The Tank Crew

Tank crews can make for an underappreciated fictional niche. There’s enough of them to be more than an individual (ie, pilot), yet not enough to get out of hand. You get between three and five crew to a tank (again, barring the edge cases), and there’s less need to perspective hop.

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Building and Destroying Tank Formations

A division-sized mechanized formation tends to have (as a rough rule of thumb that assumes a big Cold War sized division as the base), around 500-600 armored vehicles in it, with the ratio of tanks to APCs/IFVs depending on the exact type of unit, whether it’s a tank/armored or motor rifle/mechanized infantry unit.

So, as a very rough artificial measurement for an artificial country in an artificial setting, I can tend to just plop down a number of overall tanks and divvy them up.

The next part is figuring out how quickly those formations of tanks would get destroyed in actual fighting. It depends on the kind of fighting and opponent, and ranges from “a year” to “less than a day”.

Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers

So, I read Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers and for the most part enjoyed it. It’s a cliche “cheap thriller”, but it’s not a bad cheap thriller in spite of its flaws. If you want to see tanks firing and exploding, it has that.

So, it’s a post-USSR technothriller, which means it plucks an opponent of the week, in this case a sanctions-less, aggressive Iraq. There’s a war, and that’s pretty much all I need to say about the overall plot.

The best part of the book is the middle portion. It reads like a somewhat clunkier Team Yankee, but the upgraded T-72 vs. M1A1 action is good, and the way Farmer evened the odds is something I appreciate. The beginning is pretty stock technothriller (a combination of training scenes and infodumps in offices and conference rooms), and the end drags on too long, contains the shoved-in damsel in distress love story, and a bit of near-Dale Brown escalation.

Still, Tin Soldiers is not a bad book if you like cheap thrillers or tanks.

A few further genre fiction thoughts

So, a while ago, I mentioned Tanya Huff’s Valor series as an example of someone who could work around a writing weakness. Basically, an author whose background and resume would be, on paper, the last person to write effective military fiction managed by setting up the plots so that the characters were in small groups and situations she was comfortable with. It was a sign of working around weakness.

Now, a part of me thinks that its success might not have been in spite of her lack of experience, but in some ways because of it. That is, she had less of the genre’s baggage because she didn’t know you were “supposed” to do something. Granted, all this could just be me viewing the Valor books with rose-tinted goggles as I count the cliches in my latest binge of technothrillers, but still.

(Besides Team Yankee, I’m reading another piece of “Tank Fiction”, Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers. The latter hits a lot of the technothriller cliches but is still a good “cheap thriller”)

Team Yankee

I’ve just finished Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee, the classic tank novel.

By its own terms, it’s not the best book.

It’s like a micro-scale Red Storm Rising. (I don’t mean in tone, or obvious setting, I mean it’s a decent but dated and over-jargoned book). It’s a little too clinical. Too much explanation of attacks and formations and stuff in detail, like Coyle wanted to show off what he knew. At times I thought “this is like Melville, only with tanks instead of sailing ships”.

The characters away from the main group aren’t that good. The wife subplot seems superfluous, cutting to an A-10 pilot or headquarters officer is a little jarring, and the occasional Soviet viewpoint character exists basically to go “curse those dastardly Americans!”

And yet when comparing it to the later WW3 imitators I’ve seen on the internet and self-published fiction, it comes across as better. For while it has the flaws mentioned above, it also has one thing a lot of the later ones don’t-a truly consistent narrative. The viewpoint disruptions aren’t too bad, and some are indeed tied in to the main action, which cannot be said for others. This alone makes it worth a read.

Supertanks

So, my big dilemma can be summed up in one work. Supertanks.

There are a bewildering array of paper supertanks that the fall of the USSR nipped in the bud. These, both western and eastern, range from conventional upgrades of previous-gen tanks (many of which were actually made, at least in prototype) on one end, to ultra-exotic “Crew of two and they’re both in the hull” designs on the other. 140 and 152mm monster guns, uncrewed turrets with innovative autoloaders, the list goes on and on. They’re interesting to see, and I’m wondering “If I’m making a semi-grounded fictional supertank, what real one should it most resemble?”

And yet, for one of my main antagonist groups, the question of supertanks gives way to the more important one of “are they the kind who’d have large formations of tanks at all, be they surplus or super”. That’s the question I should be asking.

The Tank Army Out Of Nowhere

It may be implausible, but I love the concept of the tank army out of nowhere. I’ve seen it in a few cheap thrillers of dubious quality, and if the context allows it, I love it. It’s just a sign that the author simply does not care about those silly things like “logistics”, or “direct plausibility”.

Where I think I love the tank army out of nowhere (again, assuming the right context, which boils down to not taking things too seriously) has to do with my own hang-ups, where I’ve been too focused on “plausibility”. As a literary tool, seeing the tank army out of nowhere without any explanation save for a lame excuse (and sometimes not even that) makes me think “Ok, here’s tanks-this is going to be ridiculous, whether the author intends it or not.”

And I like ridiculousness in my fiction.

Twilight 2000

Twilight 2000, the classic semi-postapocalyptic tabletop RPG, is a very contradictory game, one of the most so I’ve ever seen.

See, the plot is good enough. It’s more realistic than many WWIIIs in that the nukes fly, but manages to stay intact enough so that all the cool toys aren’t taken away. And whatever the many plausibility issues, it works for the sake of setting up an adventure.

The problem is in the dichotomy. The mechanicsĀ have a detailed, often-realistic unglamorous focus on the dirty work-logistics, disease, and the like. Characters are quite vulnerable. This mixed with the shattered, post-nuclear war-bandit setting means it should be poised for a low-tier, somber look, right?

Wrong. Sharing equally with the dirty-work mechanics are detailed stats of individual guns, tanks, and artillery pieces, starting dubious already but taken to excess in supplements. The post-apocalyptic setting is there to provoke challenges, but it’s also clearly there to take away the command post and those pesky orders. The target audience and themes are for the “bored soldier and military enthusiast” crowd, not exactly something somber. It’s like This War of Mine was jumbled together with Medal of Honor Warfighter and printed, to use later video games as analogies.

And then some of the later supplements got-weird. I’m talking “save Arkansas from evil airships” weird.

It’s still fascinating, both as a product of its time and for the “excesses” and contradictions it has.

 

Wunderlogistik

Sometimes, the hallmark of a truly bad setting is it making the heroes weak or their enemies strong, often inadvertedly. So, revisiting an old “classic”, I found it was even worst in that regard than I previously knew.

I knew TBO was a bad setting. I knew it gave the Germans ridiculous logistics.

But still…

  • Advance to the Don and Volga Rivers to the point where they serve as the frontlines while the Soviets/Russians are still actively resisting.
  • Stay there in the wake of the Russo-American armies for 4-5 years.
  • Keep their warlord states in South Russia going for close to a decade after Germany proper is nuked, and they have to be pushed out of them.

Yeesh. For a series intended to debunk the Wehraboo Wunderwaffe, this doesn’t look so good. But somehow it got even worse.

  • Pull off a Crimea-style amphibious sneak attack to quickly occupy Britain.
  • Keep mobile forces running around as fire brigades to shore up the undermanned line for those 4-5 years. And do so effectively, without the counters the Allies historically developed.
  • Inflict 1.3 million combat deaths on the Americans alone without suffering similarly monstrous losses.
  • Finally, when they do flee into the Middle East, serve as the only viable force of the strawman Muslim superstate that can do anything except riot and rant.

There’s a backwards reason here, and it’s to make the story possible at all. The initial forum post that led to it (a kind of ‘strategic decision game’) described it as follows.

“How is this for a strategic scenario?

We’re in 1947, the US has successfully tested a nuclear device (and managed to keep a lid on it). They’ve built up an arsenal of around 60 devices, all Mark 1s of average 10 kiloton yield (up a bit, down a bit, things weren’t terribly precise back then). They have a production rate of around one Mark 1s per month with a single 15 kiloton Model 1561 every four month. Coming up is the 25 kiloton Mark 3 (one a month from mid-1947) and the 50 kiloton mark 4 (one a week from the start of 1948 ) . This is a somewhat faster production rate and reflects an acceptance of wartime engineering standarsd rather than peacetime. It means the devices shorter lives. By the way, Super (fusion device) is on the way.

Bomber force will be 500 B-36s, all jet equipped (the B-36s have priority for jets precisely because of the nuclear device). B-29s are there but mostly face the Pacific.

In Europe, the Germans occupy from the Urals to the Pyranees and from the UK to North Africa. They range into but do not hold the Sahara. In the east they have a hell of a partisan warfare problem in the occupied territories. That requires a major force commitment. Western Europe is relatively peaceful. Spain is doing a balancing act – pro-German enough not to be invaded by Germany, not pro German enough to be pounded by the US.

At sea, the Germans aren’t so lucky. The US Navy and what’s left of the RN have swept the seas of the German fleet. The Atlantic is a US lake. The US carriers are pounding the Western edges and there isn’t much the Germans can do about it. Of their submarines, only the Type XXIs can do anything useful and they are hunted mercilessly. The older subs have an at-sea lifetime of hours rather than days. There are no transatlantic convoys to sop up Allied resources so everything goes into an attack fleet.

In the air the German jets had a temporary transcendence in 1944/45 but thats fading fast. The P-80 and the new Grumman F9F are marginally inferior to the latest German jets but they are enormously greater in numbers. Both the allies and the Germans have a problem; there isn’t enough jet fuel. This forces them to keep piston engined fighters in the inventory (historically correct by the way – that problem took until the late 1950s to solve – know you know why the ANG kept Mustangs so long). The US carriers are running in, grabbing local air superiority, smashing targets and the defenses then pulling back out to sea before the germans can concentrate to match them. The areas the Germans stripped to do that then get hit by another carrier raid. The Germans know the B-36 is coming and are trying to do something about it but they have problems. Their older piston-engined fighters are useless; they can’t get up high enough and fast enough to intercept. They have specialized high altitude piston engined fighters but they are too lightly armed and the performance differential is too low. The jets have a better chance but they have problems all of their own. Oddly the German plane that is best suited to a B-36 interceptor is the He-219. It has the speed, altitude, firepower and endurance to be a threat. The Germans are building them again (despite its shortcomings) and they have replaced most of the older twin engined fighters. They’re taking a beating from the carriers though.

The Germans have spotted something else. A stripped recon version of the B-36, the RB-36 has been making runs all over Germany. They’ve tried to intercept and failed. Whatever’s going to happen is about to start. They’ve heard a codeword but don’t know what it means. That codeword is “Dropshot”.

Hows that for a base. If we can all live with that strategic situation, we’ll go ahead and plan a nuclear war.”

So, it was trying to ram a square ‘plausible’ scen into a round ‘pure hypothetical exercise’ hole. The result was-well, that. But that still doesn’t explain why Stuart insisted on the warlord states holding out.

Or the way they’re described in TBO itself, which seems to me like layering stuff from the real war on without thinking of the ramifications. The story lists fuel shortages, the same turf wars that hurt German production, the loss of so many pilots that the Germans were forced to stuff kids into He-162s like in the real 1945, to the point where a 21-year-old is one of the oldest members of his unit (TBO, page 11)-and yet, because the story calls for them to hold the line until the super-bombers break the stalemate, they somehow hold the line.

As for the postwar divergences, well, the Middle Eastern ones can be sadly explained as not wanting to give any credit to Muslims.

This sort of ‘analysis’ is why I bizarrely like reading bad fiction.