Book Review: Battleground General: Arnhem 1944
Paul Robinson attempts to change history with this interesting "wargaming" open-ended book, which puts the reader in the middle of the fiasco that took place near the small Dutch town of Arnhem during World War 2.
Author: Jonathon Sutherland and Diane Canwell
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books, 2012.
This is the first in what looks like a series of books which put you in charge of the action! Here we have a slightly new “take” on a format that has been around for a long time: the adventure book. This format has manifested itself in a number of ways before, like in Dungeons and Dragons. For those not familiar with this type of book, at its start you are given the background to the environment or situation the forthcoming adventure will be based around. You will also be told who your character is, and maybe something of their objectives or aims. You then read through a series of numbered paragraphs and are given a range of options and decisions to make. Depending on what course of action you decide, you are then taken to the corresponding numbered paragraph which tells you the consequences of that last decision. You then start the process again in that paragraph until, eventually, you reach what I’ll call a “finale” paragraph (of which there are a number of these you can end with). This will tell you whether you have succeeded or failed in your objective. No dice are required, just your wits and tactical acumen! The twist is this book, as you will have deduced from its title, is based on a historical battle. So, in a nutshell, here you have a wargame in a 166 page novel-sized book!
The creators are Jonathan Sutherland and Diane Canwell. Both have numerous military history books to their credit. Mr. Sutherland is described as a “veteran wargamer”, and he and his co-author run wargaming holidays in Crete! The book starts with a short page on how to play Battleground General. The concept is so simple it needs no more explanation than this. An “Introduction” follows which gives a brief history of the Second World War North West Europe Campaign and the lead up to the Battle of Arnhem. This formed part of Operation Market Garden—the infamous “A Bridge Too Far”! You are then offered the option of playing as Major General Urquhart, commander of the British 1st Airborne Division, or General der Waffen SS Wilhelm Bittrich, commander of II SS Panzerkorps (which consisted of 9SS ‘Hohenstaufen’ and 10SS ‘Frundsberg’ panzer divisions).
In each case, you are given the historical background of both commanders. In Urquhart’s case you also have a summary of his orders that were given to his officers before his division jumped over Arnhem. In Bittrich’s scenario you get the general outline of the operational intent of the various German commanders during the time of the airborne landings. For both, you get a decent map showing the operational areas both were concerned with. For Urquhart it was the area between the drop zones through Osterbeek, up to the bridge at Arnhem; for Bittrich the map extends down to Njimagen and the Waal River bridge (so some involvement with US 82nd Airborne).
The book is then divided roughly in-half; the first half is for Urquhart; the second is for Bittrich. For the British you get two hundred decision paragraphs, the same amount for the Germans. What is interesting is the claim by the authors in the “How to Play” section that the “opposing general” (the book!), “will try to out-think you; he will respond to your choices. Do not expect the opponent to give in easily; he will be aggressive at times, forcing you to react to his actions. When necessary, the opponent will be on the defensive and may try to extricate his forces before they are eliminated”. Quite a claim for an opponent made up of ink and wood pulp!
With any kind of wargame, the proof of the pudding is in the playing. It has been a long time since this reviewer (me) has played this type of wargame, and I have to admit that I found it thoroughly addictive—having been ambivalent about the concept being offered to an “adult” audience. I played it four times. I was able to win as Urquhart. But as Bittrich I ended up captured, recalled to Berlin and injured by fighter-bombers. As I prepare this review I am steeling myself for another crack as the Germans. Any game like this will always suffer from the wargamer having 20/20 hindsight. This helped me as the British commander as I was offered time and again the opportunity of finding myself in some of the bad positions that the real Urquhart found himself. And I fought very hard using my own command style to avoid the same pitfalls. However, as you go further and further from the historical narrative you find that you have only your own capabilities to help. In a way, this makes playing this from the British perspective something of a challenge. You can avoid making the mistakes made by the commander on that day, but when it’s a new decision that never occurred historically, can you make the correct choice?
As Bittrich I found the going very tough. Some apparently obvious decisions, unfortunately, led to some lousy outcomes. This led me to question the balance of the book in terms of the choice/consequence sequence offered to the reader. This may be because some of the mistakes of the British are easy to avoid for anyone familiar with the campaign—so you get something of a head start. With the Germans it is more difficult to recreate the circumstances that ultimately led to the failure of the British at Arnhem. In some ways, the British only needed a bit more luck on that day for their plan to work (notwithstanding the initial disadvantage they had because the drop zones were some miles from the target!).
Overall I thought this was an excellent book/wargame (wargames-book?). I found that the decisions offered were challenging. Though, as I mentioned above, I did feel the German outcomes were sometimes a bit surprising. However, a poor commander often tries to blame everyone other than himself! Often, I found myself alternating between making quick, snappy decisions and plunging onto to the next numbered paragraph, but every so often I had to stop and ponder for quite some time. I would then put the book down, make a strong cup of tea and dwell into deep thought. This would be followed by a curse or a sigh of relief, depending on how things panned out!
So, if you are a Second World War wargamer, or just a gamer full stop, then give this a go. It is fun and refreshing, and informative if your knowledge of this operation is not what it should be. When this review was published another book in the series, El Alamein 1942, has become available.
Review written by: Paul Robinson, Staff Writer
About Paul Robinson
Paul Robinson is a wargamer with over 30 years of experience in figure wargaming. He has interests in all things military from the Ancient Sumerians to the British Army in Afghanistan. He is an obsessive collector of books from Osprey Publishing and has contributed widely to the Field of Glorywargames rules franchise. A confirmed “Trekkie”, he also regards Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as great TV! He lives in Surrey, England with his wife, two children, one cat and a large collection of wargaming figures.Forum username: SabreRattler