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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The “other” Heroes of the Battle of the Bulge

The “other” Heroes of the Battle of the Bulge
(I should preface this with how big a supporter of the military I am. I had a grandfather serve in WWII and am justifiably proud of his accomplishments. I read Band of Brothers multiple times and I am a great admirer of Stephen Ambrose's writing in general. But something struck me as wrong when one considers the subject of this post and when one contrasts it with the 101st Airborne.)
Ask most anyone 40 years and younger about the 101st Airborne and especially those who play Call of Duty in its various incarnations and they can probably tell you chapter and verse on Easy Company, 501st PIR. Ask them about who the 106th Infantry Division is or what they did and most couldn't tell you much past the Wiki entry.

I'll try to draw everything to together here, but you'll need to stay with me. Much like Captain Charles Butler McVey III, Captain of the USS Indianapolis, the 106th Infantry is a prime example of the flip side of glory in World War II. If the 101st Airborne represents everything that the US did right in WWII in terms of training, the 106th Division represents everything that it did wrong. In no fault to the men who served in it either, but when you contrast this with the statements of the 101st veterans in terms of their elite status compared to the draftees...well you are looking at World War II through two VERY different lenses.
The exploits of the 101st are something akin to legend now, it serves no purpose rehashing them so I won't and again I'm not writing this to disparage them. In fact I'm not sure even the US Army was to blame for the fate of the 106th in late December 1944. If anything, its a case of circumstances that weren't apparent at the time and the US doing what it could to plug combat loses that it was ill-prepared for.

The 106th was in trouble from the start. Battlefield causalities in World War II were horrific and on a scale that could not be imagined by US military planners. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall wanted nearly 213 divisions for fighting World War II and he got somewhere around 90. As a result when causalities mounted the army did as best as they could by shipping out men from the divisions training stateside, this stripped away around 60% of the 106th manpower. The problem became that the divisions were often left under-strength went the finally did reach combat or at least deficient in areas such as the NCOs and junior officers.

The problems of training aside the 106th was also headed into the largest battle of the Western Front, the Battle of the Bulge. Obviously it was not known prior, but the countdown is like a recipe for disaster:
  • 106th arrives in England in the Fall of 1944 (11-17-1944)- trains for 19 days
  • Crosses to France (12-6-1944)
  • Moves to Belgium (12-10-1944)
  • Battle of the Bulge begins (12-16-1944) and the 106th is directly in harms way.
In the center the lines were held by two regiments of the 106th the 422nd and the 423rd.
Now here is the part that sticks out. Was the 106th any “less brave” then the 101st? Hardly; the stand around St Vith should be mentioned along with Bastagone, but yet it's not. The 101st is famous for saying “We didn't need rescuing.” Anyone care to debate the wisdom of that? Of course they did, its more of no one wants to be the ones hunkered down in the fort, they want to be the ones riding in with the cavalry. This brings me to one of the moments in the Band of Brothers (in the book and TV mini series) that rankles me the most: the depiction and disdain that the 101st has for the retreating US soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge. Point being that the 106th was the polar opposite from the 101st in morale, training and in every way imaginable. Now there is no way that the members of the 101st could know that the training that these troops received was on the opposite end of the spectrum from themselves, On top of that they trained as a cohesive unit for nearly two years, the 106th was parceled out to back-fill other divisions in the Army.

In a sense its not even the Army's fault per say; the questions of manpower requirements to fight World War II were made at even higher levels. Possibly presidential with an eye to keep enough men to work in the factories on the home-front?
In any even it is a disservice in my eyes to glorify the 101st so highly. Were they brave? No doubt. Were the men who served in other units besides the 101st brave? Again, I have no doubt. But, to so lionize the efforts of the few against the whole gamut of the army does a disservice to every man who served. The 106th is a forgotten page in history, but an important one. But for a twist of fate it could have been the men of the 101st hurled back by the German juggernaut.

For more reading take a look at the magazine “Armchair General- American Tragedy: 106th Infantry Division's Battle of the Bulge." January 2012 Issue, article by Jerry D Morelock, PhD and Editor in Chief.
In closing I have tremendous respect for all of our veterans of the Greatest Generation. The point needs to be made that TV and even the recollections of the 101st don't tell the true story of what the 106th went through.

For details on the 106th history, check out this excellent website:

Monday, July 2, 2012

Twilight 2000 RPG

Time to review and reflect on another of the games that I played as a teenager but this time, sadly no longer have the books for: Twilight 2000. This offering by Games Designer Workshop is a great, great game with a gritty realism. For some reason out of all the games I had back in the day I sold these… and I can’t really remember why I did either…. ahhh foolish youth.

For those not in the know the game covers the events of World War III starting with the (then) current timeline of the late 80s and the Cold War. From there it branches off to the start of a Sino-Soviet war and then a war breaking out in Europe between the Warsaw Pact forces and NATO. “limited” Nuclear exchanges happen and the war spreads to form a truly world war as industrial capacity breaks down, food becomes scare and command and control of the various armies disintegrates. The conflict grows and eventually engulfs most of North America from invasion from the south. In short the shi* hits the fan everywhere.

The players are cast in the roles (most often) of US Army soldiers trying to survive the falling apart of their unit/division as they are left to fend for themselves. In most cases the main overall theme is to try and make it back to western Europe and get a transport back to the US.

Two main points  stick out in my mind from my time playing Twilight 2000: One, combat is downright deadly as would be imagined. Body armor helps, but not enough if the hit happens in the right location. Because of this we were never that attached to our characters, because death was too common of an occurrence. This is the biggest departure I think that players of Fantasy RPGS struggled with. Armor is there but doesn't save you like in D&D. Plus there aren't any clerics to reattach your severed arm...

Two, we quickly learned the value of two weapons standing out in my mind nearly 20 years late. For close in combat nothing beat the H&K CAW (Combat Assault Weapon), an automatic shotgun. We learned through a few characters to sling the M-16A2s, kick down the CAWs and blast everything whether friend or foe. This was of course after hurling grenades into said location.

Speaking of which we learned that even better then using a CAW at close range was using a M-19 grenade launcher from a distance was even better. We would stand back and fire from our vehicles at a target only venturing after the smoke had cleared.

Another interesting point is the scarcity of gas/diesel. Stills offset this (ours seemed to get shot up regularly) and we learned to leave it camouflaged and go back to it after the firefight.  We have a couple of HMMVs and once had a LAV-25. Problem was the LAV became a burden, as it required so much fuel. Better yet was when we got FAVs (with M-19 grenade launchers ‘natch). Ac much fun as it would have been for the larger vehicles, speed was much better. This represented the setting well as only large installations with a logistical support could field tanks. Which even with a few TOWs or other rocket systems we avoided fighting.

Equipment lists and weaponry was up-to-date as of the early 90s and would need some updates if you played the 1st edition rules. The supplements to the game like the Small Arms guide and Vehicle Guides were excellent. Which brings up a related point, trying to figure out vehicle combat was overly complex and frustrating as it gets in a game.

In terms of characters, none were memorable except one that I played a tournament where the GM ruled that a flash bang grenade had blown off my Welsh gunner’s leg??? Mind you I was on the outer edge of the effect radius. Basically he didn’t understand the rules or what the type of grenade did. That incident along with some neckbeard historical gamers at the same Con turned me off to gaming with the general gamer population, certainly at Cons.

The character creation process was good and flowed well allowing for various nationalities, genders, and AoR of the service branches. Rank is hardly an issue as outside of your own squad NCOs and Officers can’t just boss you around: the army is falling to pieces and command and control is non-existent.

I only had minimal experience with the 2nd Edition rules as we took our characters from first and tried them out. Later on we used the 2nd edition rules in modern day (brush fire wars type of Earth) rather then the World War III angle before GDW did it. We jetted around in our LeerJet for the highest bidder. Not much came of that and college beckoned for all of us shortly thereafter. Not long after college, GDW folded in 1996.

They only other thing that I think did not work well in the game system are the Hesitation rules. Basically everyone had a factor where it governed (more or less) your actions in a firefight and hesitations required pauses reflecting the PCs ability to keep it together in a firefight. While realistic it was also a drag on the game where you had to wait while everyone else is doing something. One lucky role during the character creation process and you were infinitely better in combat then your foes or teammates. If you are like me and roll crappy for your PCs (that’s any system) then this was a source of frustration for you as well.

Summation: The entire line was well done with very good artwork and an abundance of supplements. We never used the modules all that much, but there certainly was a wide range of them.

In short a great game, lots of fun, just don’t play it if you can’t handle the concept of your character dying because the likelihood of it if you go into every combat like it’s D&D is very high.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

3rd Edition Warhammer Siege

"Such a cool cover for such a flawed book."
Ahh the good old Warhammer Siege supplement for 3rd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle, was there ever something so promising, but ultimately unplayable? When I was in High School I can’t begin to tell you how much we looked forward to playing this, how much effort we put into creating stone throwers, siege towers, drills, sheds, catapults and other siege equipment to say nothing of the scratch built castle I made that was huge. I don’t think there has ever been a bigger let down in the history of man… ever. I don’t say this lightly either. Read on to find out why.

My friends and I: (Dave and Jeff)  spend a great of time playing Warhammer 3rd edition in 1989-92ish with a fair amount Warhammer before college beckoned in the Fall of 1991. We were all pretty well versed in the rules and how it played by then and were looking forward to the new challenges that Siege offered. We had progressed rapidly from Warhammer Fantasy Role play, to Fantasy Battles to Siege. Each of us had large armies and were some of GWs biggest fans this side of the Pond.

As mentioned above we got our supplies, armies and terrain together and gathered in the basement of Dave's house. I think we prepped for several days before the game actually began, (incidentally Dave's ping pong table was perfect for a Warhammer table). We pointed out our respective armies, Jeff playing his Orc and Goblins were the defenders of the castle and I was playing my Empire army as the attackers. (I recall we rolled randomly to see who attacked and who defended). After noticing some interesting loopholes (I had units of Landerstrum (levies)) that I never intended to bring onto the main board continuously in the remote zones scavenging for supplies to reduce my point costs) is one that came to mind. Mind you I didn't actually have the models either, but they were never coming on the board. We finally go the main game rolling.

I'm not going to bore you with half recollections but skip to the meat of this post.
Finally the strategic phase, foraging, strategic time etc was over  and we got to firing. Now in order to save points I had skimped on ammo for the siege weapons figuring I could scavenge for them. We looked through the rules and nope, no go. I was horrified: I had made such a huge blunder. You can forage for supplies but not ammo. Immediately, one thought: do I have enough ammo. As it turned out I had plenty. (Makes no sense for stone throwers, but I digress). I tried to hide it and grabbed for my dice. Reluctantly I have my catapult fire: it launches and it does middling damage to the wall its facing. Next up the 10-man cannon with barely any ammo. I figure that I’m not going to have enough ammo to do anything to the castle and will have to fall back on a futile ladder and ropes assault.

The dice roll a pretty good result, we then flip to the section with wall damage and look on in horror as one shot blows away the section of wall firing and does so much damage that the secondary collapse blow up the entire facing to say nothing of the orcs that it vaporizes in the resulting collapses. 

We then stare at each other dumbfounded. Did that really just happen? Did we miss something in the rules?

I can’t stress this enough, the three of us literally stopped the game, looked at each other then we huddled around the rulebook, looking at the relevant rule sections. Now the three of us had each taken turns reading and it's still "what the Hell?" We also figured we had the rules down pat, but, nope. We had read the rules right and the castle wall was history from one -shot.

A nano-second later we all come to the same conclusion. Did they play-test this at all? And that pretty much ended that game right there. We tried a couple more scenarios and the results were pretty much the same.

What a disappointment, one of the greatest of my 30 years of gaming.

We weren’t into 40K so we never tried the 40K rules for it. One would imagine that if gunpowder weapons could blow up a fortification with one shot then what lasers, bombs, siege dreadnoughts, etc would do to it. Sure the energy fields might have made them last a tad bit longer, but ugh, who wants to game that out?

So that was my first pretty much only brush with Warhammer Siege and it sticks out in my mind like a sore thumb. The rules could not have been conceivable tested in anyway shape or form. It’s probably fitting that the large (as in 3 foot castle), counters, siege engines and the like are mostly long gone now. It would be too painful to look at the time and effort put in for such an enormous let-down. Certainly a low point of me in terms of gaming.