Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Mad Narratives and FICINT with @gmtgames @Toadkillerdog @ArmyMadSci @JerryHendrixII @august_cole @peterwsinger

Wargaming China

If you are a professional wargamer and you are not paying attention to the work of the U.S. Army Futures Command Mad Scientist Laboratory you are sadly behind the times. To help you stay abreast of happenings I call your attention to a recent article from Ian Sullivan, Special Advisor for Analysis and ISR at the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, US Army Training and Doctrine Command. Mr. Sullivan can often also be found writing for GMT Insider with features like his recent “We’re Moving Through Kashmir: Playing Next War: India-Pakistan or “All Along the Demilitarized Zone – Playing Next War: Koreaseries of articles.

In the Mad Scientist Lab article, “337. “No Option is Excluded” — Using Wargaming to Envision a Chinese Assault on Taiwan,” Sullivan uses designer Mitchell Land’s Next War: Taiwan (GMT Games, 2014 – to be updated in a forthcoming 2nd Printing) to explore just such an event, for good reason:

In November 2020, I wrote a previous post arguing that wargaming can help us visualize what the threat can be.  It can help us imagine it and provide context to our thinking about it.  It can help us check our assumptions, and perhaps even offer thoughts and ideas that we would never have considered.  It will not tell us the future, or lay out with certainty what will happen.  But it can offer us an opportunity to prevent a failure of imagination of the kind warned against in the 9/11 Commission Report.  By imagining the threat, we may be in a position to make better decisions during moments of crisis.  This time, I’m using a copy of GMT Games “Next War: Taiwan” to help visualize what such a fight could entail.

MSL 337

Sullivan’s article appeared in the same week as strategist and retired US. Navy Captain Jerry Hendrix wrote his thoughts on the “Davidson Window,” and his interpretation of testimony from out-going Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral Phil Davison. Admiral Davidson observed that China might try to reintegrate Taiwan “in the next six years.” Sullivan uses a narrative built from playing Next War: Taiwan to tell us a very important story:

In an effort to guard against the failure of imagination, I will add a narrative to help explain what happened in the game.  Rudyard Kipling once said that if “history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”  Narrative writing is a powerful, and by spinning it around the bones of a game, I hope to help imagine what a fight could be.  Tom Clancy and Larry Bond used this method in their novel Red Storm Risingwhere they crafted a narrative around the results of a series of scenarios they played of the wargame Harpoon.  My effort here, however, is intended to be more in the spirit of Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: August 1985, originally published in 1978, and intended to help NATO leaders imagine what a fight with the Warsaw Pact could look like.

MSL 337

Sullivan’s narrative, written as a Report to Congress after a Chinese victory, is actually a great example of “Fictional Intelligence,” or FICINT. Unfortunately, the creators of FICINT, P.W. Singer and August Cole, might disagree.

FICINT

In another recent Mad Scientist Laboratory episode of their podcast, Convergence, guests P.W. Singer and August Cole, co-authors of Ghost Fleet and the leading example of Useful Fiction (or as Cole and Singer like to call it, Fictional Intelligence – FICINT), talked about what FICINT is:

In today’s podcast, Messrs. Singer and Cole discuss the power of fictional intelligence; the importance of storytelling, narrative, and verisimilitude in crafting tales of future possibilities that resonate and inform; and the significance of imagination.  The following bullet points highlight key insights from our discussion:

FicInt, also known as fictional intelligence or ‘useful fiction,’ combines extensive research and futures forecasting with worldbuilding and narrative, one of the oldest forms of communication. The finished product involves an engaging and plausible storyline to introduce readers to novel trends and problems.

FicInt has four “rules of the real” that separate it from science fiction:  research must be embedded in the story (usually via footnotes); the story must take place in a real-world setting; the story must involve real world people; and the timeline must be realistic. Using these rules, any white paper, report, or executive summary can be distilled into its key themes and drafted into narrative.

FicInt is also distinguished from science fiction via its engagement with the policy community. Fictional intelligence strives to react and be useful to the policy community, and thus engages with policy experts before, during, and after its development. This engagement may involve commissioned stories, workshops on how to create FicInt, or briefings on the end product.

The goal of FicInt is often to expose and prevent a possible future, rather than predict it. By creating plausible storylines, the security industry can adapt and develop programs and technologies to create an alternate future that prepares for the situations exposed by FicInt.

The value of narrative, compared to non-fiction research, can be found in three elements:

Understanding:  Narrative effectively packages information the way our brains are designed to absorb it, creating lasting messages.

Action:  By connecting information to our emotions, narrative is more likely to promote action.

Connection:  People are driven to share narratives, leading the audience of FicInt to become part of its marketing. This virality contributes to the creation of a network of people with increased understanding of potential futures.

Establishing FicInt credibility involves connection with target audiences and the real-world people featured in the narratives and responding to their feedback. This process ensures the end story is as accurate and plausible as possible.

MSL 332

I was surprised they didn’t mention it in their podcast interview, but Cole and Singer see wargames as very distinct from FICINT. In a post where I discussed narratives and wargaming (“#Wargame Wednesday – Narratives” 25 Nov 2020) I dug into some of Cole and Singer’s thoughts on FICINT and wargaming based on a journal article they wrote. To summarize, I think Cole and Singer confuse “simulations” and “war games” and thus do not give proper credit to the narrative power of wargames. I hope that Ian Sullivan’s article above shows the weakness of their position and lets us rightly focus on the narrative power of wargaming.


Feature image courtesy cdn.newsapi.com.au

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Do wargames pursue a lost cause? Thoughts after reading Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment by Cory M. Pfarr (McFarland & Co. Inc., 2019)

In his book Longstreet at Gettysburg: A Critical Reassessment (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2019) author Cory M. Pfarr doesn’t simply try to retell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg from the perspective of Lieutenant General James Longstreet but instead he addresses Longstreet’s critics. As Pfarr writes in the Prologue:

This book significantly addresses Longstreet critics and historians who wrote about Gettysburg prior to 1965 because those parties largely created the biased and often misinterpreted source material used by many modern historians. In most cases, pre-1965 critic or historian references are juxtaposed against modern historian claims, and often both assertions are found to be tainted with similar Lost Cause falsehoods that have stood the test of time with little or no supporting evidence. In other words, it was deemed not to be prudent, or actually possible, to discuss modern historians’ treatment of Longstreet’s Gettysburg performance without also discussing older critics and historians. With that said, the main focus of this work is certainly on how old, erroneous Lost Cause claims about Longstreet at Gettysburg persist into many modern historians’ accounts.

Longstreet at Gettysburg, “Prologue: Abandoned by History,” p. 15

While Cory Pfarr focuses on the critics and historians who pilloried or otherwise studied Longstreet in Longstreet at Gettysburg, the reader gets a master class in narrative deconstruction. How did Longstreet go from being described by Robert E. Lee himself as “my old war horse” to singularly being blamed for the loss at Gettysburg because he supposedly disobeyed orders? The critics are many and the writing by historians prolific. Pfarr helps us discover that Longstreet was victimized by a groupthink narrative that was repeated and reinforced from one book to another. As Harold M. Knudsen writes in the Forward, “Audiences were trained to believe what writers said was gospel, rather than educated to examine the true records” (p. 1).

Lost Cause Wargaming?

Reading Longstreet at Gettysburg challenged many narratives in my mind that coexist with wargames. Even before reading Pfarr’s book, I never fully bought into the Lost Cause claims that General Robert E. Lee was an infallible man. Nor did I buy the narrative that Gettysburg was the singularly most important battle of the American Civil War and the high-water mark of the Confederacy. But somewhere deep in my mind those narratives had been heard, and maybe even reinforced through playing wargames. After all, who doesn’t want to play a Gettysburg wargame and upend history with a win as the Confederates?

Most importantly, wargames are opportunities for players to interact with history. I can read a history book on the Battle of Gettysburg and (maybe) passively learn something. If we were to describe reading books in terms of John Boyd’s famous OODA Loop, books allow us to Observe and Orient only. However, it is a far different learning experience to actively command the forces on the field of battle that day (even if they are only tiny cardboard chits), make decisions, and experience the outcome. In effect, the learning process from playing a wargame makes us go through all portions of the OODA Loop—Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. But for the outcomes of wargames to be fully understood you must understand the underpinnings—and especially any biases— of the game design and narrative. All of which means you need to evaluate the game.

The underlying message in Longstreet at Gettysburg is that one should not blindly accept the “historical record.” This caution applies equally to a book or a wargame. Wargame designers may consciously (or even unconsciously) use game mechanisms or a narrative that perpetuates myths rather than critically analyzing them and evaluating if they are truly appropriate for that wargame.

Mythbusting Narratives

Take for example a piece I wrote earlier this year in “History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices.” While reading books by David Glantz and Lawrence Christopher on the Battle of Kursk, I played Frank Chadwick’s Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front (GDW, 1993) and encountered a particular scenario:

According to the scenario set-up information, this engagement portrays an attack by advance elements of the Liebstandarte SS Adolph Hitler Division against the defending Soviet 170th and 181st Tank Brigades of the 18th Tank Corps starting around 1000 hours. The scenario points out this important part of the battle, “The intensity of the fighting is summed up in a single incident: one of the KVs of the Soviet 395th Tank Battalion, damaged and burning, rammed a Tiger tank at full speed, destroying both vehicles in the resulting explosion.”

Problem is I can’t find this event in either the Glantz or Lawrence book.

Glantz doesn’t go down to the battalion level, but reports that the 170th Tank Brigade on July 12, “lost its commander and as many as thirty of its sixty tanks” (p. 189). The types of tanks lost are not specified, nor is the loss of a KV-1 against a Tiger called out. Lawrence recounts the battles of the 170th Tank Brigade on pages 314-319 and notes that by noon (Moscow time) it, “had lost 60% of its tanks, its brigade commander had burned to death in his tank, and one battalion commander was mortally wounded” (p. 316). Lawrence notes the 170th Tank Brigade consisted of T-34 and T-70 tanks; no KV-1s were assigned to it. It was not until later in the day that battles against Tiger tanks were fought, and then it was elements of the 181st Tank Brigade against Tigers likely from the Totenkopf SS Panzer Regiment. Lawrence does point to data that the Adolph Hitler SS Division was down one (1) Panzer VI (Tiger) by July 13 (p. 341), but also shows that the only KV-1s on the battlefield, a single track in the XXIX Tank Corps and another single track in the 1529th Heavy SP Artillery Regiment, both were operational at the end of July 12 (p. 342).

History to #Wargame – My Kursk Kampaign – Part 3 Tactical Choices”

This example touches on just one of many myths in wargaming. The problem is we, as wargamers, don’t always know the assumptions or biases of a designer or what myths the game may be built on—or even perpetuating. I mean, do you know of any World War II tactical armored combat game that doesn’t make the German Tiger tank neigh-invincible? Those wargames perpetuate a myth, much like games will award “elite” unit status to the (always) white-on-black Waffen SS units. Sometimes the status is earned, but just as often (arguably more often) it is simply not true.

Critical Reassessment

Surprisingly, Longstreet at Gettysburg is the first book to take on Longstreet’s critics in any sort of comprehensive manner. Through Pfarr’s analysis of Longstreet, I see a different view of Gettysburg. In turn, I then ask myself if there is any good single wargame title that “gets it right.” This is not to say that a game that is “wrong” is not worth playing; I’m just saying that before one makes any judgements on history they should be aware of the biases of the history, game mechanisms, and maybe even the designer.

Maybe the wargame community needs to look at ourselves again and ensure that our games are not perpetuating myths or misrepresenting history and if they are, understand why and make sure that is the right decision.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command by Kent Masterson Brown, Chapel Hill: @UNC_Press, 2021 (mentions @RBMStudio1 @compassgamesllc @MultiManPub @markherman54)

As a wargamer, there are a few battles one can count on to be the subject of a wargame. The number of Battle of the Bulge wargames is uncountable and, in a similar way, the Battle of Gettysburg has been getting the wargame royalty treatment since the Avalon Hill Game Co. published Gettysburg by the Father of Wargaming, Charles S. Roberts, way back in 1958. The book world is much the same—it is no stretch of the imagination to say that Gettysburg may be one of the most written about battles in American history. Which means that picking up any Gettysburg book, or wargame, runs the risk of of it simply being a rehash of the old.

Author Kent Masterson Brown, in his new book Meade at Gettysburg: A Study in Command shows us General George Gordon Meade in a new light that takes on many of his detractors. The criticism started quickly after the Battle of Gettysburg, led by none other than President Lincoln himself. As Brown tells us:

Much of the criticism emanated from Lincoln’s notion that Lee’s army, somehow, could have been destroyed if Meade had only vigorously pursued the enemy then blindly attacked it when the Army of the Potomac came face to face with it on 13 July. Incredibly, no civilian official from inside Lincoln’s administration ever gave Meade credit for out-generaling General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and thereby delivering the first victory of the Army of the Potomac since its formation in November 1861. Few historians have done so either.

“Epilogue”, p. 371

In Meade at Gettysburg, Kent Masterson Brown uses published and unpublished papers as well as diaries, letters, and memoirs to try and gain a better understanding of Meade at the Battle of Gettysburg. He does so by looking at Meade in four phases: From assuming command on 28 June 1863 through the advance to Gettysburg on 1 July, his tactical actions on 2 July, his decisions on 3 July, and the pursuit of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army after the battle.

Book to Wargame…Almost

When I first picked up Meade at Gettysburg I had every intention of playing one of the two Gettysburg wargames I have in my collection. The most recent title is Mark Herman’s Gettysburg (RBM Studios, 2018) which appeared in C3i Magazine Nr. 32. The second game in my collection is Eric Lee Smith’s Battle Hymn Volume 1: Gettysburg and Pea Ridge (Compass Games, 2018). However, as I read the book, I discovered that neither game is really “the big picture” of the operational campaign as it developed. For that I probably need to get Roads to Gettysburg II: Lee Strikes North from Compass Games (2018) but the price tag of $194 is a bit rich for me. So instead of playing a wargame and commenting how the book relates to it, I’m instead going to talk about how several places in the book made me think about how we play wargames and what they sometimes get right, but more often get wrong.

Maps

In wargames, we take the mapboard for granted. Indeed, a mapboard is often a necessity by defintion for a wargame. It is amazing to me that Meade and many of his generals fought the Gettysburg campaign without a decent map. As Brown tells us, “What Meade could not discern from the maps were any topographical features such as hill and ridges. Meade was using what were called residential maps, and they did not include such topographical features, although the Frederick County, Maryland and Adam County, Pennsylvania, maps provided outlines of the South Mountain range, but nothing more” (p. 57). Further, not only did Meade lack detailed maps, but he had a hard time understanding where his own forces were, much less that of the enemy. To use more modern terms, the Union generals in the field had no “common operating picture.” Indeed, Meade’s understanding of both the terrain and location of his own forces was so poor that on 1 July he ordered his corps commanders to sketch “their respective corps, their artillery, infantry, and trains” and to share this sketch with the army headquarters (p. 208).

The lack of maps and hidden force location is hard to duplicate in a wargame which all-too-often delivers a “God’s-Eye,” information-rich view of the battlefield. For example, Roads to Gettysburg II is played on a map with lots of information—far more than either army commander had at hand at the time.

What Meade never had—a detailed map and clear disposition of forces (Courtesy BGG User Brian @kasch18)

There are ways that a poor map can be duplicated in a game, but the cost in playability is astronomical. Maybe a computerized version can simulate the gradual “discovery” of map details as units move and scouts operate, but I prefer tabletop wargames not screens. The reality is the lack of maps, topographical knowledge, and “common operating picture” that Meade faced at Gettysburg is not easily duplicated in a wargame.

What Year Did You Graduate West Point?

Whether one wants to admit it or not, whenever you play a historical wargame you almost always, inevitably, benefit from hindsight. Nobody wants to be like Sickles’ Third Corps and push out ahead only to be shattered by Longstreet. Often times players do things “differently” than in the past because they “know” what works…and doesn’t (didn’t?). On the other hand, sometimes players want to “try to get it right” and do one-better than history. After reading Meade at Gettysburg I found just such a moment in Meade’s orders to Reynolds’ First and Eleventh Corps: “Meade’s directive that the First Corps, followed by the Eleventh Corps, ‘advance on Gettysburg’ was not an order directing Reynolds to occupy the town or hold a position near there; rather, Meade intended for the presence of the First Corps along the turnpike axis to cause the enemy to coalesce and show its intentions” (p. 99).

Kent Masterson Brown in Meade at Gettysburg demonstrates the power of understanding not what we know today, but what the historical participants understood when describing Reynold’s mission as assigned by Meade on 30 June:

To force the enemy to concentrate and deploy so as to reveal its intentions was what Meade ordered Reynolds and his First Corps—followed by the Eleventh Corps—to do; it is identified as one of the most dangerous tasks in mid-nineteenth century warfare. Th strategy requires using an “Advance Guard,” according to Dennis Hart Mahan, professor of military and civil engineering and the science of war at West Point. Mahan published a book on the use of an advance guard in 1847, entitled An Elementary Treatise on Advance-Guard, Out-Post and Detachment Service of Troops and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in the Presence of an Enemy. Mahan taught military science to Generals Meade, Reynolds, Slocum, Sedgwick, Hancock, Howard, and many others in the Army of the Potomac when they were West Point cadets. General Reynolds and Mahan had in fact taught strategy and tactics together at West Point just before the war. Likewise, many of Lee’s lieutenants studie under Mahan at Wet Point, and Lee was superintendent of West Point during Mahan’s tenure. Much of what Mahan taught was incorporated in the Revised Regulations of the Army of the United States of 1861.

“Force Him to Show His Hand”, p. 101-102

One of the key requirements of a leader is to understand the commander’s intent. As wargamers, we don’t always have a professional military education and, if we do, it more often than not the military science of today and not that of the past. In Meade at Gettysburg, author Kent Masterson Brown explains Meade’s intent as his fellow generals likely understood it. After reading the book, now I understand it too. This new understanding totally changes how I would play out a 1 July scenario in a Battle of Gettysburg wargame.

The Tactical General

The Army of the Potomac was about to enter the struggle of its life. What happened on 1 July was difficult enough. Now, the insubordination of a corps commander had placed not only his own Third Corps but the entire army at risk. No cavalry screened the army’s left flank. The troops would have to fight as they had never done before, and even that might not be enough, given the sheer magnitude of the attack the enemy was about to unleash on Meade’s left. Although Meade was the operational commander of the army, he was about to take tactical command of the fighting on 2 July.

“I Wish to God You Could, Sir”, p. 228

While Meade at Gettysburg focuses on the operational campaign, for 2 and 3 July it digs into the tactical level. That’s because Meade personally took command on the battlefield. This situation is most often what wargamers experience—direct tactical command of the pieces on the board. Here is your chance to “out-general” General Lee (or Rob, your longtime wargame partner). As a wargamer, this part of Meade at Gettysburg was what I could most easily relate to. It was also very disappointing. That’s because I suddenly felt “railroaded” by certain wargames.

Take for instance Mark Herman’s Gettysburg. The game starts on 1 July with Buford’s cavalry to the northwest of Gettysburg as they were historically. The Union First and Eleventh Corps enter on turn 1 from the south again like history. It is at this point the game diverges from history.

Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is played for up to six turns (three days) and victory is determined as follows:

The game usually ends at the conclusion of game turn 6. However, if at the end of any turn the Confederate player can trace a continuous road path from Entry Point A to any one or combination of Entry Points I, J, or K, uninterrupted by Union units or Zones of Control, not Influence, they win the game. If this condition does not occur by the conclusion of turn 6, then the player with the higher VP total wins. Each player receives 1 VP for each eliminated enemy unit. The Union player wins ties.

C3i Magazine – Battle of Gettysburg, 1863 – Rules of Play, p. 11

In other words, Mark Herman’s Gettysburg assumes that Meade wanted the battle to be fought at Gettysburg and not at Big Pipe Creek like he planned and Kent Masterson Brown explains in Meade at Gettysburg. Mark Herman’s entire game is predicated on the assumption that the player will be like Sickles and violate his commander’s intent and bring on a general engagement at Gettysburg. Sure, it makes for a nice wargame, but at this point is it even really historical, or just another counterfactual?

[Don’t take the above part wrong—Mark Herman’s Gettysburg is a very well designed wargame from the perspective of mechanics and does a great job for what is designed to do—”distilling history to it’s essence.”. It’s just that this game, like many other Gettysburg wargames, is designed to play the battle as it historically occurred—not as it was planned—and in the process makes several assumptions as to how the battle developed and the decisions of non-player commanders.]

In many ways, Meade at Gettysburg is a good primer for wargamers playing almost any Gettysburg game. Here you, the player, nominally are the commander at the head of the Army of the Potomac (like Meade). However, you often also assume the role of a corps or division commander, and depending on the game you might even devolve down to the brigade level. This “sliding command perspective” is part-and-parcel of wargames. Meade made it work; can you?

Let’s Play Operation!

Reading Meade at Gettysburg not only provided an interesting look at the campaign around the Battle of Gettysburg, but it also helped me understand more about my taste in wargames in general. Meade at Gettysburg reminded me that it is the operational level of war that is the most fascinating to me. Now, I certainly like tactical games and getting down to the nuts & bolts of battle. There is a certain joy at employing a weapon system in such a way to outfight your enemy, but to out-campaign an opponent is truly another level of achievement.

I understand that when a wargamer picks up a Battle of Gettysburg wargame they kinda expect to fight a battle at Gettysburg and not someplace else. Meade at Gettysburg shows readers—and wargamers—that fate is fickle and what one calls history is sometimes accidental and far from what the participants intended.

But what if….

What if you could do as good as Meade did? Wargames let us be like General Henry Jackson Hunt, Meade’s Chief of Artillery, who was not a fan of Meade after the Battle of Gettysburg. Yet, in 1888, he saw the battle in a new light:

Meade was suddenly placed in command. From that moment on all his acts and intentions, as I can judge of them, were just what they ought to have been, except perhaps in his order to attack at Falling Waters on the morning of the 13th, and especially on the 14th of July, when his Corps Commanders reported against it, and I was then in favor of the attack, so I can’t blame him. He was right in his orders as to Pipe Creek, right in his determination under certain circumstances to fall back to it; right in pushing up to Gettysburg after the battle commenced; right in remaining there; right in making his battle a purely defensive one; right, therefore in taking the line he did; right in not attempting a counter attack at any stage of the battle; right as to his pursuit of Lee. Rarely has more skill, vigor, or wisdom been shown under such circumstances as he was placed in, and it would, I think, belittle his grand record of that campaign by a formal defense against his detractors, who will surely go under as will this show story.

“Epilogue”, p. 375

As a wargamer, how good can you do?

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Finding the Most Secret and Confidential in a Sea of Glory (@USNIBooks @gmtgames)

When reading about the naval war at sea during the Napoleonic Wars one cannot avoid coming across the name Nelson. Horatio Nelson by far the most famous naval commander in the Royal Navy, if not in the world in those days. What was the secret of his success? Many have written about his style of leadership, but author Steven E. Maffeo, a former US Navy intelligence officer, writes in Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2014) about the role intelligence played in not only Nelson’s success, but of the Royal Navy writ large in those days.

Shhh….

In the modern world, a naval commander has at his disposal a vast array of intelligence tools. Strategically, that enterprise is devoted to delivering the commander knowledge of the enemies capabilities and (hopefully) intentions. At the operational and tactical levels, the burning intelligence question is often, “Where is the enemy?” In the Age of Nelson the operational question was often the most important, and where intelligence made the greatest contribution towards victory.

Sorta.

In Most Secret and Confidential the reader learns that there really was no national intelligence organization in the early 19th century. For a military organization like the Royal Navy, intelligence had a role but it was organized far differently from what many are familiar with today:

Without doubt, the collection, assessment, dissemination, and use of intelligence information was present throughout the fleet. Equally clear is that, subordinate to the Admiralty at whatever operational level one cares to consider, the most senior officer present on a given station was de facto the local premier intelligence officer. No other person had the time, availability, access to information, responsibility, qualifications, experience, or overview. Finally, no senior officer had anything resembling adequate staff support to even partially share such important responsibilities….

Most Secret and Confidential, p. 281

Wargaming Operational Intelligence in the Age of Nelson

The wargame 1805: Sea of Glory (designer Phil Fry, GMT Games, 2009) is an operational level wargame focused on the war at sea in the pivotal year of 1805. Reading the ad copy for the game hints at the role of intelligence in the game:

1805: Sea of Glory places you in command of the Royal Navy or the allied fleets of France and Spain. You direct your far flung forces, raid enemy ports, and bring your wooden warships into combat with the enemy. Key ports must be protected and enemy harbors blockaded. With a constant eye to wind and weather, your ships must cross the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean Sea, and the West Indies. Your opponent will not know the composition of your forces until combat is joined. The fog of war complicates every decision. The fate of nations will once again be determined by wooden ships and iron men. 

The cat and mouse game of breakout and pursuit has begun.

1805: Sea of Glory, publisher’s ad copy

After reading Most Secret and Confidential and as I started pulling out 1805: Sea of Glory, I expected that the “God’s Eye” wargaming view of the battle space would mean wargame mechanisms and the reality of intelligence in those days would not be compatible. What I discovered is that, while an imperfect simulation of intelligence, 1805: Sea of Glory actually captures the essence of the intelligence problems of the day and is much closer to replicating intelligence challenges described in Most Secret and Confidential than I expected.

Most Secret and Confidential in wargame format

Wargaming the “Nelson Touch”

From the intelligence perspective, a player of 1805: Sea of Glory is thrust into a very similar role to an operational naval commander of the Age of Nelson. To begin, with the player is their own intelligence officer and, though one could argue about qualifications, is solely responsible for all intelligence operations.

1805: Sea of Glory is played on a map around the size of Admiral Nelson’s sea desk. Sword is for cosplayers only….

Like Nelson, players in Sea of Glory do not always know their enemy’s objectives but, through careful analysis and deduction from what they can see they may be able to divine their intention.

The British player is not allowed to examine the Napoleon objectives, nor the Allied player the Pitt objectives. Each player may examine his own objectives at any time. These Objectives remain in place throughout the game unless scored by the Allied player, in which case the marker is moved to the Allied VP box. The Allied player is not allowed to look at Pitt Objectives he has scored until the end of the game.

21.3 REVEALING OBJECTIVES

For naval commanders in the Age of Nelson the major question in their day—and any game of 1805: Sea of Glory—is how to find the enemy. At first I looked at the blocks, used to represent fleets, transports, and frigates in Sea of Glory, I thought they revealed too much information. Although I couldn’t see exactly what the block was, I could see it on the map, seemingly an advantage over naval commanders of the day. Further, in 1805: Sea of Glory when a French or Spanish fleet sorties from port a destination is often secretly selected based on the secret objectives of the game. This turns Sea of Glory into that cat and mouse pursuit game.

Fleet blocks represent a group of ships, and have no limit to the number of ships and admirals they may contain, but must always contain at least one ship while not in port. If a fleet is without any ships while not in a port due to weather or combat, it is removed from the map for later use, and any admiral with that block is removed from play.

7.1 FLEETS

After reading Most Secret and Confidential I reconsidered my opinion and now see that the use of blocks is actually very appropriate to the actual intelligence revealed. As Most Secret and Confidential tells us, commanders often had fair intelligence as to the composition of the enemies forces and especially what ports they used. The presence of blocks reflects the collection and analysis of intelligence from a myriad of sources like passing merchant ships or intercepted coastal semaphore and even newspapers. To get more details the player must resort to similar tactics of their real historical counterparts like sending ships closer inshore to “count masts.” For fleets that sortie, players—like commanders in Most Secret and Confidential—must start looking for clues as to where the enemy could be going and then use their forces (like blockades, fleets, or frigates) to search the oceans to gain contact and bring them to battle. Even though players can “see” the block on the map it may not be enough to find the fleet as weather and chance play a role in the game—just like reality.

Players may “Count Masts” to determine the approximate number and type of enemy vessels in a port or in an Inshore enemy force under the following circumstances….

13.5 COUNTING MASTS

For each fleet or frigate that searches, the controlling player indicates which block is searching, then rolls two dice and adds or subtracts any applicable modifiers from the Search Attempt and Seasonal Modifiers tables. On a modified roll of 7 or lower, the result is “No Contact.” On a modified roll of 8 or higher, the result is “Spotted.”

14.0 SEARCH ATTEMPTS

At the end of the day, to win in 1805: Sea of Glory the players really do need to be a bit like Nelson. In Most Secret and Confidential, author Steven Maffeo quotes C.S. Forester, the author of the Horatio Hornblower series, on why Nelson was a great intelligence officer and along the way also tells us what being a player in 1805: Sea of Glory really means:

It is hard to decide what to admire most: the accuracy of the deduction, the self-confidence which believed in it, or the force of mind with which he brought himself to [expose] England’s most valuable colonial possessions solely on deductions made from a series of individually conclusive facts.

C.S. Forester as cited in Most Secret and Confidential, p. 287
My Hornblower collection inherited from my father—well-read by both of us

Maffeo concludes Most Secret and Confidential with a challenge that is appropriate to any wargamer and a reminder that, regardless of the era or game, intelligence has a role:

Whatever the specific case, in the final analysis the degree to which the naval commander uses, or fails to use, available intelligence in the decision-making process is crucial. Indeed, the commander’s possession and use of intelligence have been decisive in history, they are decisive now, and they will be decisive in the future.

Most Secret and Confidential, p. 288

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – A super dud – The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War by Malcolm Gladwell (New York: Little Brown, 2021)

I had high hopes for The Bomber Mafia: A Dream, A Temptation, and the Longest Night of the Second World War (Malcolm Gladwell, New York: Little Brown, 2021). I was hoping to gain some good insight into B-29 Superfortress operations in World War II. I was hoping that I would get some more background for some of the scenarios for Wing Leader: Supremacy 1943-1945 (Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, GMT Games, 2016). The ad copy of The Bomber Mafia looked to be a nice comparison of “Bomb them back to the Stone Age” Curtis LeMay versus General Haywood Hansell, proponent of precision bombing. That story is somewhere in this book, but the way Gladwell tells it makes me doubt every bit of what he writes.

AVOID!

I should know better. The signs that The Bomber Mafia should be avoided were all there in the various ad copy and comments. This “story” started out as an audiobook birthed from the authors Revisionist History podcast. “Revisionist” in this case is what I call “pop history;” soundbites of words allegedly concerning a historical subject that the author contends to be an authority on but in reality has little more (maybe less?) knowledge of than that of a middle school student. I loathe to even call The Bomber Mafia a history book. At best (and if I feel extremely generous) it is a story from history but the depth of research is, well frankly, I think the author would be out of his depth in a puddle. Almost all the sources cited are secondary or even tertiary. More than a few quotes are from history professors and what they think in interviews. There is almost no original critical thought here. Reading The Bomber Mafia is very much akin to reading a Wikipedia compilation.

When reading The Bomber Mafia you first have to get past the word “absurd.” The author repeatedly, and I mean repeatedly, tell us that “war is absurd” or such and such a situation was “absurd” or a persons actions were “absurd.” Fine, Malcom, I get that you have an opinion. Sometimes I even agree with your opinion. But I want to read the facts and make a judgement for myself. Not here!

Oh yeah. Then you have the hyperbole of The Bomber Mafia:

If you were the United States and you wanted to drop bombs on Japan, how would you do it? Solving that problem took the better part of the war. The first step was building the B-29 Superfortress, the greatest bomber ever built, with an effective range of more than three thousand miles.

The Bomber Mafia, p. 125

“Greatest bomber ever built.” This must be the “revisionist” history part and where I missed the memo. Given Malcom’s apparent coziness with current(ish) US Air Force senior brass, it becomes obvious somebody drank the Billy Mitchell/Douhet-laced punch.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me and the point where I totally wanted to forget ever reading The Bomber Mafia was in the discussion of B-29 operations in the Marianas. Read this paragraph and tell me what you think:

The sole thing the Marianas had going for them was that they were within range of Japan. But even that was an exaggeration. The truth is that they were within range only under perfect conditions. To reach Japan, a B-29 first needed to be loaded up with twenty thousand pounds of extra fuel. And because that made the plane dangerously overweight, each B-29 also needed a ferocious tailwind to lift it off the runway. This was as crazy a situation as anyone faced throughout the whole war.

The Bomber Mafia, p. 128

A tailwind? To reduce take-off distance? Really? Let’s just skip all those fundamental of flight, shall we? The flow of air over wings has nothing, nothing I tell you, to do with generating lift, eh?

The Bomber Mafia is three stories; the story of General Hansell, the story of Curtis Le May, and the story of Malcolm Gladwell traveling the globe and rubbing elbows while “researching” the other two. Unfortunately, Malcom shines no new light on the first two and is insufferable in the third. Do yourself a favor and just stay away from The Bomber Mafia. The angst isn’t worth it.


For a very enjoyable literary takedown of The Bomber Mafia, see “Narrative Napalm” from The Baffler that has wonderful passages like this:

And then there are books whose fusion of factual inaccuracy and moral sophistry is so total that they can only be written by Malcolm Gladwell. His latest piece of narrative napalm, The Bomber Mafia, is an attempt to retcon the history of American aerial warfare by arguing that developing the capacity to explode anything, anywhere in the world has made America and, indeed, the rest of the globe, unequivocally safer.

Noah Kulwin, “Narative Napalm”

Rocky Reads for #FamilyFriday

If you’ll indulge me, I wish to do something a bit different for my Rocky Reads this week. It has to do with family and friends.

Some regular readers may recall I occasionally talk about Miss A, the young first-grader that Mrs. RockyMountainNavy tutors. I talked recently about how this past COVID year Mrs. RMN taught Miss A to read.

Take a look at this picture:

Miss A reading her book

That’s Miss A reading a special book which was a gift for her seventh birthday. As a matter of fact, it’s her book; as in the story is about “her” and friends around her. In this story she is a magical unicorn with an Aunt (Mrs. RMN), and friends with a boy unicorn (RockyMountainNavy Jr) and a girl unicorn (named after her best friend). In the story, Miss A gets to be the hero.

Look at that face. Can you see the magic and joy from her reading?

When I read for my Rocky Reads or History to Wargame I know I am reading to learn and understand more about history. I also know that when I read, the younger generation is watching. If they see my joy then they are more willing to try reading.

Miss A has been lucky this COVID year to have Mrs. RMN to teach her how to read. I hope we have given her a good start on life.

One can’t read enough.


Check out dinkleboo.com for personalized kids books. Well worth it.

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – The secret behind the #wargame Wing Leader (@gmtgames) found in The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by @CalumDouglas1 (Tempest Books, 2020)

Somewhere in the last year I can across a recommendation to not miss the book The Secret Horsepower Race: Western Front Fighter Engine Development by Calum E. Douglas (Tempest Books, 2020). Fortunately, I landed a copy of this coffee table size (and weight) book and I don’ regret it for a moment. Not only has is shown me more of the technology behind fighter engines in World War II, it also has shown me how those very same engine designs influence Formula One racing engines of today. It also has given me a deeper understanding of various air combat wargames, and in particular designer Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s Wing Leader series from GMT Games.

“What?”, you say. “Formula One and WWII engines are related?” Yes, and in the most interesting ways as author Calum E. Douglas explains in The Secret Horsepower Race:

Today’s engines are now bearing the fruit of the work done during the Second World War, sometimes through a ‘second discovery’, sometimes through an old idea being rekindled. All Formula One motor-racing engines have the axial swirl throttle which started as a radial design in France and was designed by Daimler and then Mikulin in axial form. It is now normal practice for Grand Prix engines to run at over 130OC coolant temperature, for exactly the same reasons as Professor Messerschmitt complained so bitterly to Milch in 1942, and the water-cooled exhaust valve-guides of the Jumo 213 are to be found in the design of many Formula One Teams.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

In The Secret Horsepower Race there is an image on page 425 that shows a German Jumo 213 J connecting rod in a 1945 sketch just above a sketch of a “modern” racing engine connecting rod. Just how similar the two look is very striking and brings home the lesson of just how “advanced” the fighter engines of World War II actually are.

Connecting Rod from 1945 to “Modern”

The Secret Horsepower Race is certainly a more technical read than I normally undertake. After all, I’m a History major, not an engineer! That said, Mr. Douglas spins a fascinating tale that, though full of technical detail, also has enough history and espionage that it really entertains. I found myself drawn in and slowing to carefully read the account.

Book to Wargame

As I read The Secret Horsepower Race I found myself thinking of several air combat wargames I’ve played. In the late 1970’s when I started playing wargames, I acquired copies of designer S. Craig Taylor’s Air Force and Dauntless (Battleline, 1976/1977). These were my first introduction to the world of air combat wargames. If there is one rule I remember from those games it’s that inline engines were more vulnerable to damage than radial engines. In the 1990’s I moved to J.D. Webster’s excellent Fighting Wings series of games where engine power was a key factor in helping one “maintain energy” while in air combat (I highly recommend the latest version of Buffalo Wings from ATO Press). In the late 2010’s it was Lee Brimmicombe-Wood and his Wing Leader series from GMT Games that caught my interest.

The Wing Leader series uses a very different air combat wargame design, most noticeable from it’s side-view of battle. It is also, perhaps, the design most closely based on the secrets of The Secret Horsepower Race:

Speed. The grand thesis of Wing Leader is that victory in air combat usually went to the swiftest. Manoeuvrability turned out to be less important than power and speed. The pre-war biplane fighter advocates lost that argument, though in the right conditions these aircraft proved to be a handful. The division of aircraft into 50 mph bands is crude, but works to define generational improvements. As the war dragged on, leaps in performance tended to be in increments of 25 mph or more.

Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, Wing Leader: Aircraft Data Card Creation, v2.2

Book to Life

Although I read The Secret Horsepower Race to learn more about aviation history, I was pleasantly surprised by the connection to Formula One racing. It also taught me more of the engineering history and mathematical basis behind the designs of several wargames. More importantly, Calum E. Douglas teaches some real life lessons that go beyond history and wargame and are most applicable to my wannabe engineer youngest. To quote Mr. Douglas’ conclusion at length:

The blood, sweat, and tears which went into making a basic engine such as the Merlin into a war winner is not manifested in some magic gadget, but is concealed in hundreds of thousands of hours spent on fundamentals of engineering; making new drawings; machining parts with precision; organising the manufacturing in such a way that parts are of high quality and are checked properly; rigorous testing; chasing faults down as soon as they emerge; and all the time pushing incrementally forward.

That is how real high-performance engine projects are conducted, and those who were not there, or who have not done it themselves, can never understand the strain a designer faces watching an engine they have been responsible for start for the first time. In this moment their entire reputation stands fragile – a failure can mean disaster and the expense of tremendous sums of money and time. The engine designer is pleased when the engine runs and does its job.

This small pleasure is not enough, as those who devote their careers to engines know just how extraordinarily difficult it is just to reach that ostensibly simple plateau. Even one tolerance written incorrectly on a drawing, one missed particle of dirt during assembly, or a simple decimal point being out of place in a calculation can spell ruin.

That these engineers were able to make hundreds of thousands of state-of-the-art engines at all during the chaos of total war is a demonstration of the indelible lesson that success depends on focused effort and above all a deep level of mathematical understanding mated to pragmatic organisational thinking. Engineers today who see the power which was wielded with only a slide-rule and pencil and adapt the same mindset to use their computers instead of being used by them, will achieve spectacular success.

Calum E. Douglas, The Secret Horsepower Race, p. 458

Rocky Reads for #Wargame – Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82 (Sept/Oct 1980) -or- Grognard nostalgia (with a mention of @markherman54)

I recently acquired Jim Dunnigan’s wargame Fifth Corps: The Soviet Breakthrough at Fulda, Central Front Series, Volume 1 (Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82/SPI, Sept/Oct 1980) in a trade. This is the magazine version which came in the subject issue. As I was reading the rules for the game (still stapled inside the magazine) I started thumbing though the rest of the issue. Very quickly I found myself waxing nostalgic at much of the content. I stopped thumbing and started reading.

In late 1980 I was in 7th grade. I had been playing wargames for less than a year at this point and was heavy into my very first wargame, Jim Day’s Panzer from Yaquinto Publishing (1979). By this point I probably had the second game in the series, ’88’ (1980). I also surely had started playing the pocket edition of Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). This was also the start of my “serious’ military history reading, especially since my neighbor worked for Ballantine Books and monthly would throw a box of history books over the back fence into my yard. So when I open the pages of this issue of Strategy & Tactics it brings back many great hobby memories.

At the time this issue was published, I was just starting to read wargaming magazines. The $5.00 cover price for the issue was a bit steep for me. It would be another few years until I started making enough of my own money in chores that I could afford luxuries like an issue of Strategy & Tactics.

Full page ad on page 3 for Dallas: The Television Role-Playing Game. Was this really a thing? I was huge into (now Classic) Traveller RPG but what was SPI thinking?

The feature article in this issue is “The Central Front: The Status of Forces in Europe and the Potential for Conflict by Charles T. Kamps, Jr. Mr. Kamps wrote more than a few articles for wargame magazines back in the day and I always thought they were well researched. The main article is rather short (four pages) but the added text boxes that follow are awesome and include:

  • Skeleton Order of Battle, Fulda Gap Battle Area
  • The Airborne Threat
  • Air Support (with an interesting aircraft readiness chart…boy those high-tech F-15s were difficult to maintain!)
  • The Big Picture: A Scenario for Invasion
  • The Miracle Weapons (TOW, other ATGMs, FASCAM)
  • Nuclear & Chemical Operations
  • The Prophets (with a shout out to Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War, August 1985 which I read religiously)

The last text call out box is “The Wargames” where Mr. Kamps relates results from “professional” wargames. The author lets us know what he thinks of these wargames when he concludes:

Having participated in Command Post Exercises in Europe wherein general officers and senior field grade officers accomplished their objectives by fraud, (e.g., map movement of mechanized units through impassable terrain; ignoring or defying umpire rulings on combat resolution; etc.), the author issues a caution to regard all “official” results with a degree of circumspection.

Charles T. Kamps Jr., “The Wargames,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 14

Hof Gap: The Nurnburg Pincer, Volume 2 of the Central Front series for only $9.95!

On page 17 is Volume 1, Number 1 of “For Your Information: A Wide Ranging Survey of Historical Data and Analysis.” This column would be one of my favorite parts of S&T in the future. These little factoids, an early version of a wargaming wiki, were awesome for me to read and store away. “FYI” contributed much to my military history historical knowledge.

I can almost remember looking at ads like the full-page spread on page 21 with wargames shown. To this day I still want to find a copy of NATO Division Commander: Leadership Under Fire (Jim Dunnigan, SPI, 1980). I would end up with a copy of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat by David C. Isby but it would be the 1983 TSR version. Likewise, the full-page spread of SPI science fiction/fantasy games also brings back memories, like playing my friend’s copy of Greg Costikyan’s 1979 game The Creature that Ate Sheboygan (near where my father grew up). I also see Commando (SPI, 1979) and StarSoldier (SPI, 1977) listed on these pages, both of which ended up in my game collection around this time too. Jim Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook is also available for only $7.95.

I was surprised, but not surprised, to see the secondary feature article, “Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm, October 15, 1973” was written by Col. Trevor Dupuy, USA, Ret.. Dupuy founded The Dupuy Institute and is the paragon of an operations research specialist. I would read several of Dupuy’s books through the years but I was not aware of this connection with SPI. In retrospect, it should be obvious to me. Christopher Lawrence, who worked at The Dupuy Institute with Col Dupuy, writes in War By Numbers (Potomac Books, 2017) about Dupuy and combat models in the 1970s:

By the early 1970s the models were being used to war game a potential war in Europe for the sake of seeing who would win, for the sake of determining how we could structure our forces better, and for the sake of determine what supplies and other support were needed to sustain this force on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

This development of models created a need to understand the quantitative aspects of warfare. While this was not a new concept, the United States suddenly found itself with combat modeling structures that were desperately in need of hard data on how combat actually worked. Surprisingly, even after 3,300 years of recorded military history, these data were sparse.

It was this lack of hard data on which to base operational analysis and combat modeling that led to the growth of organizations run by Trevor N. Dupuy, such as the Historical Evaluation and Research Organization (HERO). They attempted to fill the gap between modeling communities’ need for hard data on combat operations and the actual data recorded in unit records of the combatants, which required some time and skill to extract. It was an effort to integrate the work of historians with these newly developed complex models of combat.

Lawrence, War By Numbers, p. ix-x

Interestingly, the advertisement for the related wargame, Across Suez: The Battle of Chinese Farm October 15, 1975, shows it is designed by some guy named Mark Herman. I have to wonder what sort of conversations Mark had with Col Dupuy when designing this game. Seeing how Mr. Herman went on to lead a major defense contractor’s wargaming effort (not to mention all the wonderful games he has designed) I am interested as to the degree of influence the Colonel had on him.

I really enjoyed the “Gossip” column and all the name dropping. There is talk of the new and amazing Ace of Aces (Gameshop, 1980) with “no counters and no map.” I remember this game very fondly as my friends and I would play endless rounds on the school bus going to to/from middle school. Star Fleet Battles also gets a mention along with the forthcoming Federation Space (Task Force Games, 1981) which I would purchase.

Then there is this little snippet—”In the role-playing corner of the world, Chaosium is working on a role-playing game on H.P. Lovecraft’s work.” How little did we all know that Call of Cthulhu would still be going strong 40 years later!

I even found some early Satanic Panic reporting in this issue:

“These books are filled with things that are not fantasy but area actual in the real demon world and can be very dangerous for anyone involved in the game because it leaves them open to Satanic spirits.” Guess what they are talking about. Right. Dungeons & Dragons. It seems there is trouble in Heber, Utah. The Mormons are in an uproar over the game and, in fact, the state legislature is debating banning the game. “D&D banned in Utah” read the headlines next week, and up will go sales again. It is also rumored that a Christian organization forced a Phoenix store to withdraw D&D from sale. Something about it coming from Satan and working with the Anti-Christ. It’s probably all a Communist plot anyway. Oh, they said that too?

“Gossip,” Strategy & Tactics Nr. 82, p. 35

I was surprised to find David C. Isby reviewed Warship Commander 1967-1987: Present Day Tactical Naval Combat and Sea Command: Present-Day Naval-Air and Anti-Submarine Warfare. Both games were by Ken Smigelski and published by Enola Games in 1979 and 1980, respectively. I have these two books and for a while they were a direct competitor to Harpoon (now from Admiralty Trilogy Games) in my collection. I like how Dave Isby characterizes Warship Commander; “This book presents a study of modern naval surface combat set up in the format of wargame rules, aimed primarily at miniatures play but easily adaptable to boardgame format.” He goes on to say, “The book is a thorough, detailed simulation of a fascinating subject, and is worthy of comparison with the best boardgames.” On Sea Command he states, “Sea Command is an eduction in modern naval combat in wargame form.” Yes, I know!

Looking across the “Games Rating Chart” I find several games I either owned or would own in the next few years:. As much as we talk about the Golden Age of Wargaming being dominated by SPI or Avalon Hill I see more than a few other companies listed here with Yaquinto being a personal favorite:

The back page of this issue has an advertisement for For Your Eyes Only, a military affairs newsletter I actually subscribed to for a while. There is also an advertisement for a new bi-weekly newsletter by a guy named Richard Berg who was starting a new publication, Richard Berg’s Reviews of Games.

In many ways I feel lucky to find this particular issue of Strategy & Tactics. There were so many great games talked about within these pages that I am personally associated with. It’s great to see where the wargming hobby was in late 1980 when my hobby journey was just starting.

#RockyReads for #Wargame – The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle at Kursk, The Largest Clash of Armor in History by Christopher A. Lawrence (Stackpole Books abridged second edition, 2019)

BLUF

Looks bigger than it is. The Battle of Prokhorovka is largely a textual retelling of the extensive database collected by The Dupuy Institute on the battle. Many details but best parts may actually be the sidebar texts that cover a myriad of associated issues in a short, succinct manner.

The “Short” 639-Page Version

The Battle of Prokhorovka is a hefty book coming in at a grand total of 639 pages. Surprisingly, it is an abridged version of the author’s 1,662 page mega-book Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, 2015). This abridged version focuses almost exclusively on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and supporting III Panzer Corps from July 9-18, 1943. The account is based primarily on German unit records complimented by some access to Soviet Army Files from the Russian Military Archives. The work was originally accomplished by The Dupuy Institute for the US Army Concepts Analysis Agency (CAA), better know today as the Center for Army Analysis.

Deconstructing German Myths

I noted after reading The Battle of Kursk by Jonathan Glantz that his book attempted to deconstruct the German myths around the Battle of Kursk and retell the story in a more balanced fashion by incorporating Soviet archival materials. Christopher Lawrence in The Battle of Prokhorovka attempts much the same, but instead of depending heavily on Soviet archive material like Glantz does or on memoirs of German officers like many others, he digs into German (and as available some Soviet) unit reports. You know, those daily, often monotonous tomes of numbers. The end result is a viewpoint in retelling the story that still is biased towards the Germans, but one that attempts to “ground” itself in data rather than emotion.

With the focus on two German corps on the south side of the Kursk salient, The Battle of Prokhorovka is really just a small part of the larger story. That said, one might assume that with 639 pages this volume is very detailed. Surprisingly, I actually found Lawrences’s The Battle of Prokhorovka easier to read than Glantz’s The Battle of Kursk. Maybe this was because the language used was less emotional. It might also be easier to read because The Battle of Porkhorovka is actually laid out on the page in an easier to read manner – there’s more white space on some pages than I expected which lengthens the book but doesn’t expand the content. There are also several interesting sidebar content areas, like the “Terrain Photo” or “Photo Reconnaissance” sections. There are also many interesting sidebars on the tanks and various “numbers” associated with the battle.

Large Clash but Small Numbers

As someone who grew up steeped in the myths of the great Battle of Kursk, it never ceases to amaze me just how small the battle actually was. Not only was the area very small (10’s of kilometers across and in depth) but also for all the “Corps” and “Armies” involved the number of tanks was actually far less than the myth portrays. The two numbers that jumped out at me in this reading of The Battle of Prokhorovka was the Panthers and German tank losses on July 12.

According to Lawrence, around 200 Panther tanks were assigned to Panzer Regiment von Lauchert supporting the Gross Deutschland Panzer Grenadier Division. Here is what happened to all those Panthers, on the first day (July 5) of the offensive:

The Panther Regiment started with as many as 198 tanks operational. By the end of the day, they were down to 119 operational. As well as can be determined, two were lost due to friendly fire, one to hostile fire, six broke down during the march in the morning, and up to 19 were lost to mines. The remaining estimated 51 tanks were most likely mechanical failures. The Panther regiment had hardly seen action, but was now down to around 60 percent of its strength. This does not seem worth the two-month delay in the start of the offensive for this level of support.

The Battle of Prokhorovka, p. 56

A single graphic on page 344 of The Battle of Prokhorovka destroys the myth of the battle better than any written account can. According to Lawrence, the Lieberstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Division lost 19 tanks on the fateful day of July 12 as compared to 159 in the opposing Soviet XXIX Tank Corps. Lawrence further points out that many “losses” claimed in battle were made good by battlefield recovery effort, meaning losses in combat don’t necessarily mean losses in combat power over the course of the campaign.

Wargame Application

The Battle of Prokhorovka, focusing on the actions of the SS Panzer Corps and III Panzer Corps, is a very good source for wargame scenarios or campaigns based on the actions of these units. That said, Lawrence generally discusses unit at the Brigade/Regiment levels and occasionally down to Battalions. If one wants to recreate more tactical scenario situations like in Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel, Kursk 1943 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2019) then there might actually NOT be enough detail in this book. That said, I encourage every potential scenario designer to focus not on recreating a historical event in a scenario, but instead focus on recreating the historical situation in a more “inspired by history” situation.

The accounts of battle in The Battle of Prokhorovka, and especially how many tank “losses” didn’t come from hostile fire, also challenges wargame scenario designers. I know of few scenarios where units are attrited before contact (“fall out”) or where mines and engineers become so important for a tank battle. It’s a new perspective and one often overlooked, if for no other reason than it “ain’t cool” if you don’t get to blow up tanks in battle!

Citation

Lawrence, Christopher A., The Battle of Prokhorovka: The Tank Battle of Kursk, The largest Clash of Armor in History, Guilford: Stackpole Books abridged second edition, 2019.

#RockyReads for #Wargame – The Battle of Kursk by David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House (University of Kansas Press, 1999)

BLUF

The Battle of Kursk by David Glantz and Jonathan House presents an opposing view of Kursk as compared to classic German perspectives thanks to the availability of Russian archive sources. It is maybe best viewed as “the other side of the story” to oppose classical German accounts like F.W. von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles (Ballantine Books, 1971).

…and Now, the Rest of the Story

When I was growing up my neighbor was a representative of Ballantine Books. Knowing I was a huge military history fan he would throw boxes (and I mean boxes) of paperback books over the fence to me. Some copies were advance reader editions, some were first prints, and more than a few had the front covers torn off. It didn’t matter to me as I read them all. As I was also a budding wargamer with my first game, Panzer by Jim Day from Yaquinto Publishing (1979) I really paid attention to the World War II books. One particular title I remember is Panzer Battles by F.W. von Mellenthin. Indeed, books like Panzer Battles written by German officers after the end of the war shaped much of the “view” of the Eastern Front not just for me but for many readers and historians throughout the Cold War. However, once the Wall fell, some western historians like David Glantz gained access to Russian archives to discover what they had to say. The result was a “new” view of the Ostkreig (East War) and significant engagements like the Battle of Kursk.

In The Battle of Kursk, Glantz and House take aim at the “mythology” of the namesake battle:

German generals who participated in the violent struggle wrote memoirs that concentrated primarily on assessing political and military blame for the unprecedented German defeat, whereas Soviet general placed the battle within the context of the inexorable Soviet march to victory. Single volumes, too, have tackled the task of describing the immense battle….

Yet the sheer drama of the battle juxtaposed against the limited quantities of exploited Soviet source materials has given rise to a certain mythology that has surrounded the battle. This mythology has accepted the German framework and defintion of the battle and maintains that it took place from 5 to 23 July 1943. In doing so, it ignores the essential Soviet framework for Kursk, which placed the defensive battle in the Kursk salient within the proper context of the Soviets’ two-month-long Kursk Strategic Offensive Operation.

The Battle of Kursk, Preface p. xi

Reading The Battle of Kursk

The Battle of Kursk turned out to be a bit more difficult to read than I expected. First, it took me some time to get used to the methodology Glantz uses to refer to units. Soviet units are referred to by unit designation (5th Tank Corps in text, 5 TC on maps) whereas German units are often referred to using Roman numerals (XXXXVIIIth Panzer Corps) or by name (Totenkopf). This can get real challenging when looking on the maps when you have 2/2 PzGrenR in 2 SSPzGrenR of the SSAH PzGrenD of II SSPzC under 4 PzA (whew). Add to that the fact the maps have subdued backgrounds making reading locations difficult – at best.

Second, though presented as a single volume overview of the Battle of Kursk, the book The Battle of Kursk devolves into a very in-depth play-by-play description of the engagements at or around Prokhorovka on 12 July. That is, in-depth at least from the Soviet point of view as German viewpoints are less used to describe the action.

If I have one criticism of The Battle of Kursk it is the poor maps. Yes, there are maps int he book but they are gray-scale and difficult to read. When the narrative of the battle gets the most involved the maps seem to be the least helpful. Personally, a good map can be a work of art and a useful map is worth many words. Alas, the maps force one to depend on the narrative alone vice both working to help each other.

At the end of the day, The Battle of Kursk is a very emotional book. Emotional in that it tries so hard to show the Soviet perspective that it becomes maybe a bit too one-sided; that is, Glantz tries so hard to show that the Soviets have a viewpoint that the vast majority of the book becomes that viewpoint and the German side drops off (is ignored?) in places. In The Battle of Kursk, Glantz certainly destroys the German mythology of the battle, but I am unconvinced that in doing so he doesn’t accidentally creates a counter-myth.

Wargame Application

Strategic

The first few and later chapters of The Battle of Kursk present the strategic situation. As such, they are very useful for studying the battle using games like Trevor Bender’s The Battle for Kursk: The Tigers are Burning, 1943 (RBM Studios, 2020). Indeed, I had my Battle for Kursk map out while reading The Battle of Kursk to help me better visualize the strategic situation.

Operational

I don’t have any real operational-scale wargames on the Battle of Kursk so I couldn’t game out any using the book. [I have now preordered The Eastern Front Operational Battles Quad from Compass Games so that problem is solved!] That said, The Battle of Kursk piqued my interest in the logistics of tank repair and replacement on the Eastern Front. Not all tanks destroyed in battle stay destroyed, and not all tanks were lost to battle damage. This is a point that often gets lost in lower-level tactical games.

Tactical

I have several tactical wargames on that can depict battles in and around Kursk. What I found most interesting about the battle while reading The Battle of Kursk is that, regardless of the game system used, the impact of terrain and weather is far greater than most games give credit to. Indeed, while titles like Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel 3rd Edition (Academy Games, 2018) and Panzer by Jim Day (GMT Games, 2012+) are good tactical armored games, they might actually be too small-scale for this battle. I actually found another title in my collection, Blood & Thunder: Tactical Combat on the Eastern Front by Frank Chadwick from GDW (1993) a slightly better fit as it uses 250m hexes and platoon-level units vice 100m/hex and individual tanks and squads.

Citation

Glantz, David M. & Jonathan M. House, The Battle of Kursk, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1999.