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.


After I'd pubished this post I stumbled across some excellent scenarios on the Fire & Fury Games 'Battlefront' pages:  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.


  1. An excellent post, this would be a great reference for embarking on an Arnhem/Oosterbeek campaign or battle in any game system. Cheers, Paul :-)

  2. Thanks. I think this could keep a gamer going for a good while. Not all at once mind, but interspersed with other projects. It's expandable too. I've just acquirred about a company each of Paras and Germans, but I don't think it'll stay at that size.


  3. Lots of food for thought, I must admit I like the idea of using Luftwaffe, NCO trainees, redeployed police units and artillerymen for the Germans.

    1. as a 'project' this series of battles has the potential to run for ages at club or solo level. There are a few other considerations which could be incorporated (air strikes from the Allies and the Germans, for instance), but I think there's enough as is to do the job.


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