Saturday, 9 August 2014

Arnhem/Oosterbeek V – The battle as a wargame: some ideas






We’re back to the ‘wargame as a simulation’ debate again. There are two options: refight the campaign or battle as a simulation of what took place or, at the other end of the spectrum, allow a reasonable degree of latitude for players to tweak the scenarios and the forces engaged. Although I do actually mention rule sets here and there, I’m not going to recommend specific rules for this because they’re a very subjective and personal choice for each gamer and we all have our favourites. In any case, I’m a schizophrenic when it comes to wargames, especially those dealing with the Second World War. To my mind, if it’s the North African campaign it’s got to be done in 6mm, if it’s NW Europe, I prefer company or maybe platoon level. I also like board games and played ‘Panzer ‘44’ to death, but I’ve also whiled away long periods playing the Close Combat series of PC games. So what about the Arhem/Oosterbeek battles?

It’s an infantryman’s battle, albeit with a reasonable amount of armour and vehicles thrown in, so I think company or platoon sized games are the optimum if you want to finish in a reasonable time yet retain the ‘flavour’ of the fighting. Scale up the unit sizes if you want to cover the fighting around the  drop zones  There were battalion actions, but you’re going to need plenty of room and they’re over relatively quickly as, particularly in the urban areas, they degenerated into platoons and sections fighting for survival. I’m opting for formations of reinforced companies at maximum and later try for ‘Chain of Command’ style games for smaller actions. Initially I’ll try the cut down old ‘Firefly’ rules and/or ‘Blitzkrieg Commander II’, but I’m not wedded to either and I’ll keep fishing until I come across something which is comfortable. It might be the case that, once I’ve finished tweaking ‘Firefly’ I’ll have my optimum set, but we’ll see.

Scenery can be as basic or as elaborate as you wish. I’ve seen some excellent layouts which look like film sets and yet others which are close to the real thing in miniature. Only the fighting around the bridge, on the run into Arnhem, say around the St Elizabeth’s Hospital area and the Wolfheze combats were in genuine FIBUA territory, with the outskirts of Oosterbeek and points west being less densely urbanised or woodland. There’s no reason why the urban landscape can’t be represented very simply by the use of boxes for buildings; Don Featherstone wouldn’t have blanched at the thought. However, I wouldn’t recommend trying to refight any of the attempts to reinforce Frost at the bridge as these were virtual massacres. 



There are many scenarios which can be played out with only minor tweaks to the historical fact or mechanisms to generate variable forces. In all fairness, although the Germans reacted quickly and had some good luck, the British had some bad luck and there’s no reason why these circumstances can’t be modified or the element of chance reintroduced: the Driel ferry is doable, the pontoon bridge is captured, there’s a coup de main glider attack at the southern end of the bridge, the railway bridge isn’t blown just as C Company, 1 Para reach it, etc., etc., Whatever the case, the Germans were trained to respond rapidly to a parachute landing and to drive into the heart of the landing/drop zones as soon as they had been identified. The intention was to hit the Airborne troops early and hard while they were still forming up and at their most vulnerable. The bigger the landing, the more time there was available to do this. At this stage it is easy for even a relatively small, but determined force to upset the landing timetable and the drive for objectives: any distraction is useful. Of course, little can be done against a coupe de main attack or if the focus of the landing could not be identified. More opportunity to introduce game variables. 



The composition of the opposing forces has huge potential for introducing chance given the nature of the British (or Polish) units and the chaotic mish-mash of available German formations. There seems to have been little difference in ability between the various disciplines within the Airborne formations. John Frost insisted that all his men at the bridge were paratroopers first and cooks, radio operators, gunners etc. second. The men of the Glider Pilot Regiment (No1 Wing) were particularly good (went in: 1262, died: 219, evacuated: 532, missing: 511). So, I’d make the Airborne troops elite and give them superior resilience and they should be capable of aggressive action. Nevertheless, they ought to incur some ammunition limitations to be accurate. Many were captured or became casualties simply because of exhaustion or, more commonly, because they ran out of ammunition. This is particularly significant for the anti-tank guns and the PIATS as is the diminishing availability of Gammon Grenades (or Gammon Bombs as they’re more commonly referred to). German armoured vehicles soon learned to be circumspect when approaching British positions because, aside from attracting the attention of anti-tank guns, the Airborne troops weren’t put off by the poor range of the PIAT and were positively enthusiastic in the use of Gammon Bombs. This was understandable, particularly when, even after the 6Pdrs and 17Pdrs were long out of action, German armour still incurred casualties. At the end of the battle the armour could roam free, but were still subject to the artillery of XXX Corps. The use of off board artillery is a major factor in the game as the Germans also used a considerable amount of artillery and mortars and even a few Nebelwerfers. On the one hand this use of artillery kept the Airborne troops pinned and on the other it broke up German attacks, often as they were forming up. However the casualties are caused though, remember that the British/Poles received no reinforcements, but the Germans did so fatigue rules really ought to be included in the scenario.



Interestingly, although a very mixed bag, the German forces generally fought well. Early on some units disintegrated, but this wasn’t common. The main thing to bear in mind is that these are the remnants of a German field army on the back foot. ‘Mad Tuesday’ (a term christened by the Dutch when columns of disorganised retreating Germans flooded through Holland), occurred only two weeks before the start of Market Garden. Many of the formations on the German side of the campaign first came together as reaction forces to the Airborne landings. The variety of units is a wargamer’s dream and ranged from true second line troops such as coastal fortress units, Luftwaffe field formations, NCO trainees, redeployed police units and artillerymen acting as infantry as well as regular Wehrmacht and SS units. So, whereas SS troops ought to be elite and have good resilience, others will be progressively less effective. Some of the Wehrmacht troops and Fallschirmjager were decent combat troops, but some in their number were new recruits and trainees and so ought to be more brittle. The genuine second line troops and the barrel scrapings ought to be proportionally worse quality. At the same time, while a few units possessed an embarrassment of heavy weapons some units lacked any at all. Kershaw’s book give an excellent breakdown of the composition of the various ‘Kampfgruppe’ so you can either crib straight from this or formulate your own probability tables for force composition. You can adopt a similar approach with the Airborne units whose formations are listed or described in most of the books I’ve listed, particularly the Steer and Waddy titles.



For the Treadheads among you it’s like Christmas come early, but you do need a morale mechanism for armour. The tank and vehicle crews varied from veterans to barely trained and thrown together at the last minute. We’re not talking Guderian’s panzer corps here. For all that, the selection of available hardware is quite wide and includes Tiger II’s MKIII’s and IV’s the inevitable Stugs and even four Jagdpanthers. Good God, you can even make use of those Hummels you bought on impulse! For the really nasty among you it’s fine to use 20mm and 37mm AAA in a ground role as well as the ubiquitous 88’s.



That’s about it for me on this battle, but, before I end, a short comment about the actual positions held by units during the fighting. I’ve already mentioned the gaps between areas occupied by units and the same was true for both sides. This is an important influence on game play in that in some cases the gaps between units were known, in others were not so clear and this must have an influence on the players. You’ll need to cater for this element of uncertainty in some of the fights and also for attacks on buildings or locations which have been vacated before the attack could go in – or maybe areas or buildings along the axis of attack which have been unknowingly reoccupied. Something to think about.


Postscript

After I'd pubished this post I stumbled across some excellent scenarios on the Fire & Fury Games 'Battlefront' pages: http://www.fireandfury.com/scenarios.shtml#NWEurope2  They're well researched and should give good games over a variety of stages of the battles. Well worth a look.


There is also plenty of inspiration in issue 74 of wargames Soldiers and Strategy.
 



Sunday, 3 August 2014

Arnhem/Oosterbeek IV – Impressions and Questions




Copyright: Bundesarchiv 497/3531A/34.
 I’ve met a few Dutch people over the years and found them to be very friendly with a great sense of humour. The railway staff and those used to dealing with tourists are generally exceptionally friendly and efficient, but the Arnhem transport staff and the staff at the Hartenstein are something else. By coincidence I had the same bus driver to and from Oosterbeek and she was wonderful. She told me what to look for as the bus got near the stop in Oosterbeek and put me off the bus with directions to the museum (it’s very easy really) and showed me where the bus stop was for the return trip. As I got back on the bus for the return journey I was immediately asked if I’d found the museum easily and if my visit had been ‘worthwhile’. I liked that because the Hartenstein isn’t the sort of museum you ‘enjoy’ as such.

When it comes to military things I’m not particularly impressionable. I’ve always been able to have a detached view and a fairly clinical approach when studying a period or event. That’s not to say I don’t get emotional, but I try not to let it cloud the picture. However, there’s something about the Hartenstein that’s beyond my powers of description. As it was a Saturday I didn’t expect heavy traffic or much bustle in the town, but the park and the surrounding area was very quiet.

The topography has barely changed and it was very easy to get an impression of the close quarter fighting and the absolute hell inside the ‘Cauldron’. You really need to read about any battle before you visit the site and with the Arnhem/Oosterbeek battles little would make sense if you didn’t. In my case though, I found that at first this created a sense of awe and then a feeling of real sadness. I think part of it may have been because it’s such a nice area. Many battlefields are just that: fields, but here the battlefield has clean, attractive houses and well maintained public spaces. Seventy years ago these same areas were a living hell for British, Poles, Dutch and Germans. The neat lawns and green areas were pitted by slit trenches and shell fire and every available ‘safe’ space was filled with civilians and wounded. It took the Germans over a week to fight their way from the Oosterbeek crossroads to the Hartenstein, a walk of only a few minutes. Any buildings were effectively destroyed either during the fighting or after the battle when they were looted and systematically stripped by the Germans to provide materials to strengthen their defences or make them more comfortable for what was expected to be the inevitable Allied onslaught. As punishment for supporting the Airborne troops the population was evicted en masse and Arnhem/Oosterbeek area became a virtual desert until the civilians were allowed to return in May 1945 and begin the salvage and rebuilding process. 

Arnhem after the battle
 As for the battle, the objectives of the Airborne troops had been achieved to all intent and purpose, but the success was eroded by the actions (or lack of them) of others beyond reach. The confidence and humour of Sunday 17th September were replaced by grim determination, but morale remained high. In the end they were simply overwhelmed. The Airborne troops received little in the way of replacement weapons and ammunition, food or medical supplies  despite the very best efforts of the RAF and the USAAF whose contribution to this fight is often forgotten. They received no reserves or replacements save for the few Polish paratroops and British infantry from the 43rd Wessex Division who made it across the Rhine, although the invaluable support from the medium artillery of XXX Corps which provided incredibly accurate fire from across the river is sometimes barely mentioned. Conversely, although the Germans suffered heavy casualties, they received replacements and reinforcements in men, armour and ammunition (including British supplies and weapons which were dropped into what had rapidly become the wrong areas as drop zones were overrun).

There are many questions and ‘what ifs’ about Operation Market Garden in general and the Arnhem battle in particular. The air plan, although subject to simple logistical constraints imposed by the sheer scale of the operation, was lacking in imagination. There were no coup de main elements save for the British jeep squadron, no nightime drops (because of the lack of time to train pilots) and the almost laughable location of some of the landing and drop zones, particularly for the British. To add to the problems for the British, Browning (Overall commander of the British Airborne element) wanted to be in on the act and insisted on taking his HQ into Holland. This required 38 gliders which could otherwise have been used on the first lift for the British. So, an HQ of little value and no importance to the immediate battle took the place of additional troops,equipment, vehicles and anti-tank guns.   

It was this sense of over-confidence on the part of the command and the planners that laid the ground for the ultimate sacrifice of the British Airborne. The Airborne themselves were desperate not to miss out on the final campaign and were willing victims to some extent, but the misgivings of their commanders, particularly Sossabowski and Urquart, were simply laid aside. Rumours and reports from the Dutch underground and photo reconnaissance of armour and SS troops in the area (particularly around Arnhem) rather than the second line units which were anticipated were played down and didn’t filter through to the sharp end until it was useless information. Had this information been given its true weight then at least Allied units could have reconsidered the composition of their drops to include a greater anti-tank capability early on or even to radically modify the operation, if not cancelling it completely as had been done in the weeks before.

The questions simply accumulate as we go on and the ‘what ifs’ grow in proportion:

Should more emphasis have been given to the Nijmegen phase?

What happened to the ‘cab rank’, given Allied air superiority?

Would Patton have been a better ground commander for the operation than Montgomery and Horrocks?

All these are pretty common questions and the answers are subjective. However, I’ve listed below a short bibliography which should allow anyone interested to form their own view. There are many books about this campaign and battle, but the small selection here is enough to satisfy the majority of readers. Kershaw’s  book is important because it gives the German view of the affair and debunks a few of the myths which have grown since the end of the war.

Harclerode, Peter: ‘Arnhem, A Tragedy of Errors’, Caxton Editions, London, 1994

Kershaw, Robert: ‘It Never Snows in September’, Crowood Press, London, 1990

Middlebrook, Martin: ‘Arnhem 1944, The Airborne Battle’, Penguin, London, 1995

Powell, Geoffrey: ‘The Devil’s Birthday – The Bridges to Arnhem 1944’, Papermac (Macmillan), London, 1984

Steer, Frank: ‘Arnhem, The Landing grounds and Oosterbeek’, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley, 2009

Steer, Frank: ‘The Bridge at Arnhem’, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley, 2013

Waddy, John: ‘A Tour of the Arnhem Battlefield’, Pen & Sword Books Ltd., Barnsley, 1999

I think there are two major points which need to be highlighted while I've got the chance. First is the appalling treatment received by the Polish Independent Parachute Brigade which was effectively scapegoated by Browning in an attempt to save is own neck and probably welcomed by Horrocks and the like. The Germans considered them to be very hard fighters and treated them with caution (though not much respect). However, Browning did such a good job that Montgomery (also keen to find someone to blame) wrote in his report to Sir Allen Brooke 
"Polish Para Brigade fought very badly and the men showed no keenness to fight if it meant risking their own lives." Humiliation barely covers it.

Finally, amid all the British propaganda and efforts to portray the Arnhem affair as a victory, the role of the American 82nd and 101st divisions is often given a very subsidiary role. To an extent this isn't surprising as they were under British command and the focus of the press ('implanted journalists' these days) was centred on the struggles of the British troops. Lt gen Lewis H. Brereton (GOC Ist Allied Airborne Army) wrote "In the years to come everyone will remember Arnhem, but no one will remember that two American divisions fought their hearts out in the Dutch canal country and whipped hell out of the Germans." Fair comment.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Arnhem/Oosterbeek III – The Bridge too Far



The bus follows the ‘Tiger’ (or centre) route into Arnhem which is joined by the ‘Lion’ (southern) route about a  mile out of the town, just short of St Elizabeth’s Hospital. Brigadier Lathbury, GOC Ist Parachute Brigade, had decided to send his battalions into Arnhem by three separate routes ‘Leopard’ (the northern route along Amsterdamseweg), ‘Tiger’ (the central route along Utrechtseweg) and ‘Leopard’ (along the ‘lower road’) in order to give the units a faster transit into the town rather than have to move in one long column. In doing so he sacrificed the ability for the battalions to concentrate if necessary to fight their way through, but he assumed the troops would be in Arnhem, if not at the b ridge before the Germans could properly organise blocking forces. The absolute opposite to what actually happened.  

St Elizabeth's Hospital today. Now apartments


The St Elizabeth’s Hospital was the scene of savage fighting during the early part of the battle, though, obviously, there’s no  sign at all of this now. Initially C Company 2 Para Battalion who decimated some eighty or so German troops who were debussing and about to take up positions as part of the blocking force. Three survivors were taken prisoner of whom two were  wounded. C Company had been detached from the main body of 2 Parachute Battalion (Lt Col J.D. Frost [wounded, POW), went in: 525, died: 57, evacuated: 16, missing: 452) in order to deal with the situation while the remainder of the battalion moved to the bridge via the right hand fork in the road by the river. 

St Elizabeth's Hospital during the battle with the destroyed German vehicles still outside.
 Over the next two days (18th and 19th September) three battalions, or parts thereof, tried to fight their way through this area:

1 Parachute Battalion (Lt Col D.T. Dobie [POW, escaped and became an evader], went in: 548, died: 82, evacuated: 89 or 108, missing: 377 or 358)

3 Parachute Battalion (Lt Col J.A.C. Fitch [died of wounds], went in: 588, died: 65, evacuated: 28, missing: 495)

11 Parachute Battalion (Lt Col G.H. Lea [wounded, POW], went in: 571, died: 92, evacuated: 72, missing: 407)

2 South Staffords (Lt Col H. McCardie [wounded, POW], went in: 767, died: 85, evacuated: 124, missing: 558)

I think it’s time to add a short note about what these troops were facing, which might also go some way to account for some of the numbers of missing. The troops who attempted to traverse this area on the lower road and across the grassy promenade by the river were fired on by 20mm anti-aircraft canon from across the river as well as normal infantry small arms and mortars. I’ll quote a passage from Frank Steer’s book ‘The Bridge at Arnhem’:

“The 20mm round was the smallest into which High Explosive (sic) could be fitted, and for which a fuse could be manufactured. It was only a simple percussion fuse and needed to hit its target in order to detonate. However, if it hit a man he exploded. The effect was horrific. If it hit something else and detonated, then it sent shards of steel for many yards from the seat of the explosion causing death and injury.

Should it miss its target and return to earth, this anti-aircraft ammunition detonated on impact, often with unpleasant consequences. To avoid mishaps, once the tracer in the back of the projectile has burned through, an igniter sets of a small charge and detonates the round. This adds further to the cacophony and the danger.”

Despite orders, the centre of Arnhem and the bridge itself were only lightly defended by the time Frost’s troops arrived at the bridge. An attempt by the British to rush the bridge ended in failure. The rest of the events at the bridge are fairly well known. 




Once ensconced at the north end of the bridge and having failed to make a crossing, Frost’s force began a hard defence against increasing numbers of German troops. Again, it was a familiar sequence of diminishing numbers of Airborne troops and dwindling ammunition reserves with the necessarily shrinking perimeter becoming choked with dead and wounded. Frost’s force was an amalgam of troops from several formations who had managed to fight their way through to the bridge and it is a tribute to the Airborne that they held out for four days with only a fraction of the strength intended to defend the bridgehead. Nevertheless, defeat was inevitable given the relatively small number of unsupported, unsupplied, isolated soldiers. If the formations intended for this operation had arrived at the bridge as planned and it  had included a coup de main attack at the south side of the river, then I think there’s little doubt that the bridge would have been held until the arrival of XXX Corps.

My tramp to the bridge was certainly as memorable as John Frosts, to me anyway. The bus dropped me back at the railway station from where it’s only about half a mile or so to the bridge. It’s difficult to get lost: head to the river and when you get your feet wet, turn left. It’s the getting your feet wet that was the killer. My ankle was holding up pretty well so off I trotted, about ten minutes before it started to rain. Rain is a natural risk in Holland and a bit of a local joke, like it is in the UK, but this rain was the sort of thing I’d seen in the Far East. ‘Stair Rods’ we call it round here. It rained from the minute I entered the main run down to the Rhine until I got to the platform for the train back to Zwolle. Around three hours later, back at the apartment, I was still able to generate my own little lake – thank God the weather was warm.

Our intrepid explorer made his was down to the Nelson Mandela Bridge, which had originally been the pontoon bridge at the time of the battle, and then west towards what’s now known at the John Frost Bridge. The route I chose avoided the more open areas by the river and took me a block to the north. This brings you through the western section of the Airborne perimeter and, had there been any of the original buildings remaining or even the original street lines, I would have passed on my left (in sequence, west to east)

HQ 1 Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery (opposite the site of the westernmost 6Pdr), a line of company and battalion HQ’s and ending with the 1 Brigade HQ and Defence Platoon with the northernmost 6Pdr. You’re probably walking along the location of the mortar positions. 



Two views of the bridge which, although rebuilt after the war, is pretty much a replica of the original bridge (which itself was a  replacement for one destroyed by the Germans in 1940 and only opened in August 1944!). The second photo shows the towers which were variously reported as  being bunkers etc.

 

The steps which lead to the bridge ramp and to the approximate area of the destruction of the bulk of the vehicles from the 9 SS Reconnaissance Battalion. 




 View of the area in which over half of the vehicles were destroyed and below an aerial view of the same situation during the battle:


 Finally, I went down beneath the bridge to see the Airborne memorial:


It was supposed to look something like this:


This was the point when I decided that honour had been satisfied and it was time to head back to the station. The only vehicles on the road were two buses (one of which stopped to let me cross - decent chap) so the slog back up to the station was easy. Unfortunately Arnhem station was flooded which explained the crowds hanging round the bus station shelter and the strange 'rushing' sound which turned out to be a waterfall down the steps to the underpass to the platforms. Unfortunately it also meant that all the shops were closed, so no scran for the journey back, at least until Zwolle. So, that was  that: get on with it and wade through. Check the timetable and then up to the platform.

Next up are a few thoughts about the trip and some questions about the campaign and the battle then a session on the wargaming aspects of it all. Stay tuned . . . .