Tuesday 24 May 2022

The Unluckiest All Black

Surely all wargamers and amateur military historians enjoy reading about the deeds of braver and better men than ourselves. In that vein, let me depart from this blog's usual military scope and pay tribute to an illustrious forebear whose notable exploits were performed on the rugby pitch rather than the battlefield (his military service being on the home front).

Alexander 'Nugget' Pringle (1899-1973) played rugby for New Zealand, earning one All Black cap in 1923. He would surely have merited more, but fickle fate in the form of injury, illness or other misfortune thwarted him repeatedly - hence the title of his newly published biography, 'The Unluckiest All Black'. This is available in paperback for a modest £9.95 or as an ebook, eg on Kindle for just £4.99. It has been described as 'the latest addition to the New Zealand rugby canon' by noted author and historian, Dr Ron Palenski, who kindly provided invaluable assistance during preparation of the book.* I hope it will be of interest to some readers of this blog.

(Disclaimer: I helped prepare the book too, mainly with the graphics.)

* Incidentally, as well as his sports books, Dr Palenski is an authority in our usual military history domain as well. His military books include 'Kiwi Battlefields' and 'Men of Valour: New Zealand and the Battle for Crete.

Thursday 19 May 2022

Smash, bang, wallop: Dresden!

As most wargamers and readers of this blog probably know, Dresden (1813) was one of the biggest battles of the Napoleonic Wars, with over 300,000 men engaged. This makes it a must-do for any serious grognard. Mark Smith duly obliged and ran a game of his BBB Dresden scenario for us.

Just as the historical battle was fought over two days, so was ours. In our case it was two remote sessions on successive weeks. Consequently the French command changed at half-time, with Colin taking over from Crispin as Napoleon to fend off the allies commanded by me and Graham.

It's very much a battle of two halves. On Day 1, the French are outnumbered but have all their best troops on the pitch - including the entire Imperial Guard - with which to prevent the Austrians, Russians and Prussians gaining a foothold in the suburbs around Dresden. On Day 2, both sides are reinforced, but the allies gain guards and grenadiers to stiffen them against the French counterattack.

Scenario map. Red stars indicate victory locations. NB - the redoubts only matter on Day 1. Inevitably there will be tough fighting around the city, but there is also room for manoeuvre on both flanks.
The scenario design puts pressure on the allies to attack initially, rewarding them with 1 or 2 Victory Points if they manage to hold 1 or 2 of the redoubts at the end of Day 1. Graham and I calculated that attacking offered other advantages too: once in the Gross Garten or the suburbs, our troops would benefit from cover; and compressing the French front line would make it hard for the enemy to use all his combat power.

We therefore launched multiple serious attacks: against Friedrichstadt in the northwest, against the Gross Garten in the south, and against the three redoubts between them. After a couple of turns of attack, counter-attack, and counter-counter-attack, we had got into but not gained control of the Garten and the 'stadt; all three redoubts had changed hands, but we only held onto one of them. Still, at least that was one VP in the bank that could not be taken away from us.
Webcam view late on Day 1. Plenty of fog of war! Looking south from behind Dresden. The rectangular hedge left centre is the Gross Garten, with both sides' troops contesting it. Austrians and Prussians line the ridge in the distance; blue 'Spent' markers are the legacy of the Old Guard retaking a redoubt from Kleist's Prussians. Masses of French hold Dresden. Their high quality is shown by the green cubes ('Aggressive') and purple counters ('Shock' cavalry).

For Day 2, Colin inherited something of a traffic jam, with the French army virtually all in the semi-circle of Dresden and its suburbs. On the French right there was some space to breathe and a chance for Marmont to break out and threaten the objectives behind the Allied left wing. Unfortunately for him, stalwart Austrian defence and some lamentable French movement rolls meant Marmont never managed to eject Gyulai from Friedrichstadt. This in turn impeded French efforts to attack in the centre towards the bridge at Plauen and caused losses in precious French cavalry who were exposed to fire against their rear. On the allied right, late in the piece the French did attempt to send some troops around the flank against the objective at Seidnitz, but this was too little too late, as by then the Russian heavy cavalry was there to counter this. Added to the mix were some lethal allied firing and combat dice at a couple of crucial moments, wiping out potent French cavalry formations.

Real-world fatigue on the French side meant we couldn't play the last turn, so "at that point we called it": Mark's assessment as umpire was that it would probably be an allied win, though with a reasonable possibility that the French might have taken enough objectives to salvage a draw. Given what I think was a decent allied plan plus some help from the dice, that seemed a fair result.


Claustrophobia! The high troop density provided a very different feel from more open battles. With so many units packed into a narrow frontage, the French especially suffered from masking their own guns and struggled to attack out of the difficult terrain of the city in anything like a coordinated manner. Whenever either side attacked, instead of sweeping manoeuvre and knockout blows, it was more like two boxers in a clinch exchanging repeated body-blows. Every attack left the attacker disrupted and vulnerable to a counterattack, and the troop density meant there was usually a second enemy line ready to deliver one. Real punch and counter-punch.

Despite the compressed front line, the nuances of terrain and different troop types meant there were still plenty of tactical decisions to be made. It was pleasing that BBB produced the right level of granularity to achieve that but still fight a big-picture grand battle.

Guns that aren't firing are guns wasted; putting them in the right place to start with is crucial. Napoleon was an artilleryman. He knew.

The fog of war of remote gaming. Colin overlooked units that were behind houses. For our part, a couple of times Graham and I advanced our cavalry into range of enemy guns that were off-camera. These were minor frustrations that actually enhanced the game in a sense, in that such blunders are a feature of real battle and it is more realistic than our usual perfect 'helicopter view'.

The time-inefficiency of remote gaming. With Mark having to dance around the table carrying out moves for all of us one at a time, and having to explain what we could see or do, it took us two evenings to not quite finish a game that could comfortably have been concluded in a single session if we'd all been round the table. But it's still way better than no game at all.

How nice to have a battle where you legitimately field the entire Imperial Guard! (Mind you, they were seen off by my iron Landwehr.)

Great game, very atmospheric. Big thanks to Mark for laying it on.


If you enjoyed this AAR, you can use the 'Napoleonic' label on this blog or search by year label (e.g., '1813') to find reports of our other Napoleonic BBB battles.

Tuesday 10 May 2022

V-E Day visit to Musée de la Libération de Berjou

This V-E Day, 8 May 2022, was a suitable day for a pilgrimage to a hidden gem of a museum in Normandy:

The Musée de la Libération de Berjou is dedicated to the history of the battle around Berjou on 15-17 August 1944. This was the moment when German 7th Army was scrambling to escape the Falaise Pocket, which was about to be sealed. The British Operation Bluecoat had covered the flank of the American breakout (Operation Cobra) and brought British 2nd Army down past Vire. To cover their retreat, the Germans had tried to establish a new defensive line facing west, anchored on Flers and Condé-sur-Noireau. Now 2nd Army launched Operation Blackwater to cross the River Noireau (i.e., "black water") and breach this last German line.

Berjou is on steep wooded high ground 5km east of Condé, covering the flank of the German line. At dawn on 15 August, 214 Brigade of 43rd (Wessex) Division crossed the Noireau at several points. The next morning, the German 276 Infanterie-Division launched a violent counter-attack. The arrival of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry's tanks helped to repel this. Then, after a powerful artillery barrage, 1st Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment liberated Berjou. The battle cost the lives of 70 British troops, several hundred Germans, and between 15 and 30 civilians.

The museum commemorates this action in a building absolutely packed with artifacts, all recovered from the battlefield. Because it has so much stuff now, they are planning to extend it. The building itself had a German gun position next to it and still bears the scars of battle damage. Exhibit highlights include an intact 81mm mortar, a rare Gw-43 German automatic rifle, an SS colonel's uniform, and (bizarrely) half a German sea mine (apparently jettisoned by a German plane, it blew out every window in the village), but these are just a few out of hundreds of items of kit, weaponry and miscellanea of all kinds. This is a very substantial collection which is still being added to: just last week, two Lee-Enfields, a Kar-98K and a Sten in good condition were discovered in a case concealed in a building wall. Our group was treated to a personal guided tour by the grandson of the man who owned the building during the war. (The owner was serving in the French military and was taken prisoner by the Germans in 1940, I believe; his uniform, POW documents etc are on display.) Our guide himself was responsible for many of the finds retrieved from locals' attics or metal detecting in the fields around about, and his knowledge and enthusiasm made the visit even better.


The museum is only open on Sunday afternoons, 14:00-18:00, from May to September. If you should find yourself in Normandy in those months, do make the effort to go to Berjou - it's well worth it and much better than some bigger and better-known museums in Normandy.

The museum has a Facebook page here.