Dawn over the Lacome Canal

Dave, John and Bevan came over from Benson yesterday for another game of IABSM. Having played a couple of late war games, they fancied trying an early war encounter, so I rustled up a quick scenario and off we went.

The battle takes place just after the German army has broken through the line of the Meuse river. A combined force of panzers and motorised infantry has been sent forward to secure the only crossing over the Lacome Canal. For their part, the French have recognised the importance of the crossing, and have also sent a force of tanks and line infantry to secure the bridge.

The Germans, played by John and Bevan, had a fairly conventional briefing and objective: get on the table, secure the bridge, duff up any French encountered, then exit the table on the other side. At their disposal they had a platoon of Panzer II’s, a platoon of Panzer III’s, a platoon of Panzer IV’s and three platoons of truck-mounted grenadiers supported by a platoon of three PaK35 anti-tank guns. The grenadier platoons each had an integral MMG team and an anti-tank rifle team. The Germans were good troops with four Actions per platoon, and had a handful of Dummy Blinds recognising their superior reconnaissance assets.

As I wanted to give the French a flavour of the sort of difficulties their company commanders faced, Dave’s briefing was a tissue of lies! He was told that he was the advance party of a huge counter-attack, and that his objective was to take the bridge, hold it and, when his reinforcements arrived, to drive forward and also exit the table on the opposite side.

In his ‘advance party’ he had two platoons of average quality line infantry; a platoon of four Hotchkiss H-39 tanks and a platoon of three Somus S-35 tanks. In support was a platoon comprising two MMG teams and one of those weird Laffly truck-things with a 47mm anti-tank gun mounted on the back: blame the Battlefront early war sale! He also had a Panhard armoured car for message carrying and recon. His troops would operate on three Actions, and he only had two Big Men compared to the nine available to the Germans.

Dave’s briefing also carefully listed all his reinforcements: a whole company of heavy tanks and a whole company of Chasseur infantry. I had taken the trouble to list their stats and everything but, of course, they didn’t exist and wouldn’t ever arrive. It was a tad harsh on Dave, but I wanted to give everyone a real taste of what would become known as blitzkrieg!

The table layout was quite simple. The French would enter on one short side, coming down from a low ridge towards the canal running across the table in front of them. The Germans would enter from the other end of the table, near a large farm on top of an area of higher ground. The canal (impassable except at the bridge) bisected the table slightly more towards the French side at the bottom of a slight dip. A road ran from one end of the table to the other, crossing the canal at a bridge…otherwise it was all fields, crops, hedges (not bocage!) and slight undulations.

The French Arrival

The German Arrival

The game began with both sides advancing Blinds onto the table. The French, having a height advantage, spotted the leading German Blind as the Panzer II’s, who were acting as recon troops. In the post game analysis, it emerged that the Germans (fighting the last war…well, actually fighting horse and musket, which is what John and Bevan were used to!) had decided to use their Dummy Blinds to “bulk out the look of their forces” rather than to reconnoitre with, a decision that would cost them dearly.

The Panzer IIs are revealed (very bunched up!)

Seeing easy prey, the French de-cloaked their platoon of Hotchkiss tanks and opened up on the Panzer II’s, who scattered into the nearby crop field, eventually taking up positions on its edge. Two of the German light tanks were badly damaged by the French fire before they could properly get into cover: losing running wheels and their main guns.

Voila les Hotchkiss!

Panzer IIs scatter

Following standard doctrine, the Germans then brought up their Panzer III’s (their anti-tank tanks) and opened fire on the Hotchkiss tanks. Much to their surprise, however, the Germans discovered that their guns had difficulty penetrating the Hotchkiss’ armour: all their volley of shots did was to bash Capitaine Etienne Fois-Gras’ tanks around a bit, reducing its movement by two pips a dice.

Up come the Panzer IIIs

Close up

Worse was to follow. With the Panzer III’s now exposed, another French Blind decloaked, revealing the Somua’s. Seven French tanks were now neatly parked in a straight line on the crest of the ridge (somewhat resembling a Napoleonic artillery battery!). They duly opened fire, and bits of Panzer III’s flew everywhere. The Germans were discovering, much to their horror, that their tanks really did need better guns and thicker armour: something that mirrored what actually happened in 1940, with the Germans needing to beat the French armour strategically rather than on a tank-vs-tank basis.

French Somuas revealed

Panzer IIIs suffer!

This is, of course, where the Germans needed to make use of their support to smash the French tanks whilst they were sitting in such a vulnerable formation. The PaK35’s duly unlimbered just in front of the farm (now held by the first German infantry platoon who, in another classic error, had occupied it and just stopped, all forward momentum gone) and opened fire. Nine shots hammered out, six aimed and three snap, and hurtled towards the Somuas. As they made such an obvious target, every shot hit…and did nothing except chip the paint of the Somua’s fancy camouflage. Second lesson for the Germans: there’s a reason why the PaK35’s were called “door-knockers”!

By this time the German CO was screaming for air support: one Stuka strike could have KO’d almost every French tank. A Stuka duly showed up but, unfortunately, cruised over the battlefield for the rest of the day, apparently happy to observe the events below without intervening!

The German Door-Knockers (note fleeing panzer crew in the background)

"Pass ze popcorn, hans!"

The French, realising that their tanks were a somewhat obvious target, now moved off the ridge and broke up their neat line. The Germans hurled everything forward, including the Panzer IV’s, with one of the two remaining Panzer III’s rushing forward over the bridge as a forlorn hope (more horse and musket!).

Germans slam forward

Forlorn Hope (and note the french Laffly Anti-tank truck in the background)

The French Hotchkiss tanks took it out with ease, with the Somua’s also casually brewing up a couple of Panzer IV’s. The French had also revealed their MMG’s and Laffly anti-tank truck (!) behind a hedge to the right of the bridge and opposite a platoon of German infantry backed up by the last Panzer IV. This proved to be a bit of a mistake, as the MMG’s took casualties, and the Laffly was set on fire, by the Germans in front of them. Even bringing down a full platoon of infantry didn’t help much, as the Panzer IV started to HE them to bits and had managed to get itself hull-down almost under the bridge, so was difficult for the French tanks to get at.

Panzer IVs suffer

Boom!

Unable to bear the sight of his brave boys being shelled by the Panzer IV, the French infantry commander, Capitaine Céléri Champignon, decided that desperate measures were called for. Using the Heroic Leader chip, he leapt onto the burning Laffly and fired a single shell at the Panzer IV, brewing it up! He then successfully leapt out of the flames (I decided that Dave would roll a D10 and I would roll a D6: if I got higher, then Champignon was toast; if Dave got higher, then he was safe), returning, somewhat scorched, to his gob-smacked men.

Panzer IV Threatens...

The Laffly on fire...but Capt. Champignon (right) is about to act!

That was the final straw for the Germans. With only a few operational tanks left versus all seven French tanks, they had no choice but to withdraw. As for the French, they had totally forgotten about their reinforcements, and so were perfectly sanguine when the great reveal (that they wouldn’t be arriving) took place: a Gallic shrug and a “who needs them” being the response.

The Germans couldn’t really believe they had been beaten. I had to join them in their incredulity, as I had expected them to roll over the French as well: after all, they had more tanks, more Actions, more Big Men, more infantry, more Dummy Blinds…more, more, more!

Position at the end of the game

Position at the end of the game

In the end, the German players decided that chiefly to blame was the canal (“without that being there, we would have rolled over you”); the Luftwaffe (“that Stuka should have knocked out all your tanks”); the designers of the German tanks and anti-tank guns (“I can’t believe the French tanks are so much better”); and just about anything else they could!

The truth, of course, is somewhat more complicated. Had they chosen to lead with their Dummy Blinds, they could perhaps have spotted the French tanks without revealing theirs. This might have allowed them to fire from cover rather than from out in the open, so negating perhaps the quality advantage of the French. Also, looking at the battlefield afterwards, it was obvious that the German tanks had gone up one side of the battlefield, the German infantry lagging behind in the farm. Perhaps a more combined arms approach would have been better. As for the canal…well the French had orders to head over the bridge as well, and were heading for it as fast as they could: they only stopped when presented with a wave of enemy tanks heading towards them across open fields!

"Capitaine Champignon...mais il est vraiment fou, n'est-ce pas?"

Dave, the French commander, had also been convinced for most of the battle that the Germans were about to roll over him: especially after the Blitzkrieg card had made its appearance a couple of times.

In all, however, a great game, with plenty of lessons learnt. John, Dave and Bevan were off to buy copies of The Blitzkrieg Myth: I should be on commission!

Robert Avery