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Subject: Elite units in WWII rss

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Wilbur Whateley
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I would be interested in hearing some perspectives on the use of "elite" units in WWII armies, as compared to a more egalitarian force structure. What are the costs and benefits of having "elite units"? Do you think wargames tend to represent these costs and benefits accurately, or do you always wish you were playing the side with the elite pieces in the countermix because there is no downside?
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Christina Kahrl
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I'm more of an egalitarian in approach. Elite units on a board should be targeted, hunted, or entrapped, because "La Garde Recule" can be as much a thing between your opponent's ears as a DRM.
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Eddy Sterckx
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Every army since antiquity had them, so I'm not sure to what egalitarian force structures you're referring ?
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Pete Belli
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chuft wrote:
What are the costs and benefits of having "elite units"?


Looking beyond the martial glory and the proven fighting ability of these formations, there are certain disadvantages when creating elite units.

One of the most commonly mentioned liabilities was perhaps best expressed by David Chandler when he discussed the Imperial Guard in his classic volume The Campaigns of Napoleon:

"...the creation of a corps d’elite had at least one bad effect on the army: the ceaseless draining-off of the best soldiers from the line regiments and squadrons to fill the ranks of the Guard undoubtedly weakened the value and fighting capabilities of the original parent units..."
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chuft wrote:
I would be interested in hearing some perspectives on the use of "elite" units in WWII armies, as compared to a more egalitarian force structure. What are the costs and benefits of having "elite units"? Do you think wargames tend to represent these costs and benefits accurately, or do you always wish you were playing the side with the elite pieces in the countermix because there is no downside?


I think you need to define what you think 'elite' means. As already mentioned the main effect is to reduce the capabilities of those not so defined. It normally distorts the distribution of resources, be it equipment, manpower or support. The German focussed on tank divisions that were very effective. The US army deliberately avoided elitism but found alternative ways of redistributing resources. The critical question is do their capabilities and the other units in the army fairly reflect their historic achievements.
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Pete Belli
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In some cases elite forces are like strategic coins burning a hole in a commander’s pocket. As the British and American armies advanced toward Germany in 1944 the Allied high command was extremely eager (perhaps too eager, as it turned out) to deploy the airborne divisions. These units had consumed an enormous quantity of resources, manpower, and training capacity so the urge to deploy them in an operation against the retreating Germans was compelling.
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Bill Eldard
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pete belli wrote:
In some cases elite forces are like strategic coins burning a hole in a commander’s pocket. As the British and American armies advanced toward Germany in 1944 the Allied high command was extremely eager (perhaps too eager, as it turned out) to deploy the airborne divisions. These units had consumed an enormous quantity of resources, manpower, and training capacity so the urge to deploy them in an operation against the retreating Germans was compelling.


Bang for the buck is a valid metric, and in determining it, historians must separate myth from reality.

Let's take the US Army Ranger battalions. Their creation was inspired by the British commando units, and in fact, the first Rangers were trained at the British commando school. The soldiers were volunteers and highly trained as light infantry. The units received a lot of publicity (i.e., hype) at a time when the US was in desperate need of positive news.

But in practice, we can argue their actual value in WW2. There's no doubt that the assault of the 2d Ranger Battalion on Pointe du Hoc was a bold mission that no other US infantry could execute, as was the amazing raid by the 6th Ranger Battalion on the Japanese POW camp at Cabanatuan to rescue 500 survivors if the Bataan Death March. But other operations ranged from rather ordinary to disastrous (Anzio).

In analyzing the effectiveness of the Rangers to determine bang for the buck, we can't disregard the fact that some senior US commanders had no idea of how to employ these new, elite battalions. At Anzio, several were tasked to infiltrate German lines as the vanguard of an American offensive, with disastrous results.

I think evaluating elite WW2 units and their potential effectiveness in a game is very difficult. There's the hype about what they were advertised to do, and there's the performance.

Your strategic coin analogy is apt. The creators and advocates of elite units were anxious to demonstrate proof of concept (and validate the investments), and often exaggerated their potential to prompt senior commanders to employ them, even in inappropriate missions (i.e, Anzio).
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Bob Zurunkel
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Agree with Pete's comment about the effect of the Imperial Guard. That is always a drawback with elites, in that you have men who could be NCOs or officers in a regular unit serving as privates or NCOs in an elite unit.
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Tony Doran
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Games can make a legit effort to show differences in capability, or special capabilities of special units. The comments above regarding the draining of resources from "main body" units is valid. The question is, is it worth that cost?

An example is mountain capable units. I think it reasonable to say that these units, on the whole in WWII did perform better in mountainous terrain than did normal units. Quite a few games show this with improved movement and/or combat capabilities in the game.

The same is true for airborne units in WWII.

During the desert war, SAS units, operating behind German lines, with the assistance of Long Range Desert Group forces, actually destroyed more Axis airplanes on the ground than were destroyed in the air by the RAF. So they proved quite effective. The new game Desert Fox Deluxe has these units, and actually gives them the role of interfering with Axis air capabilities. Haven't done it yet in an actual game, but I find the idea fascinating at this scale in a game.

Lots of other game examples could be discussed.
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Ron A
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pete belli wrote:
chuft wrote:
What are the costs and benefits of having "elite units"?


Looking beyond the martial glory and the proven fighting ability of these formations, there are certain disadvantages when creating elite units.

One of the most commonly mentioned liabilities was perhaps best expressed by David Chandler when he discussed the Imperial Guard in his classic volume The Campaigns of Napoleon:

"...the creation of a corps d’elite had at least one bad effect on the army: the ceaseless draining-off of the best soldiers from the line regiments and squadrons to fill the ranks of the Guard undoubtedly weakened the value and fighting capabilities of the original parent units..."


On the other hand, in some cases I don't think there was a 'talent drain' for other elite forces. The US Paratroops in WII were all volunteers, and while their performance was elite, the raw manpower sent to the airborne forces didn't detract (in terms of quality) from the overall manpower pool available to 'regular' US Army infantry/armor divisions.

In other cases, I would agree there is a talent drain, but in return we have capabilities not easily achieved. Look at the 160th SOAR. If the Army didn't have the 160th SOAR, then the pilots would be parceled out among other units, raising the floor of pilot skill. BUT, when something like Operation Neptune Spear comes along, do you want just any pilot flying a stealth helicopter* carrying Navy SEALs** going after somebody like Bin Laden?

Speaking of Neptune Spear and elite units, the man in charge of the overall planning/execution of Neptune Spear was Vice Adm. McRaven, who wrote a book, Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare: Theory and Practice that would be good reading for anybody who is following along with this thread.

* can neither confirm nor deny use of stealth helicopters in Neptune Spear

** SEALs another data point for arguing in favor of elite units.
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Iain K
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pete belli wrote:
In some cases elite forces are like strategic coins burning a hole in a commander’s pocket.


What are the odds that I picked up a book just this afternoon with a chapter tilted "Coins Burning Holes in SHAEF's pocket" (chapter 1, The Devil's Birthday, Goeffery Powell).

I don't really understand the OP, but the fact remains armies have always had, and to some degree benefited from elite units. Units composed of motivated, skilled individuals. Does it drain other units? Perhaps, but it gives commanders powerful tools in what would otherwise be a rather utilitarian tool box.

One need only consider the situation in the Soviet army of WWII. At the start, the structure was very "egalitarian" but as the war progress the Soviet leadership found great value in (a) awarding units the "Guard" honorific and (b) using such proven units in critical situations.

Sometimes you need a knife to do a job properly, and don't care whether you've robbed one of your hammers of a few ounces of steel.
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Brian Train
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Max Hastings wrote a book in the 80s called Victory in Europe where he stated that the great majority of the fighting done by the armies in Europe was done by a relative minority of those armies, namely the few elite units on either side: the American and Allied airborne divisions, the Big Red One, some armored divisions, etc. vs. some (not all) SS units, the better Fallschirmjager units, and so on.

Not sure if it is really so (opinions differ on how good a historian Hastings is) but SLA Marshall discovered that only about 25% of troops in combat reliably even fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy, so there may be something to it.

Ty Bomba explored this thesis partially in 1944: Second Front.

Brian
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Wilbur Whateley
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I remember getting the distinct impression from Decision in France that having an Allied elite unit (which in that game, consisted of the airborne units, and if I recall correctly, the Polish armored and Canadian units, but it's been a long time) involved in the attack was almost a necessity for the Allies to have a chance at taking a hex of bocage. (The Germans typically got bonuses from SS units, heavy tank units, etc. that the Allies could not.) Since I was playing the Allies, I think I complained to Mark Simonitch about it, and I seem to recall him replying that in fact, most attacks did require some sort of elite participation to have any real chance of success, but I don't want to misquote him. It did leave me wondering if the "average" Allied division was really so useless in Normandy as the game seemed to imply.
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ltmurnau wrote:


Not sure if it is really so (opinions differ on how good a historian Hastings is) but SLA Marshall discovered that only about 25% of troops in combat reliably even fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy, so there may be something to it.


I think much of this has been discredited; certainly his research (or lack thereof) has been called into question at length.
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Hawkeye
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SBGrad wrote:


On the other hand, in some cases I don't think there was a 'talent drain' for other elite forces. The US Paratroops in WII were all volunteers, and while their performance was elite, the raw manpower sent to the airborne forces didn't detract (in terms of quality) from the overall manpower pool available to 'regular' US Army infantry/armor divisions.


Actually I think it did, because, first; you had to score higher on aptitude and physical fitness tests to be accepted in the Paratroops and you had to be highly motivated to want to. I think siphoning off the smartest, most physically fit and most motivated individuals will have the same effect Pete is describing even if you aren't drawing off combat veterans.
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Paul
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Quote:
Max Hastings wrote a book in the 80s called Victory in Europe where he stated that the great majority of the fighting done by the armies in Europe was done by a relative minority of those armies, namely the few elite units on either side...



"...3000 men like me won the war. Anyone can kill at a distance, but only a few learn to kill with the knife, eye to eye. It took all the millions of soldiers like you to fight the war, but it took the few like myself to win it."

Capitaine Conan on fighting in the war. From "Capitaine Conan," Roger Vercel, 1934.
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Where there is an overlap between specialist and elite, they often seem like good bang for buck. The specialist skills prove to be useful (mountain, airborne). But then again, you may not have use for them very often for their original purpose, and they become burning coins in your pocket.

But one thing that struck me is that elite units seemed to be more heavily involved in incidents with the local population on peace/humanitarian missions in the 1990s. I remember reports of both Canadian and Belgian units mistreating the people they were supposed to be helping. This may be a pre selection bias, in that elite units were sent on the missions than normal combat units.

Anyone aware of research on this subject?
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Misterhawk wrote:

Actually I think it did, because, first; you had to score higher on aptitude and physical fitness tests to be accepted in the Paratroops and you had to be highly motivated to want to. I think siphoning off the smartest, most physically fit and most motivated individuals will have the same effect Pete is describing even if you aren't drawing off combat veterans.

The American system seems to have siphoned high scorers into specialist arms such as logistics, air, tanks or artillery, leaving infantry to pick up the rest. The German army tended to reverse the process, while the British traditional system produced a more even spread of competence and incompetence.

Specialist troops are all well and good but need to be used as intended. Mountain troops need to have young men up to age 35, use mules more than jeeps and need all-howitzer artillery to lob shells over mountains; the Germans were bewildered to encounter Soviet mountain divisions on the Steppe in 1941/42 where they were evidently unsuited but were all the Soviet High Command had available. WAllied paratroops spent much of the war fighting as foot infantry, when they suffered from a lack of integrated support troops while the Soviets were sceptical about using them in big drops and preferred tactical deployment.

Too few rules effectively differentiate to ensure players are drawn to proper deployment but the vanilla flavour of having masses of troops all factored the same does not seem popular either so a designer has a difficult task!
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Bill Eldard
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ltmurnau wrote:
Max Hastings wrote a book in the 80s called Victory in Europe where he stated that the great majority of the fighting done by the armies in Europe was done by a relative minority of those armies, namely the few elite units on either side: the American and Allied airborne divisions, the Big Red One, some armored divisions, etc. vs. some (not all) SS units, the better Fallschirmjager units, and so on.


When it comes to labeling a unit as elite, we have a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Were units decidedly elite by training or organization and therefore committed too frequently and to more challenging missions, or were they units undistinguished from similarly organized/trained units but attaining elite status based on their success?

Let's take the Big Red One. The 1st Infantry Division was a regular Army division before the war, and thus one of the Army divisions ready for commitment in Operations Torch. It landed again in Operation Husky, by which time it had established a fine battle record, earning itself assignment to the toughest beach (Omaha) on D-Day. It continued to fight from Normandy across France, and participated in the Battle of the Bulge.

SPECIALIZATION: Was its success the attributable to special training? Other than amphibious training, probably not.

EXPERIENCE: Was it attributable to experience? I would say Yes. Committed to combat in November 1942, the division naturally had more veterans -- particularly combat leaders -- than almost any other division.

EQUIPMENT: Did it have more or superior equipment? Like all infantry divisions, the Big Red One had independent combat and transportation units attached from corps assets, increasing strength beyond TO&E. As I recall, this division had a few tank and tank destroyer battalions essentially permanently attached, thus building on cooperative experience that most other divisions didn't enjoy. Would this contribute to an aire of eliteness?

LEADERSHIP: What about leadership? Certainly, when a corps or army commander trusts the division's leadership, it will be committed to the most difficult missions.

So . . .

If we base elite status on specialization, the US Army 1st Ranger Battalion was elite and the Big Red One probably was not.

But if we base elite status on superior performance, the Big Red One is elite and the 1st Ranger Battalion probably was not.

IN GAME DESIGN: The designer is thus left with the choice of focus, which isn't as cut and dry as it may seem. For example, in assessing the capability of the 1st Ranger Battalion, was the potential greater than the performance due to misuse by the high command -- a misuse that could be averted by a smart game player? Tough call.
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Corporal Dave
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Don't most games have 'elite' and 'non-elite'? It seems to me there is a spectrum of quality that many games don't represent. It's not unusual to find game that gives the Big Red One an extra attack or strength factor to show its extra edge, for example. That seems to be a representation of a spectrum.

Elite units seem to take good candidates who do or would do well in conventional units but provide intense amounts of resources, primarily training, to end up with something exponentially more effective. And I think that is where the cost versus benefit analysis comes in.

That also asks the question already raised- are they better-than-average at doing what others already do, or do they add something new? I read somewhere that the raid to kill Bin Laden didn't require SEALS because it was a straight-on (albeit very important) raid. An interesting observation.
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Carl Fung
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Eldard wrote:
ltmurnau wrote:
Max Hastings wrote a book in the 80s called Victory in Europe where he stated that the great majority of the fighting done by the armies in Europe was done by a relative minority of those armies, namely the few elite units on either side: the American and Allied airborne divisions, the Big Red One, some armored divisions, etc. vs. some (not all) SS units, the better Fallschirmjager units, and so on.


When it comes to labeling a unit as elite, we have a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Were units decidedly elite by training or organization and therefore committed to frequently and to more challenging missions, or were they units undistinguished from similarly organized/trained units which attained elite status based on their success?

Let's take the Big Red One. The 1st Infantry Division was a regular Army division before the war, and thus one of the Army divisions ready for commitment in Operations Torch. It landed again in Operation Husky, by which time it had established a fine battle record, earning itself assignment to the toughest beach (Omaha) on D-Day. It continued to fight from Normandy across France, and participated in the Battle of the Bulge.

SPECIALIZATION: Was its success the attributable to special training? Other than amphibious training, probably not.

EXPERIENCE: Was it attributable to experience? I would say Yes. Committed to combat in November 1942, the division naturally had more veterans -- particularly combat leaders -- than almost any other division.

EQUIPMENT: Did it have more or superior equipment? Like all infantry divisions, the Big Red One had independent combat and transportation units attached from corps assets, increasing strength beyond TO&E. As I recall, this division had a few tank and tank destroyers essentially permanently attached, thus building on cooperative experience that most other divisions didn't enjoy. Would this contribute to an aire of eliteness?

LEADERSHIP: What about leadership? Certainly, when a corps or army commander trusts the division's leadership, it will be committed to the most difficult missions.

So . . .

If we base elite status on specialization, the US Army 1st Ranger Battalion was elite and the Big Red One probably was not.

But if we base elite status on superior performance, the Big Red One is elite and the 1st Ranger Battalion probably was not.

IN GAME DESIGN: The designer is thus left with the choice of focus, which isn't as cut and dry as it may seem. For example, in assessing the capability of the 1st Ranger Battalion, was the potential greater than the performance due to misuse by the high command -- a misuse that could be averted by a smart game player? Tough call.


I agree one bajillion times with this. Defining elite is always tricky with the SS often being tossed in there as default elite. Folks do realize the 30th SS Division made up of Russians mutinied, right? Even for the Germanic 17th SS PG Div, many of the corps and army commanders it was assigned to thought it was a poor division from Normandy to Nordwind.

I would never consider the 1st Infantry Division elite. It had a storied history and a line of great commanders, but it wasn't built or conceived any differently than the 2nd Infantry Division (equally great) or the 106th Inf Div (where the majority of it was captured in the Bulge). Had its performance suffered greatly in Tunisia (it fought ok, not great at Kasserine) or Sicily, it would not have gotten the pick at Omaha Beach. It's men went through the meatgrinder, with its ranks turning over 2,3,4x through its wartime campaigning. As long as there was a core group of veterans and good commanders, the division could be built up again. This is true for virtually that could achieve this through WWII either by having commanders with political pull or being the pet unit of the higher ups.

There are, of course, bias among designers, historians, enthusiasts, and players who have their own "pet" units by waxing poetically about a single exploit and deem it "da best unit evaaaa!" Other supposed elite units just have good press or political leader that will make it seem that way. I haven't done an in depth look but I'm pretty confident that Goring's namesake division wasn't all that great, or at least better than the Heer or SS Panzer or Panzer Grenadier Divisions.

The trouble is in game terms its all black or white. The counter has set values. Showing an elite unit will usually be through higher values (combat strength or movement allowance), a better experience/action/efficiency rating, or a identifier (unit badge, symbol, etc.) that gives it some bonus. There's little in the way or showing the ebbs and flows of a division through the whole Eastern Front campaign from 1941 to 1945. That one counter will be elite from Barbarossa to Berlin, and any ability to upgrade or downgrade counters would be a game accounting nightmare, let alone extraneous rules to govern this tracking. Most games just want to streamline the combat and genericize unit characteristics to get to the crux of the game play.
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Jason Cawley
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Unit types trained for a specific role don't make an elite unit. E.g. a mountain unit is not an elite unit.

Unit types with specific types of equipment don't make an elite unit. E.g. a heavy tank battalion is not an elite unit.

Elite means selection on the men. It means objective, rigorous selection with a high to very high rate of rejection for each acceptance, according to an actual prior demonstrated ability. This can be demonstrated in combat - the strictest meaning - or only in testing - a much looser one. Any degree of special training may follow, but that is not the criterion involved. The selection is. Hard training that most fail may of course form part of the selection process, and frequently does.

Selection for loyalty, where people are from, physical size (some old grenadier regiments e.g.), appearance, etc - don't count. Rejecting only the unfit at a modest rate as mere screening for suitability, doesn't count.

If you had to place in the top 1% of everyone who tested to attend a certain college or university, it is elite.

If "100 men will test today but only 3 win the green beret", it is elite.

If it is filled with draftees as long as they tested 1-A, not elite, I don't care how you trained or equipped them or what their role is.

If the just also had to volunteer for a special branch or hazardous duty, they are not elite. Sure, that and maybe requiring veteran status might get you a better sort of man on average, but being a bit above average isn't the point.

Objectively select for outlier levels of ability, one man in ten or one man in a hundred according to a real ordering of best to worst at the task at hand or a reasonably predictor of doing it well - that's the minimum criterion.

Note that the same processes may sometimes be used to select NCOs. Which doesn't make then the same thing, but does show one of the real costs to the rest of your force. You are basically making a unit in which every man, even those with roles that would normally be done by a buck private, is qualified to be a sergeant in the rest of the force. If you get them all killed on especially hard missions, you are throwing away the army's bones, using it as muscle and blood. If the mission is super critical and only the best can do it and you do all of it in only modest amounts, this can be a legit or necessary measure.

It doesn't *create* new human ability. It needs that to already exist, and it takes it from elsewhere, especially from leadership elsewhere.

For what it is worth...
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Bill Eldard
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DDeT wrote:
That also asks the question already raised- are they better-than-average at doing what others already do, or do they add something new? I read somewhere that the raid to kill Bin Laden didn't require SEALS because it was a straight-on (albeit very important) raid. An interesting observation.


Who did the observer propose could've carried out the raid instead?
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Corporal Dave
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Eldard wrote:
DDeT wrote:
That also asks the question already raised- are they better-than-average at doing what others already do, or do they add something new? I read somewhere that the raid to kill Bin Laden didn't require SEALS because it was a straight-on (albeit very important) raid. An interesting observation.


Who did the observer propose could've carried out the raid instead?


I don't recall there being a suggestion. Just that for a raid like that, the skill of the assaulting force was light infantry skill, something a good light infantry unit should have been able to pull off. I don't remember the source or where or when I heard it. Just that it did make me think.
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Tom T
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DDeT wrote:
Eldard wrote:
DDeT wrote:
That also asks the question already raised- are they better-than-average at doing what others already do, or do they add something new? I read somewhere that the raid to kill Bin Laden didn't require SEALS because it was a straight-on (albeit very important) raid. An interesting observation.


Who did the observer propose could've carried out the raid instead?


I don't recall there being a suggestion. Just that for a raid like that, the skill of the assaulting force was light infantry skill, something a good light infantry unit should have been able to pull off. I don't remember the source or where or when I heard it. Just that it did make me think.


I would love to hear that guys logic.


Quote:
Not sure if it is really so (opinions differ on how good a historian Hastings is) but SLA Marshall discovered that only about 25% of troops in combat reliably even fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy, so there may be something to it.


Marshall took it further. He determined that there were three types of soldiers. The top performers who exhibited outstanding initiative and always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, the average types who could be counted on to do what they are told, and the slackers who were entirely unmotivated. In combat, the key was to get those average types into the fight. You didn't have to worry about the top performers. They took care of business on there own, and you could forget about the slackers since no amount of coercion would get them into the fight.

The proportions of the three types differed from unit to unit. So a good commander could tilt the battle in his favor by getting more of the average guys into the fight.

It makes a good framework for injecting uncertainty into skirmish gaming.


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