Tuesday 31 July 2018

The Relaxed Wargamer

Well my plans for holiday posting have completely gone out the window. I may be doing Greek Broadband a disservice, but thus far my impression is that it reminds me of the dial-up speeds I used to get a decade ago! Any idea I had of backing up my photos on a daily basis have long since been abandoned. The photo in this post for instance took over half an hour to upload; and this was after resizing it to make it easier to transfer!

Keeping up with essential reading.

I have a stack of photos of the Fortress of Rhodes; several museums within its walls ; and it's associated historic harbour outside. Hopefully by the end of our second week I'll have more pictures of historical interest to share... but not before I get back to civilization and proper broadband speeds!!

Monday 23 July 2018

Escape to the Aegean

The UK summer holidays are finally here and my poor wife (an overworked primary school Teacher) is about ready to collapse. The one thing that has kept us both going are our holiday plans; we are heading back to Greece for two weeks in Rhodes. To say we are looking forward to this trip would be an understatement of epic proportions. We all have a stack of books to bring with us and I have been making a list of places I want to visit. This year its just myself and my wife and our youngest daughter and I suspect their main destination of interest will be the pool complex in our hotel!

Rhodes is one of a number of islands in the Aegean that could be described as a crossroads between Europe and the East. Its been fought over and controlled by the Minoans, Romans, Byzantines, Turks and the Fortress of Rhodes is a World Heritage site. Needless to say its high on my list of places to visit during our stay. I'm planning a couple of posts while I am away but the reality is that I could just as easily end up sitting around the pool reading and find that blogging is far from foremost in my attention. So things may go temporarily quite here, if only for a couple of weeks. I'll probably be posting holiday updates on my Facebook Page if your really interested but otherwise I'll post some history related posts here when I return. 

Sunday 15 July 2018

Skirmish at Siniyat: What a Tanker in the Desert

Earlier today I was finally able to run a Game of What a Tanker! for the Rejects in Posties Shed-o-War. I've been buying and painting early Desert war tanks since April and I now had enough to begin a campaign style series of games using these rules. Each player would start the game with an entry level tank of their choice, but I also have several additional tanks to bring in to keep the game running along. I wanted to give this game a feel like a regular scenario driven game so I set up the terrain with what looked like a strategic objective in the centre. I didn't actually give the players any objectives but they seemed to make them up for themselves, forgetting that the game is purely about killing the enemy tanks. It was fun to watch and for the most part very easy for me to umpire.

The Setup
The game was set in later 1940 and represented a side skirmish of tanks that randomly encountered each other. Vehicles from both sides had been sent to the small village of Siniyat which although abandoned by the locals could be used as a supply depot by either side. Four players started the game each with a single Level one tank each but I brought on three more tanks as the game progressed to keep things moving. As this was a 'learning the rules' test game I also gave all players a couple of special cards to help spice things up. The result was an educational experience!

Order of Battle
   M11/39 Medium Tanks x3
   L6/40 Light Tank x1 

   A9 (Cruiser Mk I) x2   
   A10 (Cruiser Mk II) x1

The Action
The setup - A ring of hills overlooks an abandoned village in the desert. The area is crossed by dry Wadis, dotted with Palms and studded with rocky outcroppings and low ridges. 

The first few turns are taken up with cautious movement as the players come to grips with the rules and the intricacies of the WaT! dashboard and command dice.  

An early set of perfect dice allows Postie to move his A9 into a strong position and get an Italian tank in open sights. He them rolled the perfect hand with three hits (two Critical) to which Richard failed to save any....Kaboom! Richards M11/39 goes up in flames! 

More tanks come on the table and after an hour of static exchanges of gunfire suddenly there is movement and tanks rushing about trying to jockey for position (or just keep out of enemy acquisition!). 

James takes a long range pot shot at the Italian tank threatening Postie on the far hill. Despite landing several shots Richard is able to save time and again, somehow keeping alive. 

James brings his firing even closer but still fails to land a killing blow. 

Despite the apparent disparity in sizes the A10 and the M11/39
are closely matched. 

Ray gets a small L6 Light tank and zips around the fringes of the battlefield looking for a likely target to take a  pot shot at. 

Meanwhile James finally destroys Richards M11 but only because he is able to hit the rear armour. 

Multiple tanks are burning and they are all Italian...the last remaining M11/39 is trying desperately to get away so that the crew can fix some temporary damage but before that can the British tank hits them in the rear as well. With three burning Italian tanks on the field, Ray decides enough is enough and withdraws his outclassed L6 from the game. 

By the end if the game nearly everyone had had two tanks and we managed to keep the battle rumbling along for over four hours before things came a head. This of course kept the football obsessed members of the group happy because it meant they could get home to watch the World Cup final, even if it was sans England.

I learned a lot about what to do (and what not to do) for future games. Firstly running a new set of rules with four players that have never used the rules before can be very hard to manage. It was hot as hell in the Shed-o-war and my brain felt utterly fried by the end of the game. I think that future games will go much smoother as now I have a group of players that seemed to be quite comfortable with the rules and didn't really need the help of an umpire towards the end. Based in the success of this game I'll definitely be running another (hopefully for more players and involving more tanks) later in the year. 

Tuesday 10 July 2018

Italian M11/39 Medium Tanks

I seem to have been painting Italian Tanks in reverse order (mainly due to delayed orders) so today its the turn of the earliest of my vehicles so far, the M11/39 Medium Tank. These particular models are from Old Glory and are cast in white metal. The quality of the casting was excellent with minimum defects and flash. The only exception was some slight misalignment of the moulds for the turrets but I was able to mostly file this out.

Three Fiat M11/39 Medium Tanks

As its name suggests the M11/39 is an eleven ton tank that first entered service in 1939. It was a development of a specification originally laid down in 1936. and was heavily influence by the British Vickers 6-Ton tank, several of which the Italian army bought for evaluation purposes. The final evaluation tank was ready for inspection by Mussolini in 1938 and 100 units were commissioned. Lack of raw materials and other issues limited expansion of this to the 400 vehicles first envisaged and the development of the M13/40 made the earlier model obsolete.

The finished vehicle had a 3 man crew (commander, driver, gunner) but conditions were still cramped inside this tank. It had bolted and riveted armour plates ranging in thickness from 6mm in the floor to 30mm on the front. Main gun was the 37mm semi-automatic Vickers-Terni L/40 gun mounted in the hull. This was a common feature in several countries tanks of this period but the configuration was short lived. The main disadvantage was the limited traverse available to the gunner of just 16° to left or right.

An M11/39 in Egypt in 1940

The M11/39 was powered by a 12-litre 105hp SPA eight cylinder engine which wasn't really suitable for an 11 ton tank. Reliability for the overworked engine became an issue, especially in the desert where the conditions strained even the most mechanically sound vehicles. Despite its shortcomings this was an important step forward for Italian tank designers and the lessons learned would find their way into the larger M13/40 and M14/41. 

I have painted these in a camouflage pattern adopted by the Ariete division, 4th Tank Regiment, in Egypt, September 1940. It appears to share some similarity with Caunter but covers less of the vehicle and is a single colour. The aim however was the same, to break up the outline of the tank. However from what I have read it would seem that most camouflage patterns were a little pointless in this theatre of war. Dust, heat haze and the dazzling glare of the sun would have done as much to obscure targets as any colour scheme painted on them. 

Front, side and rear showing the National colours on the rear of the MG turret and the company identification colours on the side. 

Tuesday 3 July 2018

Rifleman by Victor Gregg

I was recently given this book by my Brother-in-Law and its been a thoroughly gripping read from beginning to end. The books is the life story of an east end lad who joins up and serves through the war in many of the major engagements of North Africa and beyond. In fact his army career was so hard to believe I had to do a little digging to find out if this was a real memoir (it is) or a historical novel. 

Victor Gregg was born in 1919 into relative poverty in the east end of London and grew up in the school of hard knocks as part of street gangs of kids, involved in petty crime and living by his wits. This was a normal upbringing for many kids of his generation with poverty and the daily struggle to put food on the table being part of life, even for children. From an early age he was independent, recalcitrant, often outspoken and tough. When the chance to join the army came along in 1937 he was a natural recruit (despite his indifference to authority figures) and soon found himself serving in the Rifles in peacetime India before the war. 

When war with Germany was declared he expected to be shipped back to England but instead his regiment found itself in Egypt facing the growing threat of Italian Fascists in Libya. A long period of training, acclimatisation to the desert and deep patrols 'into the blue' came to an abrupt end with the Italian invasion of Egypt and British preparations for a counterattack. His squad were assigned to a Bren Gun Carrier and so began a long association with motor vehicles which which would ultimately shape his army career. He took part in Operation Compass and saw much heavy fighting culminating in the Battle of Beda Fomm. His description of Italian tanks attempting to break through the British guns should forever dispel the myth that the Italians were cowards that didn't know how to fight.

After a period in South Africa he returned to his old unit and his mates in the Rifles. Then by chance he was picked to be a driver for a little known Belgian officer by the name of Vladimir Peniakoff. Paniakoff was something of a Polyglot, speaking six languages and spent much of the desert war organising the Sennusi Arabs against the Italians in what became known as Popski's Private Army. Victor spent much of his time alone driving across the vastness of the desert behind enemy lines delivering vital supplies to contacts and allied tribes. His work with Peniakoff inevitably lead to contact with the LRDG and eventually he joined them for 18 months. Once again he was employed driving vast distances behind 'enemy' lines, this time ferrying wounded men back to Siwa Oasis. His description of how to thwart enemy air attacks when caught in the open desert is both very informative and tells a lot about the coolness of Gregg under fire.

Eventually he returned to his mates in the Rifles who were now part of the forces defending the narrow strip of desert between the Qatarra Depression and the railway stop at Alamein. His unit were assigned to protecting the engineers that would breach the German minefields in the first phase of Operation Lightfoot, the opening stages of the Second Battle of Alamein. His experience of waiting for it all to start perfectly sums up the lot of the PBI.
"Once the flag went up it would be easier, that we knew. In the meantime we waited and cursed, and waited and cursed some more"
His unit were heavily engaged in the fighting at 'Snipe' and once again he experienced the harsh reality of hand to hand fighting, this time against the Germans rather than the Italians.

After a period of R+R Gregg transferred to the Parachute Regiment, learning to jump out of perfectly good airplanes with nothing but a silk parachute to break his fall. Many recruits never completed the training when faced with their first jump but Gregg stayed the course and earned his red beret. Transferred back to Blighty he had more training as well as home leave when he reconnected with his sweetheart from before the war and promptly got married. It wasn't long before they were expecting their first child but the war intervened and it would be some time before he would meet his child. The reason was an ambitions operation called Market Garden and his destination would be the Dutch town of Arnhem.

More bloody hand to hand fighting followed in that desperate battle before he became a POW. The war however was certainly not over for Private Gregg. Transferred to a large holding camp he had the opportunity to be assigned to a smaller camp doing non-war work in Germany. He thought (rightly) that the opportunities for escape would be better and leapt on the chance to alleviate his growing boredom. And so began a period working in and around Dresden clearing roads of snow, emptying refuse pits and occasionally working in factories. An abortive escape attempt landed him on punishment duties but on the whole he still thought his treatment was fairer and better than he could have expected. His rebellious nature soon got the better of him when he was involved in sabotage at a Factory that saw the site burn to the ground and him in prison awaiting execution!

While he waited and contemplated the chain of events that had lead him to this point, fate took a hand in his salvation. Gregg found himself virtually in the centre of the destruction of Dresden by Allied bombing in February 1945. His description of the firestorm that engulfed the city and its inhabitants is one of the most striking episodes in the book. Decades of debate and discussion have struggled to reconcile the war aims and morality of the Allied bombing campaigns in the later half of the war but for Victor Gregg there was no doubt that the firebombing of that city was a war crime. He never forgave the politicians and generals that made the decision to target a civilian population in this way.
"I still occasionally suffer nightmares about those two nights of bombing and the firestorm, people burning in the street, flames reaching down from the heavens like huge claws, sucking up human life as if to satisfy some inexhaustible appetite. I wake up bathed in sweat with the sound of terrible screams ringing in my ears."
In the Chaos of the cities destruction and with the remnants of the Third Reich collapsing in upon itself, Gregg was able to avoid the authorities and somehow found himself on the Russian side of the front lines. He spent time with some front line units and saw the brutality meted out to the German civilian population. He eventually made his way back to England to be demobbed and returned to civilian life. Full employment after the war made it easy for him to change jobs but its hard for a modern reader to understand how anyone with his experiences could ever have adapted back to civi-street.

Victors life after the war ended up being almost as colourful as his military service. For a period he was a keen cyclist and a contender for the Empire Games in New Zealand . He was alternatively a Lorry Driver and a Chauffeur, joined the Trades Union movement and the Communist Party although his distrust of those in power (including the Soviet leadership) meant he was immune to much of the propaganda that he was exposed to. Despite this he was employed by a Russian Bank and Trade Embassy, ferrying potential intelligence operatives around the country and running shady errands, and all the while working 'unofficially' for MI6! In later life he became a keen motorcyclist and his Russian connections made it easy for him to cross the Iron Curtain to attend Motorcycle Rally's. This time the shady errands were for British Intelligence but he also nurtured contacts in the Hungarian democratic movement and in 1989 (aged 70) found himself present when the frontier wire was cut in Hungary just weeks before the Berlin Wall fell. 

My overwhelming impression of Victor Gregg after reading this book is that if you had to serve in the army in wartime he would be the best mate in the world to have with all the best characteristics of loyalty, courage and comradeship. But being Victors mate was also probably the most dangerous position to be in as it seems everyone around him got picked off as the war went on, leaving Victor somehow unscathed and ready for the next adventure. But while its true he suffered no major physical injuries during his service it is clear from his words that the psychological scars of his experience stayed with him long after the guns fell silent. His wartime experiences never left him and ultimately resulted in the breakdown of his marriage. In later life he began to write down his memoirs and what comes across most in his words is his optimism and upbeat attitude to life.
"I believe that when things are getting rough, take a breather and brew up the tea - it'll all come out in the wash"
Considering the things he has seen this is probably the most amazing thing about his story and makes this one of the best memoirs I have read in a long time. 

Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Bloomsbury Paperbacks (2011)
Language: English