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We have a certain view of urban combat. One of gritty close quarters, no-mercy, warfare with snipers at every turn, and every building a veritable fortress. War in such built-up areas has long been a nightmare, but it wasn’t a fixture of warfare until the last century, at least not in the severity and seriousness one sees in more recent times. Cities are being increasingly fought over now, as the urban population on the planet explodes, and the concept of “three-block war” is becoming more, not less common. But, like anything in history, there have been exceptions. See Tenochtitlan in 1521, Monterrey in 1846, or Fredericksburg in 1862. It’s just it wasn’t very common. Now, not it’s almost uncommon for cities not to be battlegrounds.
But to a wargamer, urban combat provides many of the same difficulties one finds in reality. So how does your average wargamer a) take a building away from a determined enemy and b) hold said building against said determined enemy? There are lots of ways, I don’t know them all, but I am going to share as many as I can with you, with the help of Osprey’s Elite Vol. 168 World War II Street Fighting Tactics and Stephen Bull’s “Second World War Infantry Tactics,” as well as some other online resources. So, let’s get started.
The Urban Jungle and You, A Bit of History
Urban combat is one of the nastiest forms of combat there is. Many armies are more than satisfied to bypass a city and leave the defenders to die on the vine. And there’s a good reason. Cities are three-dimensional.
Ask the Russians in Grozny in 1995 during the First Chechen War. The Russian Army used textbook Soviet tactics of making “thunder runs” into a city to seize key points and then reduce the city’s defenders into smaller and more manageable pockets. It’s a technique that worked for them in World War II. The problem was, many of the Chechen defenders were Soviet army veterans and thus, knew the playbook. The Chechens sucked the Russians deep into Grozny, where their supporting air and artillery could not help them. The next step was to lure the Russians into blind alleys and other places where they could be easily boxed in, and then the killing began. Chechen guerillas sniped tanks from rooftops and upper floors with RPGs at close range. The Russian infantry was pinned down with automatic weapons fire from above, and the Russians were caught in the street below, with no cover or place to run. The Chechens then used the sewers to move between the various kill zones. By the time it was all over? 400 Russian AFVs had been lost, and Russian morale hit a nadir. The Russians took two months to finally force the Chechens out of Grozny, despite outnumbering them 5-1.
So, yes, a city is a dangerous place for any army. Rates of advance when it’s done right will be slow and costly, and you’ll probably need tons of direct firepower to smash an enemy position to the point where you can assault it. Or, at the very least, engineers to pave the way?
Too Fat Lardies
So, what are the things to keep in mind when wargaming in an urban environment?
- Cut the Position Off – Before you assault any strong point, cut it off from mutual support. This can be done in a variety of ways; Supporting fires covering avenues of approach or smoke are two of the better ways. The British had a technique where they would drop smoke beyond the targeted house to make sure any mutual support from surrounding houses was blind. And in your planning, always assume the other guy has positions overwatching the one you’re trying to grab?
- Firepower, Lots of It! – Urban combat is a brutal thing, and it will probably come down to whatever rules your game has for close combat, but if you can get a flamethrower or satchel charge to pave your way into a building and at the very least, stun the defenders, take that opportunity. Direct fire from tanks or anti-tank guns also works well. Keep in mind most games, when it gets to close combat, give the defenders in a building bennies to the dice modifiers for a good reason, so have the means to absorb losses and still make the attack work. The normal 3-1 attacker to defender ratio should be increased to 4 or 5-1 at least when making an assault on a building bigger than a farmhouse.
- Have a Reserve and Bring it Up Quick – The other side is waiting for you to bleed your assault elements white while you reduce that position. There is nothing quite so frustrating as taking a building and pulling up the enemy’s counters or figures and then watching your opponent hit you with a massive counterattack that he knows will succeed. Be ready to reinforce the position you just took.
- Time is always a factor – Time is always a factor in wargaming—length of the scenario, rates of movement versus the number of turns, etc. Keep in mind, urban fighting and reducing a building is a slow process. You have to work to keep the enemy pinned down and then smash him with a final assault, but that’s going to take a few turns to do right.
What About Defending a Building?
- Don’t Let them Cut You Off – The worst thing that can happen to one of your positions is for it to be cut off. If it’s about to be? Withdraw the troops to another position, preferably one that covers the one you’re leaving. Remember, you can always cut the building off again and hit him with the tips I just gave you?
- Trip him Up – Mines are great for this, even some barbed wire obstacles that will trip up a final assault, hang him up while you have him under fire. A particularly sneaky trick is to place your obstacles so they’re not just covered by the position they’re protecting but by the positions that are supporting the one you’re protecting.
- Support, It’s Key! – Repeat after me: Never, ever leave a position unsupported by itself. Always have a couple of fallback positions in mind for any of your defenders (that’s good advice in any defensive situation).
- A Little Goes a Long Way – You can do a lot with a small group of units defending a building, so try to keep in mind not to over-defend one position and under-defend another. And always, always keep a reserve!
Historical wargaming in an urban environment is a fun and interesting wargame challenge, but remember, it’s going to be rough on both sides. I’ve run and played a lot of urban games, and the number one thing that defeats players in such games? Their own “wargamer morale.” Or as one of the rules of Murphy’s Law of Combat once put it? “When both sides are convinced they are losing, they are both right.” Always have what some professionals call a GOTH (Go To Hell) plan or a plan for when all your other plans fail. It need not be complicated, but as a wargamer, I will admit I’ve reached for it when my other plans went awry more than once.
We’ll talk more later! Ta Ta for now!
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(This article is credited to Jason Weiser. Jason is a long-time wargamer with published works in the Journal of the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers; Miniature Wargames Magazine; and Wargames, Strategy, and Soldier.)