The Big Bonfire

An early WW2 skirmish game

Martin Rapier

Introduction.

This is a smallish skirmish scenario, suitable for any set of 1:1 skirmish rules. The original design intentions were as follows:

  1. To be playable by up to seven players (roughly 1 section/group each), so it was suitable for a club night game to pick up anyone who had not got anything else arranged.
  2. To involve the players in some degree of uncertainty.
  3. To have victory conditions such that both sides could win!
  4. To show the Germans were not supermen!!

I originally used a set of skirmish rules written by Brian Locke, and originally developed through Wargames Developments. My only real stipulation to the players was that they had to operate in groups, with the individual group members not too spread out, and the groups firing or moving together. With the ground scale of 1cm = 2m, there should have been approx 2-3cm between figures, alas in the game, a certain amount of bunching up occurred…

The Terrain.

The terrain is basically quite congested to allow for covered lines of approach/retreat and to break up fields of fire, rather than the situation which occurs in some skirmish scenarios where fire is opened on turn 1 and both sides just blaze away at long range! It should be noted that there are a lot of hedgerows along the roads and round the fields which block LOS, even having a region of dead ground if viewed from one of the low elevations. The stream crossing the area is fordable and just presents a minor linear obstacle. Brigade HQ is located in the built up area, and visibility into and out of both woods and the BUA is restricted to units on the edge.

The Situation.

This action is set during the Allied retreat from Belgium in 1940. A small British rearguard (a single rifle section) is covering a group of signallers who are destroying papers in an abandoned HQ. To win the British need to destroy the papers and evacuate their men, if they can actually stop the Germans, that would be a nice bonus. The Germans are a weak rifle platoon acting as the spearhead of their regiment, the platoon only consists of two rifle sections due to straggling, and has a small HQ, with a senior NCO and two runners. The runners are able to move independently, although in the game the Germans did not make use of this facility to put out any scouts… Their task is simply to clear the road, but if they meet heavy resistance, they must send back to company for reinforcements.

One possible outcome might be that the British successfully destroy the papers and pull out, whilst the Germans clear the road, resulting in both sides winning!

The British deploy using eight dummy markers to show their possible positions, these need to be successfully spotted for their contents to be revealed. The markers may move around, but if they wish to fire/spot must be revealed.

 

Player Briefings.

The Big Bonfire, May 1940. Somewhere in Western Belgium.

German Briefing

You have been marching across Belgium in pursuit of the retreating English and French for some days. Your platoon is spearheading the Regiment and is tasked with clearing the route forward, or reporting back in the case of heavy enemy resistance to enable a set piece attack to be launched.

The long marches and hot weather have taken a heavy toll of your men, many of whom are hastily re-activated reservists, and the platoon is now considerably understrength. You have:

Platoon HQ: Sergeant with MP40 and two rifle armed runners

1st Section: Rifle Group with NCO and four men. MG Group with MG34 and three men.

2nd Section: Rifle Group with NCO and four men. MG Group with MG34 and three men.

Your troops are all regular.

Most of the other men have dropped out with heat exhaustion, and one of your MG34s has become unserviceable due to dust clogging. So far enemy resistance has been negligable.

Clear the road to enable the regiment to advance, if you can take any enemy prisoners, that would be a bonus for intelligence. If enemy resistance is too heavy, then send a runner back to company HQ with a report of enemy strength and dispositions, and await reinforcements.

The Big Bonfire, May 1940. Somewhere in Western Belgium.

British Briefing.

After advancing to the River Dyle in Belgium to meet the oncoming Germans, you have been in continual retreat back to France again. Generally the regiment has fallen back in good order and straggling has been minimal, although the men are tired.

Your section has been ordered to provide cover whilst some signallers from Brigade HQ destroy piles of secret papers which cannot be evacuated.

You have:

Rifle Section: Rifle Group with NCO and five men. Bren group with three men.

Signallers: Officer and 3 ORs.

The Rifle Section are veterans, whilst the signallers are raw (they only have a few pistols for self defence anyway).

You must cover the Signallers whilst they burn the papers in the abandoned Brigade HQ. It will take twelve turns to get them really burning, after which time you may evacuate your men to a safer position. If can stop the German advance, that will be a bonus.

Special:

It requires all four signallers to destroy the papers, the time taken to destroy them all increases proportionately if/when they become casualties.

The British may deploy in secret, marking positions with eight dummy markers. When spotted they are revealed as blanks or actual troops. One marker must be placed in Brigade HQ to burn the papers. This may cause a bit of smoke.....

The Game.

In the event I found four willing recruits, two of whom were young Warhammer players on their first outing to the club. We therefore had one British player who set up the defence, and three German (two section leaders and the platoon commander).

The British put their signallers in Brigade HQ (C), the Bren group at A and the rifle group at B, and deployed the rest of the dummy markers in a screen, carefully concealed by hedgerows. Bear in mind that the roads are lined by hedges, so the deployment of B is not as daft as it looks on the map!

The Germans basically set up in a long line, although I suggested that they might like to leave some units off table in reserve. Platoon CO went in the middle, with a rifle section on each side, rifle group, MG34 &HQ at E, MG34 & rifle group at F.

The Germans then proceeded to launch a potentially very effective flanking attack, one section and the platoon HQ moving into the central fields, moving by bounds to cover. The other section made its way around the flank, also covered by woods and hedges. The British meanwhile shuffled their dummy counters backwards, using them with great skill to keep the Germans cautious, but exposing very few to direct LOS (and the possibility of being spotted). One feature of the rules is that units crawling count as stationary for spotting and firing purposes, so the Germans figured out the best thing to do was run towards the nearest hedgerow out of sight, then crawl the last couple of metres. This worked jolly well, except it was painfully slow at times, and sometimes an over enthusiastic section leader would forget to crawl the last bit!

Around turn 3, MG34 group F finally managed to spot a British counter (which turned out to be a dummy), and the British player had to be a bit more careful about his headlong retreat as he realised he was not going to have enough time to burn all the papers if he didn’t slow the Germans up some more. German groups F reached the line of the eastern side road simultaneously, the rifle group crawling up in the approved fashion, while the MG group had to run to cross two hedgerows. In the ensuing spotting, the rifle group spotted the Bren at A, and the Bren reciprocated. The MG34 spotted another dummy, but couldn’t see the Bren due to blocking hedgrows. The other Germans were still carefully making their way across the fields. In the following exchange of fire one German rifleman was wounded, and the group became suppressed.

The following turn the MG34 group moved along the hedgerow to a clear firing position, and the rifle group continued ineffective rifle fire and tended the wounded man (in these rules, untended wounded cause a continual moral loss). The MG34 opened fire ineffectively (as it had moved) but the Brens return fire also missed. The rifle group managed to rally.

The Germans now noticed large columns of smoke coming from the village, and realised something was up (I had ruled that after a few turns the smoke from the burning papers would become visible). Things now started to get a bit sticky. The MG34 group again fired ineffectively, and the rifle group managed to cross the road and get into the woods unmolested. In the centre the German coordination went to pot however, platoon HQ crawled up to the hedge at the bottom of the field, MG34 group moved up and stopped in dead ground behind the hedge, and the rifle group walked right up to the hedgerow. In these rules, running units cannot spot or fire, wheras walking units can, at a penalty.

This move proved to be the Germans undoing, along the hedgrows some 30m South West were two as yet unspotted British markers, these were spotted and the British rifle group revealed. The Germans had the initiative and fired first, platoon HQ missing the Bren group (everyone ducked as the platoon CO let rip with his MP40 however!). The Rifle Group let go a volley of grenades at the badly bunched British (2m intervals), but with the negative modifiers for moving, the target being in cover etc, some missed wildly, and of the ones which did hit, they only managed to kill two British riflemen. The British retaliated, the Bren group shot at the rifle group , wounding one man, but then rifle group A threw armfuls of grenades at the Germans, who were lined up shoulder to shoulder behind their hedge. The carnage was appalling, despite being behind the hedge, the fact that the Germans had moved to get there made them much more vulnerable, and when the smoke cleared, the entire group had been killed, leaving five folorn casualty markers on the ground. The rules are very unforgiving to troops who try and close with unsuppressed enemy units.

The British rifle group A did in fact fall back to the woods as a result of its own casualties, and it is possible that if the MG34 group had been in position to fire on it as well, the sacrifice of the rifle groupwould have been worthwhile as a greater weight of fire could been brought to bear.

In the following turns it was basically a firefight between the two MG34s (in soft cover) and the Bren in hard cover. Rifle group A moved back into position having rallied, protected from direct MG fire by hedgerows, but able to provide crossfire across the front of the village. With its better cover, the Bren managed to wound the gunner of one MG34 group , as well as one of the platoon runners, whilst only having the gun group corporal wounded in return. (In future I will probably rule that another member of the group can take over an MG, at the cost of an action). The last German rifle group meanwhile picked its way through the woods, covered from sight, and starting to pose a very real threat to the village, as the signallers still had a few turns left to go to get the papers burned.

It was at this point that the Germans made their second error, rather than skirting behind the hill to get into the village, the rifle group decided to run into the open in front of the hill, straight into the LOS of both the British rifle group and the surviving Bren gunners. This might have been more sensible if the Bren had at least been suppressed (which a few more turns of MG34 fire may have accomplished), but it wasn’t. The result was somwhat as might be expected, the rifle group ran into a storm of rifle and Bren fire, which although it only killed one man, was sufficient to cause them to fall back to cover. They then lost another man on the edge of the wood. To add insult to injury, an MG34 managed to wound both the remaining Bren gunners at this point! The Germansin no position to exploit this success however.

As the Germans had taken over 50% casualties by this point, and only had one undamaged group left, we felt that at this point the platoon CO would halt the attack and send his last runner back to company for reinforcements. Although the British had taken some losses, the signallers only had a couple of turns left to finish burning the papers, at which point they could pick up the wounded Bren gunners and make an orderly withdrawal – a major British victory!

Conclusions.

At the time it seemed like a British walkover, though having written it up, I can see that in fact it was quite a bit closer than I thought at first. If the last German rifle group had skirted behind the hill, it would have found the village full of signallers and wounded Bren gunners by the time it got there, and the results may have been quite different! The German CO directly ordered the attack, and just sort of shook his head afterwards.….

The two new recruits acquitted themselves very well, rapidly working out how to take best advantage of the terrain, even if the execution fell down a bit occasionally. With hindsight I should have spent a few minutes explaining the principles of fire and movement, as these rules make frontal assaults against an unsuppressed enemy almost impossible. I had hoped the German CO might get his section commanders in order, but it didn’t happen.

The British commander, a wily veteran of many actions, played very well in deploying and manouvering his screen of dummies, although his choice of targets was a little odd at times. His choice of firing positions was also good, providing interlocked arcs of fire with reasonable visibility given the cluttered terrain.

An interesting scenario, I’d like to run it again, particularly to see what would happen if the Germans carried out a bit more effective recon on the approach.

The Big Bonfire - Battle 2

I did get a chance to run this battle again early in 2000. One of the other players at the club has also shown a current interest in small unit WW2 tactics, British in particular - it making a change to go back to a mainstream period after dabbling in all sorts of eccentric areas!

The briefing etc were as above, but we ran the game using Andy Graingers 'Bocage Battle' rules from an old copy of Wargames Illustrated. These rules emphasise the relatively ineffective nature of aimed small arms fire against targets in cover, as well as the importance of junior leaders in motivating their troops. In fact, fireteams cannot perform any action without making a die roll (the easiest being to retreat, the hardest to charge to contact). This is influenced by their current motovation level and leader, their motivation level increasing when they succeed in performing actions, and dropping when they fail.

 

The British deployed as before, using inverted playing cards to show a range of possible positions, but the Rifle team was at A, the Bren team at B, the signallers at C, with the lonely section commander at B also.

The Germans deployed in a similar fashion as before, one section an dplatoon HQ at E, the other section at F.

The Germans started by getting to grips with the motivation rules! Finally realising that the only way to get units to do anything difficult at all was to accompany them with a leader, it was fairly easy to improve their motivation by getting them to fire, and once they were well motivated, to get them to actually advance. Fairly soon the air was full of MG34 and K98 rounds as the germans blazed away at every suspicious looking clump of bushes. Groups E advanced to the first hedgerow and engaged in a heavy firefight with the British dummy counters on the far side. Group F even managed a bayonet charge on a dummy marker on its first hedgerow. Unfortunately this brought it nicely into the line of fire of the Bren which opened fire, wounding one man, pinning the group and dropping their motivation to poor. The Germans could not figure out where the fire was coming from and made spoting attempts everywhere but the right one, as the Bren continued to fire, wounding another man and keeping the group pinned.

After a few minutes of MG fire, the Germans managed to spot the Bren and the group F MG34 started to return fire. German group E made its way across the field and set up a firebase along the hedgerow. By this time the secret papers were burning nicely, sending up huge plumes of smoke. The two German machine guns managed to pin the Bren and it ceased fire. The British rifle group A opened fire ineffectively The Germans concentrated their fire on the Bren and managed to put it out of action (wounding all of the crew). The MG34 E then switched fire the rifle group A and pinned it, while MG34 group F cautiously moved through the woods to outflank the town, covered by the remains of its rifle group.

The British section leader ran from the town to the rifle group to try and rally it, however the Germans managed to get their rifle group E to charge. The British miraculously managed to open fire, despite being pinned, although their fire was ineffective, pinning the Germans in the stream bed. The Germans section leader rallied his men for the next dash, while the platoon leader directed the MG. The British failed to rally and this time the Germans managed to close the distance and the British rifle group surrendered.

The signallers had meanwhile destroyed the papers and made their escape, so when MG34 team F entered the town, all it found was a pile of burnt ashes.

So, quite a different outcome this time around. The main difference being that the Germans made much better use of both cover and covering fire this time.