Light reading

I’m just getting back to painting after a hiatus while moving house.

In the meantime I’ve been spending my commutes into the office reading accounts of the Normandy campaign, in preparation for some WWII gaming I hope to do at some stage.

The Battle for Normandy 1944 (Robin Neillands)
This ‘operational level’ book offers an interesting if occasionally vitriolic insight into the political side of the campaign at the Allied headquarters, and offers further insights into the insanity that reigned at the German headquarters. It pulls no punches in describing Air Marshal Tedder’s whispering campaign against Montgomery, and Patton’s glory seeking forays into empty French countryside, but in neither case has the author sought to explain why these people did what they did. So Tedder comes across looking like Wormtongue, and Patton as a quixotic bully, but we are left wondering why. The author’s primary intent seems to be to restore the reputation of Montgomery, which he feels has been impugned by American historians. This he does very well, pointing out that Montgomery was in overall command, so the American forces were following his strategy, and also quoting the American Official History’s criticisms of the performance of the American forces. And for balance he makes no bones about pointing out the flaws in Montgomery’s personality.

From a wargaming perspective, what this book does well is explaining who was doing what, where in the Normandy Campaign. Although a good map would be useful in helping to understand the various axes of advance that are described in the book. There are also very atmospheric eyewitness accounts, from the Allied side at least, and a little more from the German perspective might have been interesting. The author’s description of the relative merits of the British Regimental system and the American Replacement Depot system for supplying reinforcements to depleted units supports the different troop qualities used in games such as Overlord. Another interesting thing that the book does is to make it obvious that, at least at the tactical level, orders of battle in wargames should be taken with a pinch of salt. We have artillery batteries being used as infantry, and tank units dismounting one man per tank to clear hedgerows.

Troop Leader (Bill Bellamy)
This is the autobiographical account of the commander a troop of Cromwells in Normandy and the Low Countries. The troop fought dismounted during the winter of 1944 – another order of battle out the window! There are some interesting actions and encounters described in the book. In one encounter, after taking surprisingly heavy damage from a 20mm flakvierling, they discovered they had been working in a mild steel training tank – but they asked if they could keep it as it was the fastest tank in the troop! The Cromwell comes across as a very nimble tank, the entire troop jumped a 20′ ditch when the need arose. The unit seems to have lost quite a number of men through their being caught by mortar fire outside their tanks while resting or conferring. No wargames rules I’ve seen force tank crews to rest. In a number of instances the author witnessed units not realising they were wandering onto or through the battlefield, and paying the price.

By Tank Into Normandy (Stuart Hills)
Another autobiographical account, which I am reading at the moment. I’m not sure if the title is intentionally ironic, as the author’s DD tank sank under him and he arrived in Normandy by liferaft on D+1. At the stage I’m up to, the author is the commander of a troop of Shermans. It’s a more personal book than Troop Leader, and it takes a bit longer for the war to start(!) But Hills’ childhood was fairly interesting, and the book also quite touchingly refers to the exploits and losses of former students of the authors school, and members of his cricket team. Keith Douglas was a member of Hills’ regiment, and their Chaplain was a real hero, insisting on tackling the horrific job of disentangling the burnt bodies of the tank crews alone, as the fighting men had enough to deal with.

Still there is plenty of action, and we’re reminded that tank battles were not as one-sided as fans of German tanks would have us believe. The squadron has just knocked out 13 Pz IVs, a Panther (crew bailed out while it was still moving!) and a Tiger (crew bailed out due to a small internal fire and a slightly wounded driver), for the loss of a troop of Shermans at the start of the encounter.

From all of this reading I’m getting a deeper understanding of Phil Barker’s comment that many wargames give the ‘general’ more control and more knowledge of the situation than they should do. Tanks are knocked out by non penetrating hits that ‘nuts and bolts’ rules would ignore; commanders fight with whatever they have, rather than choosing the best forces up to a points value; and many units don’t realise they are on a battlefield until they start getting shot at, rather than a wargamer knowing that the battlefield is defined by the table edges.

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4 responses to “Light reading

  1. I’ve read Robin Neillands book and must say I thought it was both interesting and refreshing from the level of operations it described. I purchased “By Tank Into Normandy” for my son and since he has departed to Auckland I still have it here to read. Well, until he requests the rest of his library shipped up… Your comments may encourage me to get a move on and read it.

    If you happen to be looking for a WWII set of rules for use with 6mm figures I would strongly recommend “Spearhead”. If you are after something for use with 15mm and at a lower level “Crossfire” is also worth a look.

    • I read some reviews of Neilland on the Amazon website last night. One said that Neilland was using ‘straw man’ arguments because Stephen Ambrose is so obviously biased. But I think that since somebody else supplied the straw man then Neilland is excused.
      Even if there was nothing else in the book I’d recommend By Tank Into Normandy for the exploits of the Chaplain.
      I’ve been squirrelling away 1/76 and 1/72 kits for my WWII games – recreating my youthful games with Airfix and Matchbox vehicles and figures and some rules I bought from Stoker Models in Auckland. I have a couple of sets of rules, Overlord and Red Storm, Grey Steel. But although they are well researched and have a lot of period detail, something like Crossfire’s ‘shifting tactical initiative’ might be what I’m looking for.

  2. I see your long commutes to good use! Joel’s keen to find opponents for Crossfire, and after watching the rescreeening of Band of Brothers (in preparation for the new Pacific War series), I’m tempted to give it a go. If I do, I’ll let you know what I think.

    • I’d be interested to hear how Crossfire goes. It’s a little hard to get hold of at the moment though but I see that a new edition may be in the wind.

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