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1943: the Royal Scots Greys Sherman troop

The days are getting longer and the afternoon light better. I can get back to painting and modelling, and so resume my 1943 project. When I left off last Autumn I had just started my most ambitious project to date: four tanks for the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. I have already posted at length on my early research last Summer.

It is ambitious because it is the first, and probably only, time I am modelling a specific unit at a specific time, rather than something generic.  It involves conversion work on my models, and producing my own decals.

The first challenge was finding models. I am looking at the M4A2 (or Sherman III) in early format (especially the early mantlet – there is more flexibility on the nose ). My preferred supplier is PSC, but they did not have anything. They have the welded hull M4A1 or the long-hulled M4A4. I went as far as buying the Armourfast M4A2 after good reviews, but without understanding what options it had. There were none and it was a later war variety without any sandguards; the mantlet and nose were later war too. A lovely clean model though, that I will use for a reinforcement platoon. Then I found the Italeri kit of earlier war British configured M4A2s with sandguards. Otherwise I would have resorted to one of the more expensive 1/76 models that are on offer from Milicast.

The boxes for the Armourfast and Italeri models
The Armourfast sprue – all there is for each model!

Alas on opening the box it was not all good news. The hatch is moulded closed and in the wrong orientation. The British (and certainly the RSGs) removed the one hatch cover and oriented the other to the rear (rather than having the hatch open to the sides). Besides I want to model my tanks with the hatch open and a commander. Otherwise it is a nice model. It is a snap together wargames kit, not a proper model, but that suits me fine. But that hatch: fixing that is essential to getting the look of the model I want. I am compromising on lots of things – it’s only a wargames model after all – but I can’t on that. The shame is that this is one place that the Armourfast model is unequivocally better: the hatch and the two half-covers are moulded separately. But I can’t even swap turrets as the mantlet looks even harder to fiddle with.

One idea was to use the hatches from my old Airfix Sherman models. I had thought of using these to make up a reserve troop. But although I have some sentimental attachment to them (one of them is one my oldest models), they aren’t very good models, as well as being 1/76 rather than my preferred 1/72. They can’t even be pinned down to one type of Sherman, adopting features from various ones. So I tried prising off the hatches. Alas in only one case was this anything like feasible. The others were too well glued and were badly damaged in my attempt to prise them away. I was able to retrieve four half hatch covers – which are useful. Though it turns out I needed the other four too (more on that later).

So there was nothing for it but to get out the jewellery saw and try to take off the turret hatches. The first one was much easier than I feared, though there was some damage to the turret mouldings. The next one was much the same. But I must have got a bit complacent, because the next two did not go so well, with more damage to the turret top – though nothing that a bit of filler couldn’t sort out to the standard I need. Next came cutting out the hatch lids to leave the hatch ring. This was not easy. The plastic is quite thick and the jewellers saw only does straight lines. I used drill, saw, craft knife and files to hack out the moulded hatch. After that the hatch ring could be clued back to turret top in its new orientation, with the machine gun bracket to the left rather than the rear. In the last two cases, and especially the last one, quite a bit of filler was needed. After that the half-lid (from the Airfix models) was glued in open position to the rear.

The next operation was on the sand guards. In Italy the British generally removed the rear portion (where they had sand guards at all), and this to me was another essential part of the look. Unfortunately in the Italeri kit, the sand guard is moulded to the upper hull, rather than being a separate part as in the PSC models. One option I had considered when looking at the Armourfast model (no sandguards), was taking sand guards from a PSC model (perhaps the cast hull M4A1), which in turn could be used for the reserve troop. Sawing, cutting and filing my way through the Italeri model, in hindsight this may have been a better option. It is very hard to do this without damaging the remaining hull, and once again filler was needed to do an imperfect job of covering up the mess. For all its virtues I’m really not sure I would start with the Italeri model again.

Next came assembly of the model. Mostly I just snapped it together without glue. I did glue on the bottom hull to the top as there is an unsightly join at the front, which required filler – so it was imperative the join was solid. Given the shape, this fillering was a bit awkward, but surplus filler looks a bit like mud, so no major problem.

Next there was the matter of the tank commander. I used resin models from Milicast. These were slightly small (1/76) and some of the arms had to be glued on, which I found very tricky – but they are much cleaner cut that the PSC figures. Given the difficulties with the arms, I’m not sure I’d use these models again, but go for AB metals instead. Another problem is that the figures are wearing berets, when the pictures from Salerno show the tank commanders wearing standard steel helmets (mid war pattern) (for AB the choice would have been berets or later style helmets). I lacked the confidence to do head swaps, or filing off the top of the heads to fit helmets. Instead I put an appropriate helmet cut from plastic Airfix 8th Army figures near the hatch (following one of the later pictures). The figures are full length, so the bottom of the legs had to be cut off, and I had to jerry rig a platform inside the turret to cement them to.

Next came the aerial. I had successfully used plastic broom bristle for my German tanks, so I used this again. The aerial came either in 4ft lengths, apparently, and the crew fixed one or two together depending on circumstances. The Salerno pictures showed something that looks like more than 4ft to me, so I assumed 8ft aerials,  though this made them quite tall (I wonder of they used US aerials, which had 3ft lengths, and so total height 6ft). Using a drop of superglue to fit the aerials on my German tanks had been pretty easy – but this time it proved much harder, as there wasn’t such a good point to attach the aerials to; in the end it was a little messy.

Also the pictures showed that pennants were flown on the aerials. This is another striking part of the appearance. It isn’t clear from the pictures what the flags were. The star decals interpretation is two triangular flags, red at the top and yellow bellow. I decided on a swallow tail flag at the top of the aerial for the squadron leader, and a triangular one for the troop leader. And in the lower middle of the aerial for all four tanks a triangular pennant. Colours are pretty speculative but at the moment I’m thinking of red for the upper flags and sky blue for the lower ones. I cut these from foil and glued them on. This turned out to be very fiddly, but they add a lot to the look.

And on to the final details. The missing hatch half-cover was attached to front of the driver position, presumably as a bit of extra protection. I had to manufacture these from plastic card, using the Armourfast ones as a model. I put on various stowage boxes and tarpaulins mainly from a Milicast resin set. These were mainly on the back. Some pictures show heavily laden tanks (including the Salerno ones, which show them mainly just after being unloaded from the landing ships), but in Italy many pictures also show relatively unladen vehicles. I may have overdone it (the turret cannot be completely traversed in most cases), but it add to the in theatre look.

The squadron leader is on the right

So here they are ready for the next stage: painting:

Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras – a huge disappointment

In a recent post I complained at the poor quality of analysis in military history writing for the Napoleonic wars. That was when I was doing some earlier research into the Battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815. I have just bought a new book on the simultaneous battle of Quatre Bras: Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras by Paul Dawson, published in 2017 by Frontline Books. It is enough to drive me to despair.

There is real tragedy here. Mr Dawson is one of the few authors that does original research, and tries to bring fresh evidence into the picture. In this case it is muster returns for the French Army, which are in the French archives and have been untouched by historians to date. And if you look hard you will find the occasional fresh insight based on his voracious appetite for documentary evidence. And this easily might have been a much better book. What it needed was a robust dialogue between the author and an experienced editor to produce a book that would have been much clearer and easier to read. That is not how modern publishing works, however.

The basic style of the book the book is to present piles of evidence – eye witness accounts and (separately) data from the muster rolls – though not other evidence from maps and the ground itself. He gives primacy to the French sources, but Netherlands sources get their due, as do British sources too – though since my interest in the well-worn British sources is not great, I cannot give a view as to its completeness on that account. Like many modern authors, he seems to take the view that these accounts should speak for themselves, and he adds very little interpretation and challenge. This is a bit odd since in the introduction he explains how careful one has to be in interpreting these reports. The exception to this are the various communications between Napoleon, his chief of staff Soult, and the various field commanders, and especially Ney. Like pretty much every author covering Quatre Bras, he takes a great deal of interest in these. Which is fair enough, since these are central to the two main controversies which have raged from the day of the battle to the present. First is why Ney to did not press his attack much sooner in the day. And the second  concerns the movements of d’Erlon’s I Corps, which was diverted from Quatre Bras to Ligny and back again, managing not to play more than a minor role in either battle.

Mr Dawson ends up by saying very little new on either controversy. His writes history on the principle that it should allocate blame, and he heaps it on both Ney and d’Erlon. He gets quite outraged at times in condemning the laxity or perfidy of the various actors. I find this jarring in a modern author, though he is not unique (Digby Smith does this too). I prefer the great historian AJP Taylor on this: history should be about explaining what happened and why. Alas Mr Dawson is weak on both the what and the why. Which is a bit of a pity, because his book provides an all-too-brief peak at some rather interesting lines of enquiry on both controversies. The first is whether it actually made much military sense for Ney to press ahead with an early attack, given his relatively weak forces and lack of knowledge of the enemy dispositions. It could have led to the annihilation of II Corps for no real gain. And without II Corps, could Napoleon have taken on Wellington, even if he had been able to take the Prussians completely out of the picture? A second point presented by Mr Dawson but not followed through is that I Corps started the day very scattered (over 20 miles, he claims), and that the staff of its leading division, Durutte’s, had defected the previous night. However, when describing the corps’ movements later in the day (from about 5pm), he presents it as largely concentrated and ready to take part as a whole in either of the day’s battles. 20 miles is a long way to walk in a single day in full kit – so just how quickly the four divisions were able to concentrate near the field of battle looks like an interesting line of enquiry. If only one or two divisions were in practice available before dusk, then that would be an interesting new perspective. And if it the conventional account is in fact correct, why does he lay on the scattered nature of the d’Erlon’s corps with a trowel earlier in the book? The book is full of such inconsistencies.

While on the subject of d’Erlon and Ligny I found a couple of other points irritating. When the leading elements of the corps approached the battlefield, it threw Napoleon and his staff completely because they were approaching they were approaching from the south rather than the west. To such an extent that he halted the last phase of his attack to try an find out who the troops were because he did not think they could be d’Erlon. Mr Dawson completely fails to mention this, even though he has done a good job of laying the groundwork in explaining why Napoleon would have been so surprised. He was expecting them to come from Quatre Bras, because he did not realise that Ney had held back his attack, and that Wellington’s forces had arrived there in strength. This meant that d’Erlon’s corps was not in the right place to attack the Prussian rear. However Mr Dawson then goes on to accept at face value the claim that if Durutte’s division had pressed its advance more vigorously, it would have been catastrophic for the Prussians and stopped them taking part in Waterloo. This is exactly the sort of thing that defeated French commanders always claim in order to say that they could have saved the day if only they had been allowed to. Durutte only had one division with a bit of cavalry support; the Prussians might have had enough troops to present a rearguard long enough to allow the failing light to complete their retreat; or Drutte mat simply have been in the wrong place too late. Ligny is beyond the scope of Mr Dawson’s book perhaps. In which case the right thing to say is that he cannot offer an opinion on the claim – something he is happy enough to do elsewhere in the book. He can’t quite get the balance between being an impartial presenter of evidence and the wish to get his opinions off his chest.

What of his account of the battle itself? This is the book’s biggest failure. On the big controversies he at least presents arguments, even if he is often repetitive and laboured. For the battle itself you get a very muddled account. On the famous charge of Kellerman’s cuirassiers, for example, at one point he suggests that it might have happened much earlier in the battle than it is often supposed. This is very strange, because he has spent much of the earlier narrative telling us that it was a miracle that the troops reached the battlefield at all, let alone two hours early. In the course of his account of Kellerman’s corps he does have interesting things to say, to be fair. He highlights worries over royalist loyalties amongst the officers of the Carabiniers. He also makes it clear that three of the four brigades reached the battlefield with the battle in progress, when normally historians say just one did.

But the biggest problem concerns his new evidence, the muster rolls. Mr Dawson extracts previously unpublished casualty figures for French units from these rolls. Alas there is clearly a problem with these figures. So, for example, his reported casualties of the 2nd Leger , which led the French attack, were just 31 with 3 killed. And yet Martinien lists one officer killed and 13 wounded, which suggests a much heavier toll. For the 108 Ligne, also Bachelu’s Brigade, and heavily engaged, even he can see the records are incomplete: It records 23 killed, 5 prisoners, but no wounded. He lamely says “we cannot give any further comment”; which does not stop him adding these incomplete figures in to his overall casualties for the corps. What about extrapolating the numbers of wounded from those killed? Or comparing with Martinien’s lists of officer casualties? Another example, which he makes much more of, is that the 8th and 11th Cuirassiers suffered just 49 casualties between them. But pretty much all eye-witnesses from both sides suggest a much heavier toll (Kellerman himself estimated 200); Martinien lists 17 officers killed and wounded. In many (but not all) cases the casualties reported by the muster rolls look far to low. This would have been quite an interesting point of discussion. But instead Mr Dawsontrea treats his new evidence at face value, as a gold standard. He suggests that only one infantry brigade of the six involved was seriously engaged, that two barely took part in the battle, and that the French suffered half the casualties of the Allies. Though it is not uncommon for eye witnesses to exaggerate casualties, this all looks a little steep.

Paul Dawson is a diligent researcher, who takes more trouble with compiling evidence than most current authors. Alas he seems bereft of the analytical skills needed to interpret it. This book may have some value as a secondary source for lazy historians like me. Other than that it is a waste of time, I am afraid. It is hard to read: long tracts of direct quotation, argument that is laboured and repetitive and yet often seems to miss obvious points. And a lot of his evidences, like his casualty figures, poses questions which he makes no attempt to answer. And you have to endure him sounding off his armchair criticism of people long dead as if they were contemporary politicians. This does not bode well for Mr Dawson’s much bigger work on Waterloo, just published, which I have also acquired. But I will give it a fair crack.

Ligny 1815. The failure of English language historians

I like to focus the development of my Napoleonic rules around specific battles. Waterloo and Quatre Bras are regulars. My most recent finished rules were developed to refight Vitoria. As my latest rules stagger towards the playtest phase, I am focusing on the battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815.

This battle was fought on the same day as Quatre Bras as Napoleon attacked three out of the four corps of Blücher’s Prussian army. In spite of being outnumbered for most of the day, he scored a remarkable but costly victory – which might have been enough to win him the campaign, had not the Prussians withdrawn towards their British-led allies, instead of on their line of communication. In spite of its importance, and a scale that matches Waterloo, this last victory of Napoleon is rather neglected by historians. But it is an interesting battle nevertheless. At the heart of it is a mystery: how did the French perform so well against a numerically superior enemy?

I have four English language books focusing substantially on the battle. There is Andrew Uffindel’s The Eagle’s Last Triumph, my edition published in 1994, though I think there is a later version out there. Then there is Peter Hofschröer’s 1815, the Waterloo Campaign, the first in a two part account of the Waterloo campaign published 1998. Next is John Franklin’s Osprey: Waterloo 1815 volume 2, published 2015. Lastly, relatively fresh off the press, is Andrew Field’s Grouchy’s Waterloo, published 2017. Alas all these accounts are deeply flawed. There is a further important resource: Pierre de Wit’s website, The Waterloo Campaign.

I am at the beginning of my study of this battle, and I have focused mainly on is opening stages. But it is enough to  confirm the usual flaws in Napoleonic military history in the English language. Actually these flaws are almost certainly not confined to the Napoleonic era, and not tot he English language either; it just what I know. There are three problems: “lamppost syndrome”, a lack of forensic analysis, and poor maps.

By lamppost syndrome, I am referring to the story of the drunk found at night scrabbling around under a street lamp. “What are you doing?” he is asked; “Looking for my keys,” he replies. “Did you drop them there?”; “No, but I can see here”. Historical writing concentrates too much on where the evidence is, and especially if there are first hand accounts. And yet important things happen in places where these accounts do not exist, and you can’t understand what is going on until you try to work out what happened where the evidence is thin. The second problem I have called lack of forensic analysis. The word “forensic” really means associated with criminal justice, but it has now assumed a wider meaning that I am using here. And that is a careful piecing together of the witness evidence with other evidence, and an understanding of what is physically feasible. In the history of this era this  evidence includes the lie of the land, casualty figures, and an understanding of the technology and human capabilities. On top of this must come the persistent examination of motive: why did somebody do that? All this is familiar enough to viewers of television crime dramas or readers of detective fiction. Given the popularity of these genres, it is very surprising that so few modern military historians want to turn detective. Not all writers are as bad as each other. For an example of how it should be, there is  Rory Muir’s masterpiece on the battle of Salamanca, though even this lacks a decent map, a problem I will come to.

But what we usually get is mistakes by one author being repeated by the next uncritically, and very little in way of genuinely new perspectives. There is one interesting example in the early stages of Ligny: the defence of the village of St Armand, where the battle started. The normal story is that the village was defended by three battalions of Jagow’s brigade, and the French attack encountered bitter resistance. In fact a careful study of the evidence (as Mr de Wit makes clear) shows conclusively that these three battalions were in the nearby village of St Armand la Haye (or Longpré), which was more defensible and closer to the Prussian positions. And all the other Prussian infantry is accounted for. In fact the French faced artillery fire from the hill behind the village, and few skirmishers, and that was all. They quickly took the village, but found it impossible to move beyond it. The Prussians (Steinmetz’s brigade) then counterattacked.

So how do our four accounts handle the episode? Mr Uffindel gives us a lot of drama (“corpses littered the streets”) and sticks to the story that they had to fight hard to push out the unidentified Prussians. Overall his account is extremely thin on this stage of the battle. Mr Hofshröer, a German speaker, makes much more use of Prussian sources. He initially says that Jagow’s three battalions were in St Armand, he then goes on the say that the French found the village largely unoccupied, and then gives a very muddled account, including quotations from officers of those three battalions. At various points he suggests the fighting was in St Armand, St Armand la Haye, and then the neighbouring St Armand le Hameau (or Beurrre). Mr Hofshröer is a controversial author and in my view completely unable to tackle his subject forensically. His value is in his extensive quotation of German language sources. Mr Franklin is a more careful author, but tends to focus on French sources. He suggests that the French had to fight hard to capture the village, with the first brigade of Lefol’s division having to call in the second. Again there is extraneous detail (“the front files were decimated”) . Finally Mr Field: he is explicitly majoring on the French sources, and he likes to quote at length; there are two accounts of this episode: one from General Lefol, and one from Captain Gerbet of the 37 Ligne. This reveals the source of  a lot of the colourful detail of Messrs Uffindel and Franklin. After these extensive quotes Mr Field says that the village (though a strong position, he says) was lightly held and the French did not face determined resistance. But he makes no attempt to reconcile this with Gerbet’s account of a rather fierce struggle. I suspect it conflates episodes from later in the battle. Incidentally the statement that St Armand was a strong position is not my view, and that is one reason why the Prussians decided not to hold it strongly. As with other works, Mr Field is unwilling to pull apart his witness statements, but at least he is more transparent than other authors, and he is careful with his facts.

And the maps? Wargamers love a good map, from which they can create a decent table. 19th Century historians did too, but they generally compiled them without properly surveying the ground, and with only a schematic representation of relief. A simple matter, surely, to take modern contour maps, and use these as a basis for updated maps? Alas, far too often not. For Vitoria I had to do this for myself, and the two maps I did are now nearly top of the Google ratings for maps of the battle. All the offerings on Ligny are flawed.

Mr Uffindel doesn’t try. He illustrates his work with schematic diagrams that do not attempt to give a feel for the terrain. Mr Hofshroer gives us two detailed maps. One gives us a representation of relief, but taken from Ferraris map of the 1760s, and with no detail of the extent of the villages, and with a later highway missing; this is not actually all that helpful: what you need is a contour map. There is then a reproduction of a Prussian military map, with lots of detail, including the initial troop dispositions. But no contours. The Prussian dispositions look accurate to the battalion – but it shows Jagow’s three battalions in St Armand and not la Haye. This may be the source of the error in other accounts; perhaps these battalions went there first but were moved to somewhere less exposed. Hofshröer does have a proper modern map showing both Quatre Bras and Ligny, which is decent enough but lacks detail for the individual battles, though it illustrates what Napoleon intended with d’Erlon’s corps very well. Franklin has only Osprey’s 3-D maps, which promise more than they deliver. You can’t see the folds of the ground. He has Habert’s division of Vandamme’s corps in a different place to everybody else, interestingly enough. This is clearly wrong in my view. It is shown on the right of the corps, in a position that looks exposed to artillery fire; it came into action on the left. Of course it may have started out on the right.

And what of Mr de Wit? This is a very valuable resource, as he squeezes as much as he can from from the evidence. It is pretty heavy going, though. He can be quite forensic, but he suffers severely from lamppost syndrome. This is less a defect for Ligny, so far, than it is for the Prussian advance at Waterloo, which has big gaps. There are no maps. He does include some very nice surveys of the terrain, mentioning anything from the era that has survived, and including some old photographs of various features.

And so, like Vitoria, I am going to have to piece together my own account, and map. This will take a while, but it is a part of the hobby I love.

1871 – a lesson in the art of wargames design

As winter draws on and daylight vanishes, my pursuit of the 1943 project has come to a halt. The next step involves a lot of painting, and daylight is a big help. Also I need 2-3 hour sessions, and these have been in shorter supply over the last couple of months. Instead I have returned to my original project: writing rules for army-level Napoleonic games. After so many false starts, I have had a bit of a breakthrough on this, and I am closing in on a prototype version that I can try out solo on the tabletop. It has been my main activity of the quiet Christmas period. Alas this is fast drawing to a close, and progress may halt again.

I have allowed myself one diversion, however. I bought a copy of Bruce Weigle’s latest rules: 1871. Bruce’s rules cover a later period than the one that I am interested in, but they have intrigued me. I have bought them all, apart from the original 1870 rules (apart from 1871, these are 1866 and 1859). These are fascinating wars, which I would take to the table if I had time. The evolution from Napoleonic times is interesting, and the struggle to adapt tactics to changes in technology is of real interest. I have not been very interested in the contemporaneous American Civil War, but these battles between the professional armies of old opponents in the Napoleonic wars seems to offer something that conflict doesn’t. One of the many aspects that makes it so interesting is that the armies were deeply interested in what actually happened so that they could develop tactics. That has left historians with a lot of detailed accounts of what happened; and the wars were short, which meant that fewer participants were killed before they could describe what they had seen (though the battles were often very bloody). No doubt it helps that standards of literacy had advanced too.

Two things drew me to Bruce’s rules. First was the simply wonderful presentation of his games, with huge trouble taken over terrain boards, for his 6mm figures. These look, much, much better than the fashion for 28mm miniatures allows; the pictures of these in wargames magazines leave me cold, in a way that I find pictures of bruce’s games inspiring. Even though I struggle on with my 15mm figures (20mm for WW2), there are many lessons to be had from his terrain boards. The second interesting thing is the rules themselves. They have been carefully calibrated against the course of historical battles, move by move. At the same time Bruce tries to make them as playable as possible. This is a struggle that I deeply appreciate, when so many rules focus on playability and half-baked ideas of historical authenticity. There is much to learn from this. I have played a few games of 1870 and 1866 with my friend George, who built up 6mm armies for the games, which has given me a better understanding of the system.

These new rules are particularly interesting. Not so much for the period covered – I’m less interested in the Franco-Prussian war than in the other conflicts – but for how the rules have been developed. Bruce’s mission is radical simplification. He says that they are much faster to play, while leading to similar results. That looks evident. The quick reference sheets are down to two sides from four. This means chucking a lot of detail and nuance overboard – things that historians may say were important, but which turn out not be. For instance: there is little distinction between different types of artillery. The Germans get a longer maximum range and a dice advantage. The French mitrailleuse is simply treated as an artillery piece with a shorter maximum range. This is ruthless, given how much ink has been spilt on this early machine gun. There is much to learn from how Bruce has achieved his stripping down. Incidentally, I see a similar ruthlessness in Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB), though the choices are different. It covers the same period, but it is a very different game. My aim is to achieve something between the two for the Napoleonic era.

There was an unexpected bonus to 1871. At the back there is familiar section on how Bruce builds his boards (there are delicious examples in the book – including a table for Sedan with its city defences). He says little about these exhibition boards in this publication, but he does describe a much quicker way of creating quite respectable “test” boards. There may be some answers here for the creation of my tabletops, though these will never be in Bruce’s league. He uses a cloth pinned over polystyrene formers, with tape roads and acetate rivers pinned on top.

What of the rules themselves? They are what I describe as Corps-level rules. A single player will struggle to control more than one large army corps, though multi corps games feature in the scenarios, these will work best with more than one player per side. The ground scale is 1 inch to 100m (or 4m per mm). The basic playing piece is a stand with 30mm frontage which is nominally a battalion, organised in regiments of three. In common with earlier rules the 1871 rules give a “half-scale” and “quarter scale” variants. Both use the same distance scale, but the main units are battalions of two or four bases respectively. More interesting perhaps is the “two-thirds” variant, in which the main unit is a brigade of four bases, losing the correspondence of playing pieces with individual battalions. This is to allow bigger battles, like Sedan. There are a couple of interesting issues raised by this. First is whether the number of playing pieces should be based on army organisation (i.e. battalions), or on the numbers of men. Bruce has gone heavily for the former, as has David Ensteness his Napoleonic system Et sans Résultat. The argument is that the organisation structure drove the way battles were fought, and were written about. I’m not persuaded, and I would prefer to see the number of bases based on the number of men, setting the ratio to approximate to a battalion. Still, Bruce has made his system work, albeit he allows for a difference in average battalion size between the French and Prussian armies. How this works amongst the depleted formations of the later battles in 1871 I would be interested to know. A second issue is how well a rules system translates between different levels – how well does 1871 work at army and division levels? I suspect this is harder the more streamlined you make the rules, because different aspects are important at different levels. My view (following the world’s leading games designer, Sam Mustafa) is that different levels need different designs.

A further point about 1871 is its simultaneous move structure. When I started wargaming in the 1970s this was very fashionable. But since then (as indeed before then too), games have usually been based on alternate moves. I don’t want to develop the arguments here: but Bruce’s simultaneous system helps give the rules a simulation flavour, which is a nice contrast to the fashion the very “gamey” fashion of modern rules, such as Sam Mustafa’s. But it comes at a cost. It does require a certain standard of gentlemanliness  between the players (which, to be fair, I haven’t found lacking in my games) – and quite a lot of if-you-do-that-I-will-do this discussion. In fact quite a lot depends on who gets their move in first on the table. While playing I it did yearn for a bit more structure. But that’s just a quibble. I haven’t played them, but these new rules look a real advance on the previous versions, and they are better written too (the earlier ones left us with quite few “what does he mean?” puzzles and gaps), though the proof of that pudding is in the eating.

Could 1871 be used for Napoleonic battles? I’m tempted to try, especially when and if Bruce publishes his adaptation of the 1859 system to the new approach – the Sardinian army is pretty close to the Napoleonic smoothbore standard. Still, reading the book (which has welcome levels of explanation and historical illustration, I am very struck by how different the Franco-Prussian War is from was Napoleonic predecessor. At the moment I think David Ensteness’s system is the best for Napoleonic corps level games (to be clear, they are meant for army games, but with one player per corps). The 1871 system offers the potential for something more streamlined.

It is worth contrasting these rules with the other I have been studying for this period, if only for lessons in game design, which is BBB. BBB is an uncompromising Army-level game, though it is based on the Fire and Fury system for ACW, which is a corps-level game. By comparison, this feels much more gamey, with a less precise correspondence to historical reality. In particular the move distances look a bit low if the average turn is supposed to represent one hour. I have used the system in a full scale game only once, for Waterloo, and it was impossible for the Prussian advance on Plancenoit to be accomplished in the historical time. But its advocates use it to refight historical battles, and claim that it works well enough in general; I can’t dispute that.

If I ever do start wargaming this period (I fancy building an Austrian army), I will look no further than the 1871 system for gaming, with BBB as a backup.



Can WWI be a wargame?

Newfoundland Park, Beaumont-Hamel, Somme valley, France

On 1st July 1916, the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the second wave of assault, crossed from the second line of trenches, in the foreground of the picture,  to the first line, which you can see in the middle distance, over the top because the communication trenches were clogged with wounded from the first wave attack. They did so under fire from the German positions, in front of the main line of trees, and suffered heavy casualties. They then went over the the top again to attack the German positions. They only got as far the small group of trees you can see between the positions. They suffered 85% casualties from their 780 men, including all the officers: the highest ratio of a dreadful day.

Last week I went with my wife and a friend on a battlefield tour of the Western Front to WW1, conducted by Tim Wright (his company is Lost Generation – and I can heartily recommend, including the bed and breakfast managed by Tim’s wife Gill). The scale of the loss of life is completely breathtaking, and made so visible in the graveyards and memorials. Moving as that was, I am also a wargamer with an interest in military history. The experience made me reflect on the nature of the war, and how it compares with what came before and after. And always the question: how do you wargame it? And as this is  wargaming blog, it is these reflections that I am going to concentrate on in this post.

WW1 (1914-1918) forms one of the two main links between the two periods that I have been studying in particular: the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) and WW2 (1939-1945). The other link are the wars fought in Europe and America in the 1860s or thereabouts – which I am also taking a growing interest in. What struck me on this tour was the similarity between WW1 and the Napoleonic era in one special respect: the compactness of the battlefields. The British Somme theatre was a matter of a dozen kilometres; this compares with the larger Napoleonic battlefields, and the density of men to frontage occupied wasn’t much less. The gap between the two sides at the art of the battle was if anything even closer than in Napoleon’s time, as the picture shows. WW1 battlefields were deeper though – as artillery ranges were so much longer, and the artillery lines were a few kilometres back from the front. This is in contrast to WW2, where the densities were quite low, and a large part of the task of field commanders was finding out where the enemy was. Reconnaissance forces played a critical role, and patrolling became an important task for most troops, instead of being reserved for specialist forces like light cavalry. In WW1 troops had to stay under cover for as much time as possible, or suffer devastating casualties from artillery – but you would hardly describe the battlefields as “empty” in the way of WW2 ones.

A second observation from the tour was how terrain dominated the fighting. The ground around the Somme could not truly be described as hilly, but it definitely rolls. In England the closest comparison is probably Salisbury Plain (where my father lives, and which I have just returned from) – which is where the British forces trained. There is quite significant relief, fairly frequent villages and farms and lots of woods; the field boundaries are minimal (unlike the Wiltshire countryside off the Plain); there are hollow roads and ravines that can provide important cover. One point of interest is how well the Germans selected their ground; that takes a good eye, since the differences between the strong and not so strong positions are often quite subtle. As they were retreating from the Marne, they did have the luxury of choosing the ground – but our guide Tim wonders whether they had developed ideas on this before the campaign was even opened – a Plan B. Moving north from the Albert region, the northern Somme valley, where the British fought, to Arras and Ypres, the main other regions of the fighting for the Commonwealth troops, the ground flattens out considerably – it becomes more like East Anglia or Lincolnshire in British terms. But there is still relief, and the same principles apply. The hardest fighting was over positions which offered better visibility, such as Vimy Ridge near Arras, and Passchendaele near Ypres. This is something WW1 shares with earlier and later periods. There is an obvious reason for this in WW1 and WW2 – the provision of positions for observe and direct artillery fire. But it is more than that. It matters for shorter range weapons too, like machine guns – or smoothbore artillery come to that. And there is the psychological effect of being able to  seem more or less; this was very apparent from our walking of the fields. We might add that soldiers before the era of motorised transport (and often after) tended to be heavily-laden. Walking up slopes takes its physical toll (a fact mentioned by the French at Bussaco, for example – the slope was steep but distance quite short). Wargamers struggle to do the effects of relief justice, though. It is often very hard to represent accurately on a tabletop, never mind reflecting it in the rules. The ground around Ypres shows that even subtle slopes can matter a lot.

My third big observation from our tour is the issue of command and control. WW1 is an important moment of transition. Before then men and junior officers were supposed to follow orders to the letter regardless of how stupid they looked. Relatively few men were allowed, and mentally equipped, to take big command decisions. In the 18th Century, when armies coordinated through forming great battle lines, this mattered little. In the Napoleonic era there became a  pressing need to articulate armies with corps and divisional levels of command, and also to develop greater tactical initiative in light troops. But by the start of WW1 things seem to have moved on little. At the Somme this took the form of detailed plans of attack, which were supposed to be followed regardless of local glitches (like not having knocked out the enemy machine gun posts). The men were not briefed at all; which was a problem given the rate at which officers became casualties. The Somme showed how disastrous this approach was, and new methods were developed – and not just by the British; the Germans had their own problems, even though their thinking was already ahead. Clearly there were similar issues in the French army too, from some of the fictional dramas I have seen – though I know a lot less about them. It became crucial that battalion, company and even platoon commanders could take decisions based on what the enemy actually was and what he was doing.

And so what does all this all mean for wargaming? The main lesson that I took away was not even to try. WW2 is hard enough, but at least you can create interesting skirmish games which are not so unrepresentative of the fighting, since the troops were so dispersed. But it is very hard to see how you get a decent game out WW1 battles – at least on the Western Front in 1915-1917. The openness of warfare on other fronts and at the beginning or the end of the war may offer fewer problems, and offer a clearer idea of what the point of a game is. One of the issues with the type of fighting in these mid-war battles is working out who won; people still argue over it. So much of it was about the relative expenditure of resources. That is not a promising basis for a game.

I have already taken on too much with WW2; I will not be tempted into WW1, even though the era has its own very special fascination.

Barossa and Bussaco: unsatisfactory histories

Back to the Napoleonic Wars. I have been doing a little steady reading of accounts of the Peninsular War. English-language histories of battles between the British and French are very stereotyped – one of my ambitions is to develop an alternative narrative of the infantry tactics in particular. My hope is that my reading will shed some light on. This time there was less light than I hoped.

The first book was The Battle of Barossa 1811 by John Grehan and Martin Mace, published in 2012 by Pen & Sword. This battle near Cadiz was dramatic and historically important – though often overlooked by historians, because it was away from Wellington’s main army. Though the book centres on the battle, it takes on the whole siege of Cadiz – which is interesting enough. But the book is a big disappointment. Though quite well written it is little more than a rehash of British accounts of the affair, with no attempt to extend the usual sources; all the (limited) primary sources are British, as were the overwhelming majority of secondary sources. If recent Napoleonic history teaches us anything, it is that new insights are likely to come from overlooked foreign sources. Since this particular campaign is neglected, that would be particularly the case. So far as the main historical narrative is concerned, the main feature is the tense relations between the British and the Spanish, and between various Spanish factions. This very nearly led to disaster in the battle itself, where the British contingent ran into a superior force of French, with the Spanish failing to come to their aid – they nevertheless secured a remarkable victory. Alas this book throws no new light on proceedings, and contents itself with condemning the Spanish inconstancy. 200 years on we really should do better than that. And as for the battle itself, the narrative is the familiar one. There are no new insights, and no attempt to pull the usual accounts apart and put them back together again. Tactically it is an interesting battle, but I’m going to have to do that pulling apart myself if I want to get to the bottom of what happened and why.

My reading on Bussaco, the main battle during Masséna’s invasion of Portugal in 1810 is a bit different. This is an important battle, and much has been written about it. It is usually characterised as a standard French column versus British line encounter – but I wanted to understand how much that was based on actual evidence, and how much people were filling in the blanks with how they think it must have happened. It started when I picked up a translation of Colonel Pelet’s account of the campaign. Pelet was a senior aide to Masséna. I was drawn to this book because it contained a very interesting account of Ney’s attack, describing an intense skirmish duel between the French troops and the Light Division. This account is widely quoted in forums and such. It is an interesting and colourful account of the campaign from the French perspective. It was translated by the American academic Donald Horward. This drew me to Horward’s account of the battle: The Battle of Bussaco, published in 1965; I managed to find a second-hand copy, formerly belonging to the late Paddy Griffiths.

Horward’s book is quite slim but interesting. This is proper history, unlike so much of the amateur stuff published these days (including that book on Barossa). The sources have been properly compared, and the disagreements and controversies tackled head-on. It is quite interesting because it is written mainly from the French perspective; and in fact there seem to be a lot of French sources. His account of the battle itself has a very different feel to the normal ones based mainly on British sources. I only wish that more history of this quality was written today. For comparison I read the relevant chapter of David Buttery’s 2007 work Wellington against Massena, which I had bought but not read, and René Chartrand’s Campaign Osprey, which I had read before.

Chartrand and Buttery do not see the need to pick apart the standard British account, nor refer to controversies – but prefer to dramatise things a bit. For the former, that rather goes with the Osprey format, which allows little space for analysis. Buttery can’t resist filling in the blanks a bit – though Horward does that a bit too. Horward always describes the British artillery as raking the French with “grape and canister”; in the same cases Buttery says they fired shot. (This was also the first battle in which shrapnel was used, though Wellington was unimpressed). In one passage Buttery describes the British using rapid fire tactics – even though this was against British doctrine at the time. And I’m afraid that reveals a major limitation in all three works. They aren’t actually interested in the French and British tactics, and so they don’t press the evidence very hard.

My working hypothesis on Bussaco was that French tried to use heavy skirmish tactics to beat the enemy, but were thwarted by the superior skirmishing ability of the Light Division. The evidence doesn’t really hold up for this. There was indeed a lot of heavy skirmishing (in contrast to Vimiero and Talavera), but the most important encounters were between denser bodies of men. And the French suffered a clear disadvantage from exposed flanks, even though they had superior numbers. This fits the column and line thesis – but that doesn’t quite work either. The terrain was very broken, by steep slopes, crags and gorse. It was very difficult for either side to hold formation. Descriptions come through as disorderly melees. The tiredness of the French advancing up steep slopes with packs may have been a factor, as well the momentum of the fierce Anglo-Portuguese counterattacks. And the Allies did not have it all their own way. Foy was able brush aside the Portuguese 8th and 9th Regiments (probably only one battalion of the 9th); Buttery and Chartrand dismiss this as being down to overwhelming strength but that looks far too glib in view of how the French struggled to use numerical superiority elsewhere (Foy outnumbered the Portuguese by about 2:1).

Foy’s attack, effectively the third and last wave of Reynier’s corps was actually remarkably successful, capturing the plateau at the top of the ridge. It looks to me that at this point Reynier had Picton beaten. It required well-time reinforcements from neighbouring divisions (especially Leith) to restore the situation. If the French had reinforcements at the ready, perhaps the outcome would have been different. But Junot’s corps was in completely the wrong place. And that leads me to an observation relevant to the grand tactical level, and more relevant to my rules project. The Anglo-Portuguese were able to beat off the French easily enough, but at the cost of considerable disorganisation. If there were French reserves ready to exploit this disorganisation, then they had an opportunity. That’s how Foy’s brigade captured the summit at Bussaco – though by then the French were themselves disorganised.

I have less to say on Ney’s attack. It strikes me that the terrain here was much more complex, and that I need to look at it again to get any new insights.

1943: my first German infantry platoon

After a productive summer, holidays and the rest of life intruded, and my build-up of forces for 1943 halted. Apart from buying a few more things to make up later; I now have a mountain of plastic, resin and metal. My next project was a German infantry platoon.

This unit needs to be reasonably generic for Sicily and Italy and perhaps Tunisia, and mainly to serve as panzer grenadiers. The first question was which figures to use? I am in love with at AB range, but their Germans are really meant for further north, in standard  uniform. I don’t have many pictures of German infantry in Italy for the period though. I did look at alternative figures from SHQ, and didn’t like them as much as the ABs. I decided that a paint job on the AB figures would do. At a distance the tropical and summer uniforms mainly used by these troops resemble the standard uniform. There should be troops in shirtsleeves, and more caps, perhaps, but less so in Salerno theatre which is the centre of my planning.

My platoon consists of three sections of eight men including an MG34 (or MG42) team, and an HQ section of 5 plus a radio operator, and two teams of tripod machine guns and 81mm mortars for support. No panzerfaust or panzerschrek , as these belong later in the war – though I need to have these as a gaming option later. I had already painted up the mortar teams in the early pathfinder stage of my project. The support weapons, of course, should cover a whole company – but I want to have tabletop options. My thinking is to do a second platoon of paratroops later – as these played a prominent role in the campaigns I am representing.  But not until I have made some big inroads into my plastic mountain.

And so how to do the colour scheme? I’m not used to painting WW2 anything, still less German infantry. And I’m making life harder still by mixing my own colours from artists’ pigments. I can’t use the paint-by-numbers guides published by various sources based on commercially sold micro-shades. Add to that the lack of photos as reference sources and the project is quite intimidating. This undoubtedly affected the end result, which no doubt can be pulled apart by an expert. The Germans of this era had long since dropped the early war smart uniformity. They cobbled together their “uniforms” from multiple sources, and personalised where they could. This says something quite important about German military culture, a hugely successful one it must be said, which went against the alternative military idea that compromise on smart uniforms would lead to breakdown of discipline. I am reminded of a quote about Wellington about not caring about the state of his troops’ uniforms as long they kept their weapons clean. There seem to be three main sources for infantry uniforms  in this theatre. The most important was the olive tropical uniform (used in north Africa); there was also the standard field grey uniform (a greyish green at the start of the war, becoming muddier as the war progressed); and then there was the reed green summer uniform (a dark greenish grey). The olive and reed green uniforms were cotton, which does not hold dyes well (think jeans), and the uniforms were subject to a lot of sun-bleaching too. So these rapidly faded to something much lighter, almost chino-like in many cases – something modern artists seem reluctant to represent. In addition there was some camouflage cloth in use for helmet covers and smocks. The helmets were often repainted locally, and often seem to be quite light – I suspect the standard equipment dunkelgelb was used, alongside olive and grey. All this is quite confusing, and I have no clear mental picture of what I am aiming at.

I decided on a three colour palette plus white, with silver for some of the metal. The colours were yellow ochre (actually Liquitex yellow oxide), Venetian red and Prussian blue. In my pathfinder batch (the mortars and some anti-tank gun crews in smocks) I used yellow ochre, but experimented with purple, black, green and a dark orange. What I discovered was that using bright organic pigments (the purple and the orange) was quite hard when aiming for the dull colours of WW2 military uniforms and equipment. Best to start with something duller. The Venetian red is an old Windsor and Newton pigment, in a tube with a deteriorating cap (not like my preferred Liquitex, whose tubes last forever) – but I have found it a very useful pigment; burnt sienna would probably be just as good, as no strong red pigments are needed (except for the mortar bombs, which I had already done). I used artists’ colours throughout, rather than trying cheaper student colours, as I did (successfully) for the tanks, on account of the amount of fine work. I mixed quite a decent quantity of a base coat, not dissimilar to dunkelgelb which the all the miniatures got (after priming in white). This was mainly yellow ochre and white, but with red and blue added to dull down. Other colours were reached either by taking some of this mix and tweaking it, or mixing from scratch. This is a fairly decent modus operandi  – though it is much easier to mix greys and blacks if you have two complementary colours in the palette – such as blue and orange/brown, or green and red. Purple is a complement to yellow, but my dioxazine purple is very bright and quite hard to use – though it does produce a beautiful dark yellow when mixed with yellow ochre, I just can’t get a properly neutral grey/black. Hence I had to use my red and blue in combination to neutralise it, which can be tricky to balance. I could have brought a brown like raw umber into the palette, which complements the Prussian blue well, but I wanted to see how easy it was to keep the colour palette down to just three. My thinking is that the fewer pigments I play with, the easier it will be to reproduce in later batches (one reason which I am recording so much in this blog!).

After the base coat, the jackets, trousers and helmets were painted in different variations of grey-green, olive and dark yellow – all mixed in with liberal amounts of white. The straps were painted light brown, rather than the black used further north, but ammunition pouches and other bits were dark grey. Other bits of equipment were loosely based on  Osprey illustrations, but not with a great deal of confidence. I mixed a bit of silver into grey for the metal bits. I painted camouflage covers for some of the helmets, as I had for my anti-tank gun crews; I used the Italian three-colour scheme (olive green, chestnut and dark yellow). Large amounts of Italian camouflage cloth was appropriated by the Germans, though it probably didn’t come into large scale use until later in the war – it is relatively easy to replicate. I will attempt the rather more complex German patterns for my paratroops. I added a small length of fine fuse wire for the aerial on the radio set in the HQ section (I don’t think infantry platoons usually had radios – but these are meant to be panzer grenadiers, where that was surely more likely).

After the painting, a light dry-brush with a dusty colour. I used the white and raw umber mix I used for the bases for this (in student paint), with a little extra white and the dark yellow base colour. I am getting a bit less heavy-handed with this – but the boots certainly need it, and I think it softens the colour blocks. After that Quickshade soft tone. All this took two weeks elapsed time – though if I had been less interrupted I could have got it done in a week. My Stay-Wet palette worked really well this time, after being not all that satisfactory in the summer. This kept the larger quantities of mixed paint fresh. It’s a bit cooler now – plus also I was careful to make sure that the original water reservoir was well-loaded.

After the Quickshade had hardened I flocked the bases. The bases were mainly “steel” washers (sold as such, but they turned out not to be magnetic) and mount board cut in rectangles for the multiple figure bases (the machine guns). These were covered in a mix of sand, paint (raw umber and white), and impasto gel, applied at the same time the figures were glued on.  The flock is from Woodland Scenics – a mix of Earth blended turf and yellow grass fine turf, plus some longer grass on some of the bases, though this is coming out rather matted. I find these materials bond to the bases rather well – the matt varnish seal sprayed on at the end is all that’s needed to seal it. Other products leave a trail of specks when handled, unless you seal them in properly with a soaking of water and PVA glue.

And here we are. The first group are from AB’s prone infantry, though I left one of them out by accident. Next comes the HQ section from various AB sets, alongside one of my Pz IIIs.Next are a section based on the AB advancing skirmishing set:Now the advancing cautiously set:The tripos machine guns:And finally the mortars, painted earlier:

No terribly good pictures I’m afraid – I have more to learn about taking pictures of miniatures; this was my second attempt. It is interesting to note the effect of sunlight on the colours – it was all natural light though.

Verdict? They’ll do fine, but I don’t think I’ve quite hit the spot. The brushwork isn’t that brilliant – but then I didn’t want to take ages over them; I don’t think that’s the worry. They just don’t look very German! I may have overdone the very bleached clothing too. The trouble is that I don’t really have enough idea about what I’m aiming at.

1943: my old German tank models get a facelift

In my post before last I said that the next step this project would be to take my old German tanks and bring them up to standard. This I have now done:

I followed a similar process to my Pz III platoon. First, though, the models needed a little preparation. This included fitting aerials. I used plastic bristles from a broom, but to scale 2m (28mm). These were fitted in a blob of superglue. This works very well – they are robust and have survived quite a bit of accidental battering. I also fitted some stowage from the PSC set. Not as much per tank as the Pz IIIs, and especially not for the Tigers. German tanks of this era don’t seem especially laden – not as much as in the Blitzkrieg era, or Allied tanks. The pictures of Tigers show them as quite clean, except for track bits added to the turrets, which I did for one of the tanks.

I primed the bare plastic additions, and also the polythene tracks, which all these models had, using the white metal primer. I still had some of the adhesion problems on the new plastic that I reported for the Pz IIIs. The primer was slightly diluted, but not as much as before, so that problem remains to be solved. If it isn’t dilution of the primer with water, and not the plastic requiring a wash first, I will change primer – artists gesso looks as if it works well.

And then to the base coat of dunkelgelb. I wasn’t able to reuse the paint I mixed last time – it was too far gone, so I had to mix afresh. I wasn’t able to get an exact match – and that is one of the main issues with my use of artists colours, and why I expect that most hobbyists will find this approach unpersuasive. Still, the mix was arrived at much more quickly (yellow ochre and white, with Prussian blue and terracotta brown added – all from “student” quality paints). The result was slightly greener and slightly whiter than the Pz IIIs, event after the application of the brown Quickshade. Actually I think I prefer it – the Pz IIIs look slight too red. The base coat went on in one sitting, but in several layers. The first was quite liquid, the others much dryer. I lightened the mix a bit as I put more on. It’s hard to say whether the layering had any effect, byond smoothing and imporving the coverage. I don’t think the models looked as flat as my old single coat of Humbrol enamels did, but the layering is not visible to my eye. Incidentally the paint dries very thin, so the layering did not obscure the detail. One of the tanks was victim of several layers of Humbrol, though, and the detail was noticeably less sharp on this one. The quick succession of the various layers may have had the effect of taking off excessive accumulations on the detail rather than accumulating it. Anyway, this looks like a good technique. The first coat takes a bit of time to apply; the others are very quick.

After that came the detailing, including the tracks, wheel tyres and stowage. With no crew to paint this was simpler. Then there was a dry brush of dust colour (the dunkelgelb with white), which was not as heavy handed as last time, though there were still some excess blobs.  And so to the Quickshade.

The decals came next. I was more sparing, since these are going to be second-string miniatures. Only two turret numbers. The Pz IVs had no Balkenkreuse on the left (because of stowage) and the Pz IIIs none on the rear. Even so I’m down to my last two of the small (3mm) ones, which will give me issues. I sealed with polyurethane again – but only after the decals had had nearly 24 hours to dry out – they seemed much more robust. Like the Pz IIIs the flash is still visible from some angles though. With the Pz IVs this is made worse because they had to be applied over a slight bump on the turret, which they couldn’t quite do as tightly as I would wish for. I am wondering whether I should revert to a technique I used on my model aircraft 40 years ago – which is to float the decals off the backing paper as normal, wipe off the glue backing them, dry them and then place them using varnish. These modern decals may be too fragile – but this technique worked a treat back in the day. I will have to experiment. Finally I finished with a spray of matt varnish.

Lets look at them in a bit more detail. First the three Pz IVGs:

The lighting conditions were a bit challenging, so these pictures aren’t very good I’m afraid. These are Airfix 1/76 kits. I was very excited when these first came out. Until then the only German tanks readily available were the Tiger, Panther and StuG III. These set up very unequal battles with the Airfix Shermans. And this model was of a higher standard too. One of these models (213, closest to the picture) was my first, which I painted green at first (we knew no better). I then repainted in the fictitious desert orange that Humbrol  produced. The layers of paint did the model no favours. The other two models came in later, when I was more serious about wargaming, and had more money. I painted them in the Humbrol dunkelgelb, with (different) camouflage patterns. The models were a bit tricky to assemble, and there are gaps, and some of the wheels are a bit wonky (and one of the top rollers missing). Also my handling of the polythene tracks was very inexpert. This time I did not think it was worth the time to attempt to correct these errors, I painted as was, with a bit of extra stowage. I numbered them as a complete platoon, and these will be useful on the tabletop, until I can produce some smarter 1/72 Pz IVs (which will be Hs with shurzen on the turret).

The aerials, incidentally, are almost certainly in the wrong place for 1943. Like the Pz III, the Pz IV was originally fitted with a solid, tapered  “stern” aerial beside the turret, which folded down when the gun got in the way into a wooden tray on the side of the hull. But this tray is not modelled on the Airfix kits, so I fitted whip aerials at the back, according to later pictures of Pz IVs that I have seen. This creates less hassle with rotating turrets.

Next the Pz IIIs: The foreground model is a Matchbox kit at 1/76. This was one of my more recent acquisitions, when at last we had a wider variety of models available. It is a nice clean model, which had fewer of the assembly issues than the other ones. Its only problem (apart from being unable to open the hatch) is that the 1/76 scale makes it look a bit small compared to the 1/72 tanks. For this model I replaced the barrel with the flammpanzer one from the PSC kit, as well as smoke dischargers. This gives me an extra tabletop option – though I can’t deploy a complete platoon, as the Germans did apparently at Salerno, though they proved vulnerable to the Shermans. I did not fit an aerial for this one, for the same reason as the PSC kits. The model clearly shows the stern antenna stowed in its box along the track guard.

The backgound model is a conversion I did from the Airfix StuG III. This lacks the detailing of the proper models, but helps make up the numbers. I replaced the gun and rather crude mantlet with the short 75mm from the PSC kit (slightly overscale, but looks OK), along with the smoke dischargers (I couldn’t fit them to the PSC models because of the turret schurzen). The model is a bit wonky, but it gives a bit of support to the Tigers, with which this sort of tank operated. I fitted an antenna to this one, where the folding stern antenna would have been – though the bristle is a bit too thin at the base. Given the weak detailing on the model I though it would help lift it a bit.

And so to the Tigers:Tigers played a significant role in Tunisia, a minor one in Sicily and were not present at Salerno (though the British kept reporting them there!). I don’t plan for them to be an important part of my games, but I have them, and they will be a handy option. The tank at the front is the oldest German model in my collection – an old 1/76 Airfix kit. This was originally painted dark grey. But when I bought the second kit, I thought it needed a facelift – so I added mudguards to cover the tracks at the front, and a stowage bin at the back of the turret, and then painted it in dunkelgelb. It did the job. There was a bit of an issue with the polythene tracks. In photos these looked heavy and lay on top of the track wheels – something this flexible track wouldn’t do – and it wouldn’t respond to being glued down either. This time I managed to partially glue it down with superglue – though it required to be held down for an hour or more while the glue hardened. The aerial was fitted in the only place that photos show single aerials on Tigers (second or third aerials might appear on the turret or engine deck). It probably should be a stern aerial – but what the hell!

The other model is much more modern, it was from Hasegawa and in 1/72. It’s a much nicer model though I made a bit of a mess with the running wheels, and the polythene track is pretty crude. The track needed the same treatment as the Airfix one, and I also stuck the aerial in the same place. In spite of being different scales the two models can work together for now. the size differential seems to matter less than for the smaller tanks.

These models aren’t to a particularly high standard, but the facelift has improved them a lot, and given the models some unity. Back in the day I tended to make models as individuals. But this exercise shows that I am right to concentrate on more basic wargamer models nowadays, like the PSC ones. The moulded tracks look much better than the flexible ones. The running wheels may be less detailed (you don’t get the double wheels) but they are much less work and don’t end up looking wobbly.

I now have strength and depth in German tanks. While my Sherman project still needs to deal with some complexities (getting crew; making decals; more stowage), I will move on to the infantry. I have ordered a platoon each of Germans and British from AB, and they are now ready to paint!

1943: the Royal Scots Greys’ Sherman tanks

Part of the enduring appeal of this hobby is the occasional detective work. Scrabbling for clues, and trying to make sense of what little you have – and in the process debunking generally accepted wisdom. This may be about what happened in a historical battle. Or it may about the appearance of a unit you want to add to your collection. My idea to model a troop of Shermans from the Royal Scots Greys as they appeared at Salerno in September 1943 is one such quest. I have followed it a bit obsessively for the last couple of weeks just for sheer hell of it. And that is the tale I will tell today.

A bit of background. The RSGs had fought with the 8th Army in North Africa right up to Tunisia, using Grants and Honeys. While the fight moved on to Sicily they were rested and re-kitted with Sherman III tanks (i.e. the diesel M4A2, and not Sherman IIs, with the cast hulls, or the later M4A3s as sometimes reported). They were then assigned to the British X Corps to take part in the Salerno landings. They were heavily engaged supporting the 56th (London) Infantry Division – with a great deal of distinction. They are about the only British tank unit to get a mention in accounts of the battle, even though it fought alongside 40th RTR in X Corps, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division also landed. It is not wholly clear whether the regiment formed part of the 23rd Armoured Brigade at this point (as the 40th RTR was).

My main source is photos. I have found these online and in a couple of books I have on the battle – the Osprey title and an old book from 1971 from the Pan/Ballantine history of WW2 (a series that I think was earlier called the Purnell’s history, which I dug up out of the attic).

And now to my first picture, from Wikipedia:

This shows the tank “Sheik” advancing towards Naples after the battle in late September (not far from Pompeii by the look of Vesuvius). It is in a very curious colour scheme, and this has drawn a lot of attention. Lots of modellers have been unable to resist representing it, and there is even a die-cast model of the tank on sale. It has a two colour camouflage base pattern, with pale and medium tone components. This is usually interpreted as Light Mud for the pale tone (one of the standard Mediterranean theatre British camouflage colours of the time – a greyish sand colour) and olive drab for the medium, the colour that the tank would have been painted when shipped over from the US under Lend-Lease. There is a darker tone used to give the dapple on the pale tone – probably the Blue Black that was also part of the standard British set. Other points to note are that there is are two aerial pennants, and the red-white-red British identification flash on the side.

The next picture is from the Osprey and Pan/Ballantine books:It shows a tank of the RSGs during the battle (near Battapaglia according to the Pan/Ballantine). Points of interest: there is a two-tone camouflage, but with light-dark tone, not light-medium. This is surely Light Mud and Blue Black, in accordance with standard British practice of the time. There is a tactical mark on the turret – a circle with the number 8. The Osprey says the circle denotes B Squadron; I think C squadron was more likely (B is usually a square). The number is the tank number. The red-white-red flash is visible and there are two or three pennants on the aerial.

The next picture is from just the Osprey I have now found the original from the IWM collection, and substitute here:

THE ALLIED LANDINGS IN ITALY, SEPTEMBER 1943: REGGIO, TARANTO AND SALERNO (NA 6646) Salerno, 9 September 1943 (Operation Avalanche): A Sherman tank and infantry on the road to Battipaglia. Smoke from a burning ammunition ship can be seen in the background. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

This looks as if it was taken at a very similar time. There are railway tracks in both pictures, and smoke. The barrage balloon indicates that it is quite near the beach. The scan above isn’t that clear – but the camouflage pattern looks the same, and the aerial pennants may be too. But it isn’t the same tank – this one has an AA machine gun on the turret. Of particular note on this picture is the unit ID signs on the left mudguard (i.e. left when facing forward – nautical “port”). The censor has scrubbed them out, but we can see that there are two, and they are both on the left – unlike the normal situation of the Arm of Service marker on one side and formation badge on the other. More on that later. There is a red-white-red flash in the front-centre. Incidentally this tank shows a single-piece nose for the Sherman – instead of the more usual three-piece one for this stage of the war – it is presumably quite a new tank.

The next picture is a poor one taken from the battle and only in the Pan/Ballantine:It is just about possible to see that the camouflage pattern is the same as the previous two pictures (and different from Shah). The regiment’s tanks were clearly painted in a standard pattern. Also note the single aerial pennant, and no AA machine gun. And the rear part of the track guard is still there.

The next picture is from Wikipedia and shows one of RSG’s tanks in the follow up towards Naples, and near contemporary with the Shah picture: Not much to add here except to note that the standard camouflage pattern turns up again. The rear of the track guard is missing -as with Shah and the other later picture, suggesting they were deliberately removed soon after the Salerno battle.

The final picture comes from October as the unit was advancing with 23 Armoured brigade; it comes from the Imperial War Museum:

THE BRITISH ARMY IN ITALY 1943 (NA 8276) A Sherman tank of ‘B’ Squadron, Royal Scots Greys fording the Teano river, 29 October 1943. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

There are a few points of interest here. Once again it has the same camouflage pattern (a shame though that I have no pictures of the right hand side!), though the contrast is much lower than earlier (and similar to the Shah picture). Either that’s the effect of a couple of months weathering, or the Blue Black has been overpainted – or perhaps it just indicates lower ambient light conditions. Note that the stowage turret box doesn’t have the camouflage pattern on it, and in picture two it doesn’t look as if it has been repainted at all – this may have been a late addition. The red-white-red flash is just visible. The tactical mark is a square (as would normally be appropriate for B squadron), but I can’t see a number in it (incidentally don’t confuse it with the outlined panel behind it on the turret).

And now to a secondary source. A Star Decals sheet (these are a valuable resource):

The first two are of interest. the first is an interpretation of Shah. It shows it with a triangular tactical mark, appropriate to A Squadron (on the back of the stowage bin too), but with no number. It is shown in red, as would be used for a senior regiment in a brigade. It also shows an interpretation of the unit ID on the left mudguard – a thistle on on white over black square  The text says that this sign was visible on tanks earlier in the campaign, but can’t be confirmed for this tank with its new camouflage scheme. It is clearly specific to the regiment – not the more usual brigade or division (the thistle standing for Scotland). The second picture is of a tank named Roosevelt – but not from any photograph I have seen. There is some doubt as to whether this is the RSG or 44 RTR (part of 4 Armoured brigade and not at Salerno). The name apparently doesn’t conform to the RSG naming system (Royal Navy ships) – but otherwise it looks very like the tank from picture 2 (though the number is 10). The portrayal of the camouflage pattern is different, but not by that much (mainly the turret) – perhaps just interpretation from an obstructed picture.

And so what are my conclusions? Shah looks like a one-off to me. Other regiments seem to have been using tanks without a camouflage pattern or with a low tonal contrast one (including the 40th RTR, according to the only picture I have). Perhaps the RSGs received one of these as a replacement and then improvised the camouflage scheme from there. I will use the Light Mud and Blue Black scheme, guessing the right side elements that I don’t have info on. The red-white-red flashes will also appear. Fortunately the Italeri kits I’m using have these in their decals. I will also do C squadron with red circle tactical marks and three consecutive numbers. I don’t have definite information on the numbering system, but a Flames of War graphic for New Zealand units suggests sequences starting with 3, 6, 9 and 12 for each of the main troops (and 15 for the HQ troop – 1 and 2 don’t appear to be used within the squadrons). I have four models, and I may do a further tank for the squadron leader, to act as a senior officer for larger games. Which tanks got the AA machine guns I don’t know – I speculate that it is the troop leader.

The next point is to have aerial pennants. These were subject to considerable variation – sometimes daily. I will give the troop leader two pennants and the others one. Perhaps they all get a red one, with yellow for the troop leader, as suggested by the Star Decals sheet. These will give the tanks a British look.

Another aspect of making the unit look British are the unit IDs. Here all I have to go on is the censor’s scratchings out on picture 2 and the Star Decals suggestion. The lower mark looks quite wide compared to its height. That would suggest a three digit number for an Arm of Service serial. That would be an Army level serial as often used for independent brigades (the numbers being 171-3 or 161-3 for armoured brigades). The formal organisational status of the RSGs at this point is a bit unclear – and this is emphasised by the use of a regimental formation sign rather than the more usual division or brigade. The formation sign is, presumably, the thistle badge, and located above the presumed unit serial. I am not sure what I am going to do here. I am tempted to leave these off (as I will the registration numbers and tank names) – but, then again, they do make the tank look British.

So most of the pieces of the jigsaw are in place. What is clear is that I will need to print my own decals on this, for the tactical signs and the unit ID, if I use them. A new challenge!

Update 27 August 2017

I continue to scratch the itch on this one. Some more Google searches have taken me to some new bits of data. First there is this online discussion from 2007 in which the RSG Shermans are discussed. Alas all the picture links are deceased, as it includes one or two pictures I haven’t got – including one which shows the unit thistle badge. There are a number of items of detail that I will ignore – I don’t need the model to be 100% accurate on the technical details. However it did draw me to this Pathé film. Amongst other things it includes the river crossing by the RSG tank in the last picture above. Here is a still from it. You can just about see the thistle badge on the front mudguard (take my word for it – though you do need the eye of faith). Also of interest is that the the front door of the commanders’ hatch has been removed – a common British practice apparently. The Italeri kit has the hatch moulded closed (the one point I don’t like about it). I was going to carve out the closed hatch anyway; I won’t have to make the front hatch door!

I have unearthed another couple of interesting pictures. This is from another unit at Salerno (the London Yeomanry, part of the 7th Armoured division): The camouflage scheme is similar but not the same. The dark colour may not be Blue Black though. The markings on the front mudguard are temporary identifiers – no doubt this is what those mysterious scratched out marks are on Picture 3 (apart from the thistle badge).

And then there is this picture of a tank from an unknown unit in Italy: Of interest is the right side camouflage pattern, broadly consistent with the RSG. The RSG pattern appears to be based on a standard recommended pattern issued by the army, though some of the darker stripes are a bit broader, and there is no stripe on the back of the turret. This pattern gives me something to work on for the missing bit. I have not been able to find the original diagram that was used though, amid all the verbiage on camouflage patterns. All I know is that the patterns aren’t the same as those used earlier in the desert.

And after I had written that I searched all the Imperial War Museum’s collection on Salerno and found this one:

THE BRITISH ARMY IN ITALY 1943 (NA 6725) A Sherman tank comes ashore at Salerno, September 1943. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

It’s the missing link. The thistle insignia is now clearly visible, above the temporary number. And there is also a clear picture of the front camouflage pattern – though I think there is a bit of variation with the other pictures. Two flags on the pennant. This tank has the three part nose, but is missing the rear track guard. Zooming in I can just make out a circular tactical mark, indicating C Squadron, but not the number in it.

1943: what next?

My hope was not to spend too long messing around building up the armies for my 1943 project, but to get a small club-ready game as soon as I could – and for that game to look something like the finished product on the table – without the fielding of half-finished elements. I want a bit of a wow factor – in contrast to most of the games I play at the club.

So the logical thing was to build a tank and infantry platoon for each side, plus some command and support elements, and then turn to the scenery, with some thought for player aids (markers for knocked out vehicles. etc). I did the support elements first: mortars, heavy machines guns (German ones still need to be painted) and anti-tank guns. I now have a German tank platoon. But after that I need a bit of a rethink.

The obvious next step is to work on a British tank platoon. My first idea was to paint up my old Airfix Shermans. I’m not happy with that, though. The old Airfix models won’t be up to standard next to my new Pz IIIs, both because of size (they are 1/76 rather than 1/72) and general quality. The final straw was realising that I would not be able to open the hatches and put crew figures in. I think this adds to the appearance – and mostly commanders would only want to pull the hatch down in extremis – visibility is so much better outside. I still want to paint these old tanks up, and to use them to bulk up for larger games, and to provide a few extra options on the table (the Tigers for the Germans, for example). But for my first British tank platoon I’m going to need some new models.

And it is pretty obvious what those models should be: Shermans. In 1943 they dominate British armour. It’s true that in Tunisia you also have an assortment of other tanks: Grants, Honeys, Valentines and Crusaders (as well as Churchills, which continued into Italy). But few, if any of these make it to Sicily, let alone Salerno. And the Sherman type that predominates at this stage is the Sherman III, the US M4A2. This came with a diesel engine and was mainly used for export (to Britain and Russia). The examples I am most drawn to belonged to the Royal Scots Greys at Salerno. There are a few pictures, and they were heavily engaged. These have the classic sand-skirts covering a the top part of the running gear (as did the desert tanks) – though not all British/Canadian Shermans had these in Sicily or Salerno. It turns out that the Airfix Shermans aren’t such a good match for these anyway – they don’t have the engine deck for the M4A2, and no track-guards at all. Apparently they aren’t a precise fit for any known version of the tank, but look not that bad for the earlier Sherman I. My first point of call is now Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) – their products seem to have just the right balance of production values and options for me. But they only have the cast-hull M4A1 (Sherman II in British service – used in North Africa, but I haven’t seen pictures of them in use by the British in Italy) or the M4A4 (Sherman V) which had a longer engine deck and more spaced out wheels – though both seem to come with the sandguards as options. Neither is going to work.

After doing a little research I thought I had the answer: the Armourfast M4A2. Armourfast (who now produce models formerly by HAT) produce cheap models with few parts and low cost (£7.50 for a pair – compare PSC £17.50 for thee) for wargamers – but which are crisply moulded and accurately proportioned. I bought a box (alongside another couple of items). It was a bit of a shock. There is one simple sprue per tank (PSC have 2 bigger sprues each), and no options, stowage items, crew, etc. I actually knew this would be the case from reviews, but it was quite stark when I opened the box. But I thought there would be sandguards (from either misreading a review, or a review based on an earlier version). And the mantlet is the later war version, though I think this might be convertible. While pondering this I discovered Italeri made a version of the Sherman that was exactly what I was looking for, so I immediately ordered a couple of boxes (4 vehicles) – but they haven’t arrived yet. I will do something with the Armourfasts, but I haven’t decided what yet.

So how about the infantry? But there’s a problem here too! I fell in love with the AB metal figures, and bought a batch of them for command and support elements. It is these that I have painted up for the mortars, machine guns, and a 6-pdr crew. They are lovely figures. But the more I looked a pictures from 1943, the more I realised they weren’t quite right. The soldiers wore a hybrid between the 1944 north Europe kit most popularly portrayed in miniatures (including these AB ones) and the 1941/42 desert kit, also widely available, including at AB. This is within fudge range for the Germans, and can be covered mostly with a paint job. They mainly wore helmets in Italy (caps dominate in Afrika Korps representations) – and from a distance you can’t tell whether they are wearing shirts or tunics; no doubt some Afrika Korps figures can be mixed in to give more of a tropical look – these are usually made wearing trousers rather than shorts. For the British it’s a bit harder. They mainly wore trousers rather than the shorts they wore in the desert – but the helmet is an earlier version than 1944. They too typically wore shirts rather than the battledress blouse, and they usually had sleeves rolled up. I was going to overlook all of this (so at least my infantry would look OK for later war scenarios in Italy and France), but I saw that SHQ (whom I’m using for harder to get model vehicles) had a Mediterranean series for both British and Germans that might be suitable. Representing human figures is a very personal thing, though, and I don’t know if I will like them. I ordered some examples to take a look. That was last weekend and they haven’t arrived yet (it’s August I guess).

So what I think I will do next is a large batch of upgrades to my existing 1/76 German tanks: 3 Pz IVGs, two Tigers and two Pz IIIs (which I will convert to a Flammpanzer and an N with short 75mm gun). Since the paint I so laboriously mixed up for the Pz IIIs is still on the go, this makes some sense. I also have more idea about how I want them to look than I do with the British. I’m not going to attempt the sames standards of finish as the mainstream elements, but I will take on some new challenges, such as representing the radio antennae. Here they are, with conversion work on the Pz IIIs under way: