“Are we there yet?”

Excerpt from 3/357's operations journal. Note paragraph 41.
Excerpt from 3/357’s operations journal. Note paragraph 41.


Little wonder that I Company simply stopped in its tracks before the first water obstacle it reached.

It is a terrible idea not to attach important control measures like limits of advance (LOA) to obvious terrain features. I haven’t seen the order and, being generous, I wonder if this isn’t just the battalion clerk’s incomplete transcription. Or was the LOA set by division and/or regiment and transmitted down the chain? At best this is poor staff work. Grid line 80, for what it’s worth is the southern limit of the 1:25k Carentan map sheet, making it an even more dubious choice. Someone once said the most important areas on the map are always found just off the margin. Grid 80 is more than two kilometers south of the line of departure, maybe an hour’s distance in a fully committed and well supported attack. Companies I and L made it over the crest, crossed the blacktop road (1/357’s LOA), and came into line with C/357, who had overshot their limits. Then everybody but Company I withdrew. According to the survivors, they held out against six counterattacks supported by armor and even featuring a bayonet charge.

Situation at the limit of 3/357's advance. Map by Ely 1991 overlain on 1947 IGN orthophoto.
Situation at the limit of 3/357’s advance. Map by Ely 1991 overlain on 1947 IGN orthophoto.

Setting such a dubious LOA seems proof to me someone in the chain of command did not expect fierce resistance or the possibility of German counterattack. MG Landrum was not renowned for his imagination, but recent experience at Gourbesville seems to have taught the division little. Col. Barth, commander of 357IR, was well liked and seemingly a good leader. I’m still unaware who was commanding 3/357 at the time. Perhaps command was duped by the notion the enemy they had cleared out of Ste Suzanne and St. Jores were disorganized remnants of other harshly treated formations. LTC Reimers of 343FA reports firing shells filled with propaganda written in Polish and receiving prisoners thanks to this effort. Did command expect the Germans to draw their lines elsewhere? If so, why? In truth, they faced the competent 77th Infanterie-Divisionen, reinforced by elements of 15 Fallschirmjager regiment.

The FTGU game map depiction of the same area overlain with Ely's map.
The FTGU game map depiction of the same area overlain with Ely’s map.

Such an oversight is hard to countenance, however. Mont Castre, just looking at it, is clearly a formidable obstacle. It is inconceivable the bottleneck between its summit and marshes of Gorges would only be lightly defended.  I suppose that is one of the hazards of attacking an opponent who defends in depth; it may not be immediately apparent where he has drawn the line.

Read Right Up

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.

Turning the Crank

Flowchart showing student inputs to the Operational English course I taught circa 2005. Students grouped according to their staff functions (Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, Communications, and CIMIC were present.)
Flowchart showing student inputs to the Operational English course I taught circa 2005. Students grouped according to their staff functions (Personnel, Intelligence, Operations, Logistics, Communications, and CIMIC were present.)

I needed a vehicle for discussing military science. I wanted a game. My learners were of various ranks, responsibilities, and of different levels of English. My class was already “gamified” to the extent my trainees were used to language-learning games. The above shows how I used to teach my Operational English course before employing EMGs. At the time I was working at two expeditionary headquarters: one a for an armored brigade the other being a division joint command. For the former I used MAJ Holdridge’s excellent TacOps; the latter employed the “simple” operational warfare simulator used by CGSC at Fort Leavenworth, called Decisive Action. At brigade, I invented a low- to mid-intensity conflict very loosely based on their AO around Mitrovica, Kosovo. At division, I simply ported whatever unclassified NATO exercise CONOPs they were working on into the game engine.

Initially, neither course admitted for command decision on the part of the learners. Both were simply used as events generators to guide between two and four weeks of teaching. Learner objectives included, but were not limited to, familiarization with NATO briefing formats, US/NATO OPORD and FRAGO formats, all the associated technical lexis, improved listening comprehension, note taking, and accent reduction. On my side, all I needed was a script to feed into the game engines.

A situation loosely drawn from a NATO certification exercise employing military symbology for small units. Trainees were tasked with developing a course-of-action briefing and with critiquing the likelihood of such a situation. (How else is an instructor to improve?)
A situation loosely drawn from a NATO certification exercise employing military symbology for small units. Trainees were tasked with developing a course-of-action briefing and with critiquing the likelihood of such a situation. (How else is an instructor to improve?)

Verisimilitude and immersion count with military audiences. Both games I used come from professional military circles so more than half the battle was won. For the uninitiated, this means more than developing a basic understanding of the functions of various units, of how force may be employed on the modern battlefield but learning aspects of presentation in terms of semiology and cartography. It is a big conceptual hurdle for some students to play games in a language class, so paying attention to these touches really helps them get over it. (On top of this, I found that my overview of military operations sometimes exceeded that of some reservists and NCOs, so there was the added benefit of transmitting what one general I worked for termed “military culture”.) As a civilian trainer, you want your trainees to know they’re in good hands. And, should you make a mistake about some aspect of technical esoterica, you want the smarter people in the room to gently correct you. One hopes, at least, they are reassured that you cared enough to try to get it right.

Those of you already familiar with EMGs will note that my method is already fairly close to the way matrix games are played. That is, students invent or try to invent facts and feed them into a situation in expectation of changing that situation. The difference here is that I did not ask the students to represent separate interests. Rather, they were all playing themselves in their professional roles. Thus officers and NCOs who worked in logistics invented “logistics facts” and dealt only with problems within their specialization. This marries nicely with their actual functions, of course, and I was happy to provide an opportunity for each specialization to practice its particular argot. Working this way was satisfactory, but not dynamic. Groups of students put their situational briefings together, gave them, and asked and answered questions of the other groups. The method worked. The students turned the crank, got their briefing practice, and learned a good deal. But how to make the course deliver more than simple validation of competence? And how to reduce the overhead incurred with computer simulations?

11 May 2016: In response to an off-site query about the flowchart at the top of this post:

This represents the structure of one two-hour class given daily or twice a week for 8-20 military EFL students drawn from the various staff sections of divisional and brigade headquarters.

Beginning at the left, class usually began with a situation report (SITREP) written by the instructor summarizing the outcome of the previous course’s decision brief. The SITREP served as a platform for very structured practice of previously-taught points of grammar, the introduction of new lexis, an opportunity for paired cross-dictation.

Trainees then broke into groups or pairs according to specialization to invent facts to add to their section’s upcoming situation briefing. Discussion was in English, but the objective was to feed one or two perfect sentences into the situation brief. As this interaction was among students the instructor was free to float to groups needing guidance but also enabled him to plant new information about the situation as desired. (The goal was simply to be able to write a short brief and deliver it orally, but a note-taking aspect was added; new, unheard-of facts were thus became part of the challenge to good note taking.)

The situation briefing phase was conducted according to a formal NATO format, respecting sequence, and a rather rigid presentation style (familiarization with such formats is a major factor in non-native speakers’ comprehension). This phase was meant as guided speaking practice and to allow weaker trainees to model their briefs on more experiences and/or stronger speakers. Sometimes it was the case that a young NCO, recently graduated from high school, might be more at ease in the language than the senior officer for whom they worked. Careful attention must be paid to such pairings, as formal distance between officers and NCOs varies and must always be respected.

The decision brief was not a formal NATO decision brief but rather an occasion for open practice. The guiding question was “What should the general do?”  This question fell flat in courses where there were many junior NCOs, as there is a great deal of jeopardy in such discussions. The instructor adapted to the situation by having the class invent a fictive general from a NATO joint command of another nationality. (The instructory humbly proposed his own family name.) The goal here was at least ten minutes of unguided speaking but the instructor would let this run as long as possible.

The final phase of the class was paired or group work among trainees of the same section, who would come together to write a fragmentary order (FRAGO) carrying out the decisions of their fictive general. This was often conducted under time pressure, a common constraint in the working lives of staff officers, and gave the instructor more than enough leads for the subsequent class SITREP as well as providing him with a written check on language learned that day.

That Soap and Water Feeling

Brainstorming the EMG I wrote with Chris Engle, circa 2008.

That soap and water feeling is what you get just before everything comes together in the right way. This is about the only feeling I trust when it comes to creative endeavor. I should have written up my experiences using matrix games for professional military language training years ago. It seems every month there is a new paper or post about using Chris Engle’s most excellent invention, Engle Matrix Games (EMGs). I’ll outline my experience using them with officer and NCO EFL trainees from Etat-major de Force 2 between 2007-10.

My road to EMGs was via my wargame chum, Brian Train. In 2007, while all NATO-allied armies suddenly became interested in counterinsurgency, I was casting about for a way of further gamifying my English course given at a French army divisional headquarters. I canvassed Boardgame Geek for all it was worth but found nothing sufficiently simple. “Your design for Algeria is great Brian,” I wrote, “But it will never work in the classroom.” This might have annoyed another designer but Brian is nothing if not patient and helpful. “What you need is a matrix game,” he answered. And the lightbulb went on. I had even already heard of EMGs via Ron Edwards’s site The Forge. Role-playing game design is a majorly underexploited resource in wargame design, but that is a subject for another day. Much of my thinking about the affective level of game play (”affective ludic phenomenology” is what I would say were I an academic) owes to the rigorously creative threads Ron Edwards curated.

Cambridge-style English as a Foreign Langauge (EFL) pedagogy turns on the notion of a teacher as an eliciter of new and prior knowledge, reassuring guide, and learner resource, prioritizing production of written or spoken language. Ideally, an EFL class should moved from closed tasks with right and wrong answers, thereby setting a model for later open tasks, where students might experiment with the day’s learning. Lesson planning depends on careful mise-en-scène and, above all, very clear objective-setting. EMGs fit into this agenda terribly well. Some, particularly early EMGs, contain very precise action lists, just verbs really, which was a perfect mesh with my vocabulary-based teaching. Grammar isn’t the first priority in a technical, military environment where exacting lexis challenges even native speakers. Having a menu to choose from is an aid to decision, are invitations, and lower barriers. Similar lists appear in current generation RPGs such as Apocalypse World.

The varying language levels among my students is never immediately evident. And the varying ranks and responsibilities redouble the challenge of understanding learner needs. Nobody is every any good at pronouncing either version of /th/ or the terminal /s/ when forming plurals, but that is low-hanging fruit here in France. Real ability comes from doing fairly open tasks, from playing games. The game must help your learners overcome fear. Not only had The Forge alerted me to EMGs, it had also provided many fruitful discussions of how player expectations might best come when a game system supports those expectations. Briefly, some players simply want to win any game while others wish to immerse themselves in a temporary alternate reality. The last group, the one to which I feel closest, want to wrestle with the perversities of awesome narrative. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive goals, but they are a trick to manage. You certainly can get them wrong, however. The result is nervous, even angry dysfunction. These ideas mesh well with Cambridge EFL’s adaptability in partnering strong with weak levels so that students learn from each other.

(To be continued…)