorts and one strike squadron to break off. The final strike aircraft pushed on regardless, braving heavy flak as well as CAP – 3 aircraft made it through and in a careless disregard of death smacked a bomb on one of the carriers. Although the yanks lost a few more aircraft than the japs, they’d managed to snatch a minor victory by damaging the enemy carriers while maintaining their own intact. More importantly, feedback on the current design was very positive – I look forward to measured critique in the Nugget!

Sunday morning I ran Mission Command, requiring a double-slot. Those brave enough for a complicated WW2 game early on the final day were John Salt and Rob Doel, and thanks too to Phil Barker for stalwart ‘observer status’ in the first half. It was a lively session with many a divergent conversation into the art of code names, artillery doctrine, and even French philosophy (particular thanks to John!); I learned much in many unexpected (and some expected) directions. From my point of view at least, the game worked, which was a relief, as I’m always afraid of a bomb in such august (or at least July) company. John has even volunteered to supply more info and sources on national artillery doctrines, which should be very helpful. I’ll be writing up a description of the game itself later on. Suffice it to say that the players’ party (British paras) dealt with the Hun pretty well, even though one company got caught in a kill zone.

The final session was John Curry’s entertaining Random Tales from the History of Wargaming Project, always fun with some of the ‘historical’ characters in the room!

Thanks also to all those who purchased the bring-and-buy material I brought along. I went away with nothing left.