Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Machine Gun in Tactical Wargames

Whatever happens
We have got
The Maxim Gun
And they have not
- -Hilaire Belloc

Having not been impressed by my viewing of the film Passchendaele, I am struck by how often the Machine Gun is pressed into service by motion picture screenplay writers, directors, and producers, but how little the role of the MG is understood by those in the entertainment industry. Have tactical wargame designers done any better at understanding or portraying them?

What the MG is not - the Machine Gun in the Movies

Hiram Maxim's machine is not something you stick in a corner of the battlefield and wait for a heroic band of 4 or 8 guys to blunder into. Generally speaking, it's supposed to be something you set up to guard something. That can be an open flank, or it can be an approach route, or a gap in your barbed wire. It can be a supply route or withdrawal lane, and you can set them up to fire indirectly. You employ them best when they fire at greater than point blank range - one of their advantages, to, say, a pistol or a rifle, and in interlocking arcs of fire, using a high rate of fire. So employed, they can mow down a great number of men, or deny them passage. Hollywood films like Legends of the Fall, Saving Private Ryan, and now Passchendaele think that machine guns are simply dropped off at random with 3 or 4 man gun crews, in isolation, and left there to hunt single men or other groups of men - and by "hunt" I mean sit there stupidly with an 80 pound gun and tripod and big metal cans of ammo and wait to be found, sitting behind un-camouflaged sandbags.

Machine Gun in Passchendaele. Still image taken from the official movie site. Passchendaele was the most expensive Canadian movie ever made, with a budget of 20 million dollars. The MG08 behind the stereotypical sandbag bunker was the centre-piece of the film's opening scene.

And of course, the heroes of the story find the MG, and destroy it, but not before losing one or two men, which is the point of the attack and finding the MG in the first place. In the comic books, by the way, Sgt. Rock went through this routine about every other issue.

And despite the fact these machine guns are always dropped off in the middle of nowhere, backed up into hard cover with no escape for the gun crews, our heroes (tactical geniuses, all) find themselves with no alternative but to mount a frontal assault. The true purpose of the attack, of course, is to get a disposable character in the script killed off and provide a plot point. Any sensible squad leader would simply have flanked the MG in Saving Private Ryan and attacked from the top of the hill, using the radar station as hard cover. There were no other Germans for miles around - that is made obvious by the fact our hero has time for a crying scene, a Mexican stand-off between his platoon sergeant and one of his men, and a lengthy burial of the dead, during which no other Germans intervene.

The tactical situation in Passchendaele is more mystifying; the rationale for attacking the gun is even less clear than Captain Miller's - though the book suggests that he is at this point in the war into his third year of service and less than mentally stable. The movie is brave to approach this subject and in many ways does it well; unfortunately, as good as the speeches are about nightmares and guilt, the movie falls apart in the depictions of combat and the clichéd frontal assault on the machine gun (and the use of the term "gun nest") don't do much to add to the pantheon of realistic movie moments. Far better was Robert Blake's assault on Pork Chop Hill (shown below) when he misses a Chinese MG bunker with a grenade - from two feet away - and nearly blows his own arm off. But Pork Chop Hill was more text book than movie. In fact, the screenplay was actually written from one of U.S. Army historian S.L.A. Marshall's texts, and such a film would not be commercially successful today if anyone was crazy enough to try selling it to Hollywood.

What the Machine Gun Is - A Brief History

Automatic firearms date back to the early 1700s, and the first military applications were for naval use. By the time of the American Civil War in 1861, the famous Gatling Gun was in limited use - a hand cranked repeating gun used by land forces as light artillery. In 1881, the Maxim Gun was invented, becoming the first true machine gun - a relatively light, man portable, crew served weapon firing rifle cartridges at a rapid rate of fire. In 1914, they began to shape modern tactics as armies in western Europe sought to maneuver for victory during the German invasion of Belgium and France. Cavalry, infantry and massed artillery - still employed directly in the firing line in many cases - were still operating as they had in the previous century, deploying in thick skirmish lines with the company of 100 to 200 men as the basic maneuver element of the infantry. The British expressed reluctance to introduce great numbers of machine guns, as there was an official fear that it would "unbalance" the delicate firepower organization of the infantry battalion - whatever that meant. Possibly it was a reference to the fact that a great number of men (and animals) were tasked to supporting the guns, for they were heavy, and supplying them with ammunition was a logistical burden that the battalions themselves had to bear to keep them firing.

Scottish troops with a Maxim Gun early in the First World War.

The Germans were not so reluctant, and fielded greater numbers of the weapons. During the Race to the Sea - that period in which the Allies and their enemies both sought an open flank - it became increasingly clear that the defensive would be favoured in this war. Massed riflemen stopped major German attacks at the Marne and at Mons. The grappling armies never found their opponent's open flank and battle lines soon stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel - after which the armies went underground, building first shallow ditches, and soon a system of trenches, dugouts and saps from which they would besiege each other for four years. They wired themselves in and began to deploy new weapons in a technological race to break the deadlock - poison gas (Ypres, 1915), flamethrowers (Hooge, 1915) and tanks (Courcelette, 1916) were among them, but the deadlock was brought about to begin with by the Machine Gun, which made crossing No Man's Land a dangerous experience.

What the Machine Gun Does - How It Works

The Canadians arguably did more with their machine guns than anyone else on the Western Front. They didn't just issue them to infantry battalions, they eventually created an entire combatant corps around them, and if that wasn't enough, they created additional units outside the corps, mounted them on wheels, and protected them with steel plate. At Vimy Ridge, they were used as indirect fire weapons and fired on fixed lines, raining lead down on German reinforcement routes from over hilltops, and the Canadians even planned to use their new armoured cars as breakthrough weapons, replacing the cavalry and beating the Germans to what an Allied newspaper man would call Blitzkrieg in 1939 - Lightning War. It had been a long struggle to get there; in 1915, MGs were allocated just four per battalion, and the Canadians were using unreliable American-made "potato-diggers", as the Colts were known. The British had gone to France with two guns per battalion, and the Germans had six. The Canadian Colts jammed almost as frequently as their Ross rifles, though some battalions used them into 1917, by which time they had been replaced officially with the Lewis, and a new type of gun - the Light Machine Gun - had entered the arsenal, hand in hand with a new concept in military organization: the infantry squad.

Canadian Colt MG crew (Library and Archives Canada photo)

What advantages did the MG have on the Western Front? Rate of fire is the obvious one; the Vickers which eventually came to equip British and Canadian MG units (and remained on inventory into the 1960s virtually unchanged) could fire 450 to 600 rounds per minute, and if equipped with a clean supply of ammunition and enough water to cool the barrel, could fire indefinitely with little problem. It was well made, reliable, and well liked. But it didn't just fire a lot of bullets; it could fire out to 800 yards in a direct fire role.

The basic unit of maneuver in 1914 was the infantry company of 100-200 men; they moved as blocks of soldiery, tasked with common objectives, and while platoons existed nominally, they were for organizational purposes - as a way of feeding or billeting them. To do battle, they lined up in waves and marched not unlike the armies in the Crimea, or at Gettysburg, or under Wellington. Unfortunately, the machine gun made it clear in short order why this was no longer a good idea.

Massed riflemen could still operate effectively - the British proved it at Mons, where the pre-war Regulars, trained in marksmanship and rapid fire on their bolt action rifles turned back German assault troops. The machine gun was a "force multiplier" however, and where one machine gun is good in helping stop such a charge, the MG is really a "support weapon." It doesn't exist to do the job of an infantry company, it supports the infantry. Therefore, multiple machine guns are better than one, and the idea is to create interlocking arcs of fire: to support not just the riflemen, but other machine guns as well, creating ground over which the enemy cannot pass. It does this best set up outside the normal effective battle range of the enemy's rifles - 200 yards or so - and if he can deliver his fire while covered from the enemy's artillery, even better. At Passchendaele in 1917, firing from concrete bunkers and good field works, the Germans were able to make Allied gains costly indeed using machine guns and artillery to good advantage.

Bill Rawling, in his book "Surviving Trench Warfare" (University of Toronto Press, 1992) says the following:

Open formations, however, could be defeated by a very unsophisticated technology - barbed wire. Artillery was short of ammunition (early in the war) and lacked a shell fuse sensitive enough to explode within the barrier, and the latter remained essentially untouched, forcing troops to pick their way through clinging, piercing metal as best they could. Caught on the wire, soldiers became targets for machine-gunners, who could not fail to miss men immobilized by the obstacle.

The more subtle lesson here is that machine guns are best employed in conjunction with other weapons; the barbed wire could be used to channel the advance of infantry into killing grounds, created by gaps in the wire, or when enough wire barred the way, effectively slow the advance that the machine guns' effectiveness was increased.

The MG could also be used as a form of artillery, fired not directly at a known target but into the air, with bullets looped on an arcing trajectory to fire over obstacles, using "plunging fire" to descend on the enemy's rear, interdicting trenches and roads and routes of supply, retreat, reinforcement.

The Light Machine Gun

Ironically, one of the solutions to the Machine Gun was another Machine Gun, at least partially. The other solutions to the deadlock of No Man's Land had their disadvantages - poison gas was an abject failure once the initial shock wore off and protective equipment was developed, and relatively few men died because of it, popular culture to the contrary. Flame weapons inspired fear but were not available in large numbers. The tank was mechanically unreliable and expensive to produce. Artillery was being perfected into a truly scientific arm, particularly by Commonwealth troops (at Vimy Ridge, the majority of German batteries had been located and silenced in the days preceding Zero Hour by Allied counter-battery work) but its ability to win battles on its own was negligible.

As discussed in this article on the development of the infantry squad, small units began to develop from early in the war. By 1917, the British were fielding the Lewis Gun in infantry platoons - a smaller, man portable automatic weapon that could deliver firepower in support of infantrymen moving in small bunches, either firing their rifles, using grenades (hand-thrown Mills bombs or firing rifle grenades), or even bayonets (or more exotic hand-to-hand weapons such as knob-kerries) but above all, maneuvering in close under the weight of fire of the Lewis, with its multi-man crew lugging panniers of ammo. The French and Americans would introduce LMGs/automatic rifles late in the war also, and the Germans experimented with the LMG too, as well as with sub-machine guns, an even more portable weapon firing pistol ammunition - larger bullets with shorter range for true close quarters combat. The best way for infantry to defeat the enemy was to seek him out, in small numbers, and then defeat him locally with overwhelming firepower - using artillery where possible, and the light machine gun. The pattern established in 1917-1918 would remain unchanged in its basic elemental concept to the present day, though individual firepower increased with the creation of the assault rifle during the Second World War and the dissemination of either semi-automatic or fully-automatic battle rifles after 1945.

The Lewis LMG.

But the Machine Gun is still there; it is now known as a GPMG, or General Purpose Machine Gun, the first such true GPMG being the German MG34 and MG42 of the Second World War, so known because it could operate as a light machine gun right in an infantry squad, fitted with a bipod and an assault drum, operated by a single gunner and carried into an attack on an enemy position - or it could be fitted to a tripod, equipped with telescopic sights, given a virtually unlimited supply of linked ammunition, and set to fire on fixed lines, even by remote control, at the touch of a remote trigger, to produce grazing fire along an axis of advance or down a pre-set fire lane to deny an avenue of approach to an enemy, the MG 42 firing up to a mind-numbing 1200 rounds per minute - 20 bullets a second!

These technological marvels are often the key to a company fighting position. They are generally organized into a separate weapons company within a battalion, or perhaps a separate weapons platoon within a company. The British and Canadians pooled them at the Divisional level in the Second World War. Wherever they were kept, the troops knew how important they were - and they were assigned to units and sub-units in recognition of their important role rather than simply cast adrift in the wilderness, as the movies would have you believe.

Exceptions - Movie Silliness in Reality and in Wargames

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, and sometimes, movie silliness is based on reality. That scene in Saving Private Ryan where Miller is throwing 60mm mortar rounds? It was based on the story of Technical Sergeant Beauford T "Andy" Anderson, a Medal of Honor recipient who performed the same deed on Okinawa. Not a bad scene, but freeze frame it and ask yourself why he didn't just use the grenades the prop guy stuck on his web belt instead. Or why the director chose to emulate such a rare event. Medals of Honor are generally given for the uncommon rather than the common. SPR also depicted a blind charge by armour down a narrow corridor into the teeth of Allied infantry resulting in a costly defeat. Critics have pointed at this and said "would never happen." But - never say "never" because strange things happen on battlefields, and at Arnhem, just such a charge occurred. SS-Hauptsturmführer Viktor Graebner mounted an armoured attack over the bridge over the Rhine - as narrow a corridor as the street in Ramelle - and paid the ultimate price for his aggressiveness. The charge was shot to pieces on the northern ramp by the British paratroopers ensconced in buildings at the far end. The charge is depicted in the Advanced Squad Leader module named A Bridge Too Far, and the action can be reasonably simulated in other tactical games.
The aftermath of Graebner's charge; at the top of the image are wrecked German vehicles littering the north ramp of the Arnhem bridge.

The hand-thrown mortar rounds, on the other hand, probably come under the heading of "chrome". Chrome is that grand old term from the old days of wargaming, referring to rules added for historical flavour or to capture individual peculiarity. Coming from the shiny metallic trim once applied to automobiles, the word suggests something eye-catching but having no real practical value.

Chrome sets the old board games apart from the new generation of computer games only in that paper games can be modified at will, restricted in large part only by the imagination of the user. A sophisticated fan base and increasingly open-ended games are changing this. Panzer Command allows for modification of the game's unit data, for example, and for those with the skills to do so, a game like Operation Flashpoint allows almost unrestricted ability to add not only 3D models but scripts and routines to power all sorts of (unofficial) additions to the game.

So this brings us back to that machine gun in the church. Could it have reasonably happened? Never say never, but once you overload your movie with stretches of tactical logic, you've lost the verisimilitude you need to connect with a knowledgeable audience.

The Machine Gun in Tactical Wargames

There are few tactical games dealing with First World War combat; Soldiers and Trenchfoot coming most readily to mind and both date back several decades; newer titles like Landships fight for audiences among the crowd. It is probably more useful to examine all of tactical gaming as a whole (and by tactical gaming, as always, I refer to commercial, board and video wargames dealing with "modern" land combat as my area of focus, a narrow field I make no apologies for restricting my gaze to - and especially not with this subject in mind). We can trace the evolution of the depiction of the MG in tactical wargames, as the problem of how to accurately portray the unique characteristics of the Machine Gun, and the advantages it brought to the battlefield (and the disadvantages inherent in the weapon) are illuminating.

Did You Say Disadvantages?

The first machine gun sections in British and Canadian service in 1914 were composed largely of ammunition bearers. In 1917, even the Light Machine Gun section required several ammo bearers to carry the heavy panniers for the Lewis to keep the gun in action. By 1939, though, LMGs were integrated directly into rifle squads, often firing the same ammunition as the battle rifles carried by the bulk of men in the infantry companies, and few tactical games portray in-battle logistics.

The larger MGs, however, are a different story. Squad Leader created a fairly elegant system of "portage points" for the various weapons and equipment types that an infantry squad might be expected to carry into battle, which factored in the weight of ammunition, tripod, and accessories for the MGs. The expansion "gamettes" created "dismantled" status, which reduced the portage load on infantry, imagining the guns broken down into component parts. When SL was replaced by Advanced Squad Leader, they recognized that the German GPMG, when removed from its tripod, was still a serviceable LMG and allowed it to be fired as a weapon - a nice bow to reality that some might call chrome, though all the information one needed was right on the counter and it required no special or complicated rules.

Logistics reared their ugly head in the development stream of Combat Mission; specifically, the question of whether or not units equipped with heavy machine guns should be permitted to use a fast movement command. "Running" with an HMG became a bone of contention. Equally contentious was the question of whether or not British and Canadian troops ever actually used the tripod for the Bren Light Machine Gun. Sometimes, the research isn't the hard part and neither is the implementation; the hard part is the point of decision in between the two.

Other Myths and Movies

Readers may remember that "silly" scene in the Carentan episode of Band of Brothers, where the Sherman tank commander is riding into battle blasting away with the .50 while standing on the back of his tank. In actuality, it wasn't silly. In fact, standing on the back of the certain models of the Sherman tank was the only way you could fire the .50 at ground troops. There is a misconception that the Browning gun on the turret of the Sherman was there for close protection. It wasn't; it was an anti-aircraft weapon. You had to exit the turret, depending on the mount, in order to use it. Canadian Sherman tanks rarely kept the Browning in 1944-45; in fact, the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade specifically ordered the guns removed. One source suggests that Brigade headquarters expressed concern that tank commanders would be exposed to hostile aircraft by so doing; the risk of exposure in dismounting the turret to use the gun was considered too great.

Sherman tank in France. The tank commander has dismounted to use the .50 on enemy infantry across a river. (US Army photo)

The AA MG on the Sherman has been contentious in both board and PC games. In ASL, it is a weapon of great power, but there are no special rules depicting the hazards in using it against troops beyond the normal "crew exposed" rules that cover all exposed tank commanders. A Canadian tank commander, trained to expose just the top of his head above the rim of the turret, is given the same advantages of vision and cover as an American tank commander blazing away with the turret Browning, which we know had to be done from outside the turret altogether in certain instances.

In Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, the AA MG on the Sherman was similarly quite potent and often could be found knocking out enemy armoured vehicles before the main gun. The ballistics are consistent with real life - the .50 round was a potent one and punching through the thin rear armour of a Hetzer or any of the armour on a Sd Kfz 251 halftrack would not have been a problem - but doctrinally it would have been unlikely for a tank commander to leap out and blaze away with the MG rather than "button up" and let the main gun do the work of the tank. The abstract nature of the game's mechanics worked against the realistic portrayal of this doctrine.

My Final Word

While modern combat appears to have changed a lot since 1917, many aspects of it have not; the employment of machine guns is probably one of those things that has stayed relatively constant, at least in principle. While infantry are performing many more different tasks on the battlefield in the modern "Three Block War" environment, when it comes time to employ the Machine Gun in full-intensity conflict, an infantry unit will still use the principles pioneered for it in the trenches, and later developed in the Second World War. Game designers have struggled with how best to capture the effects of this unique weapons system. Film makers have been quick to capitalize on the reputation the MG has gained as a leading causality factor in the infliction of casualties, second only to artillery, even if the depiction of the MG on film has been more sensationalistic than real.

My Question To You

We can examine the MG through this GeekList, but which game do you think has presented an interpretation of the Machine Gun in modern battle that seems to be the closest to being accurate? Is it possible that, like artillery, getting it too close to accurate would simply be a game-killer?

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