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The Burning Blue

Designer's Notes by Lee Brimmicombe-Wood

Though there have been many games on the Battle of Britain, most emphasize the strategic battle and often fail to deal with the tactical fighting in any depth. The Burning Blue’s focus is purely on the battles between the RAF fighter controllers and the Luftwaffe, rather than strategy. It recreates the minute-by-minute interaction of air raids and defenders, pitching the Luftwaffe’s raid planning against the RAF’s integrated air defence system.

Methodology

I wanted to reproduce the procedures used by RAF fighter controllers. The plotting board map, the control room clock and track counters all model actual practice. However, the emphasis on fighter control means that events below this command level – the minutiae of squadron intercepts and fighting – are highly abstract.

I decided to drive the gameplay using a database of the actual raids launched in the battle. The historical raid tables list every major Luftwaffe raid of the Battle of Britain. The exception is Scenario 5, where the proliferation of small Jabo raids resulted in a deliberate choice to depict the ‘highlights’ from the period. Nuisance raids by lone aircraft and formations of less than Staffel strength have also been ignored. (These nuisance raids were common only on days of exceptionally bad weather. Periods of weather that restricted flying are not depicted in the game.) A variety of sources were used to compile the raid database, but conflicting accounts may have created errors, for which I take any blame.

I didn’t want players to construct their own Luftwaffe raids. The historical tables are more likely to generate the wide variety of attacks seen in the battle than any generic raid creation rules. They are also true to the command level of the game. The selection of targets and the allocation of forces are well above the player’s ‘pay grade’. Instead, the challenge for the Luftwaffe player is to do the best they can executing the raids they are dealt by High Command.

The scenarios are built around the different phases of the battle. I wanted to depict the distinct flavour of each phase to show how the battle evolved tactically, and the tables show the subtle shifts in raiding patterns as the campaign continued.

ILLUSTRATION: A sample of the historical raids table, listing major raids, their targets and orders of battle.

Units

Squadrons and Gruppen are the basic combat units, permitting breakdowns into flights and Staffeln as necessary. Smaller sections and pairs were not included in the game as these tended to be employed against small groups of raiders such as recon flights. (That said, one of the game’s historical advisers recalls being vectored in a section against a 200+ raid!)

Though some consideration was given during development to allowing the Luftwaffe player control over the Staffeln within a fighter Gruppe, this idea was discarded. It would have led to inappropriate micromanagement of forces. We treat Gruppen as single entities, even though in a combat only one or two Staffeln may be actually fighting.

There are no combat bonuses for elite units in the game. It is difficult to identify units that stand out and it would unhistorically bias players to favour certain units. For the most part I assume units have a broadly similar distribution of good and bad pilots and let the dice rolls differentiate. Green unit status might affect player behaviour, but it was a necessary addition to the rules to model those squadrons that were flung into the battle completely unprepared.

ILLUSTRATION: An RAF squadron (two aircraft) next to a flight (one aircraft). A Luftwaffe gruppe (two aircraft) next to a staffel (one aircraft).

Orders of Battle

The RAF orders of battle are snapshots of each phase of the battle. For the sake of economy they do not show every unit that passed through the main battle area. As the Scenario 2 optional rule for 266 Squadron illustrates, a few green units lasted just days in the battle before casualties forced them out of the fight.

The Luftwaffe orders of battle are not complete either. Some bomber units that came late to the battle, such as KG26 and KG77, were purposely left out. The question of units that transferred from Luftflotte 3 to 2 is a thorny one. The shift happened part way through the third phase of the battle, so for a while they still operated in Luftflotte 3. However, it becomes apparent from the histories that some of those units transferred back late in the fourth phase to support Sperrle’s raids on Yeovil and the Bristol area. In the absence of a schedule of transfers, it was easier to let 3/2 units operate in either Luftflotte from Scenario 3 onward and assume they were available as needed.

Command and Control

RAF controllers operated with information that was 5-6 minutes old, which is why RAF units move before the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe did not have ground control of their bombers and fighters so they act according to pre-plotted orders. Though RAF controllers had a picture of what was happening in the air, and could pass this information to their squadrons while the Luftwaffe largely functioned ‘blind’. Luftwaffe monitoring of RAF radio chatter may have provided warnings to Gruppen, but it was not a coherent air picture.

ILLUSTRATION: A sample of a Luftwaffe raid plan against the south of England. The Luftwaffe player uses a copy of the game map to draw up his plan.

The order and radio-telephony rules closely reflect the RAF’s command and control arrangements. The mysteries of HF radio were revealed by researching the Air Ministry archive. I was able to reconstruct the R/T relay network from records of telephone works and this is the first time this information has been published. The schedule for the changeover to VHF R/T also came from unpublished Ministry files.

ILLUSTRATION: This section of map shows the RAF Tangmere sector airfield and the dotted telephone line connecting with its radio-telephone relay station (the blue diamond) at Cuckfield, near Burgess Hill. This relay permits Tangmere squadrons to operate as far away as South London and parts of Kent.

RAF response values and early warning results are based on a careful analysis of the historical response to raids. My study showed that RAF controllers were initially tentative in their response, always afraid of the feint or the second wave of attacks. Later they became more confident, particularly when it became clear the Luftwaffe was massing all its strength at London. So for the early scenarios it was necessary to introduce the response level mechanism as a brake on the RAF's ability to throw squadrons at the Luftwaffe.

When it came to the scramble limits -- the number of squadrons scrambled in any game turn -- I ran into the limits of my knowledge. The game's scramble limits match history but I have yet to crack the code as to why the Group controllers filtered squadrons into the air the way they did.

Combat

The combat system evolved significantly during development. An early design calculated combat strength from the number of aircraft in each unit. This proved rather cumbersome and the final mechanism resulted from a desire to speed play. It also became clear that much of the killing in each squadron was done by a core cadre of pilots and numbers mattered less than whether those cadres could maintain cohesion. However, the old formula still echoes in the way that casualties are tracked as individual aeroplanes.

Combat is based on the notion that massed air battles conform to a law of diminishing returns. The larger the force, the smaller the increase in killing effectiveness. This is why Me109 Gruppen, with more than twice the aircraft of a Spitfire squadron, are not twice as effective in a fight.

Victory is not all about shooting down enemies, of course. Breaking up formations is far more important. Battle of Britain veterans I spoke to confirmed that fighter units flew apart quickly in combat. In general few bomber formations were ever broken up to the extent that they’d chicken out and run – bomber discipline was strong. For bombers, disruption effects represent the dispersal of formations, damaged aircraft that peel away (creating stragglers), crews spooked into jettisoning their bombs early and other frictional effects that impair the bomber attack. For fighters disruption also represents scatter, damage and aircraft breaking away for home due to low fuel or ammo. For fighter Gruppen a disruption level may equate to the disintegration of an entire Staffel in combat.

The system of attacks and combat between whole units imposes a slightly artificial structure on what was in reality a very fluid situation. For example, there are anecdotal examples of RAF squadrons sometimes splitting into flights so that half the squadron could attack the bombers while the remainder fended off fighters. Though we don’t let players micromanage such actions, we assume events like this may be happening within the back-and-forth of interception and reaction. So a Late escort reaction might be because of just such a squadron split. Late reaction may also model other situations, such as when a Gruppe engages a squadron but a small number of RAF aircraft slip through. Or simply when the escorts arrive late for the fight.

Casualties

Casualties in the game represent aircraft actually shot down. But what does this mean in terms of history?

If you were to count the number of aircraft shot up badly enough to be scrapped or taken out of action for repairs, you'd add between half and as many aircraft as the casualty figures to the total. So a squadron with two Hurricanes shot down might have another one or two aircraft badly damaged.

In general the RAF claimed roughly twice as many aircraft as they actually shot down. The Luftwaffe claimed between twice and three times their actual total of kills.

Bombing and Victory

Originally, the game's victory scoring was based on the raw tonnage of bombs dropped. But during test this proved unsatisfactory and developed instead into a measure of how well the raid performed its mission. Victory is judged not just by aircraft shot down but by how well the RAF were able to break up and disrupt the Luftwaffe raids.

The raid matching rule was a late addition, and is optional because of the extra bookwork it brings. One RAF objective was to oppose every raid, so the raid matching column shift is not so much a bombing bonus than a reflection of how air superiority has shifted to the Luftwaffe.

Weather

As noted earlier, extensive bad weather is not a feature of the game. We are mostly interested in those periods of good flying weather when large operations took place.

Keen eyes will notice that bad weather cannot be generated over France. This was deliberate so as to avoid situations where bad weather won the RAF the game even before it had begun. However, players are free to experiment by placing poor weather on France if they wish.

ILLUSTRATION: A selection of weather counters from the game.

Balbos

The essence of the Big Wing is that it is slow to muster and will degenerate into a shambles if attacked, but it is potentially powerful. However, Balbos are only effective when the Luftwaffe is operating at its maximum depth of penetration. The form-up times and climb rates are derived from Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park’s notes on three-squadron wings, which he reckoned took twice as long to form as two-squadron wings.

Miscellany

One question often asked is why isn’t unit fatigue represented in the game? Fatigue is the driving force of some Battle of Britain wargames, restricting the players’ ability to scramble units, but I couldn't find any backing for this in my research. Though pilot fatigue was ever-present there's no hard evidence that it was a significant factor limiting the operational effectiveness of units. Or to get to the nub of the matter, there’s no evidence that fatigue ever affected a fighter controller’s decision to scramble a squadron. Most aircrew appear to have battled through their tiredness. Though anecdotes claim there were aircraft accidents and losses due to exhaustion, this was equally true on both sides and probably cancelled each other out.


The Burning Blue copyright © Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, 2006. All rights reserved.