Monday, April 28, 2008

Artillery and the 20th Century Wargame

This article was first published in Strategy & Tactics magazine No. 135, summer 1990

Only minor typos have been corrected.

Since the article was written things have changed somewhat. Most obviously, the portion about “World War III” has been overtaken by events as the Cold War ended, although most of the world’s militaries are still divided between those operating under the Soviet-style tactical system and those operating using Western techniques.

Also, since this article was first published there has been much more attention paid to the proper role of artillery in tactical-level wargames and many of the article’s criticisms are less valid now. It’s possible that this article played some role in that development, as at least one detailed computer wargame cites this article as a source in its reference list. In any case, most tactical wargames today do a much better job recognizing the way artillery really works than the games extent in the 1980s.

Enthroning the King:
Artillery and the Twentieth Century Wargame

By Seth Owen

Most 20th Century games give artil­lery fire cursory treatment. Games that account for every millimeter of armor thickness settle for generic rules that treat everybody’s artillery the same, and no­body’s correctly.

As an artilleryman this bugs me. Why should the treadheads and grunts have all the fun? My mission is to fix this.

At the turn of the century artillery tactics were much the same as they had been for the last few centuries. Horse drawn batteries would gallop to positions selected by the battery commander and open direct fire on the enemy. The individual gunner selected his particular target. He estimated range, laid the gun on the target and selected the round to fire.

Sometimes the battery commander would designate a target to mass the fire of his battery. On rare occasions a general would mass many guns into Grand Battery. Often this was a battle winning tactic. It was very diffi­cult to form and control these grand batteries. It required a lot of time and favorable terrain to do it at all.

The closing decades of the nineteenth century saw many significant improvements in the guns, such as recoil mechanisms, mod­em shells and better powder charges. Even so, tactics remained the same.

World War I

By the opening days of World War I it was clear that the old method of direct fire was now suicidal. In previous centuries counterbattery fire was only marginally effec­tive. Many generals, Wellington comes to mind, prohibited their gunners from engaging in it, considering it a waste of ammunition.

The new rapid-fire guns, high explosive shells and improved propellants could devas­tate an opposing battery in minutes. If you could be seen you could, you would, be killed.

To survive, batteries were forced to take cover. They hid behind terrain such as hills, woods or towns, so enemy batteries could not take them under direct fire.

The problem now was how to fire the guns at targets they could no longer see. Dur­ing the black powder era howitzers and mor­tars had sometimes engaged in “observed fire.” The battery commander or another officer would climb a nearby prominence. From it he would observe the fall of shell and give firing commands to the howitzer or mortar crew. This was a slow process, more art than science, normally restricted to static warfare.

At first these techniques were adapted for all field artillery. Field artillery officers who were to observe the targets moved away from the battery and took a position affording the best view. A First World War British artillery officer described the process:

“The position of the battery and target are ascertained upon a map, and by means of it the range and direction of the target from the battery are obtained. A calculation based upon this information is made, and a certain elevation and direction given to the guns. A round is then fired, and then the position of the point where it falls relative to the target noted by the observation officer, who gives a correction based upon their error.”

“Another round is . fired … and a fresh correction made … this process continues until the rounds are falling at, or very dose to the target.”

Each battery had its own observation post (OP). If enemy fire forced the OP to move or knocked it out, the same officer noted. “The battery is out of action until he has established himself somewhere else

The troops comprising the Observation Post (OP) had carefully worked out proce­dures to calculate the firing data. OPs were normally located on prominent terrain behind the trench line. With this system it was very difficult to mass the fires of more than one unit on a particular target To adjust the fires of other units besides his own battery, the observer had to know where they were and compute data for them. This was a time con­suming process. The alternative was to give the map position of the target to the battery commander and let hint fire unobserved rounds.

Given enough time any army could mass hundreds of guns. The build up for a major offensive would see scores of battalions mov­ing into position and registering on their tar­gets. As a result, surprise was impossible.

When the attack began, complicated pre­arranged fire plans were implemented. Roll­ing barrages, box barrages and other tech­niques were employed to saturate the target area. In theory the infantry would follow up the destruction caused by the artillery and seize the objectives from the stunned enemy.

The main drawback of this system was inflexibility. If an unexpected strongpoint showed up, there was no way to call fire on it. If the infantry got held up for any reason, they found their barrages walking away from them. The enemy soldiers would get enough time to recover and stop the attack in its tracks.

One enterprising British artillery officer sought to find a technique more responsive to the needs of the infantry. He found, “unob­served shooting is very dull, and often, I fear, very ineffective.” He established special par­ties of observers and wiremen to man forward OPs in no-mans land.

This officer, LTC (Lieutenant Colonel) Neil Fraser-Tytler, later wrote, “As our for­ward positions enable us to haunt the front line, do all this wiping out of nests of Huns hidden in shell holes, we have been relieved of the ordinary routine of harassing fire by day and by night.”

All fire missions went through the OP. If a higher artillery headquarters, such as battal­ion, located a target they would send the coor­dinates to the OP. The observation officer should locate it on his map. If he could not see the target from his position, he would take a compass bearing from his position, compute his firing commands and send them to the guns. There was no way to tell if the fire was accurate or not.

This was the state of the art at the end of World War I. Every nation used the same basic system.

Between The World Wars

For most armies, between the wars the most significant development was the field radio. This allowed the forward observer much more tactical freedom. It allowed him to call for fire in mobile situations as well as static. In one country, the United States, a far more revolutionary development was occur­ring that would transform modem fire sup­port.

In 1929, one of the gunnery instructors at the U.S. Army Field Artillery School at Fort Sill came across LTC Fraser-Tytler’s book in the school’s library. Reading about his at­tempt to solve the problem of supporting the infantry inspired the Gunnery Department to try to improve on his methods.

In 1930, Major Canoe Brewer, head of the Gunnery Department, began development of the firing chart. Using this chart an officer plotted the target using the ADJUSTED loca­tion achieved by the adjusting battery. The reinforcing batteries would fire on this ad­justed location, which accounted for weather and some other nonstandard conditions. The plotters amid use any gridded sheet, an im­portant advantage in time when gridded maps were hard to come by.

By 1934, further experimentation had al­lowed improvements in technical fire control that coped with most of the conditions that could be accounted for. The early Fire Direc­tion Center (FDC) operated at battalion level The S3, two officers to compute the firing data, a draftsman to prepare the firing chart, and a clerk make up the FDC. Battalion handled observed fires, and unobserved fires were handled at battery level using overlays from higher headquarters.

A lull in developments followed while the new procedures were tried out by units in the field. One of these units was the 77th Field Artillery in Marfa, Texas. Its commander, LTC H.L.C. Jones, experimented further by decen­tralizing observed fire computations to the battery and having battalion FDC take care of unobserved fires. He added three officers to the FDC to compute data for each battery.

In 1939, LTC Jones was reassigned to Fort Sill as head of the Gunnery Department. He further improved Fire Direction methods in

the few short years of peace remaining. Gun­nery instructor Captain Abbot H. Burns in­vented a very significant instrument known as the Graphical Firing Table (GVI) around this time.

Up until now, computation of firing data required computers (men, not machines) to leaf through books containing various factors and values and manually determine the solu­tion. The GFT was a form of slide rule that let the computer read the solution directly. Be­sides speeding up the process, it simplified it enough to allow enlisted personnel to replace the officers ~ computers.

The mature FDC, ~ developed just be­fore the war, consisted of~ a Horizontal Con­trol Operator (HCO), who determined the range and direction to the target; the Vertical Control Operator (VCO), who determined the difference in elevation and angle between the battery and target and two computers, who used the data from the HCO and VCO to compute the firing data for the guns.

Reviewing the various major armies in the Second Wodd War, we find some signifi­cant differences.


In the defense, Japanese artillery would deploy far forward as possible. Battalion would establish at least three OPs, one for each battery.

The primary method of communication was wire. Five ‘walkie-talkie’ type radios were available in the battalion to equip some forward observers.

Liaison between artillery units and sup­ported infantry was poor. The artillery repre­sentative at the infantry headquarters was usually just an NCO at battalion level and a junior officer at Regiment. Many infantry commanders were reluctant to ask for artillery support, feeling that the infantry could take care of things by itself.

On Leyte, which saw the largest-scale maneuver warfare between American and Japanese forces, guns were used singly, in pairs, and only in rare instances, as batteries. Fires were not massed. Only one instance was recorded of an ~tual adjustment being made and followed by a concentration of fire.

Defensively, they made excellent use of camouflage and concealment, even to the point of accepting very restricted arcs of fire. Guns were found in huts with only a hole to shoot out of.

Japanese batteries started the war four guns strong, but by 1945 most units not in Manchuria, or Japan itself, had only three guns per battery.

Soviet Union

Soviet techniques were at about the same level as the Japanese. Unlike them, the Soviets always made sure there were plenty of guns available.

Supporting an armored operation, a So­viet artillery regiment would attach liaison officers to the tank unit. These officers would act as ordinary tank commanders until they met resistance that the tanks needed fire sup­port to overcome.

“The method for calling for fire and cor­rection is normal; by using a map previously encoded, the observer constantly pinpoints his position. On discovering a definite target he transmits by radio the nearest reference point and the relation of the target to it, at the same time indicating the type of concentration re­quired.”

The Soviets massed artillery in the old fashioned way, by physically massing the pieces to cover the desired sector. Battery commanders observed for their own units in routine operations. For mobile operations, liaison officers with special channels of com­munication would support the tanks.


British regiments of 24 guns were di­vided into three batteries of eight guns each. Each battery was further divided into two troops, with four guns per troop. The troop was the basic unit to fire.

“Each troop set up a troop CP (Com­mand Post). The Fire Direction system con­sisted of two plane tables with grid sheets, one for each troop, steel rulers and protractors and a map on a map board. The CPO (Command Post Officer) looked around, located the gun firing the first shells on his map, and had NCOs plot the necessary coordinates on grid-sheets and plot the location of one troop on each sheet. Massing of fire was . . . accom­plished by plotting the final data of the troop adjusting, transferring to the other sheet, and measuring the necessary ‘switch’ or deflection shift and range for the other troop.”

The troop commander had a light, radio equipped, truck. This enabled him to act as an FO. The source quoted above mentions that this truck was due to be replaced by a light tank in armored artillery units. For the cam­paign in France the light tank was used.

The primary means of communication was the radio, wire being reserved as a secon­dary means of communication, or used in static situations.


Each German battery had two types of observation posts. Forward 01’s manned by FOs and the ordinary kind manned by the ob­servation officer and battery commander.

The regular OPs Were connected by wire to the battalion CP and to the gun position. The FOs used radios.

A fire mission would start with a call from the FO to the battalion. The battalion CP would select a battery to fire, and the order would go to the OP. At the OP or at the gun position, depending upon the location of the computation group, they would compute fir­ing commands.

This system allowed for firing all the guns of the battalion on the same target. It was not true massing of fire, as each battery still computed its own data, resulting in prob­able scattering of the fire.

In practice, most missions were handled by a single battery. In four incidents reported on the eastern front, the FO fired one battery in three cases and a battalion in the other. In the case of the battalion fire, however, the bat­talion had nine hours to plan its fire.

United States

The 1932 edition of “Elementary Tactics”, a basic text of the Field Artillery School, gave these two examples of how a battalion com­mander exercised Fire Direction:

“The battalion commander identifies a target ... points it out to one of his staff and directs him personally to go to a battery commander at the battery observation post, point out the target ... and fire upon the target.”

“A battalion commander receives a mes­sage from infantry in his front that there is a machine gun at a certain location designated from the map by coordinates. He telephones a battery commander, gives him the coordinates and directs him to fire upon it.”

By 1942, the same text described battal­ion control of fire in these words:

“Fire by a single battery does not always give the density required ... For a heavy vol­ume of fire, more than one battery must fire Si­multaneously on the same target. The battal­ion commander must be able to put fire on the most appropriate target, at the most oppor­tune time, with the highest degree of surprise and demoralizing intensity. He must be able to maneuver the fire of his batteries ...“

With either common survey control or a common registered point, the entire division artillery could fire on a single target after ad­justment by a single battery.

While American artillery units could still establish the battery 01’s common to the other powers, most calls for fire came from FOs attached to the infantry and armored battal­ions. Armored artillery battalions had Sher­man tanks for use by their FOs.

American divisions employed the mass­ing of Fire whenever the situation was suit­able. Fire missions needing more than a bat­talion in effect Went to the Division Artillery headquarters which would coordinate the additional firing units. Besides the four bat­talions organic to the division, any reinforcing corps artillery could join in.

An example of how this artillery could be used is the attack of LTC Creighton Abram’s 37th Tank battalion, CCR, 4th Ar­mored division on the town of Assenois, 26 December, 1944. This town was only four kilometers from the perimeter of Bastogne and contained the last German strongpoint pre­venting a breakthrough.

LTC Abrams radioed back to his S3 and said, ‘this is it’. A few minutes later CPT Cook, Liaison Officer from the 94th FA Bn to CCR, received a radio message back at the CCR CP ...from Abrams telling him to have all artillery prepared to fire on Assenois on call. Cook radioed division artillery to have them make arrangements for the 22nd and 253nd to prepare to fire. The 94th was already registered on the target and firing data was transmitted to Div Arty. The artillery plan was for the three light battalions to fire 10 volleys with the 155 Battery to fire on the center of the town ... During a short but intense shoot on Assenois approximately 360 rounds of 105 and 60 rounds of 155 were fired.

In the Pacific, as early as the Guadalcanal campaign, American commanders were saying “The essential soundness of the teachings of the Field Artillery School, especially the technique of the Fire Direction Centers, was proved ... Prompt and unexpected mass fires of one or more battalions . . . were highly effective in destroying stubborn enemy resistance...

Post-war developments make modern guns many times more lethal than their Sec­ond World War ancestors.

The application of these developments has resulted in two very different schools of thought about the use of artillery. As in so many things, there is a Soviet way and an American way.


Soviet calls for fire usually start from the Command Observation Post (COP). Located at the COP is the battery commander. The COP is normally in a specially designed artil­lery command and reconnaissance vehicle
(ACRV). In offensive operations extra Forward Observation Posts (FOPs) are formed, and recon personnel form additional OPs.

Calls for fire go to the battalion FDC, which sends the mission to the battery(s) se­lected to fire. The battery FDC, battalion FDC and the COP compute firing data. Whoever computes it first sends the data to the guns, the others acting as checkers.

They are beginning to field electronic fire direction computers at battalion level, but computations at battery FDCs and COPs are stifi done manually.

Most artillery fire in both the offensive and defensive is preplanned. Only a portion, maybe as much as one third, of the available artillery is available for on-call fire missions.

The Soviets do not hesitate to use direct fire, considering it several times more effec­tive than indirect fire.

The normal unit to fire is the battalion, although less commonly a battery may fire on a small target.

Theoretically all officers are trained to call for fire. In practice, only ACRVs, battalion commanders and recon personnel do.

U.S. Army

In 1951 the Field Artillery School developed rotating firing boards that allowed the FDC to adjust fire onto a target without knowing the location of the observer. If the observer could give direction to the target, FDC could now easily compute the adjustments necessary.

All modern American FDCs have com­puterized fire direction1 equipment. This al­lows them to compute separate firing data for each gun. In the past, firing data was nor­mally computed from center of battery to cen­ter of target. The shells fell on the target in whatever pattern the guns happened to be in the battery location. It was possible, but VERY time consuming (outside the bounds of any wargame scenario), to compute firing data manually for each gun to the target.

American computers now allow rapid computation of data from each gun to a de­sired location. Normally the guns will fire a “converged sheaf”, all the shells aimed for the same spot on the ground. The computer can also space the aim points evenly throughout an area target, or along a linear target, such as a road or river.

Mechanized forces have digital commu­nication. An observer with a Digital Message Device (DMD) can punch up his call for fire on a hand held keyboard. When finished he can transmit it in a short (1-2 second) digital burst to the artillery battalion computer. This com­puter will select a unit to fire and specify ammunition type and quantity. Battalion per­sonnel will quickly review it and then send it digitally to the battery computer. The battery computer will automatically compute firing data for each gun. battery personnel will re­view it and then send it digitally to the guns where a screen displays the data. The guns set their scales accordingly and fire.

The system can be set up to operate fully automatically. In effect, the observer can talk directly to the guns. And rounds can be on the way within seconds of the call for fire.

In theory, anybody can call for fire. Most often it is a Fire Support Team (FIST), maneu­ver commander, or platoon leader.

The FIST usually rides in a modified Ml13 called a FIST-V. which looks exactly like an Improved TOW Vehicle (ITV). There is one FIST per company. In addition, Infantry units have two man enlisted FO parties with each platoon.

FISTs have lasers that can locate targets with extreme accuracy. They can also use these lasers to guide in Copperhead and Air Force laser guided bombs directly onto a target.

American firing batteries are divided into two 4-gun platoons~-each with its own FDC. A battalion has three batteries. This is remarkably like the WWII organization of a British field artillery regiment. Like the regiment, the American battalion has 24 guns.

The accuracy that can be achieved by modern American artillery means that fewer rounds can be used to accomplish the same mission. Against a very lucrative or large target, an observer could still mass as many guns as are in range, but normally he will only ask for what he needs.

The number of tubes and rounds to fire can be precisely tailored to match the target.

The King of Battle and Wargames

It is important to understand the tech­niques used by First World War artillerymen, because they should be considered the norm for the Second World War, unless good infor­mation shows otherwise.

For the mobile phases of WW I, rules should allow for only direct fire or indirect fire from a masked position that has an OP within voice distance of the firing line.

In more settled conditions, when there has been time to lay wire, the OP could locate itself on any prominent terrain feature. Each OP should observe for only one battery, though a battery could have more than one OP. Because wire has to be laid between the OP and the battery the OPs can’t relocate, if fire knocks out On OP that battery is unable to fire until It establishes a new OP.

In special situations an observer might spot for the other batteries of his battalion. This would be a slow process, useless against anything other than fixed positions. Other­wise limit indirect fire missions to one battery for adjusted fire.

In a deliberate attack, any number of guns can participate, firing on a planned unchange­able schedule. Because this fire would be from registered positions, it would be reasonably accurate.

Unobserved fires were subject to large errors. Few of the ballistic conditions that af­fected the flight of the projectile were ac­counted for in firing calculations.

Moat wargamers are aware that superior small unit leadership and equipment gave World War II era German tankers and infan­tryman consistent advantage in firefights. Yet American units usually held their own. What made lip the difference was fire support.

Any American observer could request an amazing amount of fire. At the minimum, he could count on his battalion, If the target was good enough, or the situation desperate enough, he could call in a whole Division Ar­tillery (Div├árty) or more. This fire would ar­rive quickly, usually within 15 minutes, and accurately.

In an ordinary tactical situation, Ameri­can infantry FOs should be able to call for as much artillery as they want. They won’t al­ways get it, of course. The artillery battalion will analyze the request, considering how much ammunition is available, the nature of the target, what other missions are going on, etc. They will decide how much to shoot.

As a rule of thumb, the battalion would rather fire all twelve guns at a target once, than fire four guns three times. The Division Artil­lery would rather fire three battalions at the target once than see one of its battalions fire at the same target three times.

In this way, American artillery got much the same psychological effect using cannons, as the Germans and Soviets did using rockets.

For the American armored battalion, ev­ery company of tanks should have an extra Sherman with an F0 in it. He will have access to 1-3 batteries immediately.

As for the Other guys;

Japanese fire support should be anemic. An occasional round or two may show up, but fhe best level they usually got was harassment.

In unusual cases a full battery (3 guns) may fire, almost never a full battalion (9 guns). As one contemporary Japanese observer put it, “Fires of the batteries are massed on a single target area by informing battery commanders of the coordinates of the area, give each battery a sector of the area and then have them fire.” World War I techniques!

In mobile warfare, allow some indirect fire capability on a case by case basis. The source quoted above mentions two batteries being concentrated to destroy an enemy posi­tion. Allow fire by more than one battery on an observed target sometimes, It’s apparent that it was set up by special coordination, rather than being a normal procedure, though.

British observers can fire four or eight guns on a target freely, after adjustment. The first troop’s fire should be accurate, but the second troop should still be subject to some drift, as the method indicated above still does not account for many conditions that affect the accuracy of the fire.

Massing the fire of units larger than the troop should still be difficult, confined mostly to planned fire.

German radio equipped FOs should be able to call in at least one battery on a target rapidly. The rest of the battalion would be able to fire on lucrative targets. Accurate fire would be possible if the FO adjusted each battery onto the target. Unadjusted fire was subject to large errors.

Besides the FOs, artillery OPs would ex­ist on prominent terrain features. Wire con­nected these OPs to battalion CPs and firing batteries, so they would generally only exist in defensive operations or near the start line of an Offensive.

Massed fires are very common in static or preplanned situations. In mobile situations there will normally only be a battalion avail­able. With enough time several battalions ~ould fire on the same target, with varying degrees of accuracy.

And for World War Ill

Most rules do a decent job of dealing with American artillery techniques. The flexi­bility actually makes it easy. Anybody with a radio can be allowed to call for fire. An un­trained observer’s initial rounds will probably be well off the mark and take a while to adjust. A trained observer is closer and quicker. A FIST with a DMD and laser can skip the ad­justment phase and just call in a Fire for Effect right on top of the target most of the time.

The fire for effect should arrive in multiples of four guns, based on the size of the target. Computers will select the numbers based on the nature of the target and the numbers available. Against a large, important target the whole battalion (24 guns) plus one or more reinforcing battalions (24 more, each) could fire.

Soviet fire will normally be a full 18 gun battalion strong, called in by an OP of some sort. They will still need to adjust fire for good accuracy.

Let’s put artillery in its proper role. When it lands in the right place at the right time, nothing is more devastating. The twen­tieth century artilleryman’s quest has been for more efficient ways to put artillery fire where the ground commander needs, when he needs it.

SUMMER 1990 #135

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