This is the forty-second 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.
For much of 1965 and the early months of 1966, the Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), 1st Battalion, fought as a part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade of the U.S. army, engaging the enemy in the vicinity of Saigon. After a year in Vietnam, the 1st Battalion returned to Australia, being replaced by the 1st Australian Task Force. The 1st ATF was a brigade-sized unit which could operate independently of the 173rd. Under Australian command, the 1st ATF contained both Australian and New Zealand forces.
After their arrival, the 1st ATF and its two infantry battalions, the 5th and 6th of the RAR, established a base at Nui Dat, in the Phước Tuy Province, south and east of Saigon. The location placed them so as to interfere with Viet Cong supply routes and nearby a suspected VC base area. The force was tasked with securing the area around Nui Dat, protecting the local population and government from VC harassment, as well as supporting the bigger picture in the III Corps tactical zone (the area outside of Saigon). From their initial deployment, there was intelligence warning of a VC attack of up-to-four-battalion strength.
While the 1st ATF pursued the rumors of enemy formations throughout the late spring and early summer, it wouldn’t be until mid-August that significant contact was made. While the evidence of large VC units in the vicinity continued to build, fighting was, at its most expansive, in company-sized engagements. Follow-through never managed to locate the suspected enemy positions. On the night of August 16th, into the morning of the 17th, the base at Nui Dat came under heavy mortar attack, once again indicating a significant enemy presence nearby.
Three Viet Cong formations are detected north and east of Nui Dat. This may be more than the Aussies want to confront on their own.
Naturally, the scenario Vietnam Combat Operations, Volume IV, depicts this encounter and the subsequent operations around Nui Dat. The fight also is shown in detail within a pair of scenarios from Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank (SPMBT). This gives an opportunity to offer some thoughts on the limits of The Operational Art of War (TOAW) to depict the ground covered by Vietnam Combat Operations.
If you look at the above screenshot, you can see that two VC battalion-sized units are identified in the vicinity of Nui Dat (best located via the 1st ATF headquarters unit at the center of the shot – with an ATF in the center of its graphic). A third, and stronger, enemy unit is located to the east. This additional intelligence may be due to my adventurousness. Feeling pretty confident that the area around Nui Dat was secure ahead of the historical schedule, I pushed east to contest a village, Xuyên Mộc. An ARVN airborne unit holds that strong point and the ahistorical location of that force may be providing additional intelligence.
The point of this detail is that, to my TOAW eye (such as it is), it looks to me that I am facing a superior enemy force. It is speculated that the VC were planning an attack as they knew that the the 5th RAR was operating away from the immediate vicinity of the Australian base. In response to the possibility of being attacked, the Australians sent out company-strength patrols (companies of the 6th RAR) to, once again, attempt to locate the enemy formations. However, the mechanics of TOAW suggest I do differently. Given the knowledge that I am facing strong enemy units, I am not going to move without superiority both in quality and number of units. You may or may not be able to see it in my screenshot, but I immediately returned the 5th RAR to the operational area by helicopter. I brought it, not back to base, but instead into a blocking position to the north of the enemy. At this point I’m trying to calculate how much ARVN support I have nearby and assessing both the practicality and necessity of bringing in U.S. forces to augment my Australians.
Initial contact in the Rubber Plantation. There appear to be a lot more of them than there are of me.
Before I go there, I decided to take advantage of the trio of tactical-level scenarios that are available to me. The first one I tried is Diggers at Work, a Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank scenario. I started with this one because the date in the scenario description is four days before the actual battle depicted, an error in the scenario write-up. It quite clearly depicts the fighting on August 18th. It begins, as the screenshot above shows, with a company strength patrol through the rubber plantation near the Australians’ base and their encountering of enemy positions. If you’re counting units, the patrol is divided into 3 platoon-strength forces, and this pictures shows the middle fork of the advance.
As I said, the scenario begins with initial contact between the advancing Australian platoons and small groups of VC. It quickly becomes apparent to the Australian player that he is facing a much larger VC force to his front. At this point I was shy of the victory locations, but felt that I had to be on the defensive against this obviously-superior force. The Australian player, also around this time, receives the historical artillery support that allowed the 6th RAR to prevail against vastly superior numbers.
A reinforcing company arrives in M-113s on the enemies left flank, ready to carry the day.
The design of this scenario again brings up the question of how battles are represented in the game engine. The forces appear to be historically sized, although its not clear (neither in the historical record nor because I didn’t turn off the “fog of war” settings to examine the VC side) if the full strength of the communist formation is represented in Steel Panthers. Similarly, the size of the battlefield appears reasonable. The duration of the battle, however, is significantly compressed. The infantry transports carrying the reinforcing A Company arrived some 3 hours after the fighting first developed, almost triple the duration of the entire scenario. By contrast, in a little more than half-an-hour into the scenario we, the player, receive our reinforcements. Perhaps one way of interpreting this is that the “downtime” is stripped out of the gameplay. So the first 10 turns should not be seen as 30 minutes of clock time, but rather as the most interesting 30 minutes (out of 3 hours) for each of the 3 platoons that are engaged. In fact, one might consider that while you are fighting with all three of your platoons simultaneously, the reality you are simulating actually has these fights staggered across several hours of time. Lulls between VC attacks are likewise raced over to get to the next burst of action. In this way, reinforcements arriving half way through the scenario might make sense.
This does, of course, cause problems. I’ve mention before that the tactical-level wargames are generally restricted to the 45 minute-to-an-hour timeframe. As explained elsewhere (perhaps in the PanzerBlitz manual?) the limit on scenario duration is to bring the game to an end before the likes of ammunition shortages, fuel limits, and unit exhaustion become dominating factors. The critical elements for an operational-level game, things such as supply, are ignored in a shorter length game. In this battle, however, during the 5-6 hours in which the heavy fighting took place, ammunition resupply was a major factor. The initial patrol was sent out with just three magazines per infantryman, sacrificing fighting ability for endurance. Where the expected encounter was to consist of chasing small groups of enemies through rough terrain, having a lighter load seemed more important than being ready to engage in an extended firefight. At the same time the relief company was on the way to provide relief, command was desperately trying to get ammo resupply to the besieged platoons.
Immediately, the feel of this one is better than in Steel Panthers. The background thundershower noise probably helps a lot.
For contrast, we’ll move on to the Squad Battles: Tour of Duty representation of the same scenario, The Battle at Long Tan. This version of the battle does not attempt to portray much beyond the initial contact between the searching companies the the Viet Cong positions. What this means is that the resulting game is much more plausible in terms of actual (or at least potential) fighting, keeping it to that first forty-five minutes or so.
Also supporting realism, and contrasting to some of the other Squad Battles scenarios I’ve played, the Australian forces do have artillery support in the form of a single battery on call. It isn’t enough to allow the player to bring in the full impact of artillery support that was so critical in winning this battle but, if we’re sticking to that first 45 minutes, it is may well be that this was before most of the off-board support would come into play.
The ambiance is helped by the thundershower sounds in the background. The miserable weather was another important factor in this battle, although I can’t say how important it is in the the Squad Battles math, much less the other game engines where there is no indication that we’re caught in a storm.
From a purely gaming standpoint, the scenario isn’t so bad either. The map differs from the jungle and the rice paddy maps that we are used to playing, and that’s a good thing. The plantation terrain helps to create much more interesting lines of sight. It allows allows the occasional long distant shot, but it also creates nooks and crannies of hidden spots, even very close by. Movement is also much more similar to the open terrain of the rice fields as opposed to the one-hex-per-turn of the jungle. In this one, the Australians have well-maintained roads along which to advance, adding to the their tactical options.
All things considered, I think Squad Battles does this fight best. That said, I imagine most of us would have a hankering to actually see (and play) those reinforcements to coming in to save the day. Without them, there is no real way to achieve a satisfying victory. One can accumulating the victory points to “beat” the scenario, but you do so knowing that the worst is yet to come.
Here comes the human wave again.
As I indicated, the Steel Panthers scenario package contains two versions of this battle. The second scenario, Made of Stern Stuff, is correctly located in time by its scenario notes. Because of this, it ended up being the last scenario chronologically. In truth, it is simply another representation of the same battle.
I like the map better than the one in Diggers. It is more expansive and more chaotic. In Diggers, if you know what happened in the battle, you can anticipate how the scenario plays out. You know, to start, that the enemy is somewhere near the map’s victory locations. It only makes sense to advance those positions cautiously, ready to fall back on a defensive line when the enemy appears in force. Note that the line of advance is along the rows of the rubber plantation. It means there are long lines of sight which must be broken up by advancing either behind or along the trees.
Contrast that with Stern Stuff. Having just played Squad Battles, I immediately miss the dedicated plantation terrain and the much clearer graphics of that other title. However, this third scenario, using the tools at hand, creates a map that, yes, feels a bit more like a cultivated plantation rather than just wild jungle while still providing an unpredictable landscape for the battle. Lines of sight are less obvious. Also considerably less obvious, particularly at the outset (it is much more obvious by the time I took the screenshot at Turn 7), is where the enemy is. Playing the Australians, you have to begin the scenario attempting to reconnoiter the enemy’s positions. Once the shooting begins, you remain uncertain. Is the entire enemy to your front. Will they be coming around your flanks? Maybe there is another platoon or two behind you.
More support rolling in.
Steel Panthers also, in general and in this scenario in particular, shows an advantage in depicting fire support. As critical as it was in the Vietnam War, it makes a huge difference in gameplay when it works as it should. In Squad Battles‘ The Battle at Long Tan, the artillery support is from a single battery. Granted, this is very early on in the contact and it may make sense that the Australians had yet to bring the full weight of their artillery to bear. However, it emphasizes the weakness of artillery in Squad Battles. With a single gun, it can be difficult to do any noticeable damage with indirect fire. This is a combination of the fact that indirect guns are not particularly deadly and that it is very difficult to consistently achieve direct hits without a line-of-sight from the shooter to the target. In Stern Stuff, catching advancing VC in open ground allows them to be ripped apart by concentrated artillery fire. The trick is to have ground units that can keep track of the enemy’s movements so that artillery can be walked onto the moving targets. In this regard, this scenario gets it right, more so than any of the others.
I think this one also reinforces the idea that in a turn-based game, the “clock” can be a soft and fuzzy thing. Trying to interpret this scenario as an 90 minute slice out of the fighting August 18th fails to capture the intent of the scenario designer. Better to interpret it as bursts of 15-20 minute actions with the 30-40 minute lulls between fighting simply ignored. It would feel a lot more authentic if there were a way to acknowledge the down time and perhaps even model its effects. However, we are talking here about user-made scenarios for a long-time engine, so we shouldn’t get too greedy.
Lastly, in this version of the scenario, I get the feeling (more than the others) that it was made based upon a memoir or personal history. The named locations and other details have the feeling of being pulled from a soldier’s personal recollection of the battle. I’ve gotten used to seeing the War in Vietnam purely from the American perspective. This is one battle where there is extensive information from the Australian’s point of view. It is no wonder that it has been well covered.
Return to the master post for more Vietnam War articles or move ahead to a book review.