Friday 6 February 2015

The Battle of Fort Tinta

On Saturday Posties Rejects gathered in a very cold shed-o-war to fight an Anglo-Zulu War game with our hosts 6mm collection. We would be fighting a what-if scenario based on actual forces and topography from the period. 

The Setup
On 21st January 1879 the advancing British No 4 Column built and garrisoned a stone fort overlooking the crossing known as Tinta's Drift on the White Umfolozi River. From this base of operations the garrison sent out strong patrols. However upon learning of the disaster at Isandlwana the fort was vacated and the column fell back to a fortified camp at Khambula. Our scenario asks what would have happened if the British had instead tried to hold and reinforce the Garrison rather than abandon it?

Order of Battle
Zulus - Approx 15500 Warriors
Head/Loins - C/O Ntshungwayo Kamahole (Dave)
  Commanding five 'regiments' of warriors including one Veteran Unit
Right Horn - 3 i/c Godide Kandlela (John)
  Commanding four 'regiments' with one Veteran Unit
Left Horn - 2 i/c Zibhebhu Kamapitha (Lee)
  Commanding four 'regiments' with two Veteran units

British - 2050 Men and 4 Artillery Pieces
Fort Tinta Garrison - Major England (13th Foot) (Surjit)
  13th Foot - 4 Companies
  1 Gun 11/7 ½ 2nd Section
  1 Rocket Team
  Weatherbys Border Horse - 2 Troops
  Woods Irregulars - 1 Battalion of 5 Companies of Swazis
  Captured Zulu Cattle
Supply Column Reinforcements - Colonel Evelyn Wood (90th Foot) (Mark)
  90th Foot - 8 Companies
  2 Guns 11/7 1st Section
  Frontier Light Horse - 4 Troops
  Uyo's Burgens (Boer Sharpshooters) - 1 Troop
  6 Wagons (2x Rifle Ammo, 2x Artillery/Rocket Ammo, 2x Food and Water)

The Action
The initial setup with Fort Tinta in the centre, overlooking the Drift and surrounded by hills and grassland.
Fort Tinta is little more than a forward base of operations but it commands excellent fields of fire in all directions.
The relief column is already on its way, headed by four companies of British Foot, and more in the rear.
The Zulu commander Ntshungwayo Kamahole gives the order to advance.
Zulu warrior's crest the hills overlooking Fort Tinta and the alarm is raised.
The Zulu left flank (my troops) are still hidden at setup but will soon move forward.
My Zulus hidden behind a hill prepare to advance 
They crest the hill and before them lays the White Umfolozi River and the open grassland running up to Fort Tinta 
Thousands of Zulus surge forward towards the British positions
The defenders open up a witheringly effective fire (Surjit's dice rolling was uncanny)
The Zulus close in on the fort. For the Right Horn and Head of the Zulu army their objective was obvious. For my troops in the Left horn I had to make an early decision on where to attack. Initially I assumed that the British relief column would head straight for the fort and so my plan was to hit them before they could do this. But after just one turn it became obvious that Mark had no intention of relieving the fort as he began to take up defencive positions on the hill (on the left in this picture). 
Another option was to move around the left flank of the relief column and draw some of the British away from the objective of Fort Tinta. But again it soon became clear that Mark had settled in on the hill and wasn't going to attempt to relive the fort at all. By shifting my attack to the right and supporting the main Zulu assault on the fort four companies of British infantry were effectively removed from the game because they would have so far to march just to move within range. 
Zulus, Thousands of them!
One of my Veteran units. These poor fellow found themselves being shot to pieces for the whole game. However while they absorbed fire from the British my other units were able to advance forwards, so they fulfilled a vital role.
Dave's Zulus reach the walls of the fort but falter under withering British volley fire. More Zulu units are moving into position from all sides and the forts defenders are looking dangerously exposed and unsupported. Now where is that blasted relief column?!?
Surjit ponders his fate. With Zulu's converging on three sides Fort Tinta looks increasingly isolated.
My troops open fire on the British providing support to Dave's renewed assault on the defences. Meanwhile British fire from Marks infantry on the hill have reduced my Veterans to one stand. 
The Zulu players Dave and John 
An overview of the whole table. The so called 'relief column' has settled in to watch the massacre of the Forts defenders and the Zulus have closed in around their objective. 
The final assault by the Zulus. Casualties are high but with such overwhelming numbers the result was hardly in doubt. The numbered tags represent casualties from previous rounds of firing and melee.
The British defenders are overwhelmed and begin to fall back. As Zulus pour over the walls of the fort more warriors sweep aside the last of the Swazi troops and begin to converge on the fleeing survivors.
The Left Horn (my troops) now turn to face the British relief column and pause while the rest of the Zulu army sweeps aside the reaming defenders.
With the last British infantry and artillery from the fort destroyed the Zulus line up again and consider their next move.
The grim faced British defenders consider the carnage
The last few British troops from the Garrison are swept away.
Meanwhile the Zulu cattle, stolen by the British earlier in the day, have now been recovered by their handlers.
Dusk is fast approaching (one turn away) and the Zulus decide to wait for darkness before sweeping away the remaining invaders. With their forward base gone the British cannot hold this territory and will be forced to retire. 

At times this felt like a one sided battle, but Zulu casualties were still very high. Tactically the battle was a draw with both sides suffering significant losses, but this was undoubtedly a strategic victory for the Zulu's. With the loss of this forward base at Tinta Drift the British would be forced to withdraw or face assault throughout the dark of night without the benefit of their long range fire-power or prepared defences. There was quite a bit of 'discussion' about the scenario played and the definition of victory (I think the British players were feeling a bit hard done for!) but for me the answer is simple. Historically the Garrison at Tinta Drift withdrew without a battle to safer positions and denied the Zulu's battle. The whole point of this scenario was to ask what would have happened had they stood their ground. The answer appears to be that they would have been forced to withdraw anyway, so their decision to pull back was probably the correct one. 

For me this makes the game we fought even more interesting because the way we approached the scenario was completely contrary to how a field commander would have viewed the situation. In the game the Commander of the relief column (Mark) decided not to even attempt to reinforce the Garrison, and the Fort Commander (Surjit) decided to stand his ground rather than retreat. Both players reacted like wargamers, seeking the best and most interesting game, rather than as military leaders husbanding their forces and avoiding a fight they couldn't possibly win. Of course that doesn't explain the decisions and outcome of the battle at Rourke's Drift, but I guess that's what dice are for...


  1. Great AAR, would they have done better if the relief tried to fight it's way through to the defenders and as such reinforce the defences?

    Or would they have done better to join up away from the fort with both their forces still fully intact and then fight it out?


    1. Personally I think the Relief column could have reached the fort and added to the defence, but I don't know if this would have prevented disaster. Perhaps a better plan would have been for the fort to be temporarily abandoned with both halves of the British forces joining together. This was always going to be hard battle for the British to win, but remaining divided like they did pretty much guaranteed a Zulu victory.

  2. What an impressive mass of Zulus! Great report and beautiful pictures...

    1. Its an evocative period and I think it can only be played properly in 6mm. The whole game I could hear the theme music to "Zulu" running around my head!

    2. Agree, 6mm is excellent in this situation...

  3. A very nice report. I feel for Surjit as I have been abandoned in a colonial game while the other British commander made less of an attempt than "Smiffy" to reinforce them. If the Idea of a relief column is to relieve the garrison sitting back is not the answer and is not adequate support.

    1. I couldn't possibly comment! lol. The British players definitely had the harder task, but I don't think the game was un-winnable for them.

  4. I'm glad I never played, because if was on the British side and Smiffy played like that, there'd be trouble!!! Like Clint said if he was the Relief column, why didn't he try and help out Surg?? I bet Surj was pissed off!!

    1. He was grim faced to be sure. It was a difficult tactical decision for the British but I do think there were more options than the one chosen. Surjits dice rolling on fire was incredible (a stead round of 8's 9's and 10's on ten sided dice!) but in the end he needed support to hold his position.

  5. Great! This battle is very awesome.
    Thank you very much.

  6. Sometimes it takes a What If game like this to see that the right decisions were made after all. Small scale is a great way to do big battles like this, the Zulus looked very fine.
    Even if it was cold, I envy you lot being able to play out in a shed. My shed is covered in snow. :(

  7. I see that you've used ~25mm hills with the 6mm forces. Do you use similar scale hills for your WWII scenarios?

    I'm in the process of sourcing some 12mm extruded polyethylene boards for my 6mm WWII, but the 25mm boards are much more readily available.

    1. The hills are representative and these styrene ones work in any scale. All terrain is a compromise and we just work with what we have to hand.


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