As the grey dawn draped itself over the December 1942 Libyan landscape, the Allies began their advance, on a broad front, towards the town of Sittangbad. The plan was to clear the hamlet of Bir Isen, and exploit on to the town itself. The object was to carry intact the bridge over the difficult obstruction of the Wadi Wasir; the hope was that the move would be quick enough to seize the vast quantities of supplies and munitions known to remain in the place. The place would have been a fine target for a sizeable bombing mission, but low cloud obviated such an expedient.
Played solo, this game once again featured the Portable Wargames card driven unit activation. Having 18 units altogether, the Allies could draw RED 8, 9 or 10 to move so many units. With a mere 12 units, the Germans move just BLACK 5, 6 or 7 units per turn, depending on the draw. The game began with a die roll to determine who went first. It was the Allies. Drawing a 10, the Allies led off with the entire available troops from 4th Light Armoured Brigade advancing over and around the northern flank of Djebel Isen. These comprised the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys, A Company, King's Royal Rifle Corps, and C Squadron, Royal Dragoons. On their left, the lead New Zealand wave comprised the Carrier and Vickers platoons of HQ Company, 21st Battalion, with A and C companies to assault the southern quarter of the hamlet, and D Company to make a wide sweep through the nearby palm grove thence swing north to flank the garrison. The machine gunners were to support the attack.
Ready for an early attack by the Allies, the German commander, Oberstleutnant Johann von Herzog switched his panzers and one of his infantry companies (#2) to the north flank to face the British armour swarming over the Djebel Isen. Before doing so, however, the panzers had to survive the early attentions - fortunately ineffectual - of the British Crusaders and Sherman tanks above them on the higher ground. A brief return of fire was no more effective, whereupon the panzers completed their move. The Marders, in rear of Bir Isen, moved across to protect the left rear of the place.
In Sittangbad itself, the column of transports began their laborious exodus. To place some kind of time constraint upon the action, I placed 8 trucks on the bridge and main road. Each German turn would be marked by the removal of one transport up the road, off the table. This required no 'charge' upon the movement activation cards, unless the German commander wished to hurry up the process. In that case one additional vehicle in any given turn could be allocated a card pip and also be brought off. During the course of this action, the German commander found but one occasion upon which he could do so. For the remainder of the action he was too busy with other concerns.
Having completed the switch to the left, the panzers opened fire and scored hits upon A/RSG light tanks. At this point I shall digress and discuss some 'battlefield' decisions and game mechanics. This narrative will be interrupted from time to time with such digressions. This is quite in the style of Henry Fielding or Herman Melville...
1. The Allied 'broad front' advance, I had decided upon more or less as I drew up the ORBATS for both sides. Those ORBATS, by the way, were as near as I could get to a 20th century 'equivalent' to the 18th century forces of the original scenario. At any rate, the effect of this broad advance was pretty much to leave out of the battle for too long the considerable artillery available to the Allies; the best part of a whole regiment of 25-pr guns, and the Kiwis' organic mortars.
On reflection, it would have been better to have brought the artillery onto the table - OR into action from off-table - from move 1 or 2. But on move 1, with no one on the table, who is to direct the fire, bearing in mind artillery fire takes place before move allocation? I had intended that the artillery be brought on quickly, after the first wave, but for several turns, the Allies could scarcely proceed beyond their start line. There simply was no room for them. Nor was there time, as the Allies struggled forward against fierce German opposition.
2. This brings me to the artillery phase opening each turn, before the cards are drawn for movement. I tried this early, when both sides used this phase to engage in an anti-tank duel, and then had to recall which units had done the shooting once I started allocating moves. At that point I simply dropped the artillery fire phase for the remainder of this game, and included it in the fire phase.
This decision I did not want to make, nor did it prove altogether satisfactory. I liked the artillery fire phase in principle. How to work it into a card activated solo game?
Simple. I can't think why I didn't figure this out at the time. Too focused on the action, maybe.
- Draw cards for both sides at the beginning of the turn.
- Artillery fire phase.
- 'Mark off' on the drawn card(s) units that have fired in this phase.
- Roll for first move this turn.
- Continue per rule book
This has one unlooked for virtue: the possibility of two consecutive movement phases by one or other side. The 'alternate draw' system had obviated this in order to avoid the 'long runs' that had been such a feature of my earlier battles with the PW system. But it seemed to me desirable that there be some chance of at least a 'run of two' to come up from time to time. The phase sequence here seems to be the answer to two questions.
The move by the Panzer and #2 infantry companies was not uncontested. In fact it was a whole deal more dangerous than I appreciated, as the 4th Light Armoured were not about to let the chance go by. I rather feared for the Germans, here, as, although the panzers had inflicted some loss upon the light squadron, attacked subsequently by British riflemen in front and light tanks in flank, their retreat was cut off by the palm thick palm grove to their rear. For their part, it was fortunate the infantry had to face just squadron of Crusader tanks. The Shermans of B Squadron, constrained by the German occupation of Bir Isen, had perforce to try and storm the place.
By now, the leading Kiwi infantry were already beginning their assaults. Whilst the carrier platoon brought the north end of the hamlet under LMG fire, A company began a direct assault upon the southern end. C Company was to flank the place, but found themselves having instead to deal with enemy armoured cars detailed to prevent that very action.
The ferocity of the fighting can be seen by the dice rolls in the above picture, though, rather annoyingly, some explanation is called for. The white (and red) dice were to determine hits; the green were for effect. Now, I have normally a very strong memory, but it does have one little trick it plays on me. Every now and then it inverts what I wish to recall. So, having achieved hits, I was taking 1-3 to mean 'retreat, pinned' and 4-6 for 1 SP lost and pinned - the exact reverse of the rule book (all the troops were classed as 'average' for this action). Shortly after this I noticed my error, but for the sake of consistency, and as the odds were the same anyway, carried on as I had begun.
At any rate, A company having already taken a loss as they approached, took another in the close assault, but not without inflicting some hurt on the garrison. Although the result was a 'retreat', the Germans were not yet ready to abandon their charge. They took the loss instead. The Shermans were equally unlucky, the grenades and other anti-tank devices available to the defenders causing the tankers to take a loss, and to draw off.
Caught in the defile between Djebel Isen and the palm trees, the panzer company was in trouble and beginning to take losses. The infantry facing the British cruiser tanks were holding their own, however, and, still unpinned, were able shortly after this picture was taken, to pull back into the cover of the palm trees.
Meanwhile, back in Sittangbad, a PaK38 antitank company had been eagerly watching the action unfold. When the Sherman squadron turned to attack Bir Isen, they presented a flank to the lurking gunners. Now, another 'battlefield decision' confronted me. Was it permitted to shoot at a unit engaged in close combat?
This might seem a silly question, especially as I see no prohibition in the PW rules. Probably I should simply have gone with that. But, so accustomed am I to rule sets that disallow any such thing, it did raise questions, especially in respect of indirect fire. For the purposes of this action, I allowed direct fire by units themselves not engaged in close combat at units that were, provided the friendly troops so engaged did not block line of sight. Indirect fire I disallowed, pending further thought. Frankly, I am still in two minds about that. At any rate, at extreme range, the anti-tank gunners missed...
At this stage, however, the Germans had been doing remarkably well. The Bir Isen garrison, exhorted by von Herzog himself, was holding comfortably enough. The Marder company's flanking fire induced the Crusader squadron to break off its attack on the infantry, who had, betimes, themselves disengaged successfully. The panzers had even forced back the KRRC motor company.
The only dark spot seemed to be the armoured car thrust down the far side of the oasis, with nothing to oppose them. On the other hand, the machine gunners in the village followed up its repulse of the Shermans by destroying the carrier platoon in short order.
Before carrying on, the observant reader might have seen the occasional explosion marker placed against some vehicles. To begin with I had it in mind to use them as 'strength point loss markers' This would have been fine, but, feeling the want of 'pin' markers, switched to that use instead. Readers will notice soon the reappearance of my strength point dice holders, with the explosions alongside pinned units.
The armoured car squadron's hurtle off into the blue was not as aimless as it appeared. The Germans were not having to include any of the Sittangbad garrison in allocating card pips to the Kampfgruppe Herzog units. The hope was that by sweeping into the deep left flank of the town, the Daimlers would at least draw the attention of the garrison.
At that point the New Zealanders would have appreciated just about any help they could get. Hardly had the carrier platoon met its quietus, when B Company, arriving on the field behind A Company, came under an accurate and effective machine-gun fire. This short, sharp sequence of pictures tell the story. Three hits...
Three strength points down...
One stand remaining.
You will notice, perhaps, a extra, single figure stand with the remaining 2-figure stands with each of the depleted A and B NZ Companies. These were 'command' figures, but had no game significance apart from ... they just look good with the extra figure. They did not add to strength points.
Suffice it to say, that after the loss of 10 SPs in the assault so far - 1 Sherman, the 2 from the carrier platoon, and 7 infantry - the Allies seemed no nearer taking Bir Isen than they had at the beginning. I was thinking at this point the whole operation might end up a rather ignominious Allied defeat. Now might have been the time for the garrison to pull out. But they, too, had been taking some hurt. The MG and schutzen companies were both pinned down within their defences. The hamlet itself was almost cut off from Sittangbad altogether.
Having survived a couple of near misses - the Commander supporting a unit that takes hits - Oberstleutnant Johann von Herzog at last concluded that his august person would be better employed elsewhere. Accordingly he had handed over the defence of Bir Isen to Oberleutnant von Kronberg, wished him good luck, and betaken himself in his armoured halftrack back into Sittangbad, bringing with him - unscathed for a wonder - the small company of Marder assault guns.
The north face of the town was by then already under fire from a squadron of armoured cars, who were engaging the attention of the infantry gun and anti-tank units holding that end of the garrison's line.
There was little else remaining to hold up 4th Light Armoured. Attacked front and rear, the panzer company was reduced to a parking lot of smoking scrap metal (the gap between the Honey and the KRRC motor company in the above picture), though the light tank company had themselves taken losses from a close assault in their turn by #2 Schutzen Company (in the same picture, obscured by the palm fronds). The German infantry then found themselves being given the undivided attention of two armoured squadrons and a motor company.
Considering that they were the last rifle company to be engaged, the destruction of B Company came as something of a surprise. But the German MG company was having on the whole an easier time of it than #1 Schutzen. A company also gave up its attempt to take the village, and fell back a scant quarter of its original strength. Undaunted by their comrades' losses, C Company flung themselves into the action, just as the Sherman squadron resumed its attempt against the north side. D Company tried to storm the southside, but were handily repulsed, then driven further back by the armoured cars protecting the southern flank rear.
Within the Sittangbad palm grove, #2 Schutzen Coy came under attack from light and medium tanks and the KRRC motor company. By this time, Colonel Greenlees Corncobb had been able to give some thought to bringing up his idle regiment of artillery, and the company of engineers, as well. One battery ('C') deployed not far from Bir Isen, the other two ('A' and 'B') could find room to deploy only on the far northern flank. It soon became apparent that the latter pair no longer had useful targets within range, so rapidly had the Germans outside Bir Isen fallen back. They had, perforce, to move...
As this is already a very long posting, I will call here for a pause for tea and biscuits.
To be continued.