Designer's Notes: GURPS WWII: Return to Honor

by Brian J. Underhill

Gene Seabolt and I first discussed GURPS WWII: Return to Honor in June 2001. Shortly thereafter, the project was passed on to another (unnamed) author and I began work on the British sourcebook, All the King's Men. It wasn't until March 2002 that Return to Honor was dropped back into my lap, together with a less-than-ideal six-week deadline. In addition, the original manuscript was written as a 32-page book, but between first and final draft, the decision was made to upgrade it to 48 pages.

Creating an accurate -- and enjoyable -- sourcebook in six weeks would have been hard enough, but expanding it to 150% of its original size was even harder. But thanks to some great work by Gene Moyers, Jeffery McGonagill, Gene Seabolt, Hans-Christian Vortisch, and others, the finished product is not only 50% larger than the initial work, but at least 50% better!

Morale and the Maginot

One of the toughest issues to address was France's lack of preparation for the German attack and the resulting routs in the spring of 1940. The value of the Maginot Line as a fortification has been argued ever since the war, but the reality is that Germany simply by-passed the line in an end-run that caught everyone by surprise.

Was the Maginot Line a waste of time and money? Could it have withstood an assault by the Wehrmacht? Those are questions better left for an alternate-history worldbook. The fact is that the Maginot Line helped create a false sense of security (the Maginot mentality) in French citizens, soldiers, and politicians, that slowed response times and was at least partially responsible for the apparent lack of offensive action on the part of the French.

A second problem facing the French army was lack of morale and a lack of willingness to become involved in another bloody, drawn-out war such as they had seen a generation before. Official French military doctrine proposed hunkering down and defending tenaciously rather than taking the fight to the Germans. But such a static defense would prove useless against the rapidly moving German forces, and French soldiers quickly surrendered when faced with onrushing tanks and screaming Stukas. A flood of refugees choked French troop movements, and the German advance was so rapid that no one seemed to know where the front was at any given moment.

Rommel's 7th Panzer Division -- called the "Ghost Division" because of its sudden and unexpected appearances -- roared through the countryside surprising barracks of resting French soldiers, overrunning retreating French units, and terrifying French refugees.

Deep behind the so-called "Front," Rommel was approached by a villager who patted his arm, smiling:

"Are you English?" she asked, apparently pleased to see the armored division in her hometown.

"No, Madam," Rommel replied. "I am German."

"Oh!" The village women shrieked, fleeing Rommel's side. "The barbarians!"

Besides being an amusing anecdote, the above illustrates the confusion surrounding the rapid German advance, and helps explain the French reaction to the Battle of France.

One of the most difficult things about writing Return to Honor was to capture the attitudes and atmosphere of that period without implying that French soldiers were cowardly or lazy. Their lack of morale stemmed from poor training and an unwillingness to repeat the bloody trench warfare of 1914-1919. And the fear the onrushing German army came from self-preservation, not cowardice. Still, the fact remains that the majority of the French units broke quickly during those bleak spring days of 1940; a fact that has been excused, explained, justified, and even re-written in the sixty years since.

Capturing these moments in a roleplaying supplement, however, was a singularly difficult task. But after extensive playtesting, editing, and rewriting, it's my hope that the facts speak for themselves. I believe that the heroism of the French armies throughout the war makes it clear that it was the circumstances of the battle -- not the men involved in it -- that resulted in the tragic defeat in 1940. As the book's title indicates, France was able to return to the honor she once had -- a task that would have been impossible without the heroic determination of the Free French soldiers, resistance operatives, stalwart civilians, and unwavering leadership.

In the end, I hope Return to Honor provides GMs and players with an abundance of information for many hours of gaming. From the start of the phony war to the liberation of Paris, adventures galore await those willing to aid France in her Return to Honor . . .

France, September 1939

The French 2nd Army Group makes contact with the German 1st Army during Operation Saar. The PCs become separated from their unit and wind up behind the German lines. How much havoc can this handful of men wreak on the German 1st before their spotted? Will they be able to make it back to the safety of France before it's too late?

Dunkirk, June 1940

PCs attached to the French XVI Corps are ordered to defend Dunkirk, allowing the evacuation of Allied troops from the beleaguered port. On June 4, 1940, the evacuation is complete and the XVI Corps surrenders. Will the PCs become prisoners of war, or will they continue to fight as part of the early French resistance?

Algeria, Summer 1940

Members of the French Foreign Legion in Algeria receive news of the signing of the Armistice. They are ordered to surrender their weapons to Germany on demand, and to fight for the Vichy and Nazi forces against their own comrades if need be. Will the PCs side with the new Vichy government or will they choose to side with the "rebel" Charles de Gaulle and his new Forces Franšaises Libres? Which choice makes them a traitor, and which makes them a patriot? And above all, how will the rest of the unit react to the PCs' choice?

Oran, July 1940

When British Force H arrives at the French port of Mers-el-KÚbir, French sailors suddenly find themselves in a heated naval battle against their one-time allies. When their ship is badly damaged or sunk, how will the PCs deal with being prisoners of the British navy? Will they continue to fight bravely, or try and convince the Brits to let them join up?

Paris, October 1940

A recently recruited Resistance operative is approached by German officials, aware of his recent clandestine activities. Through hints and veiled threats, they "suggest" he begin working for them as a double agent, lending his support to the true French regime in Vichy rather than fighting against his own country. Will the character agree to act as a double agent, or blatantly turn them down? Will he report the incident to the Allies? Will he be called on to act as a triple agent? What will other PCs (or NPCs) do when they find out he is in contact with the Vichy government?

Libya, May 1942

German and Italian forces have surrounded a mixed contingent of French troops at Bir-Hakeim. The French commander, General Marie-Pierre Koenig, is proposing a daring breakout, but he needs stalwart French volunteers to scout the German emplacements. That night's trip into the rocky desert becomes a nightmare of hide-and-seek games, skirmishes, and all out firefights against a force of superior size. Then a gaping hole in the German lines is discovered! Will any of the PCs make it back to report the weakness to Koenig before it's too late?

France, June 1944

French resistance agents receive a signal from the BBC that marks the beginning of Operation Overlord. The night before the invasion, the PCs are assigned to destroy the telegraph lines outside a nearby city -- a simple, but important task. Before they can complete their assignment, they are spotted by a German patrol and pinned down in the bombed out rubble of an old library. Surrounded and outgunned, they must use their wits and their guts to accomplish their mission before daybreak.

Article publication date: October 18, 2002

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