B coy CP, Le Bourg St. Leonard

Who wouldn't want to drive tanks around in such constricted terrain?
Who wouldn’t want to drive tanks around in such constricted terrain?

Here’s my rendering of the old center of Le Bourg St. Léonard. More than with the other maps I’ve had to commit some sins of scale and, for playability’s sake, sacrifice outbuildings (hence the gardens). M15 is B/359’s CP 15/16 August 1944. I’ve written the observation post rules to be very simple. If you can occupy M15 or keep a unit adjacent to it, you may observe artillery to the range printed on the map. (Twenty hexes in this case.) No, you needn’t calculate LOS, as the fall of shot can be observed from shell bursts, the height of which are sometimes materialized in other tactical systems. However, LOS may be traced only through the indicated (yellow) hexsides.

These hexes are something regimental and battalion commanders worried about historically. They do not serve as likely spots for installing ASL-like “death stars”. This impacts game play quite a bit, especially in built-up terrain. I can find no doctrinal guidance about using buildings as cover. During this battle, US corps command prohibited deployment in buildings out of CIMIC concerns. 359IR’s executive officer, who wrote the best account of combat here, explicitly mentions the advisability of doing so in his lessons learned paragraph. However, it is just as easy to find anecdotes of more experienced troops (75th Rangers in the Hurtgen Forest, for example) preferring to defend built-up areas from newly-dug foxholes with trenches communicating to buildings.

Former town hall (marked "Mairie" on the game map), Brendan Clark, bottom left. Note bullet scarring still visible on its façade.
Former town hall (marked “Mairie” on the game map), Brendan Clark, bottom left. Note bullet scarring still visible on its façade.
Vic. hex P15. Note the density of buildings and the narrow streets. 359IR's XO CPT Hickman reported tank engagements taking place at 40 yards here.
Vic. hex P15. Note the density of buildings and the narrow streets. 359IR’s XO CPT Hickman reported tank engagements taking place at 40 yards here.

Man proposes; nature disposes

Projects 2016-17
Yes, I know “Le Inquietud” isn’t Spanish. My brain needs a good long rest. So did my bisabeulo’s, evidently, who seemed to name properties after his mood on that day.

My Master’s defense, for better or worse, happens this week. So I’ve taken a moment out to look at my research priorities for the coming year. Think of it as my effort to get around the postpartum period. Little of this will get done should somehow I beat the odds in the French labor markets and actually find a job.

I haven’t prioritized anything yet, by From the Ground Up (FTGU) is what I start working on this Wednesday. Unless of course I’m asked to do more cartography for my Master’s. (I think, though, the department is anxious to see me awarded my degree; I can feel a wind at my back, for better or worse.) Lots of travel and project management stuff to deal with here, so I thought I would give readers a heads up, especially should they might have free time for playtesting.

Any interested playtesters should know they have two options. By October we will have an updated VASSAL module. For those of you allergic to VASSAL or who can’t be bothered with computers, a playtest kit will be available. Unfortunately, developing on spec means that you will have to pay for it. However, I have physical copies of the counters which will be available from Print N Play games, and they are worth the expense. Contact me for details.

I am attempting to coordinate with the Military Museum of Fort Worth for an afternoon and evening where Chris Mata, the playtest honcho, and I can present the game in person and get in a bit of play. I hope the curator will have an opening in the museum’s holiday schedule.

I regret nothing! Except missing Connections UK this year.

One Klick Out of Whack

Current game map projected upon aerial photograph. The red box to be covered in the revision.
Current game map projected upon aerial photograph. The red box to be covered in the revision.

Ely’s maps are off. My vision came from them and from eyewitness accounts. I have the usual photographs from 1947. I have an overlay, but that just gave me the battalion boundaries. I visited the ground in 2013. I talked with Henri Levaufre. I read a few accounts. Sèves was not a victory nor was it a defeat that merited analysis, for whatever reason.

My first map was of 1/358’s AO. There is so little history to support it. There was a house that burned. And a veteran who remembered it. Henri Levaufre thought the man was at the limit of of first battalion’s advance. I couldn’t find anything in the archive. Henri’s own maps were vague. The land there is private from the Sèves side.

Ely’s maps are off in a funny way. They are of second battalion’s area, the river, the ford, the farm, and a few hedgerows beyond. The surrender site is on them. I thought I understood where that was in 2013. Ely’s distances are deeper than they should have been. Perhaps because the ground was so hard to take the distances seem longer to those who were there. I couldn’t fit their accounts to the ground. What you need is an officer who had a recent look at a map. But whatever notions that officer might have had don’t seem to have survived whatever happened next. The big picture got torn up or is still resting is some drawer in Maryland.

Henri shared some parts of it with me. The overlays, his own cartography. The intelligence overlay shows German antitank defenses oriented on the ford. To cross it at least two guns must have been destroyed. Every American accounts says a marsh. There is no notion of an armored assault. But there is talk of the river’s rise, of swimming in the dark under fire. Henri has mapped this ground for more than forty years. And Henri has never seen the Sèves rise more than twenty centimeters. Second battalion’s commander surrendered. Memories are more precise wherever objectives are achieved. He showed us his notes on which positions he assumed were American, which where German, and which were shared over the course of the two days. You get a sense for maximum advances, but not who was where when. We began our walk on the other side, in first battalion’s area. It is not a marsh. The ground is solid and stable. As is the gravel in the streambed. There are no steep-grade transitions up the far bank. It is the same story on the other side, in second battalion’s area. I have no record of 712th Tank Battalion conducting any route reconnaissance. The Germans defenses were correctly deployed, though they were a surprise to me.

But my initial map is nearly one klick out of whack. The ford was obviously not the only way across, or even the main one. The sedimentary profile was just better. No further information came out on first battalion’s fight. One day, I’ll come across the field order, the operational overlays. It is hard to see what the US was trying to achieve. I want this to be a good game, to highlight what I think is most important. The record speaks of failure in shifty ways. It often uses passive voice to better inter those presumed guilty. The winners are given greater agency. That alone is the definition of victory in linguistic terms, come to think of it. Bad things just happen at random in other accounts, like these, at Sèves. Anyway, a complete redraw is in order.

Grounding the Truth

A guest post from developer Brendan Clark!

Florent, left, and our stealthy guide, with the wrecked barn behind them. I never got round to asking Neal why he wore that red baseball cap.
That is hex E28 for those keeping score at home.
That is hex E28 for those keeping score at home.

With Amfreville to our rear, we turned off the road and clambered over a low gate into the undergrowth that surrounded a battered wreck of a stone barn. 72 years ago to the day and that same building had been ablaze. As a US infantry company had advanced across the field behind German munitions had erupted inside, ejecting chunks of rubble, one of which struck a young US soldier in the back, killing him instantly.

For us, this was no casual country walk. We were about to go on a methodically planned trek into the history of four battles fought in the Normandy countryside by the US 90th Infantry Division over the summer of 1944. Kitted out with our backpacks, our camouflage and boots, we began our venture onto much private property, the fields, tracks, and woods surrounding Norman villages that were the focus of conflict. We came armed with curiosity, purpose and the knowledge of our guide-cartographer. We needed all three.

On into stinging nettles and brambles growing two metres high, over jagged, skin-ripping barbed wire fences, and into deep, dark woods, we followed our guide. He knew the ground and the history it continued to hold. Moreover, he knew the US 90 ID, where its battalions had set down their command posts, start lines, their axes and limits of advance. Here was where a colonel had been ambushed in the road as he directed his jeep driver to reverse back to US lines. Along an axis we walked, ‘Hanging Sam Williams’ had led an attack that flanked the German main line and cut down south into the village of Gourbesville. As we walked, he talked. It was like stepping forward into immersion.

I had never, ever been here before. Yet I knew the terrain, not so intimately as our guide, but I recognised the patchwork of buildings, bocage and roads. Without looking at a map, I knew from my time in ‘command’ that on the other side of a bocage hedgerow, the ground sloped down to a small tree-lined stream, crossed by a narrow bridge, which carried a road on into the village beyond. We had come with well-prepared maps and lists of GPS plotted ‘points of interest’, locations marked for us to verify as part of what our guide called ‘Ground Truthing’. In laymen’s terms, walking the ground to test the accuracy of your map, its height elevations, location of terrain features such as buildings and hedgerows, and – critically – lines of sight.

But the maps we were really there to ‘Ground Truth’ were Neal Durando’s own hex-grid maps, the ones he’d created from NASA’s shuttle images, or SRTM data, aerial photographs taken by Allied reconnaissance pilots in 1944, and subsequent ones taken in 1947 by the Istitut national géographique, the French equivalent of the USGS or the British Ordnance Survey. Altogether Neal had crafted four battle site maps – Gourbesville, Sèves Island, Beau Coudray, and Le Bourg St Leonard – for his ‘Band of Brothers’ tactical WWII historical module. These four maps form the backdrop for a narrative of how the US 90 ID fought its way across parts of Normandy, an arduous and bloody journey that saw it move up from a second-rate infantry division to a battle-hardened veteran formation as the campaign came to a close in August 1944.

I’m no veteran, but I had already fought over three of Neal’s battle maps as I’d helped playtest his historical game module, ‘From the Ground Up’. And this was why I recognised the ground over which we walked. More than that, our treks through the close and sometimes confusing Normandy countryside gave me the chance to answer for myself the inevitable tactical game questions on lines of a sight (LOS). Sceptical I am by nature, but every question I’d had about LOS on Neal’s maps only confirmed that he’d got it right, every damn time. So walk if you really want to check that your maps are telling the truth.

Operational Pause

Bois d'Amfreville
Bois d’Amfreville
Ste Mère Eglise 1:25k BIGOT map. Approximate camp location indicated. Les Landes crossroads to north.
Ste Mère Eglise 1:25k BIGOT map. Approximate camp location indicated. Les Landes crossroads to north.

Just to let readers know that I’m writing my Master’s report and will return to posting in September. In the meantime, here’s a photo of the camp I made the Bois d’Amfreville at the end of my recent visit to the field. Mr. Lefrançois, owner of Les Tourelles farm, informed me that the wood here is unharvestable owing to the amount of shrapnel the saws pull out. The stand itself has been little changed since 1944, although the poplars and now the ashes are dying out.

Although it does not figure directly in FTGU, this location is just south of the crossroads that 2/357 took a few days to capture at Les Landes. If you believe in dead souls (unavoidable being alone in a dark wood for me), you might also believe that you are protected by them. So often, to the vexation of the locals, I feel as if in crossing Norman fields that the plot somehow exists both in Texas and Oklahoma. Yeah, no way those men of 2/357 who occupied this wood seventy-two years ago to the day would have warmed themselves around the highly non-tactical fire that I lit. Even after it went out, I could feel them standing guard all night.

12 June 2016

GRB_vicN28.11
Brendan and Florent push out to the road ~150 meters forward
Brendan and Florent, vicinity N28.11, pushing out to the road leading to Les Surelles. The bocage to their left on the game map was torn out sometime after 1947 and the rooftops of the farmhouse can be seen above the bordering hedges. Unlike in the photo, corn was not planted here in 1944, according to Mr. Levavasseur, but wheat which would have stood just under a meter high, judging by other wheatfields observed in the AOI. (Observations made exactly 72 years to the date).

There are few better ways of advancing creative projects than walking and thinking as you go. Except walking and thinking with like-minded companions like developer Brendan Clark and fellow cartographer Florent Desse-Engrand. Over the week, we visited all four AOIs in the game and compared actual topography with my maps. I’m very pleased with my initial work; it was particularly gratifying to see Brendan pull out the game map to navigate, although he had a choice.

Brendan and I talked game design quite a bit, both with respect to FTGU but also to a larger-scale game I’ve been calling “Omega”, as it represents the last HIC WW2 game I want to do. “Beyond Omega” might have been a suitably ridiculous name for the subsequent project until until, in a flash of inspiration, brought on by Brendan’s mention of Alice in Wonderland I came up with “Nine Rabbit Heads in a Box.” Why 9RHB? Because it’s way better than eight and who ever heard of ten?

10 June

Capture

Writes MAJ Charles Ronan, the XO of 3/357 in the winter of 1948, remembering the moment his battalion entered combat:

The Regimental order was issued at 1200 hours, 9 June. The 3rd Battalion was to attack on the regimental right with the 2nd Battalion on the left. The boundary between battalions was the main highway running along the indicated route of advance….

The Battalion Commander, with his party, returned about 1700 hours and immediately issued his order. The Battalion order called for K and L Company to lead the assault. A platoon of heavy machine guns, from M Company, was assigned to each of the assault companies. The 81mm  platoon was initially to be in general support from a position west of the LA FIERE Bridge. The lead element of the Battalion was to cross the Battalion initial point at 0100 hours on 10 June. The Battalion command post was initially to be established near the railroad overpass
east of the LA FIERE Bridge and was to move forward on the Battalion Commander’s order. The Battalion Executive was to check all units at the initial point.

The Battalion area was broken up by innumerable hedgerows. The Battalion Commander directed that all Company commanders thoroughly orient unit guides before darkness so they would be familiar with their routes to the initial point. The Battalion Executive, prior to darkness, checked with each company as to guides and was informed that all were well oriented and there would be no trouble.

Confusion began when the Battalion moved forward. K Company crossed the initial point on schedule. L Company was not present. I Company was ordered to follow K Company. L Company arrived at the initial point as the last of I Company crossed. The unit guides had become lost in the maze of hedgerows and oriented themselves through the sound of the other elements marching down the road. No other difficulties were experienced at that time.

The sudden changing of the Division’s mission, resulted in a very serious handicap to subordinate units. There were insufficient maps for issue to all officers and key noncommissioned officers in the Battalion. The maps, which had been issued for the invasion and initial mission, did not cover the new area over which the Division was now to attack. What maps were issued were not of uniform scale. Certain roads did not appear on all maps. This later resulted in the 3rd Battalion and L Company following wrong roads in the vicinity of Amfreville.

Things become considerably more confused after 3/357 takes its first casualties from errant German fire landing near the causeway. Also, that the maps issued were not BIGOT level maps, thus they did not reflect the water obstacles and had limited information about the road net. Third battalion is held up for some hours while trying to bring its weapons company back in line, during which time the Germans mount a local counterattack straight down the Amfreville road. COL Ginder, the regimental commander then relieves 1st battalion on the left while withdrawing 3rd battalion to reorganize. Second battalion, after suffering extremely light casualties (in spite of the claims of its commander) and are placed in reserve. It is easier (somewhat) to follow Ronan’s account in visual form:

http://defling.com/documents_public/Approach%20March%20to%20Gourbesville%203.wmv

Approach March to Gourbesville 3

 

9 June

The manor at La Fière is at lower left. It must be imagined, in this postwar photo, that the fields to the north and south of the causeway are completely flooded. German defenses began immediately on the other side at the time of Norris's arrival.
The manor at La Fière is at lower left. It must be imagined, in this postwar photo, that the fields to the north and south of the causeway are completely flooded. German defenses began immediately on the other side at the time of Norris’s arrival.

As the 90th’s artillery battalions organize, the divisional artillery commander, BG John Devine sends liaison and fire direction officers to Ste Mère Eglise to meet up with his former West Point classmate Matt Ridgeway, then directing the fight to consolidate a bridgehead at La Fière.

In the presence of the MG Collins, the corps commander, LTC Norris speaks up, suggesting that his battalion of 155mm guns might be able to support the attack to secure the causeway if it were delayed by two hours. On his advice, Gavin is delayed. This must have been a delicate calculation. Balanced against the advantage of Norris’s guns, waiting two hours meant the Germans would be better organized and might even launch a counterattack.

Norris went farther forward to make his observations. Elements of the German 1057/91 Airlanding Division had not been able to consolidate their defense of Craquigny and were still obliged to engage with the paratroopers assembled in an orchard just east of Amfreville. Writes Norris:

Gavin, from outside the foxhole, nonchalantly showed us what he wanted hit. Bob [345th’s operations officer] then conducted a brilliant adjustment of fire on Gavin’s preferred targets. It was a textbook performance by a superb gunnery officer. Then, we began to await the arrival of all howitzers by 10:30. (The target area involved the German front line, defending against a crossing of the Merderet. Although the range from our howitzers to the target was over five miles, Bob’s calculations were so accurate that the first round landed within fifty hards of the target—a splendid payoff indeed for his countless hours of gunnery and fire-direction training. His rapid three-round adjustment gave the Krauts no warning of the devastating fire that greeted them when the assault began….

Fortunately, all twelve howitzers came into position. At 10:30 we fired. “Battalion 15 rounds as rapidly as possible,” [was the order]. We put 180 rounds of 96-lb HE shells into the most dangerous areas at the end of the causeway. It was quite a help to the assault….

The next evening 357IR would follow in the trace of 3/325, who were still engaged, defending the bridgehead.
The next evening 357IR would follow in the trace of 3/325, who were still engaged, defending the bridgehead.

After a costly action carried by 3/325 Glider and C/505 PIR, the bridgehead that would allow the passage of 357/90 was secure. (A detailed account may be found here: http://smallwarsjournal.com/print/12774)

Read Right Up

Capture
Visualization of the area of operations for 2/357 Infantry Regiment, 12-15 June 1944. Click through for a manipulable 3D view.

 

Here are the points of interest for the field visit to Gourbesville. Pushing them to my GPS unit I realize how much work went into pulling this information together. And how much time I’ve spent looking at this odd little corner of Normandy. There were so many sources consulted just to pull together this handful of POIs. Only last year did I come across a hen’s tooth — a facsimile of the divisional G2 report for 357IR’s sector. So I’ve been able to draw in two German lines of resistance. I note this accords with GEN William DePuy’s remark about the German defenses being oriented toward the south east. Which is interesting for at least two reasons. First, 2/357IR did not come up against 1057/91 Luftlanding division’s center of gravity. Not nearly. The first battalion of 357 did go down into that valley to the west of Amfreville and DePuy was there to witness their failure, an event which informed his later activities as creator and commander of TRADOC. Secondly, 91 Luft retired in relatively good order, if greatly reduced. By 14 June 90ID G2 reports capturing prisoners from 920, -21, and -22/243ID who were presumably able to conduct a relief in place in spite of the attentions of the entire 90ID falling upon them.

Oh, we’ll be staying about 300 meters north of the German mortar positions marked on the map. I’m hoping they won’t keep me up.