Sunday, June 08, 2008

W-w-wait...that's not how it happened! Memoir '44 Overlord Revisits D-Day

Ben, Steve and I gathered on Friday for round 2 (round 1 here) of Memoir '44 Overlord. As it turned out, Friday was June 6th. On D-Day, you play...D-Day! We selected the Omaha Beach scenario out of the scenario book.

As historical background, the US forces landed from the English Channel to the north, assaulting the German-occupied coastline of Normandy, France to the south. Omaha Beach was the code name for a five-mile stretch of this coastline, with Utah Beach to the west and Gold Beach to the east. The US forces consisted of two Regimental Combat Teams, the 116th RCT to the west and the 16th RCT to the east, with support of two tank battalions and two Ranger battalions. The Germans countered primarily with the experienced 352nd Infantry Division with the support of artillery units in bunkers and pillboxes and the deployment of "hedgehogs," twisted pieces of metal meant to slow down the movement of armor units. The primary strategy of the Axis forces was to stop the landings, and so they committed most of their forces in the area to the coastlines. This left the Germans with relatively little defense further inland. Thus, if the Americans could overwhelm the German front lines, they could then move past the beaches toward their more vital inland objectives with much less organized resistance.

The Western end of Omaha Beach with the 116th RCT assaulting the beach. Armor units from the 743rd Tank Battalion and Ranger units from the 2nd Ranger Battalion (the little orange cardboard chits in the far back) are in support. The German 352nd is waiting.

The center of Omaha Beach. The 16th RCT and 741st Tank Batallion are coming ashore. Hedgehogs and wire have been placed by the German defenders to slow their assault.

The eastern end of Omaha Beach assaulted by additional companies from the 16th RCT and 741st Tank Batallion. Note the Axis forces are concentrating their defense at the chokepoint formed by the sea bluffs.

With the setup complete, we rolled for sides. Last time, we had four players, but family responsibilities limited us to three players for this session. Die rolls dictated that Ben and Steve would play the Allied forces (with Steve as Field Commander of the central forces and Ben directing the forces in the right and left wings) while I would command all of the German defenders.

The first side to claim 8 medals would gain the victory. In addition to eliminating units, however, the Allied forces could claim additional medals by taking and holding the towns of Vieville-sur-Mer, Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, or Coleville-sur-Mer, each lying just beyond the sea bluffs to the south. Furthermore, the Allied units would gain victory points for every unit making it successfully past the German line of defense and off the Axis side of the board (representing their heading further inland). With the rising of the morning sun, the attack began.

As the Allied forces approached the shore, the German artillery immediately opened fire. All across the beach, infantry and armor units began to take a beating. While most casualties were direct hits, additional units were lost as they were driven back into the ocean and either submerged or swept away by the strong undercurrents. The Allied commanders quickly realized that forces left in the water were surely doomed and began to concentrate on two goals: 1) Get as many forces out of the water as quickly as possible, and 2) Silence the artillery. The Americans slowly began to make their way ashore and tried to use the hedgehogs to their advantage, hiding behind them for a modicum of cover while giving the forces behind them room to get out of the water. However, the armor was simply too bogged down by the poor traction in the sand, the liberally placed hedgehogs, and the struggle to get to the choke points formed by the few openings in the sea bluffs. With the Allied armor units eliminated or pushed back to the water's edge, the artillery were then free to take aim at the infantry units further down the beach. A fortuitous strafing run by a German Messerschmitt further decimated the forces along the western shoreline.

The Allied casualties began to mount, especially in the western and central sectors. Although the forces in the east remained generally strong, the chaos inherent in a battle of this magnitude limited effective communication in this area and their progress was slow and halting. As the losses increased, the American commanders changed their tactics and began a relentless sprint of infantry and Ranger units to the German artillery sites. Slowly, the artillery units began to take damage, and at the western end of the landing zone, the Rangers finally managed to scale the sea bluffs and destroy the German gun emplacements there. This, however, came at an incredible cost to the Americans, as almost all the other supporting units fell in front of them.

The American forces finally begin to take ground and race toward the powerful and well-protected German artillery...

...and the Ranger battalions finally manage to destroy the guns, but at a devastating cost, as most of their supporting units by this point had been eliminated.

The surviving Rangers prepared to push forward and claim their objective of Vievelle-sur-Mer just beyond the destroyed guns, but the Axis infantry, seeing their defenses weakened, swung back to cut them off, and managed to entrench themselves in the town just before the Rangers could arrive. The Rangers' progress had been stopped.

The surviving Rangers prepare to take Vieville-sur-Mer, but they find the German infantry (in the lower left) awaiting their arrival.

Finally, the forces at the eastern end of the landing zone managed to coordinate their attacks and tried to make a last push toward the German line.

With the landings at the western end of the map having come at too great a cost, and with the attacks in the center remaining a stalemate, this line of the 16th Regimental Combat Team to the east represented the last hope for the Americans to break through at Omaha Beach.

But it was too little, too late. As the 16th RCT raced forward to take out the last gun in the area, the waiting German infantry opened fire and repelled the Allied forces. Withering under the constant machine gun and artillery fire, the Americans finally fell back. The Axis forces had won the day at Omaha Beach, and the retreating Americans were left to hope that their counterparts elsewhere along the French coastline had met with more success than they had.

Omaha Beach at the end of the battle. The German forces have held.

What a great battle! Although the Americans looked to have the definite advantage at the beginning given their sheer numbers (and the support of real-life history), several factors proved too much to overcome. The German artillery was remarkably accurate. Plus, the Americans had two commanders who had to confer and agree on strategy, while I, as the lone Axis commander, could make all plans myself and not have to worry whether someone else would execute them as I had envisioned. In addition, the Americans needed to move forward to accomplish their goals, while the Axis forces could be content to sit in place and wait for the enemy to come to them. Thus, they always had the advantage of good defensive bonuses. Not only did the Americans have to move their forces forward, they had to move a LOT of their forces forward. Thus, the Americans needed as many ordered units as they could get each turn. Units that didn't move were easy targets for the German guns. The Germans, with an artillery unit in each section, really could afford as few activations as one unit in each section each turn and still be remarkably effective. One unit activation in each section each turn, in contrast, would have been woefully inadequate for the Allies. Furthermore, tanks moving onto the beach could only move two spaces instead of their normal three, and they were hampered by wire (which stopped their movement upon entering) and hedgehogs (which prevented them from entering those hexes at all), plus they had to head to the bottlenecks along the sea bluffs, as armor units cannot scale sea bluffs. If they did not head inland, then they were sitting ducks for the artillery, so they had to keep moving and couldn't simply be abandoned by the Allied commanders in favor of the infantry. In this way, they took up vital unit orders needed for their supporting infantry units. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no retreat into the ocean. A retreat flag for a unit at the water's edge is death. So, despite initial appearances, this is not an easy scenario at all for the Americans to win.

Thousands of people on both sides died on June 6th, 1944 during the invasion at Normandy, and to compare a game to that scale of real-life loss can be a delicate matter. With that being said, though, this battle highlighted (even if only in a very superficial, it's-just-a-game kind of way) the difficulties that the Allied landing forces must have faced in real life, and more than once I found myself thinking about what the people there that day must have seen and thought as I looked out over my plastic pieces. Overall, a very engrossing way to spend a few hours on D-Day.

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At 10:51 PM, June 08, 2008, Blogger Ben said...

Best session report, ever! Next time we'll need to add in air support for the poor US Army.

At 11:11 PM, June 08, 2008, Blogger Tiffany said...

That seems -- intense. I think that's all I've got.

At 11:26 PM, June 08, 2008, Blogger Schifani said...

Excellent report. This scenario requires a very different approach than Bastogne.

The Germans, while few, have a nice number of units for efficient card use. Cover really works well in M44 to create the feel of the situation.

The Allies have to quickly decide which units will be used. Move everyone up, and the Germans have far too much time and, using artillery, will easily get their eighth medal before you can launch an effective assault. It's ok to let some units sit out in the water, since they're not nearly so much at risk as the closer stuff; in fact, the 8 medal victory condition means you have to ignore much of your force.

On the other hand, move too few units and your attack falters (obviously).

I think we might have moved a few unnecessary units early, but by the middle we were moving what seemed the right amount of units.

The final medal count was 8-5. We'll definitely have to try it again to see if overloading the non-field cards to one side or the other makes a difference.

At 11:46 PM, June 08, 2008, Blogger Chris said...

The other tactic I wonder about is just spreading the forces out and sending them pell-mell to the Axis side of the board, especially across some of the sea bluffs that aren't well defended. That would force the German infantry to spread out to have to chase them. Although some would die, some would probably make it through (and off the board for VP). Would EIGHT units make it? Probably not. But if four or five made it, then you only have to knock out three or four Axis units, and if they are chasing you down, they may lose their defensive bonuses in the process. I think the key lies somewhere around just overwhelming the Axis forces with sheer numbers. How best to do that when you keep drawing "Probe" cards is beyond me, though. Draw better cards, says I.

In my opinion, I think trying to use the hedgehogs for defense while you carefully advance is fairly unproductive in this scenario. If you stay back and use them for defense rather than moving forward, then you ignore one flag. Assuming that worst case scenario is that the Axis attacker rolls one flag, that one flag is ignored and you stay in the hedgehog hex. Best case scenario in this situation, though, is that you stay in the hedgehog hex.

However, if a unit could have ended their turn one hex further closer to the sea bluffs, then if they then get attacked with one flag, they can retreat to the hedgehog hex. They're no worse off than if they'd simply stayed in the hedgehog hex in the first place. BUT if they don't get attacked, or they get attacked and don't get any flags rolled against them, then their best case scenario is that they start their next turn one hex closer to the sea bluffs, one hex closer to the artillery, and one hex closer to the Axis edge of the board than the unit that chose to stay back and hide behind the hedgehog.

Bottom line, what I gathered from this scenario is that the hedgehog advantage is nice if you end up in the hex at the limit of your full move or as the result of a retreat, but it's not worth staying behind to use in an attempt to advance carefully.

At 9:14 PM, June 09, 2008, Blogger Rob said...


not much else to add


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