Friday, 30 September 2016

Northampton on the move

Heads up to all of you on this side of the pond and in the East Midlands area that I'll be at the Derby World Wargames show at Castle Donington International Exhibition Centre this weekend 1st & 2nd October. I'll be on the Northampton Battlefields Society / Society of Ancients stand with Phil Steele with my Northampton 1460 game. Hopefully some of you will find the time to come along, say hello and play the game. It went really well at Newark a month or so back, so hopefully you won't be disappointed.

For those of you interested in the Northampton battlefield a little update. The Borough Council is running a project to enhance the Delapre Abbey area and improve the walk ways round the battlefield. This should make it easier for disabled access, safer to approach certain areas by moving pathways away from the road and installing signage and viewing points.

It all sounds very interesting but as ever there's local politics involved. This is all happening at the same time as a major development project at the Abbey which will see a Wars of the Roses gallery and exhibit installed as well as other exhibits about the Abbey's history. It's all very exciting and long overdue. At the Northampton Battlefields Society we're actively involved in some areas and trying to get a greater involvement still. We're really keen to help out with the design, where the walk goes and what's put on the signs and information panels. That can be a challenge as for all of our various skills we're not a full time professional body and we have to balance what we like and what we want to support with what we think is destructive to the battlefield area or ill-informed in any explanations.

Which is a way of saying there haven't been many blog posts recently as I've been writing a submission for the local relevant committee members of the Council with the help of Phil (who is our Vice Chairman) & Chairman Mike. Hopefully they'll be impressed as I've wheeled out all of the report writing skills honed over years as a professional bureaucrat and my recent career as a management consultant.

I'm positive on this, and I'm really a half-full kind of guy, but there's always the fear when dealing with local politics that the glass is actually half empty. What we want to avoid is being in  the position of being consulted on a big project and then find we object to the outcome. There's the nightmare scenario of standing at a viewpoint on a battlefield tour next to a brand new shiny information panel and having to say it's wrong.

Or it could all go swimmingly!

Friday, 16 September 2016

What a bunch of Guise-ers (part 2)

Due to a full calendar for both me & Phil next week I ran through the last few moves of the Battle of Guise this afternoon whilst the rain thrashed down.

The French started with an attack on the forward elements of X Active Corps, but were thrown back with losses.

Next up the French counter attacked Sains, which the Germans had seized as a bit of a surprise. The way firing at troops in closed terrain works is for hit markers to be placed (the shell holes). When an assault goes in you draw a card per hit marker with reds indicating actual hits, blacks misses. The artillery as you can see was very effective and the occupying brigade was wiped out, allowing the French assault to be a walk over.

This picture's a bit fuzzy, - I was using my camera phone not my usual SLR. The reverses in the centre were compounded as X Active Corps became exhausted. At the bottom of the picture a French brigade from III Corps has occupied Guise.

Garde Corps was unable to get to grips with its French opponents, and the issues with X Active Corps were starting to expose its rear.

Further attacks in the centre threw X Active Corps off the plateau and overran their howitzers. Garde Corps took a bit of a pounding from French guns firing down from the plateau.

In the final turn French X corps became exhausted, but elsewhere the German position had completely collapsed and they were falling back behind the Oise. The drive on Paris had halted, but the pressure on the BEF had not been relieved as the Germans drew the full attention of the equivalent of 4 French corps. So a bit of a draw on victory conditions although a complete reverse for the Germans.

It is difficult to see how to fashion a winning German position from this scenario. However, looking at the map I see I missed a bridge across the Oise in the set up which would have enabled me to get Garde Corps across the river much more quickly and on much broader a front, bringing my superior artillery in to operation earlier on. One of my issues was the bottle neck trying to get my guns over the river.

The French were also very fortunate in the use of independent commands. They very rarely drew a club which prevents them moving, hence the big out flanking move that got the brigade into Guise.

Having said that I still have a great deal of interest in using Op14 further, although I need to make sure I get to know the rules a lot better. There aren't many of them but they do have quite a few nuances and you need to keep on top of them for the game to work fully.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

What a bunch of Guise-ers (part 1)

It was a warm September evening, so back over a hundred years to the hot and humid fields of France for the Battle of Guise, 29th August 1914. Well, not all of it. The German 2nd Army left flank mostly.

The scenario was written by Richard Brooks and kindly made available to me. I had the Germans and Phil took the French.

This is the set up position. The Germans are bottom left corner of the picture, with two Corps, just crossing the River Oise. The town of Guise is on the right of the German position and straddles the river. The German Corps are X Active Corp around Guise, and Garde Corps behind them in the wooded area around the villages of Malzy and Englancourt. We only think one French corps is in front of us. We're headed to Paris.

The French have about four corps worth of troops. III Corps is at Mont D'Origny on the extreme right of the picture. X Corps (confusing, isn't it) are in the middle left marching up to the Foret de Marfontaine, acting as a flank guard to I Corps just this side of the river on the far side of the table. 37 & 51 Divs are in reserve, the other side of the river. The intention is to use I corps to attack the inner right wing of Bulow's 2nd Army , which is off the table to the right. This will relieve pressure on the BEF, also off table.

Only a few units are active as dawn breaks. One of these is French X Corps, which is pushing along the ridge line to the town of Sains, that dominates the plateau.

The Germans are all up at the crack of dawn, but aren't favoured with the movement cards they draw.

I also manage to create a traffic jam for Garde Corps crossing the river, which doesn't help.

Phil managed to get on the crest line first, and deployed his guns. He also put a brigade into Sains, which looked like a tough objective for me.

Having won the race to the crest line Phil was able to open up with his soixante quinzes. He immediately started to blow lumps off my infantry. At this point I'm in a bit of a disagreement with the author that this scenario can be in anyway close or tense. How can that be the case?

The answer is I have lots more guns, and furthermore I've got howitzers. The soixante quinze marvellous tho it is ain't any good at firing over stuff, and we're fighting over a plateau. Also some good luck meant that a compulsory assault on Sains by a single German brigade ejected the defenders much to Phil's chagrin. In his defence he did nothing wrong and still got beat. In terms of simulating reality it had a correct feel to it, - odd stuff like that happened all through the summer 1914 campaign and the answer is just to counter attack with as many guns as you can muster.

Elsewhere the French were alert to the German presence and were throwing everything at me. Here my howitzers are giving some much needed succour to X Active Corps, which has most of three corps worth of French bearing down on it..

This is where we stopped for the evening. The time is about 1:30pm, game time, so about half way through. The blue playing cards represent corps that have taken 25% casualties so are in danger of becoming exhausted.

It's looking highly unlikely I'm going to be able to complete the drive on Paris.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Thing With Maps

We all like a good map. Well, I know I do. Maps are great. You can look at them and think “Oooh! I could do that battle. I’ve got hills/roads/rivers/bridges. I could set that up no worries”. Or something similar.

Good military history books need good maps. It’s all very well to write “The 5th Division suffered repeated attacks from enemy forces in the vicinity of St Thomas d’Eglise before support arrived from the direction of Marieberg" if you don’t know where any of these places are. References to the importance of river lines and bridges and reverse slopes and so on are all very well but I really feel the need to see on a map where these places are and where we think the troops were.

I’ve been reading a lot about 1914 recently, and frankly I’m disappointed. I have to own up and say I do not know much about the geography of Alsace/Lorraine or the battlefields of 1914, so perhaps I’m expected to know where everywhere is, but I don’t and I suspect I’m not alone. The quality of maps is frankly very poor.

I have a few very basic requirements when I buy a military history book in respect of maps.

  1. I expect there to be maps. If the book is about armies moving through a landscape then maps are an absolute must. If the book is about, for example, the development of artillery less so.
  2. If a book has maps then all the named places in the text should appear on one of the maps in the book. I have personal experience of this when I edited Ian Russell Lowell’s article for the “Call it Qids” game we did for the Society of Ancients. If he mentioned a place I made him put it on a map. If he couldn’t put a place name on a map then he wasn’t allowed to use it.
  3. Maps need to show differences in height where this is important. Actually, no. They should always show high and low ground. Contours are ideal but not essential.
  4. Units should be clearly marked on the maps. If different units fight over the same area on different days, then repeat the maps.

With some books I’ve had to resort to reading them with my Times World Atlas by my side, and even then that’s not always completely helpful and in any event I can’t take it on a train with me for my morning commute.

Of course the writer might not have enough information to fulfil my requirements. In which case I say to him or her – go away and research it until you do. One of my other pet peeves is that a lot of writers will tell you what they’ve found out, rather than find out what they need to tell you. As a wargamer when I’m reading I’m constantly thinking of how things would work in game terms. What are the troop types, where are they, what are they armed with, what effects should we be seeing? If I can’t translate that across then it’s an indication that the writer is taking short cuts. Of course it might be that we don’t know, but often it might be the writer either hasn’t done the research or thinks it’s unimportant. If he doesn''t know then he should say. We need rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.

With earlier periods there’s some excuse. The work we have done on the Battle of Northampton and Naseby tells us that the landscape has changed and that in many cases the records are incomplete or contradictory. I think it is the historian’s job to explain the gaps and deal with the contradictions, making it clear that’s what is being done. Otherwise you’re just an archivist.

In more modern periods it is less forgivable. Modern armies keep records, lots of them, and the modern world from the mid-19th century onwards has been very well mapped, especially in Europe.

So, back to my books on 1914. Zuber’s book on Alsace/Lorraine has an honourable stab at getting the maps right through reproducing those in the German Official Histories. Of course the really useful maps were only made available on line, a resource that has since disappeared. His greatest failing in this book is his complete lack of effort when trying to combine German sources with the French. He simply hasn’t bothered, so we have maps with lots of good information on German forces and perfunctory details on the French. However that’s better than his book on Mons where the maps are simply dreadful. They look like they’ve been knocked out by someone with access to a basic line drawing package probably on an Apple Mac.

Or tracing paper and a crayon.

Those in Ian Senior's "Home Before The Leaves Fall" are mixed, but good. Especially those on the Battle of Ourcq. I've recently finished Murland's book on the Battle of the Aisne and the maps there are very irritating. Places not mentioned, troop deployments completely absent. Those in Ospreys tends to be okay, as long as the original research is good.

The best I've read recently on 1914 was a battlefield guide to The Battle of the Marne. Good, clear maps, with unit locations and place names.

But then again, the author has a responsibility to explain and not get you lost. He has to fill in the blanks.

Other writers, please take note.

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Is Nostalgia what it used to be?

I got given a copy of this recently. An interesting choice. I know both Peter and Andy through Wargame Developments. Andy Callan is an inventive and imaginative writer of wargame rules. Peter Dennis is one of the best illustrators of his type working today.

I'm not sure who the book is aimed at. Peter's pictures are beautiful and he has really thought through how you would go about making everything in paper, -all the troop types, trees, buildings and so on. Modern printers and scanners mean that you can run these things off in your own home at a reasonable cost.

Of course, if you already have a large collection of 15mm ECW figures (as I do) it begs the question of why you would replace them with paper. These are 28mm in size so they'll take up storage space although they won't weigh very much. Just don't use them in a high wind.

Their construction is a bit fiddly and you need small dress making scissors to cut them out but it's probably still quicker than painting the figures. Anyhow, for me as they have no other resonances such as making paper soldiers as a child, I think I would file them under curiosities and move on.

Which brings us to the Andy Callan fast play ECW rules, the other part of the publication

I have a suspicion that I have played these before at a COW, back in the 1980s or 90s. As my figures are based up in a way that is easily transferable to the rule set it seemed like a good idea to try them out. Phil was about so he came over and commanded the Parliamentarians.

The rules do allow you to handle a lot of troops on a big table in a reasonable period of time. My recollection is that they were a breath of fresh air when first introduced. Protracted melees were a thing of the past. Meticulous record keeping was gone. Armies mostly did what armies did and it was all clear and unambiguous.

The rules are simple, so there is a need to fill in a few of the blanks when odd things happen in the game. Disappointingly the layout in the book isn't brilliant and the formatting seems to have some random carriage returns in there in places. There's also a difference between artillery range for medium guns in the rules and on the QRS.

The game clipped along at a fair old rate. There's quite a few dice to roll at times so extreme results can and did happen. Jaw droppingly so. Somethings aren't clear (multi unit combat, for example) but nothing that you couldn't deal with if running an umpired game or there's give and take between the players.

In truth, however, I can't see why I would use them more often. They really aren't doing anything new and they do feel like a set of rules from 20 years ago or more. I've got rules that do this sort of thing better and in some cases even quicker.

Which is a shame really, although it did pass an evening  quite pleasantly.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

More Seaside Tales

So, as I said we went to "Explosion", the Museum of Naval Firepower in Gosport. It's a lovely little museum, hidden away in a housing estate. It was formerly a Laboratory, or explosive manufacturing plant. The encroaching housing is one of the reasons it's a "formerly".

It's part of the All Attractions Portsmouth Dockyard ticket, and you can get from it to Portsmouth Dockyard on the Waterbus or the other way round. If you're on the Gosport side of the water and the times fit that's convenient as the car parking is free too. Don't get shut in, however.

They weren't having a good day when we went. The bomb squad had just left and the ticket printer wouldn't work. Kudos to the lovely lady behind the till who was still keeping it together.

The entrance hall has a nuclear bomb in it, It's sort of an opening where you wonder what they're going to do to top that.

The first area after this is about the "Laboratory" and features staff lockers with interesting paraphernalia and voice recordings of former staff talking about what it was like to work there. Fascinating. Although of course we're all really there to look at the weapons 'n' stuff., rather than indulge in all that social history stuff.

They've got small arms as well as big guns and bombs. Good gallery display of the former, including this nice Naval Nordenfeldt.

Much under valued weapon in my opinion to the modern wargamer and military history buff. Everyone goes for the Galting Gun, but the Nordenfeldt is a more successful and wider spread weapon, especially amongst Her Imperial Majesty's forces. Also the Naval MG of choice for the Peruvians and Chileans.

Anyhow, here's a Naval Gatling with a drum magazine.

Oh look! A baby Armstrong RML, and lots of WW1 rifles. Had an interesting chat with Miss T's partner who is a Canadian about the relative merits of the Ross Rifle and the SMLE. He was aware of the issues. Taught about it in school.

And looky there. A Lewis Gun.

They have a Big Gun hall too, devoted to the development of serious big gun ships like the Dreadnought.

This is a Whitehead Torpedo, in the Torpedo Hall*. Not many people know that the daughter of the inventor married a Captain in the Austrian Navy. They had seven children and after she died he married his children's tutor who had been intending to be a nun**.

See. Serious lot of torpedoes in the Torpedo Hall

There was a Sea Cat launcher in the next room. Never realised how small they were.

This is the old explosives storage room. It's quite big. You can book it for events or get married there, if you want.

 There's also a load of guns & things outside. It is quite interesting to get to look close up at the size of these things. I have nothing clever to add here, so I'll just caption the pictures.

4.7" Mark IXB Gun on Central Pivot Mark XXII - Single Mounting

4" QF Mark XVI Naval Guns on adapted Twin Mounting

13" Mortar & Bed, 1856

Damn. No plaque on this one, so a bit mystified

Not sure on this one either. Thought it was a Sea Slug, but not now.

Pretty sure this is Sea Dart.

QF 4.5" Mark 5 Twin Gun on Twin Mark 6 Mounting
 I like the car for comparison on this one. Also remember seeing this on a Leander class frigate when I was small on holiday near Plymouth.

Yes. A very satisfactory afternoon's visit. Don't know what the rest of the family thought.

** She doesn't appear in the musical version

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Where are we going next?

I’ve hinted at this on earlier blogs but this summer’s new project is the naval aspects of the Great Pacific War. I wasn’t sure about how to deal with this until Ian Drury’s session at COW this year. He had all or most of the ships, taken from the Tumbling Dice 1/2400 Victorian range. This seemed to work and a look at the models on Thomo’s Hole blog showed they were what I needed. The TD website has no pictures, - the consequence its owner told me of having too many products and no time to paint them. I’d have thought a quick snap of the assembled model was all that was needed, but there you have it.

The naval conflict is central to the outcome of the war. With no north-south roads or railways the use of ships to ferry troops up and down the coast gives a major advantage to the side which controls the sea. The reason for the lack of north-south transport links on land is that the important local need was to shift produce from the interior to the coast for export, hence the building of a lateral transport net funded by European mining interests.

It’s not immediately obvious why Tumbling Dice or indeed anyone should make the ships. One in particular, the turreted Ironclad Huascar, is a unique vessel that can’t be mistaken for anything else. She’s probably the reason for the range too. When she was quite new she was seized in one of Peru’s periods of civil unrest by the rebels and ran into HMS Shah. The Shah wasn’t an ironclad, but she did have a significant broadside. Her inability to deal with the Huascar definitively at the time was the matter of a national scandal for the Royal Navy and hence she became a famous mid-Victorian vessel.

If you have a range of Victorian RN vessels you probably have a good chance of producing the Shah. If you have the Shah then it’s a short step to her most famous opponent, the Huascar. The Huascar was an experimental sea-going turret ship, built in 1866 in England.

From there it’s not a real stretch to produce the other Peruvian ironclad, the Independencia. Again built in 1866 in England she's a mini-HMS Warrior.

Of course, if you have them then you need the Chilean ironclads, the Almirante Cochrane and Blanco Enclada. Another one built in England, but newer (1874). She had her guns pivot mounted in central armoured barbettes.

The Blanco Encalada. was her sister ship and identical.

The rest of the navies of both sides can be fleshed out with TD’s generic corvettes, sloops & gunboats. And a couple of ex-ACW monitors the Peruvians had acquired. Obviously.

The Union was a Peruvian wooden commerce raider, intended for the Conferderate Navy.

The Chacabuco was a Chilean vessel, different to the Union, but there are only so many models.

And the Pilcomayo is an even smaller Peruvian vessel.

So I have a full set of vessels, more or less (some not shown here), plus a few others to act as troop ships and colliers and so on.They paint up quite nicely and aren’t a great stress on painting time.

Now, what about rules? Ian Drury's session at COW this year was on the Battle of Lissa, 1866, when the Italian and Austrian ironclad fleets clashed as I mentioned above. The rules include provision for the Peruvian & Chilean ships, so that was a good starting point.

I wouldn't be me if I didn't make a few changes, however. What it seemed to me I might need to do was to take rules that are intended for a big fleet action where the loss of one or two ships might not be a big deal and look to see what that means for actions with less than 6 ships aside where the loss of one ship might be very significant.

For the first game as an experiment I dispensed with the hex map and went with movable hexes, like in "Hammerin' Iron 2", the old RFCM ACW Riverine Warfare game. I also dumped the structured phased movement from the old Paragon Gladiator game in favour of a deck of cards with 6 cards for ships that move 6 hexes, 5 for ships that move 5 and so on.

Chris A & Phil were available at short notice for a quick playtest and ideas laboratory.

The game was of the battle that never happened, with all ironclads present and a couple of support wooden ships each. The Peruvians are to the right in the picture above.

We steamed at each other and blazed away. The Huascar experienced problems reloading her turret guns. No one seemed to have a plan. Very realistic so far.

I succeeded in getting the Peruvians separated so the Chileans could gang up on one ship. They were helped by the Independencia having her rudder shot away.

Eventually some ships were sunk. I sank a Chilean wooden ship first (the Chacabuco, I think) we had several failed ramming attempts, until the Huascar got taken amidships by the Cochrane, and sank immediately. The Independencia battled on until she lost her captain and struck her colours.

The rules worked well and have some interesting features. The game took about 2 1/2 to 3 hours for just the 8 ships, so that's about right for the size of the actions I'll be doing. I'm going to stick with the movable hexes, and give each ship a numbered set, probably. The card sequence for moving will remain.

Ian uses ordinary playing cards for critical hits. I think I'll make a bespoke set, and I need to do something about small arms fire, which had a significant effect on exposed crew managing the pivot guns on these ships. The ramming rules are a bit eccentric too, so some thought needed there.

In the wash up Phil made some remarks about how DBA is a game played on a grid, which each unit carries around with them until you are forced to line up. That's a useful perspective, and I think that'll help.

Although I did wake up in the night and wonder about basing the ships on octagons, and they don't tessellate.

Much food for thought.

Friday, 2 September 2016

A Trip to the Seaside

Not all visits to the seaside involve the beach or a stroll along the prom. Not all locations in Great Britain that are by the sea can be classed as “seaside”. Miss Trebian lives in a place that falls into that category as she teaches in a secondary school on the south coast near to Portsmouth.

With the launch of the new Mary Rose exhibition it was clearly time to go and visit her. Oh, and she was back from her trip to Canada where she met her other half’s family, so we needed to catch up on that too. He’s never done the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard either, so it seemed to be a good idea to do the visit before the schools started back.

We’ve done the Dockyard twice when the children were smaller and it is an excellent day out with lots to see. Plus if you buy an all attractions ticket you can go back on other days for up to 12 months. Bargain if you live in the area. If you put to one side that it’s mostly about killing people it’s a great day out.

The whole area doesn’t just have Mary Rose, Victory and Warrior but a WW1 corvette, other small boats, the submarine museum and the delightful “Explosion” – the Museum of Naval Firepower across the bay in Gosport. This includes all manner of weapons (Nordenfeldts, Gatlings, Whitehead Torpedoes, Nuclear Bombs) as well as a good exhibit about what it was like to work in an explosives factory. You can get to this by the Waterbus from the main site, next to Warrior.

I really like Warrior. The restoration work on her is stunning, and hasn’t skimped, unless you count the Armstrongs on the gun deck being fibreglass and not iron. She’s also easier to clamber round than Victory because the headroom has been designed for normal people to stand upright pretty much anywhere. I also have some lovely photographs from our very first trip of our children aged 1 and 3 at the time in the hammocks and sitting having a packed lunch at one of the mess tables on the gun deck. I also like that Warrior was the ultimate deterrent. Most powerful ship of her time; never fired a shot in anger. That’s what you want from a deterrent.

As she is closest to the entrance we went on her first. The timing was good as there was a small arms demonstration about to start on the half deck, given by the Warrior’s expert in this kind of thing. He's a Scottish chap who doesn't think much of Chelsea fans. What's not to like?

It covered the Naval version of the Enfield Rifled Musket, cutlasses, sword bayonets, swords, pistols dirks and boarding axes.

 An excellent presentation where I learnt some things I didn’t know (although I’m sure all of you were aware of the Navy Colt’s tendency to discharge all loaded barrels simultaneously if there was any stray gunpowder about). And afterwards the kiddies can line up and get their picture taken with the authentic sidearm of their choice.

The new Mary Rose exhibition hall is at the other end of the dockyard.  That's it behind Victory. The Grey Building that looks like the Seattle Astrodome or whatever. That makes it sound like a long way, but it isn’t. It’s a pleasant stroll in the late summer sunshine. (This picture was taken from up the Spinnaker Tower later on in the day)

When we first saw the Mary Rose it was in 1990, and she was still being sprayed so you had to wear ponchos and it was cold. Next time she was in 1998 and she was being dried out. Now she is fully dried and preserved and up on her keel properly. My oh my have they done a good job on this exhibition.

You still have the display halls for the artefacts, which are well laid out and lit, with informative text and the odd bit of interactivity for the little 'uns.

The remains of the hull are now clean and dry, and restored to the vertical axis. Resplendent in its own display hall with three levels it gives you the chance to see a cut away model of a genuine Tudor warship.

On the other side of the visitor walkways they've put guns and artefacts opposite where they would have been on the ship. Due to the mirror effect of the glass panels you can almost see them in situ.

From time to time they project AV onto the inside of the hull, showing how the bits of the ship were used. It is brilliantly done.

The exhibition has cost several millions and it is money well spent. It is well laid out, beautifully presented and explains the subject really well. It is a model of how to do this sort of thing. I quite liked it. A lot.

Finally, this is the gun they found that proved they'd found the site. So, it isn't all flashing lights and fun. It's a genuine museum too.

And the restaurant wasn't too expensive either.