Wednesday, July 24, 2013


This site has languished for a while as I have tried to find a review format that was useful for my history interests as well as historical miniature wargaming.  Book reviews I find tedious and trying to pull out information useful to wargaming can involve a lot of typing or scanning. 

At the Historicon 2013 convention, I picked up a book of battle studies of the 1808-1809 Penisula Campaign.   The book is light on grand-strategy, sheds only necessary light on strategy, and focuses on the the set-up, maneuvers, and outcome of battle.  Uniquely, it provides guidance on wargaming the battles. as the authors are experienced miniature wargamers.  This is not a scenario book of battles put out by rules publishers, but is an academic book with a generic focus on wargaming.  A nice mix for my interests. 

It also occurred to me that I could maybe apply their study technique to other battles.  World War II holds a strong interest for me and if I could make the battle the topic rather than the book, I might have something I could keep going and make interesting to readers.

Below is a draft outline for a battle study.  Battle studies will be a dynamic document, updated at material is pulled from various reference sources. The general outline borrows heavily from the book titled "Battle Studies in the Peninsula May 1808-January 1809" by Richard Partridge and Michael Oliver.

  1. Strategic [Operational] Consideration
  2. Geography
  3. Orders of Battle
  4. The Commanders [The Commander's Intent]
  5. The Campaign [The Approach to Battle]
  6. The Battle(s)
    1. Deployment-Disposition-Planning-Coordination
    2. Manuever & Conflict (advance, march, retreat, infiltrate, diversion, opening moves, main attack, secondary attack, first attack, second attack, manuevers on key terrain, tactical-operational pauses, bombardments, etc.)
    3. Aftermath
  7. Wargaming Notes
    1. Orbats
    2. Rules and Umpiring
    3. Terrain and Table
    4. Objectives and Victory
  8. Bibliography
Partridge and Oliver used the above outline to describe Napoleonic battles.  My interest lies more in the 20th century and some adjustments are needed in the above outline and those I have placed in brackets.  Napoleonic battles saw increasingly industrialized states increase their capacity for war and the results on the participants and population were often devasting beyond older periods of warfare.  And 20th Century battles saw the cataclysmic nature of industrialized warfare reach unthought of levels of devastation, murder, and tragedy on the homefronts as well as the battlefield.

In 20th century battles there is less personal leadership, less of a "face of battle," than in earlier times.  Battle is viewed in more political terms and the phrase "warfare is politics by another means," seemingly legitimizes a broader and more deadly civic scope to battle.  So a relevant curriculum vitae of  "Commanders" is less important to understanding a battle but the "Commander's Intent" as produced by his higher direction and by efforts of his staff and subordinates is more important.  The face of battle has been replaced by a regulated corporation.

Also, "strategy" has moved to a higher level as the corporate managers of battle move further and further away from the battlefield to maintain view of the larger and more varied force structures.  "Operations" and "battle doctrine" are the newer terms for the movements to and on a broad battlefield that in Napoleonic times would be described as "strategic" as a single battlefield could determine the immediate fate of an army and even a nation.

It is not the purpose of these battle studies to examine this broad civic-political aspect of battle but to focus as much as possible on the soldiers and military organization operating on the battlefields.  

Some battles entries on Wikipedia have a similar layout but lack the information relevant to wargaming.  I don't intend to regurgitate Wikipedia text though grabbing a map or list of references can be useful.  One purpose of the battle studies would be to add the wargaming dimension to a battle study.  Reader's could also contribute reference information or recommendations on gaming the battle to the battle studies. 

So now I have laid out my plan.  Now I need to add some content.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Three Armies On The Somme

"Three Armies on the Somme, The First Battle of the Twentieth Century" by William Phillpott is an account of the WW1 Battle of the Somme, ostensibly from the point of view of each army, British, French, German, but from my reading the perspective is mostly on the British, some on the French, and a little on the German.

A well written, easy reading book, the author is earnestly trying to make his points.  I worry about books like this as I often fear the "evidence" is twisted somewhat in the author's desire to make his point rather than write a fair history.  Not being as well-read on the First World War as I would like to be, I do feel that Phillpott presents a fair perspective.  I also feel his thesis needs more proof.

His thesis, as the title states, is that the Battle of the Somme deserves the moniker of the "the first battle of the twentieth century."  "Battle" in the twentieth century was to be largely attritional engagements by large armies over vast territories and time rather than the 19th and earlier centuries drive for a decisive single battle by single armies at a definable point in time and space.  The Somme deserves this moniker because the Allied generals fighting the battle used, or at least attempted to use, tactics that recognized the new attritional paradigm rather than blindly and vainly seeking decisive breakthroughs in every battle plan.

I highlighted several sections of the book.

Page 124, Planning the Attritional Battle, has this gem, "The British plan was the product of two minds, certainly with different conceptions of the nature of industrial battle, often competing over details, one thinking strategically, the other tactically.  As yet the link between these two levels of war--what modern armed forces define as the "operational level of war"--was embryonic."

Page 151, Preparing the Big Push, on the nature of the tactical war; "Once its objectives were seized, the infantry would need sufficient firepower and cohesion to keep the enemy's counter-attacks at bay until reinforced.  The artillery could assist . . . .but in practice the infantry had to be able to defend themselves until the new position could be consolidated.  The keys to holding . . .remained reorganisation, reinforcement and resupply, digging in and wiring. . . . In effect the whole line would lurch a few hundred metres forward, stop, consolidate, report back, rethink and then start all over again. . . Whatever the hopes of over-optimistic military planners . . . it would not be hurried."

The connection between these two passages is that if the basic tactics could be more commonly executed and executed rapidly as a concentration in both time (temporal concentration) and space (spatial concentration), then the offensive action (including counter-offensive) could be expanded into a sustained war winning effort.

The author seeing this link between tactics and strategy I thought was excellent.  It is certainly evident in some of the planning and expectations.  Phillpott wants the rational use of operational art, not named as such at the time, to be the feature that gives the Somme Battle its modern characteristics, that creates a turning point in twentieth century warfare.  Myself, I see the battle as lacking in systematic operational planning given the new perspective by the leaders and very badly buggered in execution.  As such it should place the use of "operational art" on a very slow learning curve rather than a more definitive turning point.  "Operational Art" would evolve more rapidly and coherently after the war, in my opinion, and I would give most credit to the Soviets.  The British would continue to be reluctant adapters of modern war, and as point of fact, I would say Montgomery led the British in WWII as their leader in operational art.

And Philpott does argue, counter to his thesis in my opinion, that even if more could have been done to take advantage of the 'operational level,' the efforts would have faltered on the very real limits imposed by early twentieth century technology such as almost useless wireless transmission, and the primitive nature of the gasoline engine to provide the needed tactical mobility.  Which is what keeps the Battle of the Somme on the plane of the other bloody, seemingly pointless, WW1 battles rather than elevating it to a higher plane.

For the WW1 wargamer, you do have a lot of sketches of battalion and brigade level fights.  Detailed maps and photographs are very good.

Panzers in Winter

"Panzers in Winter" is S. Mitcham's history of the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.  The book is concise, sticks to a chronological format, provides adequate maps, and like I have found with Mitcham's other works, a good writing style.

For the most part, it is a re-telling of a well known story.  The book does provide a chapter that focuses on the difficult but successful effort by the Germans to surround the the green US 106th division with nearly tank-less, foot-mobile only infantry forces. 

Good book for the wargamer.  Mitcham sketches out several battles that are playable with various rules sets.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Longest Battle

"The Longest Battle" by Harry Yeide covers the fighting on the approaches to the Roer River in 1944 and the crossings in 1945.  The book provides a detailed operational analysis of the Corps and Divisions and their various battlegroups that took part in the battles.  Well researched and a smooth read.  An appendix provides an order of battle for most of the divisions in the battle, though some divisions are ommitted from the orbat.  And the loan of British "Crocodiles" to the adjacent American formations is not noted in the orbat.  That nugget of information is on page 155 as a reference.  Maps are basic sketches though they are provided often enough in the text to keep the reader up to date with movements.

Interesting aspects of the fighting gleaned from the book are the relatively  heavy use of artillery by Germans and the methodical, grinding "bite and hold" methods of the Americans.  German artillery was more heavily concentrated than typical as guns were numerous and ammunition was plentiful as long as poor weather limited Allied airpower and the artillery regiments remained in the fight as their grenadier and panzer regiments were pulled from the fight to refit. 
The Americans had a mixture of veteran and new divisions in the fight as well as a new Army, the Ninth.  Not in a great hurry to cross the Roer, which the Americans assumed would be flooded and strand their bridgeheads,  a methodical approach to combat predominated.  The Ninth Army in particular would advance forward with artillery fire, smoke, and airpower at a maximum and operate in depth to contain the inevitable German counter-attack.  More veteran divisions such as the 2nd Armored or 29th Infantry would make bolder advances but all in all it was an attritional contest with the advantage to the Allies.

An interesting companion piece to Yeide's book is Tieke's book on the II SS Panzerkorps.  The II SS Panzerkorps contained the 10SS Panzer Division which fought in November and December to defend the Roer River crossings at Linnich.  By way of highlighting the German artillery concentrations, the 10SS fought with not only their own artillery regiment, but with support from the artillery regiments of the 9th Panzer and 15 Panzergrenadier divisions that had been pulled out of the line.

A good book for wargamers as lots of scenarios can be pulled from the book.  Given the absence of grand sweeping maneuvers and the predominance of slugging contests, each day of battle could provide game scenarios for many different rules sets.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Barbarossa Derailed

"Barbarossa Derailed, The Battle for Smolensk 10 July-10 September 1941, Volume I," by David Glantz.

Finally received Glantz's latest book Barbarossa Derailed.  The publisher kept dangling this one in front of me for 6+ months.  But it is here and quite the volume.  In Glantz's day-by-day style, this tells the story of the German Army Group Center advance after their initial encirclements.  But unlike previous books on the topic, it also tells the story of the Soviet defense and counterattacks.  And also unlike earlier works, the story is not just told as so many milestone markers going beneath the panzer treads but describes the constant clashes in terms of German and Soviet units involved and the outcomes.  It is the accumulation of these clashes and the attrition and delay they impose on the seemingly inexorable German advance, that add up to a critical Soviet strategic defensive victory early in the war.

From a wargaming perspective, I'll try to capture many of these interesting early war clashes in enough detail to translate them to the tabletop battlefield.

Battle for Borisov, 30 June- 1 July 1941
Nehring's 18th  Panzer closes on the Berezina River and attempts to grab the bridge at Borisov.  Surprisingly, it encounters fortified defenses manned by remnants of 13th Army and units of the Borisov Tank School equipped with several tanks and under the command of Corps Commissar I. Z. Susaikov.  Susaikov was ordered by Eremenko to destroy the road and rail bridges at Borisov.  Nehring concentrates his division for a frontal assault on 30 June, forming Kampfgruppe Teege with a tank battalion and elements of the motorcycle and recon battalions.  The Kampfgruppe fails to dislodge the Soviets on 30 June but the next day after units of the 52nd Infantry Regiment and additional panzers reach the scene, the assault is successful and the infantry storms the bridge moments before the Soviets can set and activate the demolition charge fuzes.  Borisov was captured later on the 1st of July.

Battle East of Borisov 3 July 1941
The 18th Panzer division is east of Borisov and has been warned by the Luftwaffe of endless columns of motorized infantry and tanks, including KV's, along the road to his east.  This is Kreizer's 1st Motorized Division of the 7th Mech Corps.   Kreizer began his assault on 3 July with his division's 12th Tank Regiment with a company of KV's in the lead and protected on each flank by his motorized regiments.  Germans were surprised by the scale of the attacks and the heavy tanks caused panic.  88's and the Luftwaffe eventually stopped the assault but Nehring's took losses, losing 90 of his180 panzers and many of his panzer grenadiers according to the exaggerated Soviet sources.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

New Dawn - The Battles for Fallujah

Despite the title, the book mainly covers the second battle of Fallujah in Nov 2004.

There is a chapter on the April 2004 battle that was launched by the US following the death and public display of the Blackwater contractors.  The brief fight is covered and some mention is made of the failure of the Fallujah Brigade that was installed in Fallujah to "keep the peace."

The outcome of the struggles in Iraq are not clear some seven years later.

As for the focus on the fight in Fallujah in November 2004, the author, Richard Lowry, describes the composition of the US and allied forces which is revealing of how the US forces fight nowadays.  Divisions, brigades, and regiments are mere administrative organizations.  Combat Teams, in the form of bridgade and regimental teams, direct and organize the fight.  Marine battalions, Army infantry and mechanized battalions, special forces units, allied units are mixed to form effective and to the degree the planners intend, independent and self-sustaining fighting organizations.  It is quite difficult to keep things straight, who was fighting with which combat team, while reading the book but the author's consistent use of designations and the detailed order of battle in the appendix help the reader.  Air power and artillery are moments away from any fight where the heavy weapons or mortars are not enough.  There is also the Marines' and Army's nearly indestructible M1 Abrams tank to ride to the rescue or add an instant breakthrough punch.

Still, with all the luxurious assets of the US Armed Forces, the poor bloody infantry still has to line up outside the door of homes and compounds and dash in not knowing whether to expect frightened civilians, a barking dog, an empty house, or an AK-47 wielding enemy.  The skirmish combat descriptions in the book make that painfully clear.  Every building needed to be searched for insurgents and weapons caches.  Every building was potential IED or firefight. 

As described in the book, the enemy encountered in Fallujah in 2004 ran the gamut of skill and determination.  There were just the random, blind firing AK-47 insurgents, but there were also experienced, trained, well-equipped, and organized enemy hailing from Chechnya, Syria, Afghanistan and other battlefields.  The Marines and soldiers noticed the difference when up against this better enemy.

The book is a fairly linear reporting of the Marines-directed action.  Lowry moves back and forth across the US front in day-long or shorter increments and that helps the reader keep where he is on the battlefield in focus.  In Fallujah, two Marine Brigade Combat Teams formed the knife edge of the assault.  And within the BCTs, Marine battalions backed by Army armor provided the offensive push.  Given the high level of combat integration in the US Armed Forces, it doesn't much matter if a unit is Army, Marines, Air Forces, or Special Forces.  They all are capable of being tied together in a tight, well-functioning package. 

I couldn't help making comparisons between US combined and joint operations today and the similar methods used by the WWII-era armies.  All the major armies used combined arms in WWII to varying degrees but no one accomplished the degree or ease of tactical integration the Wehrmacht could regularly achieve.  I would say the modern US Armed Forces has achieved and even surpassed that standard.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tragedy of the Faithful

"Tragedy of the Faithful- A History of the III (Germanisches) SS Panzer Korps" by Wilhelm Tieke.

Another work by Tieke that examines in tactical detail the battles of the III SS Panzer Corps from Narva in 1944 all the way back to Berlin in 1945.

I was interested in this title by a desire to find more on the lengthy German defense around Narva in 1944.  Glantz and other authors such as Zeimke show the battles in broad strokes that showed the several attempts by the Soviets to get around the Narva lines.  Despite a large bridgehead, the Soviets were unable to rout the Germans as they had done on the breakout from Leningrad (Operation Spark).

The book provides a good look at how a flexible fighting force handles one tight situation after another.  From the start of its fighting career, the III SS Panzer Corps was in the hot seat.  First at Narva with the Soviets on two sides, the Baltic and assailable beaches on the third.  Then a fighting withdrawal to the Tannenberg positions, and continued withdrawals and bloodletting back through Riga, Courland, Pomerania, and Berlin.  At various times, the companies of the constituent divisions (11th SS and 23rd SS in various forms) are down to single squad strengths.  Tieke gives a good look at how the various companies in a regiment fight.  The regimental companies (13th, 14th, 15th, 16th) are continually forming rear-guards and assault platoons or, interestingly, combining the with battalion heavy-weapon companies (4th, 8th, 12th) to form shock units.

I always have a tough time picturing how weak battalions hold kilometers-long front with a frontage of 30-40 meters per soldier.  As described in this book, you have basically only an outpost line of machine gun positions every 100 meters or so and backed by mortars and direct-fire guns at choke points. The only strength to this type of position is the layers of reserve and reaction forces supporting the outposts.  There is no question the line will be penetrated, but then the battalion reserve is sent in, maybe an assault-pioneer platoon.  Then there are regimental reserves, usually a company from one of the battalions or the regimental pioneer or motorcycle companies backed by a couple of assault guns.  If the regiment trying to carry out this type is motorized it has the speed and weapons to make the defense work.  If the regiment is a simple grenadier formation without any other support, it is not going to last long against a mechanized assault.

In the early years, the Germans could usually shift enough army-level reserves into a threatened sector and transition from an economical defense to a powerful operational counterattack and even a strategic level counteroffensive.  But by 1944 transitioning to even a minor counterattack against the Soviets was becoming increasingly problematic.  The result is waves of retreats with some pretty sharp fighting in between. 

The "faithful" of the III SS. Panzerkorps refer to the portion of Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians who made up parts of the 11th and 23rd SS Divisions.  But even in the original formation of these SS formations there were large amounts of other ethnic and nationalities, ethnic Germans from Rumania making up a third of the 4th SS Brigade "Nederland" (pre-cursor formation of the 23rd Nederland SS Divsion).  The 11th SS  "Nordland" Division contained only about 1900 "Nordlanders" at its formation in Sept 1943.

The "tragedy" referred to in the title I assume means that the "faithful" should have met a better fate than battlefields deaths in a long retreat and Soviet prison camps.  Tieke tries his best to make the furious counterattacks and final stands as glorious as possible and, de rigueur in this type of book, trots out stories of hope for a force of united western nations fighting against Communism and plots to arrest Hitler foiled by  innocuous obstacles like failing to get in touch with a daughter-in-law.  That's better than "the dog ate my homework." 

Looking at the combat described in the book, the numerous appendices in the book describe several small-unit actions that resulted in Knight's Cross awards that would make excellent wargaming scenarios.