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Capabilities and SpendingConcepts and DoctrineShort Read

Education Wargaming Part Two (Operational Level): The Campaign for Normandy

“It was impossible to gain ground against this superior firepower, not to mention the absolute air supremacy.”

SS Oberfuhre Kurt Meyer

The focus for D-Day 80 is likely to be on the beaches where the amphibious landings took place.  Yet the landings were only the start of a wider campaign that aimed to create a secure bridgehead, that would enable a breakout to liberate France. Study of the Normandy Campaign presents the military professional with an opportunity to develop their understanding of war; in particular the operational level of war. Educational wargaming is designed to “create experiential learning opportunities”.1 This short read, the second part of a three part series, will outline how a COTS wargame can provide the military professional with an enriching learning experience at the operational level.

Cover art. Image from author.

The Campaign for Normandy was initiated by the successful execution of the largest amphibious invasion in history. The German Army then attempted to mass the combat power of its mobile panzer divisions to push the Allies back into the sea. What followed was an attritional campaign that resulted in the almost total destruction of German forces in Normandy. How did the Allies achieve this success?  The wargame The Dark Summer: Normandy 1944 provides the military professional with the chance to explore this question through the immersive experience of interactive learning.

Ground and force ratios

In setting up the game the player starts to appreciate the initial force ratios and how the ground shaped the campaign. The Germans appear to be deployed in numbers but closer inspection reveals weaknesses. The numerous strongpoints are variable in quality and they lack mobile reserves. In contrast the Allies have concentrated force at each of the 5 beach areas and are protected by airborne divisions on the flanks. The Allies will get ashore but how far and how quickly they get inland will vary as the exact strength of the German defences is only revealed at the point of combat. The road net illustrates how places such as Caen, St Lo and Falaise shaped manoeuvre. What really strikes, is the density of the bocage – close hedgerow country – unique to the region.

Although the game focuses on the land campaign, the decisive importance of air superiority is modelled through the simple and effective process of varying German capabilities through the weather. The better the weather, the greater the restrictions on the Germans, as more Allied sorties are assumed to be flying. Close air support, and even strategic bombers, can also be used to affect ground combat directly. The weather is also used to demonstrate the critical effect of maritime operations. Poor weather limits the flow of reinforcements. This can be critical as the Allies try to mass combat power for a breakout before German reinforcements arrive to deliver a counter-stroke, or create a static front in depth. Note this mirrors events such as Operation EPSOM, where weather delayed British 2nd Army attempt to breakthrough around Caen, in late June 1944.

Game play. Image from author.

Game turns represent a week and units are portrayed at the brigade/divisional level – reflecting that this game is set at the operational level. The frictions and unpredictability inherent in any campaign are shown through a straight-forward and effective chit-draw mechanism. Chits from both sides are placed in a draw pool each turn and forces only activate when a corresponding chit is drawn. An activation is for movement or combat, not both. Players can plan their operations but there is no assurance that they will be executed as they wish. To succeed, players must be comfortable with this uncertainty and be able to flex their operations accordingly. In addition, the number of chits available to each side is variable. The Allies have more chits during better weather, reflecting the increased tempo they could generate when they could exploit their air superiority. The Germans do receive some reaction chits which can be played immediately after an Allied action. This allows the Germans to block a breakthrough or launch a hasty counter-attack. Just as occurred during the campaign, for example when 7th Armoured Division’s breakout, Operation PERCH, was halted at Villers-Bocage, in mid-June 1944.

Success and failure

Allied success in the game is based on early capture of Cherbourg and breakout from Normandy. This reflects the wider political pressure operational commanders were under. The Western Allies needed to gain military success to provide political capital with their Soviet ally.  In addition, British politicians wanted the quick capture of the German V1 rocket sites that were targeting London. German success requires either direct defeat of the invasion or retention of Normandy for as long as possible. This mirrors Hitler’s direction, in particular that territory was not to be ceded even if it would provide an operational advantage. In essence, the end-states provided force the player to face the operational time and space challenges of the Normandy campaign.

  “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 Eisenhower
Gameplay. Credit: Board Game Geek.

Allied units are primarily of a uniform strength and mobility, while the Germans have a mix of weaker, slow infantry units and highly effective panzer divisions. Allied air, naval and combat support assets allow concentration of force at key points. However, bocage terrain provides significant defensive benefits to German units and reduces Allied mobility. With both sides deploying substantial reinforcements, the player has to plan for operations that are likely to be methodical and costly in order to create the conditions for a breakout. The breakout can often be sudden and as a result of a player retaining the flex to exploit an opportunity. Thus, the game creates the conditions of the Normandy campaign and confronts players with the symbiosis between attrition and manoeuvre that is inherent in the nature of war.Playing The Dark Summer: Normandy 1944 offers the military professional an opportunity to learn about the Normandy Campaign through a deep and challenging inter-active experience. The victory conditions generate real pressure on the player, as they aspire to overcome constraints and frictions, to maximise sudden opportunities and meet time based outcomes. This does give particular resonance to the 80th Anniversary Campaign commemorations. It also illustrates the importance of having the conceptual capacity to plan and execute operations, within an attritional operating environment. A capacity particularly pertinent in light of on-going operations in Ukraine.


  1. Developments, Concepts and Doctrine Centre: The Wargaming Handbook, MOD, 2017, p8

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