Eagle Day: winning the National Socialist booby prize

, | Game diaries

The problem with History is that you can’t just go back and see what would have happened if someone had made some different decisions. The problem with wargames is that you can.

After the jump, what a difference a heavy bomber makes

Sorry I’ve been gone for a while. I got distracted when I spent a week on vacation playing with Hearts of Iron 3. Ha ha, yeah, I’m a sucker. But I had been reading a lot of stuff, including 73 North by Dudley Pope (published in 1957) about the Battle of the Barents Sea, and a really really good book by Richard Woodman (published in 2001) prosaically named Arctic Convoys 1941-1945, but full of the kind of drama you’d pay to have in a computer game. Video game. Whatever. The point is that spending all this time in the world of bombers and battleships got me to thinking: what if Hitler had concentrated on the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine instead of the Wehrmacht? Was there a game that could maybe take me to that imaginary land?

So easy to ask a game, where every question has an answer. The problem is that you’re even able to ask. On your way there, the assumptions and preconditions often get lost, so that in history, the question may not have been able to be asked in the first place.

My question, and a question many games ask (and answer) is whether or not the Germans could have better allocated resources to strategic warfare that would have helped them win the war. As you know, my go-to book on the Battle of Britain has been Stephen Bungay’s Most Dangerous Enemy. Here’s what he has to say about the Germans’ lack of a four-engined heavy bomber. “Wever” is General Walther Wever, the Luftwaffe’s first chief of staff and considered to be extremely talented, who was either fortunately or unfortunately killed in an air crash in 1936.

The first major decision the Luftwaffe had to make was about equipment, in which the first issue was the strategic bomber. Wever championed the concept in Germany, drawing on a study carried out by Dr. Robert Knauss in 1933. Knauss argued for a force of 400 heavy bombers to act as a deterrent. The army was jealously opposed to this (as it was in Britain), but more importantly, German industry lacked the capability to produce such a force. The military aircraft industry was a shadow in 1933, and by 1934, after a period of hectic expansion, employed barely 17,000 people, just half as many as the British aircraft industry at that time, which was before Britain’s rearmament had begun.

Wever did not argue for an autonomous bomber force. A war-game held in 1933-4 had convinced the Wehrmacht that a bomber force alone could not destroy an enemy’s air fleet. But Wever did believe that long-range bombers were an important weapon, and in 1935 he ordered two four-engined types. On Wever’s death, Kesselring cancelled the orders whilst Milch was on holiday, and on his return Milch reluctantly agreed, in view of the resource constraints faced by the industry.

You can go a bunch of places from here. The first is to later on in Bungay’s own book, where he argues that a strategic bomber would not have helped the Germans one iota.

Germany could never conceivably have produced sufficient long-range heavy bombers to have had an impact. German industry was incapable of producing the 400 originally planned and then cancelled, but even if it had, it would not have been enough to wage a successful strategic campaign. It took Britain until 1942, with its industry going flat out, to produce enough bombers of all types to mount a raid of a thousand aircraft. However, that raid had little military impact. From 1943 onwards, Germany was attacked by two air forces round the clock for two-and-a-half years, each of one them launching frequent ‘maximum efforts’ with resources way beyond Germany’s capacity. Those attacks did not end the war or force Germany to capitulate.

No, they didn’t. They also didn’t knock down the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, retroactively win the Battle of Tannenberg, or prevent the influence of Kraftwerk on German boop-beep robot music. None of those things were the goals of the Allied bombing campaign over Germany. And none of those things would have been the goal of a German heavy bomber campaign over England.

The Allies were trying to cripple German industrial output. Donald Miller’s excellent account of the 8th Air Force’s trials and tribulations over Europe, Masters of the Air, includes this standard quote from Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments, about the large American bombing raid on the ball-bearing plant at Schweinfurt. I’ve read this in different places and contexts about, oh, fifty times.

In his memoirs Albert Speer wrote of escaping a “catastrophic blow.” If the Americans had returned to Schweinfurt and hit it “repeatedly” and with maximum force instead of wasting time on other less important targets, they could have brought armaments production “to a standstill … after four months.”

Miller goes on to point out that this would have been impossible given that the Americans lost 40% of their bomber force on this one raid. It’s easy to say “if only” someone had done this or that. Presumably, the reason that they didn’t was that they couldn’t.

Air power has always had unrealistic expectations. From the belief that “the bomber will always get through” to the idea that Britain or Germany could be defeated from the air alone, history has seen some claims for air power which ended up not living up to expectations. But those expectations aren’t airpower’s fault, and don’t make it any worse at what it does. An article by Daniel Swift in The New York Times a few months ago illustrated this perfectly.

In March of this year, French planes bombed Libyan tanks outside Benghazi, and began a NATO campaign which lasted until the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi on Oct. 20. That single event is telling: an American Predator drone and a French warplane were in the skies overhead, but it was Libyan foot soldiers on the ground who captured their former leader.

German operational paralysis prior to D-Day was almost solely due to the Allied air interdiction. All of these air campaigns had a limited objective, which helped achieve the ultimate goal. The NATO limited mission was to degrade the Libyan loyalists, not to conquer Libya. The Luftwaffe’s limited mission was to protect an invasion fleet, not to capture London.

All the Germans wanted to do was knock out the airfields. Not forever, but just long enough to keep an invasion fleet safe as it crossed the English Channel. The destructive power of a thousand-bomber raid paralyzed the cities of Cologne, Hamburg, and Dresden. Could such a raid have kept a British sector airfield out of action for a week? I dunno, man. You tell me.

Had the Luftwaffe launched heavy bombers against southern England in daylight instead of the medium bombers it in fact launched, they would merely have presented Fighter Command with bigger targets. Even the B-17, which was designed to fly unescorted, suffered crippling losses in daylight over Germany. Heavy bombers would have delivered heavier loads, but no more accurately, and it was accuracy, not volume of bombs, which counted.

Bungay spends much of his book pointing out how the only reason the RAF was able to intercept raids so quickly without flying standing patrols was that its radar was able to observe German raids forming up over the Channel coast. So imagine a raid of German heavy bombers taking off from Germany instead of France, flying straight over the Channel (which, according to Bungay, took eight minutes to cross) without any advance radar warning, and hitting British sector airfields with a high volume of bombs. Could the British have intercepted these? Probably only with standing patrols, which was what they tried above all to avoid. New calculus over Coventry? How do I test this?

That’s why I started playing Hearts of Iron 3. Sure, Gen. Wever died in 1936, the year the pre-war scenario starts, but I could still test the strategic bomber hypothesis. I carefully prioritized heavy bomber airframes, tactics, and production, along with my Kriegsmarine building program to challenge the Royal Navy. It was all so structured, orderly, and very German. Except historically, it wasn’t, Stephen Bungay again.

But added to this factor came the nature of the Nazi regime. Apart from its emphasis on ideology, it placed a premium on intrigue and personal loyalties, in this case mainly to Goering. His relations with Milch had deteriorated to open conflict by the end of 1936. Responsibilities were left deliberately unclear and those in power adopted a divide-and-rule policy toward their subordinates. As Milch icily observed to Goering shortly before the war began, divide et imperat was a motto the Romans had applied to their enemies, not to their friends. Goering made no reply. In Nazism the relationship between the individual and the tribe of the Heerenvolk was mediated by little except pack loyalty to whoever was the local alpha male at that time. Despite the jealousies within the RAF, rational debate was allowed, so major decisions were strongly influenced by reality. Avoidance of reality was of the very essence of Nazism and this was to reach its ultimate realisation in the febrile fantasy world of Hitler’s bunker in the spring of 1945.

At some point I assume the indie games industry will make a game about the Fuhrerbunker and populate it with movie quotes from Downfall. If someone could do that as successfully as that film without making it creepy and weird, then I’ll know that games have finally found the language of ideas. Rod Humble’s thought-provoking STAVKA-OKH touches on a similar theme. So playing a game which just assumes a monolithic adherence to a common goal ignores exactly the kind of issues that make answering my question impossible. But try telling that to Hearts of Iron 3.

“Bruce,” you’re saying, “just grow up and deal with it. Everything you’re complaining about is total fakery. None of it simulates anything. You might as well complain about Heavy Gear II and Tony Hawk’s Underground.”

Yeah, I know, and I sure do apologize for being such a pain. I hope you’ll excuse the bother. But we all want our conflict simulations to simulate something. We play historical games because we want to see the things that happened in history happen in gaming, and according to rules we understand as logical and justified. It’s our way of organizing the world. Remember the whole thing about Erprobungsgruppe 210 and low-level bombing? I was reading a book on a completely different topic, when I ran across this sentence, which immediately made me want to play a wargame.

In a remarkable but sadly ignored demonstration of the suppressed art of low-level precision bombing, two B-29s came down from an area raid and in a low-level run neatly knocked out the main dry dock at Singapore to close it to the Japanese fleet.

That’s from Dan van der Vat’s opinionated, quick-reading, and very enlightening The Pacific Campaign: The U.S.-Japanese Naval War 1941-1945. In case you’re not down with the aircraft numbering and naming, that’s the B-29 Superfortress, four-engined heavy bomber and deliverer of the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It reads almost like the “two Ju-88s over Brize Norton” from the Hough and Richards history we heard about in the Erprobungsgruppe 210 episode. Oh wait, did I use that quote? I think I never did. So here it is.

No one will ever know now whether it was luck or amazing navigation which led two Ju 88s to Brize Norton, west of Oxford, a busy training airfield with a maintenance unit attached. The bombers were said to have lowered their undercarriage as if coming in to land and in the hope of being identified as Blenheims, as they often were. They then proceeded to place their bomb-load exactly where they wanted them to go.

The two Junkers each dropped sixteen bombs, mainly on the hangars, which were packed with Airspeed Oxford trainers, all with full fuel tanks for the next morning’s flying. Forty-six were destroyed, more damaged, and eleven Hurricanes with the maintenance unit were also knocked about. Few people saw the Ju 88s come, none saw them go; in fact, the next people to see them were friendly and on the other side of the Channel.

I think that’s actually the story behind one of the raid chits from Lee Brimmicombe-Wood’s The Burning Blue, a 2006 boardgame from GMT about the Battle of Britain. Brimmicombe-Wood’s groundbreaking design Downtown basically invented the idea of “raid-level” gaming, but The Burning Blue broke some ground of its own by doing operational-scale bombing with a unique victory condition: just do better than the Germans did. What would the Germans have needed to do to objectively win the Battle? This is one wargame that can’t answer the question “what if?” because the gameplay doesn’t allow you to ask.

We had Lee on the Three Moves Ahead podcast a few weeks ago, and asked him how he decided on this. It’s around the 1:06:40 mark, so skip to there if you want to miss a lot of fascinating stuff about game design. Lee says that in this battle, giving the player operational freedom while keeping things within historical limits is very hard. For example, it’s difficult to recreate German targeting decisions, because sometimes they just didn’t make any sense. Lee nails it with, “it’s sometimes quite difficult to model an irrational actor and then put that in the hands of a rational player.” I couldn’t have said it half as well. And if “irrational actor” doesn’t perfectly describe Nazis, then I don’t know what does.

And that’s the crux of the problem with wargames, which is that in hindsight everything makes sense, but the events of the time turned on incomplete knowledge, misapprehension, or just plain incompetence. Another brilliant game designer, Martin Wallace, addressed this directly on Three Moves Ahead recently when we were discussing his game A Few Acres of Snow, about the French and Indian War. You can read my review here. Martin’s point is that a possibly overpowered British line of play called “The Halifax Hammer” was actually perfectly historical, and in fact was the strategy they ultimately used to win the war. The reason they didn’t do it earlier, he says, was a combination of lethargy and ignorance: lethargy because the political will to commit the necessary resources didn’t exist until late in the conflict. Ignorance because the geography was so poorly known that they didn’t even know it was possible to campaign that way. On the podcast, Julian Murdoch relates a great story about how he discovered the fact that you couldn’t march through Kennebec to Quebec only after he got there and found that the Kennebec card was blank, which meant no further movement was possible. For him, on that first playing, Martin Wallace’s design had perfectly simulated the flawed maps of the time, and Julian’s scouts found that you really can’t get there from here. It’s probably the most historically accurate event ever recreated with paper and cardboard. And it probably would drive most players crazy.

It’s a problem most wargames have, which is that the situation in question wasn’t really equally winnable for both sides. Martin Wallace suggests making different scenarios (which I think in the old days were called “variants” because you changed something fundamental about the game rules, and not just the setup) in order to make up for this. Lee Brimmicombe-Wood wants to just test you against the historical results.

My own experience in Gary Grigsby’s Eagle Day doesn’t have much to do with the historical outcome. Day after day I’m flying fighter sweeps and hitting the forward RAF airfields hard. A couple big raids suffice to get the British airborne, and then I time fighter sweeps ten minutes apart against the forward airfields. Many planes are destroyed on landing, and even more on the ground. After 31 days of virtual combat, I have an Air Superiority level of 8, and even did one point of Industrial Damage. Style points!

According to the rules, which you can read below for yourself, this seems like a victory.

But instead, I get this cryptic victory screen that sure as heck sounds like some sort of National Socialist booby prize.

In the end, the game doesn’t know the answer, either.

Click here for the start of the Eagle Day game diary.