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.

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