This is the thirtieth in a series of posts on the Vietnam War. See here for the previous post in the series and here to go back to the master post.
The day after securing Landing Zone X-Ray, American units moved out and away from the battlefield on foot. Having defending the landing zone decisively, a B-52 strike was called in on the Chu Pong Mountain, where their North Vietnamese opponents remained dug in, while the Americans moved safely away from the bombing targets. Doctrine dictated that friendly forces be outside of a 3 km safety zone. A march, rather than a helicopter evacuation, would provide less indication to the enemy that the airstrikes were coming.
The two battalions were to march to two other areas. The 2/5 was to assemble at LZ Columbus and the 2/7 split off and headed for LZ Albany.
After reading We Were Soldiers Once…, it remains unclear to me what the bigger plan was. The men of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry had been sent into LZ X-Ray as to reinforce Moore’s battalion as the fight developed. They had been marching and fighting for over 50 hours straight as they made their way to Albany. In some cases, the unit orders indicated that their goal was assemble at LZ Albany to be evacuated from the combat area. Others suggest that Albany may, instead, have been a temporary halting point, and a further march would follow. Some commanders’ orders indicated they were to expect to encounter the enemy in the vicinity of Albany while others anticipated an uneventful march followed by a ride back to base camp.
Whatever the higher-ups thought would happen, its seems clear that the North Vietnamese were far more prepared and organized than the Americans understood. Shortly after noon, as the lead elements of the 2/7 were arriving at the clearing designated Albany, an NVA ambush hit them all up and down the marching column.
Here they come. My lead elements have made it the “copse of trees” in the center of the clearing, but they’re going to be stuck there, alone.
As the scenario opens, I get a feeling of “being there” that exceeds most Steel Panthers scenario implementations. The map feels like a reasonable depiction of the ambush area, based on Moore’s description, and the sudden appearance of enemies from everywhere at once and my almost instant inability to respond is very much what happened. My own situation quickly became worse than the historical situation. When the attack commenced, I moved my command units forward in the landing zone into the “copse of trees,” as shown in the above screenshot. While things don’t look too bad so far, in was only another 10 or 15 minutes before everyone forward was wiped out along with any other unit who tried to cross the clearing.
Following the scenario instructions, I attempted to move all my subordinate commanders backwards to reunite them with their commands. This turned out to be another big mistake. In the actual fight, only one commander, Captain Forrest of the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry, returned to his unit. The 1/5 was at the rear of the column and Forrest sprinted the distance to return to get his people organized. In my game, not a single headquarters unit survived long enough to make to their “zone.” By about 10 turns in, there are no longer any command units remaining on the map.
I’m really feeling surrounded and helpless. This is one heck of a fight.
As the battle progresses, though, some of the usual Steel Panthers problems creep in. I’m realizing in some of the Vietnam scenarios (where I have a detailed written account of the battle to compare), the time as determined by turn number probably shouldn’t be taken literally. In most of these battles, there are various lulls in the action as the attacking side regroups and prepares for a fresh assault. In most tactical games, however, the player needs to maximize the pace of his attacks if he wants to get the most victory points within a fixed turn count. So, for example, at Ap Bau Bang, where the Viet Cong attacked in several waves, one might image that a turn or two of “quiet” could, in fact, represent a much longer pause between attacks. Nevertheless, there are limits to such an indulgence.
At LZ Albany, there was a good hour of chaos before US forces could organize a defense. Just like the American battalion was caught by surprise, brigade and division support were also unprepared. It took about that long for air support to be called into the area, followed soon after by artillery. In the game, however, air and artillery support is delayed by only two turns (six minutes), plus a few more turns for the requested support to respond. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to allow that with this distortion of time, the scenario still reasonably simulates the confusion immediately following the VC assault.
On the other hand, it took all afternoon and into the evening until it was determined that LZ Albany was secure enough to allow reinforcements by helicopter. With the attack beginning about noon, it was near 6PM before helicopters brought in men and supplies and began to evacuated wounded. Yet, on the computer, an additional company (and then some, I think) is flying in on helicopters before that first hour is up.
This goes too far to be considered just a “distortion” in the clock. The only way that I might be able to square that circle is if I read deeply between the lines within the scenario instructions. It is possible, I suppose, that if the U.S. had completely secured LZ Albany at the outset of the attack, reinforcements via helicopter could have come in much sooner. Of course, I don’t know how one might determine what would have made the landing zone safe, nor does this scenario have any kind of dependency of that sort. In my case, I figured there was no way I was getting my helicopters safely down in the main landing zone and, instead, I found a three-hex clear spot near the center of my column (it’s just left of center in the above screenshot). So, in addition to the timing, I’m landing forces in an area that, in reality, is way too small to support them. Even when a perimeter was finally established in the Albany clearing, it was initially too small to support helicopter landings. A hex, at this map’s scale, just wouldn’t do.
Another problem impacts all ambush-type scenarios and “base defense” settings in general. Steel Panthers has a system of automatic retreat when a unit begins to waiver. The idea is that a unit will back away from the line of fire, often using smoke to cover its retreat, and do this during the enemy’s turn. On a good day, particularly if you’ve retreated back into the security of your own lines, that unit can recover morale and cohesion and perhaps get back into the fight. On the other hand, if the unit is cut off or surrounded, retreating will only expose it to additional fire and eventual destruction.
In this scenario, however, where there is an inner defense of Americans beset on all sides by attacking North Vietnamese, there is no clear “backwards” direction. What is, on one side of the perimeter, a retreat to safety is to units on the other side a blind charge into enemy lines. This is exactly the fate of many units in this scenario, both U.S. and NVA. Units wavering will advance towards and often through the enemy lines to inevitably be eliminated. In fact, it seemed like a fairly decent percentage of unit losses, on both side, were due to them wandering out of cover, stunned, right into the fire of their enemies. On a small scale, one can write it off as simply a higher lethality of fire, and ignore the details. Happening so regularly, it is frustrating.
By the end of the scenario, I was left less impressed than I was at the start. These oddities detracted from that feeling, at the outset, that this one was coming close to getting things just right. But it is still a well-done attempt.
The WinSPMBT map seems a bit too big, but this one looks too small. The scenario seems to small as well.
Switching over the Squad Battles: Tour of Duty, the most obvious difference is the size of the map. Comparing, side-by-side, features depicted by these two programs should look similar on the screen. Steel Panthers uses 50m hexes and Squad Battles features 40m hexes. If anything, that should expand Squad Battles to be the larger of the two.
When I first opened up the Squad Battles take, however, my thought was that this one is the correct scale. Accounts describe as LZ Albany as a fairly small clearing, even compared to the other sites in the Battle of Ia Drang. The Steel Panthers version did just seem too expansive, although the obviousness of the error didn’t hit me until I saw the Squad Battles take. Setting helicopters down in Albany was challenging enough. Finding 3-hex landing zones all along the trail tells me the map was a little too detailed.
As I played, though, I realized that the scenario feels too cramped. Part of it, yes, was coming off Steel Panthers, which set my expectations just so. However, as I’ve been playing, I’ve also been reading Combat Operations: Stemming the Tide. While fighting the Squad Battles LZ Albany scenario, I plunged forward to the section on LZ Albany in the book and found the battlefield dimensions given therein. Captain Forrest, it is written, had to advance 500-600m from the position of his company at the rear of the column to meet with commander Colonel McDade, at its head. This figure roughly matches the total size of the battlefield in Squad Battles.
Stemming the Tide also describes the LZ Albany clearing as such: “An irregular square from three hundred to four hundred meters in length and width, the landing zone had a grove at its center measuring about one hundred fifty meters west to east and one hundred meters north to south.”
Counting hexes, so you don’t have to, the Steel Panthers map has the “grove” just about right, but has way too much clearing surrounding it. For the Squad Battles map, it is almost as if someone found somewhere the size of the grove and assumed that those dimensions were for the total clearing. On that map, the “grove” is but a single hex (40×40), covered in the screenshot by Colonel “Lopez.”
The feeling of being “too small” extends to other areas. To simulate the ambush, initially all U.S. forces are “fixed” – they cannot be moved by the player. This is intended to simulate the surprise factor in the ambush, which is fine as far as it goes. Some units remain fixed even by the scenario’s end. Again, the idea may be that some of the column remained unable to maneuver throughout the first 45 minutes of fighting (5 minute turns, 9 turns). But removing a percentage of the units from the control of the player makes for that much less of a “game.”
Defense of the LZ clearing is accomplished primarily through air-delivered napalm strikes.
Even those units that are there already seem a subset of the American forces. Missing is any off-board artillery support. Granted that came after the air strikes, which are part of the game, but it is a noticeable omission particularly for someone who has just completed the Steel Panthers take. Also missing are the mortar companies that were part of the 1st Cavalry company structure, as well as any other support platoons that one finds (accurately or not, it is hard to say) in Steel Panthers.
Along with everything else that went missing between Steel Panthers and Squad Battles, gone also is the sense of narrative. In Steel Panthers, as I said, there is that sense of shock and confusion. There is the mad rush to seize the grove and to reunite the command structure. Then the air and artillery begin to arrive, and you can attempt to organize your defense. Chronologically, the Squad Battles version is probably the more accurate one, but it doesn’t bring the player into the battle.
Just to wrap up this post, I’ll toss in one more screenshot for the Plieku Campaign, this time from Boonie Rats 1965-1972. The last time I was playing it, I halted just before the major November Army operations, with the intent to return later. Having brought Campaign for South Vietnam through into 1966, I thought I’d just catch up Boonie Rats to the same date.
Leaving operation planning to the computer means that the NVA struck Pleiku, not Plei Me, in late November 1965.
Notable here, in the above screenshot, is the drift away from the historical Plieku Campaign (and the direction of that drift). You can see, if your eyes are sharp, that the NVA (gold highlight on red) has launched a major operation against Plieku City itself, defended only by ARVN (red highlight, with yellow on a tan background). The recently-deployed-from-the-US 1st Cavalry is riding to the rescue, but in this case is assembling in force to save the provincial capital, rather helping to lift the siege of a military outpost. I’d say the ahistorical situation is a result of the natural aggressiveness of the Operational Art of War programmed opponent and the hex-and-counter mechanics that emphasize taking territory.
Consider it one more data point showing what works and what doesn’t in TOAW.
Return to the master post for Vietnam War articles. The next article discusses a book on this period of the War.