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Extracts from the Operation Compass scenario pack:

The Italians invaded Egypt on 13th September 1940. Their main problem was the narrow coastal strip. A good road ran the length of Libya, but this stopped at the border with Egypt some five miles west of Sollum.

From that point, troops would have to advance down a narrow track along the narrow coastal strip, or advance along the plateau at the top of the escarpment with their right flank wide open to the south. The escarpment could only be traversed at two places: at Sollum, where the escarpment actually meets the coast with a small trail joining the two; or through the Halfaya Pass some five miles further into Egypt. Both the Sollum trail and the Halfaya Pass made excellent bottlenecks for any defensive action from the British.

1st “23rd March” Blackshirt Division and 1st Libyan Division would advance along the coastal track and attack Sollum. Opposing them at the border was part of the Support Group, under command of Lt. Colonel J. Moubray of 3rd Coldstream Guards, consisting of: 3rd Coldstream Guards; the 25-pounder guns of C and later F Batteries RHA; one company from 1st KRRC; and a company of machine-guns from 1st Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

The above is the background to my last game of 2017: the third scenario from the Operation Compass scenario pack, #03: The Invasion of Egypt. 

View from the Italian end of the table

I would play the British attempting to do as much damage to the invading Italians as possible before being forced to retreat through sheer weight on numbers. Bevan would play the Italians: unenviable targets in potentially the biggest duck-shoot ever. The table was big: 8ft long by 5ft wide, and devoid of anything of interest except a few hills and lots and lots of folds and creases in the very rough ground.

The Forces

The British

Lt. Colonel Moubray had a small but perfectly formed force. Up front, hiding behind the ridge line on the (his) left of the road closest to the Italians, he had a couple of A9 Cruisers borrowed from 1RTR. Behind them on the next ridge back was a platoon of Guardsmen and one of the Northumberland's MMG teams.

Then, at the back of the table, near the small outcropping to the right of the road, he had placed his two 25lbs of Royal Horse Artillery and another MMG. Behind them, his reserve consisted of another platoon of Coldstreams. 

A tiny force compared to what he could see coming at them down the desert strip, but well-prepared, mostly elite troops keen to give the Italians another bloody nose.

You are Captain, the Honourable Michael Brodrick of 3rd Battalion, the Coldstream Guards. It is September 1940, and the Italians have finally begun their invasion of Egypt, what, what?
Two days ago, you watched in amazement as a huge column of Italians - motorcyclists in front, followed by infantry in trucks, followed by those tin cans they call tanks - streamed across the border in almost a parade ground formation. By your reckoning, five divisions-worth! And in front of them? Why, just you and your boys, supported by some gunners and grease monkeys from 1RTR. A sticky wicket, if ever there was one!
Luckily, the Eyeties have to keep to a narrow strip of land near the coast - no good in the desert these foreigners: takes an Englishman to do the business, eh? - so can’t project their force properly around your flanks. Means as well that you can punish them as they come forward, eh? What?
Right, orders are not to lose any guns or any tanks, but to delay and do as much damage as possible to our pizza-loving chums. Pisa-loving chums as well, eh? Hah! Hah!
Alright, Sergeant-Major, carry on: let’s show them what for, eh? Middle stump, please...fire!
— British Briefing

The Italians

Captain Porcini, in charge of the Italians column had the opposite problem: he had loads and loads of men, but they were all of mediocre quality and he could only bring them onto the table in the order in which they were marching.

That meant that most of his infantry (four platoons worth) was up front, and his tanks and artillery (a platoon of four AT guns, a platoon of four field guns, and a platoon of four tankettes) were at the back and would therefore be last to get involved in any action.

Not knowing what was waiting for him either, all he could do was get onto the table and re-act to circumstances. Bevan and I both agreed afterwards that this one of those scenarios that you play a lot better the second time!

Avanti! Avanti! On to Cairo!
You are Captain Pietro Porcini of 23rd March Blackshirts Division. It is 13th September 1940, and you currently have the honour of leading Il Duce’s invasion of Egypt.
For months you felt nothing but frustration as you twiddled your thumbs in a variety of desolate holes many miles from civilisation. You got used to a numbing boredom alleviated only by the occasional harassing attack from the enemy. Finally, however, the moment has come, and you will lead the way to victory.
You are currently advancing down the rough track that forms the only “road” into Egypt along the coastal strip. You got off to a slow start this morning as your men became entangled with a column of Libyan colonial infantry, but a few swift kicks up the backside soon got things moving again.
The English have been firing artillery at you since dawn, but other than that all you have seen of them is the odd dust cloud on the horizon.
If the invasion is to succeed, you must keep your vanguard column moving. In front of you is another seemingly endless expanse of rough, dirt terrain. Keep moving forward and disperse any enemy you encounter en route.
— Italian Briefing

The Game

As it happens, getting their column onto the table unmolested proved to be no problem to the Italians, as the British Blinds card proved to be incredibly elusive for the first few turns.  Before the Brits had a chance to anything, the Italians had six units onto the table, and had deployed a platoon of infantry and anti-tank guns  to counter the two British tanks that they had spotted lurking behind the first hill. Faced with four AT guns and having no HE, quite sensibly the tanks withdrew below the crest of the hill to await developments.

The Italians continued to flood onto the table

Finally the British finished their tea and decided it was time to act. Despite the dust they had kicked up, the tanks had spotted the main Italian deployment point, so the RHA opened fire. Useless! Their initial ranging shots proved so far off the mark that it was doubtful the Italians had even noticed any shellfire heading their way!

A different story elsewhere, however. A quick bit of spotting revealed the lead Italian Blind to be a small platoon of motorcyclisti and the order was given  to the nearest Northumberland MMG to open fire. A huge roll of 22 effectively annihilated the lead squad of motorcyclists: ouch!

Meanwhile, the A9s had decided to get into the act. No HE, but their AT rounds would work nicely against the two lorries that had been spotted just next to the motorcyclists. Two solid hits and both were aflame, with stunned Italian infantry leaping out of them in all directions.

As anticipated, it was turning out to be a duck shoot: it was just a question of whether the Italians could organise themselves to do anything about it. Not that that would be easy for them: only two Big Men for the whole force, and a force of only two Actions at that.A good run of the cards, however, meant that an Italian platoon shook itself out and headed up the slope to the ridge behind which lurked the two British Cruiser tanks. With their thin armour, they could be vulnerable to an infantry attack!

Unfortunately for the Italians, the RHA chose that moment to get their eyes in, and shells landed all around the Italian infantrymen, pinning them to the ground.

Most of the Italian column was still under Blinds, so next time the Italian Blinds card came up, Bevan decided to get everything onto the table...and I mean everything. Each remaining Blind shot forward as far as it could and then deployed. Time to bring those numbers to bear...

As I think you can see in the pictures above, the Italians had now developed a plan. The tankettes, anti-tank guns and as much infantry as was around would head for the ridgelines near the British tanks and attempt to drive down that side of the table, presumably outflanking their enemy as they went.

Meanwhile, the Italian field guns would set up and soften up the enemy troops on the ridgelines, with their flanks protected by the remains of the motorcyclists and now-lorry-less infantry.

With Capitano Porcini booting more backsides, and despite the best efforts of the RHA, it wasn't long before the Italians managed to get up onto the ridgeline, and into a position where they could look and shoot down on the British tanks.

The British A9s promptly retreated over the next ridgeline, well aware how vulnerable their flanks were. The British also set their second platoon moving to reinforce the ridgeline: the advantages of having a reserve!

This was a good thing, as the Italian guns had finally set up and found their range. The first platoon of Coldstreams began taking fire: only one death, but being Pinned wasn't going to help them stop the Italian column.

Worse, one of their tanks was hit by an Italian anti-tank gun as it reversed over the ridgeline and prompt brewed up. A catastrophe! Below are the picture of that phase of the battle:

Meanwhile, the rest of the British had been hitting the Italian guns with everything they could, recognising that they were actually the only really dangerous bit of the Italian column. It had taken some doing, but finally the Italian guns had been neutralised.

This was good as, just in time, it meant the two 25pdrs were now free to engage the Italians on the hilltop. They'd better make it quick, however, as things were getting distinctly sticky over there.

Now the RHA had not been shooting very well all game: obviously suffering in the desert heat. If they didn't hit the Italians soon, then it would be too late: the anti-tank guns would take out the remaining A9, and then the tankettes and infantry could swarm forward and perhaps overwhelm the British line.

Fortunately, they chose this moment to get their act together, and the top of the ridge disappeared in a cloud of smoke and dust:

That was enough for the Italians. 

This turn they were Pinned on the ridgetop, and the British had an Artillery card, an Artillery bonus card, and their CinC with the guns to make sure they stayed that way...and down blow, there was so much Shock being suffered that it would have taken a legion of Big Men to sort it out, not the mere two available.

With regret, the Italians began to turn back. The coastal road was effectively blocked for now.

Aftermath and Analysis

Well that had been quite an unusual game of IABSM: rather than a more usual attacker/defender scenario or similar, that had been a duck-shoot and attacker scenario, with victory dependent on whether enough damage could be done to the Italians before they got their act together, and it was quite a close run thing.

Yes, the troops along the road had been comprehensively malleted, and were going nowhere until a lot of Shock had been removed, but on the other hand, the Italian ridgeline force had got itself into a position where a successful attack on the rather small British line did look possible. Thank heavens for the RHA!

Here are a couple of pictures of the final position:

Captain Hindsight

As mentioned before, both Bevan and I agreed that this was a scenario that one would play better the second time. Between us we sketched out what we thought the Italian plan should be:

  • pause as far from the Brits as possible
  • deploy the artillery and machine guns on the large hill on the Italian baseline
  • send forward the motorcyclisti to spot the enemy
  • give them a good pounding with the guns before sending the column forward.

Not historically accurate (our game was much more in tune with what actually happened), but stood a good chance of working.

Our battle had been a great and very interesting game of IABSM: all we now needed was the chance to play it again!

Robert Avery