Play It Again, Gwyneth

When I’m feeling out of sorts, I often like to blow up the town of Hameln.  I mean, protect it from being blown up.  Which, to the untutored observer without my vast expertise at being run over by notional Soviet tank armies of the mid-1980s, might look very much like the same thing.  But I assure you that they are entirely different, and in any event none of it is even a little bit my fault.

Anyway, today I didn’t even want to drop explosive projectiles into a 700-year-old German town.  Like most things that end in these kinds of horrible misunderstandings, it started not with war, but with art.  In the course of writing up these after-action reviews, I started to look for ways to better illustrate the ending of “Waltz of the Eaglehorse.”  Which led to experimenting with small, basic map graphics.  Which led to drawing whole new maps of the German countryside with a newly-purchased copy of Ortelius.  Which led to replacing all of the art resources in a computer game with custom-made replacements.  Simple, really.  Could have happened to anybody.


Once I was done with a working map, of course I had to load it.  Just to see if it worked, you know.

“Ah, you have returned,” said the little man with the pitchfork who always shows up when I start looking at the wargame directory.  “And I see this time you don’t have Ms. Paltrow with you.  Good.  We need your help.  Shouldn’t take more than an hour.  There is this ‘brigade task force’ that has misplaced its commander…”

“Why are you making that twisty face when you say brigade task force?” I asked.

“That is how I make air quotes when my hands are occupied with a pitchfork,” the little man explained.

Anyway, you will be shocked to learn that it wasn’t a brigade, that most of the force hadn’t yet arrived, that the war had been going on for two days, etc., etc., etc.  Some new things that I learned from another go-around:

  • Stay out of Gross Helligsfeld.  I have never been able to successfully extract that first tank company (1/4 Pz) when I set them up in town.  This time I arranged the platoons individually in various delaying positions further south along Route 217, where they gave a much better account of themselves.  I still eventually lost the whole company in the two-kilometer stretch behind Rohrsen when the Soviet side finally got its act together for a third attack, but this is a far cry from the usual outcome.


    This is what Gross Helligsfeld looked like at the end of the engagement. Best to avoid…bad things happen there.

  • Recon matters a lot.  Even on the defense.  Not losing 1/4 Pz in the first thirty minutes preserved eyeballs that gave me much better information on how the attack was developing in that crucial first hour, when forces are very thin.  One happy outcome of the improved reconnaissance was that I was able to observe the enemy regiment’s first motor-rifle battalion in the midst of their bridging operation north of Coppenbrugge, after crossing Route 442.  Coincidentally, my artillery had just arrived, so I dropped a neutralizing fire mission on the vehicles paused at the riverbank and killed the Soviet battalion commander, which I think accounted for the sluggish pace of the resulting movement.


    This Soviet battalion had the misfortune to execute its river crossing, under artillery observation, directly into a minefield. Minefield and clearance graphics are new!

  • Remember to cross-attach units.  In this scenario, I think it is necessary to split the second tank company (2/4 Pz) when it arrives.  The reason is that you need to plan for a defense in two directions — the “front door” to the east along Route 217 (Team Amy’s old sector), and the “back door” to the north past Am Schot (where Team Gwyneth failed last time).  Your infantry force does not have the firepower to hold either direction by themselves if the Soviets show up with tanks.  So you end up with some tanks guarding the front door, while the rest are in town as a mobile reserve (or, if you think the Soviets have committed to the north, actually in defensive positions along the K1).  But the tank company’s captain can only be in one place, and units lose effectiveness when they stray too far from their headquarters.  The solution?  Give the tank platoons that will be separated from their own headquarters to another company commander.  In my case, I cross-attached one platoon of Leopard 2s to the infantry company in Team Amy’s sector while the balance of the company headed north.
  • Don’t fear the north.  If you read my last account, you could be forgiven for believing that the northern route, coming down along the K1, is the thermal exhaust port of the Hameln Death Star, a gaping and very dangerous vulnerability where the bulk of the defense needs to be weighted.  In fact it is really a deathtrap for the Soviet side, at least when Gwyneth Paltrow is not overseeing defensive preparations.  The village covering the mouth of the valley is ideal terrain for the second infantry company (2/66 PzG, which doesn’t have infantry fighting vehicles but can hold urban ground viciously).  If the attacking force has the mass to force entry, he will then have to run a winding gauntlet surrounded by wooded high ground, where he will take antitank fire from above in at least two directions.  The heavy Soviet force that attacked in this direction never made it halfway down the valley.


    Half a league, half a league, half a league onward. All in the valley of death, rode the six hundred. This situation looks even worse for this reduced company of Soviet stragglers when you notice that all of the West German units are still unspotted.

  • Weather matters.  At around mid-morning heavy rains began and visibility dropped to 500 meters.  Now instinctively you might think that this is bad news for the attacker, and maybe it is, but a great deal of the West German force’s defensive power is tied up in the superior long-range killing ability of the Leopard 2 tanks.  In fact, I had gotten used to setting up killing grounds at 1,500 – 2,000 meters, and distributed my forces with appropriate spacing.  When visibility fell to a third of that, all of a sudden my units were unable to provide the mutual support I was expecting.  The deepest Soviet advance was in the east right after the weather soured, when the enemy along Route 217 broke contact after the last of 1/4 Pz disengaged (er, died).  Turns out that they were driving for the first bridge on Route 1, but the forces tasked with covering that route couldn’t see that far through the haze from their positions in Afferde.  This led to an exciting moment in the rain when my reaction force groping blindly north blundered into the Soviet assault force groping blindly south, and we all laughed and laughed.  And then there was a lot of shooting.


    Nobody in this town knows how to drive in the rain.

In the end we ran into “sudden death” again as the Soviet side lost more than 70% of its force.  For the Soviets, it was primarily a tank fight, as I didn’t see much of the motor-rifle troops.  In addition to the command and control problems arising from the early loss of a battalion commander, the Soviets had a bad time with mines.  At game’s end there still were at least two fresh motor-rifle companies still north of Gross Helligsfeld.  After over six hours of fighting.  Well, given how Soviet personnel carriers seem to fare in the presence of West German main battle tanks, I wouldn’t be in any great hurry to drive down the road either.

The game awarded me a tactical success.  I did take higher casualties than I would have liked, almost all among the two companies equipped with older equipment.  1/4 Pz  ended the game in its customary way (completely out of action), but actually drove back the Soviet advance twice.  2/66 PzG lost about two-thirds of its strength blocking the Soviet entry into the valley in the north.  In retrospect I wonder if it might have been better to let the Soviets into the valley earlier.  Unfortunately the infantry doesn’t have a lot of good options to disengage from the village once they have the tiger by the tail.  Which, I suppose, is a classic military problem that is older than even Hameln itself.

I plan to write up the conclusion to “Waltz of the Eaglehorse” in a couple of weeks (I have developed a glamorous new custom map to illustrate that messy engagement).  After that I’ll examine the same Eaglehorse scenario from the Soviet side, which is an interesting object lesson in the challenges and opportunities that arise from punching someone in the face while he’s still mostly asleep.

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The Waltz of the Eaglehorse


On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen
Shall we dance, shall we dance, shall we dance?

                                        – The King and I (1956)



It is July 1989 and you have just been kicked in the chest.  But the inevitable boot-torso contact accidents that arise when soldiers scramble inside the cramped interior of an M577 command track are really the least of your problems this morning.

“It looks like we’re it,” the S-2 growls, as the track lurches to the right.  “I can’t raise Regiment.  Every net is jammed to hell.”

You are a recent arrival to Bavaria, after most of a career spent in line infantry units on the Korean DMZ.  After your company command, the Army has decided that you might have some potential leadership talent, maybe.  They have given you major’s leaves and a chance to screw it all up, in the form of a coveted S-3 job in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the fabled Blackhorse.  Or, as the E-4 mafia calls it when their sergeants are not around, “The Speedbump of the Fulda Gap.”  You are a serious soldier who has served in serious places, and you understand the realities of the mission.  But even you had secretly started to think that this tour would be an easy one, certainly compared to the deadly cat-and-mouse games played in the DMZ.  The Cold War was thawing, and the Soviets were leaving Europe.

That quaint notion, of course, ended forty-five minutes ago.  You have no idea what is really going on.  Nobody knows where the squadron commander is, though someone thinks that he may have been caught in the opening barrages.  Nobody has been able to raise Regiment or any higher authority.  What you do know is that you cleared camp in a command track with the S-2, and that you are the ranking officer in the vicinity of the squadron’s wartime deployment zone.  And as a result you are the acting commander of the 2nd Squadron, 11th ACR, at what is looking disturbingly like the start of World War III.



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Red Storm, Redheads, and the Pied Piper

Hameln, in the Lower Saxony region of Germany, is quite literally a storied place.  Most famously, it is the town where the Pied Piper imposed his famous penalty for failing to pay the pest control invoice (though in the age of Boko Haram, I suppose this tale loses some of its charm).  During the Cold War, Hameln — with its bridges across the Weser river — was a frequent setting in World War III speculative fiction.  One of the most vivid scenes from the superb Red Army, by Ralph Peters, features a Soviet heliborne assault on those bridges — which, unbeknownst to tough, cynical Lieutenant Colonel Gordunov and his parachute battalion, is merely a diversionary ploy.  Gordunov, the soldier’s soldier who learned his trade in Afghanistan, dies in the burning streets of old Hameln, holding out for a relief force that his higher commanders never intended to send.

This morning, I returned to alternate-universe Hameln in the wartime 1980s — this time not as an invader, but as a defender.  The Matrix-published wargame Flashpoint Campaigns:  Red Storm (NATO vs. the Warsaw Pact in Central Europe) includes a small exercise portraying a West German task force attempting to delay some absurdly large Soviet force bent on taking the bridges at Hameln. The scenario is named “The Pied Piper.”

Like most NATO-side situations in the genre, the setup is maddeningly brief.  You are half-awake, still have toothpaste in your mouth, have only one pant leg on, and most of your force is not here yet, but there is a huge Soviet formation headed your way so you’d better get going.  The briefing says something about the “11th Guards Tank Division of the 1st Guards Tank Army” which doesn’t sound good, but also mentions that the war has been going on for two days and this is a second-echelon attack.  Which happens to be late, even.  Go figure.  Why am I always the last to hear about things?

No matter.  I have been given something called the “4th Panzer Brigade Task Force.”  A brigade!  Awesome, that’s more like it.  But the fine print douses my momentary delight with gasoline-flavored water:  “brigade” is the new “battalion.”  I have two companies of armor and two companies of mechanized infantry.  What’s more, fully one-half of the task force, and all of the artillery, won’t be here for a few hours.  Typical.


The staff is looking at me like a dog with a bowl in its mouth, so I feel like I should give some orders.  At the moment, I have a company of thirteen Leopard 1 tanks (1st Company, 4th Panzer Battalion, or “1/4 Pz”)¹ in the city outskirts, so I send them racing up Highway 217 toward the leftist menace.  About 5 kilometers up the highway is the village of Gross Helligsfeld, which has good cover and some nice sightlines to the east.  The captain commanding 1/4 Pz tucks his three armor platoons into the village and sets up his headquarters section near the highway, then waits.

The remainder of my meager force consists of the 1st Company, 66th Panzergrenadier Battalion (“1/66 PzG”), with eleven Marder 1 infantry fighting vehicles.  Three line platoons of heavy mech infantry (what the Germans like to call panzergrenadiers) with anti-tank guided missiles.  I split the force, sending two platoons forward to straddle Highway 1, and retaining the headquarters section and the remaining platoon near the junction of Highway 217 and Highway 1.  These are the two main westbound arteries into Hameln, and I figure the Soviets will need to use at least one of them.  Finally, I pull my own task force headquarters into west Hameln, against the river.  Then there is nothing left to do but wait.


Dawn comes.  A self-propelled artillery battery shows up, and then another.  Six 155mm guns, for my dedicated use.  Some good news.  I set them up on the far side of the river, where they can do their mischief at a distance.  Then the radio murmurs and the talker informs me that division scouts have reported Soviet vehicles in the eastern minebelts.  It’s still over five kilometers away from 1/4 Pz and they cannot see anything yet.  But it will not be long.

“Enemy contact.”  And they are in force, not just a stray reconnaissance probe.  The captain reports a battalion minus of tanks, coming straight west in ten-vehicle formations.  Then he barks sharply and the shooting begins.  1/4 Pz works the engagement for almost an hour, ripping chunks out of the Soviet armored spearheads while calling in artillery fires.  But they are taking casualties too, and before long an entire platoon is out of action.  Time to go, I urge the captain.  But it is always an agonizing balance between staying to delay just a little bit longer, and pulling away.  And it is not so easy to disengage under fire.  The Soviet tank companies edge closer, and I again order a retreat.  Go.  Now.  Down the highway to the next village.  You’ve extracted your price.  But now the enemy is too close.

It becomes very clear what is going to happen.  The Soviets must feel it too, and they storm Gross Helligsfeld with two battered companies.  The last thing I hear from 1/4 Pz is the captain’s terse report that he is almost out of ammunition.  Then there is nothing but the tortured hiss of the radio jamming as my picture in the village goes entirely dark.

I order all the guns to barrage the last-known positions of the Soviet forces while I figure out what to do next.

The brutal price paid by 1/4 Pz at Gross Helligsfeld has bought me the time and space to reinforce before the Soviets hit our main line.  During 1/4’s final moments the remaining two companies of my task force have arrived.  I now have a fresh company of powerful Leopard 2 tanks (2/4 Pz) and a somewhat less powerful panzergrenadier company mounted in M113s (2/66 PzG).

After studying the map, I quickly issue orders to deploy the force as follows:

  • Two of the tank platoons and the bulk of my Marder-mounted panzergrenadiers are positioned near Afferde, along the south side of Highway 1 facing north where they have a good flanking view of Highway 217.  This position provides good cover, an elevated vantage point, and some low ground to the east where I can withdraw the group out of the view of the oncoming Soviets to enter Hameln.  I call this group “Team Amy.”
  • The remaining Marder platoon and tank platoon, together with the headquarters elements for both companies, are dug-in to a roughly north-south line bisecting the road junctions entering east Hameln.  This force guards the “front gate” and is intended to fix the Soviet force while Team Amy attacks the flanks (or, alternatively, cover Team Amy’s withdrawal from Afferde).  I call this group “Team Isla.”
  • The second panzergrenadier company is deployed in the Hameln city center as the reserve.  Because they are mounted in older M113s and not missile-armed Marders, I don’t want them facing any Soviet vehicles in the open.  Instead, the infantry (who have manpack antitank guided missiles) will dismount and engage the Soviet force in whatever part of the city they appear.  When Team Amy withdraws and Team Isla comes under pressure, I expect to move this group to the east to reinforce and counterattack.  I call them “Team Gwyneth.”²


The red monster to the east grumbles and growls.  Eventually Team Amy reports vehicles in sight.  Wheeled vehicles, not tanks, headed down Route 60, the lesser road running between the two highways.  Infantry vehicles, reconnaissance vehicles, personnel carriers.  A lot of them.  This must be the main body of the motor-rifle regiment.


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