Reviewing the “History” of Team Yankee – Part One: Introduction

August 28, 2017 by oriskany

Good afternoon, Beasts of War. Since mid-August, Battlefront has been running a worldwide campaign for Team Yankee, their World War III alternate history wargame. Since Beasts of War is collaborating on this project, it’s high time we gear up our armies, refresh ourselves on the rules, and prepare to fight this greatest war that never was.

Perhaps now is also a fitting time to look at the “history” of Team Yankee. How did the “story” of Team Yankee get started? How might such a war have really gone? What did the source material get right? What did it get wrong? What IS the source material, anyway? There’s a mountain of misconception out there, so let’s get started.

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Throughout the course of this project, I’ll be assisted by Ben Collins (Beasts of War: @benc). I met Ben during the Team Yankee Bootcamp in November 2015, just one of many service veterans attending the event (I think about a third of us at that boot camp had served in our nations’ militaries at one time or another).

During the boot camp and the writing that followed, Ben demonstrated a deep knowledge of how the armies that faced each other along the IntraGerman border in the 1980s were actually put together. With 20+ years in the service, one could expect no less. So when he asked if he could help with this project, I was happy to accept.

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Our purpose isn’t to deflate anyone’s national pride, nor make ironclad predictions, and certainly not “poke holes” in the Team Yankee wargame. The game remains admirably faithful to source material, but that source material has some issues. In summary, we’re just trying to shed some light and inspire discussion on this fascinating topic.

NATO vs. Warsaw Pact, Mid-1980s

BenC’s Commentary:

During the 1980s, the world was broadly split between two competing political, social, and economic ideologies for roughly 40 years. Since the end of the Second World War, and the defeat of National Socialist Germany, the Soviet Union had expanded her sphere of influence to include Eastern Europe.

The Allies sought to limit the expansion of Communism into Western Europe through a programme of rebuilding and investment under the Marshall Plan, interestingly in which the UK was the biggest recipient of this foreign aid. Yet governments in East and West began to regard each other with suspicion, and the Iron Curtain, famously paraphrased by Churchill, was soon drawn across the European continent.

The divided Germany eventually coalesced into two separate states, one rebuilt in the image of the capitalist West, the other modelled on the Communist East. Despite numerous global flashpoints (such as the Cuban missile crisis), and proxy wars being fought, Germany remained the expected future battleground.

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The 1980s represents the period in which both sides were as evenly matched as they had been throughout the Cold War. They were balanced not only in terms of conventional forces, but also in strategic nuclear weapons. Therefore NATO, and the US in particular, could no longer rely on nuclear superiority to deter the Warsaw Pact from aggression in Europe.

With nuclear war now unthinkable for both sides, the weight of deterrence fell onto the conventional forces of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It’s worth highlighting that the 1980s also represent possibly the most dangerous decade of the Cold War because of the comparative parity of conventional forces in Germany at that time.

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Hawkish leaders on both sides may have considered that if war was to start then their best chance of winning was right then.

The Context of Team Yankee

Oriskany Checks the Background:

The wargame “Team Yankee” is of course based on the 1987 novel “Team Yankee” by Harold Coyle. In the novel, an American tank and mechanized infantry company (commanded by Captain Sean Bannon) finds itself on the front lines of a theoretical World War III in West Germany, trying to hold back waves of Soviet invaders.

This novel is typically regarded as a “gold-standard” authority on the subject, mostly because of Coyle was a US Army major serving in tanks. And indeed, his depiction on how an American “team” (temporary mixed-arms company) is accurate down to some of the smallest possible details.

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Coyle, however, did not “world-build” his own World War III. In his forward, he freely admits that he’s set his novel in the World War III setting written over ten years prior, Sir John Hackett’s “The Third World War: August 1985.” This is the actual “setting” for the Team Yankee wargame, especially if you’re playing Germans, British, or Soviets.

This is a phenomenal book, written as a “history” as if the Third World War had really just happened. Whereas Team Yankee gives us the “tank turret” view” of company level officers and individual soldiers, Hackett shows us the whole war, and not just in Europe.

Having served as both commander of the British Army of the Rhine and NORTHAG (Northern Army Group), Sir John Hackett naturally presents his war from a place of peerless authority. The problem is that The Third World War (TTWW) was published in 1978, and so was probably written in 1975-77, when 1985 was still the “dark future.”

Accordingly, Hackett (and NATO) were making some guesses about what the NATO-Warsaw situation would look like in 8-10 years. Given his qualifications and background, these would be some of the best guesses possible, but they were still guesses … and thus not 100% accurate. In fact, Hackett would revise his work in the 1980s.

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Yet these “guesses” would be carried forward into Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee novel, and therefore the Team Yankee wargame (along with other Team Yankee-based games published since 1989). Please note that we’re NOT trying to “knock” the Team Yankee wargame here, the game gets full marks for fidelity to its source material.

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We just have to acknowledge that this source material doesn’t exactly line up with the situation that would have unfolded had war broken out in 1985. And we’re not talking about vague, high-level “interesting background” here, but material differences that would be reflected on a 15mm Team Yankee table top.

BenC Adds his Perspective:

As Oriskany has said, Team Yankee is based on the Harold Coyle novel of the same name. There is no doubt that Coyle was writing from a position of authority and experience as he had been a serving armour officer in the US Army. The book is full of the details that really enhance that turret level view of the Cold War gone hot.

That’s my problem with the Team Yankee novel, however. It is written by a US Army officer who is the product of a training system that, obviously, maintains that the US training, equipment and tactics are far superior to those of the Warsaw Pact. This gives Coyle an embedded bias in his writing when dealing with the Soviets.

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In general the Soviets in the novel Team Yankee are portrayed as ill-disciplined, under-trained and tactically unaware. In the engagements described in the book the Soviets seem to be easily awed by US firepower. While Coyle openly portrays Team Yankee as a “lucky unit,” the enemy often seems to patiently await their turn to die.

As mentioned above, the Team Yankee novel (and thus game) is actually based on The Third World War by General Sir John Hackett. In writing this book, Hackett is making the case that NATO needs strong conventional forces to firstly maintain the conventional deterrence.

Secondly, he maintains that a conventional war that has a limited release of tactical nuclear weapons on the battlefield may not necessarily result in the use of strategic nuclear weapons. In my opinion that was a very dangerous notion to spread both in military and political circles.

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Hackett’s novel builds global tension from friction in the Persian Gulf through to an escalation and eventual confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. In researching the novel Hackett consulted with numerous military and political experts to build a convincing and realistic picture of a conflict in 1985.

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In subsequent years, Hackett has been criticised for painting too rosy a picture for the NATO forces as it seems all of the bad luck falls on the Soviets; the West seem not to suffer from bad decisions or unexpected setbacks.

What Does “Team Yankee” Even Mean?

Oriskany Clears His Throat

Take one look at the cover of the Team Yankee rule book, where Soviet bullets are literally bouncing off the word “Freedom” painted on an American tank turret, and it’s easy to misinterpret what the phrase “Team Yankee” is about. The rule book summaries what “Team Yankee actually means, but let’s take a moment for more detail.

American army units are built into battalions and regiments. In peacetime, for purposes of maintenance, training, and administration, it’s far better to keep mechanized infantry and tank forces strictly organized in their own battalions. In combat, however, these units have to be mixed in order to execute any kind of combined-arms tactics.

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Therefore, for field manoeuvres (and war, had it ever come to that), each American tank company would swap one platoon with one mechanized infantry platoon. Then, each tank battalion would also swap one of these modified tank-heavy companies for a mech-heavy company, and so on. Thus, all units would get a combined-arms capability.

Technically speaking, these modified “companies” were no longer companies. They were now called “Teams.” Also, these modified “battalions” are now called Task Forces, not unlike the roughly battalion-sized “kampfgruppe” the Germans used so well in World War II.

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Mechanized infantry-heavy teams would be designated by the first four letters of the radio-phonetic alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta. Tank-heavy teams would use the last four letters: Teams Whiskey, X-Ray, Yankee, and Zulu. Task Forces would usually be given some kind of a code name or named after its commander.

We’re Just Getting Started

Believe me, we’re just getting started here. Upcoming articles in this series will cover how the potential battlefield of 1985 actually differed from what was projected in the TTWW source material, American and Soviet doctrine, the British Army of the Rhine, the Bundeswehr, the Dutch, and the possible intervention of Italians and French.

We’ll also be looking at other World War III books you can use as an “expanded universe” for your Team Yankee games, such as Chieftains, Red Storm Rising, and my personal favourite: Red Army. Some of these are great reference material, some others not so much.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this first part of our article series on Team Yankee. We’ll be continuing to shine a sceptical spotlight on some commonly-held beliefs and presumptions that may be floating around out there, so by all means add your own perspective! Questions, comments, debates, all are welcome below!

By @oriskany & @benc

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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Click On The Image and you’ll be taken directly to the segment in the show to learn more.

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"80s Hype"