Monday, 25 June 2012

Megagame Operation Goodwood 1944

Operation Goodwood was one of the attempts to break out from the amphibious bridgehead in Normandy in the early summer of 1944. With the U.S. troops still entangled in the bocage country to the west, Montgomery ordered an attack by the British and Canadian troops around Caen.

Nobody can tell whether he expected a breakthrough but it was useful anyway in tying down the armoured reserves that the Germans might otherwise have employed against the Americans. It is best known for its massive opening air bombardment and employment of armour, which in the end didn't supply very impressive results.

On May 14th 2011 me and 60 others tried to recreate this battle in two acts: the first consisting of a planning game and the second of the execution of those plans. Since the historical attack was called off after three days due to torrential rains, this could all be fitted nicely in a morning and an afternoon session.

The planning session involved a pressure cooker attempt to set out the outline for the battle, with the British Second Army commander (Dempsey) setting the objectives and allocating them to the VIII Corps (O'Connor), consisting of three armoured divisions, and two infantry divisions on the flank.

Once the big picture was available, the corps and division HQs started to work out the details, like establishing mutual boundaries of responsibility, initial dispositions and artillery support. At the same time they needed to liaise with the tactical and strategical air forces at their disposal, number over 2000 light, medium and heavy bombers and appropriately introduced as 'the most powerful attacking force in human history until August 1945'.

Each team consisted of a commander, an operations and an intelligence staff officer. While the first was responsible for making decisions and keeping the unit's war diary, the second was responsible for writing the detailed orders and co-ordinating with adjacent units. The intelligence officer was responsible for seizing up the opposing forces and providing superior and neighbouring HQs with information.

Most players were part of a divisional headquarter team, but on the Allied side there were also teams for VIII Corps, 2nd Army and the air force, while the Germans had a Corps HQ.

The Germans, in the meantime, tried to come up with a defensive plan, which should make optimal use of the terrain: open ground gently sloping upwards to the Bourguebus hills dotted with fortified villages. A perfect hunting ground for 88mm antitank guns and hull down panzers.

By early afternoon the plans had crystalised into tactical positions and initial orders for individual battallions and batteries. These were then communicated by the team umpires to the main map for execution. The game was set to begin.

To each division was attached a team umpire who interfaced between the team and the main map. The operations player would give him the orders for units and explain their intentions. The umpire would then resolve these orders at the main map and return with the outcome in the form of a narrative report, revealing as little as possible of the game system.

So rather than 'you had 24 combat points and your opponent 13, and you rolled a 6 so you now have a Total Succes result' a player would be informed that "the 5th Royal Tank Regiment brigade group has attacked at dawn in perfect formation and while the overwhelming artillery suppressed enemy opposition, the infantry charged into the village driving the enemy before them with negligible losses. The village was occupied and prepared for defense as ordered. Troops are in good spirits."

The battle started with establishing the effect of the infernal aerial bombardment at the start of the first turn, or the morning of 18th July 1944. In the picture, you can see the bombardment counters on the main map, measuring 2 square kilometers each. Depending on the number of squadrons allocated to each counter (up to 20!) the units within the bombed area suffered casualties and immobilisation.

The umpires for the British team strolled back for early tales of the incredible roar of the air fleets passing overhead and the massive fountains of fire and death erupting from the hills and villages before them. The German teams, on the hand, received terrifying reports of the carnage and destruction around them, the loss of precious tanks and artillery, but also in many cases of merciful exclusion from allied attention. Then the infantry and armoured attack rolled in and the liaison umpires returned to the main map.

I participated as a team umpire to 7th armoured division. Like the players, I would be so busy that I had little idea of what happened to other player teams, so my story is different from what was experienced by the Canadians on the far right flank, let alone the German teams.

The game was executed in three turns (morning, afternoon, night) per day. Based on the team orders the units were moved until their objectives or, more likely, until they met opposing forces. Then combats were worked out based on the combat strength of the units, tactical situation and support from artillery and air.

As was historical, the best attacks were made by relatively fresh units, combining infantry, tanks and artillery with copious air support. As we found out, the latter factor would prove decisive in most cases and us umpires quickly adopted a procedure of first comparing the support on both sides to determine whether it was worth going through the rest of the combat factors.

It was hardly unexpected that the British would break in after such the bombardment, but the initial attack saw 7th Armoured Division (the famous Desert Rats) drive deeply into the German gap, while 11th Armoured Division faced tougher opposition. However, a big enough gap was opened between them so that the third armoured force, Guards Armoured, could slip in between them as planned. The afternoon saw the latter two divisions drive rapidly forward, while 7th Arm was welcomed by a strong German counter attack including Tiger tanks.

While the morning and afternoon turns were frantic due to just half an hour to receive reports from the team umpires, discussions with neighbouring and superior HQs, coordination of air support and writing of new orders, the night turns proved a bit more relaxed and the commanders were able to take stock of the situation. The first night both sides struggled frantically to shift reinforcements and prepare for next morning's attacks.

7th Armoured Div opened the second day, 19th of July, with a vicious attack on the Germans that had driven them back the day before, and the Typhoons assigned to them had a field day picking off the retreating Tigers. But again, the afternoon brought them a counter attack that bloodied their noses. This time it was 12th SS Panzer division. It was decided that 7th Armour's flank was too exposed and it would halt until 3rd Infantry Division on its left would come up. Meanwhile the Guards and 11th Armoured had bypassed 7th and reached the foot of Bourguebus ridge.

July 20th, the third day of the offensive, was a day of heavy, yet dispersed German armoured counterattacks that managed to delay and halt further British advances, but at frightening costs in tanks. As before, 7th Armoured received a withering attack to its exposed flank by the SS in the morning, but managed to crush these troops in the afternoon with the help of the infantry division that finally had moved up.

So when night and pooring rain fell over the battlefield, Monty could be unexpectedly satisfied with the result. To paraphrase a famous Dutch football player and coach: the Allies can't win Goodwood, but the Germans can lose it.

Although the British armoured divisions had taken considerable losses, their brewed up tanks could be easily replaced, while the Germans had effectively lost some 75% of their precious tanks and thereby their ability to counterattack in force. And despite the frontline having stabilised, the allies had made worthwhile advances and would keep the German elite divisions tied up far away from the American breakout that was to come.

The day was wrapped up by the senior commanders giving their perception of what went on during the battle and with many players having a peek at the main map. This was the first glimpse they would have of the real status of their troops. During the day they would have had to figure out their battleworthiness through the team umpire.

Games of this size (30 players and up) are called megagames. We have organised a few in the Netherlands but Megagame Makers in London organises about four of them each year and have been doing so for thirty years. For more information on past and future megagames, see their website.

Note: I visited Normandy in the summer of 2011 and had a quick tour of 15 minutes driving on the outer edges of the battlefield, which happen to be the major highways to the west and south of Caen. I was surprised how small the battlefield was and how open compared to the more closed terrain on the eastern edge. A well sited 88mm gun could cover a large stretch.

This post was published earlier on Fortress Ameritrash


  1. Sorry to break in on a WWII post but do you plan to post on WWI games at some point? I might be wrong but WWII seems to really push it of center stage, especially on game console where I can easily find WWII games but little on WWI. I wonder if it's the same in table top gaming.

  2. Hi Erwin,

    I do post on WWI, but mostly here:
    I will cross post to RGA if I do.

    It's true that WWII has a stronger presence in any form of gaming. It is not that surprising as a lot of the gaming is done by Americans, who weren't particularly involved in WWI until the end. Trench warfare also doesn't sound that appealing, I guess.

  3. [subscribed to MME]
    Sure it does. Player throws 3D6 for percentage of surviving troops, another roll for reinforcements. Other player does the same, repeat for next round. Whoever runs out of troops first loses. Simple as that.

  4. That is a rule or mechanism. It's not a game ;-)

  5. For WWI, it'll function as a game. Really, why move all your troops 12 inches when you know next turn 20% will be back where they started and the rest back in your carrying case.
    In other news, reading about WWI made me a bit cynical about the whole mess.

  6. In the big picture, it might look like that. But Megagame Makers did a really good game on the Battle of the Somme that changed my ideas about gaming WWI battles. Sure, a number of attacks failed, sizzled out or got beaten back, but there was a real sense of progress and at one point the Brits came close to breaking the German line.

    Once you look beyond the 'slaughter of a generation' and start looking at what really happened, you can see new approaches and tactics. Important logistical and resources management decisions etc.

    And that's just talking the Western Front. Think of the Eastern Front, the Balkans, the Middle East etc. Epic!

  7. Btw, you were reading Stephenson, weren't you? Why not put your views on the book on here. I can put it up as a post if you want to.

  8. I might do that. It is a matter of finding time. But I do want to share my thoughts on it, I now feel it is a real life example of anachronism, or a slew of new technology meeting old methods. You can excuse, to some degree, the military leaders as they had to figure out everything on the fly.

    1. cool. I look forward to read what you think of it. It's an interesting debate. I hope you can find the time

  9. Btw I was reading Martin Gilbert


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