Ian Mitchell: Long Stop Hill, Tunisia 1943

My 1943 project (focused on the British Mediterranean campaign of that year) starts with Tunisia, though most of my recent focus has been on Salerno in Italy. This recently published book by Ian Mitchell (who has served both in the Navy and Army) looked of interest; it’s correct title is The Battle of the Peaks and Long Stop Hill, but Long Stop is the easily the best known of the engagements covered, and was the main objective of the campaign. It is a well-written book, but a bit unsatisfactory from my perspective., though I learned much from it.

Long Stop Hill (as it was named by British troops) was a relatively low but rocky double hill which stood alongside the the principal route to Tunis from the west and blocked approaches to the country’s principal port from this direction. With the the Army’s approach from the south blocked by even tougher terrain it became a critical objective for Allied forces in order to end the war in Africa, so that operations against mainland Europe could start. The Germans had turned it into a formidable fortress. It was assigned to the First Army’s 78th “Battle-Axe” Division. This book is an account of the campaign to take it, including the capture of nearby (and higher) peaks that were considered to be critical preliminary objectives, because they could be used to observe and direct artillery fire on the attacking forces.

The book is very successful in achieving what it aims to do – which is to give an account of the British units that carried out this series of attacks. We learn a lot about the soldiers involved, especially the officers, and individual achievements are highlighted. This coverage extends to supporting units, such as engineers, medical services and so on. This is quite a popular style of book, and is aimed especially at people whose ancestors or relatives took part. You do get a feel for the experience, and people are named where possible. Amongst other things it draws attention to the achievements of the First Army, one of the War’s forgotten formations, whose achievements are often overlooked. I would only fault the book on one thing within this remit: it needs more maps. It especially needs a map of the whole campaign area, explaining how the various objectives fitted together. It has just one map of the wider campaign area, which shows the movements in late 1942 (and the first battle of Long Stop Hill); it could usefully have repeated this map to show the movements of April and May 1943 as well. Poor maps is one of the persistent features of modern military writing, and unfortunately this book suffers somewhat: there are maps of the individual battles, which aren’t brilliant but do help a lot. It is thankfully free of other features of modern military books, such as frequent typos and inconsistencies, which arise from poor editing. Publishers don’t provide this service any more, and doubtless authors feel under pressure to bring their projects to a conclusion and so skip the editing. Mr Mitchell doubtless did the editing himself, assisted by friends and family. A hard, grinding job which has fortunately been done to a high professional standard.

The first problem I had with this book is that the frequent digressions into the past histories of those involved slows the narrative pace down, and it isn’t a riveting read. It is rather easy to put down, and it took me a lot longer to finish reading than it should have. A more fundamental problem is that its treatment of the German side of the story is cursory, and its main source seems to be British intelligence documents. Mr Mitchell does try to give their side, but he was not prepared to to the considerable and messy research required to get a more complete picture, from records that would doubtless have been incomplete anyway – and it is tangential to the book’s main purpose. This does limit the book’s value in trying to get a full understanding of what happened and why. A second problem is that analysis of the tactical problems is a bit weak and incidental, as well being limited by its British perspective. A third problem is that Mr Mitchell gets too drawn into the perspective of the soldiers within 78th Division, at the expense of the wider picture. He complains that the troops were overworked, and attacks conducted with less than adequate preparation. Given that this operation was on the critical path of the entire Allied Mediterranean war effort, I don’t think that these complaints are surprising, and he makes no attempt to show that the end result would have been achieved more quickly if the troops hadn’t been pushed so aggressively. His complaints of troops being wasted in unnecessary operations is more understandable, I prefer a more detached stance at this distance in time, This is war, not a game of cricket (and there are too many cricket analogies, though this arises from the fact that a lot of the officers were cricketers).

The tactical problems were considerable. The ground was rough and unsuitable for most vehicles, off the very limited roads. It could provide cover to troops who stayed still, and very good cover if you could dig into the rock, through natural fissures or with the use of explosives. But you were very exposed and highly visible if you moved through it. And if the enemy possessed the commanding heights they could direct artillery and mortars onto exposed troops with devastating effect, never mind the usual problem with machine-guns. This forced many of the attacks to be conducted at night. These were generally successful on the less heavily defended objectives; the open nature of the terrain reduced the usual chances of troops getting lost and mixed up, no doubt. The German tactics against night operations seemed to been the use of programmed mortar , artillery and machine-gun fire – which caused casualties, but were not enough to stop determined troops. But night attacks failed against the more important targets, notably the mountain of Tanngoucha, the village of Heidous, and Long Stop itself. In daylight the British did have a secret weapon: the Churchill tank, which could operate in terrain other vehicles couldn’t, and wrong-footed the German defences. This proved decisive, but the supporting infantry was still highly exposed.

One question that occurs to me, but the book doesn’t deal with, was whether the divisional strategy was well conceived. This was to work through a succession of peaks leading up to Long Stop, on the basis that each overlooked the next target, and that holding them would give the Germans a decisive advantage. But the British were unable to capture Tanngoucha or Heidous, covering Long Stop’s flank before the launch of their first assault on Long Stop. The nearer of Long Stop’s peaks was captured with these supposedly critical features still in German hands. Their occupation was more important for the second peak, but did this work two ways? The British quickly captured Heidous and Tanngoucha after the first peak of Long Stop fell. Heidous was abandoned and the resistance at Tanngoucha seemed weakened; Long stop seemed critical to the holding of these objectives as much as the other way round. This question is simply not discussed. Provision of a map showing all the peaks might have helped understand this conundrum a bit better.

Another issue is that quite a few of the minor details that wargamers like to know are missing. What armament did the Churchills have? The 6pdr was standard, but it is known that some were armed with 3in howitzers, as the 6pdr HE shell was deficient (this included a few Mark Is with the howitzer in the bow and 2pdr in the turret). Other Churchills were fitted with 75mm guns taken from knocked-out Shermans, but I don’t know if the 25th Tank Brigade (the unit involved) had any of these at this time, though they certainly did later. One source on the web suggests that these did not come into service until the Churchills were deployed in Italy, in 1944. But in my old Tank Battles in Miniature 4, written by wargames legend Donald Featherstone, it says that the conversions were made in January 1943, and they were used in Africa. Since Don served in Churchills in Tunisia (though not in this campaign) you’d expect him to get that sort of detail right! Another issue is that the book (and contemporary accounts) make much mention of German 75mm antitank guns. Were these PAK 40s, or were they the lighter PAK 38-based French 75s, which were less capable? PAK 40s were in use at this stage of the war, and the Germans did send state-of-the-art equipment to Tunisia, but in one episode it describes Churchills coming under fire from the 75s and suffering hits, but without that much damage being done. That doesn’t sound like the PAK 40 (in another episode it describes Churchills being knocked out by the 75mm guns of Panzer IVs, similar to the PAK 40). One issue that the PAK 40 was much heavier than the PAK 38, and o would have ben much more difficult to manoeuvre in terrain unsuitable for vehicles. How good the British officers were at identifying 75s correctly is another matter too; they noxiously over-reported Tiger tanks and 88mm guns. These guns could even have been 50mm PAK 38s.

What are my learnings for wargames simulation? First and foremost it reinforces a point I already knew. Artillery is central to this type of warfare, as it was to most of the warfare engaged in by British forces in the war, with the possible exception of action in the western Desert. Wargames rules are too dismissive of it, and usually little creative energy is put into bringing it into the game realistically. I have read more than once the claim that in the sort of company-level game which is the focus of most rules there would not be on-call access to artillery beyond mortars, so this should be out of scope. What this book (and others) shows is that is nonsense (though perfectly true for air support, I think). A company at the critical point of an attack (and very often a single company operation was critical) did have access to artillery, in both attack and defence. If wargames are going to focus on these important battles, as well as clashes of patrols, then they need to bring the big guns in as a central element.

Beyond this, I gained some new respect for two rule mechanisms that I don’t especially like from a personal game-playing perspective. The first belongs to the Battlegroup rules, and is the central mechanism for measuring each side’s will to keep going. The mechanism is randomised and the other side doesn’t know how close your side is to collapse. This book shows that encounters really do end by one side or other giving up after their will to fight has suddenly collapsed, which is very well simulated by these rules. The other is the Two Fat Lardies emphasis on individual characters, such as the “great men” in I Ain’t Been Shot Mum. This book is full of individual acts which dramatically influenced the course of a battle – and this is often what people who take part in these battles remember. How much the heroic types were known at the start of the battle is another matter, but I suspect they might have been.

How about the grand tactical game of Rommel? In terms of the forces involved (a division plus supporting units on both sides) and geographical area, this campaign looks an ideal subject. The rules’ focus on command resources as a proxy for the importance of planning looks spot on. But these battles took place over days, while Rommel is mainly about a single day of action. Also the rules don’t deal with the importance of vantage points, absolutely central here – though as I wrote in my initial review, this can probably be fixed quite easily. And night time is for recovery in Rommel, not prime time for combat. Still there may be some way of factoring all this in over a two-week time horizon for a game – the terrain clearly slows things down, so each move will cover much longer in elapsed time. This might be one way of testing the British peak-by-peak strategy with one that tried to bypass them with a stronger initial focus on Long Stop Hill itself.

Finally I just need to say that the climax of the events that this book describes, the two-stage battle for Long Stop Hill itself was quite an astonishing feat of arms by the British troops, and one of the outstanding feats of the Army in the war. The first attack was down to the 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a unit that had suffered heavy casualties in the campaign to date, assisted by the 1st East Surreys (ditto). They drove through fierce artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire (including from the flank); the HQ company was wiped out, probably by mortars. And yet the survivors pushed on right up the summit, which it captured with barely 60 soldiers left active. The attack on the second peak was no less spectacular in its way. The approach was a long and exposed one (attacking directly from one peak to the other was too difficult), and this second peak was more strongly fortified by the Germans. The Churchills of the Northern Irish Horse led the way, alongside the 5th Buffs, who were very exposed and suffered heavy casualties. The tanks knocked out machine gun posts identified by the infantry, one group of tanks took higher ground that the Germans hadn’t expected them to be able to reach, and was able to deal with the German antitank guns from above. Another group of tanks cut off the German retreat. Artillery was constantly active led by FOOs right up in the thick of it. The British were not supposed to be as good as the Germans at inter-arm cooperation, but this attack was a model.

Th fighting described in this book is very different from that undertaken in North West Europe, or in the Western Desert (or on the Russian front come to that), though it was to be repeated in Sicily and Italy. It presents different challenges to do justice on the tabletop, but intriguing to try.

My French light cavalry

What a year 2020 was! From early March meeting up for wargames became impossible. Trapped at home with social activities drastically curtailed, most hobbyists had a ready outlet – preparing more figures for the tabletop (plus terrain items). Almost all of us have a “lead mountain” (though these days with a large plastic component in most cases) of miniatures waiting to be painted up, so this was a good opportunity. Alas many of us also browsed hobby suppliers online and added to the mountain as well. Hobby manufacturers were doing a roaring trade.

But for me it was different. I had (and have) a substantial lead mountain, but 2020 was the year we chose to move house. In January we readied the house for a sale; in February we were frantically sorting and packing our accumulated 24 years of possessions, and the lead mountain disappeared into boxes. In March we moved out. We had chosen but not legally acquired our new house in rural East Sussex, and lockdown slowed the acquisition process right down; we did not complete until the end of July. In the four month interval we stayed at a friend’s holiday home on the coast, with a small fraction of our possessions, and almost all hobby material in storage. Once we moved into the house the early priority was settling in, and getting on with the myriad of tasks associated with a new home, and then their was a health crisis with my father’s health deteriorated and he passed away (at 96 after a period of deteriorating health). It wasn’t until later in November that I was able to get back to painting miniatures. I have just finished my first lockdown project: upgrading my French light cavalry. This is a report on how the went. Warning: it is quite a long one, as I find it useful to keep a record of the main points – you’d have to be quite deep into the hobby’s obsessions to find most of it interesting!

This project has been a couple of decades in the making. My original Napoleonic armies, back in the 1970s, built up with my brother, were Airfix plastics for Waterloo. In the 1980s I decided to move to 15mm metal figures, with French and Austrian armies, using Minifigs. But I became tired of these fairly quickly – the figures were quite crude – so I decided to upgrade. This was mainly a mix of Old Glory 15s, Battle Honours and AB figures. This upgrade still hasn’t been finished for my Austrians, where my line infantry is still the old Minifigs, and the whole army is in a sorry state. But in a major push I have managed to upgrade the French, mainly with the OGs. While doing this I bought the figures I needed for the light cavalry. In those days OG sold their cavalry in packs of 30, with two sets of command figures. I bought one each of chasseurs and hussars. 12 of the hussars got painted up relatively early, but the rest languished as I was distracted by other projects. My Minifigs chasseurs soldiered on for quite a while but , but eventually I retired them as they were generally the only old Minifigs on the table for the French.

I have been short of French light cavalry ever since. My hussars (painted up as the 8th regiment) did sterling service, joined by a unit of AB Polish lancers and occasionally dragoons making up the difference. The 8th Hussars have green uniforms, so they resembled chasseurs from a distance, and it sort of worked. My main efforts went into upgrading the French infantry. After that the big push was to create an army of 1815 Prussians. while doing so my French cavalry was looking tired. So at the end of 2019 I decided that I really had to find those OG chasseurs and bring them into service. While doing this I found the other 18 hussars (or most of them), and started to think I could paint these up too, and bring in some more visually striking units than my faithful 8th. At this point I was thinking that the way to paint horses was to use large batches without riders (then glue primed riders to their backs and paint these mounted). So I decided to do all the horses in one batch; this morphed into doing all the riders in a single batch too. Normally I do two 8 figure cavalry units in a batch (though for infantry it is usually three 12 figure units). This time I wanted to do three chasseur units (of 8) and one hussar unit. The single hussar unit became two, as I decided to repaint four of my 8th Hussars, bringing it down to my new standard size and giving me an extra unit.

The horses

Many hobbyists struggle with painting horses. Look at the lovingly painted figures in wargames magazines (usually 28mm), and you will often see splendid riders sitting on very flatly painted horses, conforming to no common natural colour pattern. I have had my own struggles, and I still haven’t hit on a technique that I’m really happy with. This time I decided to paint a large batch without riders, with a white primer, and building up layers of relatively thin artists’ acrylic. I divided the group of 36 horses into subgroups: the biggest being bays, then a smaller group of chestnuts and smaller still groups of blacks and greys, with a single dun. I upped the number of blacks when I decided to mount the 4th Hussars on black horses, though four of these were to come from repainting the mounts from the 8th, and not the 36 new ones.

The priming and very first coats were actually done in early January before I realised how incompatible this project was with getting the house ready for sale. With some of the horses I tried a bright orange undercoat. I have long wondered how to paint a horse to get that wonderful glow that some chestnut and bay horses have, so I though that a bright undercoat with layers of. duller paint on top was a possible way to go. It didn’t really work as the coverage of each layer was generally not quite 100%, so there would be tiny patches of bright colour coming through! The process of layering took a long time before I started to get anything that looked satisfactory. what I did learn was that it was easier to put on thin layers of pure pigment, rather than try to mix them in advance, except with a little white maybe. I use artists paints, and the main ones I used were Raw Umber, Raw Sienna and Burnt Umber, with Payne’s Grey for the black and grey, with some Titanium White as required. I also needed to introduce some red, but my Burnt Sienna (the most suitable pigment for this) had given out, so I used some old Venetian Red, which was a bit too bright and had to be used in sparing quantities.

The greys were he hardest. I started all but one with a thin coat of Payne’s Grey (which is actually a decent match for horses’ skin), and then built up lighter grey colours, with a bit of speckling. Grey horses a generally pretty textured, and moving from dark to light (rather than the more usual light to dark) is one way of achieving this. However my white came from a free sample tube, and I don’t think the quality was quite up to scratch. I had to rescue some of the models with a thin layer of Liquitex white. In the end I was more or less happy with the bays and chestnuts, though I did not achieve the glow I wanted, and the blacks were pretty easy (one I painted as a very dark bay, which turned out to be nearly indistinguishable from the others – as in life, as I remember noting from the Horse Guards in Whitehall). The greys, and the dun I was much less happy with, but they were OK to put on the table. I didn’t manage to achieve a proper white horse among the greys – I find these very hard to do; they look quite simple at first, but look closer and you see sort of textures an slight colour variations..

I have another batch of OG horses which I have started to paint in acrylic (bays and chestnuts); I will use these for a batch of Prussian cavalry using acrylic, but my next big experiment on horses is to use oil paint. I did think that doing large batches of horses worked though, especially when being a bit experimental. It’s easier to try different ideas out, though also have to do a lot of repainting. But many layers of paint is supposed to give depth, so I’m not stressed about this.

The chasseurs

9th Chasseurs
13th Chasseurs
16th Chasseurs

I was always going to do three regiments in my new standard unit size of eight. Initially I chose 13th, 16th and 23rd, all serving in Lasalle’s division at Wagram, alongside the 8th Hussars. But the 23rd had capucine facings – a sort of orange-brown. With the 13th having proper orange facings, I thought the contrast wasn’t enough on 15/18mm miniatures. So I picked an alternative colour, I’ve always liked pink, and chose the 9th regiment, which served in Army of Italy in 1809 (including at Wagram) alongside the dragoon regiments in my army. All the cavalry figures were to be painted as at 1809, approximately, since that was how the castings were made. In fact most of my future campaigns are likely to be 1813-1815, but that is a detail! The chasseur uniforms of 1809 were more interesting anyway, especially the trumpeters. I didn’t research the uniforms too heavily, as I wasn’t prepared to go in for head-swaps and other conversions that would doubtless have resulted (though I did exactly this for my French line infantry). So the uniforms are quite generic, based on the regulation facing colours, reversed for the trumpeters. My main priority was to get theses figures table-ready, and to finish in 2020 if possible. I didn’t try much detailing especially in the lower body, which is not so visible on the table.

As usual I used artists’ acrylics (mainly Liquitex). Each colour was mixed for the occasion. The most important colour was the green for the basic uniform. Since taking up artists’ pigments I have struggled with greens more than any other colour. I wanted a slightly blue hue for the chasseurs. The best place to start would have been Hooker’s Green, but my tube from Daler-Rowney had dried up. This is not the first time this has happened recently with Daley-Rowney paint, which I initially put down to poor cap design, but I think may be deeper. I am still using Liquitex and Winsor & Newton paints bought in the 1980s. That left a choice between Sap Green, a well-behaved pigment which is a bit warmer than I was looking for, and Viridian, a bluer green which I had bought following a recommendation form an artists’ book. I chose the latter because it was closer to the bluish hue I was looking for. I immediately regretted it, as it is a thin an nasty paint that needs multiple coats on miniatures. I mixed it with a bit of Venetian red to tone it down, and a little white – which these days I do for all paints I mix.

To finish the figures I used a wash of Winsor & Newton Peat Brown ink. This went on undiluted from the bottle – a little risky but it worked. This has a sightly reddish hue, which worked fine against the green of the uniform, as well as the brown and flesh, but stained the white belts in an unhelpful way; these needed to be restored with some white highlight paint. It was a disaster on the pale grey and roan horses, which I had rescue with some white paint. Apart from these snags the wash lifted the figures beautifully, and brought out the details very nicely. I decided not to try a dry-brush highlighting. I’m not sure this makes enough difference on figures of this scale; I’m often too impatient and start with too much paint on the brush; and it is expensive on brushes. The ink wash left a slight sheen, which I don’t mind on Napoleonic miniatures, and helps bring out the detail (for example the breast buttons on the pictures above, which I had not attempted to pick out in paint). I decided not to try applying varnish either, as I was OK about the sheen from the ink.

The hussars

4th Hussars
5th Hussars
8th Hussars

Hussars are irresistible for collectors of Napoleonic miniatures, with their flamboyant uniforms, and I chose to paint up more units than I will ever be likely to need on the table at one time – simply because I had the castings. I had originally picked the 8th Hussars as this was the hussar unit most engaged in the 1809 campaign against Austria, the main focus of my collection at the time. It turned out to have the dullest uniform of all the French hussar regiments. This was made worse by the fact that I decided to paint the legs in overalls, rather than boots and breeches – the breeches were red. The detailing of the OG casting on the legs is a bit vague, and it wasn’t clear which it was. There was a uniform from this regiment on display in the National Army Museum in Paris, which showed the overalls, so I decided to follow this. As noted above, this unit served as generic light cavalry, frequently standing in for chasseurs, so predominantly green uniform was appropriate.

The first of the new regiments I chose to depict was easy: the 5th. This regiment with its white pelisses, has always been my favourite. My brother and I painted up a unit of this in our original collection, converted from Airfix figures. I now want to replicate all the identifiable regiments from this original collection in my current one, though in this case an earlier uniform will be depicted, as the shakos are in an earlier style (a shame, as I like the later cylindrical shakos for the hussars, and the 5th had them in red). But which other unit? The main candidates were the 4th, which served alongside the 5th in the Waterloo campaign in Pajol’s division, and the 3rd, whose grey and red uniform I have long been attracted to, ever since it was depicted in a film about two feuding French light cavalrymen, whose title I can’t remember [It was The Duellists, directed by Ridley Scott]. But the 3rd wasn’t part of the French army of the Waterloo campaign, and it was in Spain in 1809. What tipped it was when I read that the 4th was mounted on black horses. It is doubtful that the regiment would have been able to sustain such pickiness in wartime (though at least it wasn’t in competition with the heavy cavalry regiments, which loved dark horses, as it would have used smaller mounts), but it was an appealing idea for the table. It also solved a problem about repainting the four the horses from my old 8th Hussars unit – a repaint to black is much easier than trying to replicate my layering technique for bays and chestnuts.

For uniform details I consulted a number of sources, plus googled images. This gave a bewildering number of alternatives and variations for both regiments. In the end I went for a version that was close to Martinet’s depiction in his series of contemporary prints, though not the elaborate officer’s dress uniform shown for the 5th.

The main colours for the 4th were blue and red. The blue is usually depicted as being brighter and richer (a Royal Blue) than the standard infantry uniform blue (or that used by the various French heavy cavalry units, come to that), so I based my colour on Ultramarine, a very bright pigment, compared to my normal Prussian Blue hue (and a bit redder). It needed toning down, though, which I did with raw umber, plus a little bit of white. I also toned down the red (with green from the chasseur uniform, and white). The four newly-painted figures were undercoated in Payne’s Grey, to help them match with the 8th Hussar conversions, which also had a dark undercoat. All of this meant that the figures ended up quite dark (though the blue is nice and rich), so I didn’t think the Peat Brown wash would be strong enough. I decided to use Daler-Rowney black ink instead – but this needed a lot of diluting with water. This worked very well in picking out the lacing on the pelisses (which were done in Yellow Oxide, a close match to Yellow Ochre).

For the 5th I needed a sky blue for the base of the uniform, which was also needed for the facings of the 16th Chasseurs. I tried mixing a bit of white in the deep blue used for the 4th – but this came out a bit on the red side – a distinct hint of an unmilitary violet. It looked OK after mixing in some green; generally the best way of getting sky blues for uniforms is to mix white with Prussian Blue. The white for the pelisse (and in fact all the white elements on all the uniforms) was in fact an off-white made by adding a little Raw Umber in with the white. The yellow lace work was Yellow Oxide again. For the wash I decided to use the diluted black ink I used for the 4th – notwithstanding that these are much lighter figures (including the horses). I had learned that peat brown and white don’t go, and opted for the neutral black. I had to be careful to brush it off the white pelisses as far as I could, but overall it helped to lift the figures a lot.

You may notice that I am trying not to make the colours too bright and contrasty, in order to get a more authentic look. There is no black anywhere (except the ink washes), instead I used Payne’s Grey ( a dark blue-grey) and a more neutral mix of blue and raw umber – in ,most cases with a touch of white in there. Yellow Oxide is not a bright yellow (though better behaved than most yellow pigments, which tend to be thin and runny, like the Viridian). The red is only a bit brighter than a classic brick red. I am still developing these ideas about colour palette. In general I still have a tendency to make them a bit too dark – though in this case that only really applies to the 4th Hussars. This is all part of the adventure of mixing my own colours, rather than going for Vallejo paint-by-numbers, as most hobbyists do.

I have included the remaining eight figures from the 8th Hussars in the photos. These present an interesting contrast to my more recent work. I had only started my journey with artists paints at this point, but I think these were mainly done in Humbrol enamels. There was only one green artist pigment that I was confident with at that stage, which was a bit lighter than the one used here (I used it for my dragoons, painted at about the same time). The horses have a distinct Dark Earth hue – though I was mixing horse colours at this stage, and attempting to distinguish between bay and chestnut. The grey is very flat. My detail work is sharper than it is now, though I did not attempt the waist sashes either then or now (except one or two of the 4th). That clear detailing holds the whole composition up, though, allowing them to hold their heads high compared to my more recent work, in spite of the flatter and denser paintwork. Starting again, the main thing I would do differently (apart from the horses) would be to make the green a bit lighter and brighter. Having said that, the uniform in on display in Paris was very dark.

The Polish lancers

Polish Vistula Legion Lancers

Finally I have pictured the faithful Polish lancer unit. These are later work than my 8th Hussars. They are AB castings, which are much sharper than my OG figures. The men are probably a bit bigger (true 18mm rather than the OGs which are from the period when the 15mm was inflating to 18mm), though the horse aren’t bigger – as befits light cavalry. I much prefer the AB range to OG, though their early French figures aren’t their best (these lancers are later). All ranges tend to improve with time; they usually start wit the standard French types and as a result these tend to be their weakest. That is true of OG too; these French castings (the infantry as well as this light cavalry) are not as good as their later Prussians, which I happily mix in with the ABs. This unit was not my most successful paint job, and one day I might repaint it. The horses are a bit flat and matt; on the men I was too heavy-handed with a white dry brush. I was using a technique recommended in one of the rule books I used, but it didn’t really come off. Still they have a dusty on-campaign look, which is appropriate for the Peninsula theatre where they did their main service. The unit’s greatest triumph was at Albuera in 1811, which has been one of my favourite tabletop battles.

I have 15 OG French lancers, which I intend to bring to the table, though I want to find a way of topping them up to 16 to get two complete units. Another thought is to do a unit of Polish Guard lancers… but that would involve buying more miniatures. For now the priority is to paint what I have.

Basing

Finally came the bases. I wanted to get the bases of all seven units looking consistent. The two old units were mounted on un-flocked plaster painted in a washed-out olive green colour (Humbrol Hemp, I think). All bases are 25mm squares, and have magnetic material underneath. I cut the new bases from thick artists’ paper. This is thinner than the customary mount board or MDF, but with the magnetic material already increasing the height my recent practice is to use thinner mounting material. This means you have to be careful about warping. The gunk I use to set the miniatures in uses no water: acrylic medium mixed with some paint and some old railway ballast material (in place of the sand I usually use, which I hadn’t brought in the move). I let this mix cure with the bases placed on a metal surface, so that the magnetic material ensures they say flat.

The paint was Raw Umber mixed with a bit of white. I used the same paint mix to touch up the base edges, and also the outer parts of the bases on two old units. I then applied flock, which I mixed from a couple of sources. I decided not to try static grass at the edges, as I wanted to develop my application techniques later, and I was in a hurry (it was nearly New Year’s Eve by now). However I did feel the need to apply a further layer of diluted PVA glue to fix the flock, which otherwise leaves a trail wherever the figures go. This was very necessary, as the initial bond was weak, but it did mean that there was a lot of lumping of the flock, which became very uneven. That meant that a lot of the basing material was exposed, as you can see from the pictures. That shouldn’t matter that much as this should resemble bare earth. But the paint mix should have had more white in it, and it all looks a bit dark. The flock is also on the dark side. Overall the bases are acceptable but not great.

Conclusion

This project isn’t properly finished. The standards need flags (which I have bought) and I think the bases could do with more work. I also need to revisit my decision not to highlight and/or varnish. But this project had taken a long time and I wanted to declare victory by 31 December. I will revisit when I do my next batch of 18mm miniatures. This is likely to French Guard infantry.

As usual I wasn’t that happy when I put down the paintbrushes. By this stage in a project you are very familiar with the flaws, and have to draw a line. But, again as usual, I became progressively happier with the outcome afterwards, apart from the bases. The 4th Hussars are just a little too dark I think. But all the units will do fine on the tabletop when this resumes, and are likely to get into action quite quickly.

My main learnings:

  • This project took a long time. Partly because I was rusty and had to unpack various materials, but only partly. The horses might be a bit quicker with improved technique, but the really time-consuming bit was the detailing. I have tried to reduce this as far as possible, but the detailing left is just the sort that has a big impact on the end result. It is these high-contrast features (facings, belts and straps, and so on) that are the making of horse and musket miniatures.
  • Technique on horses needs more work. I need to rethink the approach for greys, especially the paler ones. In due course I want to do a unit of Royal Scots Greys, so this will need to come right. For the bays and chestnuts I need to work more with layers of pure pigment, including the Burnt Sienna that I lacked this time. This will be interesting in oils!
  • Don’t use Viridian again if you can help it. Perhaps tweak Sap Green with some blue, or use Pthalo Green (though this is very bright and will need quite a bit of toning down). Buying a new tube of Hooker’s Green looks a bit wasteful when I have all these other tubes of green on the go.
  • Peat Brown ink is great to use as a wash because it can be used straight from the bottle, though application needs some care to prevent pooling, but not on expanses of white or grey. Otherwise I can use diluted Daler-Rowney Black or Antelope Brown (a yellower hue) ink, which doesn’t seem to mind heavy dilution in water.
  • Basing is a bit of a headache. I need to lighten up the earth colour, but also rethink the flock mix. Static grass isn’t necessary but it may enhance the edges of the base once I’ve improved my application technique.

Starting my airbrush adventure

At long last I’m back to painting miniatures. I am picking up a project started in January: five new regiments of French light cavalry for my Napoleonic army. More of that another time. But as I’ve resumed work, I am starting to rethink the techniques I use.

I first mulled the use of an airbrush some years ago. I held back because the bedroom that I used for my hobby projects wasn’t well ventilated, and I had been a bit alarmed by some of things I read about the need for good ventilation. Lack of ventilation severely restricted my use of aerosol paints. These fears, as it happens, were probably exaggerated so far as concerns the water-based products that I was considering; the spray coming from an airbrush is pretty limited. But the studio in my new home, which now my new workshop, has much better ventilation, so that obstacle was falling away anyway.

Two things brought the issue to a head. First was the incipient new project of returning to aircraft modelling, which I have already posted about. Airbrushes are very much the thing for this these days, as I found when researching techniques. The second came about with my new cavalry, which needed priming. The primer I have been using in the last few years was Fortress Special Metals Primer, bought in 750ml tins at my local DIY store. This proved an excellent primer, by the way. It sticks well to both pewter and hard plastic while taking acrylic paints well. Better it dries in a nice, tight and thin coating. The problem proved to be the massive tin. This wasn’t designed for regular opening and closing. It was hard to prise open, and over time the repeated opening damaged the seal. Attempts to transfer to smaller receptacles were a bit messy, and these dried out rather quickly. By the time I opened it after about 9 months of non-use the remaining half of the tin was completely solid. Receptacle design is an increasingly important issue with me, having lost a number of artists acrylic paints due to badly designed tubes (one reason that I favour Liquitex and now avoid Daler Rowney). I have now ordered some artists’ gesso – more expensive per millilitre, but easier to use, and hopefully leading to less wastage.

I ordered this from Hobby Craft, who are taking their time to fulfil (this may be a function of having now moved out into the country). Meanwhile I found some white aerosol paint (I found two cans, but one gave up after a couple of minutes use). This reminded me of how just much I dislike aerosol paints. In one way they are an excellent way of applying primer. They don’t swamp the detail, which is the risk with a brush, as well as covering large areas quickly. But they are messy; it is difficult to control the spray and there are clouds of propellant, which is smelly and probably not very healthy. I feel the need to stand well back and put the miniatures in some sort of open box so to as protect my other possessions (or to protect from the breeze, if outdoors); and then there is the business of rotating objects covered in wet paint so that each angle is covered. All this palaver leads to mess, and frequently to missed recesses, especially on 15mm or 20mm figures. An airbrush, however, offers a much more controlled way of applying primer (or varnish – less of an issue with aerosols for me, as it isn’t quite so messy). The product gets on quickly and smoothly and you can give each figure individual treatment.

It was too late for my cavalry project, but my imminent aircraft project offered the perfect opportunity to learn how to use the device. My plan is to start of a single cheap model, before tackling the main part of the project. I regret throwing away my three old models, even after I moved them all the way here – they would have been excellent to practice on. And so I embarked on research. There is a lot of material out there. One particularly helpful blog (tangibleday.com) pointed me towards a US Badger product (the Patriot 105). But as I looked for places to buy airbrushes, I felt the need to go to a reputable dealer; there are fakes out there, quite apart from the need for ancillary products. This drew me to the Airbrush Company Ltd (airbrushes.com), which is based in Sussex, not all that far from my new home, though, of course, my plan was to buy online. Their website is particularly helpful, but their principal product range is Iwata, a Japanese company. The tangibleday blog says that Iwata are one of the three best brands (Harding & Steenbeck being the third), which has the reputation of being excellent but expensive. That blog is American, and written a while ago, I think. The balance of cost may be a bit different here and now – the cheaper Iwata products didn’t look too badly priced, given that they are a premium product. This drew me to Iwata.

There were two main candidates: the Iwata Neo CN (£85.80) and the Revolution CR (£130). The Neo is a new product, clearly aimed at the entry level, apparently subcontracted to a Chinese manufacturer. The Revolution was the entry-level series for Iwata before the Neo, and is more robust, according to the reviews. The critical operational distinction between these brushes is that the Neo CN has a 0.35mm nozzle, and for the Revolution CR it is 0.5mm. There is a Revolution brush, the BN, with a finer nozzle (0.3mm), but I ruled this out. Smaller nozzles are better for fine work; larger ones for wider coverage. Another issue is that I needed a compressor to provide the air supply. I decided to go for one of Airbrushes.com’s kits, with compressor and cleaning products, plus some basic paints. These started at £225 for the Neo plus a very basic (Neo) compressor.

After reading reviews for these two brushes it became clear that the nozzle size was a critical difference. One reviewer said that he found himself using both brushes, with the Neo used for the fine work and the CR for the higher coverage tasks. It then struck me that I wasn’t ready to use the airbrush for fine work. I wanted it for applying primer, and maybe varnish, and for higher coverage jobs on model aircraft and vehicles. The Airbrushes.com guide said that the CR wasn’t suitable for miniatures, but fine for models. I also decided that would spend a bit more on the compressor, as this was a pretty critical piece of equipment. So I decided to splash out on the Revolution CR, paired with the Silver Jet compressor for £306. Along with the kit come some small pots of LifeColor paints and thinner, plus three different cleaning products, which is probably a bit over the top. I also bought a basic cleaning pot – so that you can safely empty the brush while cleaning it. It all arrived in a few days.

My new airbrush and compressor (and cleaning pot) in the studio

So how is it working out? I have had one trial session, so it is much too early to tell. For all the complications you read about in the blogs, the technology is quite mechanical and simple, which is a relief. Still there are a number of variables and quite a bit to learn. Covering large areas with a thin coat is pretty straightforward. Doing fine lines isn’t; this may be bad technique on my part, or it may be that this brush has a relatively large nozzle. But fine work was always going to come much later for me. I’m looking forward to getting started on my first model.

Nafziger’s 1813 trilogy: a useful resource but a poor history

Back to this blog’s original focus: Napoleonics! My reading about this era has focused mainly on the Waterloo campaign, the Peninsula War (1808 to 1813) and the Austrian campaign of 1809. I have dabbled in other campaigns: Napoleon in Italy 1796/7, Suvarov’s campaign 1799, Marengo 1800, Austerlitz 1805, and Russia 1812. That left a huge gap: the epic Central European campaigns of 1813 (and to a lesser extent the battles in France in 1814). I thought I needed to do something about this, saw an offer on George Nafziger’s three books on the subject, and bought them.

I started the first book, on Lutzen and Bautzen, last year, read the second, centring on the battle of Dresden, during lockdown, and have now finished the third, centring on Leipzig. I have very mixed feelings about the whole experience.

Captain Nafziger is well-known amongst wargamers for his intricate research whose main output is orders of battle for many encounters in Napoleonic and other wars, where he went much deeper than the usual British and French sources. He has also ventured into wider military history, with an account of the 1812 campaign, which I have, and others which I haven’t). Unfortunately his ability to ferret out and absorb multiple sources does not make him a great historian, and this series of books doesn’t show him at his best. His prose is leaden. His editorial choices are rather strange. No detail about which unit was to the left or right of another unit is too small for him to note down, but swathes of more strategic information get left out. His accounts include strings of place names, many of which do not appear on the (usually) sparse maps, and little geographical context is offered. It really is very hard to understand what is going on. The result is that I’m still pretty confused about how the earlier campaign, resulting in the battles of Lutzen and Bautzen, unfolded and why things happened as they did. The other books are generally a bit better, but still very hard going. Occasionally there do seem to errors. I found one case of what looked like the same episode being repeated. There are almost no eye-witness quotations to provide context and atmosphere (though in some ways this is a relief: some modern historians give too many undigested eye-witness accounts, and not enough interpretation).

Occasionally Captain Nafziger’s method works. His account of the prelude to Liepzig, the battle of Liebertwolkwitz, is much clearer than the two versions I had previously read (one by Digby Smith). but mostly it is thoroughly confusing. How accurate is all of this? I suspect him of giving too much credence to French accounts of their own prowess, though he does try to be objective. At Bautzen he describes dreadful execution done by French batteries firing across the river. And yet it was very hard to tally these with what he describes as happening to the Allied troops at the other end (which has a single horse battery being forced to retreat, if I remember correctly). There were other cases where praise for the conduct of French commanders is made for achievements that look quite modest. Where French sources are the main ones available, such as for many of the sieges a the end of the book, the accounts are very lopsided.

There is a lack of strategic commentary. Where he provides it, it reads more like thinking aloud than properly-developed argument. Overall there is a very 19th century feel to his commentary. In this era commentators (including military theorists) felt that Napoleon’s early campaigns (from 1796 to 1805 in particular), with their rapid manoeuvre and decisive battles were the epitome of good generalship, and the standard to which all military leaders should aspire. So they are continually critical of Napoleon’s more “lethargic” later campaigns, and have a good laugh at the floundering grand tactical leadership of the Allies. But war was changing, with massed armies, deficient training and stretched officer cadres. You had to fight wars differently. I suspect many of Napoleon’s “errors” can be explained by such considerations, which, for example, did not allow him to expose the logistical centre of Dresden. And, there is a plausible interpretation of the the Allies’ second campaign, masterminded by the Austrian Prince Schwartzenberg, as being one of the most brilliant of the era. There is a more modern flavour to these campaigns, compared to the more 18th Century earlier campaigns. It reminds me rather of the classic comparison of the generalship of Lee and grant in the American Civil War: one seems to look forward and the other back.

What are the takeaways? First I was right about 1813: this is in many ways the pinnacle of the Napoleonic Wars. In a wargamers’ terms (let’s dance lightly over the pain and suffering) this is very rich source of action – with the two sides remarkably well-matched. The sheer scale of it is clearly one of the big problems the author faced in his account. I might very well like to compare this work unfavourably with such masterpieces as Rory Muir’s book on Salamanca, or Eric Gill’s trilogy on the 1809 campaign – but these were much smaller affairs. It is very strange that these epic battles in 1813 are so weakly covered by English-language historians. Captain Nafziger is to be congratulated on taking such a challenge on. The level of detail in this book will make it a useful resource. But I badly need to read a more strategic account to get a clearer idea of what was happening (there are a couple around).

Incidentally, something rather interesting does emerge from wading through the mass of detail: it is how well the Austrians performed, right up to leadership level. I would go as far as to suggest that they were the most aggressive of the troops in the alliance in the second campaign (they were the freshest of the combatants, so this should to be too surprising). This is a far cry from the standard English language account which suggests that they performed poorly because their heart wasn’t in it. Indeed Austrian and Prussian leadership at corps level seems to be every bit as good as that of Napoleon’s veterans, and often better.

There are some mysteries to me that these books throw up, and which my further reading will address. The first is to get some kind of coherent narrative around the first campaign. I don’t buy the standard account that Napoleon outwitted the Allies and had them on the ropes when the armistice was agreed. After all, why then did Napoleon agree to the armistice? There is surely a strategic narrative that tells a rather different tale. Second is why did the Allies accept battle at Dresden when they realised that Napoleon was there in strength, especially when their deployment was so flawed? Third, was Napoleon really so close to crushing the Army of Bohemia after the Allied calamity of Dresden? And finally how close was Napoleon really to achieving victory against the Army of Bohemia on the first day of Leipzig?

That last needs to be explored in a wargame. I really don’t understand why this part of the battle isn’t attempted more often by wargamers. It’s big, but so is Borodino. And it has everything – Guard units and cuirassiers aplenty on both sides, and lots of drama. There are lots and lots of other wargames ideas to be found in these books (though I in many cases these will require the finding of much better maps). There are a couple of very interesting smaller battles that caught my eye too.

Conclusion. 1813 is where I need to be directing my future energies on Napoleonic wargames, following the realisation of my Ligny project for 1815.

Sam Mustafa’s Rommel: first look

This game has been out for a few years now, and I’ve had my eye on it. It’s by Sam Mustafa, one of the world’s top wargames designers, for whom I have had a huge respect since the days of Grande Armée. Here he goes into a whole new era: WW2, and he has produced a game at operational level, to use the US military terminology (which I would otherwise call grand tactical). Each player has one or more divisions, and the playing area represents 72 square kilometres (or more…). Such games are commonplace as board games, but not on the tabletop, where games tend to have the flavour one-to-one representations, even when (for example Rapid Fire!) each piece actually represents a platoon or more. Now that I want to bring in such elements as artillery and air power to the tabletop, this is the sort of game I’m looking for. So at long last I splashed out on a copy.

I was rather underwhelmed at first. It’s quite a small book, like the Napoleonic Blucher from the same stable. The typesetting and visual appearance is similar to Blucher too, and overworked to my taste. The scantily clad 1940s girls adorning the chapter numbers may be very evocative of servicemen’s pin-ups, but it is just annoying to me, I’m afraid. The photos are a bit underwhelming too, and there aren’t many of them (though I don’t mind that so much). More seriously, as I got into the rules there seemed to be a lot missing: antitank guns, infantry guns (except when they aren’t), heavy mortars, recce units, AA units. Air power is dealt with in a very abstract way. Worse, the game structure seems very “gamey”, with each player having a “Command Post” sheet that reminds me of something similar in Saga, the very gamey Dark Ages game. The worry here is that you spend too much time playing the rules, rather than making decisions that resemble those of the historical counterparts. Sam badly overdid this in my view with his 18th century Maurice game, where players were playing hands of cards as well as troops on the table in a way that bore no resemblance to how actual generals went about their work.

But it quickly got better, though I still can’t reconcile myself to the visuals. Producing a game at this level is a tough gig if you are used to traditional style rules. You have to leave a lot out or else the whole thing gets overwhelming. This is the sort of thing that Sam is so good at. The game went through a lot of testing during which a lot of extraneous stuff was thrown out. I suppose if I want 120mm mortars, Bofors guns or Grille SP guns on the table then I need to go for a system like Rapid Fire. Likewise for model aircraft, though these could be brought in at a pinch as markers or tokens for “Events” or “Tactics”. The Command Post is much simpler than the Saga equivalent, and it is just a more sophisticated Command Point system. That may be too gamey in the end, but it’s not like playing a hand of cards.

So, what about the game? The first thing to say is that it is played on a grid of 1km squares. Practically these can’t be more than 6in (15cm) across, or else the table gets too big. That brings some challenges that I will come to. If you don’t like squares it is easy enough to adapt to hexes. The advantage of squares is twofold. Most important, they are very easy to mark out on the table using very discrete dots for the corners or the centres (the recommended method). Second is cosmetic; modern maps are marked up in a square grid, and maps played a critical part in the conduct of war at this level. Hexes make it look more like a board game. The use of squares to regulate movement, combat and artillery ranges feels like an excellent compromise for this sort of game. But it does mean that a lot geographical features get lost, like those support units: villages, roads, streams and so on.

Beyond that it really is quite hard to explain, especially since I haven’t tried playing it yet. It has an IgoUgo turn system. The player has a very limited budget of “Ops” (Command Points to you and me – I’m afraid I dislike Sam’s game terminology almost as much as his graphic design), which can be spent on movement, “Events” or “Tactics”. Doing well in combat looks expensive in points, while moving around is not so much. The combat resolution system is quite basic, but looks pretty appropriate. The whole thing is so unlike conventional games, though, it will take a little learning. As ever, Sam has thought of that, with basic rules and advanced rules, and a simple introductory scenario.

So what are my concerns? The first concerns my toys. For WW2 they are mainly 20mm, which is undoubtedly on the big side. It should be possible to get three Shermans into a 6in square (three is the stacking limit), but it would be a squeeze. There aren’t many photos of games in progress, but these mainly seem to be 6mm models on a 4in grid, with occasional 15mm or 2mm models. Undoubtedly the smaller models look better, though often I find their bases to be distracting. But 20mm models on a 6in grid will be not unlike 15mm ones on a 4in grid. Of course the missing toys grate, especially the anti-tank guns, which played such an important part in tactics of the time. The advanced rules allow what they call “tank hunters”, lightly armoured SP AT guns like the German Marder or Russian Su-76. That looked a bit of a cop-out to me – a bit of warmgamer’s bias to anything with tracks. These really are just mobile AT guns with almost no attack value. This clearly grated on early gamers too – as the downloadable optional rules contain an extra rule on massed AT guns. This is meant to represent such tactics as German Pakfronts, used by German, Soviet and British armies from mid-war on. There is also a “Tactic” to represent the presence of 88s and British 17pdrs (“Pheasants” – though I think that term only applied to the early improvised weapons on 25pdr carriages, of which I actually have a rather crude model). If you wanted to, it would be quite easy to put on heavy mortars or infantry guns, as after all the rules make occasional provision for 75mm howitzers. The issue is how concentrated these units were in practice – as an artillery unit needs to be quite beefy to get onto the table. Indeed it is quite hard for me to reconcile the presence of German 75mm guns in the early and late periods, and US pack howitzers for paras, but not American Chemical Mortar units, which played quite a significant role at Salerno, for example. Of course this game is doubtless plagued by dozens of issues like this, and you have to draw the line somewhere.

After the toys issue, I thought there was something else missing. There is no recognition of the significance of vantage points and commanding heights. That shows the influence of the Tunisian and Italian campaigns on my thinking, for my Project 1943. Commanding heights were critical objectives, and their possession influenced the direction of battles in these theatres. It was also a big deal on the Western Front in WW1, even around Ypres were on first impression the ground is pretty flat. On reflection I am feeling this is not such a big problem, as I don’t think it was such an issue in the relatively fluid battles fought across relatively flat terrain for much of the war. There are ways it can be dealt with too in the exceptional places, perhaps with the use of the Recce tactic, or other parts of the Command Post; exploiting a vantage point should surely require CPs. But that brings on another issue: the game has a fairly easy to understand open architecture when designing units, but the design of the Command Posts is less transparent. Each country (with the US and Britain treated as integrated allies) has a standard CP for each of the early, mid and late war periods. This looks as if it should work well enough for most of the time, but there will always be a case for tinkering with it, and the design aspects of this are not transparent.

Still, I feel I must give this a try. This means I must give some thought as to table design. I am not inspired by the photos of games In action. Firstly, with my 20mm models I think I need to go for an abstract look, bringing to mind maps rather than real terrain. That would men no physical terrain pieces on the table. There just isn’t room, and they look wrong. A tree is not a forest. A lone building is not a street. The terrain markings need to be flat, so that the models can go on top as glorified counters. Features can be named, including ones that have no game significance (like villages and major roads), but would have been important geographical markers. It might be a bit ambitious to give every square a name (72 squares!), but there should be enough to help navigation. I think that would do a lot to give the game atmosphere . I do have some 6mm models too, though only a US army that is ready for the table top. I was thinking of using these to try out Battlefront rules, based on the late war (perhaps the Lorraine battles in September 1944). Some thought needs to be given about these as well. It is more practical for these to have more representational terrain though the temptation is to have smaller (4in) squares, which make this harder. This is worth thinking about. I have a feeling that a weak visual appearance on the tabletop is one of the reasons these rules haven’t caught on as much as they might have done.

A final issue for me is to think about ways to make the use air power less abstract. I totally understand why Sam never attempted this – it entails a whole new layer of the game. It is purely something I need to get off my chest. Air power did have an important part to play at this level, though it was often away from the main battle front. I would like players to have air assets which they then choose to deploy to influence the battle as best they can, through front line support, air superiority, interdiction or medium level bombing. I think space could be made for this in a game like this. But a while down the track on that one!

But overall Sam Mustafa is to be congratulated in taking on a very challenging project, and coming up with solutions I would never have thought of, and giving insights into the sorts of compromises that have to be made. I am looking forward to trying these rules out. One day.

WW2 aircraft – my next thing

The box top for the Eduard Spitfire Mk VIII, showing a later-war version in Far East colours. The kit is designed to display the model sitting quietly on the ground rather than in action like this…

2020 has been massively frustrating from a hobby point of view. Lockdown stopped gaming, and meanwhile a long drawn out house move meant I couldn’t even catch up on my miniatures or try a bit of solo gaming. And a new house, complete with garden, means lots of jobs need be done. Disappearing off to the wonderful new hobby room (a big win in the long term) would attract some pretty stern looks from the person that cooks over 95% of my meals. On top of that I have had a rather sadder duty – to spend time caring for my father in the last months of his life (he died on Monday, RIP, aged 96). I should point out that I shared this caring with two brothers, both of whom did more than I did, and one a lot more. But another higher priority to hobby time.

But in between jobs I had plenty of time to surf the internet, here and there. Alas this had the result it so often does with people who share my hobby. I’ve started another project. I have been researching WW2 aircraft, and models that are available in 1/72 scale. This, of course, is meant to go alongside my 1943 wargames project, focusing on the Tunisia and Italian campaigns, and the British experience in particular. Unfortunately there has been no compelling need for model aircraft in my 1943 games so far. My games have been at skirmish level, where air involvement was pretty incidental. But as I move up to higher gaming levels then aircraft might start coming into it. Still the main reason I am embarking on this is that I love WW2 warplanes, and I love to make models. It is part nostalgia, and part developing some new techniques for my old hobby. Funnily enough I threw out my last model aircraft saved from my youth in the house move this year (an unfinished Ju-88C night fighter, an FW-190A-8 and a Gloster Meteor). I had earlier thrown out my library of aircraft books, convinced that that chapter in my life had closed – a decision I now regret. The internet is a useful resource, but has its limits.

While the need for the models for wargaming is very limited, I still want to build them so that they can be used on the tabletop – so in flight and with a means of attaching them to a stand. Where appropriate they will be in fighter-bomber mode, with bombs attached. I have started buying. My first two models were a Spitfire Mk VIII, and a Kitty Hawk 1E (I will come to why). I got a bit of a shock when these models arrived (the Spitfire from Eduard, the Kitty Hawk from Special Hobby). These are modellers’ models, not war-game models. I knew that, but simply expected a lot of detail that would be unnecessary. But I found that, unlike the 1970s, models are nowadays displayed as on the ground with crew absent. Retracting the undercarriage could be a bit tricky sometimes, and I will have to source crew. Ouch! It wasn’t like that in the old days of Airfix and Revell. Also a bit puzzling – I think aircraft are made to be observed in flight, with all those sleek lines. But modern modellers get exercised about the seatbelt straps in an empty cockpit!

The first stage in any project, and one of the most fun bits, is compiling the list of things you are going to collect/build. It was logical to start with the British, as my 1943 project is a bit of tribute to my national forebears. The workhorse plane in 1943 was the Spitfire VC. It was outclassed as an air superiority fighter by the FW-190, but it was the best the Allies had until the later Spitfires started to appear. Airfix are about to release a model of this aircraft in its tropical version, and this is the logical model to get (as far as I can see you can build these in flight and a pilot is provided – Airfix is still tied to the old-school values). I also wanted one of the later Spitfires, which started to appear in numbers in 1943, and which were a match, or more, for the more modern Luftwaffe fighters. The most important of these was the Mark IX, which was a re-engined Mark V. But in the Mediterranean theatre there were also significant numbers of Mark VIIIs. This was actually a more advanced design (for example with a retracting tail wheel), and was the base for later marks after the IX, but it could not be produced in the numbers needed to counter the FW-190 quickly enough, hence the Mark IX project. I wanted one of these. Eduard make a well-reviewed model of this, so I thought I had better snap it up while still in stock. I went for the slightly more expensive Profipack version, rather than the cheaper Weekend, because the Weekend model had fewer versions, and not the early Mediterranean version I was looking for. This was a mistake. The extra parts in the Profipack are ones I am unlikely to use (the fiddly bits for proper modellers), and the Weekend version has all the parts needed for all versions, and one or two more on top (for the Mark IX I think). Meanwhile the decals included in the Profipack for the 1943 Med. plane are for a senior officer’s personal plane – not a proper front-line aircraft. I will have to source these separately anyway (though the roundels should be OK to use, and I have quite few bits left over from my old modelling days).

Next up I decided I needed a Kitty Hawk. This plane somehow characterises the Desert Air Force more than any other. It was the best of the US aircraft available at the time, a better fighter than the Hurricane, robust and an excellent fighter-bomber. Various versions were in use right up to the end of the war. The best looking version looked to be the Special Hobby Mark IA (or P-40E), so I plumped for this to save on postage while ordering the Spit. Quite often I have found models were out of stock, so I was tending to buy when I could. I have subsequently learned not to panic, as it isn’t too hard to get models even for some time after production has ceased (eBay being a good source). I then learned that the IA was being phased out in 1943 for versions with more powerful engines (the Mk II and Mk III) – these had a slightly longer body for air stability, so are visually distinct. Special Hobby do a model of that too. So I have been too quick on the draw again. It’s too extreme to buy another model, as in fact they are still pretty similar.

The next plane to think about was the Martin Baltimore. This was a light bomber used extensively by the RAF in this theatre, but not much by anybody else anywhere else. The wargames value of this one is questionable. By 1943 they were being used for targets well behind the lines. Still it seemed right to include it in my collection of distinctive aircraft. (I draw the line at the heavier Wellington bomber, also much used, but mainly at night). Also it is quite hard to source a model, which, of course, only adds to the attraction. There was an old Frog model (the brand was renowned for being a bit dodgy back in the day). There are more modern models from Azur and Special Hobby (possibly the same one for all I know…), both (like the Frog model) hard to get. On eBay I found somebody stocking an Azur Mark V (in Free French colours) and so I ordered that. It has just arrived and it looks fine, with parts for the turret used in earlier marks. I will have to source the decals for a British plane used in 1943.

There is one more plane I am thinking about for my British collection, and that is the Hurricane IID, the tank-buster version with cannon under the wings. Only one squadron was equipped with these, and only for the Tunisia operations. But I have always had a soft spot for the Hurricane, and the IID was used in a tactically interesting way, sweeping through in advance of the ground forces. A kit doesn’t look too hard to get. My plan is to build all the British planes in a single batch to save time (and similarly for the other nationalities).

What of the Germans? The workhorse fighter-bomber was the FW-190, so I need at least one of these. The most widely available model is of the A8/F8, but these were not deployed in numbers until 1944. I have my eye on an Eduard model of the A5, which was current in 1943. This was slightly longer than the early As, to improve its bomb-carrying ability. I think there are models for this very early version about, and it is possible I will get one of these as well. Next comes the Bf-109. By 1943 it is the Gustav that is in service, with the G6 (with its upgraded armament and ammunition blisters on the forward fuselage) coming into service. There is an Airfix model of the G6, which has pretty bad reviews – but the Airfix production values seem to be close to what I want, and the niggles that modern modellers have are unlikely to concern me much. Once again an earlier version is worth considering to have in addition (an early G or perhaps an F).

In Tunisia the Stuka was still in operation; they were around in Italy later, but the Germans did not dare use them in range of allied fighters. At the time the Ju-87D was the main version operation, though there were some Bs still around. The D is much harder to find models for than the B (though the similar G with underwing tank busting guns is more popular, though used only on the Russian front). The main issue is whether to try and find the later D-5 with longer wings and uprated wing armament. I also gave thought to the Ju-88 bomber, one of my favourites, and the main German medium bomber in this theatre. But these were mainly used at sea, and did not seem to have played any role up close on land – as well as being a big model to make. I have not yet committed to any of these purchases of German aircraft, having learned the lesson not to panic.

Finally on the German side I want a Bf-110. I’m not actually sure this type played much of a role in the Tunisian and Italian land battles. But a number were captured on the ground at Montecorvino airfield (along with some FW-190s) in the battle for Salerno, and I’ve always wanted to build a model of one of the 110. It is the fighter-bomber G2 that I am after. This isn’t a very popular model, but Eduard did one, and in the Profipack version they have one of the Montecorvino planes, with a distinctive hornet emblem on its nose. But the model is out of production. I found one on eBay in France, but hesitated to click. When I eventually decided to take the plunge, I couldn’t find it, so I assumed the last one had gone. So I bought a Weekend version from a German stockist, the last Edouard 1/72 kit I could find, but without the Montecorvino decals. I did manage to find a decal set with the hornet emblem on (for a different unit in the same wing that was based in Sicily and transferred to France during 1943), so I bought that, which made the overall cost higher than the Profipack. The French Profipack promptly turned up again in another search. Jumping too quickly again. On reflection I might have been able to convert a kit of the much more widely available G4 night fighter.

On colours, in Italy the German fighters all seem to be in the standard European scheme of three shades of grey, with a white fuselage stripe for the theatre and often splashes of yellow. A lot of these planes were transferred rapidly from other theatres without time for a tropical paint-job – which would have been less relevant in Italy anyway (and a lot of the air action was over the sea). In Tunisia quite a few planes were overpainted with dark yellow and olive in varying degrees. My plan is to use the grey scheme for the Germans, except the Stuka, which I will have in a hybrid scheme. If I go for the early Bf-109 and FW-190, these will have topicalised schemes too. Perhaps I will do them in two batches.

Finally I plan to do some American planes, as these sometimes supported the British forces. Top of the list is the A-36 Apache (or Invader). This is the early Mustang with Allison engine and used as a dive-bomber. It had a very active and successful career in 1943, but then faded away, and is often forgotten about (I have even seen it mis-identified as a P40 in an Images of War book). I don’t know how close these got to the front line, but, like the Baltimore, this is so characteristic of this era that I feel I must have one. There is a kit available from Brengun, though purists quibble that it isn’t quite the right shape. Second is a P-38 Lightning, kitted out as a fighter-bomber. These did not play a big role as fighter-bomber in this theatre (or any other), but a least one German account mentions them at Salerno, and it is an interesting plane. I want an early version, such as the F, which is less available as a model than later ones, but RS Models do one, which still looks obtainable, which apparently can be kitted out with bombs. Finally I want a medium bomber, as these occasionally got close to the front line (occasionally on the wrong side). The workhorse here was the B-25 Mitchell, and there is a nice-looking Airfix model available. But I recovered from my loft an old Airfix B-26 Marauder still in its box from the 1970s. This was a well-regarded model at the time, and I have always liked the B-26. I was going to make up this model in RAF colours, but there was only one squadron of these in operation in 1943, and these mainly operated in the maritime theatre. I will need to locate decals for one of the 1943 Mediterranean-based planes, but that doesn’t look too hard.

And s that’s the plan! It’s a digression, but promises to be a lot of fun.

Review: Patton versus the Panzers

This book is written by US author Steven Zaloga, who is an expert on WW2 armoured warfare. As I try to get to grips with warfare in this era, especially in the Western theatre (including Italy), I thought this would be an interesting study. It has indeed given me a lot to think about.

The main purpose of this study is to use a series of battles in 1944 to gain an understanding of the dynamics of tank battles between the US and German forces, and in particular the idea that German tanks were vastly superior to their US counterparts. Somewhere there is a powerful meme that the Americans (or Allies perhaps) lost five Shermans to every Panther they engaged. Mr Zaloga shows that this is nonsense; his main case is that tactical factors determined which side fared better, more than the quality of their tanks.

The subject is a series of encounters between General Patton’s Third Army and an attempted counteroffensive by the Germans, in September 1944, in the French province of Lorraine, near the border with Germany. It is interesting because it is a rare encounter battle between two forces moving forwards, and it stands alongside the bigger Battle of the Bulge as being one of the very few big tank battles that the US Army experienced in Europe in the WW2. In Normandy the Germans concentrated their tanks against the British/Canadian forces. Mr Zaloga concentrates on the main tank engagements, rather than providing a complete picture of the campaign. It starts with two disastrous attacks by the Germans on the US 90th Infantry Division and the French 2nd Armoured Division. The main substance is a series of battles against the US 4th Armored Division around the town of Arracourt. The book is topped and tailed by discussions of US v German armoured clashes and the relative merits of the main tanks involved (the US Sherman and the German Panther and Panzer IV). This includes a contemporary article by an American tanker Lt. Col. Albin Irzyk on why the Sherman was a superior tank to the Panther or Tiger tanks.

The quality of the account follows the availability of the evidence. There is a fair amount of detail on the plans and senior command decisions of either side, and tallies of vehicles involved (quite a few tables, not all of wh9chnadd much value), but not all that much on the tactical detail. There are maps (though the topography is a little hard to make out) and photos of the ground now, as well as what photos there are of the fighting in Lorraine. At this stage in the war the Germans didn’t produce after-action reports, so there is only the sketchiest detail from that side, mainly highly exaggerated claims of tanks knocked out. There is more from the US side, but this is very patchy; I wanted much more detail on what happened, but at least the outcomes of each phase are clear.

The whole episode was a disaster for the Germans in terms of losses, though they did stabilise the front, which had been completely open – though this has as much to do with stretched US supply lines as German action. It has received little attention from historians. For the Germans it was doubtless forgettable; the Americans didn’t realise the significance of their success, and for them it was overshadowed by the heroics of the Bulge. At the time was also overshadowed by the Arnhem offensive further north. Mr Zaloga has interesting things to say on this, and on armoured warfare generally. The only fault I would pick is that I would be interested to know how the US experience differed from the British one; we only get some airy references which only invite more questions.

As wargames scenarios there is a big problem with these battles. This is in spite of the fact that they are encounter battles over relatively open ground – the easiest sort of battles to game. The problem is that they are too one-sided. The Americans destroyed large numbers of German tanks while losing very few of their own, and a lot of these were the obsolete M5 Stuart light tanks, even though the Germans generally had a numerical superiority. It’s lambs to the slaughter, if your rules are going to reflect the reality at all. Actually not so different from sending British tanks into the German trap in Normandy, or the US experience in Kasserine.

Of course the interesting question was why were the battles so one-sided? The Germans were mainly equipped with newly manufactured Panthers, and the Americans (and French) with old 75mm Shermans with only a few of the better armed M4A3 76mm. There were quite a few Panzer IVs too, and M10 and M18 tank destroyers on the US side (as well as those Stuarts). Under the war-games rules I was brought up with, the battles would have been one-sided all right, but not in the US’s favour.

There were two main reasons. The most important was that the Germans were mainly fresh recruits with very little training, and mainly in freshly raised units that had only been together for days – whereas the Americans and French were confident, well-led veterans. A lot of the German leadership had been drafted in from the Russian front, so not used to fighting Americans, and besides they were not being given any latitude by the German High Command, who insisted on premature attacks (of course Patton’s constant movement forward made the German command problems even more difficult). In the fighting it is clear that the Americans often got the first shot in, and were able to achieve several shots to every German one. Their leaders often charged in with heavy concentrations of armour but little reconnaissance – an approach that may have worked against the Russians, but were fatal in this theatre. The Americans were often able to counterattack the Germans in the flank. The second reason for the one-sided outcome was that the Americans had vastly superior artillery support, as well as air support. The Germans often didn’t have any of either; even when they did have artillery it often ended up in the wrong place and unable to assist. American artillery in quantity and doctrine was the best of any army in the war. Air support was intermittent because of the weather, and Mr Zaloga suggests that its effect was exaggerated especially by the Germans (as a convent excuse), but its effect on inexperienced tank crews was clearly considerable. They sometimes abandoned their tanks under air attack.

There are specific points that are highly relevant to wargames rules, apart from the importance of troop quality. The 75mm and 76mm guns were effective enough at the ranges used, generally about 800 yards, and often closer. Irzk reckoned that the problem with superior German armour and guns was at ranges in excess of 1,500 yards. A lot of popular rules systems (Battlegroup, Iron Cross, I Ain’ Been Shot Mum and Bolt Action, for example) reflect smaller scale actions at shorter ranges. At 1mm to 1m, for example, 1,500m would be five foot; some of these rules have an even bigger distance scale. The 75mm/76mm weapons should be quite effective at these ranges: I’m not sure how well rules reflect this. On reflection the issue may be the number of shots the US tanks can fire to each German one.

Which brings me to another interesting point, which is the effect of such things as gunsights and turret rotation. The Sherman’s were much superior (the periscopic sight gave the gunner much greater situational awareness; the rapid traverse enabled it to line up on target much quicker, even on the move). This surely allowed the Sherman to get more shots in and quicker, but I haven’t seen it reflected in any rules. One further thing intrigues me. Mr Zaloga isn’t very interested, but the US tank destroyers (M10s and M18s armed with the 3in AT gun) seem to have performed very well, doing more than their fair share of the killing. This is interesting because I had read that the US doctrine that tank destroyers should do the heavy lifting in tank hunting was considered a failure because they were too lightly armoured. Mobility was not a substitute. In war-games the life expectancy of these weapons is pretty short, in my experience, as wargamers use them as if they were tanks. But in the context of these battles, and with correct tactical use, the US doctrine looks sound enough. Interestingly in one engagement later in the battles a unit of M18s refused to get engaged; the tactical context was wrong (in this case charging over a ridge line to engage tanks already in action). Actually it’s quite hard to use a tank destroyer correctly on the confines of a war-games table – you need to move them as soon as they’ve revealed their position. But I’m convinced of a further point too: their open-topped turret gave the crews better situational awareness, so that they could react to battlefield events more quickly than tanks. In wargames rules open-tops are a purely negative characteristic.

And finally, Mr Zaloga mentions some of the tactics developed by Sherman crews – such as firing white phosphorus smoke shells at German tanks, or even HE shells. These served to distract the German crews and give the Sherman time to get out or work round the flank (something that slow German turret traverse wouldn’t have helped them deal with); inexperienced tank crews might even think their tank had been damaged and even abandon it. There was also an incident where a German tank was forced back by small arms fire, after its commander was killed. Modern wargames rules have a useful concept of “suppression” or being “pinned”. This clearly applies to tanks, though these have the option of retreating, and can arise from fire that is very unlikely to do serious damage to the tank.

So a lot to ponder. Do I want to recreate these battles on the tabletop? They would be a good test of wargames rules. My 20mm WW2 armies are 1943 British and German. But I do have a job lot US 6mm miniatures, and some German models that might be used. 6mm armies are quick to build, so I might well give it a go in this scale. Maybe it is a good opportunity try out Battlefront rules, which seem to have been designed with US-German encounters in mind.

The Persian War – William Shepherd

As part of my lockdown reading I have just read William Shepherd’s The Persian War in Herodotus and Other Ancient Voices, on the attempt by Persia to conquer Greece in 479/480 BC. This is a bit off-period for me, but it looked to be a very interesting book. It was.

First a word of caution. The book is published by Osprey Books, and the author has written the Osprey Campaign study on this topic. But an Osprey book it is not. It is heavy with 488 pages of text plus bibliography etc. There are some pictures in two sets of plates, but these aren’t integrated with the text. It is heavy where an Osprey is light. It is a serious study.

The driving structure of this book is the narrative of the campaign by the ancient Greek author and near contemporary Herodotus, which comprises most of what we know of the episode. This is by no means all of the ancient work – Mr Shepherd misses out great chunks not relevant to the military narrative. The quoted passages are interspersed with the author’s own commentary, and fragments of what other ancient authors have said about the events. The result is a narrative of what happened and why, and an exhaustive study of what little evidence there is. The extensive quotation of the sources is a necessity I think for ancient history. In an earlier life I took up the Second Punic War (i.e. Hannibal et al). I found I had to get a copy of Livy, and then Polybius, to get any feel for the history.

The book is interesting on a number of levels. Herodotus’s narrative is the earliest piece of historical writing we still have, certainly in the Western world. He is known, justifiably, as “the father of history”, as it is possible to trace a succession from this all the way from this piece of writing to the modern art of history, but nothing before it. Modern historians don’t count his work as a true history, but more a collection of stories strung into an overall narrative. Herodotus does not attempt to resolve conflicts in the evidence, and his critical faculties are only employed sparingly: the numbers he gives for the size of the Persian army are nonsensically huge. Thucydides, who wrote about the Peloponnesian War, which followed the Persian War, is usually given the accolade of being the first historian. But Thucydides was following Herodotus’s lead. What is so interesting about Herodotus is that he spent so much time gathering stories from all sides. He shows real interest and respect for the Persian side of things. In fact a huge part of his book is about explaining the Persians and their empire to his Greek audience. He was originally from Halicarnassus, on the south cost of what is now Turkey, and a Greek colony that was part of the Persian empire, fighting on the Persian side in the war. Not that you are left with any illusion about whose values he sympathises with. Democracy, as then understood, is equated with freedom, where as the royal Persian system was enslavement. It is the earliest development of this sort of narrative, which still rings out in modern Western thought.

A further reason to be interested is that the events Herodotus describes are of seminal historical importance. It is generally agreed that if the Persians had won this war, then modern Western civilisation would have been a very different thing. It was a pivotal moment in world history. Mr Shepherd treats this as self-evident, as writers from that day to this generally do, though the contrarian in me would like to explore an alternative view. But the events, taking in the battles of Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea, form part of our cultural heritage. The war was the making of Athens as a major power, and Athens is second only to Rome as a centre of Western heritage. Strangely enough, from our distant historical perspective the Persians civilisation seems no stranger to us than the Greeks’. The Persian empire looks more like a modern state, and its religion, Zoroastranianism, is much closer to our own. The Greeks thought it was unmanly to wear trousers. We find the importance they placed on oracles and portents a bit baffling; the Persians look a bit more modern on this front, though they had to play the game for the benefit of their Greek allies.

The book is a good read, though on occasion I find that Mr Shepherd comments a bit too much. But he is very knowledgeable and it is clearly a labour of love. I do enjoy the detective work that goes into the working out of ancient history, and there is a lot of it here.

Is there much here for the Wargamer? Not as much as I hoped. The battles are few; most of the drama is around the wider campaign, the diplomacy and the various ructions, especially amongst the Greeks. Little is actually known about the land battles, and not much more about the sea ones, and the climactic battle, Plataea is messy. There was a ten-day stand-off between the two sides, and an accidental quality to the final day’s fighting, with many forces on the field not taking part (apparently on both sides, though the Persian element of this is a bit mysterious). The two sides were highly asymmetric, with the Greek heavy infantry on one side, and the Persian lighter infantry and cavalry on the other. Neither side wanted to fight unless it could play to its own strengths, which meant that it was rare that both sides wanted to fight at the same time. In fact there is an accidental quality to all the main battles. Trying to convey this tactical essence of only engaging by mistake would be something of a challenge. A campaign board game, on the other hand, could be an interesting proposition.

And there are some mysteries about the way they fought, and how this could be represented on the tabletop. Each Greek hoplite took with him one or more servants, who apart from carrying armour and supplies while on the march, and so on, took part in the fighting as psiloi. But how many? Where did they go? What did they do? They seem to have taken cover in the hoplite formations (only much later referred to as “phalanxes” incidentally) when the Persian cavalry attacked – otherwise they would have been massacred. Also the hoplite formations seem to have been a bit more flexible than I had supposed too. Each file (if that is a correct concept) took about a metre frontage – something a later era would call “loose files”. The depth of the formation varied according to need. Representing all this on the tabletop would be a bit of a challenge. The Persian side is relatively less mysterious – though there are complexities too. The heavier infantry had shield bearers to carry and deploy their shields up front while they used their bows; once close quarter fighting was imminent the infantry would take up their shields. The Persians had a lot of hoplites too from allied greek cities, though mostly these fought less hard than the other side, it seems. One thing would be a definite plus for warmers though: visually both armies would be a lot of fun. That goes for the ships too: the naval side was critical (Salamis was a sea battle), but no less challenging to recreate – though at least much more symmetric.

But much as I would enjoy putting together tabletop armies for this era, I will give it a miss!

In Deo Veritas – answer to a prayer?

My wargaming energies are mainly devoted to two periods: the Napoleonic Wars and World War II. But I do have another set of miniatures that rarely get an outing these days: some 6mm Swedes and Russians for the Great Northern War, circa 1709 (the year of the world-changing battle of Poltava). One reason they have not seen the tabletop for so long is that I lack a suitable set rules to use.

When I acquired them my friend George and I used a set of rules called Ga Pa! These are a very clever, written by a Swede, Thomas Arnfelt, with the GNW in mind, though they can be used for other early 18th Century Wars. What was wrong? They were too innovative; George and I liked them, but they would be hard to introduce on a club night, as there were too many new ideas. And even for us, they could be a bit slow at times. They weren’t particularly clearly written either, which meant that quite a lot of time can be lost trying to interpret them for a new situation. Since I used them I notice there’s a second edition, though, which might be an improvement.

My second try was with Barry Hilton’s Under Lily Banners. They are written by a very experienced gamer with a deep love for the era (built mainly by studying conflicts further west – but he has taken on the GNW with a vengeance since). They are quite old-school and designed with bigger figures and fewer units per player than I wanted to do, though. But they were quite usable substituting centimetres for inches. What I really didn’t like about them was cavalry v cavalry combat that owed more to Hollywood than realism, which, given that cavalry is so big in this era, ruined the whole feel. I abandoned them after a single game with George. Perhaps I should have tried harder, but I still felt they were not designed to play the sort of game I wanted.

And so for years the figures stayed in their box, with large numbers of them unpainted and unbiased. I had an idea to adapt Horse Foot Guns by Pat Barker. This very expansive system did cover this era, along right up to just before WWI, but would have needed a bit of work with my basing system. Also these rules need a heavy era-specific edit to be workable (I did a Napoleonic rewrite, which I have described on this blog). Too much work.

And then a recent magazine article tickled my fancy. It was describing the launch of a new set of rules by Helion called In Deo Veritas by Philip Garton. These are designed for 17th Century warfare, but GNW marks the transition between this and the next era, and has a late 17th Century feel. And it has been designed with bigger armies and smaller figures in mind. They sounded exactly what I was looking for, so I bought a copy as lockdown reading.

I was not disappointed. They have exactly the right level of detail for me. Unit level combat is dealt with briefly, allowing more focus on higher level issues such as command and cohesion. GP covered both levels well, but that led to the rules being too arduous as a whole. ULB focused on the unit-level stuff, as it would be relatively rare to have big armies on the tabletop. Focusing on the right level is one of the critical aspects of war-games design, and this is clearly understood by Philip. Play is based on one-base units, organised into a number of “wings”. Units are mainly “brigades” of about 1,000 men, on bases of 3in by 1.5in; smaller units on 1.5in squares; larger ones (such as early tercios featuring in the early part of the era) and irregular cavalry on 3in squares. 1in corresponds to about 40 yards.

I don’t want to describe the mechanics in too much detail. Anyway I haven’t played them yet (though I can’t wait). Each wing is given an order (Advance, Hold or Withdraw). Movement is one wing at a time activated in random sequence of both sides (they suggest using cards – but it’s the same as Warlord’s bag of dice). Then there is simultaneous combat, with firing, then melee. Finally the cohesion issues are resolved. There is almost no attempt to model the different types of armament of the units (e.g. pikes v muskets or matchlocks v flintlocks). If that kind of tactical detail is your thing, then you need a lower level set of rules. Cohesion/fatigue is modelled at unit, wing and army level.

How would they adapt for 1709 GNW? In this period the Swedes fought a modernised Russian army under Peter the Great. Flintlock muskets were the main armament, but the Swedes still armed up to a third of their infantry unis with pikes. The Russians used pikes too, but in smaller numbers. The formations were deep by 18th Century standards, the three-rank, platoon-firing units were in the future (except maybe the contemporary Dutch and English). So it has a late 17th century feel. There are two issues that I think might need rules modification. The first is the Swedish Ga Pa! doctrine of shock tactics, both for infantry and cavalry, which were unique at the time (even the cavalry indulged in extensive mounted firefights). I’m not sure if the Swedes need special advantages in melee (and probably disadvantages in firing), or whether quality differences in the rules already will suffice. A Swedish army should be able to take on much larger opposing armies, provided that it is very aggressive. The other issue is the Russian cavalry. They had almost no cavalry as commonly understood, but lots of dragoons served the role, and these rarely fought on foot (but could and sometimes did). In the rules dragoons fight in small units; the Russians often used them en masse. Russian dragoons could be treated as inferior cavalry brigades, or they could be mounted on brigade bases with special provisions. A further possible issue (I don’t have my GNW books with me) is that brigades are a bit on the large side in this war – but I think these rules would work by substituting battalions for brigades.

A much bigger issue for me is basing. All my miniatures are based on 20mm squares, with three bases for a typical infantry unit and four for cavalry. I like the visual appearance of this (especially the Swedes with a central block of pikes), and that is one of the reasons I got into this era in the first place. The basing was quite an effort too (many of the infantry figures were cut off their strips and placed individually). I am not rebasing. I have some ideas on how this might adapt my current basing system, but they have to be tried out. Since I am between homes at the moment, as well as lockdown, with most of my possessions, including my GNW figures, in storage, this will have to wait.

It was very interesting to read the book’s accounts of six battles at the end, turned into scenarios.17th Century warfare is not something I know much about. What struck me from these accounts is how disorderly the battles were, with sometimes fortunes changing at the very end, and how independently the different wings operated from each other. They look to be great subjects for wargaming, especially multi-player games. These rules seem to reflect that very well, and should be a great basis for club games. Alas that will be some time in the future for me!

WW2 – I Ain’t Been Shot Mum

Domestic circumstances mean I can’t go back to painting miniatures (we’re about to put the house onto the market), so my hobby time at home is largely devoted to pondering rules. After spending quite a bit of time (successfully) on Napoleonics, I switched to WW2, where my group at the club has failed to find anything satisfactory for our club games.

So far I have been trying to create a mash up of Battlefront WW2, Battlegroup, and Iron Cross. This uses the (largely) the IC game scales (units, distances, etc.), the BF turn system and BG armour and gun ratings, with quite a lot of other ideas thrown in. It’s a struggle, though the sort of challenge I enjoy. It is much harder doing WW2 rules than Napoleonic! While making some progress I thought I was missing a certain something, and decided to acquire yet another set of rules for inspiration. This was I Ain’t Been Shot Mum (IABSM) from Too Fat Lardies. These are used by other players at the club, and TFL are an interesting publisher, whose motto “play the period, not the rules” I wholeheartedly agree with. This post is my reaction from a read-through. I haven’t tried them out.

Trying them out would in fact be less than straightforward. They are card-driven, and a set of cards would have to be created first, or bought; the current logistics at home would make it even harder for a solo trial game (though the system is an excellent solo system). In terms of game scale they fit my brief quite nicely: company level actions with mixed infantry and armour, with a 1to1 scaling of vehicles. Ground scale is 12in to 80 yards, probably not far from Iron Cross (which does offer a scale) – and a bit higher than my current working model (1in to 10m). But game play is not such a good fit.

IABSM follows the current trend of individual unit activation, with units from both sides being mixed up. In this case it is driven by cards. Each unit (platoon) has a card, which is shuffled up and then drawn, together with a “tea break” card which ends the turn, usually before all units are activated. A lot of other cards are added to the pack, including for “Big Men” – leaders. This is a very TFL feature – they love to represent the way that individual leaders can shape a battle. This is a very interesting and flexible system, and it would be fun to see how it works. Once activated each unit has a number of actions (up to four), which be used to move, fire, etc. I find this problematic on a number of levels, though these issues plague other rules systems too. You can loose off several rounds while the other guy just sits there; you can do a “moving ambush” – moving into view of the enemy and then firing before he can react; the highly sequential way in which things are played potentially slows things down, especially for multiplayer games. I may well have exaggerated all these concerns. You can put troops on overwatch, which allows them to react to enemy movement in the enemy turn (though your unit must have been activated earlier in the sequence). A lot of the firing actually takes place at the end of a turn, which is simultaneous (as far as I can tell, I haven’t found that bit of the rules).

A second issue is that the rules are actually quite complicated, though making the usual claims about fast play and simplicity. Infantry sections are made up of men 1to1, with individual casualties; “shock” is tracked for all units as an accounting for morale; AFVs can acquire several varieties of damage. Firing looks quite involved with quite a few dice, because of the number of different effects a hit can have (killing figures, shock, two levels of suppression, and vehicle damage), with different processes for infantry fire, fire on vehicles and HE fire, not to mention indirect fire and air strikes. This makes it much more complicated than any of the systems I am familiar with (Iron Cross, Battlefront, Battlegroup in particular). Now this is probably all quite easy to pick up and play, and overall the rules seem less complicated than Battlefront, though not the other systems, which partly because these other systems have gaps. You would definitely want to play your first game with somebody that knows them, though that is true of most systems.

I won’t be trying them out on my usual gaming partners at the club, but these look very interesting rules, put together by experts in game design. I will find myself filching a number of ideas. I especially like the blinds system, which is particularly flexible. This is part of a spotting system, which looks like an elegant compromise, though I am confused about one or two aspects. (Why is there +1 to the dice for spotting a target that is firing, when blinds can only fire if they reveal themselves?).

I did not find the answer to my missing “certain something” on my current project. I am working on a more traditional IgoUgo turn system, where all units on the same side fire at once, if eligible, but units react faster to each other. This system is based on the Fire and Fury one (and used by Battlefront), but with a twist. A static unit can fire at the beginning and end of its turn, with the enemy eligible for defensive fire in between. This means the fire sequence across a pair of turns for static units is ABABAB, and not BAAB as with the classic system. What I am missing is an idea of what I call “game narrative”. This game is played across a relatively small area (500 to 600m across) with powerful and very noisy weapons. This means that the action should not be too complex – as implied by the activation systems of IABSM, IC and even BF. Events should evolve as a single battle rather than a complex multiple interaction between individual units. For example, when an artillery bombardment is going on (or an airstrike), nothing much else should happen – it is an interruption to the flow of events. This leads me to the idea that one side or the other holds the initiative, for example when conducting an assault, with the other hunkering down and firing like mad. The initiative idea doesn’t have to be baked into a game system, as players should respond to the tabletop situation in that way without special rules. But the idea of one side having the initiative and the other having fewer options might be a way to speed the game along.

But how do you determine who has the initiative, and integrate into this a system for bringing on off-table resources, such as bombardments and reinforcements? I’m still pondering on that one. But I’m hoping to get a fast, highly interactive game that is suitable for a club night, while retaining something of the feel of WW2 warfare.