Infantry Formations & Tactics in Chain of Command
We asked Chain of Command designer Richard Clarke to tell us a bit about Infantry formations and tactics in Chain of Command. This is what he had to say:
One of the pleasures of developing a set of wargames rules is that you occasionally get to see aspects of the project develop in a way which you had not originally envisaged. This was certainly the case with national characteristics in Chain of Command and was a big factor in deciding the way in which the force selection system ultimately took shape.
One thing that our rules have tended to be known for has been the emphasis on national characteristics which reflect how the forces we are representing on the tabletop fought. With a card driven game this was simple: you included a card which corresponded to the specific effect you wanted to reflect and that prompted some kind of “bonus”. With the Command Dice replacing cards in Chain of Command I wasn’t sure precisely how I was going to replicate this. In the end reading the various national training manuals provided the solution.
Whilst we tend to think of WWII soldiers as being a fairly homogenous crowd, everybody, irrespective of nationality, armed with rifles, SMGs and LMGs and generally doing the same sort of thing. In fact, the truth is rather more interesting.
Lt’s take a look at a British Motor Rifle platoon, a US Armored Rifle Platoon and a Panzer Grenadier Platoon. These are essentially comparable forces as they are those nations’ infantry which are tasked to support the armoured Divisions in their advance.
The British Platoon is the smallest, with three rifle sections of eight men each. That’s one two man Bren team led by a Lance Corporal and a four man rifle team under the control of the Section leader, a Corporal. This is backed up by a Platoon HQ of a Lieutenant, a Platoon Sergeant, a PIAT team and a 2” mortar team. The structure is very streamlined and its method of fighting is quite straight-forward as we see below.
The British attitude to the Section is tremendously flexible. The Bren team is always considered to be the fire element, whilst the rifle team is the manoeuvre element. Whether they work together as a full section, as we see in the right hand bottom of the image above, or whether they operate separately is entirely at the discretion of the Platoon leader. Above we can see that two Bren Teams have formed a gun group on the left, allowing two rifle teams to combine (likely under the Lieutenant whilst the gun group is controlled by the Platoon Sergeant) in order to out manoeuvre their enemy. In this they are assisted by the 2” mortar firing smoke right up to the last moment, at which point it switches to H.E. just before the assault. Indeed, the 2” mortar crew carried more smoke than H.E. as their function was to allow the smaller British formation to manoeuvre under cover.
At every level in the British platoon there is some demand for initiative, with the fire team the basic tactical building block for the force.
Let us now compare and contrast that with the US Armored Rifle Platoon. The US force was made up of two Rifle Squads of twelve men and a Sergeant, all armed with the M1 Garand, an excellent semi-automatic rifle which had a huge influence on the tactics the American soldier was trained for. A third, weaker, squad was the headquarters group of a Sergeant and seven men, again all Garand armed.
To support these purely rifle armed Squads the Armored Rifle Platoon has its own integral mortar team with a single 60mm mortar and a MG squad of two tripod mounted, belt fed machine guns. The only real similarity with the British is that the Platoon is commanded by a Lieutenant and Platoon Sergeant.
Contrasting US and British training manuals of the period is interesting. Whereas the British put much emphasis on fire and movement within the section – the Bren team fires, the rifle team moves – the US manual has a shift in emphasis to the platoon as a whole firing and moving together. So, the mortar team firing H.E. (it has no smoke rounds until the last month or so of the war) and the MG squad form the base of fire around which the rifle squads manoeuvre using their semi-automatic weapon to allow “marching fire” to suppress any enemy as they move forward.
It doesn’t take a steel trap mind to see how different this approach is. The balance of firepower within the platoon is totally different and this means very different tactics are needed when using a US platoon as opposed to a British platoon.
A German Panzer Grenadier platoon is again a totally different kettle of fish. Their three Squads are all comprised of nine men, specifically a Squad Leader and two LMG teams of four men each. The Company HQ is again the only part which is consistent with the other nations, being the platoon leader and his second in command. A Panzerschreck team makes up the numbers in order to provide some defence against armour.
What we see here is a force with incredible firepower, a huge boon when on the defensive as it allows a rifle squad to use its two teams to set up interlocking fields of fire to support each other and their neighbouring squads. But this in itself will see a natural dissipation of force. If the enemy DO get through your killing zone then each defensive position is in fact a machine gun nest rather than a coherent squad. As a result the Germans tended to put the emphasis on the counter attack to restore the line in such situations, a hail of hand-grenades followed up by a squad with the LMGs provided with assault drum magazines to allow the weapon to be fired from the hip at close quarters.
Once again we see a very different platoon structure leading to very different tactics and a very different mentality. Indeed, one really needs to look to the basic German rifle platoon to fully understand the approach.
In 1939 the German infantry platoon was made up of two teams, very similar to the British structure with an LMG team and a rifle team, but with a larger squad of 13 men. Experiences in Poland led the Germans to reduce the squad size to just a six man rifle team, a three man LMG team and a squad leader. In theory the two team structure was also abandoned, replicating the US approach that the squad was the basic tactical unit. However, In practice the focus was very much on the LMG as the killing weapon. Indeed, German tactical manuals make it very clear that in combat the squad leader should be with the LMG team, directing their fire against the enemy. For the majority of situations, the rifle team is purely there as a protection squad for the LMG. It would only come into action when the enemy advanced to within a couple of hundred yards of their position. What is key here is the emphasis the Germans place on the location of the squad leader, with the LMG, as opposed to the British who place their Section leader with the manoeuvre rifle element.
So, as we can see there are huge differences in the way that these platoons are structured and the way they were expected to fight. This is reflected in the way in which they are armed and led. The British are confident to leave their Lance Corporal to keep the Bren firing while their Section leader controls the more dangerous manoeuvre role. The US forces are equipped to avoid the encumbrance of a LMG within the infantry squads, relying on the rapid advance of men whose semi-automatic weapons allow them to fire and advance at the same time. Meanwhile their base of fire element provides a great stonking fist which pummels the enemy as their infantry advance to contact, shooting them into contact. The Germans emphasis is on firepower rather than manoeuvre and on hard hitting counter attacks against a disorganised enemy to restore the situation in a more “elastic” defensive arrangement.
Now, if we allow for tactical differences in our Napoleonic games – the British fighting in line and the French in columns (I am over-simplifying here in order to make a point, of course) – then should we not reflect tactical differences in our WWII games?
Believe it or not, my answer would be “no”. At least “no” if that meant any compulsion on the player to adopt specific tactics. I am a great believer that gamers who are placed in the role of the platoon commander should be free to try to develop their own tactics. Historically some British platoons are on record as simply combining their Brens into one big gun team under the platoon sergeant, and their rifle teams into one big manoeuvre team under the Lieutenant and using fire and manoeuvre tactics more akin to the US approach. And if you want to try that in your games you should be able to (I have, in some situations it can be very effective).
However, whilst I am keen to allow the players to adopt a free-style approach to tactics, I do think that we need to reflect the fact that soldiers fight best when fighting in the manner in which they have been trained to fight. On D-Day your average British infantryman had been in action or training for four years. Battle drills had been drummed into them by instructors and NCOs. It seems wrong to not reflect that in our games. Not by penalising the use of “different” tactics, but by rewarding the use of real tactics.
In Chain of Command we reflect this through use of national characteristics. Interestingly this very term can often be the catalysts for fierce debate. It is very easy for a game designer to go with what are in fact rather corny stereotypes as opposed to real and significant differences. In developing the national characteristic rules for Chain of Command we have focussed specifically on how troops were trained and equipped. So, the US forces with the M1 Garand can attempt marching fire (as they were trained to do) which allows them to move a bit further than other troops while continuing to fire their weapons. German players are encouraged to deploy their squad leader with their LMG team as in doing so the LMG team gains a bonus due to him directing the fire (as his training told him to do). The British player will gain a bonus when firing his rifle team when they are accompanied by the Section Leader to reflect him directing their fire, and their movement is enhanced as he is present to reduce the shock effect of any firepower coming at him. The Japanese gain a benefit in close combat as their bayonet drill was far more comprehensive and central to their training than in any other nation. Again, these are not stereotypes but reflections of the way the various nations were trained.
Surely these traits can become dominant in a game? Quite right, they could if they were automatic and happened the whole time. However, for any unit to use its national characteristic will depend on them being fully under the control of their squad leader. If he needs to do anything else, such as rally his men or spend time doing other “management” tasks, then this isn’t going to happen. I was very taken with Peter White’s comments in his book With the Jocks where he talks about the need for a commander to constantly keep his men in order:
Every now and then a Section commander’s voice cut the silence to join my own in keeping the Jocks from bunching, in line and maintaining direction. There unfortunately seemed an almost constant need for these vocal corrections to control the chaps.”
And this is very much the way Chain of Command treats the infantryman. Under his own initiative he will advance, fire and act in a generally decent way, but only when influenced by his section leader will he perform at the very top of his game, and this is when the national characteristics apply.
So, yes you can advance your fresh US squad using marching fire under the directions of their Sergeant. But when the lead starts to fly it is likely that the text book will go out of the window when he has other things to focus on.
I hope that this piece has given some indication as to why we feel that national characteristics are appropriate to a WWII game, and how we have attempted to balance the aspirations of the training manual with the realities of combat. I also hope that this piece has shown how Chain of Command are not prescriptive in the way which they allow you to fight, but will reward the use of tactics in which your men have been trained.
As soon as we posted this story we had a number of readers contact us to ask how they could learn more about infantry tactics. You could, of course, get hold of a book on the subject, but ultimately you don’t need to. Chain of Command are written in such a way that the national characteristics naturally guide you to find the best possible way to fight, and making that discovery is part of the fun of any set of wargames rules!