Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Gaming Iraq - 1941

Several weeks ago I spent some evenings playing John Tiller’s latest PC wargame, War on the Southern Front. It features a lot of campaigns that I have read very little about. The German invasions of Yugoslavia and Greece, as well as the campaigns for North Africa and Sicily.

I was predominantly gaming the Gazala scenario, a huge victory historically for Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Tiller’s game models the biggest problem of the operation very well – supply. It was only by a tenuous thread indeed that German/Italian forces were able to out duel capable (but largely mismanaged) British and Commonwealth troops in the desert around Tobruk in 1942. Armored units don’t travel very far without fuel. I’ve always appreciated operational wargames that realistically feature logistics and supply as a reality curbing the appetite of any military endeavor.

My wargaming usually goes hand-in-hand with some reading on whatever subject is covered in the game. I don’t have much on North Africa in my library so I was thumbing through Gerhard Weinberg’s massive and superb single volume on the Second World War entitled A World at Arms when I stumbled upon a section regarding the middle east the year before the Battle for Gazala.

There was a little known pro-Axis coup in Iraq in the spring of 1941. These Iraqis were armed and supported in minimal fashion by Germany and Italy to overthrow their traditional colonel rulers – the British. For their part, the Brits wanted to secure the oil resources of the area for their struggling war effort. At the time Britain stood alone against the Axis powers in Europe. America and the Soviet Union were not in the war as yet. Germany had already conquered France among other nations.

This mid-east sideshow campaign drew my interest and I decided to explore it in the only wargame form I have at my disposal, a game called Lebensraum. That game is so large that it would take more than 10 times my existing game table space to place it all out. It stretches from impassible deserts in Africa to the arctic region north of Norway and from Ireland all the way to Tehran. All at about 15 miles per hex. The map is HUGE.

Lebensraum covers all of Europe on a vast scale. The game itself is oriented on its side with East up and West down, but I've rotated the map here so that it faces roughly North and South. See the tiny red square in the lower right corner? That's where the Iraqi situation I am posting about takes place. Pretty small by comparison with everything else.

This game would cost a small fortune if it had ever been published and it would have taken forever to set up the many thousands of game pieces reflecting everything from supply dumps and panzer divisions to battleships and long-range bombers. But, way back in 1999 Terry Shrum created Lebensraum in Aide-de-Camp - the first (and most arcane, I much prefer Cyberboard and Vassal) of several computer-based graphics programs specifically designed to play otherwise printed board games by email or even online.

Lebensraum offers a scenario that starts just before Hitler invaded Yugoslavia and Greece in April 1941 and, as part of that setup, it presents the situation in Iraq at the time of the coup, allowing the player to experience some of the difficulties faced by adversaries in a remote corner of a world at war.

This is how my mind often works. Like a pinball. I just follow it from one thing (the Battle of Gazala) to another thing (the Iraqi coup of 1941) and enjoy the ride. What follows is a bit about how the situation in Iraq is simulated in Lebensraum and a small taste of what it is like to play that game. I will only attempt to explain a few of the many rules and concepts of the game, however. More detail would require making an already lengthy post much longer.

Lebensraum (which means "living space") is what I would call a “grand operational” wargame. That is, it reflects military considerations at an operational level but it does so in an enormous strategic setting. Few other games compare. Europa perhaps comes the closest.

In the Iraqi coup the pro-Axis rebel forces may draw general and combat supply from Baghdad and a few other minor cities. But, the two British regiments stationed in Iraq at the time of the coup must obtain supply elsewhere. In this case the regiment garrisoning Basra may draw general supply from the end of a very long merchant shipping pipeline that connects the Persian Gulf back to Britain.
The general situation in Iraq on the first turn. Remember that North is now left in the game's orientation. Notice the British merchant ship and destroyer escort playing pieces off the coast of Iraq. Iran is above Iraq (east) on this map. The red line denotes the border between them.

The British navy is the undisputed master of the seas at this stage of the game and one great advantage of that is the control and protection of merchant shipping lanes to Cairo for the North African campaign and to the Persian Gulf for the Iraq sideshow.

The other British regiment stationed at the airbase at Habbaniya near Baghdad isn’t so lucky, however. Any supply line trace back to Basra goes through enemy (Iraqi) territory. Therefore, this regiment begins the game in a "lack of supply". If it remains in lack of supply at the beginning of the next turn it will degrade to "out of supply" status. The turn following that it will degrade to "isolation" status. Each level of supply deficiency leads of a greater danger of it being eliminated simply due to attrition alone. Luckily, there is a solution. Supply must be flown in by Bristol Bombay cargo planes stationed in Cairo.

Leapfrogging supply. The red circle at the bottom is Cairo, the middle one is Jerusalem, and Hibbaniya is at the top. Direct flight with cargo supplies from Cairo to Hibbaniya is not possible due to the extreme distance.

The cargo planes lack the range to carry a load of supplies all the way from Cairo directly to Habbaniya. Instead, they have to hop over to Jerusalem (Palestine is under British control) and then make the flight from there. One of Lebensraum’s many treasures for me is that it forces the player to think of military operations on this grand scale. It will take two turns (one turn in the game equals one week of real time) to get the supply to Hibbaniya. So the British regiment will have to deal with a lack of supply status for the first turn of the game. A lack of supply marker is placed beside it to denote this status.

The Iraqis can easily surround the base at Hibbaniya on the first turn. They greatly outnumber the British regiment and have a chance to force it to retreat, which will – in effect – eliminate it because it is surrounded and has no route of retreat available. But, the Iraqis also have a Tactical Doctrine (TD) of 0, which is an abstract measurement reflecting the Iraqis total lack of training. By contrast, the Brits have a TD of 2. This entitles them to advantages in combat against the lesser trained foe.

The British regiment at Hibbaniya appears to be in deep trouble. It is surrounded and does not have adequate supply. But things are actually not as bad as they seem.

In addition, the Brits have two squadrons of Fairey Battle tactical bombers available at Hibbaniya. Since the British have air superiority due to their uncontested half-squadron of Gloster Gladiator fighter planes, these Fairey Battle squadrons can be used in direct defense of the regiment. So, things are not as bleak as they at first appear. The modern tools of warfare weigh heavily on the poorly trained and equipped Iraqis.

The Iraqis actually have only a slight chance of eliminating the British unit at Habbaniya. They can only force a "combat option" on the British unit on a die roll of 1, reflecting a ten percent chance of eliminating the regiment. (Lebensraum uses ten-sided dice to determine the outcome of combat.) Still, this is the best they can hope for under the circumstances. Commonwealth reinforcements will be arriving from Basra in the coming turns and the situation will only get more difficult for the upstart pro-Axis rebels.

Nevertheless, the British must respond quickly if they wish to master the state of affairs. Control of Iraq is important to the British player for two reasons. First, as long as the coup lasts it penalizes the British player in terms of political points, which weakens its position in various ways in terms of diplomacy. Secondly, Iraq has two oil resource centers. The British need those oil centers in order to fight the larger war elsewhere.

It takes one turn to fly a supply point to Habbaniya from Jerusalem, but it is such a distance (almost 150% of the cargo squadron’s range factor) that the supply arriving on turn one cannot be used (it is “delayed”) until turn two. As previously mentioned, the Habbaniya regiment is in lack of supply. It cannot attack but otherwise functions as normal.

While cargo planes are leapfrogging from Cairo to Jerusalem to Habbiniya, the British merchant shipping lands a full infantry division from India at Basra. The shipping pipeline is limited as to how much can be delivered through it each turn. The pipeline leading, say, from America directly to Britain is larger and can handle the delivery of 4 or 5 times the amount leading to the Persian Gulf. But, since this part of the war is so small, there exists no need for a boarder shipping capacity.

The Commonwealth Indian division helps secure the situation in the south (right on the map orientation). The British regiment that was garrisoning Basra is now free to be transported via cargo planes stationed at Basra up to Habbaniya. These reinforcements, along with air superiority and tactical bombing abilities, enables Hibbaniya to withstand the desperate attack by the much greater number of inferior Iraqi infantry.

On the third turn, two regiments from another Indian division stationed in the Sudan arrive along with four supply points. (This complicates the British situation a bit in Africa as the Italians control most of East Africa with a rather large military force. How that situation is resolved is beyond the periphery of the Iraqi coup, however. I merely point it out so that the reader will understand how the game engages the player in the wider implications of decisions made during war time.)

On the fourth turn, the merchant shipping is able to bring a mobile supply source into play at Basra. This important transportation unit uses up all the merchant shipping allowance for this area in this turn, but supply points cannot be transported inland without it. The Indian units now have moveable combat supply, enabling them to attack at full strength. They advance north (left on the map orientation), driving back a couple of Iraqi regiments sent to delay them.

The Iraqis are forced to retreat back to Baghdad and end up being targeted by British air and ground assets until they eventually surrender. The entire process takes about 8 turns (weeks) as the siege takes awhile to wear the Iraqi resistance down.
Endgame in Iraq. The poorly trained Iraqi forces are pushed back into Baghdad and will eventually surrender to the Commonwealth forces, which now have complete control of the situation in terms of troops, supplies, and air squadrons. Notice the mobile supply unit station in Hilla on the right. Without that important unit the Indian troops would never have been able to advance toward Baghdad and put down the coup attempt.

Support from Germany and Italy for the Iraqis was historically limited to a few planes and supplies. This level of support is not represented in game terms. The Axis forces have their hands full invading Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete, building up forces for Rommel’s advance in North Africa, and defending against the first British bombing raids of the war to spend precious air resources attempting to supply a distant coup that has little chance of success.

Games like Lebensraum not only grant me an enjoyable insight into the history that they cover, but they also give me some repose from the routine demands of daily life and allow me to experience a mental flow that is relaxing yet stimulating. Time seems to pass quickly the more your mind is engaged. It is like playing a game of bridge or a game of chess from that perspective. For me, it is a welcome change from the grind of habits within a mental space that is not at all passive. The change of pace often allows me to regroup and look at “real world” issues in a fresh light, or at the very least to escape those issues in a way that nevertheless entertains while honing the mind.

It is good history but, more importantly, for me it is just plain fun.


Moggy said...

Fascinating to see this scenario translated to a substantial war game scenario. Just a couple of points.

"the Iraqis also have a Tactical Doctrine (TD) of 0, which is an abstract measurement reflecting the Iraqis total lack of training"

I think this a bit harsh. The Iraqi Army was trained by the British. There were substantial forces, adequately trained, and well equipped (at least in relation to British forces in theatre). When the British forces took Fallujah, the Iraqi Army was able to mount a substantial and partly successful counter attack which was only defeated due to British air superiority.

The Air situation is another point. In May 1941 the Royal Iraqi Air Force was undoubtedly a superior force to the material the RAF had available at Habbania. The RIAF had a variety of modern bombers and older aircraft including Gladiators. The RAF had only a collection of trainers and Gladiators at Hab (no Fairey Battles) and Wellingtons at Basra. The difference was that the motley collection of RAF aircraft was used very aggressively, and the RIAF advantage was thrown away. Quite possibly the Iraqi army which was calling the shots did not even let the Iraqi air force into its plans, certainly when the RAF raided the RIAF bases they were taken by surprise.

Potentially however, if properly used the Iraqi land and air forces ought to have routed the token British forces. But it seems that the Iraqis were waiting for Axis reinforcement, and by the time those reinfocements (Luftwaffe, Regia Aeronautica, military advisors) arrived the British forces had taken the initiative and substantially eroded any chance of an Iraqi victory.


Keith said...

Thanks for your insights. I have much to learn about the actual historical situation in this campaign. I tried to translate it as best I could into the Lebensraum game terms. The TD of 0 was a playtest necessity, otherwise it is extremely difficult for the British regiment at Hibbaniya to survive the first turn of the revolt. Historically, it seems the regiment handled things quite easily.

I chose Fairey Battles as they are the least effective tactical bombers the British have in game terms. The game does not provide the RIAF with *any* aircraft at all. Perhaps it should.

Thanks again for sharing your information. I will try to incorporate it going forward. Lebensraum has much room for improvement. At the same time, it is the only game I know that reflects the situation in Iraq in 1941 (along with many other nuances of WW2), so that makes it rather special and deserving of further development.