Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Battle of Watling Street

Today we played our annual Battle of Watling Street game at the Hall of Heroes, using Hail Caesar rules.

The eponymous street, 25mm scale Roman road from that excellent little Welsh company, Iron Clad Miniatures. Straight as! The table was all set up for us yesterday by our mate Terry, who alas had another wargaming engagement so couldn't be with us for this battle. Setting up the terrain for a game you're not going to play - how great a mate is that! Thanks Terry it was appreciated. We based the scenario generally on the Hail Caesar 'Britannia' supplement, which has a pretty convincing map of this mysterious engagement. Allow me to quote from the scenario as we set the scene....   

 The Battle of Watling Street 61AD – a Black Powder Scenario

 (All page references unless stated otherwise are taken from Hail Caesar Britannia, Rome’s Invasion of Britain)
View from the Right shoulder of the Roman defile down to Watling Steet

A heavily wooded ridge overlooking the Roman Road since named ‘Watling Street’ has a clearing between dense forests on either side, providing space for an outnumbered force to take up a defensive upslope position with secure flanks. The woods on either side can only be penetrated by skirmishers. War bands are not permitted to break down into skirmish order to enter these forests.

The Iceni Warbands

An offensive-defensive battle set in the Boudiccan rebellion 61AD based on a larger Iceni and Trinovantian army of war bands attacking a smaller Roman force defending a hilly, narrow defile.

Mission                                The Britons have 10 moves to break through the Roman line.


After reaching agreement on relative force ratios, dependent on availability, the Romans will set up first, on the ridge line, able to post skirmishers in the forests to either flank if desired. The Britons will then set up opposite, no more than 1 foot in from their table edge. To offset our lack of British models, as well as nominating all British war bands as large, the British commander will have 3 options to sound the ‘Recall’ special house rule:

Sound Recall – at the start of the British move Boudicca may order her heralds to sound Recall on the Royal warhorns – the entire move is replaced by all British units moving back to the British start point. They remove disorder but retain stamina at Stamina -2, including units previously destroyed. This order may be sounded, at the start of the British move, thrice throughout the game, and replaces all other activity in that move, thus sacrificing a of the moves. 
(Experienced chieftains will know that your main chance to beat the Romans is in the first surge of an attack, if they hold your first charge the law of diminishing returns soon starts to bite…)

Note – The ‘pigs head’ special rule has not been selected for this scenario as it came into force later in the Roman era. (Hail Caesar, p.103). The similar ‘wedge’ formation was contemporaneous, but its use is not recorded at this engagement. However its essentials are noted here should a particularly daring and aggressive Roman commander rashly decide upon its use:

 Wedge Formation – Romans only. Free move on failed order. Counts ‘front’ all round to attacks and own ranged attacks, +1 morale save, cannot support nor be supported, can make own attacks all round, enemy giving ground to front are burst through, can make 3 moves when enemy break or are burst through. A wedge can only move forward. (Hail Caesar, pp.106-107)
Service Support              
An excellent selection of bistro style gastronomic delights are available from the shop – book early to avoid disappointment.
(We all took advantages of lulls in the battle to fuel up and keep hydrated, but for Philip it appeared the battle was one long lull!)

 Command and Signal

Troop Stats (p.28) – Romans – XIV Legio Gemina, XX Legio Valeria Victrix

Suetonius Paulinus Governor of Britain                                   Leadership 9
Praetorian Praefect                                                                     Leadership 8
Praefects of Auxiliaries (May only command Auxies)           Leadership 8 (p.24)

Unit                       Clash     Sustained            SR           LR           Morale Stamina               Special

 Legio                     7               7                 3          0          4+        6             Drilled, Pilum, Testudo

 Auxies                  6               6                 3          0          5+        6                            

 Archers                3               3                 2          2          5+        4                             Small unit

 Bolter                   1               1                 2          2          0          3

 Drilled – Free move on failed order. Move through or out of way of friends without risk of disorder.

Testudo-Free move, +2 morale save from ranged attacks, no flanks, adopt battle line if attacked, no ranged attacks.

Pilum – Enemy -1 morale save in first round of every combat engagement (Note this is not included in the supplement troop stats, but is from HC page 103 and is used here as the effect of Pilums at Watling street was critical (Britannia, p.55)

Also see ‘Wedge Formation’ above if desired – and may the Gods be with you!

Britons – Iceni and Trinovantes

 Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni      Leadership 9

Prince Tron of the Trinovantes   Leadership 8

Iceni Chiefs                                         Leadership 8 (p.25)

 Unit                       Clash     Sustained            SR           LR           Morale Stamina               Special

 Large War’d        11             8                 3          0          5+        8                             Wild Fighters

 Warband             9               6                2          0          5+         6                             Wild Fighters

 Skirmishers         3               2                 2          0          0          4                             Small unit

 Lt. Chariots         6               5                 4          0          4+        6

 Medium Cav      8               5                 3          0          5+         6

 Lt. Cav                7               5                 3          0          6+         6

Wild Fighters – Re-roll missed combat attacks in the first round of the game (and half of missed attacks after first recall)

As the Roman C in C I first set up the Romans in a rather loose formation, thinking to allow our cavalry room to launch disruptive attacks on the British masses as they moved across the valley below. However I was soon politely but firmly told by my Legate Thomas that this was the height of folly and that what was required was a good tight line with all Legion units shoulder to shoulder in mutual support...

And how right he turned out to be...

The game attracted a lot of interest from new faces, one of which volunteered to play, and Thomas emerged as an experience Hail Caesar player, which the rest of us are not, so I lost no time appointing him Legate!

The game started with the Britons attempting all out assaults all the way along the line - and the Trinovantes were up for it! 

The Iceni warbands, half of Bodicca's army, however, were not - and this, in the form of Mark's unfortunate command dice rolling, despite working his way through nearly everybody's dice, was to persist throughout the game....

Of course we tried to sow discord by suggesting Boudicca was happy to fight until the last drop of Trinovantian blood, but our taunts fell on deaf ears and the tribesmen kept the pressure on:


In fact considering the Britons were effectively fighting with half their army in the first wave of assaults, they did remarkably well, particularly as we forgot all about the 'Fierce Fighters' special rule!

It was good to see that both sides maximised the use of supports in this first series of clashes, and for my part, having reserved the use of the cavalry to myself as overall Roman commander, I also used them to support the infantry, where there were insufficient Auxiliary cohorts to form a complete second line.

But what I suspect made the difference in recieving the fierce British onslaught was our discovery, thanks to Thomas, of the 'lock shields' rule, whereby heavy shield armed infantry can gain a +1 to their save, and the expense of a -1 to their attackes. A small thing, but seemingly crucial in this situation.

And of course the Britons were fighting uphill...

Eventually the Trinovantes ran out of puff and were clearly getting nowhere...

So Queen Boudicca summoned her heralds to sound 'Recall' and the gallant Trinovantes drew off from the sweating, bloodied Roman line and rejoined the fresh, and, one hopes, somewhat sheepish Iceni, to get ready to go in again...

The Romans made good use of this time to adjust the lines once again and rally off some casualties, and then awaited the next onslaught. To our delight yet again the Iceni seemed a little shy...

However, nothing daunted, Bryan the British cavalry and light chariots warlord was confident he could pressurise the Roman left flank with chariots alone...

whilst continuing to use the light cavalry on the other flank to give the long suffering Trinovantes the edge. Unfortunately our cunning Legatus Thomas had prepared his archers in ambush...

So while our right flank seemed to be holding - just...

The use of chariots, now supported by the tardy Iceni, gave us our most dangerous moment...

But the jusdicious use of Auxiliaries, I'm happy to say in this case my Cohors I Batavia, proved sufficient to stabilise the line...and the Britons had run out of time to change the course of history...

Big fella!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

'Little Stalingrad' - Ponyri Station 7.7.1943

Ponyri Station with Hill 253.3 on the right
The Battle of Kursk has long been a fascination of mine - perhaps the pivotal battle in that climeractic and epic Eastern Front? Certainly it saw a great concentration of heavy armour - WW1 with fast moving tanks and attack aircraft!

And it transpired that I was not alone in having amassed, over the years, a large collection of 1/72nd scale armour and infantry! So on Sunday about a dozen of us got together at the Hall of Heroes for a demonstration game of Battle Group Kursk. Phil wanted to get his 2 Ferdinands out, and it transpired that a few of us had these monsters, and some Brummbars, and some Tigers...and so it spiralled out of control!

To keep things at least within sight of being manageable with all this 20mm heavy metal just itiching to get on the table, I decided to design the scenario around 2 sets of separate battlegroups, linked by the same mission. Each side would have an armour heavy group,

and one made up primarily of infantry and anti-tank guns. Each Battle Group would have their own orders total and BattleGroup Rating, so in effect it would be two separate games, but playing over the same terrain in team effort. To further restrict congestion and to allow everyone the opportunity to bring their pet models onto the table, the game was split into 2 phases, my hope being that by Phase 2 most of the vehicles and infantry from phase one would have been cleared from the table! Allow me to quote excerpts from the game scenario which may clarify things:



The purpose of this scenario is to build on last month’s BGO game and raise the profile of Battle Group rules by staging a large, visually impressive game which reflects the see-saw nature of attack and counter-attack.


The Northern Sector of the Kursk salient. Ponyri is a key railway station commanding the approaches South to Kursk itself. The ground is flat with just the knoll of Hill 253.3 as high ground. Some cover is provided by small woods.
The village itself is dominated by 4 key points: a water tower, railway station, large tractor depot and school. See Healy, pp.50-51.


7th July 1943. The action has been raging around Ponyri since 5th July, and the German Infantry forces had succeeded in gaining footholds in the village, only to be beaten back by Soviet counterattacks. However, General of Panzer Troops Joseph Harpe, a strong Party man, was losing patience! His initial orders had emphasised:

It is of vital importance for the corps quickly to defeat the strong enemy force identified in Ponyri and clear the rail line of the enemy.

However the Soviets also realised the importance of this position, and the fresh 307th Rifle Division relieved the shattered defenders, and was itself reinforced with the greatest concentration of tanks and guns seen anywhere in this climeractic battle.
 Major General von der Groeben, Operations Officer Army Group Centre, recalls:

Several hundred Russian tanks moved from rear areas to the critical point on the battlefield. A giant tank battle ensued, lasting for days. Here German panzers demonstrated their superiority, slowly inching forward in a spirited attack against new Soviet strongpoints crystallizing near…Ponyriy….Beginning on 7 July the Russians debouched from these strongpoints to strike with heavy, concerted counterstrokes…

The first, and only, Russian Counterattack of the game - but effective!

In five hours of fighting, Ponyri Station changed hands repeatedly…


Your Battle groups are to seize and hold Ponyri and Hill 253.3 and destroy enemy forces in the area.


The game will be conducted in 3 Phases: Admin, Phase 1 of 5 moves with ontable unit action and Phase 2, of 5 moves, where reinforcements may come on table.

Don't upset yourselves - we know there weren't any SU85s at Kursk! These are representing SU-76s!
Of course, as is my usual wont, in being too ambitious in terms of the number of toys on the table, and players to command them, we ran out of time before getting anywhere near a result - in fact we only just completed Phase 1, so my lovely Tiger company didn't even make it into action!

However, everyone seemed to enjoy it, action was fierce and continuous, and we experienced and worked our way through the rules to experience the gamut of high intensity all-arms armoured warfare - minefield crossing, CAS strikes, counter attacks, standoff AT exchanges, and an infantry assault. 

So would we do it again with fewer toys? No - next time we'll set aside a whole weekend to get a result!

Monday, 7 July 2014

Balloons across the Nile - the Battle of Abu Bay 1799

'They died like Englishmen with their faces to the foe,
Faint not, nor fear to lose the righteous way;
Their lonely, sandy graves too far for us to go,
We remember yet those English heroes, the dead of Abu Bay...'

The epitaph on the crumbling tomb of Lt-Colonel Sir Colman Mustard, VC, VD, Bar and Scar, Commanding Officer of the 34th Light Dragoons (The Farah Fawcett Yeomanry) is all that is left to remind us of that far flung, hard fought (and entirely fictious) engagement on the shores of the Nile that has failed to go down in history as the Battle of Abu Bay.

Dave had kindly offered to run the scenario to show case his favourite Napoleonic rules, 'Napoleon at War'. We knew he had a beautifully painted and eclectic collection of French and other assorted exotic continentals, but we had not expected such a visual feast that did full justice to the exotic and quixotic Orient!

As is something of a habit with us now, Dave brought in some of his reference material for us to look at, including the rules themselves. These are very well presented, with a host of clear and informative diagrams and lots of eye candy.

Dave had obviously put a lot of thought into the scenario, which featured lots of Napoleonic celebrities, Generals Kleber, Desaix, Lasalle and Reynier on the French side.

The French forces could not be accused of not having adapted to the local conditions and seemed to field every form of exotic animal known to man. I suppose in the French army the more exotic the mount, the more exciting the eventual menu!

That's not to say the French force didn't contain some more conventionally hard hitting units, such as some very hard hitting Dragoons...

and the glamorous 22eme Chasseurs...

These were opposed by an unholy alliance of British and Turks, under the command of his esteemed Excellency the Grand Vizier Yousouf Zia Pacha, leading light of the Honourable and Holy Order of the Bejewelled Parasol, who was often to be seen personally leading, or at least entangled with, his faithful, or at least curious as to what he would do next; Corps of Elite Janissaries.

Since  your long suffering author also goes by the monicker of 'Ralph', I was of course given General Abercromby's command, as fine a brigade of British Infantry as ever haunted the boozers, gins parlours and pieshops of Surrey...
His Glorious Eminence the Grand Vizier Yousouf Zia Pacha
However it has to be said that fine yeomen of England (well Ireland mostly) were a little windy about our left flank, 'secured' as it was by as ragamuffin a collection of Bashi Bazooks and Pandours as has ever graced the Zanzibar waterfront... Most of these troops really didn't inspire confidence in their ability to do anything but show the enemy a clear pair of heels...  
Various units of Fellahin, Naizam and foot Janissaries - known to the sniffier British rankers as 'The Unpronounceables'...
Well I hope that has set the scene for you - an exotic setting on the banks of the Nile, enlivened by all manner of ancient ruins and the hot, scented wafts of exotic spices and strange beasts (Well actually the role-players weren't in this week...)

 Now normally when one is fighting the French its all really a bit of a bother coming up with a plan, the normal drill is just to let the blighters come up to unmisseable range and then just give 'em the old Enfield kiss right between the whites of their eyes....

However in these heathen climes you never know what might be giving you the evil eye, particularly when your flanks are held by some rather dodgy sorts, so some sort of token planning was in order - all rather effete, I know, but when in Rome and all that...Without being too much of a bothersome swot I asked my teammate and CinC Pete the Grand Vizier if we had a plan...

Casting a seasoned and professional eye across the teeming plain, full as far as the eye could see with mobs of lethal animals, and the French Army,

he muttered cryptically 'Best go right flanking, mate, and I'll see how you go...' Accordingly I acted decisively and inspiringly ordered my cavalry brigade to 'sort of go around that little oasis thingy and see if you can't manage to make a nuisance of yerselves over there'.

Used to the sometimes haphazard, and occasionally downright obstreperous, command system in Black Powder, to my surprise the entire Brigade move off smartly and at a fair old lick too...I'm not saying there weren't some mutterings from the British troopers, generally along the lines of 'Jaysus, he can make a decision', and some of the Egyptian chappies looked downright sullen, but they certainly moved off quick smart, and most of them in the direction of the enemy!

I'm not too sure what was happening on the rest of the battlefield, reeling as I still was from the slightly unsettling prospect of commanding a formation that would unhesitatingly do what it was told...However I do vaguely remember we were handed sealed orders (yes really, no detail left unprepared) that detailed what reinforcements we might expect.

Perhaps equally surprised at the ease of C2 with these rules, I do recall that Pete lost no time in committing his chaps into the fray...

And to my considerable surprise the 'Unprounceables' Brigade did not melt away completely on first contact with the enemy! However, I now had problems of my own...

Now standard practice when commanding a Regiment of Light Cavalry when a Regiment of Heavy Cavalry from 'the other Field Post Office's number' hoves into view is to smartly about face and retire smartly to the rear of one's own lines, muttering something about 'recconaisance in force'....However the unfortunate troopers of the 34th Light Dragoons were commanded by Lt-Col Colman Mustard, who's moving epitaph opened this little tale... I shall draw a discrete veil over the sorry tale of wasted horseflesh and brave troopers in which the gallant, but not tactically gifted, Colonel met his fate.

Suffice it to say the French Dragoons, supported by a strategically positioned regiment of Chasseurs, shrugged off this attack, and the succession of wave attacks that followed, with barely more effort than a gallic shrug...To be entirely fair to our gallant Turkish allies, though, I should point out that the only time the French Cavalry felt the slightest discomfort during these cavalry skirmishes, it was a the hands of the elite Mounted Janissaries Regiment - probably something to do with all that armour...

I may say that a this point, having failed to disperse the French Cavalry, things were not looking too good, the Jonny Crapauds having rather unsportingly taken advantage of our equine disappointments to bring up their infantry quick smart...

Another unscrupulous trick the French pulled was to fly some sort of fiendish air-lofted contraption accross our lines, manned, I assume, by a couple of their more intelligent troopers (obviously no Officer would be so cowardly as to take advantage of a gallant foe in this unchivalrous manner) to spy out our lines. Had I had any mounted men left, I would of course have dashed off an indignant despatch to my opposite number about this outrage, but as it was I had to content myself with a mid morning brandy, most of which ended up in my ample mustache, I was so upset by the horrors of modern warfare...

However revenge was sweet, as just in the nick of time to stabilise our now rather precarious left flank, along came a Turkish fellucca (no doubt with a keen young Royal Navy Middie on board to keep 'em honest) to spread grapeshot sized alarm and despondency amongst the onion eaters...

Actually, to be honest, by now both flanks were rather shaky...

And I felt the time had come to 'exit stage left' as the Bard has it! Now extricating oneself from an embarrasing tactical conundrum, particularly when operating with gallant allies, can be fraught with all manner of etiquette issues. As I understand it, there are two schools of thought. The first, rather scientific method, is to actually inform your gallant allies that you intend to draw stumps.

On the other hand, why bother their command with such bothersome details as the fact you are going to withdraw and leave their flank wide open? - after all they are probably quite busy themselves, don't cha know! And of course its rather handy having them stay behind...

Its a bit like when Tiger hunting goes horribly wrong - you don't have to be able to outrun the Tiger, just make sure you are faster than at least one of your beaters, what! So, confident in the knowledge that I could deflect any blame onto my 'unreliable allies' I boldly gave a 'follow me' order to my gallant troops and we embarked on a lightening strike towards our lines of communications.

A very enjoyable game, with Dave's efforts well rewarded with a picturesque and novel game.