Life before Combat Mission, Graviteam Tactics and Wargame: European Escalation
(to name just a few)
We really are spoiled, these days. In whatever fashion, in whatever period or part of the world and with whatever weapons we like to create virtual mayhem, there's at least one combat simulation product for us. I like aircraft and tank combat sims, primarily. I'm not a fan of so-called Real Time Strategy games and have only ever bought a few PC wargames - those from the second two titles in the title, if you get my meaning. RTS I don't like mainly because of the pervasive God view and the small scale. The wargames I like much better; although I dislike those ones that simulate wargaming, rather than war. Which brings me to the subject of this piece, not so much a mission report but a bit of admittedly self-indulgent reminiscing about two battles fought with 1/300 'micro armour' on the desk of a former home on summer days long gone now, what seems a lifetime ago.
Wargaming I dabbled with most of my adolescent life. In sixth form, I was part of a foursome (yes John H, John W and Mervyn, if any of you are reading this) who arranged to fight an imaginary world war, in a world of our own devising where we each ruled an island country. This was based mainly on rules designed for naval warfare, from this schoolmate's 1960s book (which I stumbled across and picked up a couple of years ago in an Oxfam second hand bookshop):
World War 2 was our chosen period. I obtained some Tri-ang Minic diecast warships and made some flat balsa representational hulls to flesh out my fleet. I think I still have a school jotter filled with the movement, spotting, gunnery and damage tables I laboriously copied from the book. Sadly, we never got around to playing the wargame - not the last time such an enterprise foundered, as it happened.
One conclusion I quickly reached - this would be about 1970 - was that the ideal was a wargame with what would today be called an artificial intelligence foe. One you could play against entirely in your own time, without reliance on anyone else.
Fast forward to the 1980s. Another joint enterprise wargame with a work colleague (Ray) had fallen flat. This was to have been Ardennes 1944 and I acquired quite a set of 1/76 kits to represent a Panther tank company (improved Matchbox models, mainly) with various supporting weapons and a Panzergrenadier company in Sdkfz 251 half-tracks made from card. The latter were based on cut-out 1/144 scale precoloured card models bought and built en masse for an earlier 'dabble'. I still have a box jammed full of the 1/72 stuff. I converted some models for my work colleague enemy, including a pair of M18 Hellcats from Matchbox M24 Chaffees, whose fate is unknown.
The failure of this not inconsiderable effort finally convinced me that I was right to have doubts about 1/76 being too big a scale for a decent company-sized wargame. And again, that the ideal was a non-human opponent, at my beck and call.
Fast forward a bit more to the early 1990s and the interest arose again. This time, I wanted to fight the Cold War and quickly settled on 1/300 as the scale for miniatures (card or board wargames never crossed my mind - sorry, Avalon Hill). This was a scale I had dabbled with in my schooldays, having discovered a unique shop, Model Figures and Hobbies, who sold me a set of rules and a small selection of WW2 cast metal tanks - all of which I still have.
Suitable rules were again sought. I discounted the Challenger set as too complex, with their long multi-part movement and firing sequences. Instead, I went for the Wargames Research Group's rules. At the time, the WRG had recently revised their WW2 set to operate much less like a chess game wit tank models, and much more like an exercise in the sort of command and control I had become acquainted with in my days as a part-time Army Officer. Here was a wargame which simulated war, not wargaming!
Their cold war era rules had not been so updated, but I decided to use the WW2 rules with appropriate elements - like vehicle and weapon characteristics - from the WRG's modern ones (which were later updated, but too late for me)
A Challenger -based set of Modern Army Lists, and other sources, provided suitable details on unit composition.
My 'procurement department' also sought out suitable suppliers of weapons. I wanted current Warsaw Pact (Soviet, basically) versus current US or British Army. That meant about a battalion-sized force for the former, as attackers, and a company group for each of the latter, as defenders.
For the Soviets, I decided to go for T72s, with BMPs (rather than wheeled BTRs) for the Motor Rifle people. These were the days when it was only just becoming clear what the difference was between the T-64, T-72 and T-80 let alone variants thereof. I started with 1/300 T72s from Davco but even tidied up, these were a bit crude. The 1/285 models from US maker GHQ were vastly better but to costly for my desired force sizes, so I opted for the nearly-as-good 1/300 (actually nearer 1/285) T72M1 from Scottish maker Scotia Micro Models, whom I was pleased to find are very much still in business. My BMPs ended up as a company of Davco BMP-1s (sold as BMP-2s, but actually more like BMP1s with a tube-mounted Spandrel ATGW atop the small turret instead of a Sagger on the gun tube) and two companies of more realistic Scotia BMP-2s. I modified the Davco BMPs to BMP-1 standard by cutting off the Spandrels and reducing the gun barrel length.
For NATO, I obtained a tank squadron/company of M60A3s and M113s for the US Army, and the same again in Chieftains and FV432 APCs for the British. The US models were all Skytrex, the lBritish Davco Chieftains with the rest mostly Skytrex, the latter's 432s in particular being fine castings, available with different exhaust systems and with or without the Peak GPMG or 30mm Rarden turrets, plus variants like mortar and ATGW carriers.
Both sides were filled out with a battery or more of SP artillery, mainly SO-122s with some SO-152s for the Soviets and M109A1s for NATO. Support vehicles included some soft-skins ranging from Hummers, UAZ 469 jeeps and Landrovers to trucks like Urals and Bedford 4-toners, and armoured vehicles like M901 TOW ATGW launchers, M163 SP Vulcans and ZSU 23-4 Shilkas for air defence, plus MTLBs and the like. This was topped off by some specialised stuff like a tank-based bridgelayer for each side and even an odd Soviet BTM fulyl-tracked trench digger. The variety of vehicles available was, and possibly still is, huge, and enables quite impressive and realistic units to be built up at reasonable cost.
I added a platoon of Leopard 1A4s which, when paired with the M113s, meant I could have a Canadian Army company combat team. The inspiration for that was this excellent book by ex-tankie Kenneth Macksey, which started life as a training publication apparently, to put the real training into a dramatic context for officers and NCOs - essential reading and a lot more realistic than 'Team Yankee', IMHO:
A platoon of M1 Abrams and a troop of Challengers, plus some Bradley IFVs, provided the ability to get some variation in their respective sides. Cast 1/300 figures for each army were painted up and glued on tiny green flock-covered based three or four at a time to simulate fire teams. Sut off at the waist, and wth a trench of plasticine, produced dug in variants, including platoon anti-tank weapons.
For a battlefield, I decided to 'go desktop'. In those days, that meant a real desk, of course. This in turn meant a considerably-reduced ground scale, although I stuck with 'one miniature = one vehicle' - hence somewhat condensed formations, to put it mildly. Later, a bigger desk eased this effect a little.
Everything had to be capable of being rolled out and packed away after a day or to, not left in situ. So I ended up using a model railway grass mat as a base - basically, a large, rolled-up brown paper sheet with green flock stuck to one side. Hills were formed by making lots of contour shapes cut from cheap black vinyl floor tiles, then sticking grass mat pieces to tops, folded around their sides. Laid on top of one another in variable configurations, this enabled limited hills to be formed. Their steps didn't look too bad and enabled easy calculation of when a tank was hull down.
Woods were formed by grassmat-covered plasticard hexes onto which lichen 'trees' were glued. Like the hill contour sections, these could be put together in various ways to give different layouts.
Buildings came from a cheap but effective range of cut-out coloured card building kits specially designed for NW Europe in that scale. These came with bases on which was a destroyed version of the building, with the remains of its walls. Onto this, the assembled building was pushed. I ended up mounting many of these on bigger bases, made up to simulate their gardens.
Hedges were made from green-painted pipecleaners. These started freestanding, but I ended up making separate fields - plasticard sheet topped with grassmat dabbed with brown or sand to make them stand out from pure grassland, and edged with the pipecleaner hedges. The lichen tree hexagons were supplemented by conifers made for model railways, cut down as needed.
Roads started as strips of black Velcro which adhered lightly when set on grassmat, but ended up as grey-painted card with some Velcro below.
Smokescreens were made in a fan-shape sized to match the specification in the rules. These consisted of cotton wool stuck to transparent wedges of polythene, which followed contours reasonably well when laid out. Cotton wool blobs painted orange at their base and dark grey above provided knocked out vehicle markers, and something similar for artillery strike markers. I also made some Hinds, MiG-27s and Apaches as plasticard 'flats', mounted on fusewire bases of various heights.
For the AI enemy, I got a copy of this WRG book:
This got me so far, but was still the main inspiration for a home made system for an AI opponent. This system involved drawing a playing card (the system behind the Sea Battles book) and looking that up in a table, every time my advancing (usually, Red Army) battalion group's point force - perhaps led by BRDMs or BMP-Rs - got within a given weapon range of a feature which could be a possible dedender's location - for example a copse, a village, or a hill feature. The table when consulted listed the defending units to be placed there, according to further card draws. The process started when my troops got within ATGW range (the longest for direct fire weapons) and if no ATGWs were drawn, repeated when within tank gun range and so on down to small arms range. You might end up with nothing, or a complete all-arms force, on any given position. After that, fixed rules with a dice throw determined the enemy action. That sort of thing. Not as complicated as it may sound, and imperfect, but playable.
These first pics are from a battle on my first, very small desk, with early terrain models. The first, blurry pic, like all the others which follows, was likely taken with a Praktica BX20 35mm SLR with a 35-70 zoom. Note the early, pipecleaner hedgerows without field bases, the hex-based trees, the card buildings and the contour hills. As far as the action is concerned, a platoon of hull-down Skytrex M60A3s has been knocked out towards the bottom left. Bottom centre, a Scotia T-72 platoon is followed by a BMP as it heads into the village. Hard to see what the other vehicles are in this pic, but on the centre right, many are burning.
This closer view focuses (depth of field permitting!) on the T-72 left plank platoon. To its right, another T72 platoon, less one tank, presses on past knocked out M113s and M901s. Just ahead of the Soviets are some entrenched US Army infantry, by a road. It's hard to make out what's happening on my (Soviet) right flank but it looks like we are pressing ahead amidst a litter of knocked-out AFVs (the rolled-over M113s signify I had run out of KO'ed vehicle markers!). Top left edge are some M125 (M113-based) SP 81mm mortars and to their right, an M577 armoured command vehicle, all of which are about to hit serious trouble, unless they bug out.
This is the view from behind and above the burning M60A3s. To their left on the ridgeline looks to be an M901 ITV, near those conifers. There's an M163 tracked Vulcan next to the two M125s. The BMPs are the Davco inaccurate BMP-2s modified by me to BMP-1 standard.
Can't recall how that battle turned out, but I think it's safe to say the Red Army of Peasants and Workers came out on top!
A little latter, and the desk is bigger. The hedges are now mostly mounted on pre-made fields, the roads are still Velcro and the Davco BMP-1s have mostly been replaced by Scotia BMP-2s. In the foreground, there's a forward observer for the guns in an MTLB-U in the lee of a house; with him is a field ambulance (!) and a couple of Ural or GAZ trucks. Centre right, a 4-tank T-72 platoon leads a BMP-2 company in the advance to contact. To their right, in the Soviet centre, a similar force has crested a hill and is about to enter a built-up area. The forward observer has called in smoke screens to hide the attacking force from likely enemy positions on the higher ground on the far side of the village. To this will soon be added a barrage from the SO-122 SP howitzers, in close support as per Soviet practice, and just visible on the centre right edge of this picture. A pair of MiG-27s flash overhead, more for effect than anything else.
This is the view from the other side of the battlefield, a little later. Some BRDM-2 armoured cars watch my open flank from behind a hedgerow. The T-72s have halted to shoot the BMPs onto the ridgeline objective, onto which artillery fire is now falling. The defenders have been seen to comprise dug-in infantry and their M113 APCs. supported by M60A3s.
And we're back to the other flank for this last shot. It was possible to get decent results with a bit of weathering and highlighting on these little models. I remember the Scotia T-72s had rather flat turrets so I raised these a bit with a small disc of plasticard underneath. A little bit of filing and sanding tidied up side skirts so the end result was nearly as good as the pricier GHQ models, the few I had of these being reserved for battalion commanders - rank having its privileges, as they say.
All of this stuff, and my very first WW2 micro-armour from the late 1960s, still resides in a box in my loft. Will it ever again see action? Possibly not. But it does have the considerable attraction of being tactile in a way a PC game will never be. And it can reproduce the battles, time periods and armies I choose, not those chosen for me by PC game designers.
Wargaming with miniatures is enjoying something of a resurgence, although the preferred scale seems to be closer to 1/72 (which models I also still have from my last outing!), though now in resin or plastic. The resulting small-scale section or platoon-level actions appeal less to me than the battalion to company sized ones possible with 1/300 (even if at the cost of compression from a smaller ground scale). So perhaps, one day, a room at home will reverberate to the imaginary din of a desk or table top battle!