Category Archives: WW2

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.

Battlefront WWII rules

As faithful followers will know, I have been diverted from my original focus on the Napoleonic Wars to WW2, with more modern extensions. This follows my joining a wargames club, and the discovery of some of my old Airfix models in the loft. Since then I have been dragged into the pursuit of a suitable rule system. At the club we have played Fistful of TOWS (FFT), Rapid Fire! and (once) Battlegroup. All have their virtues, but each falls short in important ways. The heart of the issue is that of how movement and firing is organised. Meanwhile I was struck by the idea that the Fire and Fury system, developed for those American Civil War brigade level rules, and used by us in Bloody Big Battles, could work well for WW2. And then I saw that Fire and Fury Games published a set of WW2 rules: Battlefront WW2 (BF). I couldn’t resist. I ordered a copy from Steve Barber Models, which arrived this week. I’m very impressed.

The rules aren’t new: they were published in 2000 (which makes them more recent than Rapid Fire! though). They bear the stamp of that era, and, indeed, of the original Fire and Fury rules, which were groundbreaking at the time. The gaming community has moved on, but not necessarily in a good way. Two things stand out. First is that it uses an Igo-Ugo system, where each side moves all their pieces with distinct phases for firing, moving and close combat, and then hands over to the other side. Modern systems (like Iron Cross and Battlegroup) are based on individual unit mobilisation where movement and firing are combined, and initiative can switch between the sides. This can produce intriguing games, but it slows things down and often makes it hard to relate game play to what it is supposed to be representing – you start playing the rules rather than historical tactics.

The second dated feature for BF is that the rules are heavy. You can read through Iron Cross in an hour or two; Battlegroup doesn’t take much longer. FFT and Rapid Fire! are a bit more detailed, though FFT is much shorter if you ignore helicopters, tactical nuclear weapons and so on. BF is well-written, but hard work: definitely more than Rapid Fire! or FFT. It has taken me several sessions to complete reading it. The reason for that is an interesting one, though. It is not that the rules are over-engineered in the manner of many older rule systems, before Rapid Fire! shook things up. All the tables you need for play are on a two-sided reference sheet; all firing from direct to indirect to airstikes is covered by a single table and not all that many dice modifiers. The armour categories for vehicles aren’t very different from Paid Fire!’s. This is quite a bit cleaner than FFT or Battlegroup. The reason that the rules are so heavy is that they are comprehensive. Two sections are particularly thorough: on spotting and on indirect artillery fire. Other rules writers struggle with these. Iron Cross says hardly anything at all on either. And yet both subjects come to the heart of what war in this era was all about. The rules on indirect fire are particularly good. To be fair both FFT and Rapid Fire! do try to take both of these topics on, but they work that well in practice. To be fair on Rapid Fire!, I haven’t played enough of it to judge properly, in FFT it is just easy for anybody to call down fire on targets that would most likely be invisible. The BF system tries to capture the important differences between the systems of the US, Germany and the Soviet Union. The main rules set concentrates on these nations from 1943 onwards. The British artillery system only gets a brief mention (it was very similar to the German one, apparently) – but it gets more treatment in supplements on North Africa and the late war.

So the heaviness derives from thoroughness, not over-engineering. My feeling is that in fact the rules will play pretty quickly once players have got used to them. I like the thoroughness, even though this is very unfashionable – rule writers nowadays tout how their systems are simple and quick to read. But this comes at a cost. Firstly they leave a lot of things out, leaving the players and games masters with a lot to do to fill in the gaps. Iron Cross (and its derivative Seven Days to the River Rhine) are very bad at this. The other is that they give the players too much freedom and the games start to feel too much like games with toy soldiers without enough reference to history. BF is a welcome break from this. Indeed it could be a useful resource for games masters to help them resolve situations that other systems leave out.

So what about the system itself. On troop representation it is based on company level command, with platoon level missed out. Each model (or “unit”) represents two or three vehicles. Infantry are organised in bases, which represent six to 15 men. A typical infantry company would have a mix of rifle and light machine gun bases. They are mainly designed for 15mm miniatures, with two infantry figures to a base. Distance scale is one inch to 40 yards – essentially the same as Rapid Fire! though that uses 20mm models and a higher figure scale. The rule writers suggest that for 6mm figures you can substitute centimetres for inches, which would put it on a similar ground scale to FFT, though with a lower figure scale.

The play system owes a lot to Fire and Fury, but caters for much more complexity. There is an important difference, though. The Fire and Fury sequence is Manoeuvre, Defensive Fire, Offensive Fire, Close Combat. In BF Offensive fire is brought forward to before Manoeuvre – which is similar to the old Wargames Research Group’s fire then move system. This makes so much more sense than the usual move-then-fire sequence (used, more or less, by all the other systems I have quoted, but most outrageously by FFT) that I struggle to understand why it hasn’t taken over. What it means in BF is that that initiative side starts with its suppression fire, moves in, and then has to deal with defensive fire on those moving units, before resolving close combat. Moving and firing is not allowed in your own turn. At all. The unit can close combat, of course, and a moving unit is free to fire defensively in the other player’s turn. This has a good feel – though the original Fire and Fury system still has something going for it provided suppression fire is brought to the front of the turn, though perhaps more in post-WW2 when moving and firing was more feasible.

I could write a lot more description, as there is a lot to describe. But these rules beg to be tried out. Which is where I bump into a number of problems. My WW2 miniatures are mainly 20mm and the infantry mostly based individually. The rules recommend multiplying the distances by 1.5 for 20mm miniatures – but that is very clumsy. It wouldn’t be hard to modify the quick reference table (only the spotting table needs to be changed) – but unit data comes on cards for each unit type, which would have to be rewritten. Besides there are lot of odd numbers (one inch and five inches especially) which are a bit awkward. The obvious thing to try is 20mm models with the 15mm distances, which actually is probably a similar spacing to using centimetres for 6mm models, but I’m sure the extra space is a good idea.

A bigger problem is that the rules are quite detailed, which will try the patience of my companions on club nights. There are strategies for dealing with this, by keeping the first games simple (no indirect fire, for example). But it could be hard work.

There is another idea. And that is to write my own, rationalised version for our purposes. While the system is not over-engineered I think there are several opportunities to make the rules simpler. I have two possibilities in mind. One is a Rapid Fire! replacement with the same distances but a bigger model scale. Like most systems BF plays as if each model was a single vehicle or gun, even though it represents more. For a larger model scale this doesn’t wash in my view (it is one of my issues with Rapid Fire!), so that there needs to be some provision for damaged units, for example. The second possibility would be an Iron Cross replacement, with one inch to ten yards, and a one-to-one vehicle scale, and with the long-range features written out.

Both types of rewrite would be a lot of work (especially as I would quite like to use d6s, especially 2d6s, instead of d10s). But fun too!

Seven Days to Iron Cross

Last night at the club we tried out a game of Seven Days to the Rhine, reverse-engineered for World War 2, as a sort of update to Iron Cross, on which 7 Days is based (both are published by Great Escape Games). We encountered issues both with the core system and specifically to 7 Days.

First the good news. The adaptation of 7 days was quite clean, amounting to just one page of supplementary rules, plus another half-page adapting the chance cards. This compares to my 8 pages of “house rules” for Iron Cross. As I have written earlier, 7 Days is cleaner and better-written than Iron Cross, so it is a lot less tempting to fiddle with it. The second bit of good news is that we used my new 1943 vehicles on the tabletop for the first time, alongside my slightly earlier miniatures in the project. They looked really good, though I say so myself. Especially the Dingo and Humber armoured car, which, alas, don’t come out in the picture above. The one taken from the British lines came out blurred. In the low light conditions of an evening game any flaws are less visible (I don’t think the dust on the wheels tracks is particularly good…).

For a scenario we used the Breakthrough scenario in both rulebooks. We didn’t use the chance cards in 7 Days, because of the issues of adapting them to period. The forces were of equal size, but the defending force (British) had more infantry, and started the game dispersed and unprepared. They had two Shermans, a 6-pounder, the armoured car, and four infantry sections, one with a PIAT. The Dingo was used as a command vehicle. The aim for the Germans, with three PzIIIs and three infantry sections mounted in SdKfz 251s and an SdKfZ 251/10 command vehicle, was to get a third of their force to the other end of the table. They were given extra command points. They didn’t manage to do this, taking some heavy casualties. They were probably too hesitant at the start and should have picked a flank and gone for a combined arms attack… However we did finish the game, for the first time with the Iron Cross system, which shows that we had the right number of units on the table for a two player game. Unfortunately having more players doesn’t speed things up with a sequential system like Iron Cross’s.

So, what were the issues? First specific to Seven Days. There were two significant problems. First there is no advantage to closer range for fire by or against vehicles: just one d10 and the same required score to hit. And no penetration benefit either. This led to a rather absurd encounter between a Pz III and a Sherman a couple of inches apart blasting away and either missing or shells glancing off. I think the justification is that the whole table is short range, and that in the stress of combat it is all too easy to fail at short range. Also vehicles would not stand still. Well up to a point. Range seems to be about 100 yards for 12in (maybe a bit less) based on the range of bazookas et al, so we can get vistas of 500 yards across the table. Not long ranges, but enough to make a difference. This is probably less true of armour penetration than of scoring hits in the first place (especially with WW2 technology) – though even then it is easier to place a hit on a vulnerable spot at close range. In original Iron Cross it is slightly easier to hit at 12in or less; in my house rules you got an extra d10 (as you do for fire against infantry in 7 days). You also got an extra 2 penetration points in Iron Cross at under 12in

The second problem is that to react to infantry in cover (to return fire, for example) takes 5 on a D6, compared to 3 against infantry in the open (which is what it was for all units in Iron Cross). This is fair enough against infantry opening up for the first time. No so much after it has being firing at you for several rounds, by which time you are needing a 6 to react. This allowed a British infantry section to wipe out a German one before the initiative could be passed back. This happened quite a bit.

What about the wider problems? My partners didn’t like the scenario. The German player felt it gave too much advantage to a side that could stay static. Realistic tactics such as suppression fire were hard to replicate. To do well in a scenario you had to game the rules as much as play the tactical situation on the table. In particular the idea that you concentrate your command points on a small number of units while leaving the rest static was a bit counter-intuitive. Trying to overwhelm your opponent with a coordinated move forward is not really feasible (though it is too easy in other systems like Fistful of TOWs and Rapid Fire!).

What to do? Some of the issue is with scenario design, and with lack of familiarity with the rules. The withdrawal option, for example, could be really quite useful. But that wouldn’t have helped that German infantry under fire from British infantry – as a failed reaction freezes your command points which stops any possible action later in the turn – too big a risk to take. The card system in 7 Days would also help, allowing re-throws and a bit of artillery intervention, for example. Though it isn’t hard to redesign the era specific cards, this is quite hard to do without producing a new set or defacing the original – which is hard with home-made resources. I might give this a try anyway.

But the search goes on for a more satisfactory rule system. I have just bought Battlefront WWII from the makers of Fire and Fury, and I’m also working on my own system.

My new 1943 vehicles: the Germans

As I was preparing the British vehicles last year, it struck me that I badly needed some German half-tracks to speed things up in German attack scenarios. I had already bought boxes of Plastic Soldier Company SdKfz 250s and 251s, so I put these together. There were three in each box, and I added an extra one of each from PSCs “reinforcements”. For good measure I also added an SdKfz 222 armoured car from my legacy collection. This was over ambitious, but we’re done now.

First the SdKfz 251s, sometimes called Hanomags. These were the earliest armoured personnel carriers used by anybody in quantity. The Germans often used them to carry troops into battle under fire in close support of armour, though this led to heavy losses. They used this tactic at Salerno, which gives me a bit of a gaming opportunity. By comparison, though the Allies had M3 or M5 half-tracks, they were slow to use them so aggressively. I had a couple of 251s in my teenage collection (from different manufacturers), and hoped to use at least one of these. But they were seriously under scale, and really wouldn’t have worked next to the 1/72 PSC models. Also they seemed to be based on the early A or B variants, when I wanted the mid-war C (different again from the D, introduced in 1943, and which is the most commonly seen in Normandy). I decided I needed four to make a complete platoon, which included the platoon leader’s version with a 37mm gun, though I have no idea whether they used these in Italy!

The models were an early PSC release (fitting in with their initial focus on Kursk), which means that the model is a bit more basic than I was used to, and the instructions very vague, with no explanation of the options. The model is quite chunky, as usual – PSC scale them up from their 15mm (1/100) versions. I had a little difficulty in fitting the top hull section to the middle bit, which necessitated the use of some putty. But the models do the job and are good value for money. PSC provide crew figures (2 in the front, 4 in the back and a gunner), which I used. These figures are a bit chunky and not nearly as nice as AB castings (which would have been available as an option, for quite a bit of extra money). By using some spares from the platoon leader, and the 250s I was able to up the crews by one in each of the ordinary vehicles – still one short of the actual crew. It was a bit of an awkward fit in places, and I tried to get the layout slightly different in each model. Also I used the loader form the 250 for the 37mm gun, and a figure with binoculars. I added an aerial. I’m not sure they were all equipped with radios, but I decided to be generous. The aerials were scale 1m, which looks a little short, so upped it to 1.5m for the platoon leader. Some stowage was added too, but sparingly. Pictures tend to show these vehicles quite clean. Mostly these came from the kits themselves.

Next come the SdKfz 250s – the alte version, still in widespread use in 1943. Unlike most half-tracks, this vehicle was purpose built for that mode, and was accordingly more robust. It was used a lot by the German reconnaissance forces – hence my interest, as I think interesting scenarios can be built around reconnaissance forces. Once again I opted for a platoon of four. The leader is a 250/11 with the sPzB 41 anti-tank rifle. This was dismountable, and the kit provides the dismounted carriage both in a folded version to be carried on the back, and the deployed version. I will do a dismounted version when I next do some German infantry, using some surplus crew figures from the PaK 38.

The kit was from PSC, but a later issue than the 251, with more options and better instructions. The crew was of similar quality to the 251 kit (and the machine gunner identical). It was the usual chunky fare but fitted together a bit better than the 251. Only three crew were provided per vehicle, when there should really be five. You can’t see that one is missing from the front seat though, so like the 251s there is just one short in the back. It would have been very awkward to try and fit more figures in. I used some of the figures from the 251s to give some variety as well as having the machine gunners pointing in slightly different directions (which mean a bit of surgery to the lower legs in a couple of cases). Aerials and a bit of stowage were added.

Finally there is the SdKfz 222 armoured car. I had kept one back from my teenage collection, taken form the old Airfix reconnaissance set. This contained one of these armoured cars, plus a kubelwagen. I kept the latter too, but it is hopelessly under scale, even for 1/76, and unusable. A pity because I had gone wild with the reconnaissance set and I have two or three lots of it unmade and unpainted. The Airfix 222 is a bit of problem as the turret just isn’t right. It’s too small, doesn’t have the mesh covers, and it would be very hard to add a crew figure. But the PSC kits came with a turret for the 250/10 version. So I wondered if I could marry these turrets with my Airfix models to get a platoon of armoured cars. The good news was that notwithstanding the scale difference (1/72 to 1/76), it looked about the right size. The bad news was that it is modelled with the mesh cover closed – in pictures it is always open. I manged to fit it to model, and even to perch a crew member on the back of the turret (there are photos of them doing this). So I thought I would give it a go. By 1943 the SdKfz 222 was a bit passé, as its off-road capability was a bit limited. I think it had largely been replaced by the 250/10. Never mind it’s what I’ve got.

Painting the half-tracks provides a bit of a challenge given the partially enclosed nature of the vehicles. I usually like to assemble then paint, but that was clearly impractical. So I assembled the top (including the machine gunner attached) separately from the rest, and then gave it all the darker base coat. I then completed the assembly. That meant I couldn’t reach the lower deck portion of the models to provide any paint detail there. That was OK though – these are only wargames quality after all.

As with my previous two attempts at mixing the dunkelgelb main colour, I struggled to get a satisfactory mix. After thinking I had achieved it, I took against it and decided on a remix and repaint. That meant the paint went on a bit thick. Though building up paint in layers with slightly different shades is a recognised painting technique, this was clearly overdone. And I’m still not 100% with the result, which is a bit too grey and has a hint of green (though that was partly down to the wash). Dunkelgelb came it in a wide variety of hues during the war, so there is no such thing as accuracy – but I had hoped for something a bit lighter and yellower. As it is I ended up with something very close the old Humbrol “authentic” shade, so it is well within the realistic range. This is the third successive time I have struggled with this colour and painted many more coats than I originally intended, so there is still a fundamental problem here. One difficulty may be that I have been using student colours, which tend not to dry true – though since this is a high volume job I would like to make these cheaper pigments work. But also I’m attempting to reach the result with a three hue mix (plus white), with yellow ochre, Prussian blue and terracotta red. This leaves far too much room for variation. I need to experiment with two hue mixes. Yellow ochre and black may work (though this is the traditional mix for olive). I am even thinking of using a brighter yellow and purple (my attempt with yellow ochre and purple not working so well when I tried it). This is not an advert for my practice of mixing paints from artist’s colours, rather than the usual paint by number approach using hobby paints.

Like my other German vehicles so far, I didn’t paint any camouflage patterns, though olive green and red brown were issued for that purpose. I don’t see it much in pictures form Italy in 1943, and I went a bit too wild on this back in the 1970s. I might try this on some later vehicles, based on a degree of historical evidence. The crew figures were painted in uniforms with various shades of olive, sand (i.e. faded olive) and grey. As before I don’t have good sense of what they should look like – photos are a bit scarce. But at least it’s reasonably consistent with the infantry I have already painted.

The next adventure was the wash. I decided against using the Windsor and Newton peat brown ink I used for the British vehicles. It has a bit of a red tint which I thought would make the dunkelgelb look wrong. Something like this happened with the Panzer III models and the Quickshade, which has a similar hue. So I decided to have a go at mixing my own with yellow ochre and black ink, diluted with water. This proved very tricky. It took me quite a bit of time before I reached a version that I felt brave enough to use on my models – a sort of olive green. This was fine where it pooled in the recesses, but gave the models a slight greenish hue elsewhere else. It took the models even closer to the old Humbrol colour! I think I’ll try something else next time, though I have large quantities of my mix left over. Should be fine on olive drab (I used it on my jeep too).

For decals I used just the balkankreuse. I considered ID numbers (as for the tanks), but this was a bit awkward with the stowage items, and anyway you rarely see them on this sort of vehicle. For the 250s I used spares from old Airfix Pz IVs. A bit chunky but OK. For the 222 I used some from the old Airfix recce set. The black and white weren’t properly aligned, which was a pity! For the 251 I used slightly bigger ones from a set I acquired commercially at Salute in 2017 at significant expense – black and white ones on the sides, and white ones on the back doors. These decals are very sharp and much nicer than the old Airfix ones (though you have to cut them out carefully), but the back door ones were a bit tricky as I had to cut them down the middle so as not to obscure the crack between the doors.

The decals were placed on a surface prepared with polyurethane gloss varnish, and sealed with the same substance. I’m not sure the first step is strictly needed given that I prepare the surface with Microset – but the flash is invisible. I might experiment without next time. After this I sprayed the vehicles with matt varnish. As with the British I painted a bit of “matt” varnish (which gives a rather unpredictable level of sheen) onto some highlights for a bit contrast – flesh, small arms, straps and helmets. This was a good move for the machine guns, which look much better, and I think it works on the helmets too. It is a technique I will develop as a complete matt finish doesn’t quite work.

Finally came the dust patina. I experimented a bit on the 222, as the most dispensable of my models, and overdid it bit. The others turned out fine, though I did apply some extra to the running gear afterwards as the mix had become too diluted.

That’s going to be it for a while on my 1943 stuff. I have a stack of stuff still to paint, and plans for much more, but my Napoleonics are feeling neglected, and also some terrain stuff to do. Plus I have some domestic credit to build, which means a bit of a clearout in the spare bedroom where I do my painting.

1943: vehicle arrivals. The British

All 16 vehicles

This week at long last I completed a batch of 16 vehicles for my 20mm 1943 Italian theatre project. I started this back in October, but a trip to Australia, Christmas, flu and other stuff intervened. I had thought it was a good move to do large batches of vehicles in order to clear the plastic/resin/pewter mountain, but this was probably too big, especially as it covered both sides. But it is an important reinforcement which will enable much more variety in any club games we play with my 1943 stock. In this post I will look at the seven British vehicles.

First come three Bren carriers, giving me a complete carrier section. A British WW2 force without carriers is like a pub without beer. Apart from the rimmed helmets nothing looks more British. Also carriers give the British side a mobile reserve – which matters since they didn’t use armoured personnel carriers at this stage. And a common theme of this batch was to strengthen reconnaissance forces, which is another role for the carrier section.

The models are from my teenage collection, from which I kept six Airfix carrier models. They aren’t particularly nice, and they are 1/76, when I prefer 1/72, especially for the smaller vehicles. But it seemed a shame not to make use of the inheritance. I crewed them with the AB Universal Carrier set. These are lovely figures, not entirely suitable for 1943 Italy (1944 Normandy more like). Getting them to fit into the models was a challenge, especially the ones seated in the back. I added various stowage items, including weapons – though I was unable to get Bren guns sticking out of the aperture in the front – in fact it was a bit of a struggle to find any suitable spare Bren guns, which barely feature in the various sets of parts on sale. But I did manage a PIAT and a 2in mortar. It took me a long time to get everything sorted out and positioned reasonably plausibly. But it was worth it. The figures and stowage lift the final models to a new level. One issue is that these crew figures will stay in place even when they have disembarked and take their place on the table on foot. But it was impossible to devise a system of removable figures, and doing up spare debarked versions felt excessive. I have the same issue with my German half-tracks.

Next come a Loyd carrier and a jeep. These are metal models bought from SHQ. They worked out OK, and metal models have a satisfactory weighty feel, but I don’t think I will get any more. The models are a bit vague when compared to the crispness of the Milicast resin ones, which is the main alternative for the odds and ends. The crew for Loyd was from AB, again, and like the Bren carriers, help to lift the model. There are jeep figures from AB, but I bought these from SHQ as I was worried about a size mismatch on a model advertised as 1/76. The figures are indeed smaller – but they are also vaguer. The Loyd provides transport for my 6pdr AT gun. I had three Airfix ones which came with my carriers. I have one in deployed mode, and one towed, as it is hard to get these models to serve as both, though in theory you could.

And finally for my recce forces I have a Humber armoured car and a Daimler Dingo scout car. The Humber is one of my teenage leftovers: a Matchbox model that now looks pretty unobtainable. It is the desert version of the Mk III, so not actually right for 1943 Italy (the spare wheel should be at the side, among other details). I managed to get the turret hatch open and insert a Milicast resin commander. These aren’t as good as the AB figures, and a bit smaller. That’s OK for a 1/76 model. The stowage was as per the original model, which got the balance right. I am very pleased with how this one has turned out. I wasn’t that keen on it originally, in its desert sand coat, but with a bit of TLC and a new scheme and it is transformed. In fact I am now very attracted to the Humber armoured car: a sturdy vehicle that looks as if it would have good off-road capability.

The Dingo is a new 1/72 plastic S-Model – there were two in the box but I left the other one for later. This is quite a fine-grained model with a few fiddly parts – unlike the chunky Plastic Soldier Company models that are my mainstay. But a big drawback is that it is modelled with the hatch closed. In photos you never see this vehicle with the top closed over. As a scout car it would not be functional like this. It wouldn’t have looked right. I had to cut the top cover and file it down to make it thinner to represent it folded back. I then inserted purpose-made crew figures from AB. There is no inside detail, but the AB driver has a wheel, and this suffices for wargames purposes. The other modifications were the addition of two aerials and replacing the Bren gun. The version with the kit was very delicate – whereas the Brens with my figures are much chunkier. Doubtless the delicate version is more realistic, but it would have jarred with the AB crew. I used one of my few spare Brens. The Dingo is a versatile vehicle that can be used for recce, artillery/mortar spotting or as a command vehicle (they were often commandeered for that purpose). And less vulnerable than the jeep: wargames rules seldom allow its small size, speed and manoeuvrability in getting out of trouble.

As for painting and finishing, the carriers (both sorts) were done up in infantry colours based on a much used picture of three carriers coming out of a landing ship on Salerno beach. The main colour is SCC No. 2 – the standard colour for British army vehicles and equipment in the mid-war, sometimes called Service Drab or Khaki Brown. This is not a colour you often see on modern restorations (or at all in fact), and colour photos are rare and unreliable – so unlike other colours it hard to know how it actually looked in action. The colour swatches in various publications show a dark brown with a slight reddish tinge. Photos and colour drawings from the time suggest something a bit paler and duller, not at all far from the khaki on soldier’s uniforms. I struggled and it took three goes before I decided I had something I could live with. This was closer to the swatches than the pictures, though still quite close to uniform khaki. I used the usual raw sienna base, with some blue, white and raw umber. Some red got into the early mixes but was pretty much gone by the end.

The Humber and Dingo were done up in recce regiment colours, using the two tone scheme of Light Mud and Blue Black. Having pioneered this with my Royal Scots Greys Shermans, it was quite straightforward to get to the mix – using Raw Sienna, Prussian Blue and white (the same three pigments I used for the British uniforms). It may have helped that I was using artist quality paints for this, which dry truer than the student colours I often use for bulk jobs. The disruptive patterns were largely made up, as there was not an official pattern for either vehicle – though for each there was a photo to get started with. I did the jeep in olive drab. Jeeps were painted up in Light Mud/Blue Black, but I think they were mostly left in their original colour. I reached this using Yellow Ochre and black, with some white. Olive drab presents difficulties for modellers. The swatches and official mixes all show something very dark; the pictures of vehicles in the field show something lighter. Modern restorations (and modern art work representations) go with a lighter version too – but more chromatic than you would expect from the “authentic” version weathering. I went for something paler than the swatches, but greyer than the modern interpretations. I looks right to me and I will use this colour in any future models needing this colour.

After the main paint work I gave the models a wash in peat brown ink, a little diluted. This was instead of the Quickshade I had used before (but not the jeep – which used the same mix I used for the Germans, which I will describe next time). This shade doesn’t discolour the vehicles the wrong way, as the colour schemes are variations of brown anyway. It worked fine as a substitute for Quickshade.

For decals I wanted enough to give the vehicle a period feel, but without the hassle of full serial numbers and vehicle names, which with my OCD tendencies would have taken ages to fix. For the British this meant the characteristic Arm of Service badges and the red and white ID flashes. I was going to do divisional ID badges too (for the 56th division), but I had printed these on transparent decal paper. Given the trouble I had with transparent decal paper on dark backgrounds for my Shermans I decided to skip these. They were an indulgence anyway: vehicles at Salerno and for much of the Italian theatre didn’t use the divisional badges. I didn’t do any markings for the jeep. The decals were my own, printed on white decal paper, which meant I had to cut them out right to the edge – which was a little inaccurate at times.

After a matt varnish aerosol spray I did a little touching up with some paint-on matt varnish, which dries to a slight sheen. I did this because otherwise the varnished vehicles look a bit too flat. This varnish went on to the flesh, the weapons and any binoculars and earphones, and also on any helmets not covered in netting. I’m not sure this is entirely right for the flesh, but it works well for the weapons and equipment, and I think a little contrast is a good idea.

Finally comes the dust patina. This time I used a purpose-made product: AK spatter effect accumulated dust. I bought this at Salute and it was my first serious job for it. It takes quite a bit of courage to do this on models you have been working months on in the knowledge that they could be ruined. The product is quite thick, and it is textured. It works very well if dabbed on with a paint brush in areas where you want it to be thick – it is good for spatter effects, as its name suggests. But I also wanted a weathered patina effect for the whole vehicle. I used a diluted version dabbed on with an old paint brush. I wasn’t at all sure about this as I was applying it, especially with the odd grains of texture effect which dotted the models a bit. I had to be careful it didn’t pool too much in the cracks. Putting it on with a cotton bud (which is what I did with my paint mix on the Shermans) didn’t work with this product. I was worried that I had overdone it; it was quite heavy on the Loyd carrier in particular. There was too much in one or two places (the wheels on the jeep, for example), but actually it was a little underdone in other places (on the wheels and running gear on some models, where it needs to be thickest). Once it had all dried and I got used to it, I decided that it worked well, giving the vehicles a nice used look. It worked especially well over the decals, helping to integrate them into the paintwork. My technique will doubtless improve over time.

Next time: the Germans.

Seven Days to the River Rhine: a cleaned up Iron Cross

Last night at the club we played our first game of Seven Days to the River Rhine (7DTTRR). This is a new version of Iron Cross designed for the Cold War in the 1980s, which I (and gaming colleague Terry) also bought at Salute. Though the game is designed with 15mm miniatures in mind, we used our usual 6mm models, but kept the distances unchanged.

In our scenario we had a Soviet attack with T72s and infantry support on a hamlet held by British with Challenger I tanks. The Soviets had a 2:1 superiority in tanks, but less for infantry, but a concealed approach. We didn’t play helicopters in this introductory game.

So how did the rules play? The rules managed to be both very close to IC and a big improvement. Some of the changes related to technology (missiles and helicopters for example), but mostly they are just cleaner. IC is a tangle of different rules for different types of weapon, mostly confusingly relegated to an appendix and kept out of the Quick Reference sheet. Now the categories are simplified and to-hit and damage throws simply presented in a table. The armour penetration rules are simplified (making them deadlier though), and all short-range effects come in at 12 inch range (rather than 6, 8 or 12). The rules on moving and firing have been cleaned up, so that the moving target deduction now applies just to reaction firing.

A further innovation is the use of cards to bring in such factors as off table artillery, electronic warfare, air strikes and so on in a random way. This is quite like the Battlegroup system, though that doesn’t use cards.

How about our game? We had one big issue. The Challenger’s frontal armour was pretty much invulnerable to any of the weapons that the Soviets had at their disposal. The side armour was hard enough. And there was no penetration benefit for short range (though it was easier to hit). It didn’t help that we didn’t play the rules quite correctly, in that hits by the Russians with most weapons would still have inflicted single morale marker, which would have reduced the effectiveness of the British forces. But it was clear that the soviets weren’t going to win, so we ended slightly early, putting it down to experience.

But the rules generally worked well, in spite of missing a few things (in addition to the single MMs for all hits theoretically capable of penetrating) we ignored the minimum range for ATGWs, and the restrictions for armour in the presence of infantry. The use of 6mm models with full distances worked fine. The rule writers do not admit to a distance scale, but if 12 inches is about 100m, as I suspect, then the ground and model scales are close to equal – a big bonus when buildings are part of the set-up, as they so often are.

The small tweaks to IC have ended up with a greatly improved set of rules. My plan now is to ditch my IC house rules, and adapt 7DTTRR to WW2. How to deal with the cards side of things will take a bit of thought, but mostly it looks straightforward.

Back to Iron Cross

Last night we did another Iron Cross game at the club, using the latest adaptation of my house rules. It was pretty much a repeat of the previous scenario, which we played way back in October, before my travels, Christmas and flu intervened. We had four players and I games-mastered.

This was version 1.1 of my house rules. These are actually slightly shorter than V1.0 we used last time, as I reverted to the original rules for buildings and the indirect fire rules were a bit simpler too. They still tipped into 8 pages though.

The game, using mainly my figures and vehicles for 1943 Italy, moved a bit faster, though we only completed three turns. The Germans tried to move too many of their forces forward at once, which did not leave them with enough command points to do the fighting, or to penetrate deeper into the British territory. Their tanks got badly mauled (three knocked out, two badly damaged out of six tanks), even before the British tank reinforcements arrived, while they only managed to knock out one M10 in return. The infantry cleared the wood next to hamlet that was the objective, without much loss (and destroying one of the British infantry sections), but hadn’t really got stuck into the main British position.

How did the adapted rules fare? Only the mortar fire rules got a serious test: they turned out to be a bit too effective, but that was mainly because as games master I was a bit too generous with “speculative” firing at unseen targets. On reflection I think all fire must be directed at seen targets, with maybe an exception for game objectives. Smoke would be the exception. There were a couple of attempts at close combat, and I think the “super-activation” idea works better than my previous two-step one.

A couple of the issues that I mentioned last time raised their heads. The firing rules are a faff and not very intuitive. By now the players should be getting the hang of it and able to resolve things with a quick reference sheet. The other is that cover doesn’t seem to offer infantry and support groups all that much protection. Both are core Iron Cross rules, which I’m loth to fiddle with. But the grey cells are working on it.

But the biggest problem is that we are all in the early stages of mastering how to play the game. Holding reserves, retiring to regroup, passing the initiative are all plays that should be made more. The command rules (for example with one re-throw per turn) need to be brought in. I only discovered how useful the fall back rule is at the end of the game (I took over the German armour, which desperately needed to regroup). I should be trying to push all this onto my fellow gamers – but the truth is that I’m on a learning curve myself. But generally they seem happier with this game than with Rapid Fire, so there is plenty of scope to keep going. I need a new scenario though. This one is now stale.

Meanwhile I’m very tempted to devise a WW2 system based on the Fire and Fury move system (used in BBB). I have taken this on in a little rule-writing project – but this for a battalion level game, and one that doesn’t pretend that platoons are individuals. That’s very different from Iron Cross, which is an unashamed company game, where at least the tanks are scaled 1:1 – though not a true skirmish game like Chain of Command.

Iron Cross: an outing for my adapted rules

We tried out my rather extensive house rules for Iron Cross, the WW2 system, last night at the club. It was an attack defence games, using the game’s hidden deployment rules. It was also an outing for quite a few of my 1943 20mm figures and vehicles, since the person with  Normandy ones I had planned to use was ill. Verdict: my gaming friends like the system, but my adaptations need more work.

In my scenario the British were defending a two building farm with an infantry platoon, supported by a mortar, a Vickers machine gun and a six pounder. A separate command was in the rear to offer support, consisting of an M10 and Sherman at first, plus a further three Shermans on Turn 3. The Germans were attacking with two weak infantry platoons (3 sections each) with a pair of mortars, and two tank platoons, one of Panzer IIIs and one of Panzer IVs. I had originally planned to use two Panthers in place of the Panzer IIIs, and for one of the German platoons to be mounted in halftracks, and for the British to have 2 M10s and one Firefly along with two Shermans. But without Bernie’s stuff I had to make substitutes. I did have Tigers available for the Germans, but I thought that would unbalance things a bit, even with just one, without any very strong antitank guns on the other side.

We didn’t get very far, declaring a draw most of the way through the third turn out of what was supposed to be seven. The German armour had fared badly: they lost two Pz IVs and one Pz III as the British opened up on them from concealed positions. Their infantry were slow to get stuck in, but once they did they were making steady progress. All the British armour was still in play, but could it rescue the beleaguered infantry in time?

The first point was that we were slow. according to the rule booklet we should have had time for that size of scenario, as we had four players. I think there was quite a bit of learning curve, but moving each init one by one does make a much slower game the Fistful of TOWs, which we use for micro armour. But it creates a more engaging game. I had each player operating a separate command with two extra tokens, which may be a bit generous – though it did help recreate patchy cooperation between infantry and armour, which is what I hoped. But I’m hoping that we speed up quite a bit.

On the rules, I think the concealed deployment  worked well. I’m sure my simplified firing rules speeded things up, though each firing usually involved two dice throws, and sometimes three. That is part of the core system, so I hesitate to fix it. My indirect fire rules, which we used for mortars, were not particularly intuitive, though the fire was a little less accurate than I thought. The game’s original system isn’t particularly intuitive either, so that’s no great loss. The spotting phase was an extra faff, and could be dropped – but I think this was an important part of how things actually worked. However, we could just go straight to the placement of the marker without the placement throw, once the spotter is activated, and leaving the vagaries to the actual firing. That would cut a dice throw. We also need to be a bit sharper in deciding where a unit is for the purposes of near misses – is the the centre of a section, or the nearest figure? If the latter, then it could lead to a bit of gamesmanship.  Mortar fire wasn’t that effective though – perhaps because there isn’t the automatic morale marker for each hit.

The bit of the rules that my fellow players weren’t happy with was close combat, which arose when the infantry attacked buildings.  The separate morale test, which doesn’t play until the assault phase looked unrealistic. Also my attempt as treating buildings as terrain units, rather than just areas of rough terrain (as the main rules do), was clunky, especially with the rather large building models we were using.  The morale test stage needs to come at activation, not later. The buildings rules need to be rethought. I’m tempted to go back to the original, albeit with clearer guidance, rather than create a whole new structure -as this wasn’t an aspect of the rules that received much criticism.

One other aspect surprised me – that cover seemed to be relatively little use, especially against infantry weapons. This aspect is largely in the original rules, though. Cover doesn’t affect the to-hit throw, and the first morale marker is automatic regardless of cover. Of course troops in cover are as liable to being suppressed as those outside, so there’s some logic to this. But both the 6 pounder and the Vickers gun proved quite vulnerable with a morale rating of just 3. Since this looks like core rules I don’t want to think about fiddling with it until we have started to learn the system better.  And that’s important: it takes a bit of experience to use the rules well. I started to learn that pulling back vehicles into cover after they have fired is useful. This is especially true of vehicles like the M10, which usually don’t last very long on the table because of their thin armour. But classing it as “light” so that it can react better starts to make sense – and you have to deploy it where there’s cover to dodge back into! In fact I forgot to make use of this “light” rating -but then I was also too generous with moving and firing – it should have been 2 off the to-hit throw rather than 1.

Finally there is the issue of scenario design. The attack-defence game format was much more fun than the encounter battles we have tried before. I also thing that keeping armour and infantry in separate commands works well in recreating the difficulties of cooperation between the arms – though this was more of an issue for the Allies than the Germans. In the scenario design this included separate break points. One more lost tank and the German armour would have pulled out! Another aspect of the scenario to think about is terrain.  This worked well enough last night, but I did spend quite a bit of time thinking about it first. One nice feature of the attack-defence format is that the defender has a greater depth of terrain to play with, so the action is spread across more of the table, rather than being a punch-up in the middle. One idea I have for the future is to design scenarios specifically for use with reconnaissance forces. Smaller numbers of lightly armed, but mobile forces on the attack, with spread out defenders, also relatively lightly armed and a fire brigade of some sort. I need to work on the vehicles though!

1943: British infantry

I am at last tackling the huge painting backlog: for now concentrating on my WW2 1943 project, so that I have enough ready for a tabletop game. I have just finished my first serious batch of British infantry, which means that I am starting to achieve that aim, though I want some recce vehicles, German half-tracks and British carriers to be more serious.

There were 54 figures in the current batch, which go alongside my two 3in mortars and two Vickers machine guns. Nominally these are three infantry sections of 8 men, a dismounted carrier section of 9 men (including 2in mortar and PIAT), an HQ section with officer, radio PIAT and 2in mortar, plus some riflemen, and some spares, including another PIAT and 2in mortar, a radio and a couple more officers.

They are all AB figures. I have fallen in love with these, but they really aren’t right for 1943. They wear the Mk III helmet, instead of the broader-brimmed Mk II. They also wear battledress tunics, when in the Med the men were usually in rolled up shirtsleeves. And, with one exception, the submachineguns are Stens. Although these were in issue in 1943, I haven’t seen them in the 1943 Med pictures; instead the troops are using Tommy guns.  I couldn’t find a satisfactory alternative though, and I liked these figures. Since then I have been pointed in the direction of Eureka’s Pacific Australians. Apart from Owen guns on at least one figure in 10, these look a good fit – though on the pictures of unpainted men the heads look a trifle oversized. I might do a platoon of these later (along with German paras), though not the heavy weapons.

My technique is settling down. First the figures are undercoated in metal primer, which is white. Tempted though I have been to thin it with water (which is OK for metal, but not plastic) I put it on undiluted. After mounting on “steel” washers (not magnetic, alas) or mount board for the two figures bases, and set in my usual mix of sand and impasto gel, I painted the bases raw umber (not mixed with white this time). Over this I put a base coat of khaki. This was mixed from Raw Sienna, Prussian Blue and Titanium White (all student quality paints).  As usual with my freshly mixed base layers, this took a few coats. Partly this is to adjust the balance between the three pigments, and partly the primer can show through. The layering gives the model “depth” I’m told. The first coat takes longer to apply, but the subsequent ones are quite quick – so this no great hardship. Acrylic paint dries quickly, so this is all in the same session. Even so the base layer was a bit thin in places.

After this I used mainly artists pigments, although borrowing some of the paint used on the base layer, still usable on the stay-wet palette on occasion. This included the standards of Prussian Blue, Raw Sienna and Titanium White, with a bit of Raw Umber (mainly to get the dark greys/blacks by mixing with Prussian Blue), Venetian Red and Silver (to help with the metallic bits). The main mixes were Venetian Red, Raw Sienna, and Prussian Blue (and the ubiquitous white) to get a Service Drab dark brown, so characteristic of British equipment in 1943, when green pigments were in short supply; the same combo in different proportions for the flesh tones, and without the red for the webbing and bags. The helmets were painted variations of khaki and brown, but this wasn’t highly visible under the netting and scrim. I had a bit of a wobble on the scrim, which I at first painted green, before reading that it should be brown or hessian. Some of the green is still there, but never mind.

With the basic painting and detailing done, I applied a layer of Quickshade. I did have a quick look at using diluted ink instead, but I think for figures, as opposed to vehicles, the Quickshade is a better bet, as it works into the hollows nicely. My medium tone Quickshade (aka Strong) has expired; I used Dark on my vehicles but thought this was too strong. Fortunately my Soft Tone was still alive, under quite a thick skin, and I used this. I proved ideal. I am using quite a bit of white in my colour mixes, which makes them paler than you would typically get using ready-mixed hobby paints – so it may not be surprising that the soft tone works. I was tempted to leave things there, as the Quickshade did not leave a strong sheen (I think the gloss must be going into the bit that formed the skin – because my medium tone stuff dried quite matt before it expired). However heavy matt varnish is the look of all my stuff, so I gave it a spray in matt varnish to finish. I’m not entirely sure about this, though modern warfare is a dusty business, and that is the look of the real thing. I might want to pick out some parts in a satin varnish though – flesh and weapons, perhaps.

Before the matt varnish went on, the bases needed flocking. For this I used a Woodland Scenic earth base, with some fine pale green flock mixed in. I felt this needed a bit more variety and texture – though the patches of pale green flock didn’t look quite right on my Germans. So I gave selected figures (all the large bases) patches of fine sand, a brown gainy material, and some pale static grass. I can’t get the latter to stand up properly, so it doesn’t look quite right. All this (except the grass) was sealed in using diluted PVA as the varnish spray isn’t quite strong enough for this.

And that was it. I’m pleased with the overall result, though I’ve spotted a few gaps and errors, as usual. These are wargames standard, and not presentation pieces. I think they look better than my German infantry. I suspect the latter suffer from my attempt to reflect the mixture of kit and colours used by the Germans, which makes them look quite scrappy.

Next up I’m going to do more British vehicles and crews. This will include a carrier section (including passengers), a Dingo, a Loyd carrier for the 6-pdr, and a jeep.

Reflections on the battle of Salerno, September 1943

Very nearly 75 years ago a combined army of British and American troops conducted an amphibious invasion near the Italian town of Salerno, not far from the now glitzy Amalfi Coast, south of Naples. The Germans counterattacked and there were 10 days of hard fighting in which thousands were killed from both sides, and many Italian civilians too, many more of whom lost their homes to artillery bombardment and bombing from the air. The Germans then retreated. This battle is little noticed in current historical accounts of World War 2, but I have long been interested in it.

My initial interest was sparked when I was at school, fascinated by anything to do with WW2, when I read a book on the battle by the journalist Hugh Pond, which included many accounts from survivors. This evolved into my focus on the Mediterranean battles of 1943, before German heavy armour and Allied air superiority created a very awkward asymmetry.  That went on ice in 1979, as I left home (or rather my parents moved out of town leaving me behind), and I put my wargames stuff into storage or gave it away. When I did resume wargaming, I concentrated on the Napoleonic wars.

That changed a couple of years ago when I joined a wargames club, and discovered the enduring popularity of WW2 games. I then found some of my old 1943 models in the loft. Now retired, I decided to have another look. I naturally resumed my interest in Salerno. Source material was thin, though, as historians and games are much more interested in Normandy 1944 and after, or the Western Desert in 1941-42 (to say nothing 1940 Blitzkrieg or the 1941-45 Eastern Front). I found a rather unsatisfactory Osprey book. But eventually I laid my hands on Angus Kostam’s book Salerno 1943  published in 2007. This is a very good book. It reconstructs events across the ten days without digressing into the anecdotes so popular in historical works. The maps could be better, and I would have liked more on the air war (and more detail generally), but after reading this I at last have a better grasp of the sequence of events. It has also given me a better feel for warfare in WW2 in general.

What to say of the battle? Generally the Allies blundered and were outfought by the Germans, who seem to have suffered half the casualties. Only artillery, from field batteries and warships, saved the Allies from disaster. In the end the Germans did not have the strength to prevail. In his analysis Mr Kostan falls in with a fairly standard critical assessment that the Allies under the US General Mark Clark went onto the defensive too quickly, giving the Germans the chance to take the initiative and drive the Allies into the sea. I’m not convinced. The Allies suffered their biggest setbacks when they pushed forward too aggressively, in the British sector on D-Day (when disaster hit the Hampshires), in Battapaglia not long after (ditto the Fusiliers), and the Americans in Altavilla and environs on D+3 and 4. In each case the Germans exposed the tactical ineptitude of inexperienced troops, who left gaps as they pushed outwards. In particular the Allies struggled to coordinate the different arms of service – infantry found itself under attack from armour-supported infantry without armour support or antitank guns. At other times it was the tanks that didn’t have the support (though at least once that happened to the Germans too). Coordination with the artillery was better, and that often saved the day. But I suspect even the artillery was not used as effectively as it could have been – a lot of shells being wasted on buildings which housed no Germans, because they were convenient targets that produced satisfactorily observable results. An object lesson on how things should have been conducted was provided by the British Guards, one of the few veteran units, when, towards the end of the battle, a big German attack ran into a prepared trap, where infantry, artillery and antitank guns were all properly coordinated. On that occasion even the antiaircraft guns were deployed to help, a rarity for the British, but commonplace for Germans. The result was devastating. A rapid advance by Allied troops that were still learning how to fight effectively could have been sliced up by the Germans, leaving the rear areas very vulnerable.

A further thing strikes me about the battle, which presumably applies to WW2 more generally. The fighting forces were quite thin on the ground, and one of the key ingredients to success to was understanding where your enemy actually was. The Germans were adept at pulling back to regroup, and turning up somewhere else. The better Allied troops (notably the US Rangers and paratroops), as well as the Germans, conducted aggressive patrolling in advance of their positions as a matter of course. This was no WW1 battle with clearly defined front lines. This is part of the “empty battlefield” syndrome that I have heard mentioned a number of times.

So what about wargaming Salerno? In the north, and some of the southern fringes, the battle was in hilly country, mostly unsuitable for vehicles. The Germans did use armour but the Allies generally didn’t. There was fierce fighting, including by the British Commandos facing German paratroops, but not so easy to create an attractive game, especially on a club night. Elsewhere though, notably in the sector fought over by the British 56th Division, the ground was flat, and the combat is closer to the popular Normandy pattern – though no bocage. The German forces were drawn from Panzer or Panzergrenadier divisions, so quite well-equipped, including good armour support and armoured half tracks, but no heavy tanks or tank destoyers (notwithstanding frequent reports of Tiger tanks from allied troops), and no panzerfaust or panzerschrek infantry antitank weapons. The allies had good antitank weapons (6pdr and 17pdr antitank guns for the British) including PIATs and bazookas. And the Sherman tanks (with M10 tank destroyers in the US sector) were quite capable of dealing with the German Panzer IVs and StuG IIIs. Air support did not play a big role on either side at the tactical level (though there was quite a bit of bombing of town by medium bombers and German attacks on the fleet). Reconnaissance forces on both sides were frequently drawn into the front line, with armoured cars etc. All this should produce some good games. The difficulty is allowing for artillery, important to both sides, and critical to the Allies, and the struggle the Allies had in ensuring their infantry was properly supported by antitank weapons or armour.

I’m just beginning when it comes to scenario design, though. There should be some ways of getting good club games from these ingredients. There is also scope for a very interesting operational level game (perhaps using Sam Mustafa’s Rommel) looking at the battle as a whole.That’s a whole new area though.