Thursday, 25 June 2020

Counter-Battery Fire

Just a quick post on a common wargaming practice, which was prompted by finding an old photo online.

It is a commonplace in Horse and Musket rules to treat deployed (i.e. unlimbered) artillery batteries as 'dispersed targets' or similar. Like light infantry, deployed batteries are assumed to be well spread out and therefore, in general terms, harder to hit. This fits in well with what you read in most books about Horse and Musket tactics - firing at enemy artillery batteries with your own artillery is supposed to be a waste of ammunition.

So far so good. The reading I have been doing recently around Napoleonic warfare (and I've been doing a lot), commonly supports this idea. Napoleon himself spoke against artillery carrying out counter-battery fire. Unfortunately for this theory, when one turns to reading battle accounts, it is quite common to find the artillery from one side being instructed to engage enemy artillery when the enemy fire is becoming a serious problem - or indeed for artillery units themselves to engage enemy batteries on their own initiative. It is also common to find that such fire succeeded, depending of course on various factors such as the competence of the opposing batteries, their relative numbers, and any advantages of position one or the other artillery grouping might have.

So, in my opinion, the concept and practice of gaining 'artillery superiority' during an engagement was definitely current in Napoleonic warfare, and other Horse and Musket periods. I wanted to reflect this in my rules - having a nice little ding-dong between opposing batteries would, it seemed to me, add a bit of spice to a game. So in Shadow of the Eagles there is no negative modifier for artillery (or anyone else) firing at deployed artillery.

My rationalisation was that, firstly, firing in my rules (as in most others these days) is considered to represent not just actual death and destruction, but the moral or disordering effect of incoming fire - the effects of fear, fatigue and stress. As artillerymen cannot conduct their tasks whilst taking advantage of local cover or lying down, we must take account of the suppressive effect of enemy artillery fire in addition to actual casualties being inflicted.

Secondly, I started to question just how 'dispersed' an unlimbered artillery battery might be. Apart from the guns and crews, there are ammunition wagons, limbers, numerous men servicing those limbers and wagons, and of course lots (and lots) of horses. And so on this second point we finally get to the photo I mentioned at the outset. Below is a photo taken during the American Civil War of a 6 gun artillery battery and its supporting equipments deployed ready to fire:

Apologies, but that's about as big as it gets (as the Bishop said to the actress). But consider - does that really look like a 'dispersed target' to you? OK, maybe this was a parade of some sort (it is extremely unlikely to be a combat photograph), and those guns may be at less than normal deployment distance. But consider the depth of the target as well as its width. 

So I think the image makes a point. There are a surprising number of similar ACW photos online - I include a few below. The first might be another view of the same battery already shown above:

Of course, some of those photos very definitely feature artillery that was on parade. But I think there is food for thought here - and I am inclined to think the approach in my rules is correct - or at the very least justifiable.

Let me know what you think. 


Steve J. said...

I immediately thought of the ACW when I started reading this post, as I have been reading several of Sear's excellent accounts of some of the major battles (Chancellorsville and The Peninsula Campaign so far). When writing about counter-battery fire, very few guns were destroyed, but crew, caissons and horses were, so effectively reducing the effectiveness of the guns that remained. So I feel your 'change' from accepted practice is fine and sensible.

CelticCurmudgeon said...

In the Old Dominion Wargame which dealt with the ACW it was impressive to see that if you did fire at a gun and crew and missed, your fire might still travel overhead and destroy the limber or the horse teams. It seemed like a very sensible rule given the fact that as you can see in the pictures, there really was lots at which to shoot.

Ross Mac said...

Just a couple of thoughts,
1) while counter battery fire was indeed common, its seems to have required a fair bit if time, even with a serious superiority in number of guns to silence an enemy battery or force it to retire.

2) the artillery target is deep (although it seems that the horse teams usually retired a bit further if under fire) but there are wide gaps. In the frontage usually allocated per gun you can fit about 30+ infantry, shoulder to shoulder, 3 deep. So each hit does more damage. If the infantry is in column or square the number of men in the killing zone goes up.

3) for a bombardment, the infantry can probably take more hits without serious effect on its combat ability but would suffer more in absolute numbers.

Either way it seems to have taken a considerable amount of time, at typical ranges using shot and shell, to have a decisive effect on either target.

Enfilading a battery seems to have been even more deadly than enfilading infantry, presumably the guns themselves presenting a larger target, especially the vulnerable wheels and with shot being able to damage more than one gun of it lands just right.

Delta Coy said...

I agree with Ross's second comment that an Infantry unit would be denser, that is a more closely compacted target. I would consider a deployed Artillery Battery a less dense target compared with an Infantry Battalion or Cavalry Regiment. As they say it's only a game. Cheers Greg

Stryker said...

I think you are probably right as although the guns and crew are well spaced frontally it's the depth of the battery that makes it more likely to take hits. If you look at photos of ACW infantry in line they don't have much depth. I believe she'll fire from howitzers would be most effective on gun crews but to get that right depends on the quality/training of the gunners firing so perhaps this could be represented in your rules? Good luck, rule writing is a lot of fun!

Keith Flint said...

Thanks for all the comments and points gentlemen.

lewisgunner said...

Pshaw!,, You cannot argue with Napokeon who was, of course right. It is for us lesser mortals to explain why he is right, not to doubt tgat he is!
Seriousky though , Napoleon understood the structure of a battle better than anyone. His choice in the use of his artillery was to break the enemy’s line or to do this and force his opponent to send his reserves to the crumbling sector, thus denuding the area that Napoleon wished to launch the decisive attack upon.. He would have agreed that shooting at enemy artillery was destructive, but so what? The time taken to achieve artillery superiority woukd have to be deducted from that available for attack at tge chosen point, turning the flank and crushing the opponent with a frontal mass assault and then pursuit. Spending a day taking out his artillery achieved little. Generally Napoleon had superior numbers of guns or at least more guns at the chosen point.. He coukd affird to lose a few whilst delivering cannon shot to the proper strategic target and doibg so quickly so there was time for the other moves that enabled him to win the battle.

Keith Flint said...

Thanks Roy - but of course Napoleon was not at every Napoleonic battle. My rules are basically 'divisional' level only, though they can cater for larger games. So there will be times when they are used for battles that are little more than skirmishes in Napoleonic terms. So what Napoleon might have ordered at Wagram or Waterloo is only part of the picture.

I can only repeat that I've found plenty of examples of counter-battery fire in battle accounts I have read, some of it successful, and usually not taking all day!

lewisgunner said...

Its the loss of any time to a secobdary objective that Napoleon would have begrudged. There are, indeed, exceptions. In the Peninsula the British often offered no target apart from skirmishers and guns so the guns were the best option. The main infantry attack was not losing out on fire preparation because there was no obe to deliver fire on. Secondly, if an enemy battery was so well sured that it could disrupt the nainnattack then it would have to be destroyed before the attack went in. I think there was a well positioned Austrian battery in one of the 1809 battles that had to be dealkt with . However, Napoleon would have calculated the time taken and the number of guns needed to get it done before the main attack went in. He was , after all, a great artilleryman.


Keith Flint said...

Thanks again. Yes - a couple of the examples I was thinking of came from reading about Peninsula battles.

Wargamer Stu said...

I guess a risk is that if one side begins with an advantage they will just let that playout by moving rapidly through those early turns and then begin the game-proper once the enemy artillery is dealt with - so Roy's point about timing. Also fairly dull gaming for the person on the end of the barrage, especially in an asymmetric a scenario such as a defence.

So I think if it was to be a big feature of the game you would want to have a limited number of turns of fire for artillery. So time spent on counter battery would deny you supporting fire later for the main attack. So some jeopardy for the side with more guns.

Another approach is to have a pre-game bombardment phase where damage is quickly calculated for both sides. Again you might want a risk of running out of ammo for participating .

Keith Flint said...

"Another approach is to have a pre-game bombardment phase where damage is quickly calculated for both sides."

Stu, I think I can claim that's already done and included in the rules.

lewisgunner said...

A friend used to play frequently against a chap who used Napoleonic Russians. This chap deployed more guns than the Tsar himself because Russians were allowed big batteries. He would commence with bombardment, 12 pdrs for their range. This would destroy the opponent’s batteries and then the Russians, who are cheap but solid could stand and get the enemy to advance because the big Russian batteries of guns could then concentrate on the opposing infantry. Apparently it was very effective. Key is to have the most guns of course the most guns in the lists.
I quite lije Stu’s suggestion of limited ammunition supply . That forces choices on a general.


Sparta said...

Your point on artillery superiority is correct. Most rules do not reflect that artillery often retreated when under long range artillery fie, which never happended to infantry. This was propably because the artillery commander was more independent than the batallion commander. All tactical accounts are filled with batteries silencing the opponent. The comment on artillery usage depends on whether you are attacker or defender. If you defend you want to shoot up the attacking infantry. If you attack you want to silende the enmy artillery then danage his infantry,

Kim R Young said...

Hi Keith,

Found your blog and it's great to see a different view of 70 years a wargame rules
I have been studying ACW for 45 years and all accounts of actual battles show engaging enemy artillery was a primary function of artillery batteries.

The goal was to create enough effective fire to "silence" enemy batteries (i.e. get them to withdraw or at least cease fire and move).

There DID become a point when if an infantry attack was expected, batteries would halt firing to conserve ammunition for the defense of the battery.

Density had NO bearing on the target! Guns were a STATIC target and could easily be ranged in on. In the ACW, rounds of spherical case could be ranged in on a artillery piece and take out a crew if it stayed in its current location and did not respond to cause the opponent to withdraw them self.

Can't speak about Nap artillery, but it would seem that finding the range and concentrating fire of roundshot could be effective enough to cause the enemy to withdraw.


Jeff Berry said...

An interesting observation.

One of my collateral duties when I was my carrier squadron's intel officer was to calculate estimated damage to a target using algorithms and JMEM tables. To do this you employ a number of factors, such as target area and density, hardness, airspeed, attack angle, fusing, release altitude, and hit probabilities of the delivered weapon (called CEP, or Circular Error Probable). While these methods were used for planning of actual bombing missions, I thought, much later, to employ similar algorithms and techniques in calculating estimated hits in counterbattery fire to my period wargames.

A Civil War or Napoleonic battery represents a target with area dimension and density (both humans and equipment), just like any target. Contemporary artillery effectiveness (e.g. percentage of rounds on target) is available from a number of sources. Entering all of these into an algorithm can give you a result of damage (e.g. number of guns disabled or crew casualties)from counterbattery fire. E.g.:

AxDxRxPh = Hits

Where A = Area of target, D is density of target, R is rounds fired in any given time period, and Ph is probability of hits on target area (A) from the weapon fired. This latter factor is itself composed of a number of factors including range, fouling of the tube, misfire rate, and overall training and fatigue of the crew, all of which I keep track of in my game program. For simplicity in your own wargames, you can just call Ph 50% which is, by definition, a CEP.

For example, take the initial hour or so of bombardment prior to Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. According to so much eye-witness reporting, this counterbattery exercise resulted in quite a few guns on both sides being disabled. It was, in fact, the primary mission of Lee's artillery chief to neutralize the Union batteries on Cemetery Hill. I tested and adjusted my variables of Ph through several games of Gettysburg to achieve a result to that reported historically. Every time I played this pre-Pickett's Charge scenario, I got roughly the same result as the history.

So my conclusion is, despite Napoleon's maxim, counterbattery fire can be effective and accounted for in a wargame. I have also found, though replay, that the most effective counterbattery tactic is to concentrate on one battery at a time.

Keith Flint said...

Jeff, thanks for taking the time to post such an informative comment.