WW2 Grand Strategy, Developed by Paradox Interactive
Story time. Many years ago now, me and two friends (whom I shall call here, Sovereign and Steelzenith, as those are their online handles) had been playing Hearts of Iron three for hours.
The year was 1940. I was playing the distant and watchful America, Steelzenith was playing the French and Sovereign was playing the Brits. Things were going well so far, Steelzenith was holding the Blitzkreig in central France, while pushing the Italians back over the Alps. Sovereign had a small expeditionary force holding south of the (horribly crushed and defeated) Belgium. I was, as yet, unable to intervene. I therefore spent my time organising troops, naming new divisions and slotting them into some semblance of order. I made sure sure that my fleets were well prepared and ready to shepard the doughboy tide across the Atlantic, when the time came.
We had decided upon a Europe first strategy, making sure that the heart of the alliance was safe before we moved on to peripheral theatres. Both myself and Sovereign needed time to build and equip the forces that would fight the battle of Armageddon. We were all getting pretty tired at this point. Occasionally we would have to pause to let Steelzenith deal with the flood of reports coming from the front—and have a cigarette. His defence was a brick wall, the wermacht an inexpertly wielded sledgehammer. The blows never fell on the same place twice so the face remained strong, but the constant chipping was beginning to tell. The young men of France are not infinite in number, and the army—while valliant—did not have the strength to lead a counterattack against the German threat. It was a losing stalemate.
We talked war plans. I suggested that I could drop a parachute corps behind Italian lines, leading to a quick encirclement of their weakened forces. Followed up with a small landing, I could free French forces for the war in the north. Steelzenith and Sovereign regarded this plan as the height of American arrogance—impulsive and bearing the possibility of massive failure. In any case, my intervention was going to be a good long time away (probably mid 1941), and so it was going to fall to the Brits to try and make good the situation. There were two schools of thought. Steelzenith favored an approach which would take the pressure off his troops. The French and the Brits would share a line in France, it would be 1916 again, but with fresh, well trained and well equipped British soldiers leading the counterattack. It could roll the Germans slowly back to Berlin. Sovereign on the other hand favored the opening of a second front to the north of the current line of battle—a seaborne invasion of the “lightly defended” Denmark.
The plan had its merits. A landing on Copenhagen could have secured then passage out of the Baltic, which would have bottled up a good chunk of the German fleet (ships cannot sail though hostile straits in Hearts of Iron three). Further, making sure that both sides of Oresund were either under allied or Swedish control would allow British and French ships to sail into the Baltic, with the possibility for a later landing aiming at Berlin itself. This “Plan East” was dangerous, in part because it courted the ire of the Luftwaffe. The British fleet would be open to a prolonged pounding by torpedo and dive bombers during the landings, with a real possibility that some brigades might not even make it ashore. German bombing would also be a problem on the ground, with few British aircraft having the range to reach out to the Denmark. The whole force would rely on three British fleet carries for air support—leaving the carrier groups weakened and the carriers themselves open to attack from the air. Further, British troops stationed on the Danish side of Oresund could expect little in the way of supplies or support. They would have to rely on the natural defences of the city.
Myself and Steelzenith pushed for the whole Denmark plan to be dropped—it was too risky. It put in danger the entire British Royal Marine Corps. Certainly it was no less dangerous than my harebrained paratrooper schemes.
Sovereign had another idea however, the full details of which me and Steelzenith were not party to until years after the event. This was “Plan West”, it differed from “Plan East” in that it would involve almost all of Sovereign’s un-engaged forces. It would not simply open up a new front, but would in fact turn into a full scale invasion of Germany. The plan was simple in concept. The marines would land in Western Denmark and seize its North Sea ports. They would be followed up by two armored corps (ten divisions or one hundred and fifty thousand fighting men), who would sweep down to form a seal on the border between Denmark and Germany. This seal would then be secured by the third wave, the best in British infantry. After the seal was tight, armored spearhead would reach out from Denmark and start making their way to Berlin through Prussia.
There were a number of uncertainties in this plan. The first and most glaring was the simple fact that we lacked any real knowledge about the disposition of the enemy. Intelligence reports suggested that Denmark was lightly held by garrison forces at the ports. However, how close the beachheads were to re-enforcement was never really clear. Further, plan called for an initial advance West to East, from Esbjerg to Copenhagen. This axis of advance would place the flanks of the assaulting force at the mercy of any re-enforcing German divisions. If successful however— if the bridgeheads could be secured and the seal held tight—the plan stood a chance of shortening the war by years.
Me and Steelzenith fumed to each other about the plan in private. We opened Steam chat and spoke about Sovereign’s obsession with Denmark. It was late, he was getting bored, tired. We had been playing for so long that the coffee we kept on imbibing was no longer really doing its job. Neither of us could really muster up the stuff to talk Sovereign out of it however. Steelzenith had too much on his plate with the front to spend too much time planning someone else’s offensive. Sovereign was somewhat dismissive of my opinion—I was not actually involved in the war at that point. Me and Steelzenith saw it coming, but we did not press our point. I didn’t want to make Sovereign feel uncomfortable, I did not want him to think I thought him stupid. So in June 1940 there was to be a large scale invasion of Denmark, and the best that we could hope would be that Sovereign would make a good attempt of it. I sat dejectedly in my chair, occasionally typing to Steelzenith, lamenting the state of things in general.
In June I watched as the British army trooped off into the transport ships. The attractive red squares, each representing a military force of roughly fifteen thousand men, made their way from the midlands to the southern port towns. The weather was beautiful. On the sea the British fleet was active, making sure that there would be no interception of the transport ships by those great wolves of the sea, Scharnhorst or Gneisenau. The air was tense, we stopped chatting for a while and simply waited to see what would happen. I flitted between map modes, checking the omens, trying to estimate how long the invasion force had once it had touched down before the might of the German military rose to meet it. I cursed myself for not investing more heavily in the decryption of codes, which would have allowed me to more accurately gauge the enemy’s disposition. I reckoned that Sovereign had two or three weeks at the most, after which the whole thing would be FUBAR.
There was no interception by the German navy, although they made a brave stand against the British home fleet off Heligoland. The home fleet made short work of the few ships the Germans could put to sea. However, sea power cannot stand alone. With little air-cover the British fleet found itself at the mercy of bombs and torpedoes raining down from on high. I could see from a distance that the fleet carriers had been damaged, and that the battleships were also taking a pounding. However, the landing ships emerged unscathed. The first feet on the ground were the Royal marine corps. Within a couple of days they dealt with the garrisons of the western Danish ports and established a perimeter around them. The next to the shore were the armored corps, but there was no space (in terms of supplies on hand) for the third wave. They would follow after Copenhagen had fallen.
Now began the push towards Copenhagen. There was no time to lose, as every day German re-enforcements would draw closer. It was at this point that things started to go wrong. The most immediate worry was that the Germans had not moved any divisions engaged in France. This meant that the Germans, if they were sending re-enforcement, would be doing so from the east and the south. This was good in some respects, it would take the Germans a long time to concentrate their forces in Denmark, and that gave the British a chance to establish a firm beachhead. In other ways this was bad: the primary goal of the operation (from my and Steelzenith’s point of view at least) was to weaken the Germans in the west. Now, however, the Germans held strong in the west, and had the opportunity to crush a significant portion of the British army against the sea.
The marines took a horrible pasting from the air. Every day the drone of a thousand aircraft engines filled the skies over Denmark. Bombs fell like rain on a land of flat fields, providing no respite for the marines crawling over it. The carrier air groups fought valiantly to intercept the massed waves of German bombers. They were suffering heavy losses, however, against the faster and better armed ground-based Messerschmitt fighters of the Luftwaffe. A week into Plan West the carriers were forced to withdraw, sapped of their fighting power. Thus the British no longer had any real air support in the area. The intensity of the bombardment held up the entire advance. There were only a handful of regular German divisions in Denmark, stationed primarily in Copenhagen. Copenhagen is a formidable fortress. Any invader must first cross a channel to the island upon which it lies and then fight the enemy in a dense city. The marines, being best equipped for amphibious operations, had the job of taking the city. With the city surrounded, and the Germans inside cut off from support, the marines were winning. It would take time however—and time was not a resource in great abundance for the British.
Sovereign was silent. We all were. When me and Steelzenith asked him how the invasion was going we would be met with a cheerful affirmation that everything was going all right. Occasionally the silence was cut though by Sovereign complaining that his forces were taking a long time to break the Germans here or there, and that was worrying. It was especially worrying when I took a browse over to Sovereign’s section of the map and examined the strength of the units at his command. All apart from the armor were dying on their feet from constant action, although morale apparently remained high. I checked the date and I knew that it was already too late. I said nothing.
Another week ticked by with no advance. In a move that neither myself or Steelzenith were to hear about until it was far too late, Sovereign decided to press the attack against Copenhagen with the forces he had. This meant that one of the armored corps would have to be committed to the fight. There are three places that tanks should never fight in, the forest, the city and the water. Copenhagen has two out of three of these. It emerged later that Sovereign’s decision to attack with the armor was spurred on by the fact that the marines had started losing ground—they were getting too badly mauled from the air and the crossing.
Soon enough, the Germans who had been re-deploying from the south started to muster at the Danish border. There was no seal in place to hold them, and few spare divisions. In lieu of the infantry who were supposed to form the seal, the only free troops were the marines that had been through the initial landings and were resting after being ejected from the meatgrinder at Copenhagen. Only one armored corps had been committed to try and take the channel islands, so at least there were some tanks to help the beleaguered marines. As a force to fend off an entire army group, it was not a heartening sight.
At first the Germans trickled one or two divisions at a time onto the Danish border, launching small probing attacks here and there. Then there was a full corps, then an army, and finally an army group complete with armored assets and full air support. The Germans finally threw their whole weight across the border. Bitter fighting followed as the currently un-engaged armored corps went to work counterattacking the German lines. It was clear to everyone, however, that this was like trying to fight a fire in an oil refinery with a squeegee bottle. The invasion was over, the marines could not hold. The question became how we could get them out.
For the longest time this was a question that Sovereign refused to find an answer to. He would not even let me and Steelzenith know the extent of the danger that faced his forces. We were and are, good friends, but something was getting in the way. Sovereign did not want to lose face, to let everyone know that the plan which they had disapproved of had failed. I desperately hoped that something would change, that Sovereign had some card up his sleeve that would sort the whole thing out. Conceivably Steelzenith could have helped out, maybe punted a few troops Sovereign’s way, but he was an experienced player and did not see the point. Further, had a habit of clamming up when people refused to listen to him. Steelzenith has a little bit of a “fuck you” attitude when it comes to these sorts of things. So we let Sovereign dangle.
Eventually British lines were intersected between Esbjerg and Copenhagen, the armor having (mostly) retreated back towards the Western ports in a fighting retreat. The marines were surrounded. Sovereign had hoped that they might take Copenhagen at the last minute and hold it, as the Germans had been holding it against him. They did not. The marines were rounded up and destroyed, encircled by the sea and a half ring of grey steel. Somehow the armor managed to get onto transports and back to Britain. Of the three or four hundred thousand men that set out to capture Denmark, only around a hundred thousand returned.
When the news finally came down the wire that Sovereign had gotten out his armored corps, but that the marines had been totally destroyed, we should all have laughed. It was a silly mistake in a videogame, nothing real was lost. Hell, we had not even lost the war, Sovereign still had forces that could go across to France. We did not laugh however, nor did we cry. We were silent and said little. It may have been a silly mistake, but it took hours to watch it play out. Steelzenith went out for a smoke. Sovereign went and got a cup of coffee. I sat in my room and stared at the screen, trying to work out what the fuck had just unfolded in front of my eyes over the last few hours. After they got back, we saved the game and called it a night.
We won the war, in the end. The American intervention came in 1941, just as planned. I smacked into the “soft underbelly” of Italy with all the force I could muster, pushing up towards southern Germany. Steelzenith and Sovereign, working together, pushed through Belgium and down towards the French border, capturing a huge portion of the German army in a massive pocket that was duly destroyed. The details of that part of the campaign, the part that I was actually involved in, remain fuzzy to me. They were dwarfed by the strange events of “Plan West”.
We still take the piss out of Sovereign for it to this day. He still thinks it was a good idea.