From beach to hedgerows

As I hinted in a previous post, once the action shifts beyond the beaches and begins to move inland, game play in D-Day at Omaha Beach takes on an entirely different character.

In the game’s first 16 turns, your objectives are obvious: Knock out German WN positions and try to open at least one draw in each divisional sector. German forces are generally static, so planning actions against them is a more certain process. Once those early objectives have been met – or nearly so, at least – and your troops begin operating on the high ground, you’ll likely find yourself facing a giant leap into the unknown.

Slow going for the 29th Division.

Slow going for the 29th Division.

Typically at least a few German reinforcements will be scattered around positions on the high ground by the time the game’s turn structure shifts with the arrival of Turn 17. If you’re really unlucky there will be a lot of reinforcements in place. In a way, this makes planning a bit easier – but it also means there will be hell to pay for every VP hex that needs to be captured.

When there are still plenty of German reinforcements available in the off-map boxes, I think a map full of unoccupied reinforcement positions on Turn 17 presents a more daunting situation. The ‘hidden’ nature of the German forces – I literally have no idea where they’re going to pop up next – forces me to use less ‘game think’ and plan activities with a set of concerns closer to what a real-world commander might face.

I like that aspect of the game a lot, by the way. The game system does an excellent job of building some aggravating mobility into the German force scheme.

Lots of open country; not enough guys.

Lots of open country; not enough guys.

German reinforcement positions are liberally placed around the map, so there’s no gamey plan available to avoid them. And because of the German orders that come into play, unoccupied positions are nearly as dangerous to approach as are occupied positions. I particularly dread the ‘Ambush’ order, which may cause an unoccupied position to inflict a step loss on the nearest US unit. I can’t ‘plan’ around something like that – even apparently ‘empty’ terrain can be dangerous.

Until the engineer bases back on the beach have had enough time to expand their engineering zones – which also garrison unoccupied WN positions – there’s also a very real threat that a German ‘Reoccupy’ order will cause a previously defeated WN to come back to life and completely screw up efforts to expand the beach head. So inland operations have to be conducted with an eye toward either occupying defeated positions (which ties up troops) or keeping the positions out of German communications (which restricts any advance dramatically until follow-on troops begin to move inland).

The game emphasizes not just taking ground, but holding it. Unoccupied reinforcement positions that are still in German communications can suddenly turn hostile with the appearance of a German unit and a depth marker. Having a couple of¬†reinforcements beam-in ‘behind’ advancing US units is a true, gigantic pain in the butt.¬† Positions that project fire zones into the crucial draws are extremely valuable bits of terrain, so I’m pretty neurotic about trying to keep them under US control once I’ve cleared them.

Golfing with history

Currently on The Big Table is John Butterfield’s solitaire game “D-Day at Omaha Beach”. I’ve played the game’s intro scenario several times now, and I’m rushing head-long into the full-day scenario as I write this. So far, I’ve found the game very clever, innovative and enjoyable.

As I dig more deeply into the game and take some time to explore the history behind it, I’ve come to realize that there may be no other people on Earth so adept at “moving on” as the French. Their country is dotted with many well-known places and relics of history, but they somehow manage to keep it all moving into the future while maintaining a great degree of respect for the past.

The battlefield along the Normandy coast is one prime example. Although the contemporary landscape is sometimes interrupted with the occasional memorial, museum or cemetery, life in Normandy just sort of seems to ooze easily around all of the history from six decades past. Much of the area retains its familiar rural character – working farms, orchards, small villages. But, as you may expect, some things have changed in the last 65 years.

The golf course, for instance.

A view of the Omaha Beach Golf Club Ocean course, along the 6th hole looking east toward Port-en-Bessin.

A view of the Omaha Beach Golf Club Ocean course, along the 6th hole looking east toward Port-en-Bessin.

The Omaha Beach Golf Club is located just west of Port-en-Bessin astride the D514. Part of it borders the village of Huppain. The club’s ‘Ocean’ course stretches down to the bluffs overlooking the beach, roughly half-way between Omaha Beach and Gold Beach – right on the dividing line (65 years ago) between the US and British areas of operation.

Back in the mid-90s the Missus and I stayed there for a week or so (a condo exchange, I think). We were in our ‘golf phase’ at the time, so our excursions back and forth along the coast were mixed in with daily adventures on the golf course. It’s the only golf course I’ve ever played that could claim the distinction of having a real bunker as an unmarked hazard.

As a military history enthusiast of long standing, I had read extensively about the D-Day landings long before any of our visits to the area. Even so, I have to say that until I saw them first-hand I didn’t truly grasp the ruggedness of the famous bluffs along the landing beaches. Time and tides have altered the beaches themselves – the well-known ‘shingle’ seems barely a ripple of pebbles today compared to 1944 – but the bluffs stand behind them, imposing as ever.

Modern-day Omaha Beach, looking east from Point et Raz de la Percee near the Vierville draw.

Modern-day Omaha Beach, looking east from Point et Raz de la Percee near the Vierville draw.

Except for the fact that they had convinced themselves the beaches would be mainly undefended, I still can’t imagine any invasion planner outside of an insane asylum looking at those bluffs and thinking: “Yeah. Great spot to land a couple of divisions.”

So now when I dive back into the histories that have been written – like Joe Balkoski’s excellent “Omaha Beach” – I’m more amazed than ever at the accomplishment. On an overcast June morning 65 years ago a relative handful of American infantry companies crossed those same beaches under the deadliest fire, climbed those same bluffs and began the liberation of Europe from Nazi tyranny.