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The Battle of Cambrai

 

1. Introduction

 

Many, many years ago, in an issue of Airfix magazine (or possibly the Airfix annual) I saw a photo of a World War One game where the author had assembled a number of Airfix Mark 1 tanks who were busily advancing on a reproduction of the German trench system around Hamel modelled out of plasticene of all things. The tanks were supported by British infantry in caps and the Germans all had pointy helmets, (all that was available then) but it was an image which has stayed in mind ever since and I thought that one day, I too would put on a game with masses of rhomboid tanks poised to crash through the mud and the blood to the green fields beyond. That day finally came last year when I realised just how many WW1 tanks the redoubtable members of Sheffield Wargames Club had between them. Time for a game…..

 

2. Design Concepts

 

After reading around the subject, I decided there were a number of elements of the battle I wanted to capture:

 

a) the sheer mass of armoured vehicles employed (almost 500 in all)

b) the key tactical role the tanks played in the destruction of German wire obstacles in lieu of a long preliminary bombardment

c) the limited endurance of WW1 heavy battle tanks and the limits that posed on their operational significance

 

Having decided to put a modicum of complexity into modelling the armoured side of things, then clearly the infantry, artillery etc were going to have to be heavily abstracted to make a playable game, but these elements needed to be present and have the capability to play a significant role as WW1 armoured operations were most definitely a combined arms event. One element I made very abstracted was the creeping barrage, in the end allowing British field guns to fire fairly freely (although only able to hit the first two rows) as it wasn’t worth the extra complexity of specifying barrage or rates of advance etc.

 

The basic game elements were drawn from my various grid based games (most of which were in turn inspired by Peter Pigs ‘Square Bashing’ and Ian Drurys ‘Storm of Steel’ and ‘Sands of New Stanhall’. I kicked around some designs for a two or three day battle which would include some of the German counter attacks but in the end decided to concentrate purely on the first day. This in turn meant that all players would play the British, as running the Germans on the wrong end of the initial attack would be a dismal job at best! The game then fell into place fairly rapidly, the mechanisms used in Operation Uranus being obvious candidates. The main things to note being:

 

i) Dice rolls being required to enter particular terrain types, this made wire especially a formidable obstacle to infantry and cavalry.

ii) Rolling dice for movement meant vehicle reliability could be simply modelled by making low scores a bad result for tanks (losing vehicles to breakdowns etc)

iii) Whilst infantry, guns and cavalry were modelled as one base = 1 battalion (or cavalry brigade) and they fought as a single element, the tanks were represented as strength points assigned to each vehicle model so the attritional effects of movement and combat could be modelled without requiring truly immense numbers of toys. The available tank SPs were just distributed over the available tank models and recorded with little dice. The game was designed with twelve tanks in mind, but in the event we managed to assemble no less than eighteen!

iv) Artillery barrages attack everything in the square, this makes the defending artillery pre-registered on nomansland extremely powerful indeed if the attackers try and march through with massed infantry. This in turn means that reaching the enemy gun line is a high priority for the tanks and that infantry attacks against uncut wire are essentially doomed to fail (as there is very little chance of crossing the wire and the defensive artillery will destroy units stuck in nomansland fairly quickly).

v) Similar command and control limits as in Operation Uranus apply i.e. units can generally only move straight forward once committed to combat.

 

3. Playsheet

 

A very simple set of rules, British move and then Germans move. Squares are attacked by ‘assaulting’ them ie trying to move into them. Those units which make a successful move roll are shot at by the defenders, the survivors then engage in three rounds of close combat. Stationary units are hit by fire on a 6 but moving targets on a 5 or more, which makes assaults extremely bloody. Only some units have a ranged fire capability, the rest fight by assaulting. Move distances and ranges are in terms of squares, orthogonal only.

 

Cambrai, 20th November 1917

Sequence

British move, declare assaults.

German move, declare assaults.

Artillery fire

Ranged fire

Assaults

Rally (4+)

 

Unit                              Move    Assault*           Fire      Range

Infantry                         1          1D6                  -           -

Machine Guns               1          1/2D6               1D6      1

Mortars                         1          1D6                  1D6      1

Tanks                            1          1D6                  -           -

Cavalry                         2          1D6                  -           -

Guns                            1          1D6/2D6**         1D6      3 (direct fire)

Pillbox***                      -           -/3D6                1D6      -

 

*Dice per SP or base, Number after / is defensive fire only

** 3D6 if AT gun vs tanks

*** Pillboxes can only be destroyed by hits from artillery or by assault, all other ‘kills’ just disorganise them

 

Move rolls (to enter/cross terrain). Use  worst type in square.

Terrain                         Inf/Cav             Wpns/Guns      Tanks*

Open                            1                      3                      2                     

Woods/Town                 3                      4                      4                     

Bridge                          2                      4                      3                     

Canal                            4                      5                      6                     

Wire                              5                      6                      2 (destroy wire on 3+)               

AT Trench                     -                       -                       3 (lose SP on 1-2)                    

* lose 1 SP on a '1'

Stacking maximum 6 units per square.

 

Ranged, Artillery and Defensive fire

1D6 per unit/SP

To hit target: Stationary 6,          Moving 5,         Moving Cavalry 4

 

Score = killed/1SP loss for tanks

Heavy Artillery and barrage fire hits all units in a square.

Field artillery barrage disorganises if roll one less e.g. 5 disorganised hits on 6 vs stationary. This is supposed to represent suppression from the creeping barrage.

 

Distribute hits randomly. Disorganised units may not move, conduct ranged fire and in assault shoot once and defend with 1 dice with no fortification benefits. Tanks are never disorganised. Units may rally on 4+.

 

Assault

Units which make a successful move roll enter the square. Defender fires twice using assault rating (unless disorganised). Then fight three rounds using assault rating, 6 to kill. Defender gets one extra dice for wire and one for trenches/cover (not pillboxes). Attacker pushes out defender by rolling 6+, adding surplus troop bases, tanks and defenders in fortifications count double. Guns & pillboxes are captured if the defender is pushed out, assaulting infantry are disorganised if they win.

 

4. Game Notes

6 x 4 squares battle area, along with a further row of squares for nomansland and another row further back for reserves etc. Nomansland is at the top of the battlefield (not shown) with a further line of squares behind that. The Germans have continuous lines of trenches across the first, second and fourth rows, the first two  lines being covered by wire as well. The gun line is the third row. Each square represents approximately 2000m, Cambrai itself is off the table at the bottom of the map.

 

 

Game lasts 8 turns (hours).

 

Defensive artillery may be surprised on first turn if the British choose not to fire a preparatory bombardment. They open fire and are spotted but their fire has no effect on a 3+, roll for each target square.

 

British have 4 turns of  field gun barrage (2 shots each) per divison and 25 rounds of heavy gun ammo (max six shots per turn). One round of preparatory bombardment may be allowed (does not disorganise targets). If the guns move they lose all their dumped ammo and are only allowed 1 conventional ranged shot per turn. Field guns only support their own division.

 

British will need to allocate Corps & divisional frontages, which may not overlap for infantry divisions, although a reserve division can overlap one front line division. No movement outside Divisonal areas. The cavalry boundaries an be allocated when they are committed. Once committed to NML units move straight forward, although tanks may deviate within the Corps zone to avoid obstacles.

 

German Forces

2 x Infantry Divisions with 9 x Infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x Mortar, 3 x field gun each

Hindenburg line has 6 x pillboxes, 3 further pillboxes in outpost & reserve lines. One gun is AT gun (positioned in Bourlon Wood).

 

For each division the commitment of forces to each line is:

Outpost line                              2 x inf, 1 x pillbox

Main Battle Line (HKL)               5 x inf, 3 x pillbox, 1 x MG, 1 x mortar

Gun line                                    3 x gun

Reserves                                  2 x inf

 

Only deploy defending units when British try to enter square or are adjacent on high ground (Welsh Ridge, Bourlon Ridge).

 

III Corps

62nd Infantry Division (9 x infantry, 1 x MG, 1 x mortar)

51st (Highland) Infantry Division

20th Division

12th Division

IV Corps

36th Division

56th Division

 

Cavalry Corps

5th Cavalry Division (3 x cavalry)

2nd Cavalry Division (3 x cavalry)

1st Cavalry Div (3 x cavalry)

 

Tank Corps with 380 Mark IV tanks and 96 support tanks. Approximately 1SP per 6 tanks so around 70 SP distributed over the available models, maybe more if feeling generous.

 

5. Player Briefings

Battle of Cambrai, 20th November 1917

British Briefing

 

General Scheme

General Sir Julian Byngs plan for an offensive by his Army has been accepted by GHQ. We will make a surprise attack in the region of Cambrai using massed tanks supported by predicted artillery fire and no major preliminary bombardment. When a breakthrough has been achieved the Cavalry Corps can exploit the situation and advance on Douai and Valenciennes. Given the limited resources available following our great victory at the Third Battle of Ypres, the progress of the operation will be reviewed after 24 hours.

 

Objectives

Break through the Hindenburg Line defences on a frontage of at least 10,000 yards.

Take the dominating Bourlon Wood/Noyelles position.

Pass the Cavalry Corps through to capture Cambrai and exploit.

 

Enemy Forces

The enemy is believed to have some six divisions in the area, but only two manning the immediate defences. It is likely that large enemy reinforcements will arrive after 48 hours, however most enemy units are exhausted after the Battle of Ypres.

 

The Hindenburg Line consists of the three main defensive belts; an outpost line some 2000m deep; the main battle zone also some 2000m deep and fronted by a 14' wide anti-tank ditch and a further reserve line 6-8000m into the enemy position. Each defensive zone is fronted by major wire entanglements, contains numerous dug in positions and bunkers and is reinforced with concreted machinegun posts (the so-called 'pill boxes'). The bulk of the enemy troops and fortifications are likely to be concentrated in the main battle zone, with counter attack forces in the third line.

 

The enemy field artillery is mostly located behind the main battlezone and will lay down a curtain of defensive fire once our attack has commenced. The enemy gun line is out of barrage range of our field artillery, but the heavy artillery is within easy counter battery range.

 

Friendly Forces

III Corps

62nd Infantry Division

51st (Highland) Infantry Division

20th Division

12th Division

 

IV Corps

36th Division

56th Division

 

Cavalry Corps

5th Cavalry Division

2nd Cavalry Division

1st Cavalry Divison

 

Each division has 100 field guns with sufficient ammunition for 4 hours barrage fire each. If they move this ammunition will be left behind and they will be reduced to their ready supply.

 

300 Heavy guns (6 brigades) with sufficient ammunition for a total 25 concentrations between them. These guns are immobile.

 

Tank Corps, three tank brigades with 380 Mark IV heavy battle tanks and a further 96 support tanks of various marks.

 

Special Order to Tank Commanders

 

1.       Tomorrow the Tank Corps will have the chance for which it has been waiting for many months - to operate on good going in the van of the battle.

2.       All that hard work and ingenuity can achieve has been done in the way of preparation.

3.       It remains for unit commanders and tank crews to complete the work by judgement and pluck in the battle itself.

4.       In the light of past experience I leave the good name of the Corps with great confidence in their hands.

5.       I propose leading the attack in the centre division.

 

Hugh Elles B.G

Commanding Tank Corps

 

6. The Game

 

Tim Gow, Sharon (??) and John Armatys turned up for this one, which worked out at a rather handy two divisions each for them to command. The addition of Tims extra tanks (the paint seeming suspiciously wet) meant we could field no less than eighteen Mark IV type tanks in a surprising variety of colour schemes and markings, all very realistic no doubt. This meant each division could be assigned three tank models to produce a nice even distribution across the front, all very historical, and a necessity given the victory conditions of 10,000m wide break through. The 20mm troops were deployed in the south, and the 15mm troops in the north as being further away they naturally looked smaller.

 

The progress of the game was recorded for posterity by the miracle of digital camera technology, and we managed to record the situation at the start of the game and at the end of each turn. As might be expected, the massed armour rolled over the Germans, although the game was not without its distinctly sticky moments. The photographic evidence reveals rather poignantly the ever diminishing number of operational tanks in the front line and the increasingly ragged progress once the main Hindenburg defences were reached, a couple of pillboxes in the centre proving extremely tough nuts to crack.

 

Highlights of the game:

 

i) the sheer spectacle of the table groaning under masses and masses of tanks, supported by an impressive number of infantry (some 54 bases of infantry alone, excluding artillery and support weapons).

ii) the glee with which the assembled tank commanders rolled over the German outpost line

iii) the consternation when they hit the Hindenburg Line proper!

iv) a lone German artillery battalion holding Bourlon Wood for hour after hour, fronted by blazing Mark IVs, all very historical.

v) the death ride of the 51st Highland Division as they launched wave after wave of infantry assaults across the St Quentin Canal, only to be mowed down a brigade at a time by the defending artillery (who eventually succumbed to massed mortar & vIckers gun fire).

vi) the triumphant march of the Cavalry Corps who trotted through the middle of the raging battle and off to glory without a scratch.

 

I was very pleased with the way the game went, and the players were all delighted to have given the Hun a good kicking, although it was by no means a walkover – some divisions had lost all their infantry and few tank units had more than one or two SP left. The only thing which really concerned me was that the combination of benefits they got which made the defenders extremely tough indeed and even during the game I dropped the additional dice they were supposed to have in close combat. If running it again I’ll probably revise that area somewha