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Hitting the Silk: Airborne Operations in ETO

Hitting the Silk: Airborne Operations in ETO

Posted by Alan Emrich on Jan 24th 2019

Hitting the Silk
Conducting Airborne Operations in Russia: a Vast Steppe

By Alan Emrich

All strategic level WWII wargames must come to grips with incorporating airborne forces and paradrop landings. Historically, these events occur (and are best simulated) below a strategic (Corps and Army) level as the operational (Division and Regiment) and tactical (Battalion and Company) level events they were. When considering how airborne operations would work in Frank Chadwick’s ETO, developer Lance McMillan averred that other wargames haven’t “gotten it right” but that we would. He put his thesis into game rules and those rules into playtesting.

Axis paradrop in RussiaSince Frank designed ETO as the whole, combined set of games first (that is, every part was designed and tested to some degree before the first part was published), we had a singular opportunity during alpha (i.e., “in-house”) testing to set up and try out individual battles and campaigns that told the story of WWII with gameplay verisimilitude that gamer-historians would recognize and embrace. We set up and played the Battle of Britain, the War in the Desert, the D-Day landings and Breakout, the Invasion of Norway, and we conducted a lot of airborne operations: Crete, Malta, and Market-Garden… over and over again until they rang true.

What’s Ops, Doc?

The key to making airborne operations work is ETO’s inclusion of Small size units. ETO remains a strategic (Corps and Army level) game, but the Wilderness (i.e., Arctic and Desert) Theaters and airborne operations fit hand-in-glove with its Minor (Division) units; this allows players to move (and more importantly, transport) the component Divisions of certain Corps units around the map. 

The trick is not to have "too many ants!"

The trick is to not have "too many ants" piled up on the map!

An important admonition from other “monster size” wargames was to avoid walls of counters opposing each other on the map – "too many ants" (lower echelon units) on the map makes a game unwieldy. To deal with this paradox of needing some Minor units but not too many of them, Frank has carefully designed the limits of their availability into the Change box system’s orders of battle – once broken down, you need to recombine those Corps units to make their component Division units available again for another Corps unit to break down elsewhere.

Airborne units, however, represent a special case. Because so many critical airborne operations occurred below the Divisional level (by Regiments, Battalions, and even Companies) we needed to find a way for the system to represent those operations without including a mass of tiny zero-strength units. That's why you occasionally see larger formations employed in a scenario than might have been used historically. It is also why it seems that airborne units are potentially easier to replace than you might expect.

Preparing and Getting There

Airborne units are Specialists, so if eliminated they can only be replaced on a Monthly basis. This is worth mentioning at the outset as these Small Airborne units are weak and tend to suffer when committed to Battles; when dropped, they must be their side's first choice for combat losses. They are often a priority unit to rebuild from the Force Pool when the time is right (i.e., it is the first turn of a Month) and when there is a clear vision for their future use.

  • Players drop an Airborne unit from their Theater Reserve and after a 3 turn jump preparation period (delay), but that is only part of the equation.
  • There must also be an Air Transport unit available to fly it onto the map and it must survive enemy Interception to complete its Airdrop Mission. 
  • German He-111 has the parachute symbolIt is often wise to use a pair of Transports in the Mission Packet flying Airborne units to their target because if one suffers and Abort or Kill result, the other can still get through to complete the Airdrop Mission.Unfortunately, most Transport Air units are Vulnerable, which improves the enemy’s chances of ripping them to shreds. Their single Escort Fighter unit allowed is greatly hindered protecting them when two enemy Interceptor Fighter units pounce; this is when a Dogfight goes from Furball to FUBAR in a single die roll as your Transports and Escorts are murderlized. Timing you airdrops to a moment when the enemy is least-able to challenge you in the air is an important concern!
  • That Theater must also have a friendly Strategic HQ marker in Attack mode (which costs 1/2 Equipment Point + 1/2 Fuel Point). The drop need not be in its printed Supply Range, but it is a very good idea to do so when dropping them directly into a Battle hex.

Thus, conducting a successful paradrop is not as easy just marching units around on the map; it requires the confluence of multiple elements (especially preparation time) just to push those lads out of their transports over the target hex!

Dropping and Fighting

Opoeration Merkur (The Middle Sea)

Although useful for seizing unprotected key terrain features (e.g., an Anchorage or Strait hex), Airborne units are especially useful for direct combat support dropping into a vital Battle hex (and only one per Battle is permitted in ETO, although cards in volume II: The Middle Sea, allow for larger Airborne invasions, such as Operation Merkur shown here in playtest). 

Arrival survival means flipping that Airborne unit to its immobile Airdrop mode side (which is still a unit, not a marker).

In addition to contributing their minuscule Combat Strength (which is mercifully unhalved for terrain or supply considerations), in ETO the attacker rolls a die versus their Surprise Value of 3 to gain a number of rightward shifts on the Combat Results table (i.e., rolling a 1-6 means gaining: 1, 2, 3, 0, 0, or 0 shifts from the surprise airborne drop; like Close Air Support, these are only potential combat shifts, not guaranteed ones). During a Night Drop their Surprise Value drops to 2 (so 1, 2, 0, 0, 0, or 0 shifts).

The Airborne Aftermath

When successfully clearing a Battle hex just airdropped into (i.e., via enemy unit elimination or Retreat), interesting outcomes accrue to the attacking player. First, other Ground units attacking that hex can Advance After Combat as though it were a Breakthrough result – this means a full stack can be placed in that hex with Motorized units having the option to advance one hex further (and if the paratroops survived the ordeal, they are a nice little garrison holding the Battle hex as their comrades drive through).

Another benefit, if the Battle hex was not only cleared of defending units (whether or not the Airdropped unit survived the ordeal), but if an Air Transport unit used in the Airdrop Mission was not Damaged and there is another Small Air Mobile unit (e.g., Airborne, Glider, or Mountain) standing by and ready to go in the Theater Reserve, then you can add that “follow-up landing” unit during your Regular Movement Step for free (even moving it from the Battle hex, if desired). Note that this can still occur even if the just-dropped airdropped unit was eliminated in the Battle! This is a critical feature for airborne operations that were a close call such as the German air assault on Crete where the initial drop was “exchanged away” in combat but its follow-up forces arrived to secure the objective.

Speaking of exchanged away, that’s what happens when Airborne units do not clear the Battle hex and end up stacked with the enemy! In this case, the A Bridge Too Far rule is applied and a Stalemate (ST) result occurs which means neither side might occupy the Battle hex! This bloodbath, combined with the requirements that Airdropped units are always their side’s priority combat step loss, explains why Airborne units’ casualty insurance premiums are so high.

Making it Real

Here is where Lance McMillan's dictums pay off. Airdrop mode units do not block enemy Retreats through their hex and are stuck there (while in Airdrop mode) until returning to normal Airborne Ground units (which occurs automatically during any future Supply Step when they are in communication). This is the key difference between ETO and other strategic WWII wargames where these ultra-light airdropped forces unrealistically block hexes and cut off enemy units’ ability to maneuver or obtain supply.

Keeping it Real

Developer Lance McMillan (pictured below, left, opposite designer Frank Chadwick, right) met all of his  goals getting the airborne operations to work in a realistic manner in ETO’s strategic level system. Development has smoothed and polished some rough edges to be sure, but it was nice starting with such a philosophically sound approach to Airborne forces to begin with! 

Lance (L) and Frank (R) playtesting THE MIDDLE SEA

Developer Lance McMillan (left) playtesting The Middle Sea at Consimworld Expo with designer Frank Chadwick

As a nod to its complexity, we include airborne operations in the Optional Rules of Thunder in the East (as they are not really necessary to play any particular scenario in TitE) so players can plug them in when they are ready to jump out of the transport and yell, “Geronimo!”

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