Right, off we go! It’s just after dawn amongst the hedgerows of Normandy, July 1944. I’m a sniper with a scoped Springfield bolt-action rifle and in ‘belt order’, just the minimum of kit slung from my web belt. Of course, I and my M1 Garand-armed partner should be properly ‘cammed up’ - if not wearing gillie suits, then at least with helmets camouflaged, exposed flesh blackened and some local foliage strung about our persons where it won’t easily fall off. Without any of this, and no option to acquire it, I feel a tad exposed, already. Perhaps we’re just regular GIs who have been ‘volunteered’ for this show, rather than a professional sniper team. But even common-or-garden line infantrymen know how to do better than this, ‘Fieldcraft 101’ as it were. But at least we’re travelling light, which is sensible.
There is a track to our immediate left and to the left of that again, a strip of woodland, both running south, roughly the way we want to go. Down the track a little way, there’s some knocked-out German armour. Ahead and to our right, there’s an open field, bounded by hedgerows, not the sort of open ground I want to cross in daylight. From what I can see for myself and from the map, I decide I’ll use the south-pointing finger of that strip of woodland on the left, to cover my leg down to the first RV point.
The German forces in Normandy were stretched so thinly that at any given point in time, some sectors lacked anything resembling a continuous front line. This must be such a sector, I tell myself, or they wouldn’t be sending us, right? The 'briefing' certainly has no useful information on enemy strength, dispositions or routine and there's no time for anything but a 'map recce'. So I decide that what I need to be prepared for is the sort of things a well-stretched force would have deployed – standing patrols on foot or in light vehicles, and possibly some static OPs or listening posts. I will avoid contact at all costs. If we do nevertheless bump the enemy, we will immediately break contact – using fire and movement, in reverse - and possibly scrub the mission. Which is to locate and kill an enemy commander, not risk death in a firefight for the sake of clobbering some mere underlings.
The settings I’m using show nothing on the map, beyond markers placed either by me or the mission designer. In the Iron Front missions I have – a mix of stock, D-Day DLC and user-made - some builders don’t even bother marking your start position, which is just plain bonkers. Not a problem this time. But because the map will display neither friendly nor enemy units, once I’ve started moving I’ll have to navigate by map, compass and Mark I eyeball. Which will be part of the attraction of this mission. I’ll just have to try extra-hard not to get lost!
I’m well used to playing OFP missions where I’m on my own, so I’m comfortable enough with this one. The extra eyes, ears and firepower of a single companion will be a big plus, without the hassle of managing a large squad via IF/ARMA2’s arcane key combos, which I’m still working on mastering.
We get into cover and I set up my oppo (‘opposite number’) to cover to our front. We watch and wait, but see or hear nothing, apart from birds chirping. So I slide to one side, then turn left, get up and double across the track, going firm on the other side amongst the thick foliage cover there. After hitting the dirt, in the approved fashion I crawl to one side, so as not to reappear in the same position an enemy may have seen me disappear. I have no idea if such things help in soldier sims, but I find it more immersive, applying the drills I’ve been taught.
Nothing happens. I scan my front, left to right. The fairly dense growth all around amongst the trees limits my view in all directions, but provides good cover from view.
I have already decided that we will advance individually in short bounds, one man halted and covering the other. As the instructors say, like a parrot climbing a cage, with one foot firmly on the ground at all times. The next choice to be made is whether, in so moving, we will prioritise stealth or speed. In fact in IF/ARMA2 there is a scale - which you set using a ‘tactical mode’ – ranging from ‘slow but stealthy’ to ‘fast but incautious’. I set my buddy’s mode to ‘Danger’, one step less than the slowest, ‘Stealth’.
All remains quiet, so I call my buddy over to join me, sending him off deeper into the woods, on my left.
He moves a bit faster and less cautiously than I would have liked. I cringe, waiting for the burst of fire and the sight of him crumpling to the ground. But no shots come and he makes it, dropping out of sight.
Now, it’s my turn.
Still prone, I edge back and left from my fire position, rise to a crouch, and move off. The 'running crouched' animation is fine, but the walking crouch in Iron Front is a bit naff, sort of like moving while squatting, legs bent far too much. Armies teach their soldiers precise methods of moving, from the normal ‘Walk’ to the prone ‘Leopard Crawl’, to use the terms I’m familiar with. The IF/ARMA2 ‘squatting crouch’ movement just looks un-natural. I’d have preferred either a more natural, bent over crouched run, or something like a ‘Monkey Run’ option, where you stay on your knees, balance your weapon in one hand and move forward, staying low, with the fist of your free hand forming a third point of contact with the ground.
I go down again, taking up position so as to be able to fire around the right-hand side of the base of a solid-looking tree. If you’re right-handed, it’s best to fire around the right side of cover, as that exposes less of you as a target. If I really had to use the left side, I generally swapped shoulders with my weapon, but you can’t do this in Iron Front.
Facing nearly south, I mark a tree slightly right of my axis of advance – maybe ten yards or so ahead, any further and he’ll be out of sight in the dense shrubbery. ‘Move there!’ I order my buddy, and off he goes. ‘Observe to the south!’ I tell him, and he duly spins around and watches along our axis. I, too, watch and wait. I see and hear nothing, and nor does he, for he makes no report.
As I have been given no idea where the enemy are, and could bump them any time, I decide that from here on, we will both crawl forward, as a rule. Very, very slow, but much safer. So I order my buddy into ‘Stealth’ mode. This time, he crawls forward to the next position I designate for him, just as I want it. I'm now keeping him offset to my right, so we'll not mask one another’s fields of fire ahead; and keeping our bounds short, so that neither of us should run into something that the other will not be able to see.
I get a bit of a scare when I notice a metallic-looking object like an aluminium toffee apple planted in the ground, as I take cover beside my next tree. My first thought is that it's some kind of booby trap, even if it's a bit conspicuous. I see no trip wires and it doesn't go 'Boom!' as I lie close to it. What could it be? I have no idea. It might be a geophone to detect the sound of movement, though I'm not sure the Germans used such things in WW2. But it seems benign and is a bit too colourful to be real military hardware, so I ignore it.
At one point, I hear voices. Not my buddy’s sotte voce acknowledgements, but somebody talking briefly - in German, I am convinced. We freeze and watch our arcs. I think the sound comes from somewhere outside the woods on the right, not especially close. We wait a bit longer. It is quiet again. So we resume our slow advance.
In these conditions, amidst all the foliage, fields of view are so short that my sniper scope is of no use to me.
At one point, we come to a spot where the shrubbery is less dense on either side, giving me narrow arcs of view out into the fields to left and right. There's no sign of life, neither friend nor foe.
I re-orient myself with map and compass, but it’s hard to decide how far we have gone along the stretch of woodland that will take us to the first RV point, where the woodland is cut by a road running left to right, which will be clearly recognisable when I get there. I hope...
I spend a bit longer here, scanning out to either side, watching for any movement or other sign of the enemy. I see none.
We carry on moving. Crawling forward again, I weave between bushes and the thinner tree trunks till I find another one solid enough to provide decent cover from fire. After a pause for observation, I mark out my companion's next fire position, keeping him on a tight rein, consistent with the very close country we're now moving through.
On my order, my number two crawls past to my right and takes up his next position. I wait a few seconds for him to report anything he can see from there. Nothing happens, so I slide back and to the side and start crawling forward again. At grass level and moving, I can see almost nothing ahead, so dense is the foliage in this particular stretch.
It's slow, but I find it quite absorbing, requiring patience and concentration. The enemy could be yards away and the moment I ease back on the cautious approach, could be the moment we run smack into him.
Rinse and repeat. Go firm. Scan. Listen. All clear? Order my oppo forward on the next, short bound. And so it goes on.
Suddenly, as I'm crawling up level with him again, my buddy starts to whisper sightings – first one man, then another, ahead and slightly right, and at close range!
Staying prone, I slide rapidly to the left into the shadow of some bushes, spin around to 'face front' again, and freeze.
Perhaps fortunately, I had, early on, given my buddy the order to hold fire. Now, I see him track something to his right front, but not shoot. Then I see them: German soldiers walking in single file, well spaced out and moving on a reciprocal course as if to pass us. They seem to have their rifles slung on their shoulders, not expecting trouble. They’re maybe 30 yards to our right, just inside the woods. You can just about see one of them below, just left of the birch trunk to the centre left of the picture.
They flit into and out of sight behind the intervening shrubbery; there seem to be three or more of them. If I try to pick up one of them in my sniper scope I will break my line of sight and narrow down my field of view, so I just watch, knowing that if they spot us, we are in big trouble.
The German patrol comes level with us and walks on, my number two slowly moving on the spot, to keep them in his sights all the while. I wait until the last one is out of sight, somewhere behind us. Then I wait some more. Nothing happens.
We have escaped detection, by the narrowest of margins. Thus far, our slow but stealthy approach is paying off. Will the patrol come back the way it came, a threat to our rear? Patrols are trained not to do such things, you don't come in the way you went out, so as to avoid hasty ambushes. But there are Germans somewhere behind us now; the next threat could come from any direction.
…to be continued!