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Concepts and Doctrine

Educational Wargaming Part One (Tactical): D-Day and Omaha Beach

“Colonel Canham came by with his right arm in a sling and a .45 Colt in his left hand. He was yelling and screaming for the officers to get the men off the beach. ‘Get the hell off this damn beach and go kill some Germans.’”

 As D-Day 80 approaches, commemoration will be the central theme. For the military professional there is also an opportunity to learn about high intensity warfighting, against a determined and ruthless opponent. Interactive learning, in particular having the opportunity to make decisions and witness their consequences, allows for a deeper, more lasting, educational experience. Wargaming offers just such an opportunity.1 This short read, the first of three bitesized parts focusing on a different level of war, will illustrate how a COTS wargame can be used to gain a comprehensive understanding of the tactical level on D-Day and to sharpen critical thinking skills.

Cover art. Image from author.

The tactical level of D-Day is perhaps best known through the landings on Omaha Beach, with the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan still having the power to shock and transfix viewers. Facing bad weather, strong opposition and difficult ground the assault plan failed. Senior commanders contemplated withdrawal. Yet the troops on the ground overcame initial failure and secured a beach head. How did they achieve this? The wargame D-Day at Omaha Beach gives the military professional the opportunity to address this question by facing the challenges encountered and deciding how to overcome them.2

D-Day at Omaha Beach’s set up clearly illustrates the tactical problem faced by the Americans. Obstacles, covered by fire zones from 10 x strong points, protect the routes of the beach – known as draws. The fire zones, displayed on the map through simple colour coding, also extend across the open beach. Against this defence, the American initial wave, comprising 9 x infantry companies supported by 2 x companies of tanks, looks insignificant. The chance and chaos – Clauswitzian friction – that dominated events is provided by a bespoke card deck. Turns represent 15 minutes and the player will face a difficult and uncertain first hour. Units will land off target, DD (swimming) tanks will sink and German fire will decimate companies as they struggle to make it to the protective shingle at the top of the beach. Of the tanks that do make it ashore, the player will have to choose whether they try and provide covering fire from the exposed beach or move forward to gain some protection from the shingle.

With the arrival of senior command teams the player will be able to get units moving off the beach, just as Colonel Canham did. In addition, inspirational officers and soldiers may come to the fore and lead their units directly. When and where this will happen is unpredictable. Further uncertainty is added when it comes to attacking German strongpoints. The specific defences of each strongpoint are only revealed once units commit to an attack. Full strength units will most often have the capabilities to prevail. However, most units will have taken losses and may be lacking the key capability required. Naval support is also possible, showing the firepower that US destroyers delivered when they could see German strongpoints still in action. Once again this is not a certainty and it illustrates the problematic ship to shore communications that existed. All of this unpredictability is delivered with straightforward mechanics. The effect is to create dilemmas for the player which demands prioritisation and acceptance of risk.

Risk vs reward

Risk acceptance is set against losses incurred amongst the assaulting infantry. If, at any stage, they breach a “catastrophic” threshold, the landings will have deemed to have failed. However, a slow, casualty averse approach is also likely to lead to failure. At the mid-game point there is an assessment of American progress. This reviews the number of German strong points destroyed and how many of the draws are secured. Too few and the landing will be judged a failure and withdrawal ordered. This reflects the wider operational plan and the reality that tactical actions do not sit in isolation. The Allies were conscious that if they did not secure a bridgehead quickly, they would lack the space to deploy enough force to defeat the anticipated German counter-attack.

Game play. Image: from author.

Destroying strong points and securing draws is essential to enabling follow-on engineers to clear obstacles and open vehicle routes off the beach. These routes are key. Without them armour and artillery will not be able to help the infantry expand the beachhead. As important, is the establishment of CPs to allow effective command over the expanding beachhead. The Germans will not remain static. Reserves will arrive to bolster weakened positions, secure key locations and counter-attack vulnerable units. German defenders will exploit the close-hedgerow country – bocage – to constrain the American advance. The game mechanics remain straight-forward, with the bespoke card deck continuing to drive the unpredictability inherent in tactical action. However, the player decision spectrum is increased. It can be easy to identify a main effort but successful prosecution will prove a challenge.

Tactical – Operational Context

Although D-Day at Omaha Beach focuses on the land tactical battle, the game sits neatly within the wider joint context. German reinforcements are haphazard in their arrival and do not include armour. In addition, there is no German air threat to the landings. This reflects the critical impact that Allied air superiority had. There are no air units included in the game but the effect of the Allies winning the deep battle is there. Allied maritime dominance is also prevalent. American reinforcements will arrive unimpeded by the German navy.

“But it is a wonderful thing to remember what those fellows twenty years ago were fighting for and sacrificing for, what they did to preserve our way of life. Not to conquer any territory, not for any ambitions of our own. But to make sure Hitler could not destroy freedom in the world.”

President Dwight Eisenhower

For the military professional playing D-Day at Omaha Beach provides a deep and rewarding experience through immersive learning. From the initial landings through to securing a viable beachhead, the player will be constantly challenged. To succeed will require astute decision making, along with an ability to adapt to the unpredictable and balance risk against opportunity. Also gained, and of real significance during the 80th Anniversary commemorations, is an understanding of the tactical experience of D-Day, and of how success was gained.

Footnotes

  1. See Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre: The Wargaming Handbook, MOD, 2017, p8
  2. Butterfield, John H. D-Day At Omaha Beach. Decision Games, 2017.

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