There are certain inalienable truths in this world: music will get worse as you get older, politicians will lie all the time and Hitler will always invade Poland.
The third may only be true in a historical sense, but it’s something that I plan to use to my advantage. I’m playing World War 2 grand strategy game Hearts of Iron 3, designed by RTS gurus Paradox Studios. The game is renowned for its complexity, micromanagement and insane difficulty, but I plan on using my historical knowledge (and two degrees) to my advantage. The Student Loan money has to have been good for something, right?
Hearts of Iron 3 allows the player to take command of any major (or minor) nation in the lead up to (and during) World War 2. I have decided to take on the noble quest of stopping mean old Mr. Hitler in his tracks, and as such chose one of the hardest nations to play as: France.
This series will chronicle my attempts to prevent WW2 from happening (in a global sense). Historically, France’s capitulation when Germany attacked in 1940 was one of the main reasons behind Hitler’s continued success in the war. If I can stop the German invasion and maybe even push it back, I can shorten the war by years and prevent millions of deaths. No pressure, then.
I’ll be playing on hard mode, but I’ve also given myself a series of objectives to make the challenge just that little bit more intense.
Challenge 1: Not One Step Back!
The Maginot Line (the border between France and Germany) is so heavily fortified an anorexic ant wouldn’t be able to pass without me knowing exactly where it was. If I lose the Maginot Line, I’ve basically lost the game.
Challenge 2: Alpine Holiday
France also borders Italy in the South, which will be where another invasion will occur. I must stop the Italians at the border and push them into their own country.
Challenge 3: Divide and Conquer
Historically, Hitler annexed Austria and Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, increasing his manpower and resources. I will aim to stop him doing so and win over these two vital countries to the Allied side. Getting neutral Spain and Portugal involved would be a bonus, too.
With these conditions set, it’s time to jump back in time and stop WW2. Wish me luck!
Paris, France, 1936:
The French army is the bastion of the status quo in Europe. Since the end of The Great War the country’s policy has always been to keep France powerful and keep Germany weak. They’re not doing very well though. When I jump in I have four Theatre HQs (which control large swathes of the world): Paris, Tunis, Beirut and Saigon. All of them are horribly undermanned.
The Maginot Line is dotted with gaps, manned by a few divisions of cavalry and infantry. The command structure is messy, with division commanders reporting to the High Command in Paris instead of having a local HQ and many not having commanders at all. What’s worse, I can see the German divisions across the border and practically hear them laughing at me.
With three years until war is declared (if history holds up) I spin into action. In 12 months (game time) the entire French army in the homeland has been restructured: now every division has a HQ, and that corps HQ has a field commander who reports to High Command in Paris. Tunis HQ has been given some reserve militia units to man the frontiers and the Alpine line is bolstered with some mountaineer troops.
French is the lingua franca of diplomacy so I get my talking game on. With effervescent charm I secure alliances with both Austria and Czechoslovakia. Before Hitler has even thought about it I’ve surrounded him with enemies.
1937-38 is a year spent in preparation: I pack the Maginot Line with infantry, artillery and anti-tank guns so tightly the men there are certainly having hefty issues with personal space. On the border with Holland and Belgium I begin stationing more troops, for the (historical) eventuality that Hitler will march through them to get to Paris.
From a standing army of 88,000, my France at the start of 1938 has 340,000 men just on the German border. Not laughing now, are you Adolf? It does mean that I’ve had to move African troops to the Alps to defend against Italy – hopefully they’ve packed their jumpers. Satisfied with how things are going, I crank up the game’s speed and relax, which is something you should never do in any Paradox game, let alone Hearts of Iron 3.
History deals me my first wildcard. A notification pops up in May 1938 telling me that Germany has annexed Austria. What? I had an alliance secured with them and suddenly they’re German now? I stare at the “new” German borders, watching as Austria’s divisions turn a worrying shade of grey. Panicking just a little bit I begin to put my production of troops into overdrive. It’s then I notice that my country has an ominously low ratio of officers to enlisted men: you need between 100-140% of NCO positions filled for an effective army. I have 59%.
Things are going from bad to worse when in 1939 I’m informed that Czechoslovakia has crumbled too, turning over its industrial heartland to the German war machine. The war hasn’t even started and I’m already failing on one of my three challenges. German troops begin to pour into the border, initiating what can only be the largest cross-country staring contest in the history of man.
It’s only a few months later that I receive a stomach-tightening message from Poland: Germany has declared war on them and is invading. The map lights up as Polish intel shows me where German divisions are. There are hundreds of them. I have no choice but to tear up the strongly-worded letter I had prepared and put my helmet on.
The Second World War is about to begin.