#History to #Wargame – Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean Campaign through The Darkest Hour (@Helionbooks) and Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet (Avalanche Press, 2001)

Exploring history through reading and wargames….

I love my Osprey Books, but these days the titles from Helion Books seem to capture my attention more. Like Osprey Books the Helion titles are illustrated with many photographs and color artwork along with extensive tables of information. For a wargame player, The Darkest Hour series of books from Helion provides in-depth background into the Imperial Japanese Navy offensive into the Indian Ocean in 1942 which in turn makes playing a wargame like The Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet that much more enjoyable since the “why” of certain rules or victory conditions becomes much easier to understand.

History Reading

Piegzik, Michal A., The Darkest Hour – Volume 1: The Japanese Naval Offensive in the Indian Ocean 1942 – The Opening Moves (Asia@War No. 31), Warwick: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2022 (84 pages) / Piegzik, Michal A., The Darkest Hour – Volume 2: The Japanese Naval Offensive in the Indian Ocean 1942 – The Attack against Ceylon and the Eastern Fleet (Asia@War No. 33), Warwick: Helion & Co., Ltd., 2022 (72 pages)

The Darkest Hours from Helion Books

From the book backs:

The Darkest Hour presents the Imperial Japanese Navy offensive in the Indian Ocean area in March-April 1942, the main goal of which was to destroy the Royal Navy in the Far East and achieve domination on the western flank of the Pacific War on the eve of the Battle of Midway. The bold operation by two Japanese task forces (Kido Butai and Malay Force) in the Indian Ocean would only be possible with the fall of Singapore in February and the Dutch East Indies in early March 1942.

The first volume examines events up to the capture of the Andaman Islands and Christmas Island…

The second volume examines the Japanese aerial assault upon the British bases on Ceylon, and the attacks on the carrier HMS Hermes, cruisers HMS Cornwall and Devonshire, and the destroyer HMS Vampire.

The Darkest Hour Vol 1/Vol 2 book back

The Darkest Hour series is basically broken out into a strategic/operational volume and a tactical volume. The strategic/operational aspects of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Indian Ocean campaign are covered in Volume 1. The first volume sets the strategic situation and follows the operations up to the morning of 5 April 1942. This is where Volume 2 starts. The second volume dives into tactical details of the battles fought between 5 April and 9 April after which Kido Butai retired. To be fair, the later half of the second volume steps back up to the operational/strategic levels following the early April battles but that is not the focus of the volume.

Both volumes of The Darkest Hour are well illustrated. I don’t consider myself well-read on the Indian Ocean campaign, but I do think I have more than passing knowledge and some familiarity with the subject. I was pleasantly surprised to see photographs in these books that I do not recognize from elsewhere. The color plates are as one should expect but what really caught my attention was the other illustrations that in hindsight present information I have obviously seen before but never paid attention to. For instance, color plate ix in Volume 1 presents “Japanese Aircraft Carrier Deck Markings in Indian Ocean Offensive.” I have looked at countless pictures of Imperial Japanese aircraft carriers but never before did the different flight deck markings stand out to me.

In terms of written content, The Darkest Hour is a fairly-comprehensive overview of the political and military situation surrounding the April 1942 campaign. The split-volume format works quite well with the background situation covered in the first volume and a zoomed-in focus on key battles in the second volume. I hate to always be making comparisons between Osprey and Helion but The Darkest Hour is a great example of why I enjoy Helion books; The Darkest Hour provides a high-level overview but with more-specific depth when needed. For the wargamer in me, The Darkest Hour gives me a deeper understanding of the “why” behind a wargame scenario or campaign without it becoming a doctoral-depth deep dive.

The wargamer in me also enjoyed a little wargame-ish call out in The Darkest Hour. Buried in the middle of Volume 2 is a section titled, “Simulation of the battle of Aircraft Carriers in the Indian Ocean” (Volume 2, p. 47). This small entry discusses the article “The Brave Operation in the Indian Ocean” published in the Japanese magazine Gakken as part of their Military History Pacific War Series in 1992 (though the bibliography credits it as 1993.). The source article is in Japanese, but from the summation presented in this volume it certainly appears the (uncredited) author/researcher conducted either a wargame or some form of operations analysis. Alas, the scenario presented is more a flight-of-fancy than any real serious analysis, with Kido Butai being surprised by a combined air strike from HMS Formidable and HMS Indomitable just as the five Imperial Japanese carriers are set to launch a strike. Fortunately for us, there is a wargame title available that can be used to explore Imperial Japan’s Indian Ocean campaign.

Wargame Pairing

Second World War at Sea: Eastern Fleet, designer Michael Benninghof, Avalanche Press (my copy is boxed first edition 2001).

Here is how Avalanche Press describes Eastern Fleet::

Following their victory at Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s First Air Fleet moved through the American, Dutch and British colonies of South and East Asia. Having taken the mighty British naval base at Singapore, the next move was to enter the Indian Ocean and challenge the Royal Navy there. 

Eastern Fleet is a complete game in the Second World War at Sea series covering these campaigns. Scenarios range from the Japanese invasions of Burma and the Andaman Islands through the massive carrier raids to the planned but never executed invasion of Ceylon. The Japanese often have overwhelming superiority in the air, which the British must counter with guile while trying to lure the enemy into range of his slow but powerful battleships.

Pieces represent the ships and aircraft that took part in the campaign. The Japanese fleet is built around its five powerful fleet carriers with their deckloads of Zero fighters, Val dive bombers and Kate torpedo bombers, all wielded by expert pilots and crews. They are supported by four fast battle cruisers, fast but lightly protected heavy cruisers and big destroyers armed with the awesome Long Lance torpedo.

Eastern Fleet ad copy
First edition box cover (courtesy BGG)

The SWWAS series of wargames are operational-scale campaign systems; players represent fleet commanders fighting a campaign. The situation in Eastern Fleet lends itself to an easily manageable campaign due to the number of ships and aircraft involved. Though the map may not be as crowded as some other titles, the situation is no-less tense.

As I reviewed my copy of Eastern Fleet for this posting, I was surprised by what the game actually covers. My first edition has three Battle Scenarios, only one of which is from the April 1942 campaign (and one of these scenarios is purely hypothetical). Looking at the eight Operational Scenarios, only three are from the March-April 1942 period; the other five range from July 1942 out to February 1943; several of those Operational Scenarios are outright hypotheticals! The actual depth provided in the background is also “thin” to say the least. Looking at SWWAS: Eastern Fleet after reading The Darkest Hour I now see the game’s focus more on “widgets” and less on the situation:

The Royal Navy is outnumbered and outgunned in the air, with three fleet carriers — all of them smaller than their Japanese counterparts — and one nearly useless light carrier. The British do have four old and painfully slow R-class battleships and the much more useful Warspite, newly rebuilt in an American shipyard. British cruisers are vastly inferior to those of the Japanese in both numbers and capability, as is the case with the British, Australian and Dutch destroyers.

Eastern Fleet ad copy

In a further example, here is the background for Operational Scenario 3 ” Raid on Ceylon – 26 March – 11 April 1942,” arguably the main focus of The Darkest Hour (especially Volume 2):

Having stunned the British with the rapid conquest of Malaya, Singapore, and the Dutch East Indies, The Japanese next turned their attention to the hapless British Eastern Fleet operating in the Indian Ocean. The crack First Air Fleet targeted British bases on Ceylon and Allied merchant shipping in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, a large troop convoy used this diversion to move the 18th Infantry Division from Singapore to Rangoon.

Operational Scenario 3

Compare that “backgrounder” to the introduction of The Darkest Hour Volume 2:

At the beginning of April, the expected Japanese carrier-borne strike on Ceylon could severely influence the strategic situation in the Pacific War and lead to more threatening Axis’ combined operations against the British Empire in the following months. The Royal Navy’s command correctly interpreted the Combined Fleet’s plans. However, the British lacked more detailed intelligence information about the enemy’s movements in the Indian Ocean to prepare for a night counter-attack. With only two modern aircraft carriers and dozens of bombers with fighter escorts at his disposal, Admiral Somerville could rely only on Japanese mistakes and his instinct to hit the stronger task force, literally described as “invincible,” without taking the risk of being destroyed in return….Once set sail for the Indian Ocean, Kido Butai had only one chance to destroy Eastern Fleet and could not afford to make any mistakes.

The Darkest Hour, Volume 2, Introduction

I have to hand it to Avalanche Press; they do a great job setting the game up as the “invincible” Imperial Japanese Navy versus the underdog Royal Navy. For the longest time the (simple) Avalanche Press version of the history has dominated my conceptions of the campaign. The Darkest Hour goes a long way towards reeducating me by providing a deeper understanding and a greater level of appreciation for the challenges both sides faced.

There is one other aspect of Eastern Fleet that I feel fails to delivers—the “secret” British base at Addu Atoll. Again, we go to the ad copy:

But this is the Royal Navy, with a tradition of victory and a secret base on which it can fall back in the middle of the supposedly empty Indian Ocean. The British cannot be counted out until their last warship is sunk.

Eastern Fleet ad copy

What are the Eastern Fleet rules for that secret base?” Avalanche Press first tells us, “The Japanese were not aware of the base’s existence during the April 1942 carrier raids in the Indian Ocean, and Somerville’s fleet used it extensively. So we should expect some secret base rules, right? Well, not so fast…

In our game Eastern Fleetwe gave Addu Atoll no special secret abilities: The Japanese player knows the British have a base there. The game system doesn’t lend itself to “secret” bases, since the opposing player is going to figure out that a task force probably isn’t going to halt in mid-ocean for several turns. Optional rules make it harder to detect, but unlike Chuichi Nagumo the Axis player already knows it’s there and therefore knows to look for it.

Eastern Fleet: Britain’s Secret Base (Nov 2011)
Courtesy Avalanche Press

I don’t know what “optional rules” the Avalanche Press is talking about as I don’t find any such rule in my first edition rule book. Maybe it was added in a later edition?


Feature image “Aircraft carrier HMS Hermes sinking, 9 April 1942by Unknown Japanese photographer – http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/302403 courtesy Australian War Memorial.

RockyMountainNavy.com © 2007-2022 by Ian B is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

History to #Wargame – The Battle of Waterloo, 2021 Edition with Commands & Colors Napoleonics (@gmtgames, 2019)

This has been a very good Grognard week for me.

My Game of the Week right now is Commands & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games, 2019). For a GotW I try to get deeper into the title and, as luck would have it, the anniversary of two major Napoleonic-era battles fell in the same week. I already wrote about my Battle of Quatre Bras; next is the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815).

Commands & Colors Napoleonics (GMT Games, 2019)

The Battle of Waterloo scenario is the last scenario presented in the base game of Commands & Colors Napoleonics. Like Quatre Bras before it, the scenario is large with a wide variety of forces. This makes setting up the game interesting as I paused at times to “pass in review” new units to ensure I understood their unique characteristics. After all, I want to make sure the Old Guard is used properly!

Waterloo set up. Note the “tipsy” British unit at La Haye Sainte in the middle of the board- must of been at Lady Richmonds Ball the night before (or was that Happy Hour at the local pub?)

One reason I like most Commands & Colors-series games is that even the “big” scenarios like Waterloo are still playable in about an hour. My game took ~75 minutes and it was a see-saw battle the whole way. The battle developed in a classic Commands & Colors way complete with elation and frustration.

Specifically, elation and frustration is about the only way to explain how the game went for the French. Elation came early with the French advancing on both flanks and taking the Victory Banner towns of Hougoumont on the left and Papelotte on the right. Then the frustration set in it became almost impossible for the French to draw a Command Card for the center. Even then, there were some highly thematic moments like when the French drew the La Grande Manouevre card and made a bold move to retake the initiative in the center. However, it was not enough, and in the end the British were the first to the requisite eight Victory Banners (final score 8-6).

The French center can’t push the British and Allies away at Waterloo

Playing the Battle of Waterloo, indeed playing Commands & Colors Napoleonics this week, also reminded me a bit about our collective wargame roots.The word Grognard, often used to refer to a long-time wargamer, is a modern derivation in use of the original Grognard which referred to an old soldier from Napoleon’s army. Although I hate citing it as a source, Wikipedia has a good summation of how the term came to be used by the gamer community:

Grognard is also a slang term used by the tabletop role playing and wargaming community to refer to older, long term players of such games. The usage started with Napoleonic miniature war gaming, and originally referred to those who would seek out minor details that were wrong with another’s painting or modeling, mostly in terms of historical accuracy. Various online forums have popularized the usage among the tabletop role playing and war gaming community.

Wikipedia entry for “Old Guard (France)”

I”m very happy that this 21st Century Grognard was able to honor 19th Century Grognards in a game of Commands & Colors Napoleonics.


Feature image courtesy wickedwilliam.com

History to #Wargame – @gmtgames COIN Inspiration? Rebels at the Gate – From the Tonghak Uprising to the Sino-Japanese War in Korea, 1894

For tabletop wargamers, a popular game series in the past decade is GMT Games’ Counter Insurgency (COIN) Series. Starting in 2012 with Volko Ruhnke’s Andean Abyss – COIN Vol I , the system now (nearly) encompasses 14 volumes spanning conflicts from the past, present, and even future. I personally own two titles, Harold Buchanan’s Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection – COIN Vol. V and Brian Train’s Colonial Twilight: The French-Algerian War, 1954-62 – COIN Vol. VII with two more on order (Brian Train’s China War: 1937-1941 – COIN Vol. XII and J. Carmichael’s Red Dust Rebellion: The Martian Revolts – COIN Vol XIII). All of which means I have limited familiarity with the COIN system as a player and am far, far from being a COIN designer.

That said….

I recently read an article by Robert Neff called “Rebels At the Gate” in the May 1, 2021 edition of The Korean Times Online. The article discusses events from 1894 on the Korean peninsula focusing on a peasant rebellion that took place amidst the Sino-Japanese War. This passage in particular got me thinking about a possible game design:

The rebels ― identified as the Donghaks ― claimed to number several millions and had sworn to the death that they would rid the country of the foreign vermin. They didn’t in 1893 and, according to Sallie, they didn’t on September 15, 1894:

As a result of the threat, the “doors and windows were barred and the gates guarded by the legation soldiers but the night passed quietly and the excitement has entirely abated.”

However, the abatement was short lived. A few days later, Alice (Sallie’s sister who resided with the Sill family in Seoul), insisted she did not worry about the Chinese and Japanese soldiers rather “the danger now [in Seoul] is from the [Donghaks], Koreans who hate all foreigners and try to exterminate them whenever they can ― so a guard will be kept during the winter at least and perhaps longer.” A few days later she reported the rebels had advanced to a point about 50 kilometers south of Seoul. She insisted she was not worried and expressed the greatest confidence in the American marines guarding the legation in Seoul. 

The attack on Seoul never materialized. However, for the next couple of years, the regions outside Seoul were almost in a constant state of unrest.

Robert Neff, “Rebels at the Gate,” Korea TImes, May 1, 2021

It turns out that 1894 was an important year in Korean history. The book Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century (Michael Shin, Editor, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2014) devotes an entire map titled, “The Year 1894: Gabo Peasants’ War, Sino-Japanese War” to this one year which shows not only significant battles but also the many peasant uprisings.

Korean History in Maps, p. 108

After reading Robert Neff’s article and looking at the 1894 map, the thought, “This really could be a COIN game” crossed my mind. Certainly, the historical events of 1894 are ripe for narrative exploration using the lens of a COIN game. One of the most powerful aspects of the COIN game system is the system’s ability to depict the interactions of multiple, often asymmetrically powered factions. In this case there are four factions:

  • Tonghak (aka Donghan) – “…the growing Christianity, the declining village economy, and certain government mismanagement led to the development of the strong anti-government and anti-foreign sentiments of the conservative Confucian literati as well as those of the Tonghak believers. The Tonghak had been seeking the legitimacy of their religion, exoneration of Ch’oe Che-u, the founder of the Tonghak sect, who was executed in 1864, and the prevention of the spread of foreign religion. At the same time, they were antagonized by illegal taxes which the local officials collected from the peasants.”1
  • Joseon (Korean Government) – “When the Tonghak Uprising became an open rebellion, the weak Korean government asked for Chinese help. Meanwhile, a truce was reached between the Tonghak rebels and the government…[which] issued a twelve-point reform program.”2
  • China – “The Chinese government whose aim was to strengthen its control over Korea sent an army of 3,000 soldiers and a naval force to Korea, violating the agreement which it had signed with the Japanese in April 1885.”3
  • Japan – “Meanwhile, the Japanese government concluded that it now had legitimate cause to fight a war with China, and the time was right. Consequently, it sent an army of 8,000 troops and a naval force to Korea.”4
  • Missionaries/Diplomats/Westerners – I don’t see these as a separate faction, but rather events or “terrain” that factions must be wary of.

These faction snippets can help define victory conditions, as well as thinking about the various Commands and Special Activities of each faction. At this point, my limited familiarity with COIN hinders me to design further but once I get another few games in house as examples I might be better suited to explore a possible design.

Focusing on the year 1894 also seems to make sense as that one year had a good ebb and flow of events. Broadly speaking, the year went though at least three distinct phases.

  • Gabo Peasant War Begins: Starting in January the first peasant uprisings in the South broke out. These uprisings spread into a full rebellion and by May troops from China and Japan arrived. At this point there was turmoil within the Korean government with palace intrigue in Seoul as a deposed king tried to place his son on the throne.
  • Sino-Japanese War Begins: By July, the Chinese and Japanese enter into open conflict. While the two outside powers fight, another peasant uprising begins which unites the Japanese and Daewongun Koreans (an alliance which eventually falters thanks to coup planning by the Daewongun). Interestingly, the Korean government fights alongside the Japanese against the rebels even as they try to implement reforms (carrot and stick approach?).
  • War Moves On/Peasant Rebellion Collapses: By November, the Chinese-Japanese fighting moves into Qing China and the peasant army is defeated with it’s main leader, Jeon Bongjin, captured. He was executed on April 24, 1895 just days after the Treaty of Shimonoseki ends the Sino-Japanese War and the tributary relationship between the Joseon and Qing dynasties.
Korean History in Maps, p. 109

Like I said, I’m no COIN game designer but this is a very interesting topic—and a great thought exercise.


Feature image from The History of Korea by Han Woo-Keun (Seoul: Eul-Yoo Publishing, 1970)

Footnotes:

1-4. Nahm, Andrew C., Introduction to Korean History and Culture, Seoul: Hollym, 1993, p. 158-162.

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 2 Before Citadel

Introduction

As I discuss in a previous post, Trevor Bender’s wargame Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 found in C3i Magazine Nr. 34 (RBM Studios, 2020) is a bit of a misnamed game. While I expected the game to be focused on the actual Battle of Kursk, popularly cited as taking place from July 5 to August 23, 1943, I instead found a game about the summer and fall 1943 campaign season on the center and south portions of the Eastern Front. Now that I learned the mechanics of playing the Battle for Kursk I figure it’s time to start really exploring the Battle of Kursk. To do so I decided to mix both reading history and playing wargames together.

This History to Wargame series focuses on two books, The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz (University of Kansas Press, 1999) and The Battle of Prokhorovka by Christopher Lawrence (Stackpole Books, 2019). The feature wargame is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020).

Lead Up to Citadel (March – June 1943)

Glantz

The Glantz book is an excellent overview of the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to the Battle of Kursk. Indeed, the Battle for Kursk wargame closely mirrors Glantz’s discussion of the lead up to the battle in terms of the units discussed and the area focused upon. Having the Battle for Kursk game map out while reading Glantz helps immensely with understanding the geography.

One part that caught my attention for a possible “what if” was the plans for Operations Habicht and Panther (Glantz, p. 25) which were intended as follow-on attacks from Citadel. But “what if” one reversed the plan? What if the Germans launched Habicht/Panther in May 1943 (Turn C) before the Soviet fortifications in that area are complete with orders to seize Kuyansk and cut the rail line from the south into the Kursk salient?

Shown using Battle for Kursk (RBM Studios, 2020)

At several points in the lead up to the battle, Glantz discusses the “correlation of forces.” He first discusses this on page 65 and again when he shows a German Staff Estimate on page 75. Now I wonder if I need to bounce these figures off another Lawrence book, War By Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, 2017) which makes extensive use of data from the Kursk campaign.

Lawrence

One aspect of the lead up to Operation Citadel that Lawrence emphasizes is the political aspects of the offensive, especially Hitler’s concern about his allies. Lawrence asserts that the need to prop up Italy was an important distraction. Now I better understand one of the alternate starting scenarios in WW2 Deluxe: European Theater (Canvas Temple Publishing, 2018) which has the “Citadel and Avalanche (Summer 1943)” start scenario. These two offensives were not only linked temporally but politically as well.

Lawrence also goes much deeper than Glantz into the discussion of the different tanks and how tank production by the Germans in many ways drove the start date of Citadel. For all the different tanks discussed it is interesting to see how few actual tanks were in a given unit. It is also interesting to see all the different models that were thrown into battle at Kursk. The tank vs. tank battles are certainly played up in the wargames Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 (Academy Games) or Panzer (GMT Games) but Lawrence reminds us that there were many other tanks on the battlefield, including more than a few designed for infantry support.

A possible “what if” scenario that jumped out at me from Lawrence’s preparations was an idea rejected at the June 27 pre-battle commander’s conference. At that meeting Hitler, “rejected a recent memo from Army Group Center to evacuate the Orel bulge so as to create an operational reserve. He also again rejected the idea of a “backhand” strike. He decided it would be better to seize the initiative and attack” (Lawrence, 29). This could be recreated in Battle for Kursk by having the Germans chose a “Reposition” or maybe a “Deploy” Posture on Turn D and evacuating the Orel bulge by realigning forces along the 1800 hex column. This would shorten the front lines in this area from 7 hexes to four hexes. More importantly, the four Infantry Corps and four Panzer Corps within the Orel bulge would take over the new line (4x Infantry Corps?) leaving four Panzer Corps to become that “operational reserve.” It might still be possible to launch Citadel on Turn 1 and not lose the initiative to the Soviets. [In Battle for Kursk if the Germans do not attack by Turn 1 they “lose the initiative” to the Soviets as the German bonus VP marker on Kursk turns Soviet and is placed in Kiev.]

Shown using Battle for Kursk (RBM Studios, 2020)

Battle for Kursk – Alternate Preparations

I decided to play out an alternate start for Battle for Kursk. German High Headquarters ordered Operation Habicht/Panther starting on April 12 (Turn B) while at the same time ordering the evacuation of the Orel bulge. The weather is non-randomized (uses Mud turns as printed on Turn Track).

Why Turn B when I talked Turn C above? First off, the Soviet Fortifications in this area were expected to be completed on Turn C so rather than have the Germans attack into the fortifications the offense jumped-off a turn earlier. Of course, Turn C was historically Mud; maybe I should of used random weather?

Operations Habicht/Panther

FAILURE – Although 1st and 4th Panzer Army were able to cross the Donets, progress was immediately stymied by a stubborn Soviet defense. The Soviets strengthened the Southwest Front to limit further German penetrations. The rasputitsa (Mud on Turn C) brought the offensive to a complete halt.

Orel Bulge

DISASTER – German 2nd Panzer Army realigned allowing the 9th Army to go into operational reserve. By mid-July (Turn 2) the Soviets had strengthened the West and Bryansk Fronts which broke through the German lines at Bryansk and eventually led to the collapse of the northern part of Army Group Center and the capture of Smolensk (VP). The commitment of the new German operational reserve (9th Army) to the defense of Gomel (VP) provided an opportunity for the Soviets to remove the Belgograd salient in August into September (Turns 3-5) by retaking Belgograd, Kharkov (VP), and Sumy from Army Group South.

Endgame

Army Group Center proved unable to hold Vitebsk (VP) in the north. The German 9th Army attempted to defend Gomel (VP) but was ground down and the city lost. 4th Panzer Army was beaten up withdrawing from the Belgograd salient and rendered combat ineffective. The 1st Panzer Army and 6th Army withdrew in fair order across the Dnieper. Final score = +5 German Operational Victory.

Missed the Backhand

In my post-game AAR, it dawned on me that, acting as the staff of Army Group Center, I had totally failed my von Manstein-check and employed my operational reserve in a very poor way. Rather than taking inspiration from General von Manstein and looking for a chance to use the German operational reserve to deliver a ‘backhand blow’ and cut off the deep penetration advances of the Soviet, I instead committed them to a valiant, but ultimately fruitless, defensive stand in front of Gomel.

Next Time – Part 3 Tactical Choices


Feature image “Manstein with tanks” courtesy weaponsandwarfare.com

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 1 Introduction

As I discussed in a previous post, Trevor Bender’s wargame Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 found in C3i Magazine Nr. 34 (RBM Studios, 2020) is a bit of a misnamed game. While I expected the game to be focused on the actual Battle of Kursk, popularly cited as taking place from July 5 to August 23, 1943, I instead found a game about the entire summer and fall 1943 campaign season on the Eastern Front focused on the area covered by German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Now that I learned the mechanics of playing the Battle for Kursk wargame I figure it’s time to start really digging into the history of the Battle of Kursk. To do so, I decided to mix both reading history and playing wargames together.

Books

For My Kursk Kampaign I am primarily reading two books. The first is The Battle of Kursk by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House (University of Kansas Press, 1999). This 472-page volume provides an excellent moderately-deep look at the forces, leaders, and situation leading up to and through the battle.

The Battle of Kursk

The second book I am using is The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Clash at Kursk, The Largest Clash of Armor in History by Christopher A. Lawrence of The Dupuy Institute (Stackpole Books abridged edition, 2019). This 639-page(!) volume is a very in-depth look at the actual battle around Kursk with a deep focus on the events of July 9-13 around Prokhorovka. Actually, The Battle of Prokhorovka laser-focuses on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps from July 9-18. In terms of the Battle for Kursk wargame, this is just two (!) counters.

The Battle of Prokhorovka

My plan it to read both books together but alternate between them by dividing the reading by different periods of the battle. For each section I will also look at wargames to support my learning:

  1. Preparations – Glantz chpts. 1-3 followed by Lawrence chpts. 1-2
  2. The Battle
    • “German Assault” (~July 5-9) – Glantz chpts. 4 / Lawrence chpts. 3-7
    • “Stopping the Blitzkreig” (~July 10-15) – Glantz chpts. 5-6 / Lawrence chpts. 8-13
  3. The Aftermath – Glantz chpts. 7-8 / Lawrence chpts. 14-16

Wargames

Campaign

As already mentioned, the primary wargame I will use to go along with my reading is Trevor Bender’s Battle for Kursk, The Tigers are Burning, 1943. This game geographically covers the Eastern Front from Velike Luki (hex 1200) in the North to Taganrog (hex 2724) on the Sea of Azov. Historically, this was the front of German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Units are Corps for the Germans (approx. 25,000 troops) and Armies for the Soviets (approx. 40,000 troops). Each turn is approximately 2-4 weeks of time but is flexible to represent operational tempo and weather. The four preliminary turns (Turns A-D) each cover about a month starting on March 18 (Turn A), April 12 (Turn B), May 3 (Turn C), and June 12 (Turn D). “Regular” turns begin on Turn 1 (July 5) and play through Turn 8 (Nov 3). The most important mechanic in Battle for Kursk is the Posture Selection Segment. The Posture chosen by a player determines the amount of Replacement Points, mobility, and ability to engage in combat for that turn.

The Battle for Kursk – Set Up

My goal is to actually play Battle for Kursk at various points during my readings to try out several “what ifs” or simply better explore the situation as it existed historically. Decisions made in the game may be limited based on what I read.

Battles

To a lesser degree I also plan on incorporating two tactical wargames into my reading. The first is Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel – Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2018). The second tactical wargame I will try to use is Panzer, 2nd Printing from GMT Games (2012). I fear my use of Panzer may be limited as I wait for the only expansion module I lack – Panzer Expansion #1: The Shape of Battle – The Eastern Front, 2nd Printing (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) to deliver.

Now that I look at it, the scale of Storms of Steel and Panzer may be too finite. Individual tanks and squads of infantry at 100m per hex may be good for looking at a particular small engagement but too much for this exploration. As I look around my gaming shelves, I also see Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945 (GDW, 1992) which is platoon-level units and 250m per hex. This First Battle series title may just be playable enough to make it to the table as part of this exploration.

While I may be tempted to play out a tactical battle, more realistically I think my focus will be more on an evaluation of published scenarios as compared to the history I am reading. It may also delve a bit into the equipment and parse how certain vehicles are depicted in the different games.

Air War?

As I start this exploration, my copy of Wing Leader: Legends 1937-1945 (GMT Games, forthcoming in 2021) is “At the Printer” meaning it may deliver sometime in mid-2021. If it delivers in time I would certainly like to play the campaign system which focuses on the air battles supporting the Battle of Kursk. I really want to explore a point Glantz makes on page 63 in his book; “Red aircraft might be inferior to their German counterparts, but they were certainly sufficient in numbers to deny the Luftwaffe undisputed command of the air.”

Vasilevsky or Vasilevskii?

A note on terminology. The Russian transliterations used by Glantz, Lawrence, and the various wargame designers are different from one another. To the greatest extent possible, I will use the transliteration in the text I am discussing at that moment but will fall back on those found in Glantz when necessary.

Next Time – Part 2 Before Citadel


Feature image “Walter Model with General lieutenant (later General der Infanterie) Friedrich Schulz” courtesy dedefense.blogspot.com

#RockyReads for #Wargame – Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare 1939-1945 by Alfred Price (Frontline Books, 2017)

BLUF

A good general history of electronic warfare in Europe during WWII that tells not only the technical advances but also the intelligence battle behind them. Efforts to expand the story into the Pacific feel incomplete and tacked on. Possibly a dated account; no references.

EW Past

My first assignment in the US Navy was with a Tactical Electronic Warfare aviation squadron – EA-6B Prowlers. Since then I have always had a soft-spot in my heart for the “Battle of the ‘Trons.” There is much talk in military circles these days about cyber warfare, but at the same time classic Electronic Warfare, EW, keeps coming up again. Somewhere I stumbled upon a recommendation for this book and put it on my wishlist. Christmas 2020 it arrived in the RockyMountainNavy home.

Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare 1939-1945 is a good, easy narrative to read. Although billed as account of EW in all of World War II, the book is clearly focused on Europe first. The Pacific parts feel very tacked on and incomplete. Instruments of Darkness is also in many ways an intelligence story. The “Battle of the Beams” was not only a see-saw battle of technical innovation and advancement vs countermeasures but also the story of the cat ‘n mouse battle between scientists and engineers and the airmen they served. In many ways this was the enjoyable surprise of Instruments of Darkness and is a good deal of the appeal the narrative delivers.

According to the front matter of the book, the original was first published in 1967, expanded in 1977, and revised in 2005. Although this edition was printed in 2017 it appears to be straight reprint of the 2005 version. The dating of Instruments of Darkness is important to me because it gets directly to the sources Dr. Price may have used. I say “may have” since the sources are unknown given there are no footnotes or endnotes (not even a References section). The Author’s Acknowledgments to the first edition (reproduced in this edition) credit several individuals and some official records. The end result is a book that appears most likely to be based on oral histories and declassified records of its day. With today being 2021 meaning more than 15 years past the 2005 “revision” I have to wonder what other information may be available.

Rocky’s Thoughts

Best Value

General history; intelligence angle.

Weakness

Possibly dated account; lack of references.

Wargame Application

Chapter 1 “Battle of the Beams” is, to the best of my knowledge, not really reflected in any Battle of Britain wargame. Later chapters covering the protection of bombers over Germany is likewise not depicted in any wargame I know own.

Citation

Price, Alfred, Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare 1939-1945, Yorkshire: Frontline Books, 2017.

#Wargame Wednesday / History to #Wargame – Bias discovered in Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolutiongames.us, 2018)

In a previous post I talked about the lack of historical background provided in Konigsberg, The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018). A comment on Twitter from Scott Mansfield (@scotts_table) on that post asked:

Interesting post. With what you know of the operation and with limited designer notes do you feel Stefan portrays the decisions of Konigsberg accurately or does it feel like his well developed mechanic (chit pull) is what comes through with the narrative taking backseat?

Hey Scott, thanks for the lead-in to this post!

Photo by RockyMountainNavy Gamer

After playing the game I still can’t tell if Konigsberg is an ‘accurate’ depiction of the battle portrayed. What I can tell you is that the game is very engaging. The engagement comes from the interaction of two game mechanics, the ‘well-developed’ chit-pull and 4.0 Command, as well as a challenge to my own biases. Let me explain.

Konigsberg uses that ‘well-developed’ chit-pull mechanic in the best possible way. This comes from how the chit-pull and the rules for Command interact. The interaction creates several factors that make play engaging:

  • Random: Every turn the Command Chits are drawn randomly from the cup (4.1.1 Command Chit Draws)
  • Limited: The Turn Track tells how many Command Chits can be drawn for each force (German, 2nd Belorussian (2BF) or 3rd BF); once this limit is reached NO MORE can be activated for that force (4.1.1)
  • Higher HQ: During the game, extra commands chits (2BR & 3BR for the Soviets or HGM for the Germans) enter the game awarding ‘bonus’ activations (4.1.2 & 4.1.3)
  • Independent Units: When a Command Chit is drawn, the player can activate all units under that command as well as independent combat units (2 for Soviets, three for Germans) that are within the Command Range of the HQ (4.2.1, 4.2.2, 4.2.3, & 4.2.4)

Accurate, but Game

Konigsberg is in effect a race game. One side (the Soviets) are trying to grab as many victory hexes as possible in a given amount of time. The other side (Germans) are trying to delay the Soviets as much as possible. The chit-pull mechanic and Command rules ensure that the players must be flexible in their planning, taking opportunities as they come. The Soviets must maneuver their HQs to keep the front moving. The Germans have to position their HQs to build a flexible defense in depth that not only slows down the Soviets but also maintains integrity as it inevitably collapses.

Is this accurate? From what (little) I have read yes. More importantly, it is engaging.

Revealing My Biases

For me, the lack of historical background in Konigberg forces me to look not only at the game mechanics more closely to divine what I am supposed to do, but the lack of historical ‘prejudice’ means I approach the game in a much more open-minded manner than I usually do. As I played Konigsberg I found myself paying much more attention to command, unit capabilities, and terrain. I came to realize that so often I use my historical knowledge as a form of bias in my decision making during play. I mean, we all ‘know’ it is folly to mount an airborne operation to seize key bridges across the Rhine, right? So why would we ever do it? In Konigsberg, my lack of historical understanding meant I didn’t know ‘what works’ (or didn’t) which forced me to fall back on my understanding of the strategy and doctrine of the time. It made me think about what I was doing.

Conclusion -or- Why to Play?

In my first play of Konigsberg the end Victory Conditions saw the Germans holding seven Victory Point Hexes. This is a Soviet Historical Victory. In a way this tells me that the game is ‘accurate’ in that it can recreate the historical condition. More important, however, I discovered through this play of Konigsberg that ‘knowing’ too much can actually be detrimental to my play experience. This play of Konigsberg taught me that the combination of game mechanics and the absence of my own bias still can deliver a very engaging game; engaging in that I thought my way thru this game more deeply than most games I recently played. In this case, the lack of historical background I lamented before actually delivered a better game.


Feature image “Knock out German tank, 1945″ courtesy WWII in Color (yes, I know it’s B&W).

History to #Wargame -or- What is a wargame without history?

THIS weekend I put Konigsberg: The Soviet Attack on East Prussia, 1945 (Revolution Games, 2018) on the gaming table. One of the reasons I traded for the game is that I really like the chit-pull mechanic in the game that makes it very friendly. I also was interested in the topic as I don’t have many late-war games set on the Eastern Front. I certainly have many early war titles (or even full war) but my late war games tend to be set on the Western Front. So I picked up this game to learn more about the period. Unfortunately, what I discovered is I need to teach myself more than I expected.

Some background for Konigsberg is found on the Revolutions Game website for the game:

Covering the Soviet attack in East Prussia in 1945. The game handles the 20 first days of the attack starting on the 13th of January 1945. The 3rd Belorussian Front under command of Cherniakhovsky launches an attack into the northeast of East Prussia while the 2nd Belorussian Front, commanded by Rokossovsky, one day later starts an attack from the south east. However, Army Group Mitte, under the command of Reinhardt, puts up an astonishing defence desperately pushing the Soviets back.

The time is however on the Soviet side and when the defence finally crumbles there is nothing left to withstand the Soviet troops to ravage the country.

I totally understand that the ad copy on a publishers website is to ‘whet your appetite’ for a game. In no way is it meant to be a comprehensive study of the subject. However, as I studied Konigsberg I discovered that, surprisingly, that is all the background given in any of the game content. I guess I’m spoiled because I ‘expect’ wargames to include some sort of historical background. Alas, Konigsberg does not. The game does include Players Notes which are a strategy guide to playing the game but they don’t include any historical comments.

Does that really matter? Well, yes.

Wanting to learn more of the history of Konigsberg I consulted my library. I found a few works that presented a broad narrative of the events of January 1945 (a date, mind you, that only appears in the website ad copy but never in the rule book or player aids). I discovered that even pinning down the start date of the game was a bit, uh, dicey. I ‘think’ Konigsberg starts somewhere around 17 or 18 January 1945 because Warsaw was cleared by Soviet forces on 17 January. Tilsit was taken on 20 January which fits with what the Soviet player might achieve on Turn 1 (each turn is 2 days).

Reading the history helped me understand why some of the Random Events in Konigsberg may have been included in the game, like “Soviet Atrocity” or “Stalin Interferes.” Indeed, some of my library works, like Max Hastings’ Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945 heavily emphasized this issue. But even after reading some of the history I still struggled to play the game.

Looking a bit further, I recalled a 2011 Russian TV series, Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East, and went looking for the relevant episode set around Konigsberg. Maybe this would be helpful; approach the history from the Russian perspective. Watching the episode I was struck by how similar it was in many ways to what Max Hastings wrote.

Then it hit me – it’s not that I don’t understand (or miss) the history in Konigsberg, it’s that I don’t understand where the designer is coming from.

Konigsberg has no Designers Notes. Without such notes I don’t understand what perspective the designer comes from and what they are trying to present to me. Designer’s Notes are the perfect place to tell players not only what inspired the game, but also to tell players what the “message” the designer is trying to deliver. It might be something as simple as “another Eastern Front tank game, but with cards” or it might be something deeper like “a game that reconsiders the role of indigenous peoples in a foreigners revolution.” Whatever the message is I find it helps me understand the game more. Not the rules, but the “meta” of the game.

I’m not saying I can’t play or understand games like Konigsberg if they don’t have Designer’s Notes. Sometimes one can figure it out. But having those notes certainly helps me to see what I am exploring and guides my learning, whether I agree with the message or not.

History to #Wargame – Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (www.silvertailbooks.com, 2020)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Harrier 809: The Epic Story of How a Small Band of Heroes Won Victory in the Air Against Impossible Odds by Rowland White (Silvertail Books, 2020)

Photo by RockyMountainNavy

I remember the Falklands War on TV. I was a student in middle school at the time and absolutely enamored with the weapons of the Cold War. Here was a “major power” taking on an upstart South American country. Even after nearly 40 years, it is good to see that more of the history of the Falklands War is coming out, in the most recent case in the form of the book Harrier 809 which details the life of 809 Naval Air Squadron which was formed after the war started.

There is lots of goodness in the pages of Harrier 809. My personal favorite parts include the story of how 809 Squadron stood up. It really is a good lesson in trying to put together a unit in a “come as you are” war; lessons that I hope the US Navy and Air Force don’t ever have to face (but in reality, it could very well be the reality). I also love the factoid that the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough built several 1:24 scale Airfix models of the Harrier to test new camouflage schemes. I use this to show my boys that their “little hobby” can actually make a real difference!

At the time of the Falklands War I was big into playing Harpoon 3rd Edition (GDW, 1981). As much as I wanted to, the only real air combat games I owned at the time was Foxbat & Phantom (SPI, 1977) which was NOT a very good game to play around with too much. It would not be until 1987 that JD Webster and GDW published Air Superiority that was much better suited at depicting air combat during the Falklands (including rules for the famous VIFF -vectored in-flight- maneuvers).

Over time more games on the Falklands War came out. I own a few like the Harpoon 3rd Edition supplement Harpoon: South Atlantic War – Conflict in the Falklands/Malvinas, 1982 ‐ GDW first edition (1991) or the later Harpoon 4 version South Atlantic War: Battle for the Falklands – Scenarios for the 1982 South Atlantic Campaign ‐ Clash of Arms second edition (2002) that included a ground combat module for the Harpoon system. Not long after the actual war I acquired the Wargamer Magazine ‘zine game Port Stanley: Battle for the Falklands (3W, 1984) that I remember being disappointed in as it focused more on the ground combat over the glamorous air and grueling sea battles I so loved. (My perspective over time has changed as I have come to better appreciate the very challenging ground campaign).

More recently I acquired Mrs. Thatcher’s War: The Falklands (White Dog Games, 2017). Being a solo game it is much different than other games that look at the war. It also focuses at something between the operational and strategic levels of war with the air battles treated in a more abstract manner.

Over the years I have occasionally seen rumors and hints that Lee Brimmicombe-Wood might make a Falklands version of his raid game Downtown (GMT Games, 2004). As often as I hear the rumors they are crushed. I’ll admit, this would be an insta-buy for me!

One game that everybody points out as a really good take on the Falklands War is Where There is Discord: War in the South Atlantic (Fifth Column Games, 2009). I don’t own it, and given the market prices for the game -between $150-200- I don’t think I’m going to be acquiring that title anytime soon.

At the end of the day I feel the Falklands War is an under appreciated topic in wargames. There certainly is fertile ground for tactical Land/Sea/Air games with the interaction of the many weapons systems. I also feel that the operational level game, from the level of the Task Force Commander has not really been explored. As more recent scholarship has revealed, there was also much more going on at the strategic level than I think is generally understood. Harrier 809 has certainly whetted my appetite for playing some Falklands War scenarios – I’m just going to have to go a bit retro in my wargame selections to do so!

#Wargame Wednesday – History to Wargame – Washington’s Crossing: A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776-1777 (revolutiongames.us, 2012)

An aperiodic look at books and wargames that go together. The wargames and books presented here are both drawn from my personal collection and do not necessarily reflect the best of either category…but if I’m showing them to you I feel they are worth your time to consider!

Washington’s Crossing

“A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove” – George Washington

The cost of it to George Washington himself was greater than anyone knew except members of his family. Twenty years after the event, when Washington retired to his beloved Mount Vernon, his stepson remembered that in the night, “he would frequently, when sitting with his family, appear absent; his lips would move, his hand be raised, and he would evidently seem under the influence of thoughts which had nothing to do with the quiet scene around him.” To the end of his life, George Washington continued to relive the desperate struggle of the dark days in 1776, and the crossing of the Delaware. – David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing, p. 362.

Bibliography

Fischer, David Hackett; Washington’s Crossing, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Tucker, Phillip Thomas Tucker PhD; George Washington’s Surprise Attack: A New Look at the Battle the Decided the Fate of America, New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014.

Washington’s Crossing: A Game of the Winter Campaign of 1776-1777 (Campaigns of the American Revolution Volume 1), designed by Roger Miller (Revolution Games, 2012).