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Real-world infantry tactics in the Arma2-based Iron Front: Liberation 1944


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Hey, you! Get down off that effing skyline!


Section attacks - ask anyone who's had even basic infantry training, and they will tell you it's the point all the training comes together - the weapon handling and marksmanship, camouflage and concealment, tactical movement, formations, field signals, target indication, fire control orders and all the rest of it. Since at least the time of the Romans, whose legionaries were organised into squads of about eight men who trained, ate, slept and fought together, the infantry section ('squad' in US Army terms) has been the very building block of larger units. And by the end of World War 2, the section's tactics had evolved into the same basic form they still follow today. The foundation stone of those tactics is section attacks - the drills the infantry use to accomplish their mission in battle, which is to close with the enemy, day or night in any weather and in any terrain, and destroy him, or force his surrender.


Fire and movement, or fire and manoeuvre, is the foundation of modern infantry tactics. To get close enough to the enemy to destroy him, you must move. To move in the face of his fire, you must supress him, and win the fire-fight. So a section operates in two teams, called fire teams these days. When in contact with the enemy, or when advancing to contact, one team moves while the other fires - or covers, from a position from which it can fire. No movement without fire. No fire without movement.


In my day, infantry sections were organised into a 'gun group' and a 'rifle group'. The former was typically three men, the lance corporal section 2ic (second-in-command) and the number 1 and 2 on a GPMG (spoken as 'gimpy'). The rifle group, under the corporal who was section commander, was five or so men armed with the magnificent SLR, supplemented by smoke and fragmentation grenades and a couple of 'sixty-sixes', disposable AT rocket launchers. We trained and practiced section attacks using 'Section Battle Drills' - Preparation for Battle, Reaction to Effective Enemy Fire, Winning the Fire-fight, The Assault & Fight-through (sometimes taught as two distinct drills) and Re-organisation.


I was quite chuffed to find on Youtube a while back a Services Kinema Corporation training film that nicely illustrates all of this in action - and that I found I still remembered nearly by heart!




There were variations of course and one I was taught - and preferred when I was acting as a section or patrol commander - was, having numbered off my rifle group, to put odd numbers on the left in any formation, and even numbers on the right. When the rifle group needed to start skirmishing on its own (typically in the final assault), or just if we needed to move 'tactically' (US 'bounding overwatch') we could move in turns, as odds and evens, better spread out than if people were moving in an 'interleaved' fashion, which was normally the 'official' drill for skirmishing. 'Pairs fire and manoeuvre' is what skirmishing's commonly called in the days of two four-man fire teams.


So, you may be asking by now - if you have read this so far, rather than deciding 'TLDR' - where does the mission report come in? Patience, not long now!



Soldier sims as I see 'em

In my search for a decent simulation of infantry soldiering - the combat part of it, anyway, foot drill we can live without - I have bought and played a good many; single-player only, as I have no interest in multiplayer. I go airsofting, if I want that! After putzing about with Novalogic's Delta Force, Ghost Recon was one of my early purchases, and the first with really decent visuals. But I disliked the 'missions on rails' feeling, with impassable scenery objects regularly channelling my movement. Same with the likes of Call of Duty (1) and Brothers in Arms. I much preferred Hidden and Dangerous, whose 'channeling' seemed less obtrusive, while the ability to 'operate' each of your men in turn, in between the AI controlling them, made the game feel more tactical for me and reduced the impact of AI limitations. And I quite liked the fire-team based concept of Full Spectrum Warrior. But the best of them all for me was Operation Flashpoint - Cold War Crisis. Whole, vast islands to fight over, a real open environment 'sandbox' with driveable cars, AFVs and even helos and jets, all coming together in nicely-scripted campaigns, complete with cutscenes. I was hooked, my favourite campaign being the Red Hammer add-on, fighting as the disaffected ex-Speznaz soldier Dimitri Lukin.


ColdWarAssault 2016-08-12 22-44-20-79.jpg


Having found a while back my OFP Game of the Year edition would no longer work in Vista 64, I was delighted to find that developers Bohemia Interactive had released a free version, ARMA Cold War Crisis (the OFP label having moved on, in a different direction) - playable in Vista with my original software key.


in the meantime, I had bought ARMA2 and the Reinforcements add-on which included British forces - even though in desert rather than temperate DPM and with SA80s rather than SLRs. Somehow, I never warmed to ARMA2. It was a bit hot for my system at the time (not that it's much better now!). And I like to play in the 3rd person view except while shooting, but hated the replacement of the full-height OFP view by one from the backside up. One day, I will get the Operation Arrowhead version that works with most of the current mods, including one designed to enable you to adjust the 3rd person view.


Despite some mixed reviews, the one ARMA2 spin-off I did buy, from Gamersgate (also available on Steam), was X1 Software's World War 2 standalone derivative, Iron Front: Liberation 1944. I knew that an Operation Arrowhead-based WW2 mod, Invasion '44, was available, and that modding in Iron Front was limited (to comply with their licence for use of the BI game engine, apparently). Some reviewers really didn't like it, I could see. But it was available at a good price, with a D-Day DLC which added Normandy to the Eastern Front of the original game. Mainly, I was interested in the tanks, and though few are playable, they are great to look at, so I took the plunge...


ironfront 2016-08-13 00-00-48-38.jpg


That, despite the fact that I knew vehicles had never been OFP's strong point and that ARMA2 wasn't much better - stock, anyway. The vehicles don't slip and slide about like hovercraft anymore, but Iron Front's no tanksim. For one thing, the crew are either fully unbuttoned, sitting well out of hatches, or fully closed up - there's no tank commander 'heads out' view. See what I mean?


ironfront 2015-04-27 21-14-44-46.jpg


And closed up, the Tiger I commander has a rotating periscope view, not the ring of fixed episcopes he really had, although the gunner's sight is realistic and functional. Still, all the Iron Front AFVs are lovely renditions, and one day, I will make more of an effort to make the most of Iron Front's tanking. There is a lot to learn, both how best to manage your own tank and control your platoon or other attached forces, and the ARMA2-style keyboard control set-up is truly arcane, more cold-keys than hotkeys as it were.


ironfront 2016-08-12 23-54-29-98.jpg


Nowadays - again if you have ARMA2 OA, which I don't yet - you can install Iron Front as if it were an ARMA2 mod; also for ARMA3. Which sounds promising. One of these days...


But for now, I downloaded several user-made missions for Iron Front - it shares OFP's easy-to-use but powerful Mission Editor - and playing one of these, I found myself as a section commander in a fairly open-ended mission that gave me plenty of scope and time, rather than pitching me quickly into a scary contact. Which you'll appreciate is not an environment conducive to familiarising yourself with a complex system of keyboard commands. This mission report, such as it is, describes a play-through after several efforts to decide on a system and acquire an imperfect but just-about-adequate familiarity with the basic controls. Most of my gameplay in the original OFP was solo missions, so I really have been learning pretty well from scratch, how to play the role of an infantry sectrion commander in an ARMA2-type sim.


How did it work out? Let's find out - it's time to get moving!


ironfront 2016-08-12 20-45-42-13.jpg


...to be continued!

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The battle for Panovo


You can find the mission I'm playing on Bohemia Interactive's Iron Front forum, here. It was made by Metalvenom and he describes it as follows:


"It's based on a capture mechanic where two armies clash over the entire map trying to capture points. Given the lack of ambient combat, this does a good job of throwing you into a constant war zone.

Dynamic Battles
AI respawn at base location, then again set out to try and capture the towns.
resupply point in the towns"


Below is the combat area. I'm not clued in on Iron Front's maps, so am not sure if this one is stock or user-made [edit - it's one of the stock maps, in the Ukraine]. It's set on the Eastern Front, anyway, so it'll be the Red Army of Peasants and Workers that we're up against. Friendly Forces are blue. My section is centre left, amongst the blob of blue dots (each representing a 'unit', which in ARMA-speak is a single soldier, vehicle or plane). Our general axis of advance is the big green arrow nearby. Objectives are the grey ovals off to the right; these later turn red or blue, depending on which side's in control there. Because this is a free-for-all (and hence a rather good section training exercise, albeit with live enemies) we are free to pick our own objectives and routes, and have no particular idea what the others will be up to. The map view will display the enemies as red dots when they appear - I don't know enough about ARMA2 to know if this level of visibility is a function of my realism setting ('Veteran') or built into the mission, but it is convenient for present purposes. Which is to rehearse myself and my section; specifically, to explore how close I can come in Iron Front to re-creating the experience, long past but not forgotten, of leading an infantry section or patrol.




Old ARMA2 hands - not me! - will be entirely familiar with the tab-based approach to looking up what's commonly called a 'briefing'. I prefer all this information to be presented together, and not as a briefing, but as it should be in any soldier sim - as ORDERS, using a sensible format like the NATO one you can see in the training film linked to in the first post (this is strongly based on the British WW2 format, which was functionally identical). The training film is untypical, though, because the boss - 'Mister Bish', the 2nd Lieutenant platoon commander - is giving orders to just one of his section commanders. Normally, at an 'Orders Group', the force commander at whatever level gives the orders/aka briefing to ALL his subordinates, simultaneously. So if for examlpe in a mission you are a section commander, your boss is a subaltern and he will give orders to you and his other two section commanders at the same session. I have rarely seen any kind of military sim which gets this basic point right - they provide briefings not orders, and they are given as if just to the player, not all the participating subordinate commanders. Never mind that the others are AI and will follow their scripts, they should 'be there' for the orders. But I digress...


So I have played the mission briefly a couple of times, to practice the keystrokes, and familiarise myself with the interface and the terrain. We're fully bombed up so I'll ignore the resupply point just to our north. Looking along our axis, on the left there's rolling, broken countryside, fields dotted with trees and shrubs out as far as the objective on that flank, with some metalled (grey) roads. In the centre, there's a winding series of (brown) tracks and some buildings, leading towards the more distant objectives. On the right, there's more mixed countryside, dominated by buildings which I know to be a castle-like structure, on high ground. I decide to go left, for the objective on that flank. None of our other troops seem to be headed that way and rather than co-operate with them, I want to do my own thing. Most un-military but I want to play this a rehearsal for my own section. Platoon attacks are further along the syllabus. In my favoured 3rd person view, I pull up the compass and with that and the map, orient myself for our advance.




Bottom left, you can see the row of little 'unit icons', each one representing a soldier in my section, numbered starting with myself. You can slide this row sideways if you have more than ten 'units' (there's 11 of us in my section) but can't toggle it off entirely. Despite being the section commander, I have a Kar 98K rifle, not a 'Schmeisser' MP38 or 40 submachinegun. It would be a simle matter to change my weapon with the Mission Editor, but I like rifles - preferally self-loading, like the Gewehr 43 also available in Iron Front - and decide to stick with my Mauser.


One thing I have already done by this time is sort the section into two teams. Doing this, I happily find that whoever designed the set-up shared my preferences for having odd numbers are on the left, evens on the right. One of my blokes has an MG42, I can see, and he's on the left. So I use the 'Team' menu to create a 3-man gun-group centred on the gunner with two other 'odd numbers', with the rest forming a rifle group centred on me - all the even numbers, plus a few of the odds, so that I will be in roughly the middle of section formations - 'wedge' (which we called 'arrowhead') and 'line' anyway. This is visible in that the gun group numbers on the icons are green for the gun group ('G' for 'green' and 'gun', to help me remember easily) and red for the rifle group.


To begin with, we are in the default wedge formation. I let the other troops in our vicinity head off, and they disappear towards the centre and the right. For my own section, I choose to advance at the walk - time enough to run when the rounds start flying. The section walks with me, by default. I double-tap the Ctrl key so my rifle drops from the default 'aim' position to the more appropriate 'alert' position, with the butt close to my shoulder but the muzzle lowered.




On that subject, all this walking about with your weapon in the aim, looking down (or through) the sights, I find horrible, despite it seemingly being fashhionable in certain quarters. It's a good way to trip over something and probably plug your muzzle with dirt. It's also a good way to compromise your peripheral vision. Don't do it! Except when you're closely approaching a position you believe may be occupied by the enemy. Scan with your sights by all means, but not while moving. Unfortunately in Iron Front, probably as in ARMA, troops often advance at the aim, if you order them to be more careful (by setting tactical modes like 'Danger'). And it is particularly awful to see your machine gunner doing this, like his loaded MG42 was a lightweight rifle, which would be bad enough. Likewise somebody with a scoped sniper rifle. Very silly, soldier animations would be better without this, except in the closest of close quarter combat, urban or rural.


On the positive side, as you can see, we are nicely turned out. In this mission, we're attired as soldiers of the Waffen SS, with its distinctive camouflage helmet covers and smocks. These Iron Front figures are just suberb, complete with nicely-rendered accoutrements like the distinctive German cylindrical respirator carrier, water bottle, mess tin, rolled-up camouflaged zeltbahn poncho, bayonet, entrenching tool and ration bag.


Veering slightly north to avoid skyling the whole section on a grassy hummock on our original line of advance, I come upon the resupply point. Here, there is a King Tiger and a Schutzenpanzerwagen (SPW), the half-tracked APC famous as the mount of the panzergrenadiers. I could actually occupy one or both of these, but this is to be a footslogging mission, so we move on.




We come to some fences and I have the opportunity to try out the 'V' key, which enables your character to step over such obstacles. I'm not going to use obstacle-crossing drills just yet - stopping short, moving one team over covered by the other, then covering the second team over from the far side. Maybe later, when contact with the enemy is possible. For now, I'm just getting the feel of things.




We move past some buildings on our right and come up to the broken countryside we will have to cross. The sound of distant small-arms fire clatters and pops, somewhere out there. Clearly, it's time to get a bit more tactical.




...to be continued!

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Advance to contact!


The map view below shows the tactical sitiuation at this time. My section is the group of blue dots just north of the track, centre left. By this time, the left- and right-flank objectives are showing as ours. Most of the other German troops are advancing on the right and have cleared the area of the castle. The distant small-arms fire I can hear appears to be coming from contacts further out on that flank, where some red dots betray the presence of enemy forces. From past expereince, I know that single dots moving fast are aircraft; those moving slowly are liable to be vehicles. Lacking AT weapons, the latter I will want to avoid.




At this point, before beginning to cross the more open ground to our front, I go down on one knee and scan the ground methodically, from left to right. This is where the traditional OFP moderate zoom function comes in handy. You can keep your character still, turning just his head, with the 'Alt' key. Looking half left, this is what I can see...




Looking right, without the zoom, I can see that the even numbers of my section have paused nearby.




I stand up and walk a few yards further out before kneeling again. Time to practice some tactical movement. I want the gun group to cover the rifle group as it makes the next bound forward. Looking left, I select it and mark the spot I want it to occupy, near the base of some small trees.




At this point, I decide I will switch from just walking forward, to skirmishing. To do this, I set the 'tactical mode' to 'Danger' (good details of theese modes and the whole ARMA2 'squad command interface are in this wiki.)




The gun group is on position on my left, so I get up and walk forward again. This time, the rest of the rifle group move forward in short rushes, from fire position to fire position. This is where I would prefer they went from moving animation, with their weapon at the high port, to a static aiming position. But they run, then slow down with their weapon at the aim, then halt and scan for a bit, before finally halting. It'll do, but it's not quite how I was taught or would do it.






If I run with the section in this mode, I quickly outdistance them, so I walk, occasionally going down on one knee, the better to observe. As we go, I'm looking for possible enemy positions but also for cover just ahead, where I'll go to if we come under effective enemy fire. Some birds flutter around and we see and hear the occasional aeroplane, but none come near us. I have subtitles and target markers turned off, and I find that I know enough German to understand the occasional word or sighting report called out by my men.


We reach a small stand of trees and 'go firm', completing the first tactical bound. Down on one knee again, I select the next fire position for the gun group and call it forward.




I'm pleased to see that this has the desired effect once more, with the gun group smartly moving forward and into position. I can see how it's going to be rather more tricky during a contact, easy to find the wrong keystroke combo, but for now, it's going quite well. I feel like the imperturbable Corporal Rooney in that training film, and while things are going quite well, I am glad that there are no Directing Staff to watch and critique my performance. The enemy will be doing that soon enough, I feel.




...to be continued!

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I advance warily across the open ground, with the other members of the rifle group skirmishing forward on either side. I then halt the bound at another group of trees, just beyond a track, with the others settling in to my left...




...and to my right...




I now signal the gun group to move forward to rejoin us, from the fire position from which they have been covering the rifle group's advance. That done, I take time to re-orient myself with the aid of my compass.




It isn't long before the gun group is coming up on our left. You may have noticed that I have been keeping them fairly close, rather than pushing them out to a flank. There are two reasons for this. First, I don't want them to run into an enemy off to the flanks whom the rifle group hasn't seen - the gun group being my main firepower. This is also why we are moving by 'caterpillaring' (US 'successive overwatch') and not 'leapfrogging' (US 'bounding overwatch'). The other reason is that I'm concerned that the precision of my firing point selection decreases with distance. I believe there's an overhead view you can use to get around this, and can also set waypoints on the map.




The map view below illustrates the tactical situation at this point, with my section amongst the bushes towards the top left, near what appears to be an arrow marking an ammunition point. Our objective is still in enemy hands, being occupied by a single red dot. I can hear the sound of a motor vehicle, what kind I don't know, but possibly armoured and dangerous, and probably what that dot is marking. Naturally, this is not a particularly welcome development.




I decide to move forward to cover on the near side of the road between us and the objective. If the enemy vehicle moves off, we'll move in. If it doesn't, I'm going to need another plan. Whatever the vehicle is, it doesn't sound like a truck, more like a tracked vehicle of some sort. Not something I'm going to want to tangle with. There's a small stand of trees to our right front and I decide that's where we'll go. It's a bit open and by the time I'm half-way there, I'm wondering if I have made a bad mistake.




I kneel in the lee of the sparse treeline. Ahead and left, I can see the edge of a small village...more accurately, a few houses either side of the road ahead. The zoomed view makes the latter look closer than it really is, but if that vehicle drives along it, it'll be a bit too close for comfort.




We go firm and I call the gun group forward again. This time I want him on my right flank. My next move will be half left up to the fork in the road over that way, and I think the gun will be better on the other side.




At this point, the engine noise to my left becomes louder and I don't need to check the map to realise that whatever it is, it's coming our way. We go prone. To my immediate left, you can see the section medic, in his white red-crossed helmet. Really, proper medics should not be armed and I tell myself that if we survive, I'll make him stick a camouflage cover on his helmet, which far from identifying him as a non-combatant, just picks him out as a target.




Just as I'm considering pulling back, the gun group arrives and goes to ground on my right. Just as well, for at this point, it kicks off. A shouted target indication reveals a enemy half-track moving in from the fork in the road to our left front. I hesitate, for though it's Soviet green, it is clearly a German Hanomag SPW. By the time it's registered in my mind this is a captured vehicle in enemy hands, the guys on my right have started shooting. No time to wonder know if this would have turned out any better if I'd ordered them to hold fire. We're committed!




In the pic below, you can just about see the half-track just above and slightly right of my helmet. It has come down the fork in the road and is moving fast across our front, travelling left to right.




The enemy vehicle hesitates, then swivels and I see somebody bailing out of the back. Rounds really are flying now and my first thought is to get off some of my own, too. I leave the 3rd person view and crawl to my left front, to get a clear line of sight through the grass and bushes. In doing so, I briefly lose sight of the target. By the time I get eyes back on what's become the killing ground for our hasty ambush, there's nothing to be seen. The half-track seems to have driven off to the right.




I bring my rifle to the aim and scan through my sights, but I can pick up no targets. The shooting dies away, and the engine noise starts to fade.




The short, sharp firefight has ended as quickly as it began, giving me no chance to fire a round in anger myself, or to practice the appplication of my section's fire. At least, we have driven off the enemy without suffering any casualties. A check of the map view indicates the enemy has suffered at least one loss, with the others bugging out to the south.




So far, so good. We're lucky it wasn't a tank! I should have issued a general 'Hold fire till I say otherwise' order, but I wasn't expecting the AI to crack off without my say-so, unless very seriously threatened. However, it seems to have worked out for the best.


Now, to see if we can turn that left flank objective, just to our front, back from enemy red to friendly blue!


...to be continued!

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An unexpected ending...


ironfront 2016-08-12 21-10-44-84.jpg


I wait until I am sure the enemy has moved on, then decide my next bound will be to some trees on the far side of the metalled road to our front. From my prone position, I side-crawl a few feet to the left, to make sure that I do not stand up in the same place where I've been lying. I suspect this may be too subtle for a sim to confer any advantage, but it feels more realistic to me!


ironfront 2016-08-12 21-10-56-61.jpg


As I move forward, a glance right and left is enough to re-assure me that the rest of the rifle group is moving with me, while the gun group maintains its covering position, to my immediate right.


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As I come up to the road, I break into a run, which carries me over the open ground and onto the opposite side.


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Once at the base of the trees between the fork in the road, we go firm again. By now, I've more or less got the hang of moving my section tactically in Iron Front and the gun group is soon rejoining, once again on my right.


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Re-orienting myself establishes that the road to my left leads directly to the objective. There's the road...


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...and there's the objective, which has turned blue again. You can see that a bunch of friendly blue dots have occupied it. Having come all this way, I decide we will continue there, and perhaps link up with the other section. And it won't do any harm for those of us who have fired our weapons to get 'bombed up' at the resupply point up there.


ironfront 2016-08-12 21-13-40-57.jpg


At this point, I get the unexpected ending of the title, in the form of a black screen. The game is stull running and keystrokes still work, but the mission is over. This is the first crash or similar problem I've had in Iron Front, though I can't say I have played it really extensively, thus far.


However, I have to say that I have enjoyed this mission. The visuals are generally great, the sounds are ok, and the overall experience is very good. I could wish for a simpler, faster and less error-prone way to issue common commands. As it is, I find that I call up the first level 'action menu' that I think is what I need, only to find that some of the options I want are greyed out. Probably, there are more optimal ways of doing what I want to do much of the time, which I will find with a bit more practice. And I have hardly scratched the surface - tactical movement is one thing, but I also need to master directing the fire of my section, as well as its movement. In short, I need to do more rehearsals in missions like this, including developing and practicing 'Immediate Actions' or 'Actions on...' - drills I can initiate very quickly and with little conscious thought, in specific situations, like reacting to effective enemy fire.


I suppose that's the good thing about the BI sims - their close affinity to the VBS military simulation software means they are designed with real-world small unit operations in mind. So I shouldn't be surprised that they support quite well the sort of tactics I have been trying out. Whether typical Iron Front missions are more designed to be entertaining than practice small unit leadership skills is another matter, so I may end up making missions which conform more closely with my own particular interests and preferences, using the excellent Mission Editor.


In the meantime, while not designed or presented as a realistic, co-ordinated company-level attack or advance to contact, the Battle for Panovo has proved a good platform for practicing at least some of the battle drills required in section attacks, and I'm not finished with it yet!


ironfront 2016-08-16 15-38-58-81.jpg


And I'll have another go sometime at those tanks - they look much too good to pass by!


ironfront 2016-08-12 20-29-11-22.jpg

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      Sooo...I needed to find a mission which doesn't overtax either my nascent team command skills or my nearly non-existent object manipulation skills. The one I settled on is called (somewhat unhappily, in these sometimes rather grim days) Beheading the Command - all the English text in Iron Front, like briefings, is a little whymsical. In short, I'm in the US Army, Normandy, July 1944. I'm a sniper, and me and my buddy must make our way across country into enemy territory. We are to go to a point where 'int' - or 'intel', I should be using US not British Army shorthand - tells us that we will find an important enemy commander. Our task once there, reasonably enough, is to kill him. Or 'neutralise' him, if you like. These days, western armies seem strangely reluctant to speak of killing anyone, as if they are scared that the Chattering Classes will think they are bad people, unworthy of their tax dollars. Not me. I'm with George Orwell, who's quoted as saying that we sleep safely in our beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on our behalf. Spot on, George.
      Here's the mission map. Our starting point is marked 'You start here' in small green text, towards the top right. Our objective is near bottom left, marked in red crosshairs and orange rings. The spot labelled 'Meeting point' is where we are to meet a patrol on the way out, who will cover our withdrawal. Which is liable to be helpful, as the enemy are likely to be not best pleased if we succeed in bumping off their boss. Or maybe not; as one well-known senior British officer observed, few things cheer up the troops like seeing a dead general from time to time.

      Remembering at least some of what I learned all those years back, I have marked on the map some rendezvous points, in black - RV1, RV2, and FRV for Final RV (final, before the objective). I could have plotted other stuff like compass bearings between each RV but it's a fairly simple route, just west of due south on the first leg then close to due west on the last two; then north, to get out of it. The most important thing is to site the RVs where there's some cover and on, or hard by, physical features I can recognise on the ground, so that I will know when I'm there.
      So, how did I actually get on? We'll make a start on that, next.
      ...to be continued!

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