Given my critique of the The Battle at Ap Chinh An, one would think I’d be pleased to see what was done with the two-part scenario, The Battle at Song Ngan. We’ll see. Squad Battles: Vietnam has a number of multi-part scenarios and this is the first one I’ve played, so that is one new experience for me in this article. There are also some new experiences in the next iteration of Vietnam Combat Operations, (Volume IV this time), all waiting to be discussed in the context of operations in South Vietnam on its northernmost border.
Operation Hastings was a July, 1966 effort to engage North Vietnamese regular army units that had moved across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) into South Vietnam and to force them back across the border. Intelligence placed a divisional headquarters somewhere in the Ngan river valley. The U.S. Marines was to launch helicopter assault to isolate and destroy it. During the initial insertion, three transport helicopters were downed in a collision. The losses and the wreckage earned the battlefield the moniker “Helicopter Valley.”
Playing Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume IV, I encounter the enemy right where they should be, albeit a few days ahead of the historical schedule. This is one of several engagements in the opening turns of the new scenario.
One can see the improvements made as the scenario author moves through each installation in his series. The 4th iteration has new features as well as features that are just “new to me.” In that latter category I include the custom terrain mods that are used in this series both to better portray the unique Vietnam terrain and just to improve the looks of map overall. You can compare the above screen shot to almost the same area of the map showcased in my earlier article.
Another new feature addresses the issue I talked about while wrapping up that previous scenario. The way this series is designed, the transition between scenarios is, by necessity, not very smooth. Obviously, when breaking up the war per the calendar, at some point one scenario has got to end and the next will begin. There is no way around that. This time around, however, the scenario notes identify the several left-over operations so that, as a player, you can pick what was still going on in the previous game as well as kick-off your new operations. It’s another nice touch in this series. The notes also show when the various ARVN units will be available to assist in U.S. Operations, so you can plan ahead. From the get-go, the enemy seems a little more active than the last round and the South Vietnamese are a little more willing to respond, so the overall feel is that more is going on.
The communist forces also appear a little stronger. Although we can’t yet see them in the above screenshot, there are several communist forces located along the Ngan river and they are fairly beefy. Even with my U.S. airpower (which, also, is curtailed relative to the previous scenario), they’re not going to retreat from those positions easily. Furthermore, with their back to the DMZ, there is no way to for me to surround them, no matter how many extra units I’d be willing to commit.
As I started off saying, Operation Hastings is also represented in Squad Battles: Vietnam. It is a two-part scenario, featuring snapshots from the first two days of large-unit contact, on June 15th and 16th. The scenario pair is set up to reverse the roles of the sides. On Day 1, the U.S. forces have to seize the objectives from the communists. On Day 2, they must defend.
Again, as I started with, the first of these scenarios seems to answer some of the complaints I had with my last scenario, which in many ways is very similar to this one. The U.S. Marines begin the scenario mounted on their helicopter transports. Assuming it is one’s first time with this scenario, the player’s only knowledge about the battlefield is given through the location of victory locations. In this battle, however, there are two victory locations indicating the two historical landing zones for the scenario. Putting the units into place (and I missed this a little, as you might tell from the above screenshot), forces the player to make the intended approaches to the enemy’s strong points. Unfortunately, while it forces the player to play a more accurate scenario, it also makes for a more tedious scenario. Particularly on these all-jungle sections of map, the game moves very slowly. Infantry on foot can only advance a single hex each turn through the jungle meaning (again, refer to the above screenshot), the scenario is just about long enough for the attackers to advance to the victory point locations. So while you, as the player, are making choices about moving and shooting, you really have very little option but to execute a head-on advance at maximum speed. Not much “strategizing” left for the player to do.
The second scenario starts you off after you have won the first, but more than a full day later. While the scenarios are not in any way “linked,” the time between scenarios means that the setup for Day 2 probably wouldn’t really depend on how well or poorly you’ve done on the first day. I have to say, though, that I didn’t loose all those helicopters that are displayed as wrecks on the above screenshot. In my play, while I had one of my transports forced down by enemy fire, and I managed a controlled landing without losing any of the personnel. Furthermore, the reason I lost said helicopter was through the rather gamey employment of my transports to provide support fire. From a historical standpoint, that was probably a pretty stupid use of assets. As a game player, though, you learn to make use of what you’ve got.
Even more so in this case where, as in most Squad Battles scenarios, there is no off-board support. Particularly for Part 1, an assault on a known enemy position, this flies in the face of U.S. doctrine. The Marines would have (and did) pummel the communist positions with air and artillery. Once again, however, even the brigade mortar teams are missing from the U.S. order of battle.
It is also worth noting that the reason the helicopters were lost, in the real operation, was that the landing zone was too small for the operation, and two helicopters collided while attempting to off-load their troops. A third crashed while attempting to avoid the first two. The fourth (the above screenshot shows all four) was hit by enemy fire, but much later in the day than what is covered by the first scenario. Those wrecks have absolutely no effect on Part 2 of the scenario pair; they’re just there for looks.
That second Battle at Song Ngan scenario, unlike the first, starts with all units in place. The downed helicopters are the only transports on-map. The scenario places one U.S. Marine company defending the hilltop positions from the previous scenario while a second company moves in to support. It is during this time, after dark has fallen, that the NVA attack the American positions. Even more than the first of the two, the “strategy” component of this scenario is limited. The reinforcing company has just enough movement to get into the battle by the end, but only to support the top right objective. For the in-place company, there would seem to be little incentive to maneuver as each platoon is hard pressed enough to defend its assigned victory location.
Maybe we’ll do better next time.