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"Spotting from commanding ground" Topic

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GreenLeader20 Jul 2017 4:03 p.m. PST

On a semi-recent visit to the Magersfontein battlefield, I was left struck by just what an amazing view one had from the top of the hills – they stick up out of pan-cake like surroundings and one can see for miles and miles.

This got me thinking: how well do we represent the enormous advantage that height gives in spotting? Most wargames I have played follow the basic premise of 'if you can see me, then I can see you', but I would argue that this is by no means the case once high / commanding ground is thrown into the mix.

And I am not just talking about a small OP sitting up there, radioing in fire missions: a company-sized unit up on such commanding ground would be able to spot a similar-sized unit down on the plain below at many miles, and yet I do not think the reverse would be true, even if the chaps on the lower ground were under fire (I am talking of after the introduction of smokeless powder here).

So what is the best way to handle this? Is it something that features in many games / rule sets? Would many players enjoy playing in a game when this was done 'realistically'?

BattleCaptain Inactive Member20 Jul 2017 5:10 p.m. PST

It's complicated, because hills have different types of slopes. In most cases, if you're on the crest, you can see a lot in the distance, but the ground in front is "dead" to you, and may harbour unpleasant surprises. Creep forward to see more in front, and you become visible and dangerously exposed to distant shooters.

Personal logo Extra Crispy Sponsoring Member of TMP20 Jul 2017 6:05 p.m. PST

The Napoleonic rules "Grande Armee" give you a command bonus if your general is on commanding ground. Basically, increases your command "range" allowing you to be more effective at a distance.

I remember my first trip to Gettysburg being disappointed in the "ridges." I expected scenic rolling land and what i got instead were small, gentle slopes. Even so, get on top of even a modest rise and you can see a long way.

Heck an officer on horseback has a significant advantage just from up there!

UshCha21 Jul 2017 2:01 a.m. PST

I don't think I really diasagree in the fundamentals of this. But would argue its harder to implement the advantages. We have been playeing some "strategic" games. That is game with relatively long complex terrain. We realised early on that as wargamers we had vastly more information than our real counterparts. We were aware that the enemy were going into action down the road X and it coule be as much as a real battalion with supports. A hill with a good view would mainly provide that sort of data, at intermittent times day and/or goow weather. calling artillery and observing fall of shot may not be that easy from 4 miles or so so that would not be its main use. Certainly given real ground, miles away, means you would not see troops in dence terrain so you may see a company go in a wood but if a big one you would not know where. This is the sort of data you get for free in most wargames. so really its how you hide that data in a normal game that is an issue. Even a military excersise has some data about where the battle is fought. The Ardennes offensive was completely unexpected. If trhe trerrain was viewable from a long distance from the Allied side the build up would not be hidden.

So the gains are obvious but the implementation less so.

Blutarski21 Jul 2017 4:07 a.m. PST

The advent of efficient indirect artillery fire made and commanding height a vitally important tactical feature. Almost every major WW1 offensive involved, to one degree or another, was an effort to either seize such observation positions for own use or deny their use to the opponent.

The most dangerous man on the battlefield was an artillery FO.


uglyfatbloke21 Jul 2017 2:49 p.m. PST

Crispy has a good point; riding and walking across the Gettysburg fields changed my perception of the task of Pickett's division in particular.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP24 Jul 2017 10:02 p.m. PST

Nice post, GreenLeader. High ground giving improved spotting gives improved battle picture, situational awareness, call it what you will, making it harder for the enemy to achieve surprise or deception, thus enabling commanders to assess and respond more quickly and make better decisions.

How your rules reflect this depends how your command and control mechanisms work. Extra Crispy has already mentioned the Grande Armee approach of larger command radius. Other approaches could be to give +1 to activation rolls, or extra command pips / orders points, or just an automatic ability to react by changing formation or facing if on higher ground.

Btw you mention Magersfontein – wasn't that notable for the fact that bar a couple of guns, the Boer defenders actually dug in on the flat, not on the high ground? (I suppose because it was easier to dig there than on the rocky kops, as well as some advantage of concealment and surprise.) Though no doubt they had observers and commanders on the heights. Anyway, it gave us a grand game a few weeks ago:


Bloody Big BATTLES!

Bloody Big BATTLES

monk2002uk25 Jul 2017 2:43 a.m. PST

I totally agree with the impact that even a small rise can have on the ability to spot. Aubers Ridge in French Flanders is barely perceptible from a distance. Stand on any part of it and you can see very clearly over the area that was defended by the British during WW1.

There is a distinction, however, between seeing the enemy and being able to translate that into coordinated military actions. In practice, it is not usually necessary to make this distinction – the two things (observation and command/control) being abstracted together.


monk2002uk25 Jul 2017 2:48 a.m. PST

BattleCaptain's point is also valid. Hills that are convex outwards do not permit observation of the base of the hill from the crest. Two examples in WW1 include: Le Cateau, where a German infantry regiment exploited the dead ground at the base of the ridge line to manoeuvre against II Corps left flank; and Thièpval ridge on the Somme. You can't see the Ancre River valley to the west from much of that ridge.


Blutarski25 Jul 2017 2:42 p.m. PST

Hence the distinction between the topographical crest and the "military crest".


GreenLeader10 Aug 2017 6:02 p.m. PST


Sorry for the delay… been out in the bundu.

Yes, the trenches at Magersfontein were indeed dug at the summit of the hill, about 200 yards in front of it. It is not often mentioned that the reason de la Rey did this was to make it harder for the Boers manning them to run away, as they had in the previous three battles on that front.

ChrisBBB2 Supporting Member of TMP10 Aug 2017 11:17 p.m. PST

Welcome back, GreenLeader! You mean dug at the foot, not the summit, I think? Thanks very much for the detail about it being to stop the Boers running away. Well, in Anton's scenario the Boers are rated 'Fragile', so I guess he got that right.


Bloody Big BATTLES!

GreenLeader11 Aug 2017 7:06 a.m. PST

Bloody hell, yes – foot, not summit.

Working night shift and suffering from the Bombay trots = not a good combination.

There are more details on the battle in a recently released book on the Boer War: 'Kruger's War' by Chris Ash. Not sure if its available in the UK.

Legion 411 Aug 2017 7:24 a.m. PST

As we know, and as noted the "high ground" has the advantage of better/longer LOS/FOF plus it's generally harder to attack "up hill", etc. … So I'd think that should be incorporated into most game systems.

riding and walking across the Gettysburg fields changed my perception of the task of Pickett's division in particular.
Yes as in many cases terrain undulates and has dead space that would block some LOS even from the higher ground.

I saw a documentary where they walked the terrain where Pickett's Charge took place. And it was clear that the lower ground along the route could/would block some LOS/FOF.

I was told you can see the same situation at the Little Big Horn. Just because it looks flat does not mean it is.

Even when setting up a range card, interlocking FOF, defense planning, etc., in current times. If possible you would want to ID that Dead Space where the enemy could get some cover. And those areas would be targeted by GL, mortar, even FA fire, etc.

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