"So what do you fancy playing?" I asked Bevan: "More Poland?"
"No, I fancy a change. Can you do US Marines assaulting a Japanese-held beach in the Pacific" he replied.
"No" I said, "but I can do US Rangers assaulting a beach in Sicily..."
On 10th July 1943, as part of Operation Husky, a special grouping of Rangers and combat engineers known as Force X was sent in ahead of the main US 1st Division assault on Gela, Sicily and the high ground immediately behind the town. Their aim was to secure the town's pier...but unfortunately their landing craft were spotted as they came in and the pier destroyed before they could get to it. Force X landed anyway, and were very surprised when they came up against Italian troops from Major Rubellino's 429th Coastal Battalion who actually fought back and showed no signs of surrendering or retreating. It took four hours of hard fighting before the town's defenders were eventually subdued.
That's the abbreviated background to the fourth scenario from the Sicilian Weekend scenario pack for the company-sized WW2 wargame, I Ain't Been Shot, Mum! and was the battle that Bevan and I would play. Bevan took the part of the American Rangers and Engineers, I played Major Rubellino's Italians.
Force X, commanded by Captain James B. Lyle, consisted of two platoons of Rangers, each consisting of two 8-man assault squads and two 5-man LMG squads. One platoon had a sniper with them, the other a 60mm mortar. The Rangers' HQ had an extra Big Man, as befits veteran troops, and a couple of bazooka teams. With them was a platoon of combat engineers led by Lieutenant Walter "Monday" Poniedzialek consisting of three 10-man engineer squads backed up by a single chemical mortar (a 4.2" heavy mortar). The Americans could also call in fire support from the destroyer Shubrick's 5-inch guns.
Each platoon would disembark from its own landing craft.
The Italians would begin the game with just two MMG teams on table, each in its own pillbox on the beach. Historically, these were very successful, with one Rangers platoon just about wiped out when caught in a crossfire between two pillboxes.
The rest of the Italian force consisted of a full company of keen but Green troops: an HQ platoon of two 8-man squads, and then three platoons of four 8-man squads each. They would therefore outnumber Force X about 2:1 and arrive by trucks along the main road at the top of the table.
Crucially, however, the Italian Big Men, unlike their American counterparts, were of universally poor quality: the company commander was Level II, each of the platoon commanders was Level I. This would prove crucial in the coming battle, as I found out how unresponsive and fragile that made my force!
The Italians were defending a ruined church at the opposite end of the table to the beach. All the Americans had to do was dispossess the defenders of the church...but they only had three hours of game play in which to do it.
The game began as the American landing craft hit the beach. The first platoon of Rangers immediately charged out of their boat and headed straight for the nearest, concrete, pillbox. This they took, but not without losing half of one of their assault squads on the way in, and another couple of men and their commander in the assault itself. As happened historically, the Rangers were finding out the hard way that the Italians were actually here to fight!
The Engineers and the other Ranger platoon originally headed straight inland, trying to get into cover among the dunes at the back of the beach.
Realising, however, that they weren't going to make it all the way, the Rangers changed their minds and ended up emulating their colleagues and charged the pillbox the second pillbox anyway.
They, too, captured their pillbox, and they, too, sustained quite a few casualties doing so, also including their commander, but at least the beach was now secure, and the chemical mortar team could begin setting up their weapon.
Meanwhile, the Italians had de-bussed a couple of their platoons, anxious that the chip pile was looking all too green (unit activation is by poker chips, with the Americans using green chips, the Italians blue chips) and that they could easily get trapped under their Blinds as Force X danced rings around them. Players of IABSM will know that one of the crucial decisions is when to move your force off their Blinds (used for concealment and rapid movement) and onto the tactical table top.
Death from Above!
Having dealt with the pillboxes on the beach, the Americans then started to work their way forwards into the town itself. As the going was tough (a combination of sand and poor dice) they took the opportunity to call down fire from their on- and off-table artillery assets. This proved disastrous for the Italians, as both the chemical mortar and the Shubrick not only started their shoots almost as soon as they were called upon (calling up artillery support can take a bit of time in IABSM!) but landed their initial shells almost exactly where they wanted them too.
Firstly, Italian Platoon 2 was caught in the narrow streets of the town by a barrage from the chemical mortar, directly hitting the centre of the platoon's deployment area. It wasn't so much the fatalities, which were few, but the fact that the platoon was now Pinned down and taking Shock: something that the single Italian Level I Big Man (Tenente Guiseppe Udine) was incapable of doing much about!
Much worse than that, the Shubrick then scored a direct hit on Italian Platoon 3 as it was still in its trucks at the back of the town.
All trucks were destroyed, and casualties amongst the closely packed troops were high!
With the Italians reeling from the effects of the artillery fire (the chemical mortars also caught the Italian Company HQ in their trucks, but it wasn't a direct hit, so casualties were comparatively light) the Americans were now able to make their way into the town unmolested.
The Engineers, who had remained under a Blind, now led the way, charging down the main side street of the town to take Italian Platoon 2 in the flank. The Italians, seeing them coming, didn't bother to hang around: with their ears still ringing from the effects of the mortar fire, they routed, fleeing backwards with some squads now having eight or more points of Shock!
Now, however, things bogged down a bit for the Americans. Yes, the Italians were battered, but there had been an awful lot of them to start with, and those that were left had now hunkered down in houses and factories and were shooting anything American that moved. Not only that, but the Shubrick and chemical mortar now had to cease fire as they ran the risk of dropping shells on their own men.
Slowly the Rangers and Engineers edged forward, but time was ticking on, and, with their limited numbers, even the occasional casualty was painful in the extreme.
At this point, looking at the clock, I actually thought that the Italians might hold on.
As you can see in the photo below, although two squads of Engineers (top left) can now see their target, it's still quite heavily defended: two untouched Italian squads with their Big Man.
Likewise, the Rangers coming up from the beach in the house top right are blocked by three (admittedly battered) Italian squads led by Capitano Ravenna, their company commander.
Bevan and I looked at the clock. The Americans were so close to being out of time. One more turn, and that's it, we decided.
The turn began slowly, with the third Italian platoon and second Rangers platoon continuing to exchange fire in the factory area of the town.
Then up came the Shubrick's chip.
There was a pause, and then Bevan said: "Right, let's go for it: rain down fire on the church!"
Leaving aside the question of whether this was a legitimate target, being a House of God, only the slightest of deviations would have the Shubrick's shells landing on American rather than Italian heads!
The Shubrick's guns fired, the diced were rolled: direct hit!
Falling masonry, clouds of smoke: the Italians in the church were battered, Pinned and distinctly unhappy!
"You still haven't taken it" I pointed out helpfully, glancing at the clock in a meaningful fashion.
Me and my big mouth!
Next chip out was [American Heroic Commander].
If you look at the pic above again, you'll see Captain Lyle himself lurking in the house next to the two Engineer squads.
This was the opportunity he'd been waiting for. The Level IV Big Man, also an Infantry Ace, led the Engineers in a charge past the gas tank into the church.
One squad was shot down almost as soon as it left the shelter of its house, but the other crashed into the defenders, the assault engineers effectively wiping out their battered opposition.
When the smoke cleared, the Americans were in possession of the church, and had therefore won the game, but Captain Lyle lay dead.
A great game of IABSM that literally went down to the wire. I honestly thought that I could snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, holding onto the church for long enough for the clock to run down...but it was not to be.
Casualties on both sides were horrendous. Historically, the Italians lost 45% of their force before losing Gela, and I think we more than equaled that here. The Rangers lost about half their men, including every Big Man except one; with the Engineers only really having one decent squad remaining as well.
Cracking stuff...and not a tank in sight!