Tuesday, February 8, 2011

7 Reasons Stalingrad is so Compelling to the Tactical Wargamer

In March 2008, in a discussion at gamesquad I did a survey of the “official” Advanced Squad Leader scenarios, in order to determine which campaigns and battles scenario designers were focusing their efforts on more than others. The results were a mixture of anticipated answers with a couple of surprises thrown in.

The survey included all the historical modules (of which, at that time, two were set in Normandy on D-Day and two in Stalingrad), Deluxe ASL (again, one of which was set in Normandy), Historical Studies (one set in the Scheldt and another on Guadalcanal), Action Packs, two website scenarios, GI’s Dozen (reprints from G.I.: Anvil of Victory), Out of the Attic, The General (including G series, tournament scenarios, and Squad Leader conversions), the ASL Annual, ASL Journal, and subsequent re-releases by MMP of core modules (i.e. version 3 of Beyond Valor and For King and Country, which featured reprints of earlier Annual/General scenarios – these were counted as separate scenarios for this survey).

Some Statistics
The survey showed that Stalingrad was the most popular subject for scenario designers, with 39 separate scenarios taking place within the city proper (this excludes scenarios set during Operation WINTER STORM, the relief efforts, and fighting on the flanks of the cities.)

By contrast, 24 scenarios were set on D-Day in Normandy (June 6, 1944), due in no small part to the Paratrooper module which focused on Normandy actions, as did Hedgerow Hell, the first Deluxe module. No wonder that there were 11 more scenarios set during the first full week in Normandy, D+1 through D+7 (June 7 – 13 inclusive). The most interesting contrast was the fact that for the rest of June, (June 14-30), only three scenarios had been crafted, despite all the hard fighting of V Corps to expand the bridgehead, to cross the Cotentin Peninsula, to advance to Cherbourg, and to take the city, not to mention what the British 2nd Army was doing.

And for all of July and August in Normandy, some 61 days, there were only 21 scenarios. And just two depicting the fighting in August in Southern France.

By contrast, 31 scenarios were set in the Ardennes Offensive between December 16, 1944 and January 3, 1945 (19 days). MARKET-GARDEN, the Allied offensive in September 1944, is depicted in 26 scenarios, with 13 set in Arnhem. Kursk, the largest (if most misunderstood) tank battle in history had 9 scenarios, while perhaps one of the most important tank battles in the history of the west, Second El Alamein, had exactly one scenario in the published inventory.

Between 1 September 1944 and 31 December 1944, the Allies deployed 7 full armies in combat on the Western Front. From north to south: 21st Army Group, consisting of 1st Canadian Army and British 2nd Army (and as a point of trivia, that is exactly the order in which the ordinals appear in their names); 12th Army Group, with U.S. 9th Army, U.S 1st Army , and U.S. 3d Army (the Americans, always stingy with letters in their abbreviations, shed the “d” in their ordinal as religiously as the British added the “u” to their armoured units), and the 6th Army Group, with U.S. 7th Army and French 1st Army. During this 122 day period, in which these 7 armies were engaged in major campaigns such as the clearing of the channel ports, the Scheldt estuary, the Hürtgen forest, the Lorraine campaign, and if one excludes the Bulge and southern France (as we have counted them above already), there are exactly 16 scenarios representing this period – but even if every Army (composed of two or more corps, each corps with 2 or more divisions, each division with 2 or more brigades/regiments) produced only one company-sized action (i.e. ASL scenario) per week, one would expect to find fodder for over 100.

Sicily, a battle that raged for 38 days, produced 18 scenarios, on the other hand, and the fighting on the Italian mainland eight, due mainly to an Action Pack concentrating on Italian forces, and the unique situation presented by the capitulation and the fighting between former Axis partners. Yet the 92 calendar days for the rest of 1943, from October to December, which includes the Moro River and Ortona, are represented by a single scenario, as are the 128 days of 1945 in which the war was fought up until VE-Day. For the 366 days of 1944 (which was a leap year), there are 11 scenarios, not even one per month, or an average of one every two months for the two Allied armies that fought there (the American 5th and the British 8th.) Put another way, the campaign on the Italian mainland averages a scenario every 45 days. The 10 published scenarios set in Poland in September 1939 have a higher ratio, of one every three days.


Surely it can’t be that English-language source material, and on a tactical scale, is easier for researchers to find for Poland than it is for the Scheldt. Can it be that the fighting there just isn’t that interesting?

Why should Stalingrad rule the roost? Wasn’t it mostly just guys squatting in buildings?

The Truth

General discussion of tactical games often reveal ignorance of conditions on the ground – part of the fun of playing them, of course, is in learning new things of the period involved. There is no greater misunderstood period, tactically speaking, than the First World War. The ground work for the combined arms tactics that the Germans so successfully employed in the Second World War was not only laid down in 1917, but arguably perfected by 1918. The best units in the BEF, including the Australians and Canadians – “
shock troops”, in Tim Cook’s phrase – were using artillery, mortars, light machine guns, grenades, bayonets, tanks, and even aircraft in concert to win ground and defeat the enemy. Yet the myth persists that the war was a deadly stalemate dominated by poison gas, where infantry were mere pawns and the military state of the art stagnated for four years. Nothing is further from the truth.

Where does our vision of “truth” come from, then? Mostly pop culture depictions. In the 1920s, these were sardonic novels such as "The General Died at Dawn", and "All’s Quiet on the Western Front". They had the ring of verisimilitude about them, and anyone who criticized these works would have been seen as calling into question the suffering of the veterans themselves. The revisionism that Corrigan alludes to in "Mud, Blood and Poppycock" began to build, and was in full swing by the 1960s when films such as "Oh, What A Lovely War" were presenting the war as a useless waste conceived by European elites, conducted by incompetent generals, and suffered through unwillingly by millions of common people who had no choice. This distorted view has been reinforced by television shows such as the fourth series of "Black Adder", which played on the popular understanding of the war to extremely good effect. Outstanding entertainment television it most certainly was; good history, it neither was intended to be, nor one hopes will it be remembered as.

What do you know?

Stalingrad has entered the popular culture via a couple of routes. "Enemy at the Gates", the William Craig book, is perhaps one of the most well known. Written in a style reminiscent of Cornelius Ryan, it is not a scholar’s book, instead painting a broad canvas of the battle, at the same time personalizing it through the eyes of a handful of participants, as if characters in a play. As is well know, the book became a well known movie, though even more well known was the eponymous "Stalingrad" film in 1993, directed by Joseph Vilsmaier. Like "Enemy at the Gates", though, it was not exactly a documentary about the battle.

Those who chose to dig deeper could find some decent titles; Ballantine published an entire volume in their Second World War series, expanding on the standard treatment meted out in general histories of the war. All these sources generally agreed that the battle was monumental, fought in several distinct phases, but never really broke down in tactical terms what happened there, or why – a phenomenon not restricted to books about Stalingrad by any means.

Perhaps that is part of the allure.

1. The Streets of Stalingrad – For anyone who did play Squad Leader, regardless of whether they progressed to Advanced Squad Leader and left the original series in the dust, or just happened to play a couple of games from the purple-topped original and moved on to other things, they almost had to have started out with the first three scenarios in the rulebook. Using the Programmed Instruction method of learning, the first three scenarios were set in the doomed city, with the now all-too familiar board 1 filling in for the massive Dzerzhinsky Tractor Works complex. It is probably not on anyone’s list of best scenario designs, but it has remained unarguably a set of classics in their own right. And for anyone interested in tactical games, probably whet their appetite for learning – and experiencing – more about the battle.

2. Scope - For drama, you can’t beat the notion that you’re taking part, however vicariously, in an event that is changing history. Historians, and gamers, will always debate whether or not there was a single turning point of the Second World War. I think there is little debate that there were many obvious changes of fortune even if one doesn’t agree on where they war changed. Stalingrad was without doubt one of those changes of fortune. The scope of the confrontation was enormous; even if one remains ignorant of the numbers involved, the figure of 91,000 Germans going into captivity after the battle is well known, as is the fact that only 5,000 survivors came back to the west 10 years later. A beach is an abstract concept, a bridge, a hill, or a forest, are all difficult to conceptualize or assign a scale to; but to mention the word “city” is to automatically know that it is something bigger and grander than a hamlet, village or town. Whatever Stalingrad was, even if you knew nothing else about it, you know it was big.

3. Pathos – Some of the books that emerged in the immediate post-war decades were similar to the First World War revisionism; the generals and particularly Hitler were targeted as wasteful and stupid and the brave men of the 6th Army portrayed as unwilling sheep. Two novels in German (widely available also in English) are noteworthy; "The Forsaken Army" and "Stalingrad". Particularly emotional is the book "Letters from Stalingrad", notes home from anonymous soldiers of the surrounded 6th Army; history did not record their fate, though the odds of survival can be calculated from the numbers given earlier. The “truth” of the German Army is probably somewhat different than the pop culture depictions since the war; certainly some work (many by Israeli scholars) have pointed out that genocide may have been a much higher priority among field troops than is otherwise suggested in self-serving memoirs, or indeed, letters home at Christmastime by men in beleaguered garrisons. That “truth” probably lies at some point in the middle. In English, the Soviet side has hardly been scratched in the public consciousness; the lay person would be excused if he thought the average “Russian” looked like Jude Law and had a faint British accent.

4. Familiarity – the more you learn about a place, the more time you want to spend there. Reading about the Tractor Works, the Barrikady, the Grain Elevator, etc., the more intriguing it becomes to think about ways in which they truly differed from each other. Just as the novelizations personalized the battle, histories have as well by imprinting the names of key features into the collective memory. “The Tennis Racquet”, “The Grain Elevator”, Univermag Department Store, “Pavlov’s House”, and the more one learns about the battle, the more places one picks up on. The upcoming Panzer Command update will have a detailed 3D recreation of the railway station area (the same location that ASL’s Valor of the Guards map depicts) complete with accurate models of several historical buildings. These locations have become characters in the drama just as much as Paulus (often incorrectly cited as “von”), Chuikov, Zaitsev, et al.

Which brings us to:

5. Jason Mark and Charles Kibler – How you write an informed treatise on Stalingrad without leaving Australia, I don’t know. I suppose someone should ask him. That’s if the story is true. Frankly, I don’t care how he did it; his books on Stalingrad are the current gold standard, despite harrumphing in certain quarters about lack of synthesis in his findings (Glantz is better, they scoff) or that he is simply regurgitating raw data. Here’s a hint to anyone curious about how tactical game scenario designers work: they love raw data. If only for their own purposes. If they can sneak the real name of a participant into a scenario briefing, or point to a shed on a map and say “that building was really there in 1942”, the more they like it, even though it will have no effect on the outcome of any game. It’s about the verisimilitude. Mark’s “Island of Fire” has provided owners of the Red Barricades module much added value, fleshing out the history contained on the scenario cards and putting faces to some of the names. That module, by Charlie Kibler, was the first historical module for ASL and a truly ground-breaking concept in tactical games; a multiple scenario format where results on the map (and a historical map of the actual terrain, at that) carried over from one scenario to the next. Incidentally, Kibler has produced other Stalingrad maps for historical projects, both published and unpublished, including an excellent map of Skulpturny Park for the PC game Combat Mission.

But just understanding something, or having availability to resources, doesn’t make it fun. So what’s the attraction?

6. Tactics and Weapons – Stalingrad, as is well known, was the first major strategic level defeat for the Germans on the Eastern Front. But wait, you say, wasn’t that mostly because of the collapse of the Romanians and Italians on the flanks?

Not really. It was important, but the 6th Army was pinned inside the city, and the Red Army did an honest job of finding new ways to beat the Germans there. Chuikov learned lessons from fighting the Germans out in the open; he saw how their firepower and ability to stand off at range served them well. He knew the close terrain of the city would permit them to fight it out – “hug the Germans” – and nullify the advantage of artillery, tanks, and machine guns. The Germans countered with assault pioneers, armed with demolition charges, flamethrowers, and assault guns, including rare types brought up special for the fighting. In wargamer’s parlance, lots of “toys”, which is an appeal in itself. Perhaps it is the fragility of a flamethrower unit with its limited range and slow movement, or the open-topped, thinly armoured assault guns, vulnerable to attack by mortars and Molotov cocktails. Perhaps it is the astonishment when they actually do something worthwhile. One hopes it isn’t the realization of what the actual participants went through when these terrible weapons scored a direct hit. But there is something satisfying about seeing these weapons perform on the simulated battlefield, and few places as appropriate as Stalingrad in which to employ them. And that’s because of:

7. Terrain – The popular image of Stalingrad – now reinforced by Vilsmaier’s film – is of small groups of infantry huddled in desolate city blocks, sometimes in spitting distance of each other, for hours or days at a time. This was certaintly true at times, but the "characters" mentioned above speak to the variety of terrain types encountered in the fighting. There was a variety of terrain types, from the balkas - deep gullies – to Mamayev Kurgan, the large burial mound now home to Mother Motherland, at one time the world’s largest statue – to blocks of wooden worker’s settlements, to the factories. Even the fact that the two armies stopped to fight it out in a city is unique in the annals of the Second World War; most major cities were declared "open" in order to spare them from destruction. Commanders rarely wanted to get bogged down in costly street-fighting, either, as it nullified the advantages of mobility and firepower. The Germans certainly knew this, and Chuikov used this to great advantage once battle was joined. But for that very reason, major confrontations usually took place away from major cities - another reason Stalingrad was unique and why so many men were sucked into its vortex.

As it turned out, the battle was far more interesting, tactically speaking, in reality than the popular notions we've seen in popular culture depictions. Most battles usually are. The Pentland print above - used as the cover art for Valor of the Guards - is one other notion of Stalingrad combat; massed infantry charges through the streets into concentrated machine gun fire, depicted on screen in Enemy at the Gates. It may have happened, but the reality was somewhat different. Not that starving to death in the cold for two months is all that exciting a prospect for a good game, either, but the period of operations in the early weeks of the battle do offer considerably more of a challenge.

Perhaps it is the quest for the "truth" that is the compelling part, and what draws one back to the subject material time and again. The journey, rather than the destination.