Sunday 23 June 2019

Operation Bluecoat: The Wilderness in the bocage?

Had the privilege of spending the 75th anniversary D-Day week in Normandy, witnessing commemorations, celebrations, reenactments, and events of all kinds. A wonderfully memorable week.

[Sorry, no photo right now for technical reasons! I should add one in a week or so.]

Naturally we had to mark it with some suitably themed wargames. One highlight was joining the Guerriers du Marais for their exposition in the municipal gallery in Carentan. They had two display games: one a 28mm Bolt Action section of Omaha Beach (fine scratchbuilt bunkers by Pierre); the other a 10mm representation of the whole of the battle for Carentan, using a WWII adaptation of BBB.

The buildings for the latter were real works of art, having been handcrafted by Colin based on actual Carentan buildings, using photos from 1944. The game was good value too. The poor German players really felt pummelled by the US artillery, airpower and naval gunfire support. At the end their paras were still hanging on grimly, but 17th SS had taken a battering and the Ostbataillons had lost interest long ago. The game felt right, and of course it was great to fight for Carentan in Carentan.

We fought a couple of other battles as well. But my favourite game of the week was the tail-end of Operation Bluecoat. Bluecoat seems to be a somewhat neglected operation in Normandy histories, perhaps because it is a kind of bridesmaid as it covers the US flank after the more glamorous and well-known US Operation Cobra. But whereas much of the Normandy fighting is simple frontal assault slog with limited options for the defender, the last part of Bluecoat offers scope for games of much more complex and interesting maneuver.

The focus of our game was the period in early August 1944 when two British divisions - 11th Armoured and Guards Armoured - push south from St.-Martin-des-Besaces toward Vire and the critical east-west highway through it that the Germans are using as an axis for their drive on Mortain. The result is that they collide at right angles with 9th SS Panzer Division 'Hohenstaufen' and some other fragments and remnants. Hence the attacking British forces are not much larger than the defending/counterattacking Germans; both sides have substantial mobile and armoured formations; and both sides need and want to maneuver.

To me the situation is strikingly similar to the ACW Battle of the Wilderness in 1864. (See here and here.) Invert the map east-west, and you have the British playing the part of the Union - with Guards Armoured showing some of the diffidence and caution of the passive and confused Union army - while 9SS is Bobby Lee's mobile, smaller but highly motivated and aggressively led army, striking at ninety degrees. Vire isn't quite Richmond, but near enough in providing an objective at the southern end of the pitch that the CSA/9SS have to stop the US/Brits from reaching; and to do so they have several options of blocking, smashing, or cutting rear lines of communication.

We fought this twice in Normandy, having fought it once already in UK. In game 1 (UK), the British easily raced south and cut the road at Vaudry and Viessoix but then couldn't make much progress along it to the east, and ended up winning by turning west and taking Vire (unhistorically, since in the actual campaign this could shifted from the British to the US sector during the operation). Game 2 was another British win as the Germans opted for a straight punch to the west from Estry, came within an ace of cutting British supply lines completely, but left the road to Vire and the highway too open. Game 3, benefiting from previous experience, the German players followed a more historical plan. KG Weiss's Tigers successfully dominated the main road toward Vire for the whole game, and 9SS managed to string out along the key Estry ridge and hold that against all efforts. There was an alarm late in the game when Guard Armoured briefly opened a gap on the eastern flank and looked like getting through behind 9SS; but reserves plugged the gap. By then all the British formations had run out of steam, so a German win evened up the score somewhat.

The game was fought with a playtest version of Frank Chadwick's forthcoming Breakthrough! rules.