1943: Light Mud

At last! Back to the painting, which I had been forced to stop in February by pressures from the rest of life. Naturally I am starting where I left off, with my 1943 forces. I need to paint enough so that I can get a game going. When I broke off I was in the middle of my most complex project to date: the Royal Scots Greys’ Shermans at Salerno in September 1943. This means resolving one of the key issues when doing British vehicles in the Italian theatre. What is Light Mud?

Light Mud was the new camouflage colour introduced in 1943 by the British command in the Mediterranean, as British forces became embroiled in the mountains of Tunisia. The desert camouflage schemes based on Light Stone and Desert Pink were no longer appropriate – too pale. Meanwhile the service drabs of vehicles shipped from Britain (dark greens and browns) were too dark. Other colours had been used, including Mid Stone, and various mixes, but Light Mud became the new standard by order from April 1943. It was meant to be used in conjunction with a disruptive pattern in Blue-Black – though it often wasn’t.

But what was it? It was manufactured locally (in Egypt) and any specifications have been lost. I doubt whether many original samples of the paint survive, or not without irredeemable weathering. Almost all photos are black and white, and the colour pictures are unreliable. There are verbal descriptions that mention grey and khaki. This would appear to rule out one suggestion, that the colour was produced from a mix of Dark Stone (a dark yellow) and Desert Pink. That would have given a sort of light tan. It could have been a mix of Desert Sand and Dark Olive Green, the standard colour for disruptive patterns – my personal pet theory, as it would have been a good way of using up stocks of redundant paint. We are left with the idea that it was a light to medium grey, with a dash of khaki about it.

These illustrations from Star Decals is where most people seem to end up.

Another source has been a book published by AK paints called The Real Colors of WWII. This claims to based on careful research, including on surviving samples. It includes quality-controlled colour chits. Inevitably, almost, most of this effort seems to have been on German colours, because that is where most hobbyist interest is. They do have a chit for Light Mud, but I don’t know what sources it is based on. That looks greyer and darker than the star decals sheet, but then the same can be said of the Olive Drab. Tonally the colour seems to be very similar to Dunkelgelb, the standard mid to late war German vehicle colour. But it is greyer, though not that far from the grey end of the spectrum of different Dunkelgelbs. I have used the AK book as my main guide on hue, but looking for a rather paler tone than the chit, because of the scale effect and the use of Quickshade later in the process.

I decided to use the same method that I used to produce Khaki. Start with a base colour of Raw Sienna (an orange-brown), dull it down with Prussian Blue, and add white. I used student colours for the blue and the white, but used up some old Liquitex artist grade Raw Sienna, as I don’t yet have student paint for that pigment. My policy is to use student paints for vehicle base coats, and move to artist quality for finer work.

This took a few goes. After a few months out of practice I may have lost my touch a bit – though it took me just as long to reach a satisfactory Dunkelgelb for my Germans. On two occasions I thought I had it right, only to decide that it was too dark or too green once the model was fully dry. It may be that the paints aren’t drying true – a bit of a risk perhaps when you use student colours.  The result is here, with one of my German Pz IIIs for comparison. The German tank should probably be a bit greyer, but it looks to be within the authentic range. 

It does look a bit green, especially compared to the Star Decals sheets. But apparently that’s how it was. Incidentally it is one of the issues when with working with khaki – it sometimes looks green and at others brown.

The next step will be putting on the Blue-Black disruptive colour. The Salerno pictures show high contrast with the Light Mud, before the dust patina built up.

 

 

Airfix Vintage Classics – a trip down memory lane

Like so many men of my age, Airfix polystyrene plastic kits and polythene figures played a big role in my boyhood. It some cases, like me, it led to a lifelong interest in wargaming. In the 1960s and 1970s it took up much of the space now taken by computer games. I spent hours in seclusion working on my kits or reading up about WW2 aircraft, tanks and ships without needing to do any tiresome social interaction. My wife is amazed at my ability to identify WW2 aircraft from the briefest glimpse on film footage.

But times changed and Airfix, the leading company in the business, fell on hard times. It is now part of the Hornby group, and going through a minor revival. Meanwhile my interest was renewed with the discovery of a number of my old models in the loft, and led to my current 1943 project – reviving something that I had left off in 1979, when I left home at the age of 21.

Funnily enough, I find the old Airfix stuff unsatisfactory these days. The land models are in 1/76 scale when I prefer 1/72. They are a bit fiddly to put together, and I don’t like the polythene tracks used on the tanks. And some of the old models (I’m thinking of the Sherman and the Tiger) are a bit crude. The polythene figures are even more unsatisfactory. Though the material enables a fine level of detailing, it doesn’t take paint very well. and though the figures improved considerably over time, I still don’t like them. The Germans are early war when I want mid to late war. The British don’t look right at all. and they are 1/76 – though this matters less on figures. Plastic Soldier Company (PSC) do a wonderful range of plastic models which are much better suited to my needs. AB’s metal figures are exquisite, even if the weapons are a bit chunky.

So I was a bit surprised when I got a promotional email from Airfix advertising their Vintage Classics releases. They provoked some genuine interest. Airfix’s range these days is rather limited, mainly based on aircraft, and modernised and retooled. Clearly there was demand for some of the old models, which were worth re-releasing without modernising. The promotional material is unashamedly nostalgic, pointing out that they are using the old artwork too, some of which is a bit crude. These releases are mainly vehicles and ships, which don’t feature strongly, or at all, in current ranges. First to come out, though, are WW1 plastic figures. These were probably the best figures that Airfix produced, with sets for British, French, German and Americans, and a British horse artillery set. I bought the lot as a teenager, and I still have them. There some familiar problems. A lot of useless poses. The British and Germans are early war, the French and Americans later. So no Lewis gunner. Still, though I’m very interested in WW1 from a historical perspective, I have ruled it out as a wargaming/modelling project. What interests me are the WW2 vehicles, none of which have been released yet.

These are the Matador and 5.5in gun, 88mm Flak gun and tractor, 25pdr and Quad, Bren carrier and 6pdr, 40mm Bofors and tractor, M3 half track, PAK 40 and truck, Panzer IV, Panther tank, StuG III,  Churchill VII, and T34. Of these I already have the M3 half track, Bren/6pdr, Pz IV and Churchill in abundance. I am pressing them into use – but if I was buying new I would go to PSC. The Airfix 25pdr/Quad model was a nice one (I actually have the gun model converted into a 17pdr Partridge, using the Panther barrel) – but PSC do a good one too which include things like a muzzle-brake. The Panther and StuG III are strong on nostalgia (being amongst the first AFV models I owned) but are early models and a little crude (the gun barrels are a little thin, the are 1/76, and have those polythene tracks). There are good alternatives from PSC and others. I already have the Armourfast StuG III. The T34 isn’t in scope for my project; we had a lot of fun with this model, but I’m sure a lot of modern offerings beat it. The Pak 40 and truck are a late model that I never owned – so probably quite good. But I’ve already bought them from PSC, and 1/72 is a more satisfactory scale.

That leaves three models. Firstly the 88 (with SdKfz 7 tractor). This was a lovely model, though the only crew were some stiff passengers for the tractor. It was quite feasible to take the gun from deployed to transported mode. The 88 and SdKfz 7 are not in the PSC range and are harder to find in 1/72. Actually, though an iconic weapon it is rather neglected in wargames – it was really a long range weapon and not so well suited to the skirmish games that comprise games with larger models. Still, I do want one. I’m also less worried about 1/72 for these larger pieces. In fact I had been wondering whether this model was still available.

I never owned the Bofors gun – it was a later model – which means the standard is likely to be quite high. It is another piece that is harder to get. But I would like to bring in aircraft and AA guns at some point, and the Bofors guns played a big role in the rear areas of the Sicily and Salerno beach heads, which in the latter case came into the front line at some points. The Morris 15 cwt tractor is a useful item too – though I’d prefer these smaller trucks to be in 1/72.

And finally the 5.5in/Matador. This where nostalgia really kicks in. I really don’t need these for my wargaming. Medium artillery is off-table stuff. But this was one of my favourites as a child/teenager. It’s hard to say exactly why. The model we had wasn’t even mine – it was my younger brother’s – and painted up by my older brother (easily the most accomplished modeller among us). The gun was a simple but very satisfactory model. The Matador looked just like any other lorry at first, but we soon came to appreciate its size (actually a bit like the SdKfz 7). The Matador was a magnificent bit of British engineering. So I feel that I have to have it. Even two.

One final point is worth making. These models are good value for money. You can get them in metal (SHQ) or, (in some cases) resin (Milicast), but at a lot more cost. The Matador/5.5in combination would cost £20 at SHQ; the Airfix model is, or will be, £5.99.  The Zvezda plastic Bofors gun costs £7.99 without a tractor; the Airfix offer is £8.99 with the Morris (though I don’t know what either of these supply for crews – they are easy enough to get in metal). It’s the same story with the 88. They aren’t available yet, but I’m in no hurry. I have a plastic mountain to get through.

 

Scream Aim Fire rules review

The author of these rules, Jamie Kirkpatrick, asked me to review them, and emailed a Word copy to me. I like to help out other people in the hobby, so I obliged.

Scream Aim Fire is available on Amazon for £7.50 (that link is to the WW2 – Napoleonic is here). It started life as a set of WW2 skirmish rules, and it was then adapted to Napoleonic wars. If you think that sounds a bit odd (I did) you need to understand what these rules are about. They are not about historical gaming. They are a bit like an old-fashioned Hollywood movie (or a video game). The uniforms, vehicles and terrain may look  historical, but the thing itself is designed for entertainment pure and simple. If that bothers you (it bothers me) then these rules aren’t for you (they’re not for me). But that doesn’t mean you won’t get the quick and entertaining game that the author promises.

The version of the rules I have for WW2 covers about 28 pages. That makes them sound a lot longer than they are. They are written in 24 pt font (the usual default is 12pt and professional texts are usually smaller still) and double-spaced. You might be able to get the text onto 3 pages of more conventional text. There are a few pictures but no more than normal these days (actually a bit less). Opinions vary on this sort of rule-writing approach. The upside is that they are very quick to read. The downside is that there are lots of gaps which you will have to fill in for yourself. For example, nowhere does it define what a unit is. But that’s pretty easy to figure out from context (a vehicle or squad of men).

What of the game system? It seems designed to produce a random pattern of play. There looks to be little point to applying any strategy; you need to go with the flow and grab whatever opportunities present. Play is by random activation (each unit has a token or card which you pick out blind). The rules don’t say if you put the card or token back, but by inference you must. There is also a random event token/card, which is quite a neat idea. Once you  pick a unit you have to throw dice to activate, and and see what it can do (you might be forced to move or fire, rather than choose which). At pretty much every stage a dice throw can thwart you. At regular intervals a “shock and awe” means that your unit might disappear if you throw a six. The rules cover artillery and even aircraft (if aircraft are brought on the other side brings on its own one and there’s a dogfight).

I have not tried playing them. The rules require you to prepare two things which aren’t part of the normal wargames kit before you start. You need those cards or tokens to see which units get picked (and a random event), and  you need a bag of tokens marked one to five, which are used at various stages. Neither is hard but it stopped me giving them a 20 minute go. Without playing them it’s hard to tell you how the game flows. My guess is very erratically, and that is the chief source of entertainment.

I have only had a glance through the Napoleonic version. But they share the same mechanisms. There’s no need to worry about columns, lines and squares!

The verdict? These are quite unlike anything I’ve looked at before. If you aren’t bothered by historical authenticity, and you like being entertained by random events, and don’t mind filling in any gaps in the rules yourself, then you might like them. They look very suitable for solo play (in fact they probably work better solo that with two or more players). If you want to make the transition from video games to the full 3-D experience of tabletop gaming then this may be worth a go. But I would be a little surprised if that covers any regular readers to this blog.

Back to Napoleonics – Bloody Big Battles

BBB in progress 21 May 2018

This week we took a break from our WW2 games. My Napoleonic figures got an outing as we decided to try out Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles (BBB) on club night. It went quite well.

BBB is a set of rules based on the Fire and Fury game system, designed for European wars in the later 19th Century. But they are quite usable for the Napoleonic era (and doubtless for the American Civil War too). I like them because they have a very stripped down simplicity, while also being a successful system for recreating big historical battles (as its name suggests). I have used them before for a recreation of Waterloo in 2015.

Their simplicity is one of the things that drew me to their use on club night. But there’s another factor: the Fire and Fury command system is ideal for multi-player games. So many rule systems require some sort of top down command process that makes it quite hard to run different parts of the table in parallel. But in BBB there is no higher command system; no PIPs to allocate; nobody decides which units to move and which to leave. You throw dice to see whether each unit moves, in any order you like. Commanders’ role is confined to affecting this dice roll if close enough.

This did not work so well on this week’s outing, as I was the only player who knew the rules, and I was a little rusty. So instead of players working in parallel, they worked in sequence guided by me. This slowed the game down a lot, and we were nowhere near finished at the end. But the players were starting to get the hang of it, and if every player has a quick reference sheet, I could see this working fine. Perhaps I need to step back and act as gamesmaster next time to facilitate this. But the players seemed quite happy – they were expecting more complexity than there was.

The first question was how to adapt the rules to the era. This is where I came apart in my Waterloo game. I made several changes then, especially around the use of cavalry, and they worked badly. In fact I was assured that such changes were unnecessary. I had a very interesting dialogue with Chris Pringle, which you can read on my Waterloo post. Taking his comments to heart, I made very few changes this time. I looked up an old magazine article on adapting to BBB for a game of Borodino, and found myself rejecting most its modest changes (incorporating a square formation, for example). I made two main changes. First (which I had from my Waterloo game) I halved the figure scale for cavalry, so as to double the number of cavalry bases on the table. Second I adopted the fire table from the magazine article, which lengthened the ranges of artillery and musketry. The official versions were meant to reflect the relative strengths and weaknesses of these weapons compared to more modern ones. Two further adaptations were not changes. I did not use the rule on skirmisher bases. Regulars to this blog know that I get uptight about the treatment of skirmishers in wargames rules, and I wasn’t convinced by this one, both visually on the table (the skirmisher base is kept in close order in the main unit) and on historicity, in the Napoleonic context – it makes more sense when all armies used specialist jager/chasseur units at divisional level. More to the point I wanted to keep this first outing simple. I will return to this. A second change was to the way close combat assaults are determined. Instead of adding some factors and subtracting others from your dice, I arranged modifiers so that each side only had additions, which they could record on a D6, which could then be added to the score of the thrown dice; the result depended on the difference between totals thrown by each side. This worked very well, and Assaults did not get us into the tangle they did in my Waterloo game.

What of the scenario? Chris suggests that scenarios should be based on history, so that the game can be used to appreciate the choices that were available in real battles. There is no system points balancing and terrain choices. Scenario design is a very important element in how the system works – as Chris made very clear in his comments to my blog. I picked on Ligny – since that fitted with my French and Prussian armies (my Austrians not being table-ready). But this was too big for an evening game – so I took the situation of what would have happened if the French had pressed their attack a couple of hours earlier, as commentators suggested they should, before the Gerard’s and Thielmann’s corps arrived. I did some rapid standardisation of unit sizes. Prussian infantry units (four in each corps) were 6 bases (representing about 8,000 men), apart from one smaller unit which was 4 bases. I mainly classed these as Trained, but one unit in each of the two corps was Raw. The cavalry units were 4 bases, and all ordinary trained cavalry. Each corps had three artillery units, including one heavy. In the end I decided not to play horse artillery (which isn’t in fact catered for in the main rules). All the French infantry units were four bases (about 5,000 men). The line infantry (four units) was classed as veteran, the Young Guard as Trained Aggressive and the Old and Middle Guard as Veteran Aggressive. The cavalry units were 3 or 4 bases. They were mainly (three units) classed as Veteran, except the Cuirassiers (Trained Aggressive); the Guard cavalry was Veteran Aggressive. I gave the French three standard artillery batteries, on the assumption that any reserve batteries were still working their way up to the field.

Unfortunately I didn’t have time to do a proper job on the terrain, and then I couldn’t find the stream pieces in the club’s terrain boxes. I plumped some hills randomly across the table, except one which was formed the basis of the Prussian I Korps position. We experienced a slight technical problem. The Tiny Wargames mat we were using proved too slippery when placed over hills, so we used some slightly incompatible hills placed on top.

How did the game go? We started with the Prussian I Korps in place with II Korps moving in from the Prussian left. The French had four divisions of line infantry ready for the attack (three from Vandamme’s corps in the centre and one, Girard, from Reille’s corps to the left. They threw Vandamme’s divisions into a frontal assault on I Korps position by attacking Ligny, though the left hand one wouldn’t budge. The line cavalry moved out to the right to counter II Korps. The attacks on Ligny didn’t have much effect, except that the defenders got a short on ammo result, and had to be relieved. After two moves of failed movement throws Vandamme’s left division finally got moving; it joined an attack with Girard (from Reille’s corps) on the St Armand complex. This they did at right angles: one frontally and one in the flank. Though Girard was beaten back by strong fire, the other division’s flank attack went better: a bloody assault with two drawn assault rounds gutted the Prussian unit, while the French veteran status meant that it could fight on. Meanwhile the II Korps moved in on the French right. The French cavalry was immobilised by first artillery and then infantry fire. One of Vandamme’s divisions was called off to face this threat, while two Guard units were also pushed into this sector. The battle was slipping away from the French.

There are a couple of pointers here relevant to the historical battle. First it shows why Napoleon waited for Gerard’s corps to arrive, even though this allowed the Prussians to strengthen their position. An  attack on the Prussian position really needed to be conducted from two directions: frontally on Ligny, and on the Prussian right flank through St Armand. They needed two corps to do that, and if Gerard wasn’t there he’d have to have used the Guard, which was a reserve formation. Second it shows how terrain protected the French right, and how important this was. In our game II Korps successfully did what on the day III Korps tried and failed to do. The terrain obstacles that got in their way weren’t in our game – though they looked relatively slight on the map – a shallow stream and some rather open villages. I will have to look at the detailed map more closely to understand what it was that made an attack from this direction so hard.

And the rules? I think the longer weapon ranges were probably OK. Though it means infantry engaging at the equivalent of nearly a kilometre apart (6 inches on the table) this represents the more spread out nature of warfare not fitting our wargames representation – this would have included the use of skirmishers and divisional artillery. But it did mean that infantry could pressure cavalry with firepower, and I’m not sure how historical this is (to be fair cavalry wasn’t supposed to be good at holding ground in this era though). The fighting is often pretty indecisive with units being pushed about and forth without suffering serious damage. This means that I suspect that one turn covers quite a bit less than an hour’s worth of fighting (though St Armand went more to type). I felt this with our Waterloo game too, especially with the Prussian advance being slowed down relatively easily. It was probably a mistake to class the Cuirassiers as Trained though, as this makes them much more likely to be stopped by a bit of firepower. The Young Guard should probably not be classified as such either – perhaps the Aggressive rating (which affects the Assault) should be dropped to distinguish them from the veteran Guard units.  Or the older Guard units could be given “Devastating Volleys”.

Many of the issues reflect scenario design, and our inexperience. The French in the attack needed to think of more ways to achieve advantages for fire and assault. The skirmisher rules may give them more opportunities for this, though I remain sceptical of the BBB rule. Maybe introduce this on our next game. In fact I have an idea to represent skirmishers by deploying special bases in front of the units, and using this to extend the infantry firepower range (instead of the 6 inch allowance), but having cavalry able to suppress this. That’s for the future. I have learned to resist fiddling with mature rules systems like BBB.

One thing that will need more work is scenarios. I might try my Ligny minus scenario again, but with more historical terrain – but this doesn’t look the most exciting game for a club night. I have a battery of scenarios from the Crimean War onwards published by Chris Pringle, which I could try adapting for my French and Prussian armies. Otherwise I need to look at some mid-sized Napoleonic battles. I also need to think about getting my 15mm Napoleonic armies into better shape. I will resist trying to build some armies for Bismarck’s wars though!

I also like the visual appearance with my 15mm figures. The variable sized units of three or more bases look much better than the standard two base units required for Blucher or Horse, Foot, Guns, the two best alternatives. Cavalry units still look a little pathetic in 15mm. I am considering adjusting the figure scale down again, to be one third of the infantry (which means that the men to figure ratio would in fact be equal, as my cavalry bases have two figures and infantry six). I’m also thinking about something similar for artillery, which I think is a bit too compact (and adjusting the fire tables). But not until we have more experience under our belts. Meanwhile BBB Napoleonics look very promising for club nights.

An outing with Rapid Fire rules

Our journey with 20mm WW2 games at the club continued with yet another set of rules this week. These were Rapid Fire, which have been around for quite a while. Originally published in 1994, we used the second edition published in 2005. I think another edition might be in the works. We thought they might suit our style of play on club nights. The game wasn’t that successful, though how much of that was down to scenario design and how much to the rules is hard to say.

We played an encounter game, similar to the previous week’s game of Iron Cross, with the British beefed up by the addition of three Churchills to the infantry force, and the transfer of the two M10s to support a reduce armoured force of three Shermans, to which I also added a company of armoured infantry (I was gamesmaster). The points values of both sides were identical. But the game proved one-sided. The Germans moved first. Long road movement distances (30in for faster vehicles) let them seize the village at the heart of the scenario in the first turn. To compensate I let the frustrated British have reserved fire. So the Germans lost two tanks in the first move, out of the three in their right wing forces. The British lined up their five vehicles, with a 17pdr, two 76mms and two 75mms into a formidable wall of fire, which seemed to paralyse the attack from that side. On the German left, the other force, with stronger armour (including a Panther) decided to tangle with the Churchills. This wasn’t so one-sided. Both sides lost two tanks, and the Germans their Marder tank destroyer. But when the British left’s wall of tanks moved across it was able to knock out the remaining Panther without too much difficulty, and then threaten to use its wall of fire to systematically reduce the infantry in the village. The Germans needed to be less hasty and use a concealed approach to unite in the centre before taking the strong British armour on.

So, what about the rules? They have a very old-school feel about them. The simple IGOUGO turn structure (albeit modified for reserved or overwatch fire) with no random activation, is part of this, and a heavy reliance on D6 throws. Admittedly this is not so unlike so unlike Fistful of TOWs (FFT), the system we use for micro-armour, which is rather more modern. But FFT uses more dice to resolve fire. For example, in antitank fire you typically throw three dice to see if you hit, a handful to see if you penetrate, and maybe one more for a “quality check”. In RF you throw just one die in a combined hit/penetration throw, followed by another damage throw if you hit.  And in FFT you have a concept of suppression at unit level, unlike RF, where you just kill people off until morale of bigger units is affected.

The architecture is very basic. There are just 6 grades of armour (including soft-skinned) and 6 grades of gun for antitank effect. Also just three classes of movement for most vehicles. That leads to some curiosities at the margins. The German 88mm in the Tiger I is classed the same (grade 2) as the longer 75mm weapon in the Panzer IV (though it has better HE capability). The Panther (with its grade 1 gun) is classed as a fast vehicle able to keep up with light tanks and armoured cars. Given the long standing of these rules, I’m sure all of this has been debated at great length. Incidentally there is no distinction between front and side armour.

This sets the tone. They are very simplified rules, in reaction to a trend towards mind-numbing detail when they were first written. But, unlike Crossfire, the rules are pretty comprehensive. That made them quite slow at first, as you were tempted to look things up when something unfamiliar occurred. But before long they should become very quick – much quicker for the same size of forces than Iron Cross, though not necessarily that FFT. There is no thought to produce house rules, because these rules are well-written, cover all the things they should, and have been endlessly tested in action. The only thing I’m tempted to do is to slow down the Panther. Iron Cross is very immature by comparison.

In this day and age, we find simplified mechanisms quite acceptable, so this is a feature rather than a criticism. The first thing that tends to stick in the throat with RF, though, is their basic design concept. They are meant to be brigade level rules, with whole battalions of infantry on the table, and three tank models to a company. That means a 5:1 ratio for vehicles and 15:1 for infantry. And yet it plays as a 1:1 skirmish game, with vehicles being knocked out by single shots and troops storming individual houses. One my fellow players said that the best thing to do was to play it as a 1:1 game, and forget that you are dealing with bigger scales. There is deliberately no designed distance scale (in common with most modern rules, it needs to be said), which no doubt means that shorter ranges are longer, if you see what I mean. Overall it is probably about 1mm to the metre (like Battlegroup, I think; Iron Cross is about 2.5mm to the metre; FFT is 0.25mm to the metre unless you scale it up). Of course what this scale up means is that you can have all sorts of nice toys on the table, up to artillery pieces. This is a bit of a fudge, but actually not so very different from games like Bolt Action and Battlegroup, which try to recreate the flavour of larger encounters in a 1:1 skirmish. For a club game I’m not going to stress too much.

The big problem with the game is similar to that with FFT. The sequence of shooting is critical, as your force can get  shattered in a single round depending who fires first, because you can fire all your stuff at once. Hence the effectiveness of Pete’s row of British armour. Fire is often very effective. It does not have the big problem with FFT of the move distances being too long relative to weapons ranges, though road movement is generous compared to other sets of rules. You still have the mobile ambush problem that I discuss further below. Iron Cross overcomes this by its much more interactive play, which turns encounters into duels rather than one side blasting the other to pulp before it can reply. It also limits the number of pieces you move and fire. And further, in Iron Cross there is a lot of firing and missing. The basic chance to hit is 60%, or 70% at short range (though it goes up to 74% at short range in my rules if everybody sits still), an even then it often bounces off. If you have a powerful gun in RF it is much higher than this (often 5/6 to inflict a guaranteed damage). In Battlegroup activation rules limit the number of pieces you can move and fire in one turn, so it is harder to deliver this sort of overwhelming blow, plus direct fire is subject to an “observation” test. Also the concept of suppression, much used in modern rules, allows an intermediate step, though less so in tank to tank combat. (It isn’t really fair to call suppression rules modern, since I first came across them in the Wargames Research Group rules published in 1973). There are observation rules in RF, to be fair, which we should have used more than we did.

I think a big problem with rules like FFT and RF is that they allow mobile ambushes. That is you can move a substantial force of armour out from a concealed position (or from out range in the case of FFT) and gun down an opposing force that is moving forward before it can fire back. I have a conceptual preference for rules that force you to either move or fire; or if you must allow units to do both, to do the firing first (as per the old WRG rules). Move and expose your self; or fire and never get anywhere. That, to me, is the essential choice at the heart of mid-20th Century warfare.

Still, I’m not writing off RF for club games yet. They play fast and are well-crafted in their way. What clearly doesn’t work so well is the sort of contrived scenario that we played this week. Encounter battles did happen, but it is rare for both sides to know where the other side was and was not even then. We will try an attack-defence game next time, using concealed placement tokens. Also I want to bring in indirect fire from mortars at least. But that’s not going to be for quite a few weeks now.

Iron Cross house rules – first go

Following my previous post I have been inspired to draft my first set of house rules for Iron Cross. For interest I publish them here. They are not playtested, and I expect them to throw up problems. But they might be of interest even so. I probably won’t be trying them out for a bit (my next game at the club is likely to be Rapid Fire), but while it is fresh in my mind, I want to set down what I was thinking.

These house rules are quite extensive: 8 pages of fairly small text. However, they only make sense when compared to the original booklet, though this is written in a very different style. So I think it is perfectly OK to publish without treading on the original publishers’ toes. The main changes are to the firing rules, which have been extensively rewritten, though the basic framework remains the original one. The other big change is the addition of close combat rules, based on an idea from the Iron Cross forum. Further to that there are extensions to bring in buildings, observation rules and a new mechanism for indirect fire. The classifications have been played around with too, including some ideas from the free extension sheets on the official website.

Best to start with the firing rules. These are where most of the criticisms of the original come. There are both questions about the balance (too generous to tanks vs. infantry? Or too difficult to kill infantry?), and how fiddly they are when you start to bring in all the different types of weapon, especially against infantry. The basic framework is quite simple. You throw one or two D10s to see if you hit, then there is a penetration throw and a damage throw for vehicles – or a casualty throw for infantry targets. But there’s a twist at each step. One or two D10s for the first throw? Normally one, but 2 for infantry targets at close range. Except machine guns, which have 2 dice against infantry at all ranges. If you throw two dice, and hit with both, do you get two morale markers straightaway or not? That depends. Ditto with the casualty throw. One of the tests of writing rules is the Quick Reference Sheet (QRF). Is it easy to summarise on a QRF, with a table perhaps? I have tried with the original rules, and it is a struggle.

So I have tried to put together something that is, if not actually simpler, is at least simpler to describe. Unfortunately this simplification process runs against another one that makes things a bit more complicated: filling in the gaps. For example the treatment of vehicle-mounted machine guns, which are not mentioned in the original. We used the rules for tripod machine guns in our trial game, which made them too effective. Machine guns in tanks are not the same as tripod guns, which are geared up for sustained fire. When the targets are close, the tank is usually battened down and visibility is limited. That’s especially true of the hull gun.

I digress. The basic principle is that for all firing you use two D10s at short range (up to 12in) and one at long. Except when you don’t. Tripod MGs use 2 D10s at all ranges and all targets. Other support groups, and vehicle MGs use one D10 at all ranges and all targets. This may simulate the use of personal weapons if the main weapon (a mortar say) isn’t appropriate. There is only one morale marker for even if you score two hits, but if you get two hits on the casualty die, both stand. The dice modifier for short range is dispensed with. There is table for the casualty throw showing how the different weapons differ. This includes a reclassification of guns into light, medium and heavy HE.  And what happens for anti-vehicle fire at close range? If you get one hit, the normal rules apply (but no modifier to armour at very close range). If you score two hits though, you add two to the penetration throw. I rationalise this as being that at close ranges you are more likely to aim at and hit a weak spot, like the turret ring or track. All this feels a lot like throwing away a careful bit of play balance in the original design. Close range anti-tank fire is more deadly; but there was a lot of firing and missing in our first game, so I think this is OK.

I also played with moving and firing. Support squads (tripod machine guns, anti-tank guns, snipers, flamethrowers) cannot move and fire at all. I reason that these weapons take some careful setting up. And everybody, including infantry, suffer the deduction for moving and firing in the same activation. I didn’t really understand why infantry should have gone without the deduction. But they should still be more effective if static. What if the target moves? A deduction for this is commonplace in wargames rules. But moving means you expose yourself more, rather than lurking behind whatever cover is there. It’s dangerous, especially for infantry. So I restricted the deduction to guns, with a lower rate of fire, though I’m tempted to dispense with it altogether.

Other details are changed. There is rule that if your penetration throw is a 1, then it isn’t treated as a proper penetration. I felt this was too fiddly and didn’t make enough difference. Also a shot is treated as being on side armour on if you are more than 60 degrees of the centre line (as in Fistful of TOWs); this is quite generous to the vehicles, but there is reason that nations invested much more in frontal armour than all-round.

A further change to firing is a different mechanism for indirect fire. In the original this only applies to mortars, and the mechanism is highly abstracted. I get this if indirect fire is not meant to play a major part. But I wanted to leave scope for more. The designers suggest that at the sort of skirmish combat being recreated the only important indirect fire came from mortars. But I cannot read an account of WW2 fighting without seeing that artillery played a major role in all combat – so I wanted something which could be expanded. The new rules are still very abstracted and simplified. But there is a stronger role for spotters (which must be equipped with radios), and a mechanism for deviation of fire, which will make artillery fire more use against more densely packed formations. Like the old ones, they are quite expensive on Command Tokens, but on reflection I think that is right. Indirect fire is something you do while everything else sits still. I haven’t gone for off-table assets yet, but just for weapons that are under battalion control (so mainly mortars, but also infantry guns). We’ll see if this works.

And the next major change is the addition of close combat rules. These were left out deliberately from the original. This was considered by many as a weakness, since without it infantry combat tends to get bogged down. This may be perfectly realistic, but it makes the rules less good for infantry-heavy games. So in my version, troops cannot get closer than 3in to the enemy without a close combat action, which requires a sort of morale test before being initiated (AFVs can roll past infantry though, but not through them). For infantry the combat consists of two rounds of firing without cover (grenades and close range being assumed to negate this). If the attackers do not destroy their opponent, they retreat.  There are other rules to cater for vehicles, though soft and open-topped vehicles cannot enter close combat, while tanks may try an “overrun”. Again, we’ll see!

There are other changes. Troop quality is incorporated, mainly by consolidating rules in one of the supplementary sheets, though changing the names a bit. There are observation rules, coding what blocks views, and setting some observation distances for units that are not moving and firing.  Buildings are dealt by treating each model as one or more units, rather than as terrain areas – which I think works best in this sort of skirmish setting. High explosive fire on a building has the potential to damage all units within it. These rules will not cover fortified bunkers and the like, but these are an easy topic for special rules.

I managed to contain the QR sheet to one page (with the reverse available for data). This involves quite small text, and I had to leave bits out. I felt it wasn’t necessary to describe the basic turn mechanism, for example, since players have no difficulty in picking this up. I also left out the rules on buildings, as these should not be hard to look up if needed. As I have already said, the QR is an important part of overall rules design in my mind, and it certainly helped me pare down the rules. The number of pages is quite a decent guide to overall complexity – and the fact that I have managed to keep it to one page is encouraging – if it works!

In due course I will report back on how these rules work. Inevitably there will need to be changes!

 

Iron Cross WW2 rules: our first outing

One of my current quests is to find rules appropriate for a club night. I’m building my WW2 20mm partly with this in mind. And now that one of my regular gaming gang has come into a job lot of 20mm vehicles and figures (nicely painted), we are in business. I had read quite a bit about the Iron Cross rules in this context. They’re quite cheap, so I thought I would give them a try. We held a trial game last night, with two players a side.

The rules may not cost much (£12), but first sight is distinctly unimpressive. The graphic design is poor. The iconography of the German Iron Cross and ribbon is in your face, on every page. I happen to be wary of the common wargaming fashion for all things German (and especially SS units), and I found this bit much. A second design problem is the fonts chosen for headings: a heavy gothic that’s hard to read, and a rather naff stencil, though this does have a period military resonance. The main font is an inoffensive and perfectly legible Roman, with an italic, though – I’ve seen much worse in wargames publications. The pictures are pretty basic, but that doesn’t bother me. If I ever publish rules of my own I’m unlikely to go to town on pictures, as some (very expensive) sets of rules do. One touch is text boxes adorned by specially drawn pictures of Feldwebel Coburg (Cross of Iron) and Sargent Denver (Band of Brothers) offering advice on how to play. They don’t particularly talk in character, but this device is quite a nice way to break up the text and give the reader a change of angle.

The text is short, just 12 pages of core rules, 4 pages of a game demo, 7 pages of special rules and “orbats”, and 7 pages on scenario rules and design. This is too short as it leaves a lot out (nothing on line of sight, for example). As games master I was often asked things that weren’t in the rules, though at least I knew they weren’t there so didn’t waste time looking things up. However, being stripped down is selling point, as the fashion moves away from the over-complex rules, which the era invites.

How do they play? The core of the rules rests on its activation system. Each players gets command tokens (CTs) at one per unit, plus two more if the commander is still active. You spend these by activating individual units; you can activate the same unit more than once, and interrupt the opposing player, so the initiative flows between the two sides. Once all the CTs are gone, you reset for a new turn. First the downsides. It isn’t intuitive and takes getting used to. Just what is this process of CTs representing? You move some units several times and leave others untouched. Coordinated multiple unit actions are hard. A second issue is that it is serial; you move one unit at a time. This can slow things down; and we struggled a little to make it work in a multiplayer format – though the reviews all suggested that multi-player games worked fine.  Never mind, what it does do is produce a very absorbing game which involves both sides throughout.  It is this aspect that drives the rules’ popularity. Otherwise the rules proved quite easy to pick up, though, as I will come to, the rules are bit more fiddly than they need to be. I will come to various problems later. But we’ll be giving these rules further outings. Which is frankly better than I expected after a first read through.

The game? A simple meeting encounter between two 1944 period British and German forces, moving into a village – a cross between Portugal and Normandy in appearance (north or central Italy?). The British had one force of tanks (three Sherman 75s and a Firefly) and one of infantry (four half tracks with infantry squads, a mortar and two M10s to give them more AT capability). The Germans had more armour and less infantry, mainly Panzer IVs, with a Panther and a Marder SP gun, among other things. Perhaps unused to the idea of unlimited weapon ranges (these are supposed be quite localised actions), the British lost their Firefly in the first move, and things never really got much better. The Panther’s armour proved too much for the PIAT; the M10s weren’t much cop as substitute tanks, especially when they were dire on activation throws. We British gave up, having lost 4 AFVs to the German one, and an infantry squad (though we did manage to kill an over aggressive anti-tank gun). The casualties weren’t that high for the time played, because we kept missing, and infantry proved quite hard to kill anyway. But all players were drawn in, and started to get used how you are meant to play the rules. Mass charges to try and get all your weaponry into the fight at once don’t work, though it’s how our games in Fistful of TOWs play. Now in open country, like the Western Desert or the plains of Ukraine, there is quite a bit to be said for the mass charge (I remember one German account of how they overcame a Russian force with just such a tactic, properly timed). So these rules probably aren’t appropriate for a wide open table. But in bitty fights amongst lots of terrain: that’s another matter.

Online, there are two criticisms of Iron Cross that don’t worry me much. One is that the army lists are weak. This is a whole side of gaming that I’m not into, the question about whether you buy a  Wespe battery in place of a Panzer IV, etc. Points can be used to get a general balance, but the gamesmanship over force composition I don’t get. The books and supplements provide enough, and it is quite easy to fill the gaps using systems with more detailed lists, like Battlegroup. One of the skills of gaming, as in real life< is making the best of what random availability gives you. A second issue is the absence of elite forces in in this rule book. I’m also not bothered by this – I like using mainstream forces. An obsession with SS units, visible in some places, is not something I’m comfortable with. They, and other elites like paratroops, have their place, though, and a free supplement brings them into play.

A third problem I’ve already mentioned: the missing bits. These aren’t so hard to fill in from other sets of rules, though Iron Cross would be a hard set rules to embark on wargaming in this era with. A gamesmaster helps here: but it always does. There are two more serious problems though. The weapons rules are too fiddly, and tactical balance doesn’t feel right.

Like many systems, core rules describe a basic game, with special rules to deal with further details. But Iron Cross gets the balance wrong. The special rules have to cover too much ground; almost every type of unit, other than a basic infantry squad or tank, is covered by the special rules, which then create a web of exceptions and different treatments in the various mechanisms, especially in combat against infantry. And the main rules turn out to tucked full of little exceptions here and there. The published quick reference sheets don’t cover any of this, so are pretty useless. I designed one of my own (though without flamethrowers). This is begging for a bit of redesign, and I’m not going to resist. Too much complexity is a puzzling mistake for a set of stripped down rules to make.

Tactical balance is a matter of opinion. Different players get worked up about different things. The Tiny Hordes blog thinks that Iron Cross doesn’t get infantry v. tanks balance right, with the tanks too strong, and also that infantry should get a penalty for moving and firing. So much that he fixed these with house rules before his first game. But I didn’t see these issues mentioned in other online sources. One problem does come up regularly: infantry squads are too resilient. Mostly this is in fact OK: infantry tends to get pinned down rather than wiped out. But when two squads get into base contact you expect things to happen more quickly: there are no close combat rules. In our game, a German squad went right up to a British one, and fired a set of blanks. The British calmly escaped. Well you can rationalise that, but a close combat mechanism is a common house modification, and seems to rebalance things a bit.

A couple of other points came up in our game, and in the forums. Side armour is very easy to hit compared to other sets of rules. In fact this would involve striking such armour at a very acute angle, which is not good for penetration. A 30 degree or even 45  degree rule would be better, or perhaps something even stricter. Likewise the effect of cover on fire is to reduce damage; this works fine for infantry targets, but not for anti-vehicle fire – where surely it reduces the chance of a hit capable of penetration? Mortars are very expensive on CTs to use. Actually I’m going to be patient on this. To use mortars you have to keep the rest of your activity down; that isn’t necessarily unrealistic – this underlies the point about these rules that you have to think about what you want to do, rather than just throwing in the kitchen sink every time.

The answer to so many of these problems is house rules. This is part of the hobby I enjoy I shall be developing a pretty comprehensive set. I suspect that this the way a lot of gamers have gone. The user forum is useful, but has gone very quiet. The two posts in 2018 are unanswered questions. People seem to be going there own way.

Salute 2018

The weekend before last I went to the 2018 Salute show in Excel in London. This is the only wargames show I regularly go to. I am now a member of the South London Warlords that puts the show on, though I have as yet played no part in organising it or helping on the day. Too much else going on in my life (which is also why this article is so late).

So much that I couldn’t stay long this year. I arrived at about 11am and stayed until about 1pm. It says a lot about the show that I could have stayed longer if I didn’t have other places to go! The show is big. This year it seemed bigger than ever. Certainly from the point of view of the trading stands, which increasingly seem to be the point of the show. The games did not look as numerous as previously. There were quite a few empty tables, gratefully seized by visitors as somewhere to sit down and have a rest or chat with friends. Star of the show was a replica WWI British tank, which you could peek inside of.

There was some spectacular games, which people had taken a lot of trouble to put on. But there were some rather underwhelming ones as well. Worst was a case where the intended English Civil War game could not be put on due to illness. Instead there was a WW2 demonstration that looked pretty dire even by the standards of a club night. The reason was clear enough, but I’m not sure I would have put anything on in those circumstances. I didn’t like a couple of others more due to my personal taste. One was a Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) game. The board was small but, even then the small scale figures only took up a small part of it. The terrain was an abstract expanse of pale green base, with some darker bits to represent wooded areas. As it happens I had visited the Tewkesbury battle site over Easter (on Easter Sunday in fact). It is claustrophobic, dominated hedges, rolling ground, with streams and lanes and the general shape of the ground playing an important role in how the day played out. The recreation conveyed none of that – and the armies looked much to small in relation to the ground. The lesson there: I don’t want to do a historical game that is presented so abstractly that the historical feel is completely lost. And if you are using small scale figures, the role played by terrain matters more to the overall presentation. It would, of course, have been very hard work to put together the complex system of hedges and lanes and streams that make up the Tewkesbury battlefield – but it has the potential to be visually stunning. Although the area now is currently ruined by new developments, it shouldn’t be too hard to get close to original layout. Field systems stay much the same until modern bulldozers flatten them – as can be seen from the fraction of the field that has survived, which has changed little. Besides the battle is much studied and I expect somebody else has done the hard work already.

A second battle I found underwhelming, or at any rate demonstrating a direction I don’t want to go in, was a recreation of Aspern-Essling (1809). It used hex based terrain system and 28mm figures. The villages were represented by large building models, with one model making up a small village, and units were small groups of figures in rather loose formation. This is the danger of these popular large scales. The effort goes into doing up the miniatures and buildings to look good as individuals, but the effort required for doing large numbers is too much. The effect en masse is dire. It looked nothing like a big Napoleonic battle with dense masses of troops confronting each other in villages with streets. I don’t think the hex-based system used helped either. Whether I can achieve what I want to with 15mm Napoleonic figures on a large scale remains an unanswered question.

One good-looking table was presented on a WW2 1943 theme – featuring 20mm scale figures and aircraft in a Mediterranean setting (the battle for Leros 1943). I think it was showcasing Battlegroup rules (more of which later). But after a couple of passes I realised that nothing was actually moving. It was diorama and not a game. I remember the same thing last year with a 1941 desert war “game” to coincide with Battlegroup Tobruk. I don’t really approve, but the presentation did succeed in drawing observers in, so I’m sure there’s something to be learned from it.

Part of my purpose for the day was to get inspiration. I’m afraid, though there were some attractive games, it was mostly showing me what not to do. My tastes are rather out of kilter with the rest of the wargaming community – and so far I have failed to put on anything that demonstrates the sorts of things I want to see.

Apart from inspiration there was shopping. Here things went better. I resisted the temptation to buy models or figures (there is too much unpainted stuff at home), or books on history (too many unread ones). Instead my books were squarely focused on wargames projects. First I bought the newly published Battlegroup Torch. I am less than convinced by the Battlegroup rules themselves, though they have quite bit going for them. But their author, Warwick Kinrade, does a wonderful job of historical research and works much harder than most to create an authentic feel. I have his books on Kursk and Normandy because these were the closest I could get to the 1943 Mediterranean theme. I let the 1941 Tobruk book go; this early desert war is far too far away from what I’m looking at. But this new book starts with the various battles of El Alamein in 1942, when more modern weapons started to play a role. Better still it includes Tunisia, which is one of the three campaigns that I am particularly focusing on (Tunisia, Sicily and Salerno). I have read it, and I’m not disappointed. So much better than the rather lightweight Bolt Action book I bought last year on the Mediterranean campaigns. I do hope Warwick gets on to Italy. It is promising that he says that Tunisia proved much more interesting that he thought it would be. Indeed so. The terrain is quite different form the desert, which has never attracted me for tabletop battles, and there is an interesting array of troops and weapons, with hard fighting on both sides.

Still on the WW2 theme I bought some Iron Cross rules, which I’d been encouraged to try after a magazine article. These might well work well on a club night, where my friends have come into a stash of WW2 20mm models and are taking an interest. They are a bit simplistic in places, but actually look very interesting. Alas I can see that no WW2 rules will meet my tastes, and that I will be writing my own. Not yet though.

I also bought a couple of books for Napoleonics. I am trying to think of ways I can get my metal into club games (though the main problem for now is that the basing is all over the place and they don’t look good enough). I looked at two options. One was a new divisional game: Over the Hills. This looks quite interesting and easy to play – I saw encouraging reviews on TMP, though the reviewers also said they were poorly written. On a quick review I can see what they mean. But they are still full of a lot of the tropes that affect most wargames at this level. Built up areas are treated much like individual buildings – which fails to capture the flavour of street fighting. Squares are vulnerable to infantry attacks (more vulnerable, at first glance, than catching a line in the flank). The soldiers of Bachelu’s division at Waterloo might beg to differ. Still the treatment of skirmishers is rather better than many, and I need to give them a proper chance. I will give a proper review another time.

And finally I bought a scenario book for Chris Pringle’s Bloody Big Battles. This is post-Napoleonic but I’m thinking of trying BBB on a club night, as another option. One of the big problems with club games is creating interesting scenarios, and Chris has a gift for turning historical scenarios into interesting wargames. I’m hoping I can do something with these (and the Franco Prussian War ones in the rule book). Since BBB is the closest current system to the rules I am trying to put together myself, I’m sure there is much to learned from this. I am trying to resist the magnetic attraction of putting together yet more armies to run some of these scenarios in their intended format…

1943: the Royal Scots Greys Sherman troop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The squadron leader is on the right

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

Marshal Ney at Quatre Bras – a huge disappointment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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