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Fire and movement!

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Applying some real-world tank tactics in 'Steel Fury - Kharkov 1942'





Fire and manoeuvre; fire and movement; bounding overwatch - call it what you will. But this basic drill is the cornerstone of modern small unit tactics. To quote from one British Army training publication used in my day:


'The role of the infantry in battle is to close with and destroy the enemy. To do this they must move. It may be possible to move safely by using covered approaches but usually an enemy will select positions which, as far as possible present no covered approaches. He will also do his utmost to stop advances by obstacles and fire power. It follows therefore, that attacking infantry must use their fire to make the enemy keep his head down and so make their advance possible. This process of moving using fire is known as 'Fire and Manoeuvre.'


RMAS tactical precis 14, 'Battlecraft', September 1976


This drill was equally important in World War 2 and it's as relevant to AFVs as it is to dismounted infantry. It applies at all levels. Within an infantry section (US squad) one part of the section ('fire team', 'rifle group' or 'gun group') goes firm and covers the advance of the other. Within a platoon, one section might provide cover, while the other two sections move. And so on, up the chain of command, or with tanks instead of infantry sub-units. The moving element then goes to ground, and the other element moves. Bounds will be kept short enough so that, in any given terrain, mutual support is maintained. Movement can be by 'caterpillaring' or 'leapfrogging'. When caterpillaring, the element left behind closes up with the lead element, like one of those caterpillars which loops then flattens out its body when moving. When leapfrogging, the element left behind, when it's his turn to move, will...well, leapfrog, and go beyond the other element, before halting.


'Bounding overwatch' is the US Army's term for all this. When caterpillaring, they say you're using 'successive bounds'; when leapfrogging, it's 'alternate bounds'. FM 17-15 describes both (see pages Chapter 3, Section 4).


The bottom line is this: you need to close with the enemy, to destroy him. To get close without being destroyed yourself, you need somebody to be pinning him down, while you move. Sometimes the covering fire can be provided by your side's artillery. But at some point, certainly by the time you're 'danger close', you're going to need to organise it so that you can provide your own direct fire support. It's all about splitting your sub-unit into two parts, then one part moving, while the other part fires. Or is ready to fire. Because fire and movement's not just for the final stage of an attack. When you're making an advance to contact, fire and manoeuvre - without the actual firing! - is how you make sure that you won't be wiped out in the first volley and have a better chance of spotting and hitting the enemy than you would, if everyone was moving. With part of your force sitting in cover, watching out for those who are moving, when it hits the fan your casualties will be lower and your return fire, faster and more effective.



From real world to tanksim


Most tanksims cast the player in the role of the leader of a troop (US or German platoon) of tanks or other AFVs. Some players may be perfectly happy to play the mission's hero and pay little attention to their platoon-mates, or perhaps to rely on them as little more than 'extra lives' if their own tank gets knocked out (if the sim, unlike Steel Fury, allows you to replicate this practice, common in real life...if you survived!).


If inclined to take your leadership responsibilities a little more seriously, you might make the effort to get your platoon into the best formation for the tactical situation - maybe column for a road march or close country, wedge for a move across open country, or line abreast for an assault. And then orient and lead them where you want them to go, relying on them maintaining formation on your own tank and helping you shoot up whatever it is, that needs shot up.


But if you want to take your platoon tactics a step further, there will be times when fire and manoeuvre will be appropriate. For example, when advancing to contact, perhaps over fairly open country, you don't want to risk driving with your whole platoon into what may turn out to be an enemy's killing ground, laced with the fire of several anti-tank weapons, all zeroed in and ready to give you a nice hot reception.


Different tanksims provide different ways of allowing you to do a spot of fire and manoeuvre  It's been a while since I played Steel Beasts (original) which I recall did this pretty well but I still play Panzer Elite, which also does a good job here. You can split your 3 to 5 tank Panzer Elite platoon into two elements, and order each element, or any individual tank, to move to a point in the 3d game world by mouse-clicking on that spot. You could even designate targets or order fire at will or cease fire.


But the purpose here is to describe how to carry out the drill in Steel Fury, whose platoon command and control facilities are rather more basic  - for example, you have only two formations to choose from (if you exclude the 'blob' of the 'no formation' option) - column and line abreast. Steel Fury also has less hotkeys for the facilities it does provide, requiring some platoon commands to be issued from the map screen. It took a bit of experimentation to work out how to get my platoon to fire and manoeuvre, and having got passable results I thought I'd post them here.


I'm going to describe two alternative methods you can use for Steel Fury. In both cases I have started with 'Always obey orders' selected, via the main game options menu. This may or may not be essential but I believe it reduces the possibility that your crew - and perhaps your other platoon-members - will ignore your commands (eg out of fear). When running drills which require obedience, this seems like a good thing!



Method 1 - you move first


OK, you've launched the mission. Many SF missions don't tell you before you start exactly what you'll be commanding, but let's say that - as is most often the case, and thus a fairly safe bet - you have seen, say, two other tank symbols near yours on the briefing map (your tank is the lightest blue, of the 'blue diamond' tank symbols on the map). And on kicking off the mission, you confirm that both of them answer to your commands. So you're in command of a platoon, three tanks in this case. Perfect!


1. With your own tank lined up on your chosen axis of advance - pointing the way you want to go - hit F8 to bring up the map screen. Then click the 'Line formation' icon, in the vertical stack to the right of the map:




You might also want to:


     (a) minimise the briefing text panel, to get a better view of the map (click the 'book' icon, in the horizontal row at the top of the map); and/or


     (b) order closer formation, by clicking on the icon showing two closely-spaced dots, on the right;


This gets everybody into line (abreast) formation, which is the best starting point for this drill. It may work from other formations but could get messy. After ordering line and returning to the mission, you might need to drive your tank forward a little, to start the other tanks moving into formation.


2. Wait until your tanks have lined up - usually, on either side of you. Then - and only then - back in the map screen, click on the 'Stop' icon (the bin or wastebasket symbol in the vertical stack over on the left of the map; if that stack isn't displaying, click on the 'Orders' icon - the 'shouting head' symbol - in the top row, to display them). Again, your tank is the lighter of the three blue diamonds on the map:




3. Move off in the desired direction, back in the 3d game world, with your own tank (W-A-S-D keys). Because you ordered 'Stop' at step 2, your platoon-mates will stay put when you move off, covering you from where they sit;


4. Complete your first bound and stop in a decent position, one which gives you a good field of view ahead and as much cover as you can get. You did choose this position visually, before you moved off, didn't you? Not too far - you need your platoon tanks, waiting behind you, to be able to spot and engage anything which tries to do you any harm.


5. Hit F8 to get back to the map screen and order 'Do as I do' by clicking the 'two heads' icon at the top of the left-hand stack. F8 will take you back from the map to the game world and if you look over your shoulder - quickly, because you should be watching your arcs, ahead - you will see your platoon-mates start moving again and drive forward until they are line abreast with you, once again.


Rinse and repeat as often as necessary, from Step 2.


To sum up:


1. order 'Line' formation (from map screen)

2. when in formation, order 'Halt' (from map screen)

3. move your tank ahead a 'tactical bound' and then stop

4. order 'Do as I do' (from map screen; the others will now rejoin formation)

...repeat as necessary, from Step 2: map order 'Halt' - move yourself - map order 'Do as I do'.


That's it. Not difficult. Use when doing an advance to contact or in an assault, when you are closing with an enemy whose fire you need some of your tanks to return, accurately. Here it is, in action.


Starting from line abreast, my Tiger moves forward, leaving the other two platoon tanks halted to my rear, covering my advance



I have now halted and called the other two tanks forward; they advance to rejoin me





The others have now halted on either side of my Tiger. I am ready to begin the next bound






Method 2 - they move first


I think I prefer this method. It can be done from the game world, without having to switch back and forward from the map screen. And because you can't take over a platoon-mate's tank if yours gets clobbered in Steel Fury, sending the others on ahead is less risky. A possible downside is that it works from the tank commander (unbuttoned) station so if like me, you play mostly from the gunsight and external views, there is an extra keystoke to get there. Here's how it works.


1. Same step 1 as the first method - get your platoon into line (abreast).


2. If not there already, get to the tank commander (unbuttoned) view (F3, with external view toggled off with F9).


3. Hit the F key, which activates target or destination selection, causing a little red crosshair symbol to appear in your view. Move this crosshair with the mouse over the spot you want your platoon-mates to move to, and RIGHT click with the mouse (left click selects a target, not a movement location). IMMEDIATELY after you right-click, hit the Q key - this stops your own tank from moving with the others. Hit it reasonably quickly and your tank won't have started to move.


It's a good idea to hit the F key again at this point, to toggle off target mode, otherwise you won't be able to mouselook around.




4. Watch your arcs, while your platoon-mates drive forward and halt in the position you selected.


5. When they're set, move off yourself. You can either leapfrog and halt beyond them, which is riskier but makes for a faster advance. Or you can stop when level with them.


Rinse and repeat, from step 2.


That's it - easy, peasy.


There is a variant of this. Go to the map screen (F8) and order a move (click the arrow icon in the left-hand stack, then click on a spot on the map, as the destination). Then quickly toggle the map off (F8 again) AND hit the Q key, to stop your own tank. Your platoon-mates will move to the designated spot while you provide 'overwatch'. I like this less that doing it from the TC unbuttoned view as I don't have to switch to the map, my own tank will  often start moving before I get to the Q key and I have seen my platoon-mates collide when converging on the designated spot.



To sum up:


1. order 'Line' formation (from map screen)

2.  when in formation, from the TC view, mark the next fire position ahead, then quickly stop your own tank (F+RMB, followed quickly by Q)

3. when the others halt there, move off in your own tank (halt with them or leapfrog)

...then repeat, from step 2: mark next fire position+stop - when others halt, move off.


And here's Method 2 in action.


My platoon-mates move forward to the spot I selected, while I cover them from the halt



Once my platoon-mates have halted, it's my turn to roll forward, while they cover my move



Instead of stopping in line with them, I decide to leapfrog and drive on, while they remain halted, behind me



Once across the ploughed field, I halt by a track and order the other two Tigers to leapfrog past me



The Tigers roll on ahead, covered by my stationary tank.



Naturally, you can mix these two methods. For example, after leapfrogging your platoon-mates using method 2, you can switch to method 1 - order 'Do as I do' from the map screen and call them forward to join your tank, instead of sending them out in front again.


Limitations & bottom line


Not unreasonably, when the steel starts flying, your AI platoon-mates may decide that they have better things to do. So your efforts to direct them may go awry. And hitting the wrong key - or forgetting to hit the correct one - could see your tanks moving when you don't want them to, or in the wrong direction. The second method - sending your other tanks forward, before you move - seems to me to be least vulnerable to an attack of 'sausage fingers', but it needs a careful choice of fire position with that right mouse-click, followed rapidly by a 'Q' command to stop your own driver from moving, when you want him to sit still, so you can cover your buddies' move.


The mission you're playing may not cater very well to tactical subtlety - the rest of your force may rush the enemy, leaving you well behind and late for the party. Not ideal, as your Panzer Grenadiers - any who survive, that is - aren't going to be very happy that you weren't there, when needed. And that they're going to have to walk, as all their half-tracks will have been knocked out, deprived of your tank platoon's direct fire support. 


However, there's an old soldier's saying that no man rushes to a market where there's nothing to be bought but blows. And if nobody else in your force seems to have heard that one, I figure that's no reason against adopting better tactics and preserving your own men's lives. No doubt, though, that everybody hitting the objective at the same time is in everyone's best interests. Missions with enough time for more cautious tactics by everyone, player and AI alike, seem like a good idea, to me.


Of course, if the mission designer has assigned you a single vehicle, or at the other extreme, has given you command of other troops or vehicles beyond a platoon of say, 2 to 5 vehicles, then a different approach will be needed. All the methods described above do, is enable you to use your own vehicle as one 'fire team' and any other vehicles you control as a second team. It's ideal with a platoon of three vehicles or even just two. If you have four or more then you really need the ability to split the platoon more evenly and command each half separately. Panzer Elite will let you do this but I'm fairly sure Steel Fury doesn't. Not a big issue, though, as most Steel Fury missions seem to give you three tanks (the usual strength of a Soviet and some British platoons, and fine for a slightly-understrength German or US one).


So, there you have it. Fire and movement, or bounding overwatch, in Steel Fury. It won't suit every situation. It may go completely t*ts up when the shooting really starts. And it won't turn you into a virtual Michael Wittmann, overnight or ever. But it's another little trick you can add to your repertoire.


Personally, I think the best sims are those which give you the additional tactical element of playing as a flight or platoon leader, with 'wingmen' who make a contribution which you can help direct and determine.


You can't run the whole battle in Steel Fury (and don't need to, this isn't a 'real-time strategy' game) but you can make some tactical decisions for your platoon, as well as fight your own tank. The sim doesn't give you the level of control or the connection with your platoon's NCOs and soldiers that you get from 'old school' classics like M1 Tank Platoon 2 or Panzer Elite. But you can still play the role of a platoon leader in virtual battle, by making the best of those command and control tools that Steel Fury does provide.


With modder Lockie's help I'm planning a training mission where you can practice this and perhaps also gunnery and some other basic drills in a 'field training area' where the targets don't shoot back - and in a Tiger tank as illustrated, for which you'll need the new STA mod. The screenies above were taken in a basic first version, cloned from an existing mission; if it works out, I'll report in!



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