Location…An Allied HQ, South of England
We enter as a planning meeting reaches its conclusion…
“Right, so it’s agreed. The Commandos cross the channel and take out the Jerry radar station, grab whatever documents are to hand and get out fast in their inflatable back to the waiting MTBs. Excellent. All we need to do now is decide who leads the raid. Any suggestions?”
“Well sir, what about Johnson”
“What, Jackie Johnson, won the MC at Dunkirk and the DSC at Tobruk?”
“Um, no sir”
“Oh, Bertie Johnson, operated behind Jap lines for 12 months after Singapore fell, got out via Australia. Yes, damned fine chap Bertie.”
“Well, not him either actually sir. I was thinking about Johnson, the Corporal you saw on your way in today”.
“What the chap making the tea!”
“Yes sir. He really knows how to make tea…
“TEA! He makes TEA!”
“Yessir, and he can play the spoons…”
The scene fades as we return to reality.
Naturally such a discussion would be absurd in reality, and yet in a wargaming sense I wonder if it is as unusual as it ought to be. Are we expecting too much from some of our lead heroes?
In my last article here “Whose Turn is it Anyway” I looked at friction on the battlefield and how it is modelled within our rule sets. What I want to do now is look at how we can fulfil Clausewitz’s definition of a great commander, one able to overcome that friction and get things achieved; controlling events and leading our forces to victory despite that friction rather than weakly being pushed along by events.
One of the comments that we get from new players about the command and control mechanism within our rules is that there is too much chaos and not enough control. As a result, they say, co-ordinating their forces is very difficult. It is perhaps unsurprising to see that the majority of such comments come from people using the rules, or at least a set of TooFatLardies rules, for the first time, and frankly I am not surprised. Some of the systems that we use to model warfare are quite unique, and like everything new there is a learning curve to go through. What I want to do here is explain in very simple terms how it is possible to co-ordinate your forces on the table-top to hopefully make that learning curve as flat as possible.
Leading By Example
Without doubt the easiest way to present this is by showing an example. In the following map you can see that there is a British platoon advancing towards a German held farmhouse. Using rudimentary tactics they are going to form a base of fire with one section, put down smoke with the platoon 2” mortar and manoeuvre with their two other sections to attack the German position in the flank. Indeed you can see their plan on the image below; it represents standard but effective British battle training.
Now, let us imagine this. The platoon HQ, made up of the Lieutenant, Sergeant and the 2” mortar sit tight at the back of the unit and send forward their Corporals with their sections. Typically a Corporal will have one initiative point to use in a turn, so he will be limited to controlling his own section. In the centre the 2” mortar and the section providing covering fire will do so regularly without any problems. That may well be on the Lieutenant or Sergeant’s card, they will certainly be close enough and have enough command initiative to activate both groups, or possibly on the Tea Break card when they can all fire if they have not been activate during the turn.
Where problems may arise is in co-ordinating the actions of the two sections moving round the flank. Let’s call their Corporals Tom and Harry. In any turn the card activation system may see one, both or neither of their cards dealt. Whether they can keep together in the advance is entirely a matter of chance, keeping their movement co-ordinated will be tough and made worse if they start taking any casualties and the Corporals then need to use their initiative to rally shaken troops, thereby retarding their movement further.
This is, to say the least unfortunate; at worst it is a recipe for disaster. The entire plan is for these two sections to use their weight in manpower to launch a co-ordinated final assault on the farm in order to overwhelm the German defenders. It may well be that the two sections, if uncoordinated in their attack, can be defeated in detail by the enemy or simply stopped from advancing by fire from well-sited defenders. Clearly not what they want to happen and equally clearly this is the lack of coordination that people can sometimes encounter in their games.
So What’s Going Wrong?
Well, in a nutshell the fault here is that the gamer is unfamiliar with a new rule system and has not yet grasped the importance of what assets that he has available. The following passage by Lieutenant Colonel Wigram, commanding the 5th Buffs in Italy, gives us an illuminating view of what actually happened on the ground.
“The Platoon Sergeant (who can really be relied on) at once gets his three Brens into action shooting at the enemy MG or MGs. This will invariably silence the enemy guns for the time being. I have made particularly careful observation on this point and have checked it up with a large number of Platoon Commanders. As soon as our MGs open up the Germans (who are always using tracer) stop. I think they do this because they are nervous or in order to observe our fire. They always keep quiet until we have finished our hate, then as soon as there is a lull they open up again. One almost never sees or hears Spandau and Bren firing together at the same time. It is always one followed by the other. Even inaccurate fire from our Brens will quieten the Spandaus until we have finished firing.
As soon as the Brens have quietened the enemy MGs the Platoon Commander gets on his feeet, persuades all the rest of the riflemen to do likewise, and leads them straight into the enemy position under the cover of the Bren Fire.”
What we can see quite clearly from this is that the actions of the platoon were not being left to the Corporals, but were carefully controlled by the two real leaders in the platoon, the Sergeant and the Lieutenant. Even then there is a hierarchy of responsibility, with the Sergeant taking the more static role with the base of fire, and the officer taking on the hardest job of all; getting his men to make the final assault.
The tactics are slightly different in Wigram’s report to our example; the Bren Groups have been assembled to provide a concentrated base of fire whilst the rifle groups have formed a large manoeuvre element, but the principles remain the same.
But will it work on the tabletop. Let’s take our original example and put not just Corporals Tom and Harry with the manoeuvring sections, but also the Lieutenant. With three Command Initiatives the Lieutenant is more than capable of getting both sections to move together when his card is dealt. What is more he has spare initiative to remove any Shock that the sections may take whilst advancing on the farmhouse. Indeed Tom and Harry can do exactly the same. With the officer taking responsibility for moving their sections they can concentrate all of their efforts into keeping the sections in good order. The use of more and better quality command assets ensures that not only do the sections arrive together, they do so ready to launch their final assault with the benefit of a high quality leader at their head.
The contrast could not be more plain to see, in the first we saw chaos at work, in the second that friction was overcome, showing clearly that every leader has his role on the battlefield dictated by his abilities; his initiative in game parlance. Your Corporals are perfect for rallying troops who have been shocked by enemy fire, they can hold their section together in times of stress, but their responsibility and level of ability pretty much ends there. If you are looking to achieve a co-ordinated attack with multiple sections or fire teams then you will need to use more capable, and senior, commanders to allow order to triumph over chaos. Which, after all, is what real life command is about.
French organisation and tactics had progressed little from those of the Great War, other than to incorporate the use of motor vehicles and armoured fighting vehicles, such as they were at that time. While this might sound somewhat conservative to say the least, the French had effectively created the modern ‘fire and movement’ principle, which