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Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Battle of Cambrai: An Army Level Game for One (or more Players) by Martin Rapier

THE BATTLE OF CAMBRAI
An Army Level Game for One (or more Players) by Martin Rapier

1. Introduction
Many, many years ago, in an issue of Airfix magazine (or possibly the Airfix annual) I saw a photo of a World War One game where the author had assembled a number of Airfix Mark 1 tanks that were busily advancing on a reproduction of the German trench system around Hamel modelled out of Plasticene of all things. The tanks were supported by British infantry in caps and the Germans all had pointy helmets, (all that was available then) but it was an image which has stayed in mind ever since, and I thought that, one day, I too would put on a game with masses of rhomboid tanks poised to crash through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond. That day finally came last year when I realised just how many W.W.1 tanks the redoubtable members of Sheffield Wargames Club had between them. Time for a game ...

2. Design Concepts
After reading around the subject, I decided there were a number of elements of the battle I wanted to capture:
  • The sheer mass of armoured vehicles employed (almost 500 in all);
  • The key tactical role the tanks played in the destruction of German wire obstacles in lieu of a long preliminary bombardment;
  • The limited endurance of W.W.1 heavy battle tanks and the limits that posed on their operational significance.
Having decided to put a modicum of complexity into modelling the armoured side of things, then clearly the infantry, artillery etc. were going to have to be heavily abstracted to make a playable game, but these elements needed to be present and have the capability to play a significant role as W.W.1 armoured operations were most definitely a combined arms event. One element I made very abstracted was the creeping barrage, in the end allowing British field guns to fire fairly freely (although only able to hit the first two rows) as it wasn’t worth the extra complexity of specifying barrage or rates of advance etc.

The basic game elements were drawn from my various grid based games (most of which were in turn inspired by Peter Pigs ‘Square Bashing’ and Ian Drury’s ‘Storm of Steel’ and ‘Sands of New Stanhall’. I kicked around some designs for a two or three day battle which would include some of the German counter attacks but in the end decided to concentrate purely on the first day. This in turn meant that all players would play the British, as running the Germans on the wrong end of the initial attack would be a dismal job at best! The game then fell into place fairly rapidly, the mechanisms used in Operation Uranus being obvious candidates, the main things to note being:
  1. Dice rolls are required to enter particular terrain types, this made wire especially a formidable obstacle to infantry and cavalry.
  2. Rolling dice for movement meant vehicle reliability could be simply modelled by making low scores a bad result for tanks (losing vehicles to breakdowns etc).
  3. Whilst infantry, guns and cavalry were modelled as one base = one battalion (or cavalry brigade) and they fought as a single element, the tanks were represented as strength points assigned to each vehicle model so the attritional effects of movement and combat could be modelled without requiring truly immense numbers of toys. The available tank SPs were just distributed over the available tank models and recorded with little dice. The game was designed with twelve tanks in mind, but in the event we managed to assemble no less than eighteen!
  4. Artillery barrages attack everything in the square, this makes the defending artillery pre-registered on no mans land extremely powerful indeed if the attackers try and march through with massed infantry. This in turn means that reaching the enemy gun line is a high priority for the tanks and that infantry attacks against uncut wire are essentially doomed to fail (as there is very little chance of crossing the wire and the defensive artillery will destroy units stuck in no mans land fairly quickly).
  5. Similar command and control limits as in Operation Uranus apply i.e. units can generally only move straight forward once committed to combat.
3. Playsheet
A very simple set of rules, British move and then Germans move. Squares are attacked by ‘assaulting’ them i.e. trying to move into them. Those units which make a successful move roll are shot at by the defenders, the survivors then engage in three rounds of close combat. Stationary units are hit by fire on a 6 but moving targets on a 5 or more, which makes assaults extremely bloody. Only some units have a ranged fire capability, the rest fight by assaulting. Move distances and ranges are in terms of squares, orthogonal only.

Turn Sequence
  • British move, declare assaults.
  • German move, declare assaults.
  • Artillery fire.
  • Ranged fire.
  • Assaults.
  • Rally (4+).
Units

  • * Dice per SP or base, Number after / is defensive fire only.
  • ** 3D6 if Anti-tank gun vs. tanks.
  • *** Pillboxes can only be destroyed by hits from artillery or by assault, all other ‘kills’ just disorganise them.
Move rolls (to enter/cross terrain). Use worst type in square.

  • * lose 1 SP on a '1'.
  • Stacking maximum 6 units per square.
Ranged, Artillery and Defensive fire
  • 1D6 per unit/SP.
  • To hit target: Stationary 6, Moving 5, Moving Cavalry 4.
  • Score = killed/1SP loss for tanks.
  • Heavy Artillery and barrage fire hits all units in a square.
  • Field artillery barrage disorganises if roll one less e.g. 5 disorganised hits on 6 vs. stationary. This is supposed to represent suppression from the creeping barrage.
  • Distribute hits randomly. Disorganised units may not move, conduct ranged fire and in assault shoot once and defend with 1 dice with no fortification benefits. Tanks are never disorganised.
  • Units may rally on 4+.
Assault
  • Units which make a successful move roll enter the square.
  • Defender fires twice using assault rating (unless disorganised).
  • Then fight three rounds using assault rating, 6 to kill.
  • Defender gets one extra dice for wire and one for trenches/cover (not pillboxes).
  • Attacker pushes out defender by rolling 6+, adding surplus troop bases, tanks and defenders in fortifications count double.
  • Guns and pillboxes are captured if the defender is pushed out, assaulting infantry are disorganised if they win.
4. Game Notes
  • 6 x 4 squares battle area, along with a further row of squares for no mans land and another row further back for reserves etc. No mans land is at the top of the battlefield (not shown) with a further line of squares behind that. The Germans have continuous lines of trenches across the first, second and fourth rows, the first two lines being covered by wire as well. The gun line is the third row. Each square represents approximately 2,000m, Cambrai itself is off the table at the bottom of the map.
  • The game lasts 8 turns (hours).
  • Defensive artillery may be surprised on the first turn if the British choose not to fire a preparatory bombardment. They open fire and are spotted but their fire has no effect on a 3+, roll for each target square.
  • The British have four turns of field gun barrage (two shots each) per division and 25 rounds of heavy gun ammo (maximum six shots per turn). One round of preparatory bombardment may be allowed (does not disorganise targets). If the guns move they lose all their dumped ammo and are only allowed one conventional ranged shot per turn. Field guns only support their own division.
  • British will need to allocate corps and divisional frontages, which may not overlap for infantry divisions, although a reserve division can overlap one front line division. No movement outside divisional areas. The cavalry boundaries can be allocated when they are committed. Once committed to NO MANS LAND units move straight forward, although tanks may deviate within the Corps zone to avoid obstacles.
German Forces
    2 x Infantry Divisions with 9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar and 3 x Field Guns each
The Hindenburg line has 6 x pillboxes, 3 further pillboxes in outpost and reserve lines. One gun is an Anti-tank gun (positioned in Bourlon Wood).

For each division the commitment of forces to each line is:
  • Outpost line: 2 x Infantry, 1 x pillbox.
  • Main Battle Line (HKL): 5 x Infantry, 3 x pillbox, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar.
  • Gun line: 3 x gun.
  • Reserves: 2 x Infantry.
Only deploy defending units when the British try to enter the square or are adjacent on high ground (Welsh Ridge, Bourlon Ridge).

British Forces
    III Corps
      62nd Infantry Division (9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar).
      51st (Highland) Infantry Division (9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar).
      20th Infantry Division (9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar).
      12th Infantry Division (9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar).
    IV Corps
      36th Infantry Division (9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar).
      56th Infantry Division (9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar).
    Cavalry Corps
      5th Cavalry Division (3 x Cavalry).
      2nd Cavalry Division (3 x Cavalry).
      1st Cavalry Division (3 x Cavalry).
    Tank Corps with 380 Mark IV tanks and 96 support tanks. Approximately 1SP per 6 tanks so around 70 SP distributed over the available models, maybe more if feeling generous.
5. Player Briefings
Battle of Cambrai, 20th November 1917
British Briefing
General Scheme
General Sir Julian Byng’s plan for an offensive by his Army has been accepted by GHQ. We will make a surprise attack in the region of Cambrai using massed tanks supported by predicted artillery fire and no major preliminary bombardment. When a breakthrough has been achieved the Cavalry Corps can exploit the situation and advance on Douai and Valenciennes. Given the limited resources available following our great victory at the Third Battle of Ypres, the progress of the operation will be reviewed after 24 hours.

Objectives
  • Break through the Hindenburg Line defences on a frontage of at least 10,000 yards.
  • Take the dominating Bourlon Wood/Noyelles position.
  • Pass the Cavalry Corps through to capture Cambrai and exploit.
Enemy Forces
The enemy is believed to have some six divisions in the area, but only two manning the immediate defences. It is likely that large enemy reinforcements will arrive after 48 hours, however most enemy units are exhausted after the Battle of Ypres.

The Hindenburg Line consists of the three main defensive belts; an outpost line some 2,000m deep; the main battle zone also some 2,000m deep and fronted by a 14' wide anti-tank ditch and a further reserve line 6,000m to 8,000m into the enemy position.

Each defensive zone is fronted by major wire entanglements, contains numerous dug in positions and bunkers and is reinforced with concreted machine gun posts (the so-called 'pill boxes'). The bulk of the enemy troops and fortifications are likely to be concentrated in the main battle zone, with counter attack forces in the third line.

The enemy field artillery is mostly located behind the main battle zone and will lay down a curtain of defensive fire once our attack has commenced. The enemy gun line is out of barrage range of our field artillery, but the heavy artillery is within easy counter battery range.

Friendly Forces
    III Corps
      62nd Infantry Division
      51st (Highland) Infantry Division
      20th Infantry Division
      12th Infantry Division
    IV Corps
      36th Infantry Division
      56th Infantry Division
    Cavalry Corps
      5th Cavalry Division
      2nd Cavalry Division
      1st Cavalry Division
Each division has 100 field guns with sufficient ammunition for four hours barrage fire each. If they move this ammunition will be left behind and they will be reduced to their ready supply.

300 Heavy guns (six brigades) with sufficient ammunition for a total 25 concentrations between them. These guns are immobile.

Tank Corps, three tank brigades with 380 Mark IV heavy battle tanks and a further 96 support tanks of various marks.

Special Order to Tank Commanders
  1. Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months – to operate on good going in the van of the battle.
  2. All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.
  3. It remains for unit commanders and tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.
  4. In the light of past experience I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.
  5. I propose leading the attack in the centre division.
Hugh Elles B.G
Commanding Tank Corps

6. The Game
Tim Gow, Sharon Langdridge and John Armatys turned up for this one, which worked out at a rather handy two divisions each for them to command. The addition of Tim’s extra tanks (the paint seeming suspiciously wet) meant we could field no less than eighteen Mark IV type tanks in a surprising variety of colour schemes and markings, all very realistic no doubt. This meant each division could be assigned three tank models to produce a nice even distribution across the front, all very historical, and a necessity given the victory conditions of 10,000m wide break through. The 20mm troops were deployed in the south, and the 15mm troops in the north as being further away they naturally looked smaller.

The progress of the game was recorded for posterity by the miracle of digital camera technology, and we managed to record the situation at the start of the game and at the end of each turn. As might be expected, the massed armour rolled over the Germans, although the game was not without its distinctly sticky moments. The photographic evidence reveals rather poignantly the ever diminishing number of operational tanks in the front line and the increasingly ragged progress once the main Hindenburg defences were reached, a couple of pillboxes in the centre proving extremely tough nuts to crack.

Highlights of the game:
  1. The sheer spectacle of the table groaning under masses and masses of tanks, supported by an impressive number of infantry (some 54 bases of infantry alone, excluding artillery and support weapons).
  2. The glee with which the assembled tank commanders rolled over the German outpost line
  3. The consternation when they hit the Hindenburg Line proper!
  4. A lone German artillery battalion holding Bourlon Wood for hour after hour, fronted by blazing Mark IVs, all very historical.
  5. The death ride of the 51st Highland Division as they launched wave after wave of infantry assaults across the St Quentin Canal, only to be mowed down a brigade at a time by the defending artillery (who eventually succumbed to massed mortar and Vickers machine gun fire).
  6. The triumphant march of the Cavalry who trotted through the middle of the raging battle and off to glory without a scratch.
I was very pleased with the way the game went, and the players were all delighted to have given the Hun a good kicking, although it was by no means a walkover – some divisions had lost all their infantry and few tank units had more than one or two SP left. The only thing which really concerned me was that the combination of benefits they got which made the defenders extremely tough indeed and even during the game I dropped the additional dice they were supposed to have in close combat. If running it again I’ll probably revise that area somewhat.

7. Conclusions
Apart from a couple of minor tweaks, this game seems to work well. It is perhaps a bit depressing that I seem to have to write a set of rules for every single game I do, perhaps one day I’ll crack the secret of writing a more general purpose set. I’ll be bringing this to COW2003, and I hope anyone with even a passing interest in W.W.1 can come and give it a go. Contributions of even more tanks will be welcome!

20 comments:

  1. Bob- Thanks for posting this article- certainly get the gist of the size of the engagement with the simple to follow basic rules and tables - certainly would like to view some photos of this battle. All very interesting. Cheers. KEV.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kev Robertson,

      I am very pleased that you enjoyed this old article from THE NUGGET.

      I understand that Martin Rapier will be featuring some photographs of the battle on his blog.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  2. Thanks for publishing this Bob.

    I ran this game back in 2002, and at that time digital photography was something of a novelty. I did however take a few blurry photos of progress, so I'll cobble something together.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Martin Rapier,

      There were some black & white photographs of the game in NUGGET N170, but I am sure that your copies of the originals will reproduce better than them.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  3. Hi

    I ran a variant of the rules at Historicon last summer using 1/285th scale figures. I had 378 tanks and a 12 foot by 6 foot fully scaped board. I won the best of time slot for Saturday Morning.

    Here's a link to Pictures

    https://imgur.com/a/XVGBX

    Bill Daniel

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. William Daniel (Bill),

      Wow! That is a very impressive wargame ... and well deserved an award. Thanks for sharing the link to your photographs.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  4. Thanks for posting Bob- will it be turned into a PDF in due corse. Easier to print out and hence read you see.

    Cheers,

    Pete.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pete.,

      I am pleased that you enjoyed this blog entry,

      I hope to publish the rules and battle report in PDF format either tomorrow or Monday.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
    2. Excellent- thanks Bob.

      Cheers,

      Pete.

      Delete
    3. Pete.,

      With luck it should be published tomorrow.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  5. Sounds like a great game; I'm looking forward to the battle report. I don't suppose anyone has the original Airfix Magazine photo that inspired the rules?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maudlin Jack Tar,

      I'm not sure if Martin Rapier has a copy of the original photograph that inspired this game, but if he has, I am sure that he will share it with us.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  6. Ooooh, I really don't know. My old Airfix magazines are somewhere in the loft. I could have a dig around, but I'm not hugely hopeful.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Martin Rapier,

      I'm sure that you really, really want to go up into your freezing cold loft to look for the image! :^)

      Seriously, your rules do seem to have generated a fair bit of interest in simple operational-level wargaming ... something that I want to work on in the near future.

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  7. I am fairly sure the same Beaumont Hamel game (certainly the same battle) appeared in the ‘Great Battles’ series in Battle magazine as well. Unfortunately I can’t check as all my Wargames books, magazines and toys are boxed up in a storage unit following a house move!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ian Dury,

      BATTLE magazine! How I wish that I'd kept my copies!

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete
  8. Replies
    1. Ian Dury,

      Getting rid of mine is a decision I regret, but at the time I needed the space ...

      All the best,

      Bob

      Delete