How do you capture and portray the geography and infrastructure of one of the largest land battles ever that happened nearly 75 years ago? That’s the problem that faced Kevin Kennedy of the Army University Press and his team of historians and technicians when they were challenged by the commander of the Combined Arms Center to build and disseminate a virtual staff ride based on the World War II Battle of Stalingrad.
“The CG wanted a VSR that highlighted large scale operations in dense urban terrain,” said Dr. Don Wright, deputy director of the Army University Press. “He knew that Stalingrad fit the purpose,” he said. To be available for use by commanders throughout the Army, the new VSR was built on the Virtual Battlespace 3 gaming platform. The new platform is the heart of the Army’s military gaming site, https://milgaming.army.mil/.
The biggest issue when creating a virtual staff ride, said Wright, is the availability of imagery that can be used to build the base terrain. In the case of Stalingrad that terrain included more than 140,000 buildings and 100,000 other models in a dense urban setting where an army-on-army battle was fought over eight months leaving the city nearly leveled and more than two million military and civilian casualties when it was over.
Kennedy and his team were up to the task of finding the imagery. They researched available historical files, the internet, books, primary documents, and motion pictures. The next step was how to build a terrain model based on infrastructure was nearly eliminated during the battle. Stalingrad is now the city of Volgograd but the modern city of one million people that sits on the west bank of the Volga River has been completely rebuilt and no longer shows the scars of the war or the lines of the city as they existed prior to the battle.
Another consideration was how to model a city that in eight months of warfare and siege was leveled. “How much of the old city should we show destroyed?” said Wright. The team settled on showing the city between 30 and 50 percent destroyed depending on which area is studied.
Through digital rendering of Stalingrad as it existed in 1942, the historic battlefield comes to life allowing leaders at all levels to study timeless lessons on tactical, operational, and strategic aspects of war. This virtual staff ride also provides important insights into military operations, leadership, and the human dimension of warfare through focused study and detailed analysis of one of the most significant battles of World War II.
In addition to taking on the largest virtual staff ride the team has developed to date, they also had to learn VBS 3 programming. Prior virtual staff rides developed by Army University Press were built using proprietary software that required a historian and a trained technician to conduct the staff ride. Moving the staff rides to the Army’s Games for Training site, http://milgaming.army.mil, allows them to be used Army-wide without expert assistance. The Battle of Stalingrad VSR is downloadable, giving units immediate access to all the information and products necessary to conduct their own professional leader training event. Units can access the milgaming site and apply for a site license for VBS 3. When the license is received they can download the software as well as the Stalingrad VSR package.
The package includes more than just virtual terrain. A package of visual aids is included to help run the VSR. The aid package includes more than 150 pages of information including instructor notes, battle timeline, vignettes, character studies, maps, photos, and other data.
Another important factor for the Stalingrad VSR was to produce a scalable tool that can be used by different levels of command. Major Andrew White, executive officer for Army University Press, said Stalingrad will allow everyone from an Army Commander who wants to study moving large units in contact with the enemy to a Division Commander who wants to train his staff on large-scale operations to a company commander who wants his team to study how armor can be used in dense urban terrain to use the VSR.
Leaders can focus on large-scale combat operations and the complexity of war at division and corps levels. For example, units can follow the 14th Panzer Division as it advanced on the Dzerzhinsky tractor factory. Also, leaders of battalion- and company-size units can focus on the tactical elements of urban combat such as the week long fight for the grain elevator. Free movement through the dense urban terrain of Stalingrad allows leaders at all echelons to understand the decisions, doctrine, and logistics that shaped the battle for both the Soviet Red Army and the German Army.
With this latest addition to the virtual staff ride offerings, the Army University Press Staff Ride Team has developed a leader training tool that enables analysis of large scale combat in dense urban terrain, provides lessons for the future of warfare, and allows for the study of doctrine through the battle of Stalingrad in 1942.