Saturday 27 July 2019

False Start at Vizzarri Farm

or "He who hesitates..."

We had a chance last weekend for the first real play-test of the first scenario from my Larino campaign ("To the Viktor Line") at Canberra's Wintercon. The campaign covers an independent action on the fringes of the Battle of Termoli (3-7 October 1943), where the German 16th Panzer Division aimed to throw back a British Eighth Army attempt to outflank via the Adriatic coast one of the German's early defence lines across the Italian peninsula. My campaign follows the 1st East Surrey's action against Kampfgruppe "Schulz" of the 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment as the Surrey's aim to capture the town of Larino, about 15 miles inland from Termoli.

This first scenario reflects the first contact between the two sides with a British attack on a German outpost in the Vizzarri farm. The scenario is fought as a flanking battle, with the first British attack going in before dawn (so visibility is down to 18" on table). I was playing the British and up against my work colleague and sometimes gaming companion Michael. It was only his second game of Chain of Command, and only my fifth or so (leaving aside a few solo runs), so still learning curves for both of us.

The Vizzarri farm is on the Larino Plateau below the footfills of the Monti dei Frentani and so in very flat and open ground. The farmhouse and surrounding buildings are a mix of single and two storeys, with some tall thick trees to their front and a low olive grove at their rear.

The Vizzarri Farm from the German deployment zone

Michael's Germans had 5 support points, so took some minefields, a medic and the 5cm mortar. I had 20 points of support, so took a couple of carriers with bren teams, an extra 2" mortar team, an on-table Vickers MMG team, a flamethrower team, a forward observer for 4.2" mortars, and a medic. With all that firepower, I should have been raring to go, but my previous experience with Fallschirmjägers made me wary. I had also never used carriers, so was unsure how vulnerable they might be.

We both rolled "5" for our Force Morale, giving me 10 and Michael 11 (given his bonus for elite Fallschirmjägers).

As a flanking scenario, I started off with two sets of three patrol markers along one long edge and one short edge; and Michael had three patrol markers within the German deployment zone in the bottom left corner of the table.

Flank Attack on the Vizzarri Farm: Starting Layout

I had some free moves, but with a roll of "1" was not able to make as much progress as I had hoped. We ended up locked down fairly quickly, giving Michael some good central Jump Off Points, and myself with two sets of JOPs on my two starting table edges. Around the farm, we were sitting at very close quarters. Finally, Michael placed his two minefields about half way up the table on his right flank.

The Vizzarri Farm showing Jump Off Points and
German minefield (XXXX)

[This is all a little closer on the table]

At this point, we made a mistake (only picked up well after the game), and had Michael take the first phase given his higher Force Morale, although I should have taken this as the attacker. He started with a good roll of command dice that allowed him to deploy two sections, one just short of the trees around the most forward farm buildings, the other in the olive grove towards his short base edge.

I wasn't that happy with my first command roll, as it would have meant getting only one section and a team out and if I was to do that on my most forward JOPs, I was worried about being exposed without cover, even though one of the teams could have been a bren carrier (which I was still thinking might be very vulnerable). So I didn't deploy at all! This fear, coupled with my trepidation about the strength of my elite opponents - even though some of his sections were already down men as part of the campaign effects - was to be my downfall for the whole game.

Michael's next phase was a double phase (we were using the 5+1 variant for elite troops, so his odds for this were the same as mine), which allowed him to push forward those sections already out and to add a further section and his senior leaders. By the end of this run, my JOPs closest to his were starting to look very vulnerable. I had also decided - perhaps somewhat over-cautiously - that I would only deploy from these JOPs if I could do so with fairly overwhelming force - and ideally with a double phase.

When my next command rolls proved disappointing - no double phases, nor what I felt was enough to really take enough of the fight up to the ever-encroaching Germans - I started to bring out some of my forces on my short table edge to begin the longer and safer advance under cover of darkness.

The British advancing cautiously
under cover of darkness and smoke

So I otherwise held back and pretty pathetically watched first one and then another of my JOPs closed down and then over-run without doing anything. It was a pretty miserable experience, and somewhere in here Michael managed to play a Chain of Command dice to end the turn, my Force Morale was sitting on 6, and we'd not yet fired a shot in anger!

One British JOP captured and another on the way
to being closed down and captured

I was fairly despairing at this point as my forces edged forward, with one section rounding the minefield but starting to get badly cut up as it tried to advance against the German's flank, and my bren carriers who were just starting to make out their first enemy as they inched ahead in the gloom. It was at this point that we both realised I'd been playing completely the wrong game! The bren carriers started to do some damage and with only a couple of panzerfaust 30s and with his 5cm mortar too far back on the table edge in the olive grove, it became clear that the carriers could have been a game-winner if they'd been brought to bear earlier. But by then my most advanced section was getting really mauled, with a junior leader killed and one team broken, and with my Force Morale falling further (down to 4) I decided to call it a day before losing more casualties.

So this was another lesson for me in the fine art of aggression in war. In some of my earlier games I was too quick to push forward, leaving men exposed and then pulling back in the face of casualties. Here it was the opposite: for fear of being exposed, I let some key strategic ground go, which undermined my morale such that by the time I was in the position to do some damage, my force was perhaps already too vulnerable.

Michael on the other hand displayed a good balance of aggression and caution that allowed him to make the most of my timidity without putting himself in too difficult a position.

In terms of the campaign results, I had seven casualties, including a junior NCO, three of which are now Gone West. Michael lost three, all of whom return.  Michael's CO's opinion has gone up 1 to +1; his men's opinion remains unchanged on +1; and his own outlook has gone from relaxed to cheerful. My CO's opinion has gone down 1 (to 0); my men have significantly lost faith, with their opinion dropping from +1 to -3, so effecting my Force Morale roll next time; and, seemingly oblivious to the opinion of those around me, my own outlook has stayed steady at happy.

I'm happy with how this feels for the campaign test too. It seems like a good mixed balance - the Brits do have loads of support, which can include carriers, but they have to choose to chance it with an all-in fight from the flank and the risk of some fairly bloody ambushes among the farm buildings, or the longer and slower road. Next time we play, I'll not have the advantage of the pre-dawn attack, so will be interesting to see how that plays out.

As is traditional, I will leave the last word to the good Captain, who was travelling with elements of the 78th Division with the aim of catching up with a distant French-Canadian cousin with Le Régiment de Trois-Rivières:

3 October 1943, Parco di San Pardo

Mon Chéri Clafoutis aux Pêches

I am writing to you as the sun rises and its rays filter through this delightful orchard where we had camped for the night, and which reminded me of that lovely orchard on your father's farm, and that even lovelier morning a few years back when... but I am getting distracted. I am about to settle down to enjoy a passable Choucroute garnie with some sausage and saurkraut I managed to find on a dead German a few days ago. I can almost hear your delightful shriek of disgust from here, but searching the dead is something that an Intelligence Officer gets used to, and these petit morceaux are just some of the benefits of what might otherwise be a grisly job!

I've joined with a regiment from East Surrey who are heading up into the central hills above us today and they're up against the German paratroopers. They've had run-ins with them before, and you can tell that they are a little wary of them. I don't blame them - those Diables Verts have a reputation for tenacity and even viciousness in their fighting, so it might be quite a slog. They're good scroungers too, so who knows, I might find some more sausage soon.

Extract from Fortier's War: The Collected Correspondence of Capt. Julien Fortier, 1939-45, edited by a spiritual descendant of the Captain.