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?

Player Typing

There is a need in certain quarters to categorize game players, whether it is to gather demographics for advertising, or to attempt to predict future sales, or to better enable fellow gamers to talk to one another. MOVES Magazine printed an article in 1975, breaking down board wargamers into the following:
  • The Military Establishment
  • The Military Historians
  • The Military Buffs
  • The Avengers
  • The Social Wargamers
  • The Mathematicians
  • The Supercompetitors
  • The Accidental Converts
  • The Shut-Ins
  • The Limited Interest Minority
  • The Wishful Thinkers
  • The Reluctant Gift-Receivers
  • The Elite Capitalists
  • The Reluctant Opponents

The categories, author Phil Kosnett admitted, overlapped. What he didn't admit in print was that the piece was probably meant as much as humorous filler as a serious attempt to define the wargaming community. As with all good humour, there was much truth in his descriptions. I recall turning a friend of the family into a Reluctant Opponent in a game of Wreck of the B.S.M. Pandora during a stay at his home. I think most of my early Squad Leader opponents were probably Reluctant Opponents, come to think of it.1

Twenty-five years later, Curt Schilling described the Advanced Squad Leader community as "cliques", breaking them down as "Competitor. Simulator. Historian. Socializer. Many of you may have seen wargaming broken down like this before."2

Somewhere during the intervening quarter century, however, it became possible to introduce a new dynamic into the mix; that of the Experiential Wargamer. The introduction of tactical level wargames, first person shooters, and legitimate solitaire gaming all helped develop that new category.

Early Roots and Shameful Pursuits

The first board wargames were intended to portray operational level clashes where the gamer filled the role of a general in command of an army group, army or corps commander. Tactical-level games didn't arrive on the scene until later - though miniature players had been recreating low-level tactical battles for decades by the time PanzerBlitz hit the scene in 1970. The "dirty little secret" among wargamers, however, was that the majority of gamers had always played solo. SPI began surveying its customers in the late 1960s with reader feedback cards and found in excess of 50 percent of those surveyed played alone - before the invention of board wargames specifically designed for solo play. "In the 1990s, the number of games played solitaire exceeds sixty percent."3 SPI recognized this phenomenon early on; in the very first issue of their "house organ", MOVES Magazine, they published a "how to" article on maximizing solitaire play.4

As the focus of wargames decreased in scope, however, the ability to picture one's self in the role of the commanders increased. It became possible to become personally involved in the events on the game board. It had been possible to picture yourself as the generalissimo of the Red Army in Tactics II, of course, but it was still a somewhat abstract experience to push entire divisions from square to square.

You Command The Action

In 1977, Squad Leader not only put the player into the role of a company commander, in charge of 100 or so men engaged in desperate battle, but with a unique Campaign Game and a set of blank "leader" counters, permitted the player to lend his own name and personality to the proceedings. For the first time, the 1/2-inch cardboard square represented one person - the player - and his skill at arms would have repercussions not just in the current game, but in a series of games, with the ability to rise in rank and ability.

Playing for Experience

What the Squad Leader campaign game permitted was the creation of another category of "casual" game player - the Experiential Player. Like the other categories that have been created (and none of these are set in stone, as they are creations of convenience for the specific purposes of those that create them) they freely overlap. They can be the bane of the Serious Competitor who wants to play him, or the Stolid Historian who wants to debate him. He might even be highly sought after by the Crass Commercialist who wants to sell extra historical modules to him because he knows he can "hook" him based on new "flavours" alone.

What the Experiential Player could do was actually relive some of the excitement the ad copy on the back of the box promised, which proclaimed "YOU are the Squad Leader." The game became less a function of calculating the chance of a 2:1 odds attack with three regiments at Quatre Bras, and more about whether or not he had the guts to order his last five men into close combat against that tank around the next block. Imagination became part of the game. The following was recently posted in an ASL-themed blog, and illustrates the imaginative approach still taken to Squad Leader's offspring:
If there's one hallmark that makes a good wargame it's the narrative generated from the game. This is something you're just not going to get out of a Euro like Agricola or Puerto Rico or whatever. For example, take the case of the Cursed MMG.
Early in the game, around turn 2, the Russians who would have been manning a MMG...ran off after taking fire. They left a perfectly good support weapon lying around and in the next rally phase I rolled a SIX -- what the HELL?! Pick the damn thing up you scrubs!
I should have known then that the MMG was cursed. Slick with the blood of the Russian who last held it, the MMG was to be an albatross on the neck of every German squad who managed to pick it up... By game's end, its bad mojo extended into the full hex and even squads who didn't pick it up were gunned down...5
Rise of the Individual

While SPI recognized early on the proclivity to play games solitaire, it did not result in a great number of solitaire titles, and of those released, success has been mixed. Games like Iwo Jima and B-17: Queen of the Skies were mainly exercises in dice rolling. Tokyo Express received greater attention, and the title most germaine to this article, Ambush!, was perhaps the most successful, spawning several sequels, including three follow-ups, a companion game with sequel, a two-player version, and a tank-based variant as well as a number of third-party variants and scenarios. Ambush! was perhaps the most intense expression of the notion that players sat down with wargames solely for the Experience - that is to say, to engage their imagination and to indulge in escapism, rather than emphasis on the other often-cited historical, educational or competitive aspects to wargaming which had often been used to "legitimize" the hobby in the early days when escapism was really not possible given the limited physical components and interactivity of the games themselves. Not coincidentally, Ambush! was a man-to-man level game, with each game piece representing a single soldier, and the player was given free reign to name each member of his squad as he saw fit. Like the SL Campaign Game, each "character" had the opportunity to advance in skills, rank and ability over time as the player campaigned his squad through several missions.

The rise of role playing games in the early 1970s must surely have had an impact on legitimizing how wargamers approached the experience also. The first military themed RPG was published in 1979 - SPI once again led the way, with Commando - followed by almost a dozen other titles in the 1980s, none of which came anywhere close to the popularity of the fantasy or science fiction RPGs. But it may have been a simple matter of technology.

In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D was released and began appearing on home computers; it popularized the First Person Shooter genre, had a tinge of history to it (there were "Nazis" in an underground cavern and the Horst Wesel song was accurate, if not slightly offensive to the sensitive), and there was no need to pull out cardboard pieces and paper maps. By 1997, Muzzle Velocity was offering something much more historical - accurate 3D models of historical equipment in camouflage paint jobs, first person tank crew and infantryman views, the ability to switch between the 3D world and a 2D map; not all that remarkable, given that M-1 Tank Platoon had done many of the same things in 1989, but with vector graphics and without the infantry. The games weren't about counting firepower factors, they were about being there on the battlefield and experiencing it. Just like role playing games, first person shooters and 3D battle games were letting wargamers set foot in other worlds.

Knocked out Sherman tank in Muzzle Velocity (1997)

The focus on solitaire play and on individual achievement/campaign play would seem to have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the fantasy and role playing worlds. Real militaries emphasize teamwork and the necessity to work together to overcome obstacles. Basic training is an ordeal that takes weeks to accomplish. Divisions are commanded not by single commanders, but by staffs of officers trained in administration and logistics who wrestle with problems well beyond the ken of the uninitiated. The trend in military gaming is towards games such as Brothers in Arms which, while touting its "realism" because it occasionally asks the player to maneuver riflemen to a flanking position, still manages to ignore most of the realities of modern combat, specifically but not restricted to the complexities of command and control.

In actual fact, first person shooters are so unlike military practice, they are usually not considered "wargames"; but a new category has slipped in - "tactical shooters." These are man-to-man games set in the first person with a level of realism and fidelity superior to the "first person shooters." The differences are apparent; tactical shooters have no "health packs" or ability to magically heal, for one. Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault have been assigned to this category. They also claim to have actual restrictions on command and control, in both single- and multi-player mode. Kill ratios are way down in the tactical shooters, and just seeing the enemy is a real accomplishment - as it usually is in real life.

As the games increase in scale, to squad- and platoon- level, the level of abstraction also increases, to simulate command and control problems and various types of "friction." The Experiential Player becomes drawn out of the game, and makes decisions not just for one person, but represents in reality a syndicate of commanders. It's possible to lose one's self in the experience, but it doesn't become the entire point of the game. An example is the initial iteration of Combat Mission where watching the 3D "movie" is necessary to plan strategy each turn. Another is in ASL, where smaller "narratives" get naturally built around individual vignettes, as we saw illustrated above with the Russian MMG.

 Video gamers who play MMORPGs (massively Multiplayer online role playing games, which tend to be fantasy-themed in nature) have their own breakdown, for which there is even a test, the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology, which rates players on their responses to questions which measure four basic personality "types" - Explorer, Achiever, Socializer, and Killer. The test examines the primary motivations by comparing two situations and weighing them against each other - would you rather find a pot of gold, or make a new friend, etc. The test weighs each respondent in the four categories with a percentage - you may find you are 100% explorer, but still 13% killer and 40% achiever, as there is definitely some overlap in the categories. Is it scientific? Probably not.
My Final Word

At the most basic level, every wargamer is an Experiential Player, given that the point of playing a game is to have fun or be entertained. The point of the article is to describe a player who plays for escapism above all else. Anyone who has fired up Panzer Commander just to maneuver the camera around one of the maps will relate to him. So will anyone who has used a map editor to recreate their own childhood neighbourhood.

My Question To You

To whom should any of this really matter?

1. Kosnett, Phil "What is a Wargamer?" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 19 Feb-Mar 1975)
2. Schilling, Kurt "Can You Ever Be Sure? Historical Research and ASL" (ASL Journal 2)
3. Dunnigan, James F. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition (Writers Club Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000) p.304 ISBN 0-595-15546-4
4. Richardson, Jay "Solitaire Wargaming" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 1 Feb 1972)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Tragic Tale of Combat Mission Campaigns

The Combat Mission community was very pleased to hear, in October 2005, that a new product named Combat Mission: Campaigns was in the works. A workable "operational layer" for the popular 3D tactical game had been the Holy Grail since the release of the first title in the series - which by that point had progressed through the original and two sequels (CMBO,CMBB & CMAK) - and as it turned out, the faithful would have almost two more years to wait for the release of the next game in the series.

There had been many attempts to devise "manual" operational layers. (The games did ship with "operations" - sort of 'super-scenarios' - that let the player string together a series of scenarios much like Historical Advanced Squad Leader Campaign Games. But they never seemed to work properly, with front lines being drawn between scenarios in strange places - and the developers either refused or couldn't figure out how to let players export saved game data for re-use in the editor, which would have permitted terrain damage, knocked out vehicles, and depleted units to be "carried over" for free-form campaigns.) The "Meta Campaign" was a popular pastime, where an operational-level game was played out among a group of players, with CM scenarios used to determine the outcome of the battles generated. There were different methods of playing and tracking the operational level movements - usually involving spreadsheets, lots of emails, and communications issues as players dropped in, and dropped out, from across time zones. Battles were generally done PBEM (or TCP) against live opponents (not the AI) and thus a two hour battle window might take a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, to resolve. Simulating a week or two weeks of operational time could take months.

Co-ordinating large numbers of players in such an effort was a chore. Those who stuck with it swore by the rewards. Some players began to develop software to handle logistics, mapping, and other book-keeping (vets will recall the COCAT software with either dread or awe.)

Every couple of months, someone new would announce another new campaign on the official forums, or one of the many unofficial CM fan forums. Some never got off the ground, others folded when the creators realized how much work they were. But there was no shortage of good ideas, and with CM games covering the gamut from North Africa to Italy to the entire Eastern Front (and with a choice of either using the updated Mediterranean module to do a convincing stand-in for NW Europe, or using the original with its older infantry and armor modelling), there were thousands of brigade or division size actions to choose from.

Bruce Poon of Hunting Tank Software obviously thought so. The announcement in October 2005 struck the community by surprise (save those few beta testers who had been selected to participate behind the scenes). But it seemed like a natural idea.

In a press release on October 14, 2005, he described the product as follows:

Bruce Poon, lead designer:
What we are trying to do with Combat Mission Campaign is provide the operational level layer that Combat Mission players have always wanted. Every feature has been designed to be as realistic, complex and challenging as commanding troops really was back then, and to complement the realism in Combat Mission itself. If we can provide a realistic and fun game for Combat Mission players, we know that we have made a great contribution. It could not have been done without great support from Battlefront.

On the official forums, an FAQ was posted by one of the beta testers[/url]:

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Is this a whole new game or simply an expansion to Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin?

A: Actually, its both. While CMC could certainly be played without CMBB, it was always designed to work in tandem with it in order to allow the player to experience the challenges of operational level planning and strategy. CMC will allow you to "auto-resolve" tactical engagements but this is really meant as a time saving feature and the game was always designed for you to play out the battles, in person, with CMBB.

The best way to think of CMC is as an Operational Level Command expansion for CMBB although it is a new game in of itself.

Q: Did Battlefront design Combat Mission Campaigns? Did Charles Moylan (programmer of CM) work on CMC?

A: Partially, while Combat Mission Campaigns was developed, designed and programmed by the team at Hunting Tank Software, they have been given unprecedented access to the inner workings of the Combat Mission game engine. Charles coded up the interface between CMBB and CMC which allows for the great interaction between the two programs and the ability to "share" information, status and results with one another.

Q: Is CMC based on the new CMx2 engine or the older CMx1 (classic) game engine or something else?

A: Something else. It's a whole new game, coded by an outside developer (Hunting Tanks Software) but it adds the Operational Level Command component to CMBB which was a CMx1 engine based game.

Q: I am a little confused, when enemy units get close to one another in CMC, how are the battles played out in CMBB?

A: CMC handles all the work for you. It chooses the necessary map for the battle to be played on, sets up the correct weather and time of day and populates the battle with the troops and equipment with their experience levels, ammo load outs, morale and fatigue levels and more all intact. Once the battle is complete, CMBB sends the results back to CMC for proper processing and updating of the campaign.

Q. What multiplay modes and gameplay are supported?

A. At the Operational level you can play solo against the AI or Multiplay with numerous human players against other human players or a combination of both human and AI players. If you play out the tactical battles using CMBB you are restricted to normal 1 on 1 or single player vs. the AI.

Q: What campaigns will come with CMC?

A: Right now we are planning to include campaigns covering the following: Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Operation Mars, 3rd Kharkov, Kursk and Berlin.

Q: I can make my own though campaigns, right? CMC comes with an editor?

A: Yes! CMC ships with the same editors that we used to make the original campaigns. These include a Operational Map Editor, Turn Editor which allows for the game to run with several different turn lengths (in hours), including the allowance of different turn lengths for different times of day, a Time of Day editor allowing for different dark / light cycles in different regions of the conflict and a Weather editing program that allows historical weather conditions to be accurately reflected in the game.

There is also an Order of Battle (OOB) Editor that enables the selection of a range of German and Russian troop types and formations, as well as the creation of unusual or custom formations from scratch. Any formation created can be saved for use in a variety of scenarios.

Q: Does CMC allow you to create/play with some of the minor nations like Italy, Romania, Hungary, Finland?

A: Currently, only Russian and German forces are included although other nations may be added as a patch or future add-on.

Q: Will CMC be expanded to support Combat Mission: Afrika Korps or even the older Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord?

A: That is certainly a possibility depending on CMC's commercial success.

Q: How big can the campaigns in CMC really be?

A: Currently, CMC is designed and best enjoyed with campaigns up to a Division per side. WIthin those divisions, several human players could have individual commands.

Q: What's the smallest battles you might have in CMC, that would then be played out in CMBB or auto-resolved? What's the largest?

A: The smallest maneuver unit in CMC is a Platoon so you could have, for example, a small skirmish of just two enemy recon platoons or a massive battle with several enemy Battalions slugging it out.

Q: Will CMC have a "replay" feature?

A: Yes it will. You will be able to review what happened for all past turns at any time.This gives each commander the ability to review the historical progress of the game, including an ever improving operational view of 'what really happened'.

Q: Tell me about Fog-of-War and unit spotting. How have you dealt with that at the operational level?

A: Combat Mission Campaigns implements an exacting Fog of War system, showing limited information due to the visibility of enemy troops, but also takes into account the time to transfer information from one unit to another, the types of signals involved, and the inertia in large units being able to respond to new orders. This means it's even possible to lose situational awareness of subordinate units that are slow to report their current status and position!

Q: Does CMC offer any new tools to help with spotting or being spotted by enemy units?

A: Yes, it offers both. On the operational map, you can select any unit under your command and toggle both a "Who Can I See" and "Who Can See Me" mode which will shade various areas of the map depending on the visibility to and from that terrain.

Q: On the Operational Isometric 3D map, I see that it is made up of terrain squares. What's the size of one of those terrain squares?

A: The smallest terrain tile shown represents an area approximately 1km by 1km in size. Battlefields are made up of 4 of these small tiles, thus giving a 2k x 2k battlefield in CMBB.

Q: When is it coming out and how much?

A: When it's done and expected price will be about 35 dollars.

Q: Do you need beta testers or people willing to create new campaigns for the final release?

A: Actually, we might. If you have a PROVEN track record of creating quality CMBB operations and scenarios we would certainly be interested in speaking with you about the oppertunity to help with CMC! If interested, please email us at and be sure to spell out your background with CMBB scenario/operation creation.
(Forum post by Wicky, 13 Oct 2005)

It sounded great. Some of the posters on the forum wondered who Bruce Poon was; when he started posting about the project, curious fellows started checking his posting history. One noticed this:

OK, I've got my Sherlock Holmes hat on tonight.

I've been trying to get a campaign thingie going for quite a while now. My last effort, an attempt, to do a huge battle of Stalingrad, with a Java app not too much unlike CMC ended with me ripping all my hair out in frustration trying to get CMBB to build the OOB's for a generated battle (by simulating mouseclicks all over the damn place).

So I decided to check into who actually did manage to get his grubby little fingers onto CMBB's innards where all the rets of us failed.

He's from Melbourne of all places (great town...go Blues!) so proximity can't have anything to do with it.

Early on he couldn't even figure out operations!
posted August 13, 2000 09:06 AM

"I made a map and an Operation but I can't really make it work the way I think it should."

Huge gap between 2002 and 2004 which is where me may presume CMC was being done????

Then in June 15, 2005 12:21 AM in the When will the Operational Art of War meet Combat Mission thread...
"Who would be foolish enough to build such a campaign system anyway? Must have rocks in their heads "

Anyways congrats Hunter. Still can't figure out how you managed to do it. Must have been incredibly frustrating. Tip of the hat from one programmer to another. Get a move on brain is starting to hurt from playing ASL and I can't wait to ditch it for your game.
Another noted that Hunting Tank Software had posted adverts going back to 2003 for programmers:

And another one from February 2003:

"Hunting Tank Software is looking for an additional analyst / programmer =
to work on our first title, a turn-based WWII Operational Level Wargame.

Candidates should have knowledge and experience with (in order of =
- Python
- XP (Unit Testing, Pair Programming, Object Oriented Design and =
- Pattern Programming

Familiarity with wargames of this genre would be useful.

The position will be Part or Full time (to be negotiated), and will =
involve work in the Melbourne area (Brighton and CBD) and possibly some =
work from home.

When the opportunity arose later, several of us sent in c.v. to apply for a spot in the beta test and campaign design team. Much of the detail is lost to memory, other than there was a long - long - wait. The testers were hamstrung by what they could do; basically wait for the code, and the project was - and I don't recall when we were informed - stalled by the loss of one of the main coders. There was really no idea when the project would be finished.

In November 2005, battlefront could only announce they would do their best to release it before the new game engine premiered.

In July 2006, battlefront was interviewed by Armchair General. They mentioned that "After the last three recent releases (Strategic Command 2, DropTeam and at the beginning of July For Liberty!), we still have a few games in development which we’re (very loosely) planning to release towards the end of the year – among them HistWar, the Combat Mission Campaigns add-on to CMBB, and our own new Combat Mission game, Shockforce." As it turned out, HistWar was never released by battlefront, and Shock Force had another year of gestation.

The campaign designers dutifully did their bit. It involved creating 2km x 2km tactical maps in the CM:BB game. Each operational area required a matrix of these maps. The main CM:C game would then generate battles to be played on them (alternately, CM:C could be played as a game unto itself, without kicking out data to be resolved in CM:BB).

The campaign designers attacked the projects with relish; I had the help of a talented map-maker who called himself Sergei, who whipped up 180 or so maps depicting terrain around Mcensk, based on a wartime map and other references. Others worked on Brest-Litovsk, Stalingrad, Berlin, Kursk, and points in between. The work spanned a period of six months.

In the meantime, we finally saw the early drafts of the game. Perhaps the worst video wargame ever was something called "Avalon Hill's Squad Leader", a horrible little 3D man-to-man turn based thing that borrowed the famous board game's name, and nothing else. It was depicted in an isometric kind of 3D view, borrowed from Soldiers at War. And so was the CM:C operational layer. It had cheesy little icons, and worse, no 2D map. Some of us expressed our doubts - an operational wargame without a map? The player was supposed to plot movement for companies and battalions and translate their movement and plan their eventual combat on the 3D CMBB terrain based on the operational layer - and yet the only hint as to how the terrain related to that layer was in little cutesy "sprites." Perhaps I simply wasn't clear on the whole intent. It just seemed bad.
Each tile on this map represented a 2km by 2km CMBB map (divided into 1 x 1 quadrants). How you were supposed to tell what the CMBB map really looked like was never explained in the rules.

So did the sound effects. And so did the horrendous loading times, which thankfully got better as the project progressed.

Time wore on. Shock Force was released, and I parted company with battlefront - so my beta testing stint was over. I watched the project with interest and kept in touch with other testers but even by the time I left, Bruce had largely stopped posting in the development forum. So had everyone else. It was sad. Even as goofy as the interface looked, there was hope that it might at least be fun to play - or that one could develop some work arounds - no game being perfect, one can always add their own enhancements. Printing paper maps of the CMBB world could have made the sprite-infested ops map at least bearable. Part of me thought that enough player feedback post-release would convince the designer to review some of those decisions - just get it released, and make it a hit, and the community will carry you along on, helping you out after that.

It wasn't to be.

In February 2009, after four years, Bruce Poon announced what many had speculated. The plug was finally pulled - and in heartbreaking fashion.

I regret that I have had to cancel the development of Combat Mission Campaigns, at least in its present form, and possibly in any form.

What went wrong

CMC was a major undertaking, and I certainly underestimated how long it would take to develop. I was probably way too ambitious. Just building an interface to CMBB was one thing, and a tricky one at that, given that CMBB had not originally been designed with that end in mind. But as well as that there was an engine that enabled 'relative spotting' for each commander, given the reports that he would have access to from his subordinates, including communication delays and so on. I had never seen this done before in a comprehensive way, for any game or simulation, and it caused some considerable complexity.

CMC was designed to be a 'grognard's dream', with every aspect of WWII warfare included at some level. It has a very sophisticated supply model, air forces, weather and 9 different ground conditions with associated (2D!) graphics, artillery support, tactical reserves, entrenchment, etc, etc. There is a ridiculously large code base handling everything from medals to soldier promotions to strategic AI.

The problem is that it took too long to develop, and the core engine proved unstable and difficult to fix. I find myself in the position this New Year of having something that is arguably 99% done, and yet we cannot nail the key bugs which prevent release (and no one wants to release something that is deficient). Just like the same time last year. And the year before that.

There have been some talented people dedicate work to the project, only to leave for a variety of reasons throughout (better career, family tragedy, etc). Each time this happens, on such a small team, it causes disruption and complication in new people coming up to speed. It generally takes some months for them to be at peak productivity.

Unlike most major commercial titles, but similar to CMBB, this was developed on a 'shoestring', without the support of a major backer. That means that it cost me personally the bulk of my life savings and my earnings over the last few years. I have run out of passion for working on it, and money to fund it. Keeping one or several programmers busy simply from the funds I personally earn in the computer industry has been possible, but increasingly painful.

It has been clear for some time that any proceeds from the sale of the game would not meet the expenditure. Nevertheless, I persisted with it because I did not wish to see the effort go to waste, I wanted to provide something entertaining, and I am very, very stubborn.

Work ceased over a month ago now. I already feel better, like the man who stops hitting his head against a wall. Apologies for not releasing news of this earlier, but there are some processes.

Apologies and Thanks

I lend my apologies to the fans who wished to see the kind of campaign system that CMC was intended to provide.

Thanks to the beta testers who helped out, creating maps, campaigns, providing feedback, testing buggy software, etc.

An even greater apology to those who volunteered time and effort to help with manual development or graphics. Especially so, Marco Bergman who personally created THOUSANDS of graphical images covering units, vehicles, interface, etc. I feel badly for someone who has worked so hard voluntarily and does not even see the title released. And there were others.

Battlefront, through Martin and Charles, have put a lot of effort into this game as well, while pushing forward with their other titles.

The Future

As promised, we have made the source code and other assets available for the community. Too much work, sweat and blood was invested by too many people to let it simply vanish. And who knows, maybe there are skilled individuals out there who have the time and energy to take what we have and lead it to a conclusion.

The source code and other files have been uploaded and are available as an open source project from here:

If you are interested to become part of the project, please feel free to join the project.

There are two important things to note:
- the files are released AS IS. There is a set of documents released and downloadable from sourceforge. That is all the documentation you're going to get. There will be no further support for this project from us.
- all files are released under the GNU GPL Copyleft license. This means that not only are they open source, any derivates based on them have to be open source, too, and may not be commercially exploited. We strongly suggest that you read the GNU GPL 3.0 license text (it's available under the "Documentation" tab on the sourceforge project) to avoid any nasty misunderstandings about this in the future.

If I had ever released the game, I would certainly have dedicated it to those who fell in that terrible conflict, whose suffering puts all our troubles in perspective.


The loss of the dreams of hundreds (or more?) gamers' dream product must pale in comparison to the loss of an individual's personal fortune. It was hard to read; it's hard to read now. Some programmers in the online CM community have looked at the source code, and it doesn't seem that much can be done with it - perhaps one day if the original CM code was ever released - which battlefront has vowed won't happen - something could come of it, but then, the original CM is already 11 years old.

Wargames that combine operational strategy with company-level tactics are a rarity - had Combat Mission: Campaigns succeeded, it would have occupied a unique place in the wargaming niche. As someone who had a tiny glimpse into its gestation, I doubt it would have been the Holy Grail we all look for. With all due respect to Bruce, who poured heart, soul and livelihood into it, I just can't see the sprite-driven map, dated graphics and limited capabilities (only two nationalities, non-scalable maps, etc.) catching on. But I think it would have gained a small but loyal audience, much like the other CM titles, and encouraged refinements and updates.

I hope someday, someone gets a product like this right. I'm not brave enough to risk my own treasure on the notion there is a market for it, but I hope there are developers as brave as Bruce Poon that are.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Nijmegen: A Walk Through the Battlefield

Climax at Nijmegen Bridge debuted as Scenario 34 in GI: Anvil of Victory, and was redone in ASL terms for the GI's Dozen scenario bundle by MMP as scenario U4. Like many (good) ASL scenarios, it compresses actual historical events and takes liberties with the historical terrain to conform to the constraints of the geomorphic mapboards.

The story of MARKET-GARDEN is well known, but the fighting in Nijmegen is often overlooked even by enthusiasts of this operation. The fighting in the city, as well as the nearby Groesbeek heights, has been relatively under-reported, even during the events that transpired there. Only two war correspondents were assigned to the division, both of whom covered the battle on the heights while the drama inside Nijmegen itself unfolded. In the words of historian Tim Saunders, as a consequence “there has never been the level of interest or knowledge that this highly significant battle deserves.” It is often not realized, for example, that there were two bridges in Nijmegen, a railway bridge and a road bridge, and references in histories to "the Nijmegen bridge" abound.
Modern day road map of Nijmegen.
When the 82nd Airborne landed at Nijmegen on September 17th, it managed to capture the Grave bridge intact. At 18:00hrs, two companies of the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment (1/508) were sent to seize a bridge over the Waal at Nijmegen; a rail bridge and a road bridge further east both spanned the river. The company ran into machine-guns and an armoured halftrack as it penetrated into the city, and engaged in a firefight in the Keizer Karel Plein, a large traffic roundabout. German commanders had decided that Nijmegen would be a centre of main effort – a Schwerpunkt – and the reconnaissance battalion of the 9th SS Panzer Division had been hurriedly dispatched to bolster the defences there, along with a battle group of mixed elements from the 10th SS Panzer Division. Their orders were to block Allied troops in the south long enough to annihilate the British in the Oosterbeek area. The seizure of the north ramp of the Arnhem bridge put a hamper on further German reinforcements, isolating units in the Nijmegen area, notwithstanding those units now willing to endure a long flanking march and slow ferry ride across the Rhine well upstream.

Other reinforcements in the immediate area, however, were activated and thrown into a ring around the bridges, including a company of the Hermann Goering Training Regiment which had happened to be in transit on that day, three companies of trainees from nearby Military District 6, and a number of other forces including NCO candidates, railway guards, reserve police, anti-aircraft units, and replacement infantry companies.

The arrival of SS reinforcements had halted all forward motion by 1/508 and the Americans stopped for the night, all thought of capturing a bridge now vanished. The local resistance did pass on that the Post Office in Nijmegen contained one of the firing mechanisms for destroying the bridges, and that same night a patrol assaulted the building. The paratroopers seized the building and destroyed the firing mechanism; they were then counter-attacked and held out for three days as food, water and ammunition slowly ran out and the rest of 1/508 first pulled back to the south of Nijmegen, and then received orders to withdraw to the Groesbeek heights to reorganize.

A new crisis materialized on the 18th, when the Germans seized dropping zones from the 82nd on the Groesbeek Heights. A single company in Nijmegen was all that could be spared to continue the assault towards the main objective, the bridges over the Waal. Company G, of the 3rd Battalion of the 508th P.I.R. attempted to bypass German resistance in the Keizer Karel Plein and brushed through a number of rear echelon troops until finally running into SS defences close to the bridge, stiffened by artillery fire, and again fell short of taking the road bridge – though they had come within 100 yards of the near ramp.

The Keizer Karel Plein today shows no evidence of the 20mm gun and German infantry positions dug into the grounds in 1944.

On the 19th, contact was made between the leading elements of the ground forces of British 30th Corps, and the U.S. paratroopers in Grave. Daimler armoured cars of the 2nd Household Cavalry led the division into the city, and were soon engaged with German heavy flak guns; the heaviest armament the Daimlers could bring to bear with their small 2-pounder (40mm) guns. They exchanged fire with German anti-aircraft units across the river, and soon the divisional artillery joined in as well, answered by fire from German 10.5cm pieces. Additional troops prepared to assault both the road and rail bridges, split into two forces:

Western Force ( Railway Bridge)
tank troop from No. 3 Sqn, 2/Grenadier Guards
platoon from No. 2 Coy, 1/Grenadier Guards
Company D, 2/505 P.I.R.

Eastern Force (Road Bridge)
3 troops of tanks from No. 3 Sqn, 2/Grenadier Guards
3 platoons from No. 2 Coy, 1/Grenadier Guards

Companies E & F, 2/505 P.I.R.

A look at the scenario card for ASL Scenario U4 shows that the research for this was well done; the unit designations match exactly to that of the Eastern Force. Though the prelude on the card correctly identifies the objective as the "road bridge" it does not mention the rail bridge.

Current Google Earth map of the area of the road bridge (today known as James Gavinweg).

The Eastern Force came under fire 300 yards from the Road Bridge, as it entered the Keizer Lodwijk Plein; the Germans were heavily fortified in stone houses and in the grounds of an ancient fortification called the Valkhof (incorrectly called "Valkhol" on the scenario card).
Buildings overlooking Keizer Lodwijk Plein in which Lieutenant Dawson of No. 2 Company, Grenadier Guards and his men sought cover. They used automatic weapons on the enemy to their front and killed a considerable number of men, according to the divisional history, but return fire from an 88mm gun scored a direct hit on their house, which caused it to be evacuated.The building is marked "1" in the map above. The camera is facing south.

Three British tanks were knocked out in exchanges with German flak and anti-tank guns; attempts to gain an advantage by flanking the Germans through the side streets failed to succeed and the Eastern Force withdrew under heavy German artillery fire.

Tanks of 2./Grenadier Guards were knocked out in this square, which leads into the Valkhof Gardens. The square is marked "2" in the map above. The camera is looking south.

The Western Force, like the Eastern Force, advanced with the paratroopers riding on the tanks and the British infantry mounted in armoured carriers. This force also ran into heavy opposition and were unable to penetrate to the rail bridge. Major General James Gavin, the divisional commander of the 82nd Airborne, enquired to the commander of 30th Corps about the availability of boats, and a plan was drawn up to push across U.S. paratroopers across the Waal to try and put pressure on the Germans from the northern end of the river. The Guards Armoured Division's Royal Engineer Field Park Squadron had 26 assault boats which were ordered to the front. The 3rd Battalion of the 504th P.I.R. was to cross the Waal while forces in Nijmegen continued to attack the approaches to the bridges. The river crossing is well known as ASL scenario 25 Gavin's Gamble - the scenario card for which does not make a distinction between the rail and road bridges, and speaks as if there was one single "Nijmegen Bridge."

On the afternoon of September 20th, the date on which ASL Scenario U4 takes place, renewed attacks on the railway bridge moved closer, and buildings around Kronenburger Park were cleared, as the U.S. paratroopers learned a new method of house-to-house fighting, now fighting from rooftop to rooftop. The river crossing took place two miles to the west of Nijmegen. The crossing began after many postponements at 15:00hrs with artillery and mortar fire providing the smoke screen; the river was 175 yards wide and one report states that the boats travelled the first 100 yards without a shot being fired. The Germans had not expected an attempt to cross "one of Europe's widest and fast(est) flowing rivers in daylight", in the words of one of the German divisional commanders, and the notion was disregarded as "inconceivable and dismissed as suicidal." Only scattered outposts had been placed out on the Waal. The infantry landed in good order on the far bank, and Royal Engineers started shuttling heavy weapons over. The Hof van Holland, a 17th Century fortress, 500 metres from the north end of the railway bridge, with earthen banks and a wide water-filled moat, was next to be taken, and was blasted by fire from the south bank. By 18:00hrs the paratroopers had not only taken the fort but had driven on and flown the American flag from the north end of the railway bridge. Resistance began to melt away at the south end during the evening, but the success never got reported up the chain of command, or else the importance of the news never resonated with higher headquarters, who remained fixated on the road bridge. (Incidentally, the river crossing was simulated in Yanks scenario Gavin's Gamble (ASL 25) - often singled out as a "dog" because of the ability of German defenders to "skulk" - that is, duck back out of the way of American defensive fire, then advance into their positions again because of the peculiarities of the multi-phase turn system in ASL.)

The Valkhof Gardens (numbered "3" in the map above) are home to several fortifications, including the Belvedere, a tall tower (which is perhaps what the scenario card is referring to when it says "the action centred around a medieval tower), and two ancient brick chapels; this is a current view of one of them.

Half an hour after the river crossing started, British and American infantry were jumping off on yet another attack north towards the road bridge. The Valkhof Gardens had by now been fortified by engineers with crawl trenches and barbed wire. During the desperate fighting, a garbled radio message that the paratroopers across the river had "reached the northern edge of the bridge" was misunderstood to refer to the road bridge, not the rail bridge, and orders were given to the Grenadier Guards to dash ahead. A squadron of tanks – the last uncommitted reserves in the city – went forward and five managed to make it onto the bridge where they found German engineers working; there they engaged the engineers then dismounted to cut the cables of the demolitions.

The fighting for the road bridge had been intense but little of it had taken place in urban terrain; Hunner Park and the Valkhof Gardens are a treed green-space which the SS had fortified, located on high ground overlooking both the bridge and the inner city.

Top view shows the location of the former police station (at left) now occupied by a more modern building, from which King's Company, 1st (Motor) Battalion Grenadier Guards attacked up a then-rubble covered slope into the Valkhof Gardens. The camera is looking in the direction of the Waal. The next photo shifts the viewpoint to the right, showing the top of the Belvedere in the background. This attack gained a toehold into the Valkhof, and eventually supported the advance of No. 4 Company, and of E and F Companies of 2/505 PIR.

Future Depictions in Wargames

Nijmegen, and the Waal, have been a popular subject for pop culture depictions; the river crossing was a focal point of the movie A Bridge Too Far, as was the final rush by British tanks to cross the road bridge. Several SL and ASL scenarios have been set there, depicting the river crossing, road bridge fight, and German counter-attack to take the bridges (which resulted in a Medal of Honor being awarded to a US paratrooper). Given the tight concentration of terrain and relatively small forces involved, one could envision a Historical ASL module, and with the focus of the next Combat Mission releases including both British and - it is hoped - SS troops, quite possibly Nijmegen might feature in the plans of scenario designers for that series as well. One doubts the final word has been written on the subject.