The Battle of the Bulge

battle of the bulge

I love the fact that real life military tactics apply to real-time strategy (RTS) games. By knowing and analyzing the tactical and strategic decisions made by generals and commanders, it allows us to appreciate historical battles more. We can also apply some of the tactics and strategies in our own games and see first hand the effects and consequences of each of their decisions.

The Battle of the Bulge is one of the biggest offensives in the entire 2nd World War. By that time, the Allies have already landed on Normandy and pushed well into France, threatening to cross the Rhine and into Germany. However, months of constant fighting has taken its toll on the Allied soldiers. Ranks needs replacement, supplies need to be refilled and morale needs a little boost. High command decided to temporarily halt the spearhead into Germany and chose the dense Ardennes forest to recuperate.

The Element of Surprise

The Ardennes was generally considered to be an inactive region. The forest was too thick for any major offensives and the terrain is easily defensible. Or so the Allied Command thought. So much in fact, that intelligence ignored most signs of a German offensive occurring in the region. German forces literally attacked where the Allies least expected them.

The German objective was to drive to the port of Antwerp, and splitting the Allied armies into two. This would allow the Germans to divide their forces and crush the divided army, then rapidly shift their forces back East to meet the Soviet advance.

One of the main reasons why the German forces managed to penetrate deep into Allied lines was that the Allies were completely unprepared for an attack through the Ardennes. If the Allies were to repel this offensive, they needed to form a cohesive defensive line, and fast. Luckily, fierce resistance from units such as the 99th Division stationed on Elsborn Ridge and elements of the 7th Armored Division stationed in St. Vith managed to delay the German forces and buy time for the Allies to reorganize.

During the offensive, the town of Bastogne provided vital access to nearly all major roads in the whole region. Whoever controls these roads and Bastogne itself, will have a major advantage in logistics. The soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Forces managed to reach Bastogne first, and they never let it go. The German forces sieged the town for days to no avail. So much in fact, that they decided to move around it and continue on. The town of Bastogne was nearly completely surrounded!

Note the heavy overcast weather which negated Allied air superiority.

Throughout the entire offensive, German forces relied on bad weather in order to negate Allied air superiority. Without air support, the Germans are free to move columns of tanks across the forests of the Ardennes with relative ease. However during the siege of Bastogne, the weather started to clear. Allied air force managed to air-drop some much needed supplies onto the surrounded forces in Bastogne. A clear weather also meant that Allied planes were able to fight back against the Germans, bombing their positions and destroying armor and supplies.

Without the road network of Bastogne, German supply lines became very thin. The invasion was not looking very well for them. Their tanks are running out of fuel, their armies are in dire need of reinforcements, and the Allied forces are starting to form a cohesive defense.

A day after Christmas, elements of Gen. Patton’s 4th Armored Division managed to break through the German lines and into Bastogne from the south. That was the beginning of the end for the German forces. From there, the Allied forces attacked from the north and the south and threatened to surround the German forces forcing them to retreat back into German borders.

The Battle of the Bulge is named after the ‘bulge’ the German attack made as they crossed the Allied front lines.

Tactical Takeaway

And that’s the Battle of the Bulge. If you want to read a little bit more, I’ve written a page about it here.

By reading about the battle, we can learn and appreciate the tactical decisions that have been put into it. At the same time, we can also apply some of these decisions in our own RTS games! I’ve listed a few of my observations here.

Divide and conquer

The German forces’ overall plan hinged on driving a line straight through a dis-organized Allied forces in order to deal with two smaller army groups instead of one entire force. In applying this to our beloved strategy games, try to think about it in terms of spreading your opponent’s army. Sending a few units to attack a location away from your main point of attack will make him respond to this attack, driving him out of position.

This is especially useful if you are fighting a superior force. Engaging a spread out army can have much more favorable outcomes than engaging an army prepared to meet your attack.

Attacking where least expected

The Ardennes forest was generally considered inactive. Allied command did not see any reason to organize their troops in a defensive fashion against a figurative wall. Germans used this to their advantage to the fullest and to great effect.

Sometimes, map design in our RTS games don’t really allow for backstabbing maneuvers such as this. In that case, try to hide your army movements so that your attack would carry as much surprise as possible. This means denying enemy scouting, eliminating enemy patrols before they spot your main army, or outright misleading your opponents by posing to attack somewhere else. Deception is the name of the game, as the less knowledge your opponent has on your attack, the higher the chances of you catching him unprepared are.

Using terrain 

The only way the Germans held the initiative for so long despite having Allied air superiority is through abusing the terrain, or in the case of the Battle of the Bulge, the weather. German submarines provided weather forecasts that predicted heavy weather during the time of the attack and decided to wield it as a weapon. Similarly, we can use and abuse terrain advantages in our own RTS games. Learning the lay of the map, the nooks and crannies of each location, and the specific characteristics and tactics involved with each map gives us an immense advantage over our opponents.

Disrupting logistics

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As RTS fans, we’re all too familiar with worker harass or economic harass. During the Battle of the Bulge, German special forces dressed up as Allies troops and purposely disrupted Allied logistics by switching road signs, cutting communications, and generally spreading unrest among the Allied troops. Worker harass in real life!

Unfortunately, when the German special forces were caught, they were promptly executed instead of being taken as P.O.Ws as being caught wearing an enemy uniform is against the Rules of War.

Crisis management and buying time

Despite being caught off-guard and the odds against them, the Allied forces managed to create a defensive line and push the Germans back into the border. The management of Allied troops during the battle was amazing. The fierce resistance of troops in Elseborn, St. Vith and Bastogne provided enough time for the Allied command to reorganize and reinforce and ultimately hold the offensive in their favor.

In terms of RTS games, applying the right amount of resistance to an advancing opposing army, often through counter-attacks and small skirmishes, can buy enough time to prepare base defenses and squeeze out a few more units to meet their attack. So if you’re facing an imminent attack and need a few more seconds to organize a defense, try counter-attacking his base to force your opponent to move back home and defend.

Controlling the powers of luck

The 101st Airborne held the important town of Bastogne despite overwhelming odds. At one point, the entire German offensive had them surrounded but still they held. Luckily, weather conditions began to improve and Allied air superiority is restored, bringing some much needed, air-dropped supplies. The 101st almost faced annihilation, with the Germans even offering them to surrender. Luckily, General Patton’s 4th Armored broke through German lines and managed to restore the supply lines and relieve them. But was it really luck?

The 101st wasn’t being lucky at all. Had the 101st decided to surrender, the town of Bastogne would’ve fallen into German control and with it, access to the vital roadways that span across the entire region. Had they surrendered, the improved weather conditions would not have been as much help as they were. Had they gave up, Gen. Patton’s Army, and in turn, the whole Allied forces, would have had a much harder time in mounting a counter-offensive as they would have to take Bastogne back from the Germans. The 101st knew the consequences of defeat and they fought tooth and nail in order to avoid it. In essence, they were controlling their own luck.

At one point, the US forces holding the town of Bastogne was completely surrounded.

At one point, the US forces holding the town of Bastogne was completely surrounded.

Applying the concept of controlling luck to our games is pretty simple. Things don’t always go our way in RTS games, but with a bit of perseverance, we can open the doors for luck to come into play. The tip is to put ourselves in a situation where we can capitalize on luck when it does come. Say you’re losing a game and will need a miracle to come back at the very most, or a big mistake from your opponent at least. In order to control your own luck, you can try to force your opponent to make a mistake. Sending small, multi-pronged attacks to force your opponent’s armies to be out of position may just be the miracle you need to get back into the game. You just have to be there to capitalize on it.

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2 thoughts on “The Battle of the Bulge

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

    Liked by 1 person

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