Archive for Michael Dorosh
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Tactical Wargamer's Journal
Despite what the editors refer to, in the maiden issue, as "months of preparation and work," that self-same premiere has been accomplished with amazingly little fanfare. Sadly so, in my opinion, as the wargaming hobby has been poorer for a lack of quality periodicals. The editors apparently feel the same way and have announced an intent to address this condition. Their goal - again, as stated in their own introduction, is not to publish yet more games (which seems to be the function now of most of the remaining general interest wargaming periodicals (as distinct from "house organs" that devote themselves to single product lines)) - but to provide the mix of historical articles, game analysis, and industry and hobby related articles that marked the best of "old school" hobby writing that the editors promise to be reminiscent of.
This blog entry will not be a review so much as a simple description of what lies between the covers of the first issue. I can only imagine many are curious, and, hopefully, wish for an endeavour such as this to succeed. I am in a unique position in also producing a small hobby wargaming magazine, which in no way should be considered a "competitor" of War Diary as I feel my focus is sufficiently narrow to avoid that title. I mention the fact in the interest of full disclosure, but more to highlight the fact that I can relate a little more fully to some of the challenges around the technical aspects of putting a project like this together. If I seem more forgiving of minor gaffes, this is probably why.
The magazine is very nicely laid out. I suppose if the magazine was truly "old school" the articles would all go for two pages, then have a "continued on p.28" notice and you would turn to the back of the magazine to read the last half column of text, but not here. Articles, images and ads are nicely laid out into just the right amount of room, text is nicely justified, fonts are well-chosen and readable, and the editor doesn't act like he picked up the latest women's fashion magazine or update to Quark and feel like he has to show off every bell and whistle in the software. The emphasis has been put on the material.
A minor point - in the last days of Fire and Movement, the text moved farther and farther toward the edge of the page until there was practically no margin whatsoever. I never understood that, and even a response to a letter to the editor never cleared it up entirely. It's nice to see a nice, clean layout here.
What You Get
There are 44 pages (including the covers).
Ghost Division - the lead article is pure history taking up 18 pages or so, focusing on the 7th Panzer Division in France, and the effects of Rommel's personal leadership. The article is footnoted, and sources are a mix of older texts with good usage of more recent ones from the last decade. As one would expect from Dr. Michael Rinella, the prose flows well and the sources are well utilized. The footnotes are actually as interesting to read as the text itself, something you don't always (or even often) see.
The Grand Alliance - a variant article for Barbarossa to Berlin. This variant includes rules and a set of counters affixed directly into the magazine, uniquely attached to a blank space on one of the pages (see image at right). The article takes up five more pages.
Operation Husky - an analysis of Fast Action Battle: Sicily. This article is seven pages long.
A nice little article on e-gaming by Andy Loakes appears on pp.32-33, with a handy list of URLs - many of these may well go out of date within a year, but one hopes the author can keep regular and timely updates on this subject in future issues.
What's In a Game is a more personal story about one player's relationship with the gaming hobby, and a fellow gamer, which covers themes of personal redemption and the influences of Kickstarter, eurogames, electronic gaming.
A game review, of Gloom, follows, and what I can only call a Preview of The Great Game, which is currently available for preorder at the Legion Wargames site. The preview is about half history article, and half game description.
The final article is billed as "A Discussion of the Game Publishing Industry and It's (sic) Customers." This is another opinion piece like the "What's In a Game" article.
Room for Improvement
Some of the maps selected for the Ghost Panzer article are a tad too small to read. The Sicily map is a familiar one from the U.S. Army History. It is a colour map, but reproduced here in black and white, and comes out a bit murky. More puzzling is the very famous photo of OMAHA Beach in Normandy used to illustrate the article about Sicily. A minor bit of trivia, but if the audience is hard-core military buffs, this seems ill-advised.
The editors may get some grief about the pencil sketches of military commanders that appear throughout the magazine. They may be derided as mere filler. Individual tastes will vary. I thought they provided a unifying theme though some of them did not come off as well as others (Patton looks like his helmet has melted in the sun.)
The list of URLs in the e-Gaming article is inconsistent with its underlined text - some are, some aren't. A few minor typos as well - most egregious is the mis-spelling of Rundstedt's name in one of the quote boxes on page 15. As an editor I know the horror of this and it is quite possible two or three people looked at this article multiple times and still missed it. You just stop seeing the trees because of the forest.
I would hope, though, that more images of the games themselves will grace the magazine in future, particularly in analysis articles. The OMAHA Beach photo took up half a page in an article about a game that didn't have a single image of the game board or counters. The text actually says "as you can see from the game map" - but never shows it to us, instead opting for the blurry historical map instead, unless the intention was to include the game map but for technical reasons it never occurred.
I won't give a grade or a mark because:
a) this is the first issue and the editorial team is no doubt still finding their way;
b) individuals will have to figure for themselves if this is the kind of magazine that will appeal to them
For what the editors set out to do - create an "old school" magazine that will appeal to wargamers, I think they are on the right path. There was a mix of hard-core wargame stuff and lighter fare, certainly with the opinion pieces and even the so-called "non-wargame" reviews.
I guess the only major question to be asked is whether the latter were intentional, or due to lack of submissions/content.
My personal reaction is that I have no heartache reading reviews of games I won't play as I am still interested in the history behind them - which is why "The Great Game" article still interested me. I had no such interest in Gloom, any more than I had interest in reading articles about "Wrasslin'" when Avalon Hill published those in The General. But I digress.
For what it is worth, this is what War Diary Number 1 looked like. I enjoyed the magazine and felt that what I received was of value and that a great deal of effort had gone into producing it. I'm looking forward to upcoming issues, and hope that the quality of submissions allows the overall quality to remain high. The magazine can only be as good as those who write for it.
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
Not counting "Campaigns", the impending release of CM: Market Garden will be the thirteenth kick at the cat since the highly acclaimed CM Series made its award-winning debut at the turn of the century. (Though it's hard to keep accurate score, since you never know if you're supposed to include Touch, which I haven't, or Afghanistan, which I did despite it not being a Battlefront.com development.)
As someone who has been accused of paying too much attention to the goings-on at Battlefront HQ, it would be tempting to say there has been a lot of talk about the upcoming release - but in all honesty, I don't think there has been. I don't intend to comment on whatever contentious issues may linger around issues of game design philosophy (the move to 1:1 representation has been firmly established and my thoughts are a matter of public record elsewhere), Digital Rights Management (personally, I've had no issues with this), or the timeline of the new game series (we do finally have a projected release date for Market Garden, per the preorder release notice on 30 August 2013, stating (admittedly in roundabout fashion) that we would see the game 4 to 6 weeks after the historic anniversary of Operation Market-Garden itself (in other words, or rather, not in so many words, since they don't come right out and say it, sometime in October). I guess I should point out I will also not be talking about Battlefront.com's public relations style - mostly since I just did.
What is of interest is the content of the news release, i.e. the sneak peak at the content. Some background, however.
In a statement on the official forums on May 23 of this year, the developer had this to say:
Portraying the battles of Market Garden posed unique challenges to us on the development end. Specifically that Market Garden requires British and Waffen SS units, which are part of the Commonwealth module. And yet our philosophy is to never require players to purchase Module A to play Module B. Likewise, our philosophy is to not duplicate content in Modules because we don't want to double charge those who want both.
Interesting dilema we got ourselves into, eh? Instead of canceling Market Garden (CM:MG), which we did contemplate,
we decided to pack Market Garden so full of new stuff that people will find value in it and minimize the overlap with Commonwealth that people won't feel like they are buying stuff they might already have. So here's an overview of what's being included:
1. Basic Waffen SS and British units which represent those units that fought directly in the Market Garden battles. Which means the majority of units found in Commonwealth are not present in CM:MG.
2. New German Heer, Waffen SS, and Luftwaffe units have been added which aren't present in Commonwealth. These better portray the scratch formations which made up the bulk of the early German resistance to the landings. Training, security, school, admin personnel, etc. are available.
3. We've added German Navy units. These poor saps were base and ex-ship personnel thrown into battle without much consideration about their fighting capabilities (which were next to none). In fact, this is the first time we've ever had Navy ground units in a CM game. Though to be honest, it's mostly for flavor as organizationally they weren't that much different from horribly stripped down and under equipped Heer units. Still, it's better to give you explicitly tweaked units than to say "imagine those Heer guys are Navy".
4. AAA units are present for the first time on the Western Front. Not only the sorts of AAA stuff found in Gustav Line, but some new fun things like Wirbelwind and Crusader AA.
5. The Germans also now have access to Panzer Brigades. These armor heavy units are uniquely organized and contain the ever fun SPW 251/21 in large numbers.
6. Fallschirmjäger are now present, all the way from June through September.
7. Some new vehicle variants for all forces just to keep things interesting.
8. New terrain features to create the feeling you're battling in The Netherlands and not France. Yes, we have even included a windmill
9. Bridges. Lots of 'em We are including 5 custom made historically accurate bridges, a canal bridge, and 3 new generic long bridges. Some, like the Arnhem road bridge, are massive. For the larger ones we include "stubs" which map makers can use to simulate fights around the entrance to a bridge without having the other 500+ meters stuck in there.And before the questions start flying about what new game features are to be added... a reminder that as a rule Modules do not add new game elements unless they are directly necessary for that particular Module. Besides the new bridges and some other terrain related stuff, we don't see the need for new features and therefore there won't be many directly related to Market Garden.
However, anything new that was added for Gustav Line will be automatically carried over to the entire Normandy Family of games. Such as new shaders, "movie" lighting, bug fixes, gameplay tweaks, AAA support, etc. No worries there.
There's no doubt more stuff than that, but I think that's enough for now to get things started.
Note that the reference here to Gustav Line is to the parallel game series Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, in which the game engine received upgrades. New units, terrain, etc., developed for the Fortress Italy series are not available to players of the Battle for Normandy series of the games, and vice versa. Game engine changes, as noted, will in theory be made available to all game series. The updates are not "automatic" as I understand the term (for example, I have MMORPGs that will automatically upload patches when I connect to the server), but are indeed made available as new modules are completed in parallel series. There does seem to be a time lag as the small production team puts together the appropriate patches.
The most intriguing part of the pre-order announcements is in regards to "Master Maps".
The 7 "master maps" are huge maps, historically accurate, detailed and thoroughly researched, depicting the main areas around the bridges where most of the fighting happened:
•Arnhem Road Bridge
•Oosterhout ( north of Nijmegen)
These master maps will help scenario designers in creating their own scenarios without the burden of having to create the maps from scratch. The maps can be cut to encompass smaller areas for individual battles.
A number of interesting questions and observations come up here.
What immediately caught my attention was the inclusion of Nijmegen, which of course would be a necessity for any treatment of the Market-Garden campaign. My own interest in Nijmegen can be seen from an earlier posting when I shared photos of my walk through the battlefield, specifically at the road bridge. In fact, that interest has already translated to a scenario created specifically for Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. TWC: Nijmegen Finale was uploaded to the Battlefront.com Repository in February 2013. The subject has received a modest deal of attention in various hobby treatments, particularly both the climactic attack on the road bridge (notable for the cooperation between U.S. paratroopers and British troops of the Guards Armoured Division), and the waterborne assault by U.S. paratroopers over the Waal using flimsy assault boats, again supported by tanks of the Guards Armoured.
Elst is another interesting location; currently the subject of the first Historical ASL map for the ASL Starter Kit series. The designer of that module noted in his own blog that:
The module is based on the battle that took place along "Hell's Highway" on the "Island" between Nijmegen and Arnhem during operation Market-Garden. The battle was fought in the vicinity of the small town of Elst that is situated about halfway along the main road between the two cities of Nijmegen and Arnhem. It started on Sept 23 and lasted until Sept. 25, 1944.
The British 214th brigade from the 43rd Wessex Division fought an "ah hoc" German unit known as Kampfgruppe Knaust for control of this strategic village. The British needed to get to the Rhine River Bridge to while the Germans sought to delay them as long as they could.
The locations for the "master maps" are clearly logical ones as far as placing tactical wargame scenarios there, but I'm not positive I understand the concept or the marketing. Every Combat Mission game has shipped with pre-made scenarios, which as a matter of function include a map that can be re-used for other scenarios if the purchaser wishes. This has never been a selling point before. Given that the majority of scenarios have always been "historical" scenarios (the level of historical accuracy in these kinds of games is always open to debate, another topic I won't touch here), the maps have always been "historical", and in matter of fact, given recent tools such as GoogleEarth, the trend has been to if not "accurate" maps (that is to say, accurate to the 1939-1945 period), then certainly at least "realistic" in terms of the way the terrain has been sculpted, using real world data as a guide (as opposed, say to, the "clump of this, clump of that" style of art design found in many hex-and-counter wargames.
I think I understand what the concept will be - an extremely large map which can be pared down in the editor - though maddeningly, we are not being given a preview of what to expect. Are these 100km square maps? Is there a new tool to quickly slice (and preview) them without having our CPU choke on trying to load a full size 3D representation of all of Nijmegen?
Past Announcements, Lowered Expectations
The random map generator of the original game engine was a very successful tool, if not always popular, and was able to not only give scenario designers a head start at generating random terrain, but produced "Quick Battles" instantly and for the most part entertainingly. The Quick Battle system has been carried over into the current game engine, with the requirement that maps be pre-built and, if playing against the computer, have AI plans provided to guide the computer enemy.
Theoretically, this has dropped the number of maps available to players of Quick Battles from "infinite" to very finite. In reality, the difference this makes may be more negligible than some may think. Hobby time is never infinite, for example, so a "need" for infinite map making ability is probably nil. The most prolific of the tactical board games, Advanced Squad Leader, has made do with some four dozen maps (not counting the historical and "desert" boards) for thirty years, albeit with the addition of overlays and "scenario special rules" to permit modifications to the terrain. Nonetheless, there are something like - without exaggeration - 5,800 scenarios in print (check the ASL Scenario Archive for a complete breakdown), the majority of which utilize those same 4 dozen boards. Using the Advanced Search feature on the site, and searching by just the original Squad Leader boards, one finds 81 scenarios set on Board 1, 293 scenarios including Board 2, and 316 scenarios played on a surface that includes Board 4.
The ability to mix and match the "geomorphic" (or, isomorphic) boards was something that the Combat Mission developers alluded to in some comments after the ability to randomly generate terrain was lost with the new game engine. (Map designers will note that the original game engine was restricted to a 20-metre terrain grid and just 20 different elevation levels, while the new engine has realistic contour lines of practically infinite gradation, and a tighter 8-metre grid off of which LOS and movement is based.)
In this posting , the developer hinted that a "Meta-tile" system might be introduced to the Quick Battle system:
The question many of you have been asking as of late is "where does Battelfront go from here?" now that v1.08 is out. Well, that's a valid question and I hope I can answer it to the satisfaction of most. But remember... we try to not to get too specific about low level changes because we do not wish to set up false expectations. Therefore, what follows is a more philosophical answer than a list of highly detailed descriptions of feature changes. First, an explanation of who makes Combat Mission...
Battlefront is 5 full time employees and a bunch of regular contractors. The primary force behind the games is Charles and myself (Steve, if you didn't already know). I do most of the design work and historical research while Charles does all of the coding. Charles has a significant amount of impact on the design elements since, obviously, he has to code them. Charles also has some great ideas of his own, of course, so at times he is the main brain behind a particular feature and I simply flesh it out. If Charles nixes something for coding reasons I usually manage to work around the problem areas so the feature can be included in some form.
Moon (our fearless President), KwazyDog (our lead pixel pusher), Madmatt (Battlefront's jack of all trades), and Rune (master of the monster scenarios [img]smile.gif[/img] ) handle a lot of things besides CM:SF, so although they have other responsibilities other than testing CM:SF night and day. Which is a good thing because someone has to do the other stuff!
For the day and night testing shifts we have a bunch of volunteer testers who were hand picked from this Forum. They are the ones that kick the tires and tell Charles that something needs more time in the oven You have no idea how much work they put into testing and therefore can't appreciate how much good they do for the game as a whole. Whatever faults people see in the game I can assure you that it isn't because of the testers are failing at their job.
Last, but not least, are the people posting on this Forum. Without public input none of the CM games would be what they are today. Overall the information we gather here is very valuable and worth having to sometimes dig for, even when it's burried under a pile of poo someone deposited It's not easy to handle a gaggle of highly opinionated people who aren't afraid to speak their minds (even when they've misplaced them), but that's an unavoidable part of an online discussion forum. Gotta take the good with the not-so-good. People can agree or disagree with how I handle this... I don't care. It works for us, therefore in the long run it works for everybody.
OK, with that out of the way, onto the outline...
Way back in 2003 we made a long range plan based around what is now called the CMx2 game engine. I can say, without any doubts, that things have gone according to plan and that we are overall pleased with the position we are in now. I know, I know... how can I say that after all the bugs and rancor that came about after its initial release? Well, easy... we take the long view and keep things in perspective. Of all the millions of things that could have gone wrong between 2003 and now, things have gone pretty much according to plan. Obviously things haven't gone perfectly, and we are no more happy about that than you guys are, however that's small potatoes compared to the things that could have gone wrong. Like what? Well, going out of business would have been a bit worse!
Our plan has been partially explained to you before, however in case you've missed it the next thing we will release is the Marines Module for CM:SF. More modules for CM:SF will follow in parallel with development of our next major release (aka "Title"); WW2 Western Front. The initial release will be situated in Normandy between US and German forces with subsequent addons (aka "Modules") introducing additional forces, weapons, vehicles, and some other things. The first Module for the WW2 Western Front game will be focused primarily on Commonwealth Forces, though with German and some American additions as well. We do not have release dates to announce for either the Marines Module or the initial WW2 release, however I can say that the Marines Module is very far along and the WW2 stuff has already been started on. This is the beauty of the CMx2 system... we can do parallel work and still get things done faster than we could for one topic using the CMx1 system.
What we are doing now, behind the scenes, is planning out the specific features that will find their way into the first WW2 title. Will these features make every single one of you reading this happy? Certainly not... that's not possible to do. But will these features make some of you who are currently a sitting on the fence or sitting on the sidelines happy enough to enjoy our next Title? Based on the months of feedback here, definitely. Others will continue to sit there with their arms crossed and tongues sticking out at us. Oh well, can't please everybody [img]smile.gif[/img]
For the most part our plans for the future of CMx2 have not changed since CM:SF was released. However, the emphasis on certain elements has been changed based on user feedback. Briefly, the shorterm priorities for us are:
Introduce a new Quick Battle system - It's been clear to us for quite some time that the existing system has some serious shortcomings in the eyes of many players. Therefore, a new QB system is a very high priority for the next major release. The primary improvements are some form of unit Cherry Picking system and semi-randomly generated maps.
Think of this as a bridge between the good features of both CMx1 and CMx2 QB systems.
Features necessary for simulating WW2 ETO - Many of the things people have felt are missing in CM:SF aren't supposed to be there or aren't really all that relevant or necessary to the Syrian setting. Obviously moving to France means that some of these things need to be included. Besides the obvious stuff (temperate terrain/weather and WW2 units) major things to expect are water, bridges, AT guns, on map mortars, infantry riding on tanks, expanded defensive works, and other stuff like that. Obviously TacAI goes right along with this since these things all require new TacAI and/or improved existing TacAI. (note that TacAI is a long term "work in progress" and will never, ever be considered "done").
Features not necessary for simulating WW2 ETO - Some of the things that make contemporary warfare what it is are things which WW2 fans find "not fun". This has caused some to be unhappy with the Syrian setting simply because it isn't WW2, regardless of all other factors. Things like the extremely high lethality, asymmetric forces, the lack of "familiar" equipment, the whiz-bang technological stuff, etc. It should be obvious that this stuff will not come along for the WW2 titles, however it appears that this can get forgotten at times. Consider this a reminder
Some additional MultiPlayer options - I don't want to over comitt us here, but I will say that it is likely that there will be a form of TCP/IP WeGo for the Normandy game. Will it be exactly what WeGoers want? Probably not due to some technical issues and the time we'd need to make sure we could work around them. Therefore we have come up with what we feel is a viable compromise system that shoudl give WeGoers most of what they want. More on that in a couple of months when we get into the coding.
Graphics improvements - We're as unhappy as some of you are about the inconsistent performance of CM:SF's graphics on various systems. As some of you know, we've been frustrated from the start by videocards and their drivers not doing what they should. We have some ideas on how to work around the problems better and also fix some of the oddities that some of you have experienced more than others. Time is limited so some of the graphics glitches people have noted have not been high up on our fix list so far. Besides straight graphics stuff I'm alos thinking about some of the WeGo playback issues.
Some changes to the UI - Any game developer will tell you that designing a UI that makes a majority of gamers at least moderately happy is a tough task. Many have forgotten that CMx1's UI was generally frowned upon when first experienced. Complaints generally only died down when people got used to how it worked. CMx2's UI has also taken a lot of punches and, with some patched improvements, people have also gotten used to it. However, it is my sense that there is more resignation than acceptance than we would like when compared to CMx1. So it's not quite back to the drawing board, but we are are exploring ways to improve what we have.
There are lots of finer points than this, so please don't think that if you don't see something mentioned on this list that we aren't going to address it in the short term. I can't speak much to the details yet at this point anyway, so this is more or less a heads up about the general direction rather a written in stone list of specific features and what we intend on doing with them.
In conclusion... we know why we are here, we are happy with the overall position we're in, and we're looking forward to continuing on for years to come. Having faith is an option, but a total lack of faith is unhealthy. People need to figure this out for themselves because all we can do is keep blazing the trail that we are on. There is no turning back even if we wanted to. And we don't want to
Now, a special message for those of you who have so far "rejected" the new game system for one or another reason. I know for sure a lot of you will be quite happy with the WW2 game when it comes out, if for no other reason than it is WW2 and not modern Syria. Others will be less sure, but at least find it more enjoyable than CM:SF. However, it is certaint hat some of you will find nothing good in what I've said here and continue to be extremely hostile towards CMx2 just like many Steel Panthers and Close Combat guys were towards CMx1. I'm sure the latter group of people have something better to do with their time, so my hope is that they realize this so everybody can be a lot happier for it.
P.S. Support for CM:SF has not ended. It continues in parallel with Marines and WW2 development as it has for the last 2 months already.
This was followed up with:
Yes, the "mega tile" (as we call it*) map system is the route we are planning on exploring. What this basically means, in practical terms, is that people make small maps with certain predefined characteristics. This is similar to the way the game works now, but instead of selecting a single user made map CM will custom assemble one from the smaller pieces based on the QB parameters.
This is the best system we can think of since making a true random map generator is beyond our capabilities.
*(Note - a subsequent post corrected the developer on this point, reminding him that he had originally used the term "Meta Tile".
A number of items stand out here (still not mentioning the timeline, though the "Where Does Battlefront Go From Here" post can be seen to have been posted in April 2008 and the first of the World War II series will just now be completed in August 2013), notably the reference to "infantry riding on tanks" being a natural for inclusion in the Normandy game - a feature still not included. (Lest anyone think this was somehow a "Russian" practice, Michael Doubler talks specifically about how at least one U.S. Division in Normandy adopted the practice of U.S. infantry riding to contact right on the tanks as a means of ensuring close co-operation between tanks and infantry, the lack of coordination between the two having been a problem throughout the early weeks of the campaign.)
The lack of TCP/IP support seems to be an ongoing concern, for example, this thread documents (four years after the Where Does Battlefront Go From Here announcement) the ongoing requests for the inclusion to TCP/IP WEGO support. In plain English, the ability to play turn-based while connected online at the same time. This functionality existed in the original game engine. Strangely, it is possible to play in Real Time while connected online via TCP/IP. WEGO can also be done via email or a file transfer service like Dropbox (there is nothing in the game itself to facilitate the transfer of files.) Those who didn't play the original game series TCP/IP (and even some who did) see this issue as a tempest in a teapot, while others have claimed to refuse to support the new game engine unless the issue is resolved.
Also of interest is the mention of the original CMX2 game, set in a fictional U.S./NATO intervention in Syria - strangely prescient now, given President Obama's speech just today, though there is an insistence of course that boots will not hit the ground (and a British refusal to assist given the defeat of a motion in Parliament two days ago). Nonetheless, the setting seems that much more spooky somehow.
I'm personally drawn back to the issue of the maps in Combat Mission: Market Garden. I can't help but think the Master Maps, whatever they are, have been instituted as a replacement for whatever plans had originally been drawn up to provide a replacement for the random map generator and that those plans are probably now shelved. The concept of the Master Maps seems so - bizarre somehow - and like such a non-event, that it is hard to come up with any other rationale for the unveiling of this "feature", than as the realization that there is nothing better to offer in its stead. The progression seems to have gone:
* Random map generator (CMX1)
* Announcement of "MetaMap Tile" feature (2008)
* Announcement of "Master Maps" (2013)
And yet the Master Maps don't seem to be anything that hasn't already been offered in every other Combat Mission offering - i.e. historically accurate maps that can be re-used by other designers if they wish. The only hint that anything is different is they may be of a different size ("huge maps") than normally found in the new game engine.
There will be some new building and bridge types as well - a current running AAR at the official forums shows off the windmill building type:
As noted in the caption from the BFC site, the building model is not animated.
Combat Mission: Market Garden appears to be a product grudgingly put together by a publisher who wasn't quite sure how to approach the subject, and then admitted they weren't quite sure how to make it appealing. The danger with this game system, or more accurately, the current marketing approach, has always been that each of the modules would only be soldiers in different coloured uniforms not really much different than the module that went on sale six months (or, perhaps, three years) before.
With Market Garden, we see that the publisher literally struggled with this notion, having to include both Commonwealth and Waffen-SS infantry in the release that were already available via the Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy – Commonwealth Forces release. And yet, to make up for it, only substandard troops like German naval forces and Luftwaffe ground troops were apparently left to throw into the mix.
The inclusion of historic terrain is something that has been lobbied for before. I am certain I've mentioned this in the past, and am looking forward to seeing the Arnhem and Nijmegen bridges rendered in 3-D. This is a definite step forward for the game system, and has worked well in other games such as Panzer Command: Ostfront, which had historic buildings sprinkled into many scenarios (the Central Rail Station in Stalingrad comes to mind).
Whether or not the addition of a few bridges and German troops in blue pants will be enough "new" content to warrant the $40 tarrif will be hard to say. The die-hard fans will undoubtedly say yes, as they always do, leaving the only real question to be how many of them will remain to continue to subsidize the efforts. My money has already been sent in, which must make me one of them.
My Last Word
I'll yield the last word to the currently top-rated response to this promotional teaser video released by battlefront.com:
Click "watch on YouTube" to see all the comments, but the one that has at present received the most approval states:
flamethrowers? camouflage for guns? no! new uber bridge for $ 35!
Sat Aug 31, 2013 10:34 pm
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
Stephen B. Patrick presented some detailed thoughts on Combat Results Tables (CRT) in the February 1972 issue of Moves magazine that are interesting not only in their ability to briefly summarize their history but in exploring ongoing issues as today's game designers - both board and computer - continue the quest to best marry playability and realism in a single vehicle. I presented some thoughts on the subject in November 2008 on another site, which I'm presenting here in revised form. ("Professor Professorson" just found a link to the entire archive of back issues, incidentally, which Greg Costikyan uploaded to archive.org - read the details here.)
At the time the article in Moves was written, wargaming at the tactical scale in board games was in its infancy though miniatures rules had been promoted by pioneers in the hobby such as Jack Scruby in the U.S. and Charles Grant in the U.K. for many years. While Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz contained many innovative concepts compared to the standard fare since board wargames first appeared on the market in 1958, such as isomorphic mapboards and a multiple scenario format, the method in which the game produced combat results remained unremarkable. When SPI began producing tactical games - including Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-15, and Grunt, set in Vietnam, the CRT was similarly - speaking purely from hindsight - uninspired.
James F. Dunnigan defines a CRT in the 3rd Edition of his Wargames Handbook as
A Probability Table that shows the possible results of all combats allowed within a particular game. The greater the ratio of attacker to defender strength, the higher the chance of success. Because so many things can go wrong during the combat itself, a die or other random-number generator is used to determine the actual result. These tables are usually calculated based on what information is available on actual historical losses.
Stephen Patrick noted the trend in games in the late 1960s and into the new decade of the '70s was to simply re-use CRTs from game to game. In his article in February 1972 he identified correctly "the touchstones of authenticity and playability" and how the two concepts inter-related:
One can start with full authenticity and back off far enough to gain playability, or start with a purely playable system and work toward realism by adding the elements of historicity to give the right flavor. There will be a gray area where the playable takes on the flavor of war and where the war becomes playable. Moreover, this point will differ depending on the point of origin.
He then contrasted the Avalon Hill approach to games with the SPI approach; he contended that Avalon Hill's "playability" perspective simply produced games with similar rules for every game while SPI produced more historical games with tailor made rules sets. As an example of Avalon Hill's devotion to playability, he cited their CRT, which was a standard in their line of games to that date:
A - Attacker back 2
D - Defender back 2
Elim - Eliminated
When Strategy & Tactics began to publish tactical games (and it produced tactical titles outside of the "modern" genre on which I focus my attention), they similarly retained a common CRT with simple results in the platoon and company level games of the time:
Patrick's thesis was that this "tactical Combat Results Table is the most archaic element in S&T's bag of tricks - the most playable/non-realistic element currently in use."
What Does It Mean?
Simply put, the CRT delineates the results of combat, and Patrick suggested that any action in which two opposing forces meet can result one of a limited number of results at the end of a fixed period of time.
* Melee (both forces remain locked in battle)
* Attacker repelled
* Defender repelled in good order
* Defender routed
Patrick noted that there were other possibilities; a pyhrric victory in which the attacker was severely damaged in the battle, for example. Tertiary considerations were fatigue levels, whether an attack was an initial action, a continuation of a previous attack, or the end of a battle. His main question, however, was how to transpose the basic CRT results to a game such that it adequately represented the history being portrayed.
The easiest result to simulate, according to Patrick, was the "no result", and a "dispersed" unit he felt was better described as "shaken" - temporarily unable to fight. He felt "eliminated" was draconian, as
...few battles result in an entire unit being destroyed to a man in a given time period, particularly during the brief period of time portrayed in the tactical games. Thus, there must simultaneously be some way to reflect the decline in strength from being in the thick of it and, at the same time, to get units off the board. After all, pasteboard pieces don't really have morale or take losses, so something must be injected to bring the authentic within the realm of playable. The 1914 solution of stepped units is obviously the best way to reflect casualties short of going the bookkeeping routes. But even (this) is viewed with displeasure by some (and) requires the injection of a whole set of pieces. The object here is to consider the requirements of a Combat Results Table which can be inserted in any game without actually having to totally revamp the rules.
Another solution was to add an increased dispersion rule, whereby a second retreat caused elimination, and a third option discussed by Patrick was to consider two retreat possibilities - retreat and rout - and have routed units equate to eliminated for purposes of the game.
Patrick also talked about using different CRT for different phases of the battle - for example during the initial phase of a battle when morale of an attacker was high, and again when units were tired during the last phase of a battle. In effect, he felt a battle might need three separate CRT to adequately model the distinct phases of a battle. He felt that not only fatigue, but fanaticism and the effects of good training would make themselves felt in the latter phases of a battle and should be reflected in the game mechanics.
Theory and Practice: Soldiers
Tellingly, in Moves issue 4, in August 1972, detailed articles on the development of the game discuss the history of the development of infantry and artillery, show images of the different drafts of the map, talk about rules development and scenario drafts, but have no discussion of the CRT. It's not known if a non-standard CRT was ever even contemplated.
Predicting the Future
Patrick ended his article with the following:
Returning to the real life situation...if the research is good (the result) should be a Combat Results Table which can complement the accuracy of the rest of the rules in evoking the period in question. The obvious point, though, is that the Combat Results Table now becomes an integral part of game design, rather than a handy plug-in section, such as the initial description of the pieces and the game map, and it is as important to make the Combat Results Table valid as it is to calculate the Attack Strength of a crossbow.
CRT development stagnated in tactical games at the squad and platoon level; two years later,Tank! still had simple odd-ratios driving the results of the CRT, though there were now panic results. Game development was focusing on whether play should be simultaneous movement or sequential and the CRT was still being viewed, perhaps, as simply a given.
When man-to-man games like Sniper! and Patrol came along, however, their very nature caused further development of the CRT as there were a greater number of weapons systems in play.
Which brings us to John Hill. He viewed the possible combat results in Squad Leader as still a fairly simple proposition. Despite the fact he was contemplating what would be an enormously ambitious and complicated game system in which multiple weapons systems would interact, he argued that it didn't matter if a squad of ten men were machine-gunned in the open, shelled moving through woods, pelted in their foxholes with grenades or burned out of a bunker with a flamethrower, the results would be the same - they would be killed, they would suffer some form of morale loss, or there would be no appreciable impact at all. "Design for Effect" became the mantra for Squad Leader's development, and was used to explain away inconsistencies in the design, wherein European streets became 80 metre wide boulevards, and physically fit men could only move 160 metres in two minutes. He simply "factored in" grenades as part of "close combat" and "point blank fire" and did away with the need for special rules or counters for them altogether.
The first Combat Mission titles remained partially faithful to the notion that players wanted to see CRT results; while there were no visible dice rolls or interventions of fate, there was lip service made to such things as "fanaticism", and moreover, firepower stats were presented in unit information screens, and was available in the game via mouseclick during the orders phase, as was cover stats for infantry units, morale and fatigue levels (though not necessarily the explicit effects of same), as well as detailed armour value for AFVs, general penetration capabilities of weapons, blast values for artillery, etc.
Firepower and cover stats were available right in the main game space of Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin.
While there was no longer a CRT for the player to refer to, enterprising players could recreate specific battlefield phenomena in the editor to determine probabilities - if he was curious how often a specific tank type would bog in a particular type of terrain and weather conditions, he could create a sample scenario and run it repeatedly until he had a sample to estimate from. Websites and collections of forum postings with links to just "research" have taken the place of the CRT in some cases. A "Player's Guide" was released for Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin with tables of unit stats, which players could look up. The handbook was not billed as a "scenario designer's guide" - though it did contain interviews with scenario authors as an appendix and the data was likely aimed as much at them as players.
Hidden Outcomes and the Deletion of the CRT:
Given everything that was said in 1972 about the importance of having a valid CRT, there seems to be a trend in video games to keeping game routines hidden from the gamers who play them. The obvious desire is for "realism" and the common argument is that real life commanders "don't count firepower factors." Nonetheless, the player has to have a way to relate to the game, which has to use mathematical equations and logarithms to simulate results. Having access to the data increases understanding of how the data works - and the more "realistic" the simulation, the less likely the player is to have access to the data. In Panzer Command, for example (based on the Panzer War miniature rules), players have the ability to modify unit data if it doesn't fit their perceptions of reality, though the data isn't easily accessible inside the game (altering it is done via editable "xml" files - text documents which are loaded into the "back end" before the game is started). In the second generation Combat Mission game engine, where small arms and tank fire is ostensibly tracked by a real world physics engine, there is very little way for players to anticipate "hit chances" or probabilities beyond very general assumptions regarding terrain and situation - which is exactly what the developers intended. They would argue "CRTs" are a wargame construct, and that their wargame should be devoid of them!
My questions to you:
Patrick starts his proposition with "if the research is good". How much is actually "knowable" about what goes on at the tactical level, that would justify things like firepower factors or combat results to begin with? And must the designer choose between accurately modeling the proceedings (tracking every exchange of gunfire with precision) or the outcomes (10-25% killed in every average engagement, 25-50% wounded)?
This screenshot of Tigers Unleashed was unveiled on another gaming site. Do wargames really have to have hexes and counters in order for players to be able to reasonably access detailed data about their own troops' capabilities?
Addendum: in the comments to my original article, James Lowry noted that Anzio's CRT permitted step-reduction results as early as 1969. Advanced Squad Leader added a form of step-loss results to the CRT as well, an extension of a game function started in the original SL game series.
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
In 2009, I posted the following in response to some threads on another website that discussed the depiction of American soldiers in ASL, most particularly the 1st line U.S. Army squad that saw combat in Europe. I didn't intend to crawl into the thought processes of the original designers of the game - I wasn't one of them nor do I know any of them personally - but as I review and revise the material for presentation here, I still feel perhaps a historical discussion of some of the characteristics of the American infantryman and a little compare/contrast with the Germans might be of interest to those unfamiliar with him, and offer a brief look at the depiction of the G.I. in the evolution of the Advanced Squad Leader game system. The comments are really applicable to any tactical game system, though references to firepower factors and morale are obviously peculiar to ASL.
Squad Leader to G.I.
A brief description of the evolution of the portrayal of the G.I. in ASL is easily achieved; in Squad Leader, there were two types of squads for the three nationalities. The Russians and Germans had 4-firepower squads to represent the fact they were predominantly armed with bolt action rifles. The Americans had an advantage in men (by 1944, a 12-man squad as opposed to the 9-man squad of the Germans) and raw firepower (the semi-automatic M-1 Garand rifle, described by General Patton as the best battle implement ever devised, supplemented by a the M-1 and M-2 carbines in semi- and full- automatic intended as a replacement for the .45 automatic pistol in front-line units). "Engineer" squads received 8 firepower and represented units armed with submachine guns, the Germans 8-3-8s and the Americans 8-4-7s. The American 6-6-6 squad, with its ominous ratings, was competitive because the GIs were also immune to Desperation Morale (DM) status. They were also automatically granted captured weapon use beyond what the Germans were permitted, representing the American fascination - so the designers told us - with "gadgets."
Cross of Iron introduced new unit types for the Germans; the 6-5-8 SS squad, armed with assault rifles, and the 5-4-8 "cavalry" squad which in ASL is often used to depict paratroopers armed with the FG42 assault rifle. G.I.: Anvil of Victory saw an expansion of the Americans to include "Green" and "2nd Line" units, as well as "Elite" 6-6-7 squads a cut above the 6-6-6s, and the downgrade of the "Airborne" squad to a 7-4-7. The ability to repair broken support weapons on a "1" or "2" was not trivial (33% chance of success, double that of other nationalities), increased smoke grenade capability, WP availability and the retention of DM-lessness.
ASL saw minor changes to the American order of battle, though the elimination of the DM bonus was not trivial. However, the broken side morale of the 6-6-6 squad was increased to 8 - a "bonus" of 2, something not granted to other squads of other nationalities at that scale.
So why does the G.I. rate a 6 morale? The observation is often made that the American fighting man is rated lower than the worst of the European armies. The Italians, who lost Hitler's war in Russia, the Balkans, and North Africa, who surrendered in pitiful mobs at the first opportunity, have a 1st line squad superior to the G.I. The Romanians, who collapsed on the flanks of the 6th Army, have a squad superior to those that stormed ashore on OMAHA Beach. Why?
Quantifying factors for a game is no simple task; armour values are a relatively simple matter (the late Lorrin Bird would no doubt argue it is not, and he'd be right, but at the least, it is more a matter of mathematics than such intangibles as morale) compared to capturing the likelihood of a group of 12 men to stand and fight, or go to ground, or even surrender - or try and devise a game system in which you can depict a squad doing all those things in the same turn.
Conscription and military training
The majority of American soldiers were (relatively) short-term soldiers; many were volunteers, some were draftees. Almost all intended to leave the military at the conclusion of hostilities. This was not different from the European militaries, though military life was certainly different in the European militaries. In the German Army, pre-military training might start before the age of 12 in the youth services; after high school, mandatory service in the Reich Labour Service beckoned, which was highly militarized and included drill, field camps and marching in addition to labour tasks. Mandatory military service followed. By the time he was in the Army, the German male had been fully indoctrinated in a military outlook and rarely had problems adjusting to discipline and authority. The average U.S. recruit encountered considerably more culture shock, particularly the urban recruit not used to long days or physical labour. Like all soldiers, though, he quickly adapted because he had to.
Raw material, though, was often wanting. Other armies also noted a tendency for the best officer and junior leader candidates to join the air service or the navy; there was no glamour in the infantry, though the paratroops (and in the U.S., the Marines) did draw eager volunteers - the jump pay of the former was a nice incentive as well. The U.S. Army only had one category of general service into which physical abilities were graded, compared to the German or British armies which had a wider series of grades, meaning that American infantry units received fewer suitable candidates. Education and intelligence was also a problem.
Craig F. Posey discussed this in his excellent article "A Nation of Workers: Utlization of American Manpower and Material in ASL" in ASL Annual '89. According to him:
Field commanders in 1942 complained repeatedly that they were receiving men of so low a mental capability to be trained. One commander stated that the hardest problem in finding competent enlisted peronnel to be instructors was because "everybody higher than a moron" had already been pulled out...An Army Ground Forces observer with the Fifth Army in Italy (obviously in 1943 or later) reported, "Squad leaders and patrol leaders with initiative were scarce...the assignment of Grade V men to infantry is murder." In essence, competent leaders were scarcest where the fighting was the thickest.
No one can criticize them for not being perfect, but it sometimes seemed like they didn't even try. What is clear is that the AGF had a problem in that by the time the "specialists" (which, oddly to us today, didn't include the infantry) skimmed off the higher graded candidates, the U.S. Army found that the average intelligence level was "well below the national average." The U.S. Army Infantry did score at least one coup over the other services in their quest to predict who would stand up best to the crucible of combat. A skinny Texas farm kid named Murphy was turned down for both the paratroopers and the Marines before becoming America's most decorated soldier of World War II.
Rank and Authority
The German Army was ironically more egalitarian than the U.S. Army; German officers were often considered "good comrades" by their men, exposed themselves to front line conditions, and enjoyed relatively few comforts. There were also far fewer officers in a front line infantry company in the Wehrmacht; platoons were almost always led by battle-hardened NCOs in the German Army. In the U.S. Army, platoon commanders had to be commissioned officers, and by 1945 they were inexperienced - "90-day wonders" from an Officer Candidate School. Those few "mustangs" who were commissioned from the ranks were not permitted to serve in the same units in which they cut their teeth out of fear their former comrades would not respect their new-found authority. Casualty rates among officers was also high, meaning many did not live long enough to gain the experience they needed to command with the authority and respect their German counterparts earned by advancing through the ranks, usually for months, sometimes for years. The officer candidate system in the German Army required the soldier to serve in the ranks of a field unit as an offizieranwärter, something U.S. OCS candidates were not necessarily required to do. Robert S. Rush commented in his book "G.I.: The U.S. Infantryman in World War II":
Later in 1944, the OCS policy changed to accept soldiers directly from the RTCs, which because of the younger draft ages, lowered the average age of candidates to something less than the mid-20s. The popular image of the beardless 90-day wonder leading other baby-faced soldiers, though partially true in 1945, was not in 1944. Before deploying overseas, officers shipping as replacements spent, by AGF policy, at least three months with company-level tactical units in the U.S. (emphasis added)
By contrast, German officer candidates did two months field training with units of the Field Army - combat units, in other words.
Regionalism and Replacements
It is not widely reported in English histories, but the German Army had a regional-based organization very similar to the "county" regiments of the British Army, though individual regimental identities had been phased out after the First World War to place emphasis on divisional identities, a model the U.S. Army strongly emphasized as well. While the Wehrmacht did have official perpetuations of regimental histories, there seems to have been little but lip service paid to these in favour of regional designations of the divisions. They are usually absent in English language histories. Elite units such as Grossdeutschland were notable in that they recruited nationally, but other divisions drew strength from recruiting locally. The U.S. Army drew some strength from this model as well, certainly the National Guard divisions such as the 36th (Texas) Division or the 29th (Blue and Gray). The story of Bedford on D-Day is well known.
The Germans and the U.S. Army both had a system in which wounded men might not be returned to their former unit. The American system of "replacements" however, was notorious. While the Germans fed their divisions by recruiting locally and creating formed units known as "March Battalions" for the trip to the front (often stopping on the way to the Field Training units for indoctrination in the rear areas by way of "partisan hunts" before final advanced training), the Americans treated the need for replacements somewhat different. According to Mark Henry's "The US Army in World War II: Northwest Europe":
The giant olive drab machine needed a constant flow of additional troops to keep up its strength. The AEF in World War I solved this problem by disbanding about every fourth division arriving in France...In World War II the Army refused to allow this, and depended on individuals sent from the US to fill the gaps. Emphasising its machine-like viewpoint, the Army called these men 'replacements'. In 1944 the number of men individually trained for posting as replacement parts rapidly fell short of the needs of the ravenous armies in France. The units based in the USA were soon mercilessly plundered. This weakened these training units, and sent bewildered replacements forward to units with which they had no connection. The semi-trained GIs lurched through the system until they arrived at forward replacement depots...Here combat-experienced GIs, sent forward again after recovering from wounds, mingled with the green replacements for days or even weeks as they awaited new assignments.
Stephen Ambrose said of this system that "Had the Germans been given a free hand to devise a replacement system for the ETO, one that would do the Americans most harm and least good, they could not have done a better job."
As a sidebar, both armies were racist and both had an interesting history of social experimentation when manpower crunches began to make themselves felt. All-black combat units began to see action in Italy and the ETO; some, like the 761st Tank Battalion, gave a good account of themselves while others, such as the 92nd Infantry Division, have been painted in much harsher terms. The Nisei units have been painted in much more glowing terms and have a better war record. Both were officered predominantly by "whites". The Germans, for their part, considered themselves racially homogenous due to their bizarre Nuremberg Laws which stressed biological purity, but when the crunch came in the mid-war period, dozens of foreign legions began to appear in uniform, and Ost Bataillonen were in the trenches on the Normandy beaches on D-Day. Other exotic units such as the Free India Legion saw little or no combat but were advertised for propaganda value as taking their place in the anti-Communist, anti-Semetic crusade. The point, perhaps, is that in the all-white combat units that made up the majority of either army, there was less discord of the type that characterized units of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where strife sometimes existed within units broken down along racial lines, reflecting the same kind of rifts in society back home.
In my Army unit in Vietnam we had a rule that only E5's and above were permitted to enter our NCO Club. However, an E4 was allowed to enter if 'sponsored' and escorted by an E5 or above. To keep black troops out of the club, which displayed a four-by-six foot Confederate battle flag on the wall behind the bar, no black was ever promoted above E4 during my 12 months there, and no black E4 was ever 'sponsored' by a white E5 or above.
Racism in Vietnam was practiced daily by many in Vietnam. But you would never know it today because those who practiced racism against their fellow Americans adamantly deny any form or manner of racism ever existed in Vietnam, or if racism did exist it was rare and islolated. Very few African Americans hold memberships in Vietnam Veteran organizations because of past and ongoing racism. --Otis Willie (Ret.), Military News and Information Editor, The American War Library
Perhaps the crux of the morale issue is the least tangible and hardest to source accurately; the GI was the least warlike compared to the Europeans because he had the least to lose. His home was farthest from the fighting. The Italians on Sicily were defending their own soil; the Germans in Normandy were fighting a last ditch defence of what by 1944 had become a way of life to them. The Romanians and Hungarians and various factions of the Yugoslavians all had bitter old scores to settle with each other. The American soldier was for the most part eager to shed his olive coloured clothes and return to the normalcy of civilian life.
The G.I. is often criticized for being a lot of things, but the criticisms don't ring true. Among some of the more popular ones:
The G.I. was too reliant on firepower to win his battles for him.
This one makes little sense on the face of it. The G.I. effectively used his excellent artillery support to good effect to pound the daylights out of the Germans whenever and wherever he found him. No one seems to "criticize" the Germans for using their mortars so effectively in the defence, or whining that they "didn't fight fair" for siting these invisible, near-soundless weapons with wild abandon wherever an infantry battalion stopped to fight and inflicting terrible damage with them (by some accounts, up to 70% of British casualties in Normandy, for example, were a result of German mortars). The G.I. wasn't concerned about fighting fair - he fought smart where and when he could. And there were plenty of bloodbaths to go around regardless; Hürtgen Forest coming to mind.
The G.I. was no match for the German in a one on one battle.
Outside of the Roman Coliseum or an episode of Combat!, there were very few one-on-one battles, so the comparison is meaningless. And even so, the G.I. received a lot of training before embarking for overseas - certainly more training days than the Landser, though admittedly things like close order drill and other Army "chicken" crowded the syllabus long after the German dropped such things from his (by 1944 basic training for German infantrymen might be as little as 7 weeks, and advanced training might include actual combat missions such as "partisan hunts").
The frontline G.I. won the war; without arguing about the importance of the Eastern Front or the Pacific, or the Combined Bomber Offensive, or the North Atlantic Run, all of which was part of a massive team effort by the Allies and the United Nations, the G.I. in France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy in 1944-45, along with his allies, guaranteed final victory over the Germans.
The Culin device, one of many implements devised in the bocage to get through the hedgerows.
He didn't do it with bloodless victories such as Operation Desert Storm; it wasn't that kind of war, and the Germans weren't that kind of enemy. The G.I. had to go at him for long months, and devise new ways of doing things, often with equipment not up to the task. And he overcame and adapted. The best example is the Culin hedgerow device; a tactical problem made itself apparent and the U.S. Army responded. (There were others, less famous, such as the "Salad Fork".) When the Sherman proved vulnerable to enemy tanks - a role that doctrine never intended it to take on - tank crews provided local solutions in the form of improvised armor kits, tactics (placing Jumbos in key positions) and eventually new equipment. Individual units simply endured apalling conditions wherever they were; despite a few setbacks on the way - mass surrenders such as the 106th Division in the Bulge were extreme outliers as were mass slaughters such as OMAHA Beach - he was capable of outstanding feats of bravery.
There is no insult in saying that there was nothing European about him. The American is - or was - an individualist with pride in himself. The G.I. eschewed the trappings of the British regimental system, and was derided for having no pride; and forewent the flash of the German uniforms, and was ridiculed for having no style. But by the time he blasted himself out of the bocage, he had something far more important - the self-assuredness of a veteran soldier who could use his equipment, training and bravery to best advantage, and historians can say that after Kasserine Pass, the American soldier never lost a battle.
Does he "deserve" to be treated in ASL the same as those Europeans, with 7 morale? I say he doesn't. He had a unique character that is well reflected in ASL which is itself a unique game system. The replacement problem was not confined to the Americans - the British and Canadians in Northwest Europe also suffered from a "reinforcement crisis" in the autumn of 1944, post-Normandy. And Canadians were just as far from Europe as the GIs were, so the rationale for the "6" morale can't stop there. The other factors all play into it as well; there is also the well documented poor quality of recruits and the leadership aspect - which should extend beyond just the SMC countermix of any given scenario.
Jeffery Williams, a Calgary Highlander serving in a staff position in 1st Canadian Army, wrote after the war about contacts between the 3rd Canadian Division and the American 82nd Airborne in the winter of 1944-45:
It was the first time that General Spry's men had had direct dealings with Americans. They were intrigued by their language which was familiar but seemed non-military - torches were flashlights, petrol was gasoline. They were fascinated by their equipment, their robust 'deuce-and-halfs' and four wheel drive 'threequarters' (2-1/2 and 3/4 ton trucks), their weapons and their rations. They liked the U.S. .30 calibre carbine but they wouldn't swap a Browning automatic rifle for a Bren. In fact, there was little that the Americans had that they envied, certainly not their rations nor their clothing. Everyone shivered in that damp November but the Americans 'looked' colder. As one battalion commander put it, 'They were great guys, good soldiers who had fought well. We gained a great respect for them but their ways were not our ways.'
Famous photo of an 82nd Airborne trooper in the winter of 1944-45 (in fact, it was used on the cover of Close Assault). The Canadians who relieved the 82nd in the Nijmegen Salient thought the Americans "looked cold."
None of which is to take away from the fighting abilities of the U.S. Army soldier - who turned in ferocious fighting performances from Morocco to the Elbe. But he was what he was - mostly just there for the duration, doing things his own way - just like everyone else.
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
- - Major-General John Frederick Charles (J.F.C.) Fuller
The reaction to my blog entry on the Machine Gun in Tactical Wargames, and the attached Geeklist, raised some questions regarding the tactical relationships between infantry and artillery, and highlighted some common misperceptions about the development of artillery in the Great War. It is easy to assume that artillery entered the First World War as a fully developed arm, but in fact, such things we take for granted today - indirect fire, for example - were comparatively new in 1914. What this entry will attempt to do is trace the timeline of technical innovation and development in British Commonwealth artillery. The focus is on British artillery as they are the example I am most familiar with, and also because they arguably moved the ball forward the furthest of all the combatants of that war. Once we've explored how artillery was developed, its easier to examine what this means to tactical wargaming, perhaps in later articles, but also in an attached Geeklist of games that have attacked the subject.
Like all my articles, my own definition of "tactical" is generally 20th Century, land based warfare as my primary area of interest, but others are free to interpret it as they wish.
Artillery Development up to 1915
British combat experience in the Boer War revealed the spade and spring recoil system in use on guns of that era failed to prevent movement of the gun carriage during firing; the 12 pound shot of these breech-loaders was also too small to be effective. In 1900, small numbers of German 15-pounders were added to the arsenal, but the British adopted the 18-pounder as standard, boasting many technical advantages such as improved recoil system, screw breech, and rate of fire. The gun did not have to be relayed between shots as with the older guns, and rifled barrels increased both range and accuracy.
The other armies of the world were (or already had) developing similar technologies, such as the famous French 75. But technology and employing sensible tactics to use them are two different things. Rifled muskets were still being used in massed infantry formations in the American Civil War to devastating effect, and indeed, in 1914 infantry equipped with bolt-action rifles were still organized into companies of 100 to 200 men and committed to costly battles in 1914 using the ancient tactics of concentration of force and linear battle lines.
In the Great War, field artillery's role
...was to assist the infantry in every way in establishing a superiority of fire over the enemy. This meant it was used principally for immediate infantry support and provided close barrages that enabled the direct advance of the infantry. It was also utilized to harass trench systems and small defence systems, and to cut barbed wire. Field artillery concentrated on swift movement and speed in coming into action. Howitzers, by reason of their steep angle of descent of powerful projectiles, were specially adapted for attack on shielded guns, or enemy behind cover or in entrenchments. Howitzers were particularly adapted to supporting infantry in later stages of an attack, where their higher angled trajectory allowed continuous firing until the infantry had almost reached its objective.(1)
But at the start of the war, it was not uncommon for the artillery to be used in the old-fashioned way, for direct fire support, firing over open sights and employed in the front line, either in direct support of the infantry, or simply to shoot at targets of opportunity. The impossibility of using guns in this manner became quickly apparent, however, and the use of artillery indirectly became the norm.
Though gunners had experienced the need for indirect fire in the Boer War, they never organized the necessary communications networks to make this effective. By 1912 British signal units were capable of setting up networks incorporating telegraph, telephone, and dispatch riders. Telephones were provided to the artillery, but since they were not connected to switchboards, no more than two telephones could be linked on a single line. Also, the instruments tended to break down. In the 1913 manoeuvres (in England) the gunners acquired their targets by direct observation (not from the map), did no night shooting, carried out no calibration or adjustment for atmospheric conditions, and had almost nothing to do with the infantry, whom they were supposed to support.(2)
While the First World War did see a revolution in artillery practices, the learning process - as it was for all the combat arms - was slow. Imperial troops in the UK in 1914 suffered through the rainiest winter in memory and competed for scarce range space, some gunners firing just 50 rounds per four-gun battery from mobilization in August 1914 to the end of January 1915.
True education came in the trenches; in early 1915 attacks were generally done by battalions of infantry rather than larger formations. While at first, scouts were called on to find passages through No-Man's Land, losses were so high due to inability to deal with barbed wire and enemy machine guns that scouts were soon dispensed with in local attacks. The artillery's role was to fire at enemy trenches during the attack, then lift fire to prevent enemy support from reaching their front line:
Lieutenant-Colonel A.G.L. McNaughton, who kept in close touch with changing developments in the Royal Artillery, added the task of clearing no man's land of obstacles: 'You had to get some way over - to be able to smash your way through the barbed wire. And the only possible way to do it in the time available was by gunfire.' Unlike the infantry...the artillery had some opportunity to train under realistic conditions, using the enemy's trenches as targets for practice shoots, but they could do this only if ammunition was available, and often it was not. (3)
At Neuve Chapelle from 10-12 March 1915, the artillery began to modernize and fight set-piece battles. Shrapnel shells were fired to bar enemy movements, and for the first time, "This added the French word barrage to the military lexicon." German reinforcements were prevented from reinforcing their front, though it wasn't enough to result in a victory.(4)
There were other “firsts”...These, with modifications, characterized almost all subsequent attacks in the War. Air photographs revealed the disposition of the enemy and particular targets. The issue of an artillery timetable gave each battery a definite purpose and target for each phase of a bombardment. An elementary system of shooting by the map replaced the crude visual air signals of air observers with wireless corrections. Objective maps with their “Red Line,” “Green Line,” and other coloured lines came into being. With attention paid to barometric pressure, temperature, wind direction, strengths, accuracy improved.(5)
Although the battle did not result in a victory, it was a sign that battles could be more than futile charges at bayonet point.
It was also at Neuve Chapelle that British and Canadian gunners used the clock method of calling fall of shot for the first time, allowing gunners to zero in on their targets thousands of yards away with little loss of time. Added to (British General Sir Douglas) Haig's insistence that each round be accurately observed, the technique was one of the first steps towards 'scientific gunnery.' the bombardment also lifted from objective to objective, the first time British artillery had attempted to protect the troops throughout the advance. (A) member of the 1st Battalion...on the left flank of the British assault...reported on how the barrage helped the infantry get forward:'For about a half hour this merciless bombardment went on, the range was lifted and under protection of a creeping barrage, British infantry climbed out of trenches into No Man's Land. This was the first time this form of barrage had been used, and, in spite of the big guns, advancing Tommies went too fast and ran into their own artillery fire.'(6)
The artillery had not yet abandoned the old ways; during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, when Germans used poison gas for the first on the Western Front and the Canadian Division hastily attempted to seal the line in the wake of a French rout, guns were once again employed over open sights as they had done on Salisbury Plain. And the technique worked, at least temporarily. But the open warfare that temporarily prevailed at Ypres by the use of gas went back to trench warfare soon enough, and it became clear that the Allies and the Royal Artillery needed to find solutions to this tactical challenge.
Artillery had proved itself in breaking up German attacks, and...would swear by the eighteen-pounder until after the war. The gunners' reliance on initiative, which had been bred into them since the turn of the century and before, stood them in good stead in defensive battles, but it was not sufficient that infantry advances could be pressed home without heavy casualties. The(y) had to find some way to make their infantry weapons more effective, liaison between infantry and artillery more efficient, and the artillery's guns more accurate.(7)
Weight of Fire
The initial solution was to simply fire more shells, and so 4.5-inch and 6-inch guns added to the din, along with trench mortars, an upgrade of the old idea of siege engines. Bombardments of several days' duration became commonplace as a preface to infantry attacks, an idea that was already 15 years old. But artillery wasn't accurate enough to be able to pinpoint individual positions, and the shells in use weren't big enough to ensure the destruction of defensive works. Shrapnel shells which burst metal shards lacked the power to cut through barbed wire and fortifications. Shell shortages restricted the use of the larger guns, and imprecise timing of barrages meant that enemy machine gunners and riflemen could man their parapets in the few minutes between the end of a barrage and the appearance of British infantry in No Man's Land - plenty of time to lay down a curtain of small arms fire. And since the shell fuzes weren't sensitive enough to enable the British artillery shells to explode above the barbed wire, the shells simply exploded in the mud without effect, leaving the wire intact. Festubert in May 1915 highlighted these disadvantages to great effect.
The barrage had been a great boon, and the artillery did its best work when the objective was taken, throwing down a gauntlet of steel through which enemy reinforcements would have to try and counter-attack. In theory, the artillery was also busy firing on the enemy's guns, keeping him from shelling the newly won objectives. But before that happened, the infantry had to get there.(8)
As stalemate settled over the British front in mid-1915, links between the infantry and artillery were strengthened, by telephone wire, signal lamps, and having artillery observers actually living with the infantry.(9) Early telephone exchanges sometimes became congested, meaning the infantry was unable to contact their artillery. Artillery commanders also went to great pains to make clear to the infantry that the larger the gun in support, the less ammunition would be available. Infantry brigades (four battalions) had their artillery support standardized, with three 18-pounder batteries per brigade, with an additional battery of 4.5-inch howitzers. The 18-pounders remained in direct telephone communication with the front line trenches, while the heavier guns could only be contacted by going through the artillery brigade's headquarters or the infantry brigade's headquarters. In case of an emergency, such as a German attack, 6-inch howitzer batteries could also be contacted via the artillery brigade headquarters. Deciding which guns were most suitable for a particular mission was left to the artillery commander, with the infantry being responsible for shell reports - plotting as best as possible where shells were falling, what type of shell the enemy was using, the direction and distance of the enemy battery, and the time the enemy shells fell.
Small field guns were sometimes employed directly in the firing line in the early days of the war. Library and Archives Canada photo.
Accuracy of Fire
The Shell Crisis of 1915 toppled the government at home in Britain, but there were also military reasons to want to be able to fire artillery accurately; four main missions were identified for the artillery in battle: covering fire during attacks, defensive fire during enemy attacks, counter-battery fire against enemy guns, and predicted instead of observed fire against particular targets.
Accurate fire began with the survey:
The oldest and simplest form of artillery survey is registration by shooting, in which the gun itself is used as a rangefinder. Its disadvantages are twofold. Firstly, its results are immediately applicable only to the gun - or at most the battery - that did the ranging. Secondly it eliminates, or reduces, the possibility of surprise. Hence the development of instrumental methods, beginning with the battery or troop director and rangefinder, and ending with the theodolite of the surveyor.
Owing to the conditions under which artillery survey was initiated, the relationship between these various instrumental methods was not at first fully appreciated. During the stalemate on the Western Front from 1915-18, large-scale maps were plentiful and topographical detail was usually ample for the purpose of resecting a position.(10)
As raiding became a feature of life on the static front, the "box barrage" came into vogue. Historians are divided on who invented them; what is clear is the important role artillery played. The Germans also eventually employed them; they used exploding shells to cut off specific areas of trench from enemy support in order that friendly troops might raid a section of enemy line.(11)
As a further aid to immediate assistance, the British Army developed the “SOS barrage”; upon seeing an emergency signal from their infantry (rockets or flares of predetermined colour or sequence), the artillery would fire on pre-registered targets.
...the eighteen-pounders (would fire) a shrapnel barrage for three minutes as close to friendly lines as was considered safe, then creep towards the enemy front trenches and remain there for about ten minutes. Heavy artillery, at the division commander's discretion, could either be superimposed on the eighteen-pounder barrage or used in a counter-battery role. After some initial problems, in which British units expended masses of ammunition on false alarms, the British decided to use the SOS only in case of imminent attack.(12)
The Battle of the Somme
The July Drive of 1916, known to all now as the opening of the Battle of the Somme, is best known for the death toll on the first day of the offensive, 1 July, when nearly 20,000 British and Newfoundland servicemen lost their lives. Another 38,000 men were wounded or went missing on that single day. In the cold light of historical context, however, the battle was yet one more stepping-stone on the way to unlocking the mysteries of tactical success on the Western Front.
It is true that the majority of casualties inflicted in the First World War was by artillery (statistical analysis of British casualties yielded figures of 2% of all wounds caused by grenades, 39% by small arms (both rifles and machine guns), and 58% by artillery or trench mortars, with 0.32% attributable to other means, including bayonets). Statistics don't often tell the whole story. The barrage on the Somme lasted from 0600 on 24 June to 0600 on 1 July, firing 1,508,652 shells; that was seventy one shells for every single yard of front line trench, or 7,857 shells along the front every hour.(13)
For all that firepower, the artillery was powerless in many sectors to appreciably ensure success of the infantry, and the opening days of the battle represented in many sectors several steps backwards in what had been learned to that date about how to use the modern technologies and tactics.
One of many myths surrounding the first day of the battle is that the infantry was ordered blindly forward mindless of the futility of the bombardment. This is not true; trench raids were mounted nightly specifically to alert the British to the effects of the artillery preparation. Reports were mixed; some raiders reported that the wire was indeed being cut. Aerial photos were also used to gauge the effects of the bombardment. When one corps reported that the wire wasn't being cut, General Sir Douglas Haig, commander of all British forces in France, was disinclined to believe them, noting that the corps staff had little experience of the Western Front (and in fact, he was correct, as that corps had recently come to France from Gallipoli.) Haig noted that fires were reported in the German rear areas.(14)
For their part, the Germans were content to remain on the defensive; their bunkers and dugouts were as many as thirty feet below ground. On the morning of the battle, the key would be in keeping them away from the firestep. Again, the artillery played its role here. Deception was used to fool the Germans into the exact timing of the actual attack. Every day would bring an intense period of bombardment for 80 minutes; repetition of this pattern was intended to fool the Germans into thinking prolonged bombardments would always be of eighty minutes' length - and on the actual day, the “hate” would be shortened to sixty-five, hopefully allowing the British infantry to cross No-Man's Land before the Germans could occupy their own firestep.(15)
The majority of infantry on the British front were inexperienced, adding to the burden of the artillery. The “New Army” divisions were filled with raw soldiers recruited from off the street, unlike the divisions of regulars (pre-war full time soldiers) and territorials (British Militiamen) who had at least some small knowledge of service life before 1914. Their instructions were simple: do nothing fancy. Walk across No Man's Land in ordered waves and rely on the artillery to have killed the Germans beforehand. The orders came straight from Haig, who noted that “officers and troops generally do not possess that military knowledge arising from a long and high state of Training which enables them to act promptly on sound lines in unexpected situations."(16)
As unpalatable a thought as it is now to many, Haig was right; at the very least, he had accurately described the state of training in the New Army divisions. Even so, on the day of the attack, some division commanders permitted their subordinates leeway in how they assaulted the enemy trenches.
The leading battalions (of the 36th (Ulster) Division) had been ordered out from the wood just before 7.30 A.M. and laid down near the German trenches . . . At zero hour the British barrage lifted. Bugles blew the "Advance". Up sprang the Ulstermen and, without forming up in the waves adopted by other divisions, they rushed the German front line . . . By a combination of sensible tactics and Ulster dash, the prize that eluded so many, the capture of a long section of the German front line, had been accomplished.(17)
And in another sector:
At Gommecourt . . . Attacking from the south, the 56th (London) Division had performed brilliantly. Making use of the new trench they had dug in No Man's Land and a smoke-screen, four battalions had captured the whole of the German front-line system.(18)
And the artillery was not idle that first day, either:
Shortly before the assault, the gunners fired an intensive barrage on the enemy's front trenches, infantry companies left their positions, and the barrage would lift and drop on the next trench, continuing in this manner to the objective. For the most part, this creeping barrage did little to help the infantry on 1 July, except on the right; for, lifting from objective to objective, it did not protect troops advancing across no man's land or between German trench lines. Major-General Ivor Maxse, the innovative commander of the 18th Division, ordered his men to lie out in no man's land close to their first objective so they could jump enemy defences the moment the standing bombardment ended. They then made their way to subsequent objectives by following the barrage as closely as possible. (The 7th Division used similar techniques.) The creeping barrage was probably the logical successor to the linear barrage, though its origin is subject to debate, since the French claimed to have used it first. In any case, it emphasized the return to covering as opposed to destructive fire, the artillery concentrating on protecting the infantry instead of killing the enemy. Though the 18th Division lost 30 per cent of its troops, it reached all its objectives on 1 July. By the time of the second offensive on 14 July the technique had become accepted as part of the solution to the problem posed by German defensive skill.(19)
For many divisions, however, the battle was simply catastrophic. Artillery was powerless in many cases to support the infantry due mainly to poor communications. Not only could additional fires not be called down but barrages could not be slowed when the infantry fell behind. Telephone lines were cut, flags and lamps were useless in the dust and haze of battle, pigeons were confused by the din of gunfire, and runners were at the mercy of German artillery, mortars, snipers and small arms.(20) Manning their firesteps with plenty of time to spare, the Germans in many sectors managed to obliterate entire battalions with machine gun and rifle fire. The butcher's bill was long and dreary; 32 of the battalions engaged suffered more than 60% casualties. Some, like the 1st Newfoundland Regiment, were all but wiped out.(21)
German artillery, too, was still a real threat in 1916 and indirect counter-battery fire still in its infancy.
The idea that you could actually pinpoint the position of an enemy gun and then knock it out was considered radical nonsense by the old-line British gunners. “Is there some kind of Free Masonry between the artillery of both sides?” (Canadian general) Arthur Currie asked his artillery adviser in 1915. “They fire at the opposing infantry but never at each other.” A young Canadian, Harold Hemming, a McGill graduate serving in the British 3rd Army, had been experimenting with flash spotting, a method of locating a gun position by triangulating its muzzle flashes; but his general was not impressed. As he put it to Hemming, “You take all the fun out of war."(22)
What the Somme had done, however, was helped push infantry tactics into the 20th Century in its aftermath. The basic unit of maneuver in 1915 had been the company; waves of 200 men under a single commander that were unwieldy and exposed to automatic weapons and German artillery. After the slaughter of July 1st, the King's soldiers in France rediscovered platoons; splitting their infantry into small groups of about 40 men, permanently constituted under the same officer and NCOs, and trained to use the principle of fire and movement on the battlefield.
Platoon tactics had evolved in trench raids and cooperation between infantry and artillery had made some progress, but these developments, even taken together, were not sufficient to ensure success at low cost in a major battle. German artillery was still, essentially, unassailable and thus able to shell Canadian troops before and during battle, often inflicting casualties before the soldiers could leave their trenches. Wire proved a serious obstacle difficult to remove; the British and Canadians tried to cut it with artillery, but shell fuses were not sensitive enough to detonate within the wire or just as they hit the ground. Thus shells exploded deep in the earth, where they did no more than move the wire obstacles around somewhat. Enemy machine-gunners, if they were quick enough, could take their positions after the barrage had lifted but before the assaulting infantry could reach them. Between them, (German) artillery, wire and machine-guns ensured that failure would be common and even limited successes would be costly.(23)
While the year 1916 has seen revolutionary changes in infantry organization, it saw major changes to the artillery as well. Gun shortages had caused the British to reduce the size of a battery from six to four guns; they now changed back and a divisional artillery jumped from 52 guns to 76. High-explosive shells, scarce until mid-1916, also became available in quantity, a large improvement over the shrapnel shell. The separate howitzer brigades were broken up and directly assigned to the 18-pounder batteries.
Communication also had been a problem before the Somme:
It took two years of war for the British to develop an artillery command system higher than a division, so that all the guns in range could be brought to bear on a single target. A jealous rivalry between the “bow-and-arrow gunners” of the Royal Field Artillery and their staidly scientific counterparts in the Royal Garrison Artillery did not help.(24)
Field artillery before the war “concentrated on swift movement and speed in coming into action rather than on accuracy, while garrison or coastal artillery, being anchored to a fixed site, worked at being as accurate as possible."(25)
By the latter half of 1916, light wireless sets were beginning to connect eyes in the air with artillerymen on the ground, and batteries were being linked to produce larger volumes of fire.
The British never completely overcame their communications problems, but they learned to link scores of batteries with garlands of wire on poles, or stretched on the ground, or, ideally, buried four to six feet under the ground. Once linked, a single fire plan was possible. At Festubert, in 1915, Canadian artillery signalers had learned to “ladder” their telephone lines, digging parallel trenches to bury two sets of wire and linking them at intervals. If one section were cut, the circuit might survive until the break could be found and repaired.(26)
Problems supplying the final necessity - shells themselves - were finally addressed by late 1916 also. While a quarter of the shells at Loos in 1915 had been duds, and many others had been “shorts” falling on friendly troops or “prematures” that exploded in the gun barrels, the takeover of private business brought the quality of ammunition production to an acceptable standard.
Post-Somme - Creeping Barrages and Wire Cutting
General Robert Nivelle, France's hero of the nine-month battle at Verdun, had become an exponent of the artillery. He promised what Haig had promised before the Somme - bombardments so devastating that the infantry would be left with little to do.
Canadians who visited the French army came back dismayed that the wisdom of senior officers bore no relation to the sloppy, inaccurate gunnery in the field. Still, if the need was stated, the solution could be found. Good British officers, frustrated by their own service, found Canadians to be eager pupils. The best of them was a peacetime professor of electrical engineering at McGill, Lieutenant Colonel Andy McNaughton. Disillusioned with the French, he found a mentor in...a British mountain gunner with good ideas about how to locate German guns. Observers or microphones linked by telephone or wireless made it possible to locate enemy guns by their flash or the thump they made when they were fired. Once located, they could, in due course, be pounded into silence. Science and engineering skill helped McNaughton create a Canadian Corps counter-battery organization.
By 1917, Canadian Corps artillery staff also insisted that calibration, meteorological reports, and surveying were no longer “siege gunner fandoodle” but possible, practical, and necessary. The Somme had taught that inflexible fire plans, set up because communications so often failed, usually left troops unprotected. Rolling barrages often rolled far ahead of troops caught in heavy shelling, unbroken wire, or even a stubborn machine-gun crew. Canadian gunners began to experiment in coordinated fire.(27)
The creeping barrage, especially, was a form of coordinated fire that proved most useful in the last two years of the war. Found to be useful in its rudimentary form on 1 July 1916 by the British 18th Division, British gunners refined the technique later during the Somme battles (which had dragged on until November 1916), planning them to drop curtains of steel along pre-set lines, then “lifting” or advancing forward 100 yards every three minutes. “The gunners thus made no attempt to destroy the enemy's defensive positions, which was mostly a matter of luck in any case, but concentrated on keeping defenders from their machine-guns and parapets until it was too late."(28)
New fuses for shells began to arrive in early 1917, causing HE shells to explode on contact with barbed wire “tearing it to shreds and ripping great gaps through which the attacking troops could pour."(29) January also brought McNaughton to his new post as Counter-Battery Staff Officer for the Canadian Corps, where he was
...given carte blanche to focus his scientifically trained mind on the twin problems of pinpoint intelligence and pinpoint accuracy. The post was a new one. McNaughton would have to develop the techniques of counter-battery work from scratch. But before the war was over he would be acknowledged by both the Allies and the Germans as the best artillery officer in the British Empire.(30)
Sound ranging and flash spotting techniques were both developed and fine-tuned up to the moment of the assault, which took place on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917. Sound ranging relied on the use of the oscillograph, something McNaughton had used in University at McGill.
But the novel idea of carrying a delicate device similar to an electro-cardiograph into the lines, setting it up, and depending on a photograph of the vibrations to identify the enemy gun emplacements was, in McNaughton's own words, considered “treason, literally treason.” The scientists were virtually ignored by the British.
Both sound ranging and flash spotting are complicated procedures. The latter required a series of posts all along the front, each equipped with telephones and surveying gear and a reporting system back to a panel of lights at headquarters. So accurate did this system of lights and buzzers become that the Canadian artillery was able to locate a German gun position to within as little as five yards.
The sound-ranging technique was even more complicated. When an enemy gun opened up miles away an entire sequence of events took place. A man in a listening post, often out in No Man's Land, pressed a key activating a recorder at McNaughton's headquarters. A series of microphones, placed all along the front a mile and a half back of the forward line, picked up the sound in turn as it traveled. From the time intervals between the microphones the gun's exact location could be spotted. Similarly, the sound waves sent out by a shell bursting on the Canadian side, and picked up by a succession of microphones, could locate the target.(31)
Many variables came into play, including air temperature, air pressure, wind velocity, ground contours, and other atmospheric conditions. Accuracy nonetheless allowed for an enemy gun to be spotted, its calibre determined, its target calculated, and its positions fixed to within 25 yards - all within three minutes. And other information constantly filtered in, from maps and prisoners taken during trench raids, intelligence from secret agents, and aerial photographs from both aircraft and observation balloons.(32)
They were so good at it, that at Zero Hour, the starting time of the attack, 83% of the German batteries defending Vimy Ridge had been located and silenced.(33)
The seven day prepatory barrage - the “Week of Suffering” as the German defenders called it - dropped 50,000 tons of explosives on the Ridge, and the 106 fuse made short work of much of the barbed wire impeding the way.(34) But it was the creeping barrage which enabled the infantry to get on top of the enemy and use their new platoon tactics to full advantage.
Only one drawback manifested itself from the artillery's fury; all the shells from the 983 guns that had fired on Vimy had created such a morass that the artillery could not move forward, and the Germans were retreating steadily over open ground - and tantalizingly out of range.
The men on the ridge stared helplessly at the enemy soldiers, fleeing out of their reach to the rear where no barrage could reach them. “Jesus Christ Almighty!” cried a Forward Observation Officer with the 27th (Battalion). “For two ****ing years, I've been waiting for a chance like this and now I can't use it."(35)
Looking out at Vimy from the newly captured heights. Library and Archives Canada photo.
The artillery had improved its performance in other ways also. Expending more ammunition than ever before, it was also “doing so more accurately; adopting French principles, gunners observed each round in the preliminary phases of each bombardment, until batteries could get on target."(36)
With new technology and techniques, gunners began to shell neutral and enemy territory, a large area that can be separated into four main sectors. The first was just forward of (their) - the barbed wire obstacles similar to those that had caused so much trouble on the Somme; the second consisted of the German defences proper - the trenches, strong-points, and machine-gun nests (the infantry) were to attack; the third was actually the enemy's defences and consisted of his artillery position; and in the last area the gunners shelled roads, ammunition dumps, and assembly areas behind the German lines to hinder the movement of reserves, food, and ammunition to the front. This final task was also supposed to lower German morale by interfering with reliefs and preventing deliveries of hot food. Each presented its own particular problems and so was allocated its own artillery batteries chosen in accordance with their calibers and thus with what they could best achieve. Often, a few days of experimentation preceded particular tasks to determine which type of trench mortar, gun, or howitzer would obtain the best results.(37)
Even with the 106 fuse, the 18-pounder had not been the best weapon for cutting German barbed wire due to the small explosive charge in its high explosive shell. Experimentation on the Vimy front found that light mortars were just as inadequate as the artillery, despite their higher rate of fire. The larger howitzers were found to produce the most satisfactory results, firing shells with the 106 fuse. The experiments that had lasted from 2 to 5 April resulted in a large expenditure - a waste, in fact - of ammunition.
Attempting to clear wire with trench mortars - May 1917. Library and Archives Canada photo.
There were other scientific improvements also by this time; thermometers were employed to to measure the temperature of the ammunition; the muzzle velocity of guns were tested at frequent intervals, and the observation and reporting of fall of shot of the spotting rounds all permitted more accurate artillery fire than in the past. Guns were moved forward to temporary positions when necessary in order to hit “dead ground”, and artillery observers were sometimes located in No Man's Land itself in order to report on fall of shot into this previously dead ground, formed by ridge lines or other terrain blocking both line of sight and line of fire from friendly lines. As well, concentration of fire on specific points rather than widespread random shelling paid dividends when the infantry went into the attack. The supremacy of Allied counter-battery work meant that friendly guns and mortars could shell the Germans with lesser fear of retaliation, and some artillery brigades reported very low casualties as a result.(38)
The battle did not end with the taking of the Ridge as “(t)here had been previous engagements when objectives taken at great cost had subsequently been lost to the enemy's strong counter-attacks." At Vimy Canadian gunners struggled to move their artillery forward though axle-deep mud; some artillerymen also trained to use captured German pieces and together, these guns all helped break up German counter-attacks.(39) The 106 fuse, in addition to its job as a wire-cutter, proved invaluable at breaking up counter-attacking infantry, since it exploded at ground level among clusters of unprotected soldiers.(40)
After Vimy Ridge
The system of artillery was good, but shortcomings were still being made obvious in the weeks after the victory at Vimy; there were more requests for artillery counter-battery fire from the infantry than there were guns; it was especially difficult to carry out counter-battery work when complex fire plans were being shot in preparation for operations. The need to move guns up to support advances over newly won ground was also apparent; sited well to the rear away from German machine-guns and trench mortars, the artillery generally operated at extreme range; as the infantry advanced the guns had to go forward, and they needed roads. Engineers were usually tasked with rebuilding captured German trenches and building entrenchments to hold against enemy counter-attacks. It was resolved that labour battalions were needed to support these advances, building roads for horses to bring up guns and ammunition to be able to continue supporting fires to protect the infantry in newly won ground.
Nonetheless, the pattern had been set for the battles following Vimy; complicated artillery fire plans coupled with the new infantry tactics, with prior periods of both planning and, where possible, rehearsals, all created the conditions for several impressive, though costly, victories. Messines Ridge followed in June, with meticulous planning by British and ANZAC forces highlighted by the spectacular explosion of several mines (tunneling had been part of the preparations at Vimy as well) and a nearly flawless victory. The Canadians took Hill 70 in August 1917 at the cost of over 3,500 casualties. The bulk of these losses, tellingly, occurred after the capture of the objective. While the successful template for offensive operations ensured that Imperial troops could now reasonably expect to take any given objective, German artillery fire and counter-attacks ensured that the process would always be costly.(41)
“The great lesson to be learned from (the Vimy) operations is this,” boasted the 1st Division. “If the lessons of the war have been thoroughly mastered; if the artillery preparations and support is good; if our Intelligence is properly appreciated; there is no position that cannot be wrested from the enemy by well-disciplined, well-trained and well-led troops attacking on a sound plan.” The “ifs” were large and the arrogance was premature but the conclusions were fundamentally correct...A solid, unequivocal victory...told Canadians - and their allies - that the secret of successful attacks had been unlocked, if not fully extracted. The futility of the Somme had been overcome.(42)
The war was far from over, however; the guns suffered during the battles known collectively as Passchendaele in late 1917 as much as the infantry; for the first time the Germans subjected the Canadians to intense attack from aircraft operating in a tactical role, bombing and strafing, and if the battle became synonymous with mud and misery for the infantry, it was no different for the artillery. When guns needed to be repaired, they had to be taken from the gun lines by teams of horses, and at Passchendaele, this was not possible. Of the 308 18-pounders in the British 2nd Army's field brigades, over half were out of action. Men were nearing collapse from exhaustion, working in muddy conditions hauling ammunition. Those batteries still in action found it was difficult to plan elaborate creeping barrages to support the infantry because no one knew how long it would take them to advance through the slop. “The gunners relied on close liaison between artillery observers and attacking troops and hoped they would be flexible enough to make whatever modifications changing conditions required.” Manhandling ammunition in quantity through the mire was another concern, and even firing guns located in mudpits required the gunners to dig out the field pieces after each shot and re-lay the gun.(43)
The misery of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, was forced on the British armies in France by often misunderstood mutiny in the French Army (most of the mutinous conduct happened behind the lines and did not involve widespread abandonment of front line trenches) and surrender on the Eastern Front freeing German troops for the West. The declaration of war by the United States was welcome, but material aid was not available in strength until early 1918, meaning that the British Army was forced to take offensive action in the autumn of 1917. As impressive as Messines and Vimy had been, the momentum was lost in the mud of Ypres despite the continuing development of artillery, infantry and other technology and tactics. The battles at Passchendaele began in July and lasted into November. Remembered in some quarters as purposeless bloodshed, the British Army (including the Canadian Corps) managed to maul some 88 divisions - more than half of the total number of enemy divisions on the entire Western Front. For the Germans
Their butcher's bill was enormous, far higher than that of the British, and it was this savaging, coupled with the knowledge that the American army was coming on stream, that persuaded Ludendorff to chance all on the 'Kaiser's offensive' of 1918 - a decision that cost Germany the war.(44)
While the infantry had improved their tactics to a theoretical maximum limit of efficiency:
In 1918, gunners were still learning. For three years, attacks had literally bogged down in ground churned to a morass by long bombardments. Scientific gunners insisted that shells could hit targets if officers took technique seriously. By 1918, guns could be calibrated by shooting through a canvas screen. Six times a day “Meteor” reports gave wind direction and velocity and temperatures at set altitudes, data needed for ballistic science. Maps were good enough to plot a target, without even a preliminary registration.(45)
Those engaged in the less scientific aspects of gunnery - the common gun numbers who simply manned the weapons - had much asked of them.
The artillerymen worked very hard, as manning the guns became a twenty-four hour task. Unlike the infantry, whose soldiers were regularly rotated out of the line, a division's guns remained in position as long as any part of that division was in the line, and manpower had to be increased to ensure that there were always crews ready and able to man the guns. Even when a whole division was taken out of the line, the guns were often left in action before being sent off to rejoin their parent division days or weeks later.(46)
Canadian gunners, like their British counterparts, had also increased in number by the last year of the war. In their first year in the trenches, Canadian units had 6.3 guns for every 1,000 infantrymen; by early 1918 that number had doubled.
The Final Months
In the last months of the war, the Canadians continued to perfect their craft, incorporating tanks and aircraft into the artillery-infantry team. The Germans, for their part, began to defend in greater depth, and so lengthy preliminary bombardments became wasteful. The field batteries continued their role of protecting the infantry as they moved forward during full-scale attacks, as well as harassment of the enemy, firing on both his front lines and his rear areas. The beginning of the end for the German Army began with the Battle of Amiens in early August 1918, marking the start of The Hundred Days. Artillery observers, usually battery commanders, went forward with the infantry to ensure that fire support was called down swiftly when necessary. By 1918, artillery patrols were also an important feature; as the infantry advanced, new locations for batteries were scouted so as to not waste time when the guns were brought up in the wake of an advance. By Amiens, they were ordered to move as soon as the front was outside their range. At Amiens, smoke screens fired by the artillery proved effective, and the program of counter-battery fire so successful at Vimy was continued.(47)
Even the successful actions of the Hundred Days were costly - From 8 to 20 August, Amiens cost the Canadians 11,725 killed, wounded and missing. Other battles followed at Scarpe, the Drocourt-Quéant line, Cambrai and the Pursuit to Mons with a return to open warfare where “it had become obvious that artillery had a major role to play in the new style of fighting.” When the battlefront widened, Canadian gunners used “relay barrages” to keep up fire support while simultaneously moving batteries forward into conquered ground. Artillery was now being used to silence individual machine gun and anti-tank gun positions.(48)
Sir Douglas Haig described the Hundred Days, between 8 August and 11 November 1918, as the last round of a long contest in which the British Army gained a technical knock out...(but) after the war writers and politicians...emphasized the grinding misery of the earlier years and remained silent about the Hundred Days...Yet the British Army suffered over 110,000 casualties in the victorious fighting on the active fronts in August 1918, whereas they lost under 70,000 in the notorious Ypres fighting in August 1917. Clearly, then, it cannot be that there were fewer casualties in the fighting of the Hundred Days that is memorable. Quite the contrary. Rather it is that in suffering them the (Commonwealth armies) won the war; and, more important, that they won it in a style that presaged the future, not by attacking 'in the same old way.'(49)
The artillery had consequently acquired for itself a reputation as being a war-winning arm in 1918 - or should have. The British Army tended to view the First World War as an infantryman's war to which the artillery had simply lent assistance. The battles of 1918 had demonstrated a need to evolve a common tactical doctrine for all arms - tanks, artillery, infantry, and the use of tactical aircraft. The Commonwealth armies failed to do this by 1939. “In truth, the Army directors did not look further than the infantry to determine the meaning of the Hundred Days. They accepted the infantry ordinance that the principles of 1914 had triumphed and that the infantry of 1914 ought to be restored speedily. All other Arms were auxiliaries, as they had been then."(50)
Depiction in Games: For the longest time, there were only two tactical combat games dealing with the First World War that I'm aware of; Soldiers by SPI, produced in 1972 that dealt with company-level fighting in the 1914-1915 era that does a good job of capturing the flavour of the doctrine of the time, and Trenchfoot by GDW, which was about as serious a game as the name implies, being a man-to-man offering of trench warfare and easily discounted as having anything significant to say about the portrayal of artillery. Other game systems are slowly coming to market, such as Landships, though the rules open by noting that the game depicts "the tactical prowess of the early tanks and other innovative weapons" of the Great War during its "more interesting periods", i.e. 1916-1918. Certainly, this period marked the zenith of the artillery, and there are a number of rules for Forward Observers, "drumfire barrages" and other type attacks in Landships.
Artillery in action in September 1917. Light, fast, mobile batteries were no longer needed so much as heavy siege batteries with long range and accuracy. Library and Archives Canada photo.
Second World War
There were major reorganizations to British artillery by 1939. Where in the 1914-18 war, battery commanders (a battery was by now an eight-gun sub-unit consisting of two four-gun troops) were also forward observers, the troop commanders in the 1939 war acted as Forward Observation Officers (FOO) or alternately as Observation Post Officers (OPO) in static positions. The difference between a British FOO and an American Forward Observer (FO) was that the British officer was usually a captain where his U.S. Army counterpart was often a junior lieutenant. The British FOO would order fire missions, particularly from his own battery, while the American would "request" fire.
The British developed the "Parham" system during the war:
...Brigadier H.J. Parham...began to look for a better and quicker method of engaging targets. Parham decided that, in mobile warfare, pinpoint accuracy would be hard to attain and, in any case, it was not really necessary – the same result could be obtained by simply drenching the area of the target with fire. It was his feeling that “the shock of a large number of rounds arriving simultaneously was far greater than that of a prolonged bombardment” and his solution was “to fire every gun that could bear as soon as it could be laid and loaded.”
The key to the Parham system was an efficient communications system based on radio. The gun positions would be fed target information from static OP (Observation Point) officers or mobile FOOs (Forward Observation Officers), located with the forward troops, or AOP (Air Observation Post) aircraft. Connected by radio with their regiments and batteries, these relatively junior officers would identify the target, give its approximate location (often based on a six-digit map reference) and could order a level of fire (that is, the number of guns to be used and rounds to be fired). This information was sent to the GPOs (Gun Position Officers) of each battery who would direct the guns under his command to fire on that target. A troop of four guns was generally the smallest fire unit used in the Parham system and a battery of two troops, or eight guns, was the most common. Parham developed a method which, if the situation warranted, could very quickly bring down heavy fire on the enemy. An observation officer, if authorized, could call for a “Mike,” “Uncle,” “Victor,” or “Yoke” target. A “Mike Target” – the one most commonly used – would be engaged by the 24 guns in a field regiment; an “Uncle Target” by the 72 guns in the three field regiments of an infantry division; a “Victor Target” by all the guns in a corps, as many as 250 weapons; while a “Yoke Target” would receive the fire of every gun within range which, during the last years of the war, meant that it might be fired at by upwards of as many as 500 weapons.
The Parham system began to be introduced in the Royal Artillery in late 1942 and in the Royal Canadian Artillery in 1943. (51)
Mechanization had allowed artillery to move and redeploy quickly, making accurate survey (the calculation of each gun's position) even more important. Coupled with new methods of silent registration between the wars, artillery procedure had come a long way from firing over open sights Napoleonic-style.
(After the First World War) and (in) the absence of any indication of where the next war might be, the large-scale map could no longer be relied on (for survey). In 1925, attention was drawn to the importance of “silent registration” - with the aid of a rangefinder, a director and an artillery board - as a means of locating possible target areas where no large-scale map was available. At the same time a campaign was started for the popularization of survey methods and the extermination of the belief that survey itself was a “black art.” In 1929 the regimental surveyor became a recognized part of the unit establishment, and a simple drill was worked out for the application of artillery survey to really mobile operations. The first step in this process was to be a combination of registration by shooting, registration by instruments, and such rough survey as was possible at the O.Ps. of batteries already in action. Starting from this foundation, a complete survey system would gradually be built up with the help of regimental survey parties, the R.A. survey company, and the field survey companies, R.E. To speed up the development of the specialist superstructure, arrangements were made in 1937 for small observation parties from the R.A. survey company to accompany the leading artillery regiments in an advance.(52)
During the Second World War, entire field regiments (24 guns) could get surveyed, or accurately oriented, with great speed, and by collecting data from surveyors at the divisional level or corps level, guns could be firing on the "theatre grid" as part of a division, corps, or army level shoot.
“Grid” refers to the numbered grid lines overprinted on the large-scale military maps by which the position of each troop pivot gun (the right-hand gun of four) can be spelled out in eight-figure coordinates and plotted on the gridded paper of its own troops artillery board, allowing ranges between guns and targets, and switches from a zero line, to be measured and read off by command-post staffs for application to the guns. Getting the guns on “regimental grid” - establishing the position on the face of the planet of each “pivot gun” by using triangulation on distant identifiable aiming points such as church steeples - is carried out by the Regimental Survey Party. At the same time they ensure the guns are parallel on the zero line (a grid bearing, pointing along the axis of advance) by passing a reverse bearing from their director (survey instrument) to each troop director. Divisional Grid arrives later with more accurate survey data to be applied to the guns (in the case of the bearing on which they are laid) and to artillery boards where pivot-gun plots have to be adjusted. Finally the ultimate in survey data accuracy, starting from bronze “benchmarks” imbedded in rock, is brought forward across hill and dale by “chaining” and directors laid and relaid on survey flags. This establishes “theatre grid,” ensuring all guns in all regiments...are accurately oriented with each other, so that any unit can join in a fireplan, or defensive fire, on any front within their range. (53)
The artillery board in action; Canadian artillerymen in Italy plan the assault on the Gothic Line at the end of August 1944. Effective artillery support relied on efficient communications and good survey work. As it had been during the First World War, the artillery would be a highly scientific arm during the Second - and a vital component of the all-arms team. Public Archives of Canada Photo
The artillery board, as described in Where the Hell are the Guns?:
“When the pivot gun is plotted in the appropriate grid square, and the zero line is drawn from it along the designated bearing, a brass pivot is pinned over the pivot-gun dot and a steel “arm” (to measure the range in yards to targets) is placed on this pivot. Now a steel “arc” (engraved with degrees and minutes) is centred over the zero line and thumbtacked down at the extremity of its companion “arm” allowing switches from zero line, as well as ranges between gun and target, to be read off quickly when targets are plotted in appropriate grid squares on the board to an initial accuracy of 100 yards where only six-figure map references are possible, but to 25 yards when eight-figure coordinates are supplied for the target.
Portrayal in Games: Indirect artillery in video and board games has generally been a mix of "offboard" and "onboard" types, quite diverse in their modelling, but given the ability of artillery to unbalance a scenario - the real thing accounted for 75% or more of all casualties - its a hard thing to get right. Complex fireplans, as the British developed at the end of the First World War, with creeping barrages, standing barrages, etc., and carried into the Second World War (they were used again to great effect in the Western Desert, for example, and in major attacks from Italy to Normandy to Germany), haven't really been modelled well in many games, though Advanced Squad Leader with its love for arcane detail seems to have been the one to have done the most with this. Ironically, though, the basic artillery model in ASL seems to be a blend of all the nationalities, with the "artillery request" and response times being an amalgam of different procedures from different militaries.
My Question To You: As with the article on Machine Guns, I'll attach a Geeklist (here) and see how many different games/game systems there are that have tried to model some of this history.
1.Love,W. David A Call to Arms: The Organization and Administration of Canada's Military in World War One (Bunker to Bunker Books, Calgary, AB, 1999) p.155
2.(Rawling, Bill Surviving Trench Warfare: Technology and the Canadian Corps, 1914-1918 (University of Toronto Press, Toronto, ON, 1992) p.15)
3.Rawling, p. 23
4.Duquemin, Colin Stick to the Guns: A Short History of the 10th Field Battery, Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery, St. Catharine's Ontario (Norman Enterprises, St. Catharine's, ON, 1996) ISBN 0-9698994-2-4 p.23
6.Rawling, Ibid, p.27
13.Corrigan, Gordon Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the First World War (Cassell Military Paperbacks, London, UK, 2003) ISBN 0-304-36659-5, p.116
16.From “Training of Divisions for Offensive Action”, issued by Haig on 8 May 1916. Quoted in Rawlings.
17.Middlebrook, Martin. The First Day on the Somme (Penguin Books, London, UK, 1984) ISBN 0-14-017134-7
19.Rawlings, Ibid, pp.69-70
22.Berton, Pierre. Vimy (Penguin Books Canada, Markham, ON, 1987) ISBN 0-14-010439-9 p.164
23.Rawlings, Ibid, p.71
24.Morton, Ibid, p.131
25.Rawlings, Ibid, p.94
26.Morton, Ibid, p.151
28.Rawling, Ibid, p.77
29.Berton, Ibid, p.108
33.Morton, Ibid, p.168
35.Berton, Ibid, p.242
36.Rawlings, Ibid, p.108
39.Nicholson, G.W.L. The Gunners of Canada: The History of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery Volume II 1919-1967 (Royal Canadian Artillery Association, 1972) Volume I, pp.285-286
40.Rawlings, Ibid, p.132
42.Morton, Ibid, p.169
44.Corrigan, Ibid, pp.338-355
45.Morton, Ibid, pp.171-174
46.Corrigan, Ibid, p.127
47.Rawlings, Ibid, pp.190-197
49.Bidwell, Shelford and Dominick Graham Firepower: British Army Weapons and Theories of War 1904-1945 (Pen & Sword Military Classics, Barnsley, UK, 2004) ISBN 1-84415-216-2 pp.132-133
51. Graves, Donald E. Century of Service: The History of the South Alberta Light Horse (Robin Brass Studio Inc., 2005) p.216
52. The Development of Artillery Tactics and Equipment - 1951 (War Office Publication) pp.4-5
53. Blackburn, George The Guns of Normandy (McClelland & Stewart Inc., Toronton, ON, 1997) P.265
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
We have got
The Maxim Gun
And they have not
Having not been impressed by my viewing of the film Passchendaele, I am struck by how often the Machine Gun is pressed into service by motion picture screenplay writers, directors, and producers, but how little the role of the MG is understood by those in the entertainment industry. Have tactical wargame designers done any better at understanding or portraying them?
What the MG is not - the Machine Gun in the Movies
Hiram Maxim's machine is not something you stick in a corner of the battlefield and wait for a heroic band of 4 or 8 guys to blunder into. Generally speaking, it's supposed to be something you set up to guard something. That can be an open flank, or it can be an approach route, or a gap in your barbed wire. It can be a supply route or withdrawal lane, and you can set them up to fire indirectly. You employ them best when they fire at greater than point blank range - one of their advantages, to, say, a pistol or a rifle, and in interlocking arcs of fire, using a high rate of fire. So employed, they can mow down a great number of men, or deny them passage. Hollywood films like Legends of the Fall, Saving Private Ryan, and now Passchendaele think that machine guns are simply dropped off at random with 3 or 4 man gun crews, in isolation, and left there to hunt single men or other groups of men - and by "hunt" I mean sit there stupidly with an 80 pound gun and tripod and big metal cans of ammo and wait to be found, sitting behind un-camouflaged sandbags.
Machine Gun in Passchendaele. Still image taken from the official movie site. Passchendaele was the most expensive Canadian movie ever made, with a budget of 20 million dollars. The MG08 behind the stereotypical sandbag bunker was the centre-piece of the film's opening scene.
And of course, the heroes of the story find the MG, and destroy it, but not before losing one or two men, which is the point of the attack and finding the MG in the first place. In the comic books, by the way, Sgt. Rock went through this routine about every other issue.
And despite the fact these machine guns are always dropped off in the middle of nowhere, backed up into hard cover with no escape for the gun crews, our heroes (tactical geniuses, all) find themselves with no alternative but to mount a frontal assault. The true purpose of the attack, of course, is to get a disposable character in the script killed off and provide a plot point. Any sensible squad leader would simply have flanked the MG in Saving Private Ryan and attacked from the top of the hill, using the radar station as hard cover. There were no other Germans for miles around - that is made obvious by the fact our hero has time for a crying scene, a Mexican stand-off between his platoon sergeant and one of his men, and a lengthy burial of the dead, during which no other Germans intervene.
The tactical situation in Passchendaele is more mystifying; the rationale for attacking the gun is even less clear than Captain Miller's - though the book suggests that he is at this point in the war into his third year of service and less than mentally stable. The movie is brave to approach this subject and in many ways does it well; unfortunately, as good as the speeches are about nightmares and guilt, the movie falls apart in the depictions of combat and the clichéd frontal assault on the machine gun (and the use of the term "gun nest") don't do much to add to the pantheon of realistic movie moments. Far better was Robert Blake's assault on Pork Chop Hill (shown below) when he misses a Chinese MG bunker with a grenade - from two feet away - and nearly blows his own arm off. But Pork Chop Hill was more text book than movie. In fact, the screenplay was actually written from one of U.S. Army historian S.L.A. Marshall's texts, and such a film would not be commercially successful today if anyone was crazy enough to try selling it to Hollywood.
What the Machine Gun Is - A Brief History
Automatic firearms date back to the early 1700s, and the first military applications were for naval use. By the time of the American Civil War in 1861, the famous Gatling Gun was in limited use - a hand cranked repeating gun used by land forces as light artillery. In 1881, the Maxim Gun was invented, becoming the first true machine gun - a relatively light, man portable, crew served weapon firing rifle cartridges at a rapid rate of fire. In 1914, they began to shape modern tactics as armies in western Europe sought to maneuver for victory during the German invasion of Belgium and France. Cavalry, infantry and massed artillery - still employed directly in the firing line in many cases - were still operating as they had in the previous century, deploying in thick skirmish lines with the company of 100 to 200 men as the basic maneuver element of the infantry. The British expressed reluctance to introduce great numbers of machine guns, as there was an official fear that it would "unbalance" the delicate firepower organization of the infantry battalion - whatever that meant. Possibly it was a reference to the fact that a great number of men (and animals) were tasked to supporting the guns, for they were heavy, and supplying them with ammunition was a logistical burden that the battalions themselves had to bear to keep them firing.
Scottish troops with a Maxim Gun early in the First World War.
The Germans were not so reluctant, and fielded greater numbers of the weapons. During the Race to the Sea - that period in which the Allies and their enemies both sought an open flank - it became increasingly clear that the defensive would be favoured in this war. Massed riflemen stopped major German attacks at the Marne and at Mons. The grappling armies never found their opponent's open flank and battle lines soon stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel - after which the armies went underground, building first shallow ditches, and soon a system of trenches, dugouts and saps from which they would besiege each other for four years. They wired themselves in and began to deploy new weapons in a technological race to break the deadlock - poison gas (Ypres, 1915), flamethrowers (Hooge, 1915) and tanks (Courcelette, 1916) were among them, but the deadlock was brought about to begin with by the Machine Gun, which made crossing No Man's Land a dangerous experience.
What the Machine Gun Does - How It Works
The Canadians arguably did more with their machine guns than anyone else on the Western Front. They didn't just issue them to infantry battalions, they eventually created an entire combatant corps around them, and if that wasn't enough, they created additional units outside the corps, mounted them on wheels, and protected them with steel plate. At Vimy Ridge, they were used as indirect fire weapons and fired on fixed lines, raining lead down on German reinforcement routes from over hilltops, and the Canadians even planned to use their new armoured cars as breakthrough weapons, replacing the cavalry and beating the Germans to what an Allied newspaper man would call Blitzkrieg in 1939 - Lightning War. It had been a long struggle to get there; in 1915, MGs were allocated just four per battalion, and the Canadians were using unreliable American-made "potato-diggers", as the Colts were known. The British had gone to France with two guns per battalion, and the Germans had six. The Canadian Colts jammed almost as frequently as their Ross rifles, though some battalions used them into 1917, by which time they had been replaced officially with the Lewis, and a new type of gun - the Light Machine Gun - had entered the arsenal, hand in hand with a new concept in military organization: the infantry squad.
Canadian Colt MG crew (Library and Archives Canada photo)
What advantages did the MG have on the Western Front? Rate of fire is the obvious one; the Vickers which eventually came to equip British and Canadian MG units (and remained on inventory into the 1960s virtually unchanged) could fire 450 to 600 rounds per minute, and if equipped with a clean supply of ammunition and enough water to cool the barrel, could fire indefinitely with little problem. It was well made, reliable, and well liked. But it didn't just fire a lot of bullets; it could fire out to 800 yards in a direct fire role.
The basic unit of maneuver in 1914 was the infantry company of 100-200 men; they moved as blocks of soldiery, tasked with common objectives, and while platoons existed nominally, they were for organizational purposes - as a way of feeding or billeting them. To do battle, they lined up in waves and marched not unlike the armies in the Crimea, or at Gettysburg, or under Wellington. Unfortunately, the machine gun made it clear in short order why this was no longer a good idea.
Massed riflemen could still operate effectively - the British proved it at Mons, where the pre-war Regulars, trained in marksmanship and rapid fire on their bolt action rifles turned back German assault troops. The machine gun was a "force multiplier" however, and where one machine gun is good in helping stop such a charge, the MG is really a "support weapon." It doesn't exist to do the job of an infantry company, it supports the infantry. Therefore, multiple machine guns are better than one, and the idea is to create interlocking arcs of fire: to support not just the riflemen, but other machine guns as well, creating ground over which the enemy cannot pass. It does this best set up outside the normal effective battle range of the enemy's rifles - 200 yards or so - and if he can deliver his fire while covered from the enemy's artillery, even better. At Passchendaele in 1917, firing from concrete bunkers and good field works, the Germans were able to make Allied gains costly indeed using machine guns and artillery to good advantage.
Bill Rawling, in his book "Surviving Trench Warfare" (University of Toronto Press, 1992) says the following:
Open formations, however, could be defeated by a very unsophisticated technology - barbed wire. Artillery was short of ammunition (early in the war) and lacked a shell fuse sensitive enough to explode within the barrier, and the latter remained essentially untouched, forcing troops to pick their way through clinging, piercing metal as best they could. Caught on the wire, soldiers became targets for machine-gunners, who could not fail to miss men immobilized by the obstacle.
The more subtle lesson here is that machine guns are best employed in conjunction with other weapons; the barbed wire could be used to channel the advance of infantry into killing grounds, created by gaps in the wire, or when enough wire barred the way, effectively slow the advance that the machine guns' effectiveness was increased.
The MG could also be used as a form of artillery, fired not directly at a known target but into the air, with bullets looped on an arcing trajectory to fire over obstacles, using "plunging fire" to descend on the enemy's rear, interdicting trenches and roads and routes of supply, retreat, reinforcement.
The Light Machine Gun
Ironically, one of the solutions to the Machine Gun was another Machine Gun, at least partially. The other solutions to the deadlock of No Man's Land had their disadvantages - poison gas was an abject failure once the initial shock wore off and protective equipment was developed, and relatively few men died because of it, popular culture to the contrary. Flame weapons inspired fear but were not available in large numbers. The tank was mechanically unreliable and expensive to produce. Artillery was being perfected into a truly scientific arm, particularly by Commonwealth troops (at Vimy Ridge, the majority of German batteries had been located and silenced in the days preceding Zero Hour by Allied counter-battery work) but its ability to win battles on its own was negligible.
As discussed in this article on the development of the infantry squad, small units began to develop from early in the war. By 1917, the British were fielding the Lewis Gun in infantry platoons - a smaller, man portable automatic weapon that could deliver firepower in support of infantrymen moving in small bunches, either firing their rifles, using grenades (hand-thrown Mills bombs or firing rifle grenades), or even bayonets (or more exotic hand-to-hand weapons such as knob-kerries) but above all, maneuvering in close under the weight of fire of the Lewis, with its multi-man crew lugging panniers of ammo. The French and Americans would introduce LMGs/automatic rifles late in the war also, and the Germans experimented with the LMG too, as well as with sub-machine guns, an even more portable weapon firing pistol ammunition - larger bullets with shorter range for true close quarters combat. The best way for infantry to defeat the enemy was to seek him out, in small numbers, and then defeat him locally with overwhelming firepower - using artillery where possible, and the light machine gun. The pattern established in 1917-1918 would remain unchanged in its basic elemental concept to the present day, though individual firepower increased with the creation of the assault rifle during the Second World War and the dissemination of either semi-automatic or fully-automatic battle rifles after 1945.
The Lewis LMG.
But the Machine Gun is still there; it is now known as a GPMG, or General Purpose Machine Gun, the first such true GPMG being the German MG34 and MG42 of the Second World War, so known because it could operate as a light machine gun right in an infantry squad, fitted with a bipod and an assault drum, operated by a single gunner and carried into an attack on an enemy position - or it could be fitted to a tripod, equipped with telescopic sights, given a virtually unlimited supply of linked ammunition, and set to fire on fixed lines, even by remote control, at the touch of a remote trigger, to produce grazing fire along an axis of advance or down a pre-set fire lane to deny an avenue of approach to an enemy, the MG 42 firing up to a mind-numbing 1200 rounds per minute - 20 bullets a second!
These technological marvels are often the key to a company fighting position. They are generally organized into a separate weapons company within a battalion, or perhaps a separate weapons platoon within a company. The British and Canadians pooled them at the Divisional level in the Second World War. Wherever they were kept, the troops knew how important they were - and they were assigned to units and sub-units in recognition of their important role rather than simply cast adrift in the wilderness, as the movies would have you believe.
Exceptions - Movie Silliness in Reality and in Wargames
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes, movie silliness is based on reality. That scene in Saving Private Ryan where Miller is throwing 60mm mortar rounds? It was based on the story of Technical Sergeant Beauford T "Andy" Anderson, a Medal of Honor recipient who performed the same deed on Okinawa. Not a bad scene, but freeze frame it and ask yourself why he didn't just use the grenades the prop guy stuck on his web belt instead. Or why the director chose to emulate such a rare event. Medals of Honor are generally given for the uncommon rather than the common. SPR also depicted a blind charge by armour down a narrow corridor into the teeth of Allied infantry resulting in a costly defeat. Critics have pointed at this and said "would never happen." But - never say "never" because strange things happen on battlefields, and at Arnhem, just such a charge occurred. SS-Hauptsturmführer Viktor Graebner mounted an armoured attack over the bridge over the Rhine - as narrow a corridor as the street in Ramelle - and paid the ultimate price for his aggressiveness. The charge was shot to pieces on the northern ramp by the British paratroopers ensconced in buildings at the far end. The charge is depicted in the Advanced Squad Leader module named A Bridge Too Far, and the action can be reasonably simulated in other tactical games.
The aftermath of Graebner's charge; at the top of the image are wrecked German vehicles littering the north ramp of the Arnhem bridge.
The hand-thrown mortar rounds, on the other hand, probably come under the heading of "chrome". Chrome is that grand old term from the old days of wargaming, referring to rules added for historical flavour or to capture individual peculiarity. Coming from the shiny metallic trim once applied to automobiles, the word suggests something eye-catching but having no real practical value.
Chrome sets the old board games apart from the new generation of computer games only in that paper games can be modified at will, restricted in large part only by the imagination of the user. A sophisticated fan base and increasingly open-ended games are changing this. Panzer Command allows for modification of the game's unit data, for example, and for those with the skills to do so, a game like Operation Flashpoint allows almost unrestricted ability to add not only 3D models but scripts and routines to power all sorts of (unofficial) additions to the game.
So this brings us back to that machine gun in the church. Could it have reasonably happened? Never say never, but once you overload your movie with stretches of tactical logic, you've lost the verisimilitude you need to connect with a knowledgeable audience.
The Machine Gun in Tactical Wargames
There are few tactical games dealing with First World War combat; Soldiers and Trenchfoot coming most readily to mind and both date back several decades; newer titles like Landships fight for audiences among the crowd. It is probably more useful to examine all of tactical gaming as a whole (and by tactical gaming, as always, I refer to commercial, board and video wargames dealing with "modern" land combat as my area of focus, a narrow field I make no apologies for restricting my gaze to - and especially not with this subject in mind). We can trace the evolution of the depiction of the MG in tactical wargames, as the problem of how to accurately portray the unique characteristics of the Machine Gun, and the advantages it brought to the battlefield (and the disadvantages inherent in the weapon) are illuminating.
Did You Say Disadvantages?
The first machine gun sections in British and Canadian service in 1914 were composed largely of ammunition bearers. In 1917, even the Light Machine Gun section required several ammo bearers to carry the heavy panniers for the Lewis to keep the gun in action. By 1939, though, LMGs were integrated directly into rifle squads, often firing the same ammunition as the battle rifles carried by the bulk of men in the infantry companies, and few tactical games portray in-battle logistics.
The larger MGs, however, are a different story. Squad Leader created a fairly elegant system of "portage points" for the various weapons and equipment types that an infantry squad might be expected to carry into battle, which factored in the weight of ammunition, tripod, and accessories for the MGs. The expansion "gamettes" created "dismantled" status, which reduced the portage load on infantry, imagining the guns broken down into component parts. When SL was replaced by Advanced Squad Leader, they recognized that the German GPMG, when removed from its tripod, was still a serviceable LMG and allowed it to be fired as a weapon - a nice bow to reality that some might call chrome, though all the information one needed was right on the counter and it required no special or complicated rules.
Logistics reared their ugly head in the development stream of Combat Mission; specifically, the question of whether or not units equipped with heavy machine guns should be permitted to use a fast movement command. "Running" with an HMG became a bone of contention. Equally contentious was the question of whether or not British and Canadian troops ever actually used the tripod for the Bren Light Machine Gun. Sometimes, the research isn't the hard part and neither is the implementation; the hard part is the point of decision in between the two.
Other Myths and Movies
Readers may remember that "silly" scene in the Carentan episode of Band of Brothers, where the Sherman tank commander is riding into battle blasting away with the .50 while standing on the back of his tank. In actuality, it wasn't silly. In fact, standing on the back of the certain models of the Sherman tank was the only way you could fire the .50 at ground troops. There is a misconception that the Browning gun on the turret of the Sherman was there for close protection. It wasn't; it was an anti-aircraft weapon. You had to exit the turret, depending on the mount, in order to use it. Canadian Sherman tanks rarely kept the Browning in 1944-45; in fact, the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade specifically ordered the guns removed. One source suggests that Brigade headquarters expressed concern that tank commanders would be exposed to hostile aircraft by so doing; the risk of exposure in dismounting the turret to use the gun was considered too great.
Sherman tank in France. The tank commander has dismounted to use the .50 on enemy infantry across a river. (US Army photo)
The AA MG on the Sherman has been contentious in both board and PC games. In ASL, it is a weapon of great power, but there are no special rules depicting the hazards in using it against troops beyond the normal "crew exposed" rules that cover all exposed tank commanders. A Canadian tank commander, trained to expose just the top of his head above the rim of the turret, is given the same advantages of vision and cover as an American tank commander blazing away with the turret Browning, which we know had to be done from outside the turret altogether in certain instances.
In Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, the AA MG on the Sherman was similarly quite potent and often could be found knocking out enemy armoured vehicles before the main gun. The ballistics are consistent with real life - the .50 round was a potent one and punching through the thin rear armour of a Hetzer or any of the armour on a Sd Kfz 251 halftrack would not have been a problem - but doctrinally it would have been unlikely for a tank commander to leap out and blaze away with the MG rather than "button up" and let the main gun do the work of the tank. The abstract nature of the game's mechanics worked against the realistic portrayal of this doctrine.
My Final Word
While modern combat appears to have changed a lot since 1917, many aspects of it have not; the employment of machine guns is probably one of those things that has stayed relatively constant, at least in principle. While infantry are performing many more different tasks on the battlefield in the modern "Three Block War" environment, when it comes time to employ the Machine Gun in full-intensity conflict, an infantry unit will still use the principles pioneered for it in the trenches, and later developed in the Second World War. Game designers have struggled with how best to capture the effects of this unique weapons system. Film makers have been quick to capitalize on the reputation the MG has gained as a leading causality factor in the infliction of casualties, second only to artillery, even if the depiction of the MG on film has been more sensationalistic than real.
My Question To You
We can examine the MG through this GeekList, but which game do you think has presented an interpretation of the Machine Gun in modern battle that seems to be the closest to being accurate? Is it possible that, like artillery, getting it too close to accurate would simply be a game-killer?
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
The self-publishing revolution has had tremendous impacts on the wargaming “industry”, if one wants to refer to the hobby with that term. In 1997, the editor of The General noted the growing rise of Desk Top Publishers (DTP) and had the following to say:
So what if DTP games are skimming sales from a fixed layer of existing consumer demand? Is this so bad? ...This is where the issue of the traditional game company comes back to us front and center. The boardgame company doesn't simply print and ship a paper product. Production isn't really limited by a lack of designs. For the most part, the boardgame company is selling the “finish.” By that I don't mean chrome or unnecessary details, polish and packaging. I mean that the traditional boardgame company sells you a finished product which it believes cannot be affordably improved. It is selling the development work and the artistic and functional rendering of the design. God knows I could create an ASL scenario in less than an hour. Would it be publishable within the standards of the ASL gaming community? Absolutely not. The ASL players have come to expect their scenarios to meet certain criteria that revolve around historical accuracy, playability and competitive play balance (let's applaud MMP for all that they do to keep up the quality of ASL products).
For fans of the ASL game system, the third party publishers (as MMP was at the time the above was written) who were pushing out those ASL scenarios were seen as saviors, rescuing their favourite game system from oblivion. The point Tucker was making, however, was that large companies like Avalon Hill had the resources to do it all – playtest, design, research, yes, but also put the physical refinements into the finished product that desktop publishers could not. (Avalon Hill was also leagues ahead of other mainstream publishers in having its own printing services on-call, being a subsidiary of Monarch Avalon.) At the time he was writing (1997), dot-matrix and tractor-feed printers were still in common use, and storage of data was done on floppy discs. There was no widespread internet access to acquire images or research data.
The situation today is a trade-off; researchers can quickly glean information on obscure battles to create tactical scenarios for their favourite game, and even recreate reasonable facsimiles of the terrain using modern mapping tools like GoogleEarth. What has been surrendered, however, is a tangible decline in physical quality and a lowering of professional standards in such things as periodicals and graphic design elements of physical components of games. Classic graphic designers such as Rodger MacGowan and Redmond Simonsen, whose work was ubiquitous throughout the industry (at a time when that appellation truly applied), set high standards for others to maintain, and the inability of others to measure up was always made obvious by direct comparisons to the current state of the art.
The falling off of the current state of the art has been such a gradual process, perhaps the change has been imperceptible, or perhaps even it is something gamers are willing to accept in the understanding that a niche hobby is fighting a battle for existence against a growing number of other pastimes and distractions. Simply put, there are other battles to fight. It was not hard for a bookcase-style box stuffed with photo-realistic, hard-mounted geomorphic maps to compete for the hobby dollars of teenage boys in the 1970s, since their dads or uncles or granddads may very well have been Second World War veterans, the war was still immediate thanks to countless prime time TV depictions and comic book heroes still fighting the war, and the number of ways to refight the battles were few, with video games just a gleam in the eye of the guy about to invent “Pong.” Spending more money on quality wasn’t a hardship.
Today, however, editors and publishers have either forgotten how to put together products with elegance and sense of design, or lack the will to do so. A look at some contemporary products will illustrate what is meant.
Fire & Movement
This is a sample page from one of the last issues of F&M magazine; this old industry standard began in 1976 under the stewardship of graphic design artist Rodger MacGowan, who has long since headed for greener pastures with GMT and his own magazine c3i. What may pass unnoticed to most stands out like a sore thumb to those in the know; note the tiny margins on the page (the printing goes almost the very edges of the paper), and the poor quality of the photos. Rare industry standards like The General came out on a fairly rigorous schedule and actually adhered to them; lesser lights like Grenadier tried to come out as regularly as possible but could at least be counted on to produce ‘x’ number of issues in the span of a year. More recent magazines like Operations or F&M were less apologetic about being printed haphazardly, and the editors – often not full time employees – cite real world concerns beyond their control as an excuse for missed deadlines – or no deadlines at all.
Operations Special Edition #2
This blog posting was originally written in September 2009; the Operations Special Editions were fairly new. In the interim, it has been announced that the experiment was a success - and Operations was being dropped in favour of a new magazine called (tentatively) "Special Ops." The Special Editions seemed to have been a success - enough to encourage MMP to produce them regularly, in place of Operations. If one searches, one can find evidence of the deteriorating standards of quality in the issues, small but noticeable things like low-resolution graphics being used in several images, with large pixelation in the translation to print – a very large problem in today’s desktop-to-doorstop publishing world.
As a self-publisher, it's hard to complain too loudly about this in good conscience, having been guilty of similar transgressions. But isn't there supposed to be a difference between the pros and the amateurs? Better yet, shouldn't everyone be endeavouring to do better?
In short – it’s all too easy in this day and age to throw something together, publish it, and have others purchase it - whether you work in your basement or own a game company. With desktop publishing tools, print-on-demand services, online payment services, and direct-to-download marketing, you could theoretically decide to create a book at the breakfast table and have it in the hands of a paying audience that afternoon. But as Stuart Tucker might have asked – would it be any good?
Sometimes the community has no choice but to subsidize poorer physical quality; after decades of having hard-mounted mapboards as standard, ASL changed to thinner cardstock maps for its modules, for example. Many fans have applauded the decision as it permits easier storage of the maps in sheet protectors, and makes them more air-transportable for distance travel to far-off tournaments. Sometimes change is good. MMP, who took over ASL from Avalon Hill, no longer has access to on demand printing services and contracts out. They collate large print runs in-house, often with the help of local volunteers from the community, and have been known to worry publicly about warehouse space – a far cry from the glory years of AH who boasted at least two vibrant locations in Baltimore for playtesting (Read Street) and production (Harford Road). The quality of the maps has further been altered by the usage of computer-generated artwork rather than hand-painted art – there is no consensus on which is “better” but there is no denying that something unique has been lost.
Other times, the community does itself in. Using unique marketing on ebay and name recognition, Wild Bill Wilder racked up over $7000.00 in sales with his ASL variant modules in 2009. The physical quality varied from fair to poor. The counters were pre-cut (not die-cut) but sported good artwork and were probably the most attractive element of the modules. The scenario cards, oddly, did not feature the unique counter art (nor did they include vital information such as sniper activation number). The cover sheet of the module I purchased for review, Glory & Grief 2, had an obvious typo. The rules were poorly formatted, and the table of contents listed one method of pagination that was completely different from the actual pages, rendering it useless as a finding tool. There was no index. There were also no “Chapter H” notes explaining the vital statistics of the vehicle counters.
The artwork on the counters isn't so bad, but if you want to know the TO KILL numbers for an 82L RCL, your guess is as good as anyone's; this vital information wasn't included in the game's rules. Even "owndership" (sic) of the ASL Rulebook doesn't help out with that.
Where the community did itself no favours was in buying into the marketing plan – the items were offered up one at a time via online auction, while eager collectors routinely bid on the modules to prices well in excess of the cost of comparable products from other publishers; prices of over 300 dollars were not uncommon for modules that contained on average less than two dozen loosely-written pages of rules, fewer than ten scenarios (at least one based on a Hollywood movie rather than real life events), a couple hundred counters, and a pair of overlays.
Shouting to be Heard
There are, or course, small magazines that are matching and exceeding the established periodicals in terms of quality. The ASL community again yields examples; Le Franc Tireur comes most immediately to mind, having risen from an average fanzine to a first class magazine with world-class graphic design as well as cutting edge game variants. They released their first box-set ASL variant in 2009 and have promised more.
But without the hook of game pieces and mapboards, is there a “need” for periodicals? With the advent of the BBS and now blogs, internet forums and social networking, aren’t there enough ways to communicate online that paper communications are irrelevant? I would argue that here, too, community standards are easy to let slip. More is not always more. A site like boardgamegeek.com can be an enormous tool for finding lists of raw data and in communicating with others, but the noise-to-signal ratio of a poorly moderated chat room or mailing list or message board can make such a venture seem not worth the effort in the end. For a game company or publisher especially, more time can actually be spent in fighting malicious messages by dissatisfied consumers than in working constructively on product. A magazine slows down the rate of conversation and puts the control back in the hands of the publisher. Sober second thought is allowed to dominate the proceedings, even if exchanges take place between opposing sides in a debate. Witness the discussion between Hal Hock and John Hill/Don Greenwood over the direction of tactical games in the pages of The General in 1977 after Squad Leader made its debut, and Hock defended his technocrat’s vision of Tobruk against the more fanciful but popular SL.
The administrators of battlefront.com’s forum – in particular, their Combat Mission games – have apparently tired so much of the “noise” that they are sometimes accused of moderating in favour of “pro” postings only. It’s not that different than the editor of house organs of old picking and choosing with deliberation which letters they would print in their mail columns. Other forums, such as Matrix’s Panzer Command forums, have run the gamut from being over-run by disruptive posters, to becoming dead as doornails as ardor cooled post-release and enthusiasts found little to talk about.
My Final Word
The Do-It-Yourself community has brought down standards in all areas; that third parties who publish scenarios for favourite tactical games may have their own lower standards is obvious, but if they are rushing the mainstream publishers into getting “more product” onto market to compete, standards across the board are dropped. Community discussion, once directed if not controlled by the publishers, is now firmly in the hands of the consumer, who can create Do It Yourself sounding boards for opinions – fair or not.
My Question to You
Can there really be no need at all for quality printed magazines on board, miniature or computer games any more? If the answer is yes, what does that say about us? If the answer is no, are we doing enough to create them?
Update: I've updated the original posting and deleted it from its original home on another website, and will copy the one comment it generated there - he's a poster here, and can identify himself if he wishes:
One of the real problems with printing images, is that very few people are aware of what is needed to make them look good in print, and even fewer teachers in graphic design and art classes are aware of this, and teaching one of the most practical elements of the subject. I've seen way too many artists assume that a low dots-per-inch scan would be adequate for publishing at full size.
(By the way, for normal print mediums: 600 DPI for B/W, 400 for greyscale, and 300 for full color. Monitor resolutions are around 75 DPI, so if you're looking at 'actual pixels' in Photoshop, the image is only good for one quarter that size in print (assuming color).)
As far as printed magazines? I don't know. I admit I've gotten steadily choosier about magazines in general, and have gotten so I don't like having to manage a bunch of saddlestiched objects that are wider at one end than the other on my shelves. I like the idea of physical magazines, and don't care for on-line ones at all. But in the end, I end up not paying attention to either.
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
Climax at Nijmegen Bridge debuted as Scenario 34 in GI: Anvil of Victory, and was redone in ASL terms for the GI's Dozen scenario bundle by MMP as scenario U4. Like many (good) ASL scenarios, it compresses actual historical events and takes liberties with the historical terrain to conform to the constraints of the geomorphic mapboards.
The story of MARKET-GARDEN is well known, but the fighting in Nijmegen is often overlooked even by enthusiasts of this operation. The fighting in the city, as well as the nearby Groesbeek heights, has been relatively under-reported, even during the events that transpired there. Only two war correspondents were assigned to the division, both of whom covered the battle on the heights while the drama inside Nijmegen itself unfolded. In the words of historian Tim Saunders, as a consequence “there has never been the level of interest or knowledge that this highly significant battle deserves.” It is often not realized, for example, that there were two bridges in Nijmegen, a railway bridge and a road bridge, and references in histories to "the Nijmegen bridge" abound.
Modern day road map of Nijmegen.
When the 82nd Airborne landed at Nijmegen on September 17th, it managed to capture the Grave bridge intact. At 18:00hrs, two companies of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1/508) were sent to seize a bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen; a rail bridge and a road bridge further east both spanned the river. The company ran into machine-guns and an armoured halftrack as it penetrated into the city, and engaged in a firefight in the Keizer Karel Plein, a large traffic roundabout. German commanders had decided that Nijmegen would be a centre of main effort – a Schwerpunkt – and the reconnaissance battalion of the 9th SS Panzer Division had been hurriedly dispatched to bolster the defences there, along with a battle group of mixed elements from the 10th SS Panzer Division. Their orders were to block Allied troops in the south long enough to annihilate the British in the Oosterbeek area. The seizure of the north ramp of the Arnhem bridge put a hamper on further German reinforcements, isolating units in the Nijmegen area, notwithstanding those units now willing to endure a long flanking march and slow ferry ride across the Rhine well upstream.
Other reinforcements in the immediate area, however, were activated and thrown into a ring around the bridges, including a company of the Hermann Goering Training Regiment which had happened to be in transit on that day, three companies of trainees from nearby Military District 6, and a number of other forces including NCO candidates, railway guards, reserve police, anti-aircraft units, and replacement infantry companies.
The arrival of SS reinforcements had halted all forward motion by 1/508 and the Americans stopped for the night, all thought of capturing a bridge now vanished. The local resistance did pass on that the Post Office in Nijmegen contained one of the firing mechanisms for destroying the bridges, and that same night a patrol assaulted the building. The paratroopers seized the building and destroyed the firing mechanism; they were then counter-attacked and held out for three days as food, water and ammunition slowly ran out and the rest of 1/508 first pulled back to the south of Nijmegen, and then received orders to withdraw to the Groesbeek heights to reorganize.
A new crisis materialized on the 18th, when the Germans seized dropping zones from the 82nd on the Groesbeek Heights. A single company in Nijmegen was all that could be spared to continue the assault towards the main objective, the bridges over the Waal. Company G, of the 3rd Battalion of the 508th P.I.R. attempted to bypass German resistance in the Keizer Karel Plein and brushed through a number of rear echelon troops until finally running into SS defences close to the bridge, stiffened by artillery fire, and again fell short of taking the road bridge – though they had come within 100 yards of the near ramp.
The Keizer Karel Plein today shows no evidence of the 20mm gun and German infantry positions dug into the grounds in 1944.
On the 19th, contact was made between the leading elements of the ground forces of British 30th Corps, and the U.S. paratroopers in Grave. Daimler armoured cars of the 2nd Household Cavalry led the division into the city, and were soon engaged with German heavy flak guns; the heaviest armament the Daimlers could bring to bear with their small 2-pounder (40mm) guns. They exchanged fire with German anti-aircraft units across the river, and soon the divisional artillery joined in as well, answered by fire from German 10.5cm pieces. Additional troops prepared to assault both the road and rail bridges, split into two forces:
Western Force ( Railway Bridge)
tank troop from No. 3 Sqn, 2/Grenadier Guards
platoon from No. 2 Coy, 1/Grenadier Guards
Company D, 2/505 P.I.R.
Eastern Force (Road Bridge)
3 troops of tanks from No. 3 Sqn, 2/Grenadier Guards
3 platoons from No. 2 Coy, 1/Grenadier Guards
Companies E & F, 2/505 P.I.R.
A look at the scenario card for ASL Scenario U4 shows that the research for this was well done; the unit designations match exactly to that of the Eastern Force. Though the prelude on the card correctly identifies the objective as the "road bridge" it does not mention the rail bridge.
Current Google Earth map of the area of the road bridge (today known as James Gavinweg).
The Eastern Force came under fire 300 yards from the Road Bridge, as it entered the Keizer Lodwijk Plein; the Germans were heavily fortified in stone houses and in the grounds of an ancient fortification called the Valkhof (incorrectly called "Valkhol" on the scenario card).
Buildings overlooking Keizer Lodwijk Plein in which Lieutenant Dawson of No. 2 Company, Grenadier Guards and his men sought cover. They used automatic weapons on the enemy to their front and killed a considerable number of men, according to the divisional history, but return fire from an 88mm gun scored a direct hit on their house, which caused it to be evacuated.The building is marked "1" in the map above. The camera is facing south.
Three British tanks were knocked out in exchanges with German flak and anti-tank guns; attempts to gain an advantage by flanking the Germans through the side streets failed to succeed and the Eastern Force withdrew under heavy German artillery fire.
Tanks of 2./Grenadier Guards were knocked out in this square, which leads into the Valkhof Gardens. The square is marked "2" in the map above. The camera is looking south.
The Western Force, like the Eastern Force, advanced with the paratroopers riding on the tanks and the British infantry mounted in armoured carriers. This force also ran into heavy opposition and were unable to penetrate to the rail bridge. Major General James Gavin, the divisional commander of the 82nd Airborne, enquired to the commander of 30th Corps about the availability of boats, and a plan was drawn up to push across U.S. paratroopers across the Waal to try and put pressure on the Germans from the northern end of the river. The Guards Armoured Division's Royal Engineer Field Park Squadron had 26 assault boats which were ordered to the front. The 3rd Battalion of the 504th P.I.R. was to cross the Waal while forces in Nijmegen continued to attack the approaches to the bridges. The river crossing is well known as ASL scenario 25 Gavin's Gamble - the scenario card for which does not make a distinction between the rail and road bridges, and speaks as if there was one single "Nijmegen Bridge."
On the afternoon of September 20th, the date on which ASL Scenario U4 takes place, renewed attacks on the railway bridge moved closer, and buildings around Kronenburger Park were cleared, as the U.S. paratroopers learned a new method of house-to-house fighting, now fighting from rooftop to rooftop. The river crossing took place two miles to the west of Nijmegen. The crossing began after many postponements at 15:00hrs with artillery and mortar fire providing the smoke screen; the river was 175 yards wide and one report states that the boats travelled the first 100 yards without a shot being fired. The Germans had not expected an attempt to cross "one of Europe's widest and fast(est) flowing rivers in daylight", in the words of one of the German divisional commanders, and the notion was disregarded as "inconceivable and dismissed as suicidal." Only scattered outposts had been placed out on the Waal. The infantry landed in good order on the far bank, and Royal Engineers started shuttling heavy weapons over. The Hof van Holland, a 17th Century fortress, 500 metres from the north end of the railway bridge, with earthen banks and a wide water-filled moat, was next to be taken, and was blasted by fire from the south bank. By 18:00hrs the paratroopers had not only taken the fort but had driven on and flown the American flag from the north end of the railway bridge. Resistance began to melt away at the south end during the evening, but the success never got reported up the chain of command, or else the importance of the news never resonated with higher headquarters, who remained fixated on the road bridge. (Incidentally, the river crossing was simulated in Yanks scenario Gavin's Gamble (ASL 25) - often singled out as a "dog" because of the ability of German defenders to "skulk" - that is, duck back out of the way of American defensive fire, then advance into their positions again because of the peculiarities of the multi-phase turn system in ASL.)
The Valkhof Gardens (numbered "3" in the map above) are home to several fortifications, including the Belvedere, a tall tower (which is perhaps what the scenario card is referring to when it says "the action centred around a medieval tower), and two ancient brick chapels; this is a current view of one of them.
Half an hour after the river crossing started, British and American infantry were jumping off on yet another attack north towards the road bridge. The Valkhof Gardens had by now been fortified by engineers with crawl trenches and barbed wire. During the desperate fighting, a garbled radio message that the paratroopers across the river had "reached the northern edge of the bridge" was misunderstood to refer to the road bridge, not the rail bridge, and orders were given to the Grenadier Guards to dash ahead. A squadron of tanks – the last uncommitted reserves in the city – went forward and five managed to make it onto the bridge where they found German engineers working; there they engaged the engineers then dismounted to cut the cables of the demolitions.
The fighting for the road bridge had been intense but little of it had taken place in urban terrain; Hunner Park and the Valkhof Gardens are a treed green-space which the SS had fortified, located on high ground overlooking both the bridge and the inner city.
Top view shows the location of the former police station (at left) now occupied by a more modern building, from which King's Company, 1st (Motor) Battalion Grenadier Guards attacked up a then-rubble covered slope into the Valkhof Gardens. The camera is looking in the direction of the Waal. The next photo shifts the viewpoint to the right, showing the top of the Belvedere in the background. This attack gained a toehold into the Valkhof, and eventually supported the advance of No. 4 Company, and of E and F Companies of 2/505 PIR.
Future Depictions in Wargames
Nijmegen, and the Waal, have been a popular subject for pop culture depictions; the river crossing was a focal point of the movie A Bridge Too Far, as was the final rush by British tanks to cross the road bridge. Several SL and ASL scenarios have been set there, depicting the river crossing, road bridge fight, and German counter-attack to take the bridges (which resulted in a Medal of Honor being awarded to a US paratrooper). Given the tight concentration of terrain and relatively small forces involved, one could envision a Historical ASL module, and with the focus of the next Combat Mission releases including both British and - it is hoped - SS troops, quite possibly Nijmegen might feature in the plans of scenario designers for that series as well. One doubts the final word has been written on the subject.
Nijmegen by Tim Saunders
G.I. Anvil of Victory
Yanks: ASL Module 3
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
(This entry was originally published at this URL in February 2009.)
The first commercially successful tactical wargames rules were actually based on miniatures, and indeed, the first true tactical wargames were heavily influenced by, and even marketed to, miniatures players. Certainly comparisons to miniatures were rife in articles on PanzerBlitz, and not long after its publication, Strategy & Tactics published its own miniatures rules called T-34, now long forgotten. When Squad Leader hit the scene in 1977, advertising appealed directly to miniatures players by name.
There has been a resurgence in recent years in the popularity of miniatures systems, though one can safely say that the miniatures players never really went away. Popular systems have always been part of the wargaming scene, from the earliest efforts of men like Donald Grant who published “do it yourself” type books, to the publication of Tractics, to more sophisticated rules sets too numerous to mention in the 1970s and 80s, yet never have they occupied the mainstream popularity or commercial success of role playing fantasy titles such as Dungeons & Dragons or board games such as Advanced Squad Leader.
The miniaturists are making efforts at catching up commercially, with slick new products today like Flames of War or Axis and Allies; there is the use of “big industry names” in other cases, and in all, an attempt to win wide market appeal. I recently picked up a recent publication with the name Frank Chadwick attached to it, and was struck by the production values. (Chadwick’s name is well known in the annals of board wargaming.) The book – Honour of the Regiment - was an overview of a rules set for British Commonwealth forces in the Second World War, with detailed unit values and the usual bits of history and regimental trivia thrown into the mix, as part of the reboot of Command Decision/Test of Battle. What struck me, however, was Chadwick’s attempt to riff on an old myth:
A few years ago I was part of a symposium on offensive tactical doctrine of World War II. Each panel member had a single country for which they made a presentation - mine happened to be Germany. Once the four or five of us had all made our presentations, someone in the audience pointed out that there had been no panelist presentation for British offensive tactical doctrine. (This was, as you might imagine, in the United States.) The moderator was apologetic, but explained that he had been unable to find a panelist to give a position briefing on the British, but wondered if any of the panelists would now like to give an improvised talk. After we looked at each other for a few seconds, and it became clear that no one else was about to do so, I stood up and gave a short presentation on British Army Offensive Doctrine in World War II.
"We didn't have any," I said, and sat down.
After the inevitable laughter, I stood up again and elaborated.(1)
It struck me as not particularly funny, not because I had heard it or jokes like it many times before (there was an old saw pasted up in my Reserve Army regiment’s orderly room for many years by an unattributed and probably apocryphal Red Army officer of the Cold War era who was reputed to have said “the problem with training to fight against Canadian Army doctrine is that the Canadian Army has no doctrine”) but because it was so patently untrue.
Commonwealth Doctrine – 1944
The term doctrine is simply defined as an established set of procedures to solving complex problems; in the military sense, it refers to a standard set of maneuvers, kinds of troops and weapons and the way in which they are employed as a default approach to a kind of operation.
In February 1944, Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simonds, the commander of 2nd Canadian Corps, gave a detailed series of tactical notes to commanders preparing for the invasion of Europe, based on his battle experience in Italy as commander of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The notes are remarkable for their clarity and in describing so well the course of tactical battles to come in Normandy, the breakout across northern France and Belgium, the fighting in the Netherlands, the Rhineland, the Rhine crossings, and the final battles in Germany.(2)
* For attacks on prepared positions, adequate reconnaissance was emphasized, with assaults to take place on a limited front with "all available" artillery so that "really heavy support may be given." A Commonwealth division of nine infantry battalions had three field regiments of 25-pounder guns (24 guns in each), while each infantry battalion had six 3-inch mortars of its own. The divisional support battalion had a company of 4.2-inch mortars. The corps artillery had additional fire support available in 4.5”, 5.5” and 7.2” gun regiments, and for large scale operations, tactical air support was available ranging from fighter-bombers to medium and even four-engine heavy bomber support. Naval gunfire was also used while in Normandy.
* Initial objectives had to penetrate to beyond the normal range of German mortars, or else those mortars had to be dislodged by counter-battery fire (difficult to do owing to the ease with which they could be deployed in cover and concealment).
* Consideration was to be given in large-scale operations as to when to move friendly artillery forward, and when to schedule friendly air power, possibly as a substitute.
Simonds also impressed on his commanders the value of friendly tanks and anti-tank guns being forward with the infantry, as well as the use of artillery against enemy tanks, directed by Forward Observation Officers of field artillery batteries travelling with the leading infantry.
* Anti-tank obstacles and thick minefields were common and initial attacks were to be made by the infantry to secure gaps or breach obstacles
These tactical points were raised in reaction to German defensive battle doctrine, which stressed the following:
* Forward positions were defended lightly, thinly held with small groups of men strong in automatic weapons.
* Stronger infantry forces were held in reserve, ready to counter-attack where necessary.
* Forward positions were strongly supported by mortars, usually located 3,000 to 4,000 yards to the rear, capable of firing ahead of or anywhere within the defended zone. The Germans pre-registered their own positions and immediately and heavily shelled and mortared them once they were known to be lost.
* Tanks and self-propelled guns were held in reserve and when enemy infantry had broken into friendly positions, would move in and deliver direct fire at very close range.
While a Canadian assault, properly planned and supported, might easily break the crust of such a defensive set-up, the German policy of counter-attacking with fresh reserves and armour meant that the real battle was one of defeating the follow on forces, which would also include any mortars not over-run in the initial assault. For this reason, Simonds insisted that planning had to consider the German counter-attacks as a routine part of the initial battle.
Did It Work?
The drawback in practice was that the “set-piece” approach was often applied, in fact, piecemeal. Operations that should have been assigned to divisions were sometimes assigned to brigades. Such was the case in Operation WINDSOR in early July 1944, when four battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were ordered to assault Carpiquet and the adjacent airport. While the village fell – it was defended by just 50 fanatic SS men – the assault over open ground against the south hangars and control towers was stopped cold by automatic weapons fire and tanks. During Operation CHARNWOOD a few days later, the three divisions of British and Canadians again met stiff resistance, but managed to batter their way into Caen. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada did everything right at Buron during CHARNWOOD; they fought a textbook operation according to doctrine(3):
* They cleared the enemy mines before zero hour
* They laid on an extensive opening barrage
* They attacked with a squadron of tanks, as well as mine-clearing tanks and troops of M-10 tank-destroyers
* Their reconnaissance included a prisoner taken only days before who provided intelligence of the identity of the defenders and the location of weapons, in addition to aerial reconnaissance and other patrol data; the battalion even built a scale model of the terrain to rehearse the operation on
* The unit had occupied the ground opposite Buron for four weeks and was intimately familiar with the ground
Canadian Army Intelligence Information Sheet dated 2 July 1944 showing the HLI's deployment for the Buron Assault on 8 July.
Unfortunately for the Canadians, the Germans also fought according to their own doctrine, and the 3rd Battalion, SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25 held on to the village grimly. They held the forward edge of the town lightly, with automatic weapons sited in an anti-tank ditch. When they were finally cleared from the ditch and the leading edge of the village, their guns and mortars shelled Buron violently and kept it under constant attack so that the only vehicles able to enter and leave were jeeps and carriers to evacuate the wounded. Of the 15 Canadian tanks supporting the attack, 10 were knocked out. The only departure from doctrine was that no infantry counter-attack was delivered, but a company of Panther tanks did counter-attack after the village fell late in the afternoon, but was beaten back. Even then, some SS troops held out inside the village until the next day. The total cost to the HLI was 262 dead and wounded, of a full strength of about 800 (just under 500 of those being in the rifle companies).
The village itself was heavily defended with tanks, artillery, mines, automatic weapons, and three rifle companies supported by a heavy weapons company with machine guns and mortars.
Buron is an extreme case; the SS troops of the Hitler Youth Division had fought unusually fanatically – many refused to surrender, having been told they would be murdered if they did so (their division had been responsible for the murder of over 130 Canadian POWs immediately following D-Day, on the other hand, and so the advice was not entirely unwarranted), and many were teenagers with a high degree of motivation and political indoctrination. Reports of soldiers holding out even in the face of point-blank 75-mm tank fire were made after the battle. It was one of the costliest days for any Canadian battalion in Normandy, and the worst day of the HLI for the entire war. But the doctrine had worked; Buron had fallen, against the toughest of opponents.
A tank of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment sits abandoned in Buron on 8 July. Buron had previously been the scene of furious fighting a month earlier, on 7 June, as well, when the 3rd Canadian Division and 12th SS Panzer Division clashed on the day after D-Day.
In other cases, German technical superiority, especially in the case of armour, was overwhelming. In the words of historian Terry Copp:
In theory there was nothing wrong with Simonds' version of Allied battle experience but in practice the thinly armoured, undergunned Sherman tanks were seldom able to accompany the infantry onto the objective, and almost never able to stay to help meet the counterattacks. The self-propelled anti-tank guns stayed well to the rear and it usually took some time to get the towed six-pounder and seventeen-pounder anti-tank guns into position. All too often the infantry had only the artillery to (rely) upon, not only to "shoot" them onto the objective but also to break up the counterattacks with well-directed concentrations. More than one infantry company commander has described his role in North-West Europe as "escorting the artillery Forward Observation Officer (FOO) across France."(4)
My Final Word
It is interesting that historians and especially casual observers have failed so utterly to understand what the doctrines of the various armies really were. The Blitzkrieg Myth has been persistent since the first Allied newspapermen wrote their first hysterical accounts in 1939 and the myth was perpetuated by post-war apologists seeking to explain away why a truly unprepared and in many ways mediocre German Army had gotten the best of larger Allied forces in Norway, then France, then North Africa. The operationally competent Red Army of 1944-45 is very often dismissed in popular culture as having had no abilities whatsoever beyond the artillery barrage and the human wave, and the British Commonwealth armies are generally maligned – as Chadwick did, if only in jest – for bumbling about and only fighting when it suited them, in “set-piece” battles, as if fighting a battle you were prepared to fight was somehow something to be ashamed of.
My Question To You
Is it not eminently sensible to fight only when you are prepared? Perhaps the only army more sensible than the British in that regard were the Italians who, when it was clear they were on the wrong end of the conflict, had the good sense to capitulate. Sadly, their divisions in Yugoslavia suffered terribly in the process, and many in mainland Italy fared no better. Why, though, do the Germans continue to get the lion’s share of “glory” – if that is what it is – for continuing to surrender the lives not only of millions of their soldiers and citizens, but to continue the suffering of their captives, their slave labourers, and their enemies, all to no apparent purpose – and be praised for their skill at arms while losing battle after battle, usually by mounting costly local counter-attacks both large and small?
1. Chadwick, Frank The Honour of the Regiment: The British and Commonwealth Armies in the West in World War II, 1939-45 (Test of Battle Games, 2008)
2. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds Directive, February 1944, attached to War Diary, 2nd Canadian Corps
3. Snowie, Allan J. Bloody Buron (The Boston Mills Press, Erin, ON, 1984)
4. Copp, Terry. The Brigade (Fortress Publications Inc., Stoney Creek, ON, 1992)
The Battle of Buron
Tactical Wargamer's Journal
Originally presented as a post at the battlefront.com forum, this blog post originally appeared at this link on 1 June 2008. I've amended the entry with some updates based on the follow-on comments that have accumulated since then.
Between 1968 and the year 2000, over 100 separate board wargames were released depicting tactical level (meaning individual units depict platoons, squads, or individual men) combat in the 20th Century. Since then, several dozen more titles have appeared - some new ones, mostly modular in concept with multiple add-ons for the same game system. A review of these games gives one an opportunity to see how different designers have tackled design problems.
From 1985 to present, there have been several dozen different PC titles to portray the same thing - i.e. 20th Century tactical combat.
The history of the Combat Mission franchise is well known, from release of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord in 2000 through its two successful sequels to its latest release with a new game engine, Combat Mission: Shock Force. Some points to note - it was certainly not the first tactical, squad-based game to graduate to the computer. Under Fire was on PCs as early as 1985. It was not the first 3D tactical squad-based game, Muzzle Velocity had that honour. It was, though, the first game to combine squad based tactics, turn-based planning, 3D graphics, and a WEGO system that was at that time revolutionary - and from what I understand, is still unique. Other games of the genre seemed inferior by comparison - Steel Panthers was far too "gamey" - you could draw fire by taking advantage of the turn-based system unrealistically since everything was sequential and strictly IGO-UGO, and Close Combat was too closed-ended - making maps was not something casually done, and on-map forces were restricted to over-strength platoons confined to a few hundred metres of terrain.
Designer John Hill - later famous for Squad Leader - published "Ten Rules for Playability" in the early 1970s. Part and parcel to playability was the concept of scale. You can't simulate Napoleon's invasion of Russia using 40 metre hex maps. Games were designed to be played in one sitting (for the computer, this is debatable, since we can now save games without having to worry about cats and kids, but I think a good rule of thumb remains that a playing time of a couple of hours for a single game is about right). His inappropriately named Squad Leader, released in 1977, had the player control company-sized groups of men, divided into individual pieces representing 10-15 men apiece. The system was highly abstract - "Design for Effect" was his mantra - and it worked. It was simple and it was fun, and it provided the framework for a dizzying amount of more complex rules later, which have again been simplified down to the three Starter Kits - ASL Lite, if you prefer.
When Squad Leader came out in 1977, it abstracted a whole lot of processes that another squad level game released a year earlier had rendered in painstaking detail. It went on to become Advanced Squad Leader, which now has 13 modules, 2 deluxe modules, 7 historical modules/studies, a rash of TPP imitators, over 4000 printed scenarios and possibly the most commercially successful board wargame to date.
The game that came a year before it was Tobruk. Aside from being an ugly little game with flat terrain boards and an uninspiring choice of theatre, it tracked every single tank's shot in painful detail. And it was so labour intensive that almost no one played it. Publisher Avalon Hill thought so little of it, they actually gave the rights back to its inventor, the late Hal Hock, and said "thanks, but no thanks." The game sat around for 20 years until Raymond J. Tapio rewrote it heavily and made it playable. In other words, more like Squad Leader. It is now on the market as Advanced Tobruk System, but it seems to me that Tapio still makes money selling TPP ASL stuff too because ATS won't do it on its own.
Wargamers gagged for Squad Leader for the computer for years (and when Hasbro abused the rights to the franchise name with an absurd man-to-man game by that title, the gagging turned to retching, but I digress), and Combat Mission delivered.
What did Combat Mission really do?
Well, it provided the same painful detail of tank penetrating hits and ammunition that both Tobruk and Squad Leader did (not to mention other games I haven't mentioned here, like Yaquinto's trilogy of 88/Panzer/Armor who had great fidelity in the armour modelling realm also), but with the advantage of a computer doing the calculations so that the player didn't have to. The newcomer was a bit lost, but it didn't take much intuition to figure out Tiger=good, Sherman=bad. And learning was part of the fun.
But the whining about the graphics! The blocky 3D cavemen running around like refugees from a Jack Kirby comic book were positively grotesque. The twitch crowd whined to high heaven about camera controls and wanting to see every man on the map.
This is how a squad of 10 men is represented in the original Combat Mission trilogy.
So what does BFC do?
They listened, of course. For some reason, tracking individual bullets became a matter of priority. But let's stop and look at the decision for a second. A single Mimimi LMG fires 1100 rounds per minute of 5.56mm ammunition. An M4 carbine can fire 500 rpm. That's a lot of firepower for a squad. More important - that's a lot of trajectories for the engine to trace.
1:1 modelling became a buzzword on the BFC forums after the release of Combat Mission: Afrika Korps, the final title in their original engine trilogy, as if it was some kind of Holy Grail or something. But look what it's resulted in.
•reams of data for the computer to sift through. So much data, that WEGO TCP play was ruled out by the developers as technologically impossible, who had threatened to leave out PBEM, too.
•individual bullet tracking is in, but what about the brain behind the gun? There is no data on personalities; every soldier in every squad is a cookie cutter with the same physical - and mental - attributes as his mates.
•area fire and movement commands still seem to snap to an 8 metre grid, called "Action Spots" by the developer - there are no visual cues in the game as to where these Action Spots actually lie.
•map scale is reduced; where one could play comfortably on 4 square kilometres in Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin, high end systems chug away on maps smaller than that in CM:SF. Real time control of anything more than a reinforced platoon on a "medium" map is probably impossible in most situations anyway if anything like actual tactics are going to be employed against a human opponent using a dynamic defence.
Whose idea was this anyway?
Design for Effect was elegant, and it worked. It worked in CM:BO, CM:BB and CM:AK, too. There was no great "need" for 1:1 modelling except among those with no real understanding of what a wargame is supposed to be. BFC understood when they made Beyond Overlord. People scoffed at those ugly 3D models and didn't "get" why 3 soldiers really stood in for 10. But the fans did - and hey, so did the reviewers. They LOVED CM:BO and the next two titles.
The Uncanny Valley
Is 1:1 the wrong way to go? I don't really believe so. Eventually, and soon, hardware issues won't be a problem with this level of modelling. But look at any "company-based" wargame in the field of board wargaming, and none of them have 1:1 modelling. Not one. Firepower is grouped at the squad or platoon level; that trend started with the very first tactical board wargame in 1969 and continues to the present day. What is gained in CM by tracking individual bullets? Nothing - in fact - it may even be a design blunder. Can't imagine counting up individual men on a Squad Leader map to count firepower factors. Just because we have a computer to do the computations for us, it doesn't make the design philosophy any more "correct."
I do know I still play the original CM titles and enjoy them. It doesn't take 1:1 modelling to engage you - it's the gameplay. In fact, I think we've reached the Uncanny Valley in CM, where it is so close to real life as to heighten expectations about game performance unrealistically, but not close enough to be convincing in actual play. Seeing squads stack up outside a door is great - but why did they run around the building to do it, and why didn't half of them just jump through the window?
This is a squad in CM:SF; sure, there are the right number of bodies on the ground, but how come they can't shoot in different directions?
Of course, I don't know if a simple update to the CM:BB graphics would have been satisfying, either (i.e. three man representations with the new 3D models).
But what about stuff like convoy driving (we still don't have a "follow me" command)? CM:SF has hugely powerful artillery modelling now - but the philosophy in CM:BO was that the games all started AFTER the big artillery barrages. Again, this is a step in the other direction from the original philosophy of abstraction - a philosophy that worked well.
CM:SF is necessarily in the middle ground where it will please no one. The level of abstraction that was such anathema to the Operation Flashpoint fans (I am one) is gone, but it isn't replaced with high fidelity yet. Squad members are nameless, faceless droids who are largely stupid. That every bullet they fire can be tracked doesn't mean much if every man aims at the same 8 metre grid.
The scenario editor/Tac AI has been revitalized - to the point that we are incapable of surprising ourselves. No random maps or forces, and the soldiers do whatever they're told to - and no more. The great appeal of random battles is gone. Again, there was abstraction in terrain and force mix, but because BFC is now saying that the map editor is more "realistic", we can't have "fun" in the form of random maps.
Whoever said "realistic" was the way to go? It sure wasn't BFC when the community posted for six months about the Sten Guns in the British OOB for CM:AK during the patch releases. They're still there.
It may be too late to turn back, but I think embracing some of the limitations of the past may be a good thing. Abstraction is good.
When Firepower came out in the 1980s, it was a man-to-man wargame that modelled every individual small arm from 1945 to the present, and had rules so detailed that you had to use arrow counters to mark which side of a tree your dude was standing on. And it wasn't nearly as much fun as Sniper! which was rereleased by TSR at about the same time, a reprint of the earlier SPI game from 15 years earlier, which had abstract values for weapons - and no little arrow counters.
A PBEM correspondent of mine wrote to tell me that he felt BFC's adoption of a RT option meant that instead of being the industry leader in WEGO, they now specialized in nothing, and were mediocre at both WEGO and RT. I think the 1:1 modelling has had a huge impact not just on computer hardware performance, but on perceptions of the game, design philosophy, you name it. You see that many guys on the screen you expect different things from the engine - stuff that has been explicitly stated aren't being delivered yet (like bullets not going through stone walls because of abstractions in the terrain mesh). The official forums talk of "gamey" tactics such as driving Strykers into buildings in order to let infantry dismount in safety. These are abstractions that one wouldn't expect to find in a 1:1 model - and speak to the heightened perception that comes with this level of modelling that the new engine does not in fact pay off. (Of course, flooding a position with armoured halftracks was also a problem in Squad Leader, allowing a "gamey" player to offload infantry in the vicinity of the enemy in safety - something that was addressed in the ASL rules.)
My Final Word
Panzer Command by Matrix Games may be the up and coming series to watch. If nothing else, the developers are actively engaged with the community and working on putting in features as requested. The developers actually play their own game, also, which may be a key difference between their approach and that taken by their competition. Time will tell.
CM:SF engendered a loyal fanbase that has - if the official forum is any indication - stood by the product and supported it through three sequels and a "sister", namely modules to introduce Marines, British, and NATO forces to the Syrian desert into CM:SF, and what can only be called a unique standalone game set in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion/occupation of 1979-1988.
The so-called CMX2, or second generation, game engine has been refined and the first Second World War title has after long last been released in the summer of 2011. Has Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy taken the series back on track?
There are as many answer to that as there are gamers. There seems to be no unanimous consent; the vocal and loyal fanbase remains. It seems smaller now - the days of dozens of fan sites and gaming ladders seem a thing of the past. Perhaps its a function of the more limited scope of the product. This recent thread at the official forum is typical (URL). There seems to be a mix now of satisfied customers and those who are still pressing for improvements to the UI, graphics and gameplay. This was common even in the "golden age" of the first game engine, though now fans can now comfortably and smugly insist the original games were the "correct" departure point to which the series should now return.
Some poor behaviours in CM:SF seem to have been smoothed out; but they have been replaced by others. If Action Spots seem to make more sense now, then questions are now being raised about how machine guns work, or why there is still no follow-me command for vehicles. The bottom line is that CM remains very much a work in progress. The good news for gamers is that the developers have not abandoned the game, the bad news is that BFC is a small development house - just two programmers - and what was originally envisioned as a lean vehicle for providing updates and new modules already seems behind schedule.
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