Tuesday 12 March 2019

Reunion on the road from Serracapriola

or A Partial Play-test of a new Campaign scenario

My irregularity in posting, or at least the long absences between posts, makes me think I should have subtitled this blog, "the record of an occasional wargamer". Still, I am trying to keep a faithful account of the tabletop games I play, and sadly I'm just not getting to the tabletop as frequently as I'd like.

An opportunity came up this long weekend in the form of a visit from an old school friend from PMQ. Tom had touched base with my old wargaming partner Stu, and the three of us decided to get together for a games day. Tom is mostly a role-player, but was keen to try miniatures, and Stu was keen to try Chain of Command (having previously played some Sharp Practice 2).

This also provided an opportunity for me to partially play-test what I was thinking could be the first scenario in To the Viktor Line, a pint-sized campaign I am developing around the 1st East Surreys and 1st Fallschirmjägers at Larino, Italy, in October 1943. The Viktor Line (also known as the Volturno Line) was the German's southern-most defensive line across the Italian Peninsular and was the first organised defensive line facing the Allies following their invasion of the Italian mainland in September 1943. It ran from Termoli on the Adriatic coast, upstream along the Biferno River to the central spine of the Apennine Mountains, which it crossed to follow the Volturno River downstream to its mouth on the Tyhrennian Sea, around 20 miles north of Naples.

By the end of September 1943, the British 8th Army under General Bernard Montgomery was fast approaching the Viktor line at the Biferno River and Termoli, advancing quickly from Taranto and Bari and across the relatively open country beyond Foggia. In front of them, the much depleted 1st Fallschirmjäger Division had been as rapidly falling back. As they approached the Biferno, the Fallschirmjägers were also moving into the foothills of the Apennines, better ground for making a stand.

The campaign covers a small side episode on the fringes of the better known Battle for Termoli (2-7 October 1943). As most of the 78th (Battleaxe) Division were headed for Termoli, the 1st East Surreys, with heavy machine gun and mortar support from the 1st Kensingtons, were sent inland from Serracapriola to neutralise the German forces holding Larino, a key point on the main road and rail routes which run across Italy from Naples to Termoli. The British were attacking to the west through the little village of Ururi with orders to capture and hold Larino and control Highway 87 to Termoli. The German forces of the 1st Fallschirmjäger Regiment at Larino (Kampfgruppe 'Schulz') have orders to delay the British advance and to keep the highway and railroad clear.

As it was, we could only do a partial play-test as I couldn't find enough of my Fallschirmjäger figures on the day, so we used two regular infantry platoons instead. I think this probably gave us a more even match-up for a one-off fight and a more vanilla game than the campaign calls for (with the elite Fallschirmjäger operating under strength).

The Battlefield
This first proposed scenario of the campaign is a Probe (Scenario Two in the CoC rules) across the crossing point of a small stream named the Sapestra on the road from Serracapriola to Ururi. The scenario is played length-ways along the table (ie. the players take the shorter table edges), with a road running down the centre length-ways and a stream running at right angles across the centre. The crossing point has a bridge (which the full campaign scenario requires the Germans to blow and gives a bonus support to the British if they can capture it intact; but which we didn't include in this fight).

The road is mostly hedge-lined with some occasional open fencing and gates. The stream also has hedges and occasional small stands of trees lining it. There are a few fields (broken ground), just beyond the stream on the German side of the table. There are two two-story farmhouses with accompanying vineyards on two opposite corners of the table, and a smaller single story building with a smaller vineyard. The photos below provide a guide to the table layout.

The German's defend on the left side of the stream
British attacking from the right

(I have to apologise for the photos from this game; they're never too good, but I'd lost one of my overhead lights and so they are particularly gloomy.)

The Forces
As first-time players, Stuart and Tom were playing the attacking British, each effectively taking one of the roles of the two senior leaders of the regular platoon (Lieutenant and Sergeant) as a "council of war". The HQ had the PIAT team (which I explained was probably unnecessary given I had no armour) and the 2" mortar team; and then three sections, each with its 3-man Bren team and 6-man rifle team. Tom rolled a "6" for support, and they took a Forward Observer and 3" mortar team, a mine clearing team, and a medic.

I was the defending Germans with a regular Grenadier platoon of one senior leader, a 2-man Panzerschreck team; and three sections, each with a 3-man MG42 team and 6-man rifle team. Tom's "6" left me with "3" for support, so I took a minefield, barbed wire and entrenchments for one team.

We each had a Force Moral of 10.

The Patrol Phase
We were both fairly conservative with the Patrol Phase. Four markers each: mine in three stacks of 1-2-1 fairly central in my starting area; theirs in one stack in the centre of their table edge. They received three free moves and advanced mostly up the centre alongside the road, splaying out a little either side. I advanced with the aim of getting up to if not over the stream across a fairly constant front to avoid any British jump-off points getting a jump on a flank. I was fairly happy how things ended up, with two patrol markers over the stream near the long ridge and ensuring the British jump-off points would be well behind the stream. (See photo below.)

Patrol Markers and Jump-Off Points

This left the British with a jump-off point in the vineyard on their right flank (off shot to the left in the photo above), in the woods at their centre, and on the far edge of the table on their left flank (about level with the woods, top of the table in the photo above). I had a jump-off point in the woods just behind the stream on my far left flank; one behind the stream and the hedges and some trees in the centre, and then one right back on my right flank towards my base edge behind a vineyard.

I deployed the minefield to block the bridge and the wire on my far right immediately behind the stream. I kept my entrenchment off table for now.

Into Combat
In the campaign, the British as attacker go first, but we decided to dice for it (given equal Force Morale) and I went first. After my last game of CoC I had vowed that I would be more cautious; not rush to deploy and move, but let them come to me. And how more appropriate would that be in a game were I was clearly the defender, and with a fairly deep defence at that. 

My first Command Dice roll was a 6-6-6-3-2. I was again cursed with a dreaded double phase at the start and, like last time, it immediately led to a rush of blood to the head! My left flank jump-off point was about 24" from their right flank jump-off point. With a double phase, I was enticed into over-confidence that I could shut it down and even capture it before they could get anything deployed on this flank and forcing them on to their left flank which was protected by my engineering works. So one section deployed over the stream on my far left and now around 18" from his right flank jump-off, with the other on my forward centre jump-off point.

My second phase gave me a couple of Chain of Command points and enough for me to follow through my plans for the jump-off shutdown, but with that little cautious voice in my head, I decided to double time with just my riflemen and junior leader (leaving the MG42 team in the trees for cover). I needed to get 14 on 3D6 to get to within 4" to close down their jump-off point. I rolled 11, leaving six men and a junior leader in the open carrying one shock and just 7" from a British deployment point.

The British then rolled and were able to bring on a whole section, and not surprising that they brought it on their right flank. They had the option to sit on the back edge of the vineyard and unleash a fair burst of fire onto my little rifle team, but old "Blood and Guts" Stu was adamant that he wanted a bit of biff, so despite my warnings about the bloodiness of close combat, in they went. It was pretty even (my 10D6 to his 13D6) and it ended with him taking three kills and three shock to my two kills and two shock, throwing him back 6".

The bloody cost of close combat

I was pretty lucky, but still very exposed. On my next phase, I had enough command dice to rally off some of the shock from my exposed forces and put them on a tactical stance, raising their cover to light. I also had enough to bring on another section. I was sufficiently spooked by the prospect of losing my left flank, I decided to bring my last section (with entrenchment!) on to my left behind the exposed team (so also blocking their line of fire – "d'oh!"). So what started out as a short jab to close down the jump-off point suddenly became the whole line of my defence, with my right flank wide open (albeit with the minefield and wire providing some barrier).

On their next phase they brought on the platoon sergeant to their right to rally off some shock and open up fire on my exposed team, killing one man and adding one shock. Of greater concern for me, they brought on the forward observer (FO) for their off-table mortars! They also brought on their two other sections, off each of their central and left flank jump-off points.

The British Left Flank

On my next phase I picked up some more Chain of Command points, giving me almost a full Chain of Command dice (the best part of my game!) and was able to bring on my senior leader to my left to rally what was left of my exposed team. I was also able to fire my MG42 team at his right flank section, but to no effect.

The British had the next phase, and their FO made contact with his battery, and their right flight section rallied some more and fired, killing another of my exposed team (now just two men and junior leader) putting on more shock and pinning them. They also began advancing one of the sections on their left flank. They were setting up for their main push, and I was in some disarray.

Next phase, I dithered again, with a 6-4-4-2-2 and used mostly with my senior leader rallying off the shock and unpinning the exposed team, who were taking up too much of my attention. My MG42 fired again scoring one kill (unfortunately for me not the FO) and putting on some shock.

Then next phase they unleashed hell, calling for an immediate barrage at the mid-point between all of my forces. Stu rolled well, avoiding any deviation, and so pinning nearly all of my troops (four teams and three leaders), who were lucky to lose only two men and take some shock. Ironically, the exposed team was just outside the area of effect, and so was again hit, this time wounding the junior leader. Meanwhile, on the British left they brought on their 2" mortar team and one section moved up to the stream – now half way to its objective, with no opposing forces in front of them, and pretty much of all my forces effectively immobile!

Barrage bang on target!
The Brits wind up for their victory run

At this point, I was lucky enough to get a "6" in my command dice, giving me a full Chain of Command dice and the opportunity to end the turn and so bring the barrange to an end and also revive my injured junior leader. I was also able to finally try to extricate my exposed team, bringing them back towards the line of trees and end of the ridge, but unfortunately still in the open and exposed. I also started to swing my centre section towards the road to attempt to enfilade any British section crossing the stream. Unfortunately, my movement dice were shockers, and I moved only a couple of inches, strung out along the line of the stream.

On the next phase, Tom rolled a 6-4-4-3-2. The platoon sergeant activated the FO who again made contact to call in the barrage. (I realised afterwards we didn't play this correctly - ie. we made it an automatic follow up, rather than testing.) The left flank section crossed over the stream, getting closer to their objective (my base edge) and clear of any shock.

By now I could start to bring my full left flank section to fire on his right section, but I was doing no real damage. My centre section was stumbling to get into position with poor movement rolls and a narrow line of sight through a short stretch of fence either side of the road. I had spread my two full sections more, but was still at risk of a well-targeted barrage. And I did finally get my much diminished rifle team behind the ridge and out of line of sight.

The following phase, given the success of his earlier barrage, Tom called in an immediate barrage, and this time the dice were on my side. He rolled a 3, resulting in a 5D6 deviation; 17" and directly back on to his own positions, including his own Forward Observer! This led to much good-natured recrimination between my two opponents and felt like a reprieve for me.

Hoist on his own barrage

We made a further mess of the rules, struggling to find clear guidance on what the effect of the Forward Observer being subject to his own barrage. In watching other people play Chain of Command, a barrage seems to close down everything within it, so I (wrongly) assumed it meant no movement, firing or activation, and so a FO caught in his own barrage would be unable to react. As I now know that isn't right, and he could have activated in a future phase to end the barrage. Thankfully my error didn't really change the overall outcome, but it made the Brits a little more nervous than they might otherwise have been.

On my next phase I continued to creep my central section into a better firing position to try and stop the end-run of the one British section across the stream. I was still strung out and could only get the MG42 and 2 riflemen firing at half effect, to put on just one shock. My other units were effectively out of the game, unable to shoot into the barrage (which blocks line of sight) but equally safe from the troops within it.

On Stu's next phase his section made a further bolt for home. They rolled badly, but we decided at this point there was no stopping them – his section was in spitting distance of some hills and a house, all of which would give him cover to my base edge, and I was still too strung out to do enough damage – so we called it a British victory.

The winning position

Each game continues to be a learning process for me, but I certainly found that the flow of play becomes easier even though there are details in the rules that are easy to overlook or forget. This was something Stu could see too, commenting that a few games under your belt and your consideration and choices would shift from rules towards tactics. I think its a sign of a good base set of rules though that, even with some stuff ups with the rules on the table, it still gives a good gaming experience. I also think it gave Tom a great introduction to miniature wargaming; though maybe not yet enough for a full blown conversion.

I still find the Patrol Phase a challenge, though I was much happier with my outcome this time. I think this is something that would benefit from doing some solo refights just to see how a different set of Patrol choices change the starting positions.

I also received another lesson in the virtue of patience, and what happens when fools rush in! And so once again I take away a commitment to be more cautious in future games.

Finally, it has also caused me to rethink the scope of my planned campaign. The first three scenarios were going to be fairly disconnected, occurring over about 5 miles either side of Ururi, before concentrating in the hills and ridges before Larino. I think now it may be better to focus on that closer fighting in front of Larino to give more of a connection between each scenario. Maybe its not right to judge from just one scenario. Anyway, food for thought.

For this one, I've decided to take just a simple excerpt from the good Captain's war correspondence, with a more general observation about the war in Italy:

30 September 1943, Highway 16, on the Road to Foggia

Mon Camarade Colonel

... Though I am settling in well with these Tommies, and you would think a few years of fighting alongside them would help us understand their humour, but alas! I was in the mess this morning explaining to a Major and two Captains that I am a Frenchman on liaison with the British, fighting the Germans in Italy, and they kept thinking I was trying to tell them a joke about people going into a pub. Crazy Englishmen!...

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

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