Tuesday, September 25 2007

"The War" and The War

I'm trying to catch what I can of Ken Burns' "The War" on PBS.  The series has been in the news a fair amount recently, and it's interesting enough just for that, but it's got something to recommend it beyond that.

The big controversy in the mainstream media is the protests by Hispanic groups angry that there was no special attention paid to Hispanic veterans.  Burns has added some additional footage to address this, but it seems to be regarded as too little, too late.  This is a entertaining side-effect of the way the second world war is studied in American schools, which pretty much defines how most Americans look at the history of the war.  Approximately 95% of the study of the history of the second world war through high school is devoted to five topics:
1.  Hitler's rise to power, attributed to the harsh Treaty of Versailles.
2.  The Holocaust.
3.  The internment of Japanese-American citizens.
4.  The home front and the changing cultural demographics of America, with emphasis on the role of women and the continuing discrimination against minorities.
5.  The morality of the decision to use the atomic bomb.
As "The War" is dedicated to the American experience, numbers one and two are justifiably given brief mention.  The series hasn't progressed enough to get to number five, which, given the secrecy involved, might not be covered much at all.  The remaining two then become a never-ending grudge match to make sure each ethnic group gets its fair share of coverage.  The coverage of the internment of Japanese-Americans has drawn some fire from conservative commentators, and it does have a large role in the story, but I think it can be justified on the grounds that it is a unique blemish on American history, and one that justifies a specific debate.  But American history as taught in school has become by and large a story of ethnic groups and their contributions have been measured as group members.  As such, the debate by particular groups trying to grab their share of the story is only natural.

Given that, the fact that "The War" does manage to cover the war itself is something of a miracle.  It gives short shrift to many of the individual battles, preferring to cover the war from a soldier's perspective of constant war.  As such, the narration is rather general and non-technical, and tends to drift towards personal experiences, augmented by interviews with veterans.  The footage, on the other hand, is spectacular, especially to someone used to history channel documentaries.  The series includes lots of combat footage, including the sometimes bloody aftermath.  It also includes lots of footage from Axis records.  To someone who already knows the military history, the series doesn't say anything new, but what it shows is stuff I've never seen, especially the footage of the ground combat.  As I write this, the series is covering Anzio, and there's good footage of 105mm howitzers, M10 tank destroyers, and a wrecked Panzer IV, probably a IV H (it's got the long 75mm gun).

The news coverage of the series premiere on Sunday in the Washington Post was heavy with political overtones, which led to one fascinating example of cognitive dissonance.  In an article on the series in the Sunday Style & Arts section of the post, Rick Atkinson writes "Perhaps it's too tempting to contrast the meritorious struggle of the 1940s with the dubious conflict today."  There is a valid debate of the effectiveness of the current war in Iraq and the merits of the strategy and tactics and or the war itself.  But describing the motives behind the current war as dubious sounds a bit hollow when just a few sentences before is this:  "Yet a strong case can be made against necessity.  Had the future allied powers intervened to thwart Hitler earlier in his maniacal trajectory, perhaps the calamity could have been avoided."

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 49 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Sunday, September 09 2007

Flames of War: Barbarossa

I just returned from the local game and hobby shop where I participated in a big Flames of War game. I always prefer a friendly game against a human opponent over playing the computer, and miniatures gaming has presented itself as the preferred pastime of choice these days. The scenario was interesting in that it represented an unusual period and presented several different tactical options for the players.

The people at Battlefront Miniatures that produce Flames of War had divided up World War II into three distinct periods for the purposes for army construction. Early war is 1939 - 1941, mid-war is 1942 - 1943, and late war is 1944 - 1945. They have recently revised the rules into a second edition, and started with the mid-war time period for releasing army lists, and have since expanded into late war. First edition never had official published lists for early war, but lists were released online and removed when second edition was released. So when this month's Sunday battle was announced as Early War Eastern Front, I was doubly screwed: I have no early war specific units, no army lists, and I'd only started on Eastern Front forces in general about a month and a half ago, so I had to form my list at the store from Afrika Korps forces and loaner equipment from my German allies.

The scenario itself was interesting as well. The board was 5 feet wide by 15 feet long. It was divided in half length-wise by a river, spanned by two bridges. It was then filled with assorted hills and woods, and a road and two villages were positioned along one of the long edges. The two Soviet players set up on the middle third of the field length-wise, and were told to divide their forces across both sides of the river. I, with one company of German armor, was the main line of advance, and was set up along one of the five foot edges of the board. The soviets objectives were to destroy German units and to advance what they could off the board on the far five-foot edge from me. The complication was that two other German players would be advancing from the sides of the third of the board between the Soviet players and their exit edge, with the idea of closing a pincer on the Soviet forces. The Soviets also had a time limit of ten turns before there was a chance every turn that the pincer would close completely; any remaining Soviet units were considered lost. The picture below shows most of the battlefield; toward the camera is the Soviet middle third with the river. The far edge along the wall is the Soviet escape edge.The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01A.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

The Soviets deployed two anti-tank units, two infantry units, and a tank unit equipped with fast BT-7 tanks on my side of the river. They deployed an artillery battery and five armored units on the far side of the river, three with BT-7s, one with heavy T-26s, and one with armored cars. I deployed my forces back along the road. The Soviet tanks on the far side of the river immediately began to advance towards the rear and safety, while the AT guns prepared to make a last stand to cover the tanks and infantry as they jammed the bridges. Below are my forces as they approach the AT guns on the left side of the board.The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01B.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
I concentrated my entire force along the road, figuring that I could both amass my firepower on one set of guns and destroy it faster and that any bypassed guns would still count as destroyed when the encirclement fully closed. You can see the mixed nature of my forces. Four of the incredibly fearsome and deadly (by early-war standards) Panzer III auf H in Afrika Korps colors are on the right. Behind them are five Panzer 38(t) tanks in German gray, with my company CO in a very stowage-overloaded PzIIIH. Along the road are trucks carrying a full platoon of Pioniers. Along the left are three Panzer II auf F light tanks and two Sd Kfz 222 armored cars. In front of them are visible six Soviet 47mm anti-tank guns, just out of range. I then closed with and engaged the guns with my entire force. The first results are shown below.The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01C.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Four of the six AT guns destroyed. The unit is pinned down, and even some 'persuasion' from the commissar is unable to rally them before they are wiped out on the next game turn, and my forces regroup before the next set of Soviet troops. Meanwhile, all the Soviet tanks have crossed the river, and a fierce tank battle is engaged further down the road, leaving a number of destroyed tanks for both sides. The German forces attacking along the road have deployed a screen of Pz38s protecting a pair of 76mm AT guns and a massive 88mm AA gun, sighted right down the road. Along the other side, the German Pz38s are hitting and running from the forest, and the lighter Soviet tanks are hiding behind the hills rather than advancing. The Soviet infantry, meanwhile, is jammed trying to withdraw across the river. The infantry unit along the road bridge left a doomed rearguard of troops in the village on my side of the river to stop my advance from rushing across the bridge, while the other bridge is covered by the surviving AT battery. The Soviet artillery, meanwhile, is dug in on the far side of the river where it can cover both bridges, and the Soviet 76mm artillery makes an impressive anti-tank gun. The overall situation is as shown below.The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01D.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Across the river, the fighting was fearsome. The Soviet forces sustained heavy losses as they pushed towards freedom, but one of the Soviet players unwisely retained a rearguard of tanks on the hill behind their artillery, and left some of their armor unengaged in the middle of the field. In the photo below, you can see the flames of the burning Soviet and German armor in the distance.The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01E.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

In order to have some effect on the battle and keep the Soviets attention divided, I needed to attack, and ideally take out the artillery battery. To do this quickly, my Pz38s needed to risk the Soviet AT battery, but I threw everything I had into the fight, with the Pz III's closing as well against the only guns on the Soviet side easily capable of taking one out with a front shot, as shown below.http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01F.jpg

Close behind the armor were the now-dismounted Pioniers, with the armored cars and the PzIIs raking the Soviet infantry in the buildings blocking the bridge. The Pz38s succumbed to the combined fire of the AT gun platoon, artillery battery, and the tanks on the hill behind, and one round from the artillery hit home on a PzIII, blowing it up. But the results were worth it, as shown below.http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01G.jpg
The artillery battery is down to one gun (which dies shortly thereafter), and the buildings are clear of Soviet troops (one surviving group flees across the bridge), with light casualties to the attacking Pioniers. The building on the left was incidentally cleared by the PzIIs basically running into the building, and it was quite lucky that one didn't end up stuck in the wall. On a shot of the right you can see the remains of the valiant Pz38s (the two not destroyed retreated off the field) and the slowly advancing Soviet AT gun battery.
The image “http://dorkside.mee.nu/images/Game01H.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

My forces cross the bridge, mopping up the stragglers, while the surviving Soviet armor circles the wagons between my forces and the surviving tanks of the pincers, one of which is largely untouched. At this point, the game is called. Overall, a German victory. We lost four complete units, my Pz38s and a tank platoon, an armored car platoon and a Pionier platoon belonging to the pincer that came from the road edge. Three Soviet tank units, the armored cars, an AT battery, and an artillery battery were already wiped out, with the rest of their forces unlikely to survive. One Soviet tank made it off the board to report the loss (not enough to score), and the commander was promptly shot for desertion.

A fun game, overall. The Soviets were hampered by bad luck and hesitation to engage the German pincers en masse. I probably should have been more careful with my Pz38s, but by keeping the one Soviet tank platoon engaging them, they probably kept the Soviets from mounting a unified defense where it would have done some good.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 07 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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