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Month: November 2013

History Corner: Great Fails of World War Two (part 1)

The War Altar’s History Corner is going to spend some time considering great technological “fails” of the Second World War.  We’re going to start with a program developed by the Americans, codename Operation Aphrodite.

In 1943 the Americans and British had a problem.  German U-boats had an indestructible base at Lorient on the western coast of France.  These fortified submarine pens, which boasted 7 meter-thick roofs, were impervious to allied bombing.

Unable to destroy the pens the Allies fire-bombed the town in an effort to kill everyone who worked in the base or supplied it.  On January 15, 1943, the Royal Air Force dropped 20,000 incendiary bombs on the town.  They hit the town seven more times over the next nine weeks.  The town was reduced to rubble and the survivors evacuated.  Submarine operations continued with minimal disruption.  

The British then developed a bunker-buster bomb called the “tallboy.”  This was a 5 ton bomb over 6 meters long.  Dropped from a height of 18,000 feet it would be travelling at 1207 kph (750 mph) when it hit the ground.  These were very difficult bombs to make and use.  Most of them missed, and the one recorded hit on the submarine pens at Lorient failed to penetrate the roof.

Incapable of either destroying the submarine pens or annihilating the supporting population and infrastructure the Allies opted for a new tactic: radio-controlled bombers.  This was Operation Aphrodite.  The plan was to take older B-17 and B-24 bombers, fill them with 9 tons of explosives and then fly them into the Submarine pens using radio control.  Two pilots would fly the drone bomber to 10,000 feet altitude, turn on the RC equipment and then bail out.  Another bomber flying near would then use the radio controls to fly the drone bomber into the target.  A TV camera in the drone cockpit broadcast images of the flight deck instruments back to a pilot in the controlling bomber.  Imagine using a low resolution, black and white version of Skype to drive a car.

Two brave souls were needed to pilot the drone.  The U.S. offered any volunteer pilot the Distinguished Flying Cross.  In addition, every Operation Aphrodite mission counted for five missions.  Twenty-five missions constituted a complete tour of duty (in 1942 the average bomber completed twelve missions before being shot down or wrecked!).

There were fifteen Aphrodite missions from late 1944 until early 1945.  Fourteen failed in spectacular fashion. One flew out of control and crashed in Sweden.  Another blew up prematurely and destroyed an escort plane.  Some were shot down by enemy anti-aircraft guns.  The most famous death was that of Joseph P. Kennedy, the elder brother of JFK.  His Aphrodite drone exploded before he and his co-pilot could bail out.  The U.S. National Archives has the letter that was sent home:

The missions were so ineffective and dangerous that Aphrodite was cancelled after just four months.  The Lorient pens were never targeted and they survived the war intact.  The German garrison surrendered on May 10, 1945.  Fortunately for the Allies they were able to defeat the U-boats at sea.

The Germans, it turns out, were years ahead of the Allies in RC technology.  On September 9, 1943, the British and Americans invaded mainland Italy.  The light cruiser the U.S.S. Savannah provided close-support naval gun fire. On September 11 a single German bomber dropped a Fritz-X radio-controlled bomb.  The crew guided it towards its target and the 320kg warhead struck a turret of the Savannah.  The crew of the Savannah salvaged the ship but it was effectively out of the war.

The Germans hit about a dozen ships with these guided bombs including the HMS Warspite.  A Fritz-X attack sunk the Italian battleship Roma killing most of the crew.  The allies scrambled to develop countermeasures.  British radio jamming proved to be effective and the Normandy landings were carried out under a cloud of electronic jamming to prevent Fritz-X attacks.  Despite the initial spectacular successes of these bombs they were countered quickly and with relative ease.
Operation Aphrodite remains a relatively unknown story of the Second World War.  Probably because it was such a terrible failure for the Allies.  This is unfortunate because the history of Operation Aphrodite also includes the stories of brave people like Joseph Kennedy.  The attempt to hit specific military targets with pin point accuracy, and the failure to achieve this, also provides good context to consider the strategic bombing campaign.  
What other technological ‘fails’ in the Second World War come to mind?  Jagdtiger?  I-400 submarine?

Bolt Action: Soviets vs. Germans

The War Altar is happy to present another Bolt Action AAR.  Once again it was the Soviets against the Germans.  The players decided on the mission Demolition.  A player who finishes a turn with a unit in base contact with the enemy’s objective (in this case the players used fuel depots) wins.  It’s a simple mission but one that demands action by both players.

The Soviets brought:
1.  Veteran second lieutenant and friend
2.  Veteran medic and friend
3.  Inexperienced commissar and friend
4.  Regular T-34/85
5.  Veteran tank riders (11)
6.  Veteran squad (8) with rifles
7.  Veteran squad (11) with 1 SMG, 2 captured panzerfausts, and 10 rifles
8.  Free green, inexperienced squad (12) with rifles and anti-tank grenades
9.  Regular M-42 45mm anti-tank gun
10.  Veteran medium mortar
11.  Regular sniper
1000 points

The Germans brought
1.  Regular second lieutenant and friend
2.  Veteran medic and friend
3.  Forward air controller
4.  Regular Hetzer
5.  Regular medium mortar
6.  Regular sniper
7.  Green Volks squad, 2 SMGs, faust
8.  Veteran squad (8), 2 assault rifles, 1 panzerfaust, 2 SMGs
9.  Veteran squad (8), 2 LMGs, 1 panzerfaust
10.  Veteran squad (8), 2 assault rifles, 1 panzerfaust, 2 SMGs
11.  Truck
1000 points

The Germans player deployed his objective in the center of his table edge defended by the veteran squad with 2 LMGs and the Volks squad.  The mortar deployed in line of sight opposite the Soviet objective.  The truck and another veteran squad deployed behind a wood.  Hidden deployment ensured the safety of the softskin even if the Soviet player got a run of early dice.  The Hetzer, air controller, medic, lieutenant, sniper, and the remaining veteran squad went into reserve.  The Hetzer and veteran squad executed an outflank manoeuvre.

The Soviet player deployed his objective on his left near the table edge.   A direct consequence of the objective placement was the German player’s decision to outflank two of his units.  The Soviet objective placement was a decision which was immediately criticized by a number of individuals.  One observer commented, “Well that was stupid.”  Another onlooker, an ETC veteran, demanded an explanation.  Having been excoriated for his decision the Soviet player offered the following rationale.  The objective placement was, in fact, a ploy to provoke a German outflank .  This would give the Soviet player two turns, perhaps more, to run riot.  In addition, so he contended, the outflanking forces would come on piecemeal and be dealt with by Soviet reserves which were sure to arrive a full turn ahead of any German unit.  He would thus triumph with minimal casualties.  The War Altar has concluded that the Soviet player’s thinking is not without some, well a very small bit, of merit.  However, the objective was within a run move (12″) of the table edge which was inexcusable.  A slightly greater distance may have perhaps provoked the German outflank yet required an extra turn of movement.

In any case, the Soviet player deployed his T-34/85 near the objective, the mortar on his far right with line  of sight to the German objective and the building containing the Volksgrenadiers, the tank riders in the center of the table behind a building, the large panzerfaust/rifle squad in a building next to the tank riders, and the sniper on the upper storey of a house in the middle of the table.  This left the following units in reserve: medic, lieutenant, commissar, small veteran squad, inexperienced squad, and the anti-tank gun.

The game commenced and the first dice out of the bag was German.  The truck rushed towards the Soviet objective:

The remainder of the turn was straightforward: the Germans failed in all shooting and the Soviets shot their sniper, large rifle squad, tank, and mortar at the German truck.  The result, perhaps surprisingly given the volume of fire, was only a dead truck and 1 dead German.  Nevertheless, the Germans were heavily pinned and it would remain to be seen whether or not this unit would be able to activate the following turn.

Turn 2
With Turn 2 the Soviet player did indeed begin to see the arrival of his reserves.  The anti-tank gun came on near the objective as did the eight-strong veteran rifle squad.  The medic and lieutenant arrived and took up position between the tank riders and the large rifle squad.  The air controller also arrived.  The German LMG squad shot the tank riders but only killed a single soldier.  The Soviet player then advanced the tank riders who shot the hell out of the pinned German squad which was then followed up by a tank assault which eliminated the squad:

Turn 3
Having eliminated the immediate threat to his objective the Soviet player advanced on the German objective with the SMG tank riders and the large rifle squad, supported by the medic and the lieutenant.  The German player got an early dice but rolled a 10 to bring on the Hetzer.  Bad luck, Hetzer!  The Soviet player then put an ambush order on the T-34/85 and the infantry squad.  The German sniper put a pin on the anti-tank gun and the German mortar fired and missed it.  Between the sniper and the ranging in mortar it was unlikely that the anti-tank gun would contribute much in subsequent turns.  Having failed to bring on the Hetzer the German player, quite rightly, decided to put a ‘down’ order on the outflanking German infantry squad.  The German air controller called in an air strike on the T-34/85.

Turn 4
The turn began with the air strike….which failed to materialize.  The Soviet player kept the infantry and tank in ambush.  The anti-tank gun attempted to move, failed, and was then eliminated by the German mortar.  However, the SMG tank riders and the large rifle squad continued their advance and suppressed the German LMG squads in the building.  The Soviet mortar fired on the Volksgrenadiers in hiding and missed.  The German player made the audacious decision to put ‘down’ dice on the outflankers.  A quick calculation had established that these units would need to be able to reach the objective the turn they arrive and this would not be possible unless the outflank was executed on Turn 5.  The inexperienced Soviet rifle platoon arrived and took up position near the table edge.

Turn 5
The crux turn.  The turn begins with an airstrike…and the German player rolls a 1.  The rookie pilot peppers the units guarding the German objective sprinkling pin markers generously.  The Soviet mortar then fires on the Volksgrenadiers, hits, and gets a detonation on the right floor.  The ensuing blast inflicts one casualty.  The German player then rolls a 1 for his Green check which results in additional pin markers.  The Soviet player then rolls a 6.  Between the airstrike, the mortar, and the additional pins the Volksgrenadiers have 9 pin markers.  They decide they’ve had enough and run away.  The War Altar can’t help but note here that in two of the last three games this same German unit has rolled a 1 for its Green check and the Soviet player has rolled a 6 for additional pins.  A string of Red die emerge from the bag and the Soviet player launches two critical assault.  First, the SMG tank riders, reduced in size now from repeated LMG shooting, assaults the German lieutenant sheltering in the ground floor of a building behind which is located the German objective.  The brave tankodesantniki slaughter the German officer and consolidate out the back side of the building.  The large rifle squad assaults the medic and kills him to death (the War Altar passes no judgement) and consolidates onto the German objective:

The German outflankers finally arrive.  The veteran infantry come on first and impressive shooting mangles the eight strong veteran squad.  The Hetzer arrives and drives to the objective.  The turn ends with both enemy units in base contact with both objectives–draw!

This was a tactically tense game; poor rolling by the German air controller certainly did not help the German cause.  On the other hand, the Soviet player could have blocked the German outflankers by stringing out his green, inexperienced squad along the table edge.  This, however, would have been gamey and, more importantly, visually unappealing.  Remember players, in tournament play the inability of outflankers to assault the turn they arrive combined with the ability of your opponent to block the table edge limits the utility of outflanking.

Bolt Action! Battle Report

A few of the Warheads are getting into Bolt Action.  We like the fluff and it’s inexpensive.  I’ve also got a soft spot for the authors Rick Priestley and Alessio Cavatore.  The gameplay, we are finding, is also top notch (more on this later).   Finally, the publisher is Osprey.  If you’re unfamiliar with Osprey it’s a long-established military publisher which has never been wrong about the number of rivets on a particular tank.  Combine Osprey with Cavatore and Priestley and you’ve got my interest.

The other night Baz and I played a 1000 point game.  This was our second game.  Our first game was a bloody affair but Baz won the mission “maximum attrition” handily enough.

The Soviets brought:
1.  Veteran Junior Lieutenant w/SMG + SMG buddy
2.  Veteran Medic + rifle buddy
3.  Inexperienced Commissar + rifle buddy
4.  Veteran squad (11) w/ 6 SMGs, 5 rifles, +2 panzerfausts
5.  Veteran squad (11) w/ 6 SMGs, 5 rifles
6.  Veteran squad (8), all rifles
7.  Free green, inexperienced rife squad (12) with anti-tank grenades
8.  Veteran M-42 45mm anti-tank gun
9.  Veteran medium mortar
10. Regular sniper
11.  Regular T-34/85

The Germans brought
1.  Veteran Junior Lieutenant + buddy
2. Veteran medic + buddy
3.  Regular sniper
4.  Regular PaK40
5.  Regular Hetzer
6.  Veteran medium mortar with observer
7.  Veteran squad (8) w/ 2 SMGS, 2 assault rifles, + 1 panzerfaust
8.  Veteran squad (8) w/ 2 SMGS, 2 assault rifles  + 1 panzerfaust
9.  Veteran squad (5) w/ LMG, SMG
10.  Veteran squad (5) w/ LMG

We decided to give the mission “Hold Until Relieved” a try.  This mission tasks one player with holding an objective in the center of the table with minimal forces until reserves arrive.  Our table just so happened to have a nice bridge dead center.  This was the objective.

In this mission the defender deploys two infantry or light-armoured units near the objective.  Half of the remaining units walk on turn 1 and the remainder roll to come on from reserves starting turn 2.  The Germans decided to attack.  The Soviets had two large, veteran infantry units and they put one in each house you see above.
The attacker deploys all infantry at least 18″ away from an enemy unit or the objective.  The rest of his units go into reserves.  For the Germans this meant the mortar, the hetzer, and the PaK40 were in reserves.  It must be acknowledged that this was only our second game of Bolt Action and the German army was completely painted.  That’s impressive.  The German’s deployed some of their forces to the west of the small building and the sniper and an infantry squad to the south-east of the larger building.
A photo of a small squad on the other side of the table:
To the north another small squad with an LMG took up position in a forest:
With the deployments out of the way we started the first turn.  It went the Soviet’s way: they got first dice and drove on their T-34/85 which MGed a squad killing the NCO and another trooper.  The Germans advanced an eight man squad towards the bridge but were unable to put pins on the troops in the buildings.  As a result this squad suffered casualties and was heavily pinned..
The German’s other eight man squad approached the other house.  It was in assault range and the question was, who would get the first dice on Turn 2?  It turned out to be  the Soviets.
Turn 2 started with an easy decision: the Soviet player was compelled to take a large squad out of a building and assault the approaching eight man squad.  
Poor rolling resulted in only 2 kills and the Soviet player was sure he’d be wiped by the retaliatory swings.  However, the Germans rolled as bad: 2 kills.  The Soviets killed the remaining germans to death in the following round.  The Hetzer rolled on and attempted to MG the exposed soviet squad but it failed to inflict any casualties.  The PaK40 marched on to the table as well but was unable to shoot the turn it arrived.  In other shooting the Germans attempted to put some pins my other large infantry squad in the building but the combination of range and hard cover proved insurmountable.
Turn 3 need to go the German’s way.  It did not.  Both the Hetzer and the PaK40 whiffed on the T-34/85 (n.b.: we forgot that the Hetzer could have split fire and had the MG go after the nearby soviet squad while the main gun shot at the tank).
Rather than returning fire the T-34/85 ran behind a building.  Years of playing Flames of War are to blame for the Soviet player’s fear of PaK40s.
The Soviet squad in the open assaulted the German sniper who had occupied a building.  Their other shooting was largely ineffectual although they stacked up a few more pin’s on exposed German infantry unit.  
With turn 4 we saw the end approaching for the Germans.  The soviet reserves were flooding on to the table.  The two eight-man squads of the Germans had been eliminated.  Nevertheless, the possibility still remained that he could at least contest the objective.  To this end the Hetzer advanced:
At this point the T-34/85 broke cover and took a pot shot at the Hetzer needing a 5+ to hit…..and it rolled a five followed by a six for damage.  The Hetzer exploded.  The PaK40 was then eliminated by that relentless soviet squad:
The German player made a final heroic effort on turn 6 to contest the objective with his medic, lieutenant, and a runt squad but the Soviets were simply too strong.  
Lessons learned:
1.  The points discount on the Hetzer for weak side armor and a hull-mounted gun probably isn’t worth it
2.  Don’t split forces: come at one angle with some of your units applying pins while one or two others move in for assault.
Now a few thoughts on BA game play and design.  If’ you’ve come this far down the page I’m hoping you’ll stay to the finish.  Here’s the trick about Bolt Action: everybody is a space marine.  It’s not so much Soviet vs. Germans or Brits vs. Italians as it is: Rainbow Warriors vs. Silver Skulls.  A veteran infantry guy–regardless of nation–is 13 points.  A regular medium tank with a heavy gun is 235 points.  Special rules are negligible and tend to affect force composition rather than units.  Thus, although the Soviet special rules give them a free green, inexperienced infantry unit it still costs 3 points to upgrade a trooper from a rifle to an SMG–exactly the same as for other nations. 
How can this be, you ask, that Osprey has published a game system which obliterates the finer distinctions between a Pz.IV and a T-34/85?  Priestley and Cavatore have impeccable credentials.  They are franchise writers.  So they’ve produced a streamlined, extremely playable rules set that nevertheless provides full engagement with the setting of the Second World War.  It’s the business arrangement between Osprey to publish the rules, on the one hand, and Warlord to flog the models, on the other, that could be the key to success.  The abstractions will be too much for many historicals to take.  No matter, they have  other options.  The key for us as wargamers is the balance this game has achieved.  We’re quite enthusiastic about it and the War Altar will be bringing you other battle reports very soon.

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