I never really understood the concept of Phantom Armies until I began playing Victoria – An Empire Under The Sun. I have read a lot on the fall of the Third Reich, and of Hitler ordering non-existent armies about from the Berlin bunker.
Now, I know not only how he felt, but how it worked! Only when I played Russia and got invaded by all of Germany did I realise that the units I thought of as armies that I was ordering about had at most a couple of hundred troops left in them. My mind was telling me that I had 5 divisions and was sending these into battle against 20000 Austrians (2 divisions). It looked like a no-lose position, but it was ALWAYS a no-win and only when I discovered by accident the size (or rather lack of size) did I understand.
I completely understood! Hitler was sitting in his bunker looking at unit whereabouts, thinking if he ordered these to combine he had an army and giving orders to them to do things. Only now did I realise what “existed only on paper” actually meant! A hundred men is not a division, even if they are all that is left of it.
Given that, one wonders whether nobody ever dared to tell Hitler what the actual unit strength was, or whether nobody knew for sure and they just failed to get their point across that a theoretical strength of 10000 can be as little as 43 after severe battle attrition. Yes, the unit still exists and can be built back up in theory, but you cannot order it into the attack – well, you can order it but even the most loyal and battle-hardened unit will fail to obey if it is down to a fraction of the size of the enemy it is ordered to attack.
This also explains why elite formations, SS divisions with outstanding fighting records began to seem like traitors and cowards. There simply was too little manpower left in these formations for them to achieve anything, indeed for them even to attempt to achieve anything.
And in a land where you have lost possession of most of your territory, and are struggling to hold on to a few remaining areas, command and control itself is still barely operating. By the time the unit receives its command, it may have been forced to move. And any attempts to rebuild the unit fail because such commands are somewhere between fantasy and wishful thinking. If there is somewhere safe to retire to and rebuild, that is one thing. But when under constant attack, and invaded from all sides, the hope to find such a place is all there is.
So, I have learnt a lesson that Hitler never learnt. Not that it helped the country I was playing in the game – I ended up surrendering, it was all too impossible!