September 18, 2017 by oriskany
Welcome back, Beasts of War, to our continuing explorations into the military background Team Yankee. With these articles, myself and Ben Collins (@benc) are sketching out the broad outlines of the military situation that may have affected the start, course, and outcome of a potential Third World War in the mid-1980s.
The overall aim has been simply this: where does our “view” of a 1980s World War III actually come from, how accurate is it, and how does this effect what would go on a Team Yankee table top?
Novels Of Nightmare
World War III In The Written Word
Obviously, the biggest influence to our Team Yankee tables is the novel “Team Yankee”, and by extension, it’s “parent” novel, Sir John Hackett’s “The Third World War: August 1985.” We’ve already covered these in some detail, but they certainly weren’t the only World War III “techno-thriller” novels that came out the period.
The top of my personal recommendation list is Ralph Peters’ “Red Army.” If you’re a Soviet player in Team Yankee, READ THIS BOOK. If you’re an American, British, or German player…READ THIS BOOK anyway. For my money, it’s the best World War III military novel ever written, both in terms of storytelling and undeniable military realism.
Red Army has an ensemble cast of characters, from the commander of the First Western Front, through to his staff, his army commanders, divisional commanders, and battalion commanders. There are fighter pilots, political officers, airborne battalion commanders, heavy artillery battery commanders, and finally, there’s a motorized rifle private.
This structure allows Peters to show the complete cross-section of the Soviet Army. There are characters from the many regions of the former Soviet Union. Some are heroes, some are cowards. Most are just human beings trying to survive the crisis and return to their lives. Some live, many die, showing the heartless lethality of World War III.
Ralph Peters was a Lt. Colonel in US Army intelligence, working in West Germany as a Foreign Area Officer specialized in Russia military studies. Whereas Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee gives a perfect vision of the 1980s US Army (but an almost cartoonish view of Soviet forces), Peters treats the enemy with the respect they deserve.
Red Army also includes the dynamic of propaganda and geopolitics. Rapid penetration or Soviet spearheads makes “hostages” of West German cities like Hannover, cancelling NATO’s ability to use nuclear weapons. Television is carefully used as a Soviet weapon to influence public opinion in the media-dominated societies of NATO.
I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it. But suffice it to say that Peters’ World War III lasts only two and half days, and absolutely devastates much of Europe (especially West Germany). It ends on a political decision that is surprising yet all too believable.
Then we have Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising.” To the novel’s credit, it tries to encompass a great deal, showing World War III from virtually every angle. This was early in Clancy’s career, when he was still influenced by Larry Bond (designer of the wargame Harpoon and Command at Sea), so the naval operations are very well done.
For a Team Yankee player, though, I don’t think Red Storm Rising offers very much. The front-line ground combat, what little of it there is, isn’t very authentic. The novel’s a great read for naval and airmobile action (the Soviet assault on Keflavik, Iceland is probably the highlight). And the war lasts an unbelievable thirty-six days! So I usually skip it.
Another great World War III battlefield novel is “Chieftains” by Bob Forrest-Webb. This one was recommended to me by John Lyons, the “tank god” himself. Put most simply it’s a British version of the Team Yankee novel, where the unit portrayed (14/20th Hussars) fields Chieftain battle tanks instead of M1 Abrams.
Like Team Yankee or Red Army, Chieftains is better than Red Storm Rising because it stays within a strictly military context, it doesn’t try to show the whole war or explain how it starts. In Chieftains, the war only lasts three days (as far as we know), another plus. Finally, Chieftain came out before these other novels, first published in 1982.
Chieftains has one big advantage over Team Yankee in that the Soviets are not portrayed as incompetent. In contrast, Team Yankee has an American counterattack into East Germany in the first week of the war, something we definitely don’t see in Chieftains.
World War III In Film
When it comes to film, we seem to have a lot less to go on when it comes to World War III in the 80s. Outside of “nuclear” movies like the superb “By Dawns Early Light” and “The Day After” there isn’t much in the way of conventional combat films in this setting.
Probably the famous (or infamous) example is Red Dawn. Okay, the premise is laughable, the forced patriotism is a joke, and the portrayal of Soviet and Latin American soldiers is borderline insulting. Also, the film mostly portrays insurgent warfare which isn’t really what Team Yankee is about.
When Red Dawn does portray conventional warfare, it does so with shocking inaccuracy. The “tank battle” scene shows tanks having to stop to fire, missing five or six times before finally landing a hit. It’s a World War II tank battle with World War III proxy tanks. And of course, the director John Milius had a serious axe to grind with the Soviets.
Wargames Of The Unthinkable
Where films have failed us, however, wargames have come through in fine style. In addition to Battlefront’s Team Yankee, there is a library of great wargames that have tried to imagine what World War III in Europe would be like. It may be nostalgia, but most of the better ones come from the 1980s, when this war was still a “serious” prospect.
Probably the greatest of these wargames is the “Assault” series by Games Designers Workshop (GDW). Starting with a US vs. Soviet base set, the game presents a command-level look at large mechanized battles in 1980s Germany. Each piece is a platoon or a section, and each hex is 250 meters across.
Because each side may field up to a hundred pieces in a large game, and the game board can present an area representing several square miles of terrain, players can engage in plausible, realistic engagements on the actual scales at which they would have taken place.
GDW’s Assault presents the full panoply of a regiment or brigade-level combined arms combat. These include attack helicopters, strike aircraft, on-board and off-board artillery assets, mechanized infantry, anti-tank missiles, airmobile troops and armoured cavalry.
The detail in the game is amazing. It tracks to-hit probabilities and penetration characteristics of perhaps half a dozen types of ammo, including HE, AP, ATGW missiles, and the top-of-the-line APDSFS-DU (armour-piercing discarding sabot fin-stabilized depleted uranium) “silver bullet” projectiles.
Which way a counter is placed in the hex actually reflects its “formation,” allowing players to opt between fast column formation or more tactical “on-line” formation. There’s also a great mechanic where all counters start inverted, and even dummy counters are provided to allow a great bluff, deception, and fog of war element.
If you’re interested in zooming out still further, there are operational-scale games like “Red Storm Rising,” a zone-based board game where you can recreate the entire invasion of Germany as seen in the Tom Clancy novel. There are also games like NATO, Fulda Gap, and a whole range of others that put you in the boots of a World War III general.
They call it “World” War III for a reason. Just because Team Yankee takes place in West Germany, doesn’t mean that fighting would’ve been restricted to that theatre, or that our games should be either. The trick here is to remember the world’s trouble spots” as they were in the 1980s, not the present day.
The first spot to consider is Afghanistan. In 1985, the Soviet Union was still fully invested in an anti-insurgent war in this country, having invaded in 1979 to prop up a failing Communist government. If World War III starts in Europe, might the US or an ally like Pakistan seek to exploit potential Soviet withdrawal (sudden and chaotic as it would be)?
The Middle East presents further grim possibilities. Turkey is a NATO state, and any attempt by the Soviet Black Sea fleet is going to cause all kinds of problems in this region. The Soviets can invade Turkey from the Caucasus, and might even enlist the aid of Syria (a powerful an united Soviet ally in the 1980s) to help open this southern gateway.
At the time, Syria had just taken a beating from Israel in their 1982 “Peace for Galilee” invasion of Lebanon. In the mid-80s, Syria was still pulling strings in Lebanon’s civil war, and Soviet help in Lebanon might be Syria’s price for helping the Soviets in Turkey.
In another of his novels (“Sword Point”), Harold Coyle postulated a war in Iran, where a Soviet invasion from the north to get at the Persian Gulf oil was met by Us intervention from the south. Basically, we’d be putting US vs. Soviet units on a desert table, in a strange but plausible mix of Team Yankee and the First Gulf War.
There are possibilities even further afield. North and South Korea is always a tinderbox. The Soviets might prod North Korea into action simply to keep too many American ground units or carrier battle groups to other theatres. What the Chinese do here will be crucial. After all, if South Korea or even Japan comes under threat…
Central America was another hot zone in the 1980s, with US-backed governments in Honduras and Guatemala, communist “Sandinistas” in Nicaragua, and civil war in El Salvador. Again, the Soviets might leverage influence here to keep the US strategic picture as complex as possible.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this part of our Team Yankee article series. What are some of your ideas about the books, movies, and wargames we’ve discussed? Which material would you add to the list? What ideas do you have for World War III in arenas outside of Western Europe?
Come back next week when we close this series with some ideas for battles, campaigns, and games for Team Yankee that might be just a little out of the norm, putting some of what we’ve looked at so far to the test. In the meantime, “advance and engage” in the “Firestorm Red Thunder” campaign, and share some of your war stories below!
If you liked this article and want to know more about the history behind Team Yankee, make sure to check out the Weekender Interview with oriskany below…
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"The top of my personal recommendation list is Ralph Peters’ “Red Army"..."
"There are possibilities even further afield. North and South Korea is always a tinderbox..."