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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

On this day...

Today is the 63rd anniversary of D-Day, which signalled the opening of Operation Overlord- the Anglo-American assault on German-occupied France. I'm not going to to review the history of the preparation, launch and development of this crucial military operation of WW2 here (but here is the Battle of Normandy wiki for those of my readers who'd like somewhere to start finding out more for themselves). No, this commemorative post will be about the best of my viewing, reading and gaming on the subject of this massive attack down the years.

From newsprint to the silver screen
Like many of my generation none of whose relatives were actually there in France during those months in 1944, I imagine that my first encounters with the story of D-Day would've been found in the pages of the The Victor, Warlord, and Commando Comics- war comics published by the august D.C. Thomson, a veritable institution of Scottish publishing. In fact, there was a strip in Warlord called 'D-Day Dawson' unless my memory fails me.

Vague recollections of those childhood comics aside, my first real understanding of what D-Day was really all about came from the movie The Longest Day. (It boggles me somewhat to think that this film was made just 16 years after the event itself; I'm not quite sure why this is, but it's true all the same.) I can't remember how old I was when I first saw this film, but I can remember the impact it had on my young mind. The epic sweep of the narrative as it wove all the individual stories together thrilled me to bits even as it gave me a real sense of the sheer mind-bending scale of the forces marshalled to get those few men onto those 5 beaches that day. Individual incidents stick in my mind right up to this very moment:
  • the desperation of the US paras as landing right on top of their objective in St. Mere Eglise leaves them utterly vulnerable to the German defenders
  • the tragedy of the nameless squaddie who dies when he mistakes the working of the bolt of a German Mauser 98K for the click of the toy cricket handed out to the paras so that they could identify each other in the confusion of the night drop in enemy territory
  • and the relief when one of our heroes doesn't suffer the same fate when the click to which he responds turns out to be exactly what he hoped it would be.
Whether or not this film really is as flawed as some of its critics are wont to point out (and it's not my purpose here to enter into that discussion), the simple fact is that it was watching this film that imprinted on my mind forever an indelible impression of the sheer scale of the forces unleashed by Eisenhower on the night of June 5th 1944.

Talking about Operation Overlord in Hollywood brings us, naturally enough, to Saving Private Ryan, undoubtedly one of Spielberg's masterpieces. It is impossible not to compare Saving Private Ryan with The Longest Day- even if only for reasons of personal history- but again, I don't here want to get into that sort of discussion.

Thanks to advances in cinematic techniques, what Saving Private Ryan gave us above all was the sense of actually being there, which was of course the entire purpose of that gruelling opening scene. Moreover absolutely everything about the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan has the ring of utter authenticity to this writer; so much so that it is difficult to select a few definitive examples beyond just reminding you all, my readers, of the sheer irresistible power of the sound and fury of that grim opening 20-or-so minutes as the grunts storm out of their landing craft into the killzone which has gone down in history as Bloody Omaha.

But I'll try:
  • the bullets ripping into the men of the first wave as the bow-ramp of their landing craft opens- a moment which immediately takes us straight back to 'going over the top' at the Somme in 1916
  • the guy whose helmet deflects a round, only for him to die moments later as he and his buddy celebrate such luck- because he'd taken the helmet off for said celebration
  • the tone and the style of the language the grunts use to comprehend their battle situations and to develop their tactics in response thereto- whether on Omaha or in the later sequences of the film: these strike me as the unvarnished voices of the American squaddies and their leaders.
These are just a few examples I could've chosen from many, but they exemplify for me the unalloyed merits of Saving Private Ryan, a film whose strengths are those of Spielberg himself, most notable of which is a genuine grasp of the sheer power of cinema as spectacle in an age of spectacle.

Through books
Always an avid reader, you can be sure that my diet of WW2 soon expanded beyond war comics and Hollywood movies. The first book I can remember reading of relevance here today was Kenneth Macksey's Tank!, which I recall was a semi-fictional study of the actions of one British tank unit in the Normandy bocage on one day in 1944. A book I got out of the local library, the only other thing which comes to mind about Tank! is that I was really just a bit too young for it, because I was still looking for tales of thrilling wartime adventure, and not serious studies of the grim realities of tank combat in the worst terrain possible for your force-type, against troops unmatched in their abilities to exploit that terrain.

Since then I don't know how many books I've read on the subject of Operation Overlord. It's not really that many to be honest, with much of my reading on the subject being from books which encompassed the Second Front or the entire war as a whole. The last book I read on the subject of Overlord per se was Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy, by Max Hastings, surely a better military historian than he is a journalist- but then readers who know me would expect me to say that about someone who writes for the Daily Mail (pauses to spit).

Not really that bad a history at all actually, Hastings' book is in any case utterly overshadowed by John Keegan's masterly Six Armies in Normandy. This book... Hmm, this book. You know what it's like dear readers; what it's like on those great moments when- amidst all the richness of our modern culture; when you see, hear, read, watch or play something which is just so good that it becomes part of you forever. You know what I mean: the sort of thing the mere memory of which summons up to you the time, the place, and the very texture of the minutest moments of your life when this novelty came down upon you with such unexpected force.

Keegan's Six Armies in Normandy (there's the link again in case you want to go and take a look at what's inside its covers) was a book like that for me. I was lent it by one of my buddies from the Edinburgh mob back in the halycon days, and I devoured it. There is another book which was my bible as a WW2 wargamer at the time which relegated Keegan's masterwork into the 2nd rank, but no matter: Six Armies in Normandy is the greatest book on the topic of Overlord and its immediate aftermath I have ever read. If any of my readers who has read it knows of a better one, please do let me know- that's a book I want to read A.S.A.P.

To the gaming table
Unsurprisingly then, I was a teenage tankie. My brother and I started to invent rules to run the games we were playing with our toy soldiers. Then the teacher who ran the school modelling and wargaming club I was instrumental in getting started introduced us to the world of official wargames rules- in the form of the Wargames Research Group's WW2 microarmour rules (actually their 1973 vintage War Games Rules Armour & Infantry 1925 - 1950). I never looked back.

Regular readers will already be quite, quite familar with my enthusiasm for Days of Wonder's superlative Memoir'44- a game which was actually released to commemorate D-Day's 60th anniversary. Good as M44 is though- and the horrors of that first assault on Omaha Beach after the easy streets of 'Pegasus Bridge', 'Sainte Mère-Eglise', 'Sword Beach' and 'Pointe-du-Hoc' are an abiding memory which remain for me testament to the genius of Borg's design; all that notwithstanding I must confess that M44 doesn't in the end represent the summit of my experience of Overlord gaming. Unsurprisingly enough, that accolade belongs to the monumental Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader system.

Two stories spring to mind. The first is from a (perhaps the sole?) solo play of (the first?- I presume so) scenario from Hedgerow Hell - ASL Deluxe Module 2. What was so great about the Deluxe version of ASL were the large hexes (the same size as those in CC:E and in C&C games funnily enough), which served to save us players from the 'towering counter-stacks' syndrome. More important though was the way in which the special rules for the larger hexes gave a real feel for the hellish maze of the bocage. It really was a rendition I have never seen matched.

In my game, I remember I had this Sherman tank, which was sitting safely out of sight in a sunken road, waiting to move out to deliver its attacks when the supporting US infantry had cleared the immediate area. The thing was, the fecking infantry just couldn't do their job- the Germans were just so well dug-in, and so well positioned in that feckin' bocage. In the end, I decided that I just had to send that Sherman out in the hope that it could beat the German AT-gun to the draw. It lost. It brewed. Game over. A bit of a shocker, and an object lesson in the nightmares of positional warfare in the bocage.

But my finest hour in Operation Overlord gaming came in a scenario I played against Mark- without a doubt one of the tactical masters amongst my buddies from the Edinburgh days. I can't remember whether it was under SL or ASL, although I have a feeling it was the former. My memory is also telling me that the scenario was called 'Pouppeville Exit', but googling this gives me an ASL scenario which bears little resemblance to the game I played that day more than 20 years ago.

I was the Americans, playing a small force from the 101st Airborne who'd assembled and were moving up on the morning of the 6th June to secure exits from Utah beach for the US forces who were to land there any time now. I was facing dispersed German garrison troops- who had some decent AA guns for fire-support, and reinforcements to boot. I duly got my lads on the move, and got stuck in.

As the game developed something began to nag away at the back of my mind: the Germans weren't responding as I'd've expected to my attempts to grab the 2 roads both of which were specified as satisfying the scenario victory conditions. Still, I pursued my plan. It was only when Mark's reinforcements arrived (a depleted infantry company with some more AA- truck-mounted this time; and armoured support) that I finally twigged. Instead of splitting across the 2 fronts my forces presented, these reinforcements were immediately concentrated by Mark on just one of the roads. WTF? A quick reread of the scenario victory conditions later and sure enough: the Germans didn't need to prevent me from controlling 2 roads; I effectively had to prevent them from controlling just 1. WTF! I'd been playing according to a bum plan for the entire game so far, leaving my forces split just at the point when Mark was concentrating his for the kill! Again- WTF?!

I used every trick in the Squad Leader playbook to try to pull my fat out of the fire that night. My lads were double-timing like crazy through woods to get them from the road Mark wasn't contesting across to the one he was (and it took me a wee while to get them all moving, because I just really couldn't believe that he didn't have some kind of trick up his sleeve to make a grab for that other road once I'd left it open!). And I was using the Move/Advance shuffle tactic to get my lads out of LOS in my own turn for the purposes of reducing the Germans' opportunities to bring their overwhelming firepower to bear on my ever more grim defenders.

In the end it came down to (IIRC) some 3 squads, hunkered down in the woods beside that road, surrounded by Germans who mustered a fearful amount of firepower (including a StuG III for feck's sake!) for their last fusilade. My lads held. Just. Only just- I had barely 20 men left keeping the exit open for the troops coming off the beach. It was a truly great game.

And back to reality
The Anglo-American air forces waged a strategic interdiction campaign across northern France in the months of 1944 preceding the launch of Overlord on 6th June. Its purpose was to destroy the French rail network to prevent German reinforcement of the Normandy front after the landings. It was aimed at the whole of northern France as part of the deception plan whose purpose was to convince the Germans that the much anticipated invasion would cross the Channel via the Pas de Calais. Upwards of 8000 French civilians died in this phase of the operation.

To this already widely available information, recent TV documentaries have added 2 further facts:
  • at least 20,000 more French civilians died in Normandy under Allied guns on D-Day itself
  • the fires of that hellish maelstrom were visible across the Channel on the night of June 6th.
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