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Wargaming in the Arctic

The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory's Wargaming and Historical Analysis Team Katie Bramwell and Paul Strong join members of the Royal Navy's 40 Commando Royal Marines on their Arctic Expedition to Norway - the following blog written by Katie is a fascinating insight into how Arctic Wargaming is used to predict and practice war time scenarios of the future.

Dstl Scientist Katie Bramwell

It was -20°C, a blizzard was moving in fast, and the Marines were laughing at me as I’d fallen flat on my face in deep snow. As hilarious as they found my predicament, this was a perfect example of the kind of conditions that the Marines are trained to face as we quickly slid down a mountain to our waiting Viking armoured vehicles to avoid the incoming storm. Not necessarily what I was expecting when the Wargaming and Historical Analysis Team had sent Paul Strong and I to support C Company (Coy) from the Royal Navy's 40 Commando Royal Marines by running a wargame for them. It was the first day at Bardufoss and we had been in the mountains to observe an exercise in coordinated fire exercises with different weapons. Luckily we did get to see Mortars and Machine Guns coordinating fire and were briefed by some of the Marines taking part before we had to make our quick return to the Vikings and my face plant into the snow. The whole experience did highlight how the correct PPE is vital, from skis to aid movement to the correct clothing to keep out the biting cold. Getting to travel in a Viking and experience the incredible mobility they can achieve was also a highlight – the terrain was definitely not easy to traverse – even though the experience can only politely be described as austere in itself.

Brrrrr - on the Bardufoss mountain range...

Paul and I were were supporting an Academic Weekend for C Coy in Bardufoss, which formed part of 40 Commando's Arctic Training. Afterwards the Commandos would deploy on Exercise Northern Wind; a 10 day joint exercise with the US, Norway, Finland and Sweden. The Wargaming and Historical Analysis team sent the two of us to run a wargame designed to explore the opportunities created by using highly trained Arctic soldiers versus a conventional force. In addition we provided subject matter expertise on the adversary and insights on historical examples of Arctic campaigns. For their part, the Commandos went out of their way to provide us with real world examples of Arctic warfare training and operations, and encouraged Marines of all ranks to make the most of the opportunity to engage with us.

40 Cdo Viking armoured vehicles join a firing line in the snow...

The case study we decided to use for the wargame was the Battle of Suomussalmi (1941) in Finland. The battle saw a Soviet Division moving up to relieve another Soviet force trapped by Finnish troops. The Finns ambushed the Soviet relief force and then methodically destroyed it on the Raate Road. The battle is an excellent example of the use of specialist forces versus a highly trained, well equipped conventional force. The rules focused on the mobility and fire power of the Finnish forces engaged in the battle. Before the wargame, I gave an introductory brief on the roles and capabilities of Dstl, followed by an overview introduction to the battle we planned to use for the wargame. We ran five simultaneous wargames so that the maximum number of participants could take part.

Wargaming underway by C Company - 40 Commando...

The Marines found the experience extremely useful as the wargame highlighted the opportunities that superior training and field craft can provide to specialist units. The game was deliberately designed to be entertaining so that newcomers to Wargaming would identify the key insights we hoped the game would highlight. In the wash up the players discussed the insights they gained from the game and reviewed how the battle might have unfolded against a modern opponent. The participants enjoyed the game so much that a few of them asked for copies of the game to continue playing when they got back to their rooms.

Mapped wargame scenario...

During the trip we also took part in a full Academic Day consisting of lectures on Arctic warfare from Junior Non-commissed Officers (JNCOs) and Dr Paul Winter, a historian who works closely with 40 Cdo. Due to avalanches (a reasonable excuse for being late to a meeting) Captain Lockert Hansen, a Norwegian historian was delayed, so we took the opportunity to brief the assembled audience on the capabilities of the main adversary. Numerous questions were asked and we met the Commanding Officer of 40 Commando, Lt Col Paul Maynard, later in the day to discuss specific insights from recent wargames. Luckily Captain Hansen had managed to arrive by the next morning and briefed on the Arctic campaign in North Norway during WWII and the insights that are still informing Norwegian planning today.

"I was playing the ‘red team’ and at a first glance our superior armour seemed to have the advantage, however as we knew the historical context from the lectures by the Dstl academics, we were prepared for the scenario to be a real challenge. Within a few turns our column was scattered across the board by the quick moving Finnish soldiers on skis. In the Arctic, with its deep unforgiving snow, light infantry can be superior if adept and cleverly used. Suddenly the skills we learnt during the Cold Weather Survival Course became all the more poignant." Lt Simon Williams - 40 Cdo RM.

We also had the opportunity to explore the historical town of Narvik and the museum dedicated to the WWII battles that occurred in the region. Both Land and Maritime aspects of Arctic warfare are demonstrated by this series of operations during the early part of WWII. This visit was attended by the whole of C Coy as well, and was a great opportunity to see how the tactics that were being learnt by the Marines training here had been useful in the past.

1st Assault Group Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVPs) on the Fjord...

On our final day we had a chance to join 1 Assault Group RM in a small port between the towns of Foldvik and Laberget. We were given a tour of the facilities and capabilities available to the Marines based in this area and then given a trip out on the Fjord in a Landing Craft Vehicle Personnel (LCVP). Two vessels departed the port in their personnel carrying configuration, one carrying journalists to an area on the other side of the port and another, which we were on, taking Norwegian divers towards a beach on the other side of the Fjord. These divers transferred onto a Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB) to go complete a beach recce. On the journey back to port, our vessel was changed into a vehicle carrying configuration, giving us an opportunity to see the vessel in both modes. During the return journey, we were also given a chance to have a go at the controls and ask questions of the Marines on board. This hands-on experience was invaluable in helping understand the equipment available to the Marines and its capabilities and limitations.

Dr Paul Winter and Dstl Scientist Katie Bramwell discussing the LCVP controls while focussing on keeping the vessel on course....

This whole trip was a very useful opportunity to engage with the Commandos on exercise and to develop our understanding of the challenges that they face and the environment they have to contend with. In exchange we were able to assist them in further developing their skills and understanding. The only downside is that we did not get to see the Northern Lights – but then that’s a great excuse to have to return!

There is a view to continue the relationship that was formed by this trip and to potentially run wargames or give lectures at future events. There is currently a ten year commitment for the Commandos to train and exercise in Norway annually, which they are keen for Dstl to be involved. This affords a great opportunity to build an ongoing relationship in a growing and vital capability area, which will both assist the Commandos and Dstl in improving capability and awareness.

Wargaming lessons put in to real time scenarios...
Created By
Shirley Swain
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Dstl Crown Copyright

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