Thursday, 20 August 2015

His Britannic Majesty's Army In Germany During The Seven Years War

This title featured briefly in the 'I'm Currently Reading...' section of this blog a while back. Any wargamer looking for a suitably detailed work on the western campaign during the Seven Years War will eventually gravitate to this book - indeed, as things stand, Savory's book is really the only game in town for this subject. The Battle of Minden, of course, gets a good deal of attention in English accounts, but this is about as far as most historians go.

It is perhaps surprising that no other military historian has covered the western theatre, but the reason for this may well be that Savory pretty much nailed it back in 1966. The book's 500-odd pages give the story of the campaigns and battles over the relevant 5 years in great detail, and in the process allow the reader to form a picture of the problems faced in 18th century warmaking. Although the book is primarily one of description rather than analysis, the description is so particular that the reader is naturally led to an understanding of how things were. And Savory is perfectly willing to add some analysis when needed. I learned a great deal of what little I know about the quality of the French Army from this book, for example - information that is sadly lacking elsewhere.

Most of what a wargamer needs is here - force strengths, dates and times, the movements of the various forces before, during and after a battle, and the reasoning behind the actions of the generals. The logistical problems faced are not neglected either. The writer (a military man himself) understands that to make sense of all this, theatre maps and detailed sketch maps are required, and there are plenty of these. The final clincher is that Savory writes in an engaging, slightly old fashioned style that is easy to read and keeps you turning the pages.

So overall, this is a fine read, and indispensable if one is serious about understanding this part of the SYW. The only problem is that the book was out of print for many years and original copies now go for around £200. Fortunately, a small publisher called 18th Century Press has had a facsimile edition available since 2009. This still costs £70, plus £12 postage from France, but in the circumstances we are lucky to have this edition available. 

When I originally and briefly reviewed this book, I had taken it out from my local library using the excellent interloan scheme. But after a year or two of pining, I finally took the plunge and bought the book this month. That gap on my bookshelf just had to be filled. Ordering online is easy, and the parcel arrived in just six days. I was relieved to find that a quality job had been done - this is no cheap digital copy. This is a solidly bound hardback book practically indistinguishable from the original, with a nice new illustration on the dustjacket. The only thing that seems to be missing is the general map that I believe was printed on the endpapers of the original book. As the two theatre maps are still present, this is not a great problem. Added are 4 battle maps in colour (Minden, Wilhelmsthal, Kloster Kamp and Vellinghausen), which in a nice, old school touch are printed separately and tucked in a pocket at the back of the book. These are taken from the British Battles website, and so are probably familiar to the enthusiast for this period, but I certainly appreciated these good quality hard copies of maps available online.

And so, many hours of good reading beckon as I once again tuck into this feast of information. This book is a cracker, and no mistake.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

3 pdr Battalion Gun: An Interactive Experience

This week, my wife and I are mostly on holiday in Norway. We started by flying into Bergen, and naturally Bergen Castle was top of the list for a tourist visit. Imagine my pleasure when, on visiting the Roesenkrantz Tower, I found it had a Cannon Loft (I want one of those when I win the lottery), and there, sitting in the centre of the floor,  was an 18th century 3 pdr battalion gun.

The barrel was made in the 1780s, whilst the carriage is a 19th century replica.
From the information panel: barrel weight 100kg, range with canister 350m, range with roundshot 1000m, crew 5.

Being in a Norwegian museum, I found I was free to handle the gun more or less as I wanted, so I had a go. I found the whole thing surprisingly light to handle. The carriage was well balanced and it was easy to lift and move the gun. Of course, things might have been different on rough ground, but it was interesting to see how I could manoeuvre the gun with one hand. The short video below illustrates the point.


The elevating screw mechanism was in excellent condition and showed just how precise and simple these mechanisms were - a great improvement over the sliding wedge of the early 18th century.

I was also able to find some authentic 18th century uniform items to demonstrate. Being a bit of an expert in this field, I thought readers would find the results valuable.

Or not. Anyway, having a lovely time. More wargaming posts to come once I'm back in good old Blighty.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Alea Iacta Est

Yes, the die is indeed cast and the point of no return for Honours of War has been reached. The final layout has been agreed between Osprey and myself and all the last minute amendments that could be fitted in have been included. Now the layout goes to the printers in China and we wait for the books to be (literally) shipped back to the UK.

The book has turned out to be quite tightly packed with text - I went a bit over the word count, and Phil Smith at Osprey has had to cut down on the eye candy a little to compensate. There are fewer large photos and illustrations than have been seen in some other books in the series. It was great that Osprey were prepared to show flexibility in this respect. But there are still some very nice photos and illustrations, as well as the 4 maps for the scenarios which look excellent to me. Sadly, despite my best efforts, the photos I took of my own collection in action were not of a good enough quality for publication, so no RSM95s grace the pages.

This is in fact a good example of the learning process I have gone through. I have in the past occasionally bemoaned the fact that photos in rule books were there just for show, rather than illustrating the rules. The fact is, getting photos of the required quality is an issue in itself, and the services of a professional or the abilities of a committed and well practised amateur are needed for this alone. Add in the setting up of a large number of shots with very specific layouts, and the problem gets even bigger. And in most cases, diagrams are as good or better at making the point, for a fraction of the effort. So the book has diagrams explaining the rules, and the photos are there for illustration and inspiration only.

I have also learnt that despite there being 4 months until publication date, the final layout is needed now to allow for printing in China and for the inevitable slow boat that will bring the books back.

It was on this blog that I first appealed for playtesters, and so I want to express my thanks here to all those that responded, mostly through the Yahoo Group. A large number of wargamers (around 30+) have sent in specific ideas and feedback, often of the highest standard. These were people who knew the rules only through downloading them off the group and making sense of them on their own gaming tables, with their own collections. That they were able to pick up the rules quickly and usually play enjoyable games straight away has been a great confidence booster for me. The criticisms and suggestions made (always politely expressed) have been fundamental in making the rules much, much better than they were 18 months ago. The rules have been playtested in Italy, the US and Canada as well as the UK. Guys, you know who you are - thank you so much.

In the end, the list of playtesters was of a length that precluded listing all the individual names, which was what I had hoped to do. As well as the length of the list, there was the nagging doubt that  I would leave someone out and thus cause offence. So the rules will have only a generic thank you. It is nonetheless heartfelt.

In true Amazon fashion, the rules are already available for pre-order on their website. At some stage I will probably close down the Yahoo group and arrange some other source for online support, but this is not yet finally decided. Any questions or comments on the rules are still most welcome, either here or on the Yahoo group.

And so I wait until November. Fingers crossed!

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Battlegroup Blitzkrieg - 3 Games

Being determined to further my understanding and enjoyment of this set of WW2 rules, I have managed three games in the last couple of weeks. Two have been solo, and a third was with my old opponent Paul, being in fact a game of Battlegroup Kursk rather than a game of Battlegroup Blitzkrieg. The overall conclusion is that I continue to enjoy these rules and will definitely stick with them, but I think it might be worth sharing some thoughts about how the games went.

Game 1 - Defence Line
Playing this solo, I selected the following forces, making this a platoon level action. The numbers after the units indicate points/battle rating.

Forward HQ 23/3 (senior officer, spotter)
Cavalry patrol 17/1 (scout, brawura)

Infantry platoon 1 102/7 (officer, runner)
HMG team 16/1
Light mortar team 14/1
ATR team 8/1
ATG with tow 19/2

Infantry platoon 2 (2 infantry squads only) 72/5 (officer, runner)
ATR team 8/1
ATG with tow 19/2

2 Trenches 20/0, 2 ATG dugout 40/0

TKS platoon, 2 mg, 1 20mm 32/3
7tp platoon, 37mm 87/6

Forward observer team (spotter) 16/1
Off table mortar battery, 2 81mm 54/0

545 points, 3 officers, Battle Rating 34.

Forward HQ 24/3 (senior officer, spotter)
Sdkfz 221 16/1 (scout, spotter)
Sdkfz 231 24/1 (scout, spotter)
Kradschutzen recce patrol (scout, m/c) 39/2

Infantry platoon 112/8 (officer, runner)
HMG team 17/1
ATR team 12/1
ATG with tow 19/2

PzI platoon (officer) 40/3
PzII platoon (officer) 55/6
Medium Tank platoon (2 PzIII, 1 PzIV) 90/9

Forward observer team (officer, spotter) 21/1
Off table mortar battery, 3 80mm 81/0

550 points, 6 officers, Battle Rating 38

The game was set up with the Germans attacking from the near baseline. Table size 6' x 5'. German scout units plus the allowed 3 other units (in this case 3 PzIIs) have been deployed. Objectives were the copse on the near ridge, the road junction and the church on the far ridge. The roll for the number of Polish defenders was reasonable: two anti-tank guns plus infantry were deployed, but there were still some empty trenches near the road junction.
The 20mm cannons on the PzIIs are very effective against infantry and gun teams.
The Polish 37mm by the road junction was quickly silenced.
Polish reinforcements arrive in the shape of three 7tps.
A tank action develops in front of the rearmost ridge.
The Germans suffered some casualties, but a timely air attack from an HS-123 turned the tide.
As can be seen, the Germans managed to take the copse and associated ridge feature. Infantry, PzIIs and mortars had
co-operated well. The road junction fell shortly afterwards.
The HS-123 hung around for a strafing run but this had little effect.
Despite significant German losses (20 /38), by German turn 9 the Poles had exceeded their battle rating
and the game was over. All the Polish armour and anti-tank guns were destroyed.
Thoughts on the game
'Defence Line' is one of the 4 standard scenarios included in the core rulebook. The number of defending units on board at game start, and therefore the number of reserves which will arrive later, are decided by dice roll. This a departure from the more usual procedure of deciding defenders and reserves first, then rolling for the arrival move of the reserves. I thought it was an interesting twist and meant the scenario would produce a different game each time.
The rate of arrival of both German and Polish reserves is also diced for - one gets D6 units per move. I thought this not such a good rule - some command confusion is always welcome, but I felt the possibility of having units arrive in dribs and drabs a bit unrealistic. Formations tended to march together, after all. However, the initial moves of this scenario proceed quickly, and reinforcements are soon arriving. The Germans have the advantage of the Panzermarsch! rule, which means on one turn they can roll an extra D6 for reinforcements. At least, I use this rule, although the rulebook suggests it should only be used for France.
At this point on the learning curve, keeping track of the various campaign special rules can be a problem, but this will improve. I am considering making the arrival of an air attack more probable once the appropriate battle counter has been picked. This is a rare enough event in itself, and allowing just a 5 or 6 roll to allow the attack to arrive seems a bit mean - in fact, for the Poles, a 6 is required. A 4+ for the Germans and 5+ for the Poles might be better.

Game 2 - The Bridges at Zamosc
The background to this scenario, and forces for Blitzkrieg Commander, have already been described. I'll repeat the original map which inspired my battle.

Map © Miniature Wargames magazine. Thanks Henry.
The first photo below shows how I adapted the map to my own terrain for a 1939 game. Rules for the armoured train needed to be developed from scratch - this was their first playtest. They have been posted on the BGB forum here. Forces for BGB were:

1. Forward HQ 25/3  (senior officer, mortar spotter)

2. Armoured train no.51 270/17 (officer, spotter, communications)
T-18 draisine 10/1 (scout)

3. Wz.29 22/1  (scout, mortar spotter)
Wz.34 mg x 2 20/2 (scout)
Infantry squad in 2 PF621 trucks 38/2
ATR team 8/1
HMG team in Lazik 20/1

4. Cavalry platoon 48/4 (officer, runner, brawura)
HMG in tazcanka 20/1
ATG with horse tow 19/2
TKS mg x 2 20/2

518 points, BR = 38, 3 officers, 4 scouts.

Forces 2 and 3 on table at game start up to 10” on rails/south road (enter in column).
Forces 1 and 4 arrive move 5 on west road, enter in column.

1. Forward HQ 24/3 (senior officer, artillery spotter)

2. Recce command 30/2 (officer, scout, mortar spotter)
Sdkfz222 20/1 (scout, mortar spotter)
Sdkfz 231 6-rad 24/1 (scout, mortar spotter)
Infantry squad in 2 Protz 38/2
HMG team in Protz 21/1
Motorised panzerjaeger 26/2 (scout)
ATR team in heavy car 14/1

3. Sdkfz 221 16/1 (scout, mortar spotter)
Pz I platoon 40/3 (officer)
Pz II platoon 55/6 (officer)
Panzer III 34/3
Panzer IV 40/3
Infantry squad in 2 Protz  38/2
HMG team in Protz 21/1
75mm IG with tow 19/1
Bunkerflak 54/2

514 points, BR = 35, 4 officers, 5 scouts

Force 2 is on table at game start up to 10” on north road (enter in column)
Forces 1 and 3 arrive move 5. Dice for each arriving unit – 1, 2, 3, 4 enter in column on east road. 5, 6 arrive on board edge up to 10” south of river.
Tank platoons and the infantry squad arrive as 1 'unit'.

North is to the bottom of the photo. This is the end of the first German turn - the Polish train and recce units are deployed (background), and the Germans have opted for a dash to the road bridge, which gets them onto the objective but with no chance to fire. This turned out to be a mistake.
The armoured train and its recce draisine move cautiously out of Zamosc station towards the rail bridge.
The puny 37mm on the 'Ursus' armoured car and the Polish anti-tank rifle team are quite powerful enough to penetrate the thin armour of the 2 leading German armoured cars, who have no chance to reply. The Polish infantry also shake out into formation and cause significant casualties to the supporting German infantry.
Three German units, including a 37mm anti-tank gun, are diverted to the rail crossing north of the bridge,
 to stall the Polish train.
Both bridges are quickly in Polish hands. I ignored an 'all objectives held' win. The Germans at the road bridge never recover from their initial drubbing and fall back. The Polish train grinds forward and takes the German blocking force under effective fire. By turn four the Germans are firmly on the back foot, but then their tank reinforcements arrive (top right). Could they turn the tide? Surely that train is a sitting duck?
The train dominates the centre of the table...
...but the German tanks are on their way.
The resulting firefight was intense, but despite the presence of the 'Bunkerflak' (right), the train more than held its own. The accounts of the very few occasions on which such trains were directly engaged emphasise the heavy firepower the trains could develop, and the difficulty of knocking out the various train components. Nevertheless, the two leading train cars are eventually destroyed.
Unfortunately for the Germans, the Polish infantry and cavalry (including infantry from the assault car of the train) are pushing across the board, and help support the train just as the firefight is at its most intense.
After  8 turns the Germans have suffered too many casualties to continue (39/35).
The Poles are at 11/38, have both objectives, and so have clearly won.
Thoughts on the game
Despite also being played solo, I enjoyed this game immensely, and was pleased to see that a) workable rules for an armoured train in BGB could be developed, and b) armoured trains could be incorporated into a reasonable size game with success.

Game 3 - High Ground - Kursk
No photos of this game I'm afraid, which used another of the standard BG scenarios from the Kursk book, also to be found in the core rulebook. It was played with my old buddy Paul in Bristol, using his 20mm forces. We both chose simple armies of infantry and tanks, with no scout/recce units or off-table support. The game was played along the length of a 6' x 4' table.

The result was interesting. Tactically, it was perhaps uninspiring - the Germans advanced, engaged the dug-in Russian defenders as best they could, then took on the reinforcing Russian tanks when they arrived. Not much manoeuvre, more of a stand-up fight. But we had great fun, rolling the dice, wearing down the enemy and enjoying the twists and turns of the rules. For example, towards the end of the game my last surviving Panther moved forward, to then be engaged in flank by a T-34 hiding behind a burning Panzer IV. The Panther survived, was pinned, but then threw a 6 for morale, meaning it had a 'Beyond the Call of Duty' result. Accordingly, it immediately returned fire and knocked out the T-34!

The Germans lost soon after, as the Russians turned out to have just enough tanks to win the fight. The higher points values for vehicles mean that a platoon size game in 1943 has fewer units than one in 1939, so choices are restricted. This also seemed to mean that to reach one's battle rating, you have to lose significantly more than half your force, which in this battle gave a situation similar to those Old School battles from the 1960s when only a handful of figures survived on the winning side. This felt less than realistic, but we had plenty of good, knock-about fun.

What I came to realise during this battle, however, was that a well-rounded Battlegroup game depends on using the full variety of unit types and the full selection of available rules - or at least as many as you reasonably can. When I first acquired BGB I vowed not to bother with the ammo rules for vehicles - too much book keeping, I reckoned. Now I'm not so sure. Having to keep an eye on ammo consumption would have added an extra dimension to the game, perhaps moderating the non-stop shoot out that characterised most of the moves. One would have to think about alternative ways of getting the job done, which might increase the amount of manoeuvre in the game or encourage the purchase of off-table assets. And of course the purchase of a re-supply truck or two! I reckon using a couple of mini dice behind each tank to record ammo usage should be pretty painless.

The army lists provide many more alternatives that I should really be making use of - communications teams, off table artillery (expensive), timed fire missions/air strikes (a cheaper alternative to dedicated support), engineers, and logistic support (those resupply trucks). Lots of recce options are available as well.

I'm definitely enjoying these rules. Whether they're just a fairly lightweight WW2 game, or the heavily period specific, thorough representation that the rules introduction seems to promise, I'm not sure. Actually, I reckon it's both. A not-too-serious game which does try and get some campaign-specific character in.

Army Lists - grrr...
One thing I can't take too seriously are the army lists. These seem very precise and are beautifully laid out, but the choices don't always ring true. For example, my Germans can't have a motorcycle recce squad in 1939, but in 1940 they can. And despite 13 staffeln of HS-126s being deployed to Poland, I can't have an aerial artillery observer either. There are all kinds of little details like this. In short, the lists tend to be too proscriptive, and sometimes don't offer realistic alternatives. But this is always the way with army lists, and is the reason why I won't be offering them in my Seven Years' War rules. I'm pretty sure the authors are quite comfortable with people making their own choices, of course, and this is what most informed gamers will do, but it still makes the lists an occasionally inaccurate guide for the newcomer. And we all occasionally meet those misguided gamers to whom the lists are holy scripture.

Despite the pages of lists, actual OOBs of the various formations as they existed are absent. How does a German Light Division differ from a Panzer Division, for example? Or how was a Polish motorised brigade like the famous Black Brigade organised? No info. My own personal view is that such information is worth more than any number of army lists to a player new to the period. In addition, the rules do not require that units from the same platoon operate together in any way. Thus units from an infantry platoon can be scattered all over the table, even if they are the 2 units which are the components of the same 'squad' (e.g. the rifle group and mg group which make up a German infantry squad). For me, all this creates a situation where one gets rather divorced from reality, into a nether world of allowable army list choices.

Things are not helped by the rather interchangeable use of the terms 'squad', 'section', 'group' and 'team' when describing infantry units and their supports. Take the entry for a German infantry platoon on p.37. It consists of a command squad and then:
"3 Rifle Teams 
Unit composition 9 men
Squad may take anti-tank grenades at +5pts".
So in one paragraph this collection of 9 men is a team, a unit and a squad (which elsewhere aren't necessarily the same thing).

Yes, I know, moaning about army lists is a bit of a wargaming cliché. If you're reading this Piers, sorry for the gripes. I guess I'm just not an army list man. Conclusion - the army lists have been made essential to the game, and generally they are OK, but IMHO some aspects of them are a bit flaky.

Anyway, having got that off my chest, I'll say farewell. 'Til the next time!