Gourbesville Final for Playtest

Les Surelles on the Gourbesville map, the site of my interview with Mr. Levavasseur this past June.
Les Surelles on the Gourbesville map, the site of my interview with Mr. Levavasseur this past June. Notice the OP symbol with an observation range of 10. Nothing really to remember or go back to the rule book here: there’s complete intervisibility for artillery observation out to ten hexes. Rest easy. Put the LOS string down. And, yep, those green elevation bars in Y27 are indeed an error!

Well, that took a lot longer than I thought it would. Here’s the new style. Not so much different from the old one, I admit. I tried to bring out the visual density of the bocage a bit more. I’m really not that far out of scale and, as the rules convention blocks LOS traced along a hexspine it should have minimal effect. An important revision was normalizing the elevation bars above the center dot. Now one level equals one bar. A chevron equals five levels. The center dot hindrance/blocking scheme is now coherent. Lower contour elevations were simplified after a second or third ground truthing. Presumably the differences owed to artifacts in the SRTM data which often occur in low-slope areas. I had hoped to use ASTER data to correct, but the effect is even worse!

Sèves, as I posted before, had to be completely redrawn due to a research error, but is mostly finished. St. Leonard will require some squinting at and a final consultation with a local historian. Beau Coudray requires nothing much, especially as I’ve simplified the OP rule: an OP will have a range number associated to it. Anywhere within that range is observable for artillery fire (in both directions). Simple. Done. Now for some fumbling in the VASSAL module, which I hope will not be too fiddly….

Les Surelles farm. Looking into the courtyard from the road.
Les Surelles farm. Looking into the courtyard from the road, vic. hex Z27.

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:

Approach March to Gourbesville 3

 

8 June

Capture
Assembly area for 90ID (minus 359IR) on 8 June 1944, two days prior to their relief of 82ABD.

8 June: The main body of the division arrived off UTAH Beach mid-morning and began debarking from the three ships simultaneously. All troops, but only 5% of the Divisions transport vehicles made it ashore that day. The Division closed into an assembly area TURQUEVILLE-REUVILLE-AUDOUNVILLE LE HUBERT-ECOQUENEUVILLE with the CP at Loutres by midnight.

Warning orders were received from VII Coprs directing the division to attack on 10 June (D+4) through the 82nd Airborne Division on the Merderet river with two regiments (the 359th Inf. was to remain attached to the 4th Div.) and seize the high ground east of the Douve river near St. Sauver Le Vicomte.

-LTC Eames Yates

The desperate fights going on at La Fière, Timmes Orchard (vic Amfreville) and Hill 30 should be remembered. The Germans had just brought up the better part of a battalion to Le Motey (upper left) to deal with Timmes’s assorted elements. They were also in the process of bringing up a training tank battalion in an effort to retake La Fière across the famous causeway.

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.

Settle Down, Gunners

Entry from 343FA's battalion journal, 15 June 1944 explaining the difficulty in coordinating with the Army Air Corps during the 3/357's attack on Gourbesville. No colored smoke! D'oh!
Entry from 343FA’s battalion journal, 15 June 1944 explaining the difficulty in coordinating with the Army Air Corps during the 3/357’s attack on Gourbesville. No colored smoke! D’oh!

As a designer, I don’t like to create new things. Yes, that’s right. After you tell enough lies to get your game going, any further lies you have to tell should be in the context of what has come before. You think you need a new mechanism? New pieces? Consider trying to address the problem you see in terms of what you’ve already created. Be careful you are not creating more problems or opening more doors than you intend. Everything that rises must converge.

So much for design aesthetics. On to artillery. In the context of one-off scenarios the basic rules are okay. Lines of sight across perfectly flat terrain without depressions are easily had most of the time. But this is a rare case on my maps of Lower Normandy. Indeed, spotting for artillery was a real challenge historically. Using the base rules on playtest maps often resulted in artillery being used as a turn-ending throwaway called at very close range to friendly forces. Sure this sort of mission was fired in 1944 but it was still with great care and rarely in haste.

The US Army considered that danger close, the closest distance to friendly forces that a mission might fire was 500 yards, or 12 hexes. Absent very large maps, artillery is difficult to portray in games with 40-yard hexes. Even 32×24-inch map would need to have four map sheets before you could reliably work observation posts into play. Infantry battles throughout the Western Front in WW2 can be understood as battalion operations with the objective of securing observation posts for their, and their regiment’s, next maneuver.