A Bridge Too Far

Military history and board gaming has always been an odd obsession of mine, more particularly odd because I am a pacifist. I suppose it is because of what I know of military strategy that I am a pacifist, I know that a General moving markers on a map is deliberately deluding himself from the idea that he is sending men to their deaths. But I have no such illusions, I know what happens when you send even electronic representations of men into battle. They die in ways you never expected.

I spent many years playing board games like Panzer Blitz and Squad Leader, they have the historical realism I demand, which allows you to try real historical scenarios using the real forces as they existed in the battle. But the paper board game systems had major flaws. Both players could see all the markers, so you could never do a sneak attack. Some methods of concealment were invented, like putting dozens of markers on the board, upside down so neither side could see them, only a few were your real markers. Arguments about line-of-sight, of who could see who, were always a problem, especially with modern games. Modern weapons are one-shot one-kill, if you can be seen you can be killed. Simultaneous movement rules were unmanageable, I remember games where we argued for hours over movements taking only 15 seconds in realtime. The only real solution is “kriegspiel” games, where both players have identical boards, hidden from each other, and only the referee sees both boards and runs the game. This is obviously unworkable on paper, but kriegspiel methods are ideal for computerization.

My favorite computer game implementation was V for Victory by Atomic Games. I particularly remember Operation Market Garden, I archived it on a CDR long ago and I wondered if it still ran on my new PowerMac. This game is so old it comes with two different applications for 68k processors with and without a math coprocessor. I remember playing this on my Mac IIcx and it sometimes took several minutes for the AI to complete it’s turn. I couldn’t get this to run in Classic, but after booting into OS 9, the app still runs well enough to play and get a few screen captures. I set the computer AI to play a few turns against itself, and the whole campaign finished before I could even click the stop button. I started it over and watched what the AI was doing, turn by turn. I could not believe what I saw.


Battle of Oosterbeck


I’ve been thinking of Market Garden a lot, since seeing the US and UK forces in action, trying to take the bridges across the Euphrates River around Nasiriya. I thought it might be interesting to compare the V4V scenario of the British forces trying to capture the bridge at Arnheim. In this screen, we see the lightly armed British forces (in red) rapidly advancing southeast into Oosterbeck, just a few klicks from our objective. But since the Germans still control the main bridge, there was nothing to stop them from moving elite SS Panzer units to the edge of Oosterbeck to block our advance, and put artillery units to the north. Now the UK supply lines are subject to artillery interdictment and harassing attacks from scattered defenders. Our resources are stretched too thin to maintain our position in Oosterbeck, we must defend from a combined artillery and SS Panzer counterattack instead of achieving our objective, taking Arnheim bridge. The AI committed a tactical blunder, it should have sent squads to block the roads out of Arnheim to slow the counterattack until we consolidated our position and got some reinforcements. Sacrificing a few squads in delaying actions at the chokepoints could have saved this operation.

When this game first shipped, I played it over and over, and I just could not understand why I always got beaten so badly. I was pretty good at V4V, but no matter how hard I worked, the Germans always wiped me from the field of battle. I studied the scenario in detail, looking for where I had gone wrong. And then it suddenly struck me, the Allies lost Operation Market Garden, it was a humiliating defeat. The V4V footnotes explain that the historical result was a total loss, so if you only had a major or minor loss you were ahead of the historical results, therefore you were entitled to believe you really won. I was irritated at the publisher for releasing a game that could not be won. And then I realized I was irritated at the Allied generals for committing to such a battle that could not be won.

And this is why I’ve been thinking about Nasiriya. American battle doctrine is based on shoot-and-scoot, fire and maneuver systems. This system isn’t quite so useful against fixed emplacements like bridges. Internet reports indicate US forces have taken the bridges several times and given them back just as often. Marines take a position, but aren’t intended to defend that position from counterattack without support and resupply. We committed troops to a battle at the end of supply lines that are stretched thin, without adequate air support and reinforcements, exposing the US troops to artillery and infantry counterattack. I keep thinking of the movie version of A Bridge Too Far, with intense battles taking place across the bridge at Arnheim. Our Commander In Chief is right, this is like a rerun of a bad old movie.

7 thoughts on “A Bridge Too Far”

  1. There some problems with your scenario–the main being equating the Iraqi Republican Guard with the Waffen-SS–but there are some ominous similarities.
    I am more concerned with the recent air drop into northern Iraq. Dien Bien Phu?
    By the way, have you played Atomic Games’ A Bridge Too Far? It is small unit tactics, not operational, but apparently quite realistic and challenging.

  2. This article IS specifically about Atomic Games’ A Bridge Too Far. And if it’s not too obvious to state, the movie A Bridge Too Far is about Operation Market Garden.
    It isn’t really a fair comparison between Arnheim and Nasiriya, but if you haven’t mastered WWII tactics, you’re not going to execute modern tactics well either.

  3. I guess there are two games with the same name. I was referring to the Close Combat version. Your screen-snap is not at all like the game I know.
    The really troubling thing about Market/Garden and Rocky Freedom is not so much the operational similarities but the win-the-war-with-one-bold-stroke mentality of the planner. Montgomery had to be allowed his shot so Eisenhower could get back to his broad-front overwhelming force strategy. I wonder if Gen. Powell wished he were heading up Defense now.

  4. V4V was the beginning of what became Close Combat, and Atomic Games has updated and redone several scenarios they’ve released in the past, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a second version. I like the primitive early V4V version because it’s so stripped down and faithful to board game techniques.
    I’m more interested in the tactics, this is a classic “meeting engagement.” The screen snapshot shows the UK forces getting outflanked while they confront the main Panzer counterattack. This is the classic problem of attacking fixed emplacements, you have no room to maneuver, and the enemy had plenty of time to prepare a defense. An attack like this tends to be very costly in human lives.

  5. I played V4V “A brige too far” few years ago and win this game. At the begining I did exactly the same what Alien general – capture Arhem and tried to defence there, waiting for reinforcemant. The key is not to make mistakes in Neeygaden and ather briges – if reinforcemants come early enought you can win. In real Gorden-Marcet Operation many mistakes were made not in Arhem but on ather briges.

  6. It’s true, you can win V4V Market Garden. But you must fight a long campaign where everything must happen exactly according to plan. How often does that ever happen in real life?

  7. I’ve found your post googling for “V for Victory”, a piece of history 🙂

    Just a note to the screen: the units marked red are actually Polish (Gen. Sosabowski’s 1st Parachute Brigade), rather than British.

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