Monday, August 31, 2015

Travelling Hopefully - To Africa

It all started towards the end of the nineteenth century.  A British colonial type sweating gently in East Africa gazed towards the interior of Africa and with a vague sweep of his hand suggested that they put a railway out there.  His colleagues paused for a moment to see if a combination of pink gins and malaria had finally robbed the man of his wits and upon determining that he was serious started rounding up Indian labourers and any loose lengths of railway track lying about the place.

Some years, a (for the time) ridiculous amount of money and a serious man eating lion toll later the railway was built.  It started in Mombasa on the coast of what is now Kenya and went, somewhere.  Most of the places it went to were actually built because there was a railway there rather than the other way round.  Along the way it signalled British intentions to dominate the east African interior (the French and Germans were snooping around and you can't trust those beggars) and accidentally helped to end slavery.

Time passes, the wheel turns, the British eventually left and what is now Kenya started being called Kenya but the railway remained.  It's still there; a decrepit collection of colonial era rolling stock trundling slowly and not terribly reliably along a colonial era railway.  I found out about it by accident and immediately decided that I had to ride on it.  So I started checking airline prices for Kenya.

At some point in my largely incoherent planning stage it was pointed out to me that east Africa might have other attractions apart from an old and slow railway.  There were, for instance, large animals.  Large, photogenic animals.  Since I was in the area why didn't I drop by and take a look at some of them?  Even photograph them if I felt so inclined.  I thought about this for a while and decided that I was so inclined.  I even went to the effort of asking for a camera as a birthday present to ease the large animal photography process.

Naturally things got out of control and soon I was fitting in a safari, a balloon ride and hanging around in Zanzibar ostensibly to purchase spices for my mother.  My mother, having a fair appreciation of my level of competence probably won't be too surprised if I turn up on her doorstep with a selection of Masterfoods products from the local supermarket.  The actual train trip has been tacked on to the end of my holiday when I catch it from Mombasa back to Nairobi to meet my plane.

The preparations were many, I needed a yellow fever injection (thanks Amanda for arranging that), I needed to change my hair colour from purple to blonde so that I vaguely resembled my passport photo (thanks Rachelle for arranging that) I needed visas for Kenya and Tanzania (I arranged that myself, I feel so proud) and various outdoorsy types of clothing needed to be purchased if only so a lion doesn't maul my best pants.

Now the months have passed and the last minute preliminaries are almost completed.  I have had the last minute, expensive dental emergency.  I have caught a severe cold which I am currently dosing with enough pseudo ephedrine to get me arrested and I have acquired a money belt in the hopes that I don't get robbed of all my valuables at one time (thanks again Amanda).  Copies of all of my documents have been lodged in a safe place and enough prescription drugs have been provided by my travel doctor to enable me to open a pharmacy when I return.  Assuming I make it to the airport without incident I should at least be able to get to Africa without an issue.  Getting back again will depend on the goodwill and smooth running time of  a train famous for running up to 29 hours late.

My first stop is Nairobi where I shall flop into a bed and attempt to recover from jetlag.  If I'm feeling adventurous I will step out into the city for a bit of sight seeing.  Alternatively I could lounge by the pool until the safari starts.  I think I've already made my decision.  So subsequently blog entries will be determined by the availability of internet access (and possibly electricity).  If I do see big animals I will attempt to let you know.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Are Your Gules Properly Armed and Langued?

I've been looking at heraldry a bit lately.  Well that's an exaggeration, what I've been looking at is coats of arms and then attempting to read the heraldic blazon associated with them and in some way connect the latter with the former.  This is where one encounters phrases like "armed and langued gules".  Personally I like my gules to be unarmed.

Heraldry, like many other institutions, is one that has grown more exacting and intricate as it moves further and further away from having any practical relevance.  There was a reason once.  The night before a battle at some point as the dark ages slid into the early medieval one member of a group of otherwise largely indistinguishable metal clad thugs announced to his comrades "Lo!  I shall paint blotches on my shield that you may know me in the battle tomorrow and follow my lead."  Meanwhile on the other side of the field another metal clad thug was informing his fellows "Thou shalt know the enemy leader for he has paint blotches on his shield.  Kill that bastard!"

As you can see heraldry was a bit of a double edged sword right from the get go.  Still like all ideas that grab the imagination people just didn't know when to stop.  Ultimately battles were being delayed because somebody's bend wavy sable hadn't been properly fimbriated or.  In later medieval armies shield painters outnumbered men at arms.

Since the principal definition of status and high rank in those days was the ability to beat the crap out of anyone who might question your status and high rank and since all of these people were busy painting blotches on their shields the arrangement of the blotches became a very useful shorthand for working out who was who and exactly where they stood in the pecking order (here's a clue; most of them were peckers rather than peckees).  To prevent unworthy types (ie those trying to carve themselves a career now rather than a couple of centuries ago) getting in on the act there was naturally a requirement that somebody keep records properly identifying all of the coats of arms and who was entitled to them.  Thus the College of Heralds was born, at least in England although most western European nations had some sort of equivalent.  Scotland's heraldry college is run by a lion.

The College of Heralds (also known as the College of Arms) was knocked together by Richard III using people who were already doing the job for somebody else.  Despite their patron's messy end under a car park the college survived and although its had its ups and downs over the centuries nobody seems to be quite ready to put a bullet in it yet.  The College of Heralds exists to this day with officers glorying in such titles as Brown Turret Deliquescent and similar.  Nowadays their principal roles are to provide a bit of pomp and circumstance at state occasions, cobbling together vaguely plausible coats of arms for the various commoners that royal offspring seem to insist on marrying nowadays and genealogy.  Also if you're English (or Welsh) and you want a coat of arms, this is the place to come.  If you're entitled to one they will design it for you.  They'll also be able to tell you whether or not you're entitled to one.  Money helps although its not the only qualification.

One other thing the college does is advise the Court of Chivalry.  The Court of Chivalry is a genuine English civil court whose role it is to hear cases relating to the wrongful use of arms (the wrongful use of legs is usually judged in a criminal court).  The chief, and sole, judge of the Court of Chivalry is the Earl-Marshal of Britain (he's also the head of the College of Heralds).  Normally the Earl-Marshal is permitted to rot gently undisturbed in the House of Lords but if an allegation of wrongful use of arms is brought before the court then the button is pressed and the Earl-Marshal and the College of Heralds leap into action.  This doesn't happen very often.  In fact cases heard before the Court of Chivalry in the last couple of hundred years can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  They can actually be counted on the fingers of one hand after you've removed three of the fingers.  The last case was in 1954 which was itself the first case in a couple of centuries.  When the case was brought the first thing the court had to do was decide whether in fact it still existed.  It decided that it did and judgement was awarded in favour of the plaintiff.

Nowadays coats of arms have come a long way from a simple means of battlefield identification.  In fact as a means of battle identification they are probably now less than useless unless you're riding into combat alongside the College of Heralds.  Instead people have to use other methods to identify themselves on the battlefield.  Manfred von Richtofen, the famous red baron for instance painted his aircraft red (or, more likely, got a servant to do it) as a means of identifying himself to friend and foe despite having a thoroughly serviceable coat of arms.  von Richtofen's coat of arms incidentally can be described as "party per pale: dexter, per fess argent and gules, in chief an eagle's wing erect azure, in base a stork in its vigilance of the first: sinister, or, a monk habited gules, seated in a chair sable and holding in the dexter hand a staff in pale argent. The shield ensigned with the coronet of a German Baron".  Faced with all that it's no wonder that Manfred simply reached for the nearest can of red paint.  Mind you if the College of Heralds had been allowed near his aircraft it would probably have come up with something like, "a triplane gules, armed and wheeled sable with a cross pattee of the second fimbriated argent."

Incidentally "armed and langued gules" means "with claws and tongue extended both coloured red".

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Silly After Action Report Part 3 - And Men Shall Become Heroes

Monday dawned cold and clear.  Once irrelevant preliminaries such as breakfast and the working day were safely dispatched it was time for Ivan and me to finish off our epic Italian v German slugfest.  Lives would be lost, hearts broken, battles won and heroes made.  So many heroes, four of the bastards plus three battle hardened squads.  Ivan what in God's name are you doing to me?

The days play started harmlessly enough delayed only by my apparent inability to operate Skype like a normal human being.  This was the turn that Ivan decided to invoke the great Italian withdrawal option forcing me to take a task check for every Italian unit that hadn't prep fired or otherwise invalidated itself from moving.  I didn't come out of it too badly.  My battered little L6 now virtually surrounded by German squads thankfully fled to safer climes and one of my unarmoured gun trucks left the board completely never to be seen again.  Aside from that a handful of squads in not particularly important places moved rearward but not so far that they couldn't be herded back towards the battle again.

The beginning of the end.

In the movement phase I nudged some squads forward and also eased some vehicles a little closer to the action.  One vehicle already too close to the action was the surviving (not for long) gun truck now looking at not one but two adjacent German squads.  Recklessly exposing the crew I fired at one for an 8+2 shot.  Ivan's subsequent morale check battle hardened the squad and generated a hero, this would become a trend.  Ivan would battle harden two more squads and generate three more heroes as a result of morale checks I imposed on him.  Newly invigorated his squad leapt into close combat with my gun truck.  Amazingly it survived but undaunted Ivan blew the thing apart in my next turn as I was trying to exit. 

In the woods near the bridge entry the battle went finally and definitely against me as Ivan gathered his full force against my remaining squad and a half.  He killed the half squad and broke the other my return fire doing nothing more than giving him heroes and fanatic squads.

I moved my semovente up to the top of its hill and made another futile attempt to gain hulldown status.  This was actually a mistake.  I had moved the semovente to the hill when I had assumed I would have to make a last stand against an onrushing German horde.  The horde, however was still tangled up near the bridge and it would have been more helpful for me to bring the semovente forward to somewhere its firepower might actually have been of some use.  As it was it sat unharmed but impotent in the rear area for the rest of the game.  The only contribution it made was to be a target for Ivan's recoilless rifle which was some benefit because when Ivan made the mistake of intensive firing he only succeeded in destroying his own weapon.

This left Ivan with only one of his three vehicle carried weapons, the 81mm mortar but he wasn't unloading it any time soon.  Rather he drove for the bridge looking for the exit hex on the other side.  In doing so he drove straight through the line of sight of a conveniently placed armoured car.  I took the shot and promptly broke the main armament and Ivan's truck, mortar and crew sailed off for the exit location.  The destruction of my gun truck and the exit of his mortar truck had tilted the victory point scales significantly back in Ivan's direction and not even a couple of hot snipers which managed to kill one of his officers could tilt it back.  Desperate measures were needed and with my infantry reinforcements too far back to pick up the slack it was all down to the armour.

My semovente was up on a hill too far away to intervene but I still had my plucky L6 with the broken gun (I'm pleased to say he survived the entire scenario) another totally unscathed L6 (he didn't) and a fully functioning armoured car.  Now that Ivan's troops were piling up in the woods I rolled both L6s up next to them for some point blank shots overrunning a pair of heroes along the way and actually managing to kill one of them (sadly no VPs for heroes).  The armoured car I sent looping up over the hill mass to approach from the rear.

The middle of the end

Of course the danger in having my armour up this close and personal was that Ivan could attempt to engage it in close combat, particularly now that he had a disturbing number of fanatic squads at hand.  At first things went well,  The armoured car broke a stack, killing a half squad along the way and one of the L6s killed a hero.  Sadly that was it for good news.  In his turn Ivan poured in squads led by heroes in attempts to take out my armour.  The armoured car survived as did my battered veteran from early in the game.  The fresh L6 couldn't take the strain however and went up in a burst of flame and low grade steel.

That was pretty much it.  At the end of the game Ivan had managed to exit off his mortar truck plus another squad and leader and had held onto the bridge throughout.  He had also killed a semovente, an  L6 and a gun truck plus a mass of infantry.  I had held the north south road, killed a portee and a surprising number of German soldiers but in the end I came up just short of the points needed for victory.

The end of the end, the picture is blurry because it was taken through my tears.

This was actually a great game that we both enjoyed very much and which up until the final turn was definitely in the balance.  Thanks to Ivan for the game.  I will now retreat to Africa to tend to my wounds before I return for more battles in October.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Silly After Action Report Part 2 - Semovente Au Go-Go

So part two of the after action report and I was ready to rumble.  I had big plans.  Ivan's reinforcements were making their way to the battlefield but I wasn't worried for I had a semovente.  That's right sunshine a semo-fricking-vente.  Twelve and a half tons of cramped, poorly armoured clanking death machine.  With Ivan's forces beginning to thicken in the west near the bridge I decided the time had come for action.  I would roll my semovente down the hill and commit horrible slaughter.  That 75mm which hadn't proved so great against vehicles at long distance would surely have a better result up close against infantry.  The battle was already mine!

With a cruel grin (which Ivan couldn't see because we were playing over the computer but I grinned nonetheless) I started my semovente in preparation for its ride of carnage.  And Ivan promptly put a shot from his recoilless rifle straight through its front and blew it to flaming scrap.  I had forgotten that the smoke I thought would conceal it was down in a valley whereas I was up on a hill.  My personal morale collapsed and so did I.  Eventually Ivan coaxed me out of my foetal position on the floor and persuaded me to keep playing.

With the SMV gone my on board armour was reduced to one little L6 with a broken main armament.  In contrast to the semovente this thing was giving Ivan serious headaches.  I don't think it has actually hurt anyone yet but it is rolling around next to (and occasionally over) his infantry and seems to be impervious to machine gun fire and infantry close combat.  Its very presence is a warning not to wander out into the open.  I brought the L6 down to a cluster of infantry as much to annoy them as anything else and concentrated on bringing up my reinforcements.

The remnants of my onboard force are still holding out while my reinforcements arrive

The next few turns were light on the hideous bloodbath that characterised the early stages in part because most of those involved were already dead.  Ivan spent his time bringing up his reinforcements (including a half squad with a panzerschreck which was already eyeing off my L6) and I did the same.  Ivan was flooding in from the south west and I flooded in from the north east.  There was thus a fair amount of territory between us.  Protecting my reinforcements were the remnants of my onboard force, two squads, a pair of medium machine guns and two leaders sitting in foxholes plus another squad foolishly lurking in the forest next door.

I say foolishly because Ivan, now with some serious firepower at hand, poured about fifty tons of bullets into that small patch of trees and managed to kill them.  With one enemy down he pushed his 'schreck toting halfsquad out into the road only for my defensive fire to send it berserk.  Ignoring all thoughts of little tanks it charged straight at a full squad in a building and locked it up in melee for the next two turns.

My reinforcements taking a hopefully solid hold in the northeast

 My reinforcement rolls now brought me on some more squads another L6 and a pair of trucks mounted with heavy antitank rifles.  The trucks are totally unarmoured so I said a quick prayer and sent them to the front.  So far both have, improbably, survived.  The next reinforcement roll was a good one.  I got a pair of armoured cars, some more squads and, hallelula another semovente.  Yes, this game isn't over yet.  An attempt by Ivan to sneak a squad past in the east was smashed by my 75mm gun (remember it?) and my build up in the northeast gathered pace.  The armoured cars went to the front while the SMV climbed another hill and pointblank refused to gain hull down status despite my pleas.

Ivan reinforced the close combat with another half squad and managed to casualty reduce my defenders, in return I killed his guys out right.  I now have a halfsquad in that hex who is looking forward to acquiring a panzerschreck in the next turn.  My long broken mortar squad heroically self rallied, remanned their mortar, fired once and were promptly broken again.  Meanwhile on the western side of the river I have sent a couple more squads to menace his positively annoying machine gun position there.  So far the only result is that he has managed to break one of the squads.

Building up a strong defensive position while Ivan gathers his forces

There are two turns to go and both Ivan and I have built up powerful forces a safe distance from each other.  Ivan's are congregated near the bridge and can't go forward until my defenders in the foxholes are dealt with.  I have a solid hold on the northeast of the village and am fanning out into the buildings.  I'm hoping Ivan just doesn't have the time to get much further.  Meanwhile my armoured cars (and unarmoured trucks) are looking for opportunities that hopefully don't involve getting smashed by the recoilless rifle out of picture to the right.

Ivan is gradually working his way around my troops in the foxholes now and they're almost completely surrounded.  I'm hoping they can hang on an extra turn or so.  The biggest imponderable left in the game is the special withdrawal rule.  Historically the Germans took advantage of the incoherent Italian command structure and broadcast a fake radio message ordering a withdrawal.  Several of the Italian units did so leaving gaps in the front that couldn't be covered.  In the game this is represented by (at Ivan's choice) all my units take a task check and those that fail can do nothing that turn except move north (left).  If this takes them off the board they are lost to me.  I'm hoping enough remain to stem the tide.

Monday is the day of decision.  We will play the final two turns and see if enough Italians stick around to scrape a win.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Silly After Action Report Part 1

Keen readers of this blog may remember that some weeks ago I played an ASL scenario with Ivan Kent called Flea Circus which pitted my Italians attempting to defend Rome from the vengeful predations of their erstwhile allies the Germans.  Such readers may also remember that Ivan essentially carved me up for dog meat.  If nothing else this followed historical precedent as the Germans did precisely that in real life.

The Germans pushed on and captured a bridge that same evening but the Italians, despite a disintegrating command structure and a government hiding in a hole somewhere, weren't prepared to leave it at that and the next day launched an attack to recapture the bridge.  If nothing else they provided scenario designers with fresh material.  Athirst for revenge I sat down to play this scenario AP27, All Roads Lead to Rome.  The winner would be the side who amassed the most victory points.  Points would be awarded for killing enemies (as usual) but the Italians also got points if they captured the bridge, the Germans got points for every unit exited off the north (left) edge of the board and the Italians got points if the Germans didn't control a north south road.

This is the set up, I have a huge stack lurking somewhat nervously underneath the little tank

Both sides set up more or less on top of each other with the Germans holding the bridge just a few tantalising hexes from the Italian set up area.  A series of hills provide alternate vantage points and protection.  My heroes would be from the Grenadiers of Sardinia division with (very thinly) armoured support from the Montebello lancers.  Ivan once again commanded the German 2nd Paratroop division.

To start I had ten squads (five elite and five first line) a pair of medium machine guns, some light machine guns, a small mortar and a 75mm artillery piece.  I also had an L6/40 light tank and a SMV 75/18 self propelled gun.  Ivan had eight elite squads, a panzerschreck, a medium machine gun and a couple of lights.  For reinforcements Ivan would get another nine elite squads and three artillery pieces; a 37mm AT gun, an 81mm mortar and a 105mm recoilless rifle.  My reinforcements were a lottery.  By this stage the Italians were grabbing whatever they could find and throwing it at the Germans.  A series of random rolls would produce a series of random reinforcements from tanks to armed civilians.

My set up was guided by two considerations, firstly there was a hill just behind Ivan's front line.  If I could control that I could shoot up his oncoming reinforcements.  The second consideration was the murderous firepower the paratroop squads could produce thanks to their assault fire capacity.  I wanted to kill some Germans immediately and capture the hill.  With the hill in my possession to stare down his reinforcements I hoped I might be able to seize a bridge hex or two, more to force Ivan to spend time taking them back than because I hoped to hold them at game end.

Ivan's set up surprised me a little as I thought he would place more on the hill.  Instead he put his troops in the forest guarding the bridge.  I placed a massive kill stack (three elite squads, an hmg, 2 lmgs and a 9-1 officer) right next to his nearest squad giving it a little protection by placing the L6 tank in the hex as well.  The mortar went on a convenient hill where I could hit the other end of the bridge.  The 75mm gun is out of the picture above on a hill to the left.  A smaller kill stack set up on the hill.  The SMV was placed to roll straight up to the hilltop and (hopefully) dominate the road his reinforcements needed to come down.  A squad with an lmg was with them as infantry support as I suspected (correctly) that his unit hiding in a building behind the hill would have his panzerschreck, an almost guaranteed tank killer.

There was a lot of risk in the set up.  If my early rolls were shockingly bad the bulk of my force was sitting in the open with no protection apart from a rather flimsy tank.  On the other hand even average rolls should get a result and I desperately needed to kill Germans swiftly.

Things didn't start off so well when an attempted smoke round from my gun failed, a follow up HE round didn't do any better.  The mortar banged away across the river at a force on the other side of the bridge without any result but then it was time for the big show.  Firstly my L6 fired on the adjacent squad without result but then my kill stack hit it with a 40+1 shot and killed the squad outright.  Up on the hill my mini kill stack broke the nearest defender and my remaining guys moved forward.  The SMV mounted the hill ready to do badly aimed execution on all who approached while a squad jumped into the foxhole that had recently contained defenders
My revised plan once I saw Ivan's set up was to smash the force in the woods thus leaving me well positioned to seize the bridge while my SMV up on the hill at least provoked caution in any reinforcements.
I couldn't quite do it.  The bloodshed was appalling, I killed another half squad and Ivan in return broke my mortar squad and another advancing a little too boldly.  I moved into the woods, grinding down his shellshocked troops (and killing another squad or so in the process.  I also managed to break the main armament on the L6 which to this point I haven't had the courage to try and repair.  So far so good but while I was pounding his guys in the wood Ivan was preparing a nasty surprise for me as well.  The photo above doesn't show it but on the other side of the bridge is a patch of ground and nestled in the trees there is a squad with a medium machine gun.  The distance is too great for the infantry to fire so Ivan hit two squads (one in woods and the other in a foxhole) with a spectacular rate tear on the mmg that killed them both.  Suddenly my handsome CVP lead was looking less impressive.

On the first turn his guns arrived coming onto the board on the far right but with the SMV giving them a friendly wave they moved circumspectly.  On the second turn nine squads of elite paratroopers turned up to avenge the blooding I had given their comrades.  Who was supposed to avenge my guys was left up in the air.  Still while all this lot made its way to the main battle zone the onboard forces would have to struggle alone.  Despite the carnage caused by Ivan's machine gun I managed to kill another squads worth of troops and (I thought) consolidated my hold on the woods.  Alas across the road sat another squad with a 9-1 leader.  His 4 flat shot got a K/2 killing half a squad and breaking the rest.

The carnage was appalling.  I had lost two and a half squads killed from my onboard force with two more broken.  That two was made three when his squad near my SMV dropped concealment and blasted away my protecting squad.  It then hopped up onto the hill toting its fearsome panzerschreck eyeing my increasingly nervous SMV.  I took a bold (reckless) decision.  Rolling my somewhat battered L6 forward to freeze an inconvenient squad in bypass I launched a squad up the hill and raced across open ground towards his schreck boys.  Drawing fire at its worst but I didn't have many big guns and I needed my SMV.  Ivan fired at my guys once and despite to -2 modifier gained no result for once but grimly held his last fire for the SMV.  He aimed, fired and destroyed...the panzerschreck.  I breathed again.  I contemplated going into CC but realising I would get murdered hopped down into a convenient building instead.

Schreck danger removed but I can't help thinking that squad is going to worry me at some point.

I rolled for my first load of reinforcements and gained a bunch of carabinieri, 3x347 squads and a leader.  These guys entered on the north (left) edge of the board and started pounding towards my increasingly flimsy front line.  On the other side of the hill (literally) Ivan's guns were coming up.  The recoilless rifle unloaded on a hill despite my SMV's feeble attempts to shoot it.  His 37mm ATG was carried en portee (on the back of a truck, think Somalian technicals) and, having had an opportunity to assess the success factor of my SMVs shooting Ivan had no hesitation in rolling up to six hexes range and swinging around to shoot over the tailboard.

Alas for his hopes.  First he tried special armour killing ammunition but he didn't have any.  Then he tried normal armour piercing and gained a hit but to the surprise of both of us the shell bounced off the SMV's tinfoil armour.  With the bit between his teeth Ivan intensive fired the gun, and broke it.  But worse was to come.  With nothing better to do my suicide squad in the building tried shooting at the truck and scored a snakes eyes.  The truck, gun and crew exploded in a burst of flame which promptly put me well ahead on victory points again.  I promised Ivan I would stop the petulant whining that had greeted his superb rolling earlier in the game.  I think we both know that promise isn't going to be kept.

We stopped at the end of turn 3 for the night.  The situation is in the balance.  Ivan's onboard force has taken terrible losses but so has mine and Ivan has another nine excellent squads moving up.  The recoilless rife is ready to shoot and the mortar carrying truck has nestled in behind some trees.  On the other hand my SMV still improbably rules the hill, some reinforcements of my own are moving up and my 75mm gun is starting to pound the medium machine gun position that caused me so much pain.  Much will depend on whether I can rebuild a defensive line before Ivan can swamp me with his better armed and motivated troops.
Can the Italians stop the German paratroopers?
Will the Germans sweep all before them?
Will the semovente ever hit anything?
All these questions and less answered next time.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Another Silly After Action Report

You would think that Russia would be possibly the last country to get into a war in a desolate hostile land in the middle of a bitter winter.  You would be wrong as their somewhat foolhardy invasion of Finland in 1939 proves.  A failure in conception was compounded by hideous incompetence in execution (and believe me, execution was on the table).  The Red Army was still suffering from an acute case of purges and their attempt to invade Finland was a complete disaster despite the fact that the principal resistance seemed to come from the Finnish Olympic biathlon team.

Failure followed failure and Russians froze to death in great numbers.  The last two words of the previous sentence should, however, give you an indication of the ultimate outcome.  The Russians had great numbers, the Finns didn't.  Battling snow, privation, the Finns and their own incompetence the Russians slowly ground forwards until they reach a scattering of small concrete boxes and occasional strands of barbed which the Finns had dignified with the term "Mannerheim Line".  If the Russians could break through here then Helsinki (which for want of anything else can be declared an "objective") would be within their grasp.

This is ASL Scenario A163, Stopped Cold.  I will command a small but resolute bunch of Finns determined to defend their land.  Ivan Kent will command a staggeringly huge mass of ill motivated Soviets looking to conquer it.  Ivan gains victory by exiting at least 24 victory points worth of forces off the north edge.  He has six tanks which are worth five points each but the rules specify that at least six points must be infantry.  As noted Ivan has six tanks, all thin skinned and a little unreliable but still pretty impressive.  One also totes a flamethrower as main armament.  Additionally he has four first line squads and twenty one conscript squads.  Conscripts are slow and have short range and poor morale but twenty one of them!!!

To defend I have five first line squads and three green squads.  I also have a pillbox, a heavy machine gun, medium machine gun, a couple of light machine guns, wire, trenches, antitank mines, demolition charges and molotov cocktails.

It will all come down to the infantry.  Ivan's tanks may be thin skinned but the likely hood of killing all six with the short range weapons I possess is low thus I can expect some to get off the board.  What I really have to stop is the infantry.  Being forced to set up pretty far forward I placed the pillbox (containing the hmg) in the centre and surrounded it with wire and trenches along with a couple of squads for support.  The left was heavily wooded and I doubted the ability of the conscripts to struggle through it so it was defended lightly with a squad and a half.  Over on the right where things looked a little more open I set up a trench line with some more wire and placed the mmg and more squads where they could cover the front and also the wide expanse of frozen water should Ivan decided to do some ice hopping.  The A-T mines went into places where I thought (wrongly as it turns out) Ivan might drive his tanks.

The beginning, I wait nervously for the Russian attack. My there are a lot of them

Ivan hastened slowly in his attack.  He brought his tanks in on the left and right but didn't race them up to my positions but rather sat back and started pounding them from a distance.  His infantry he didn't bring on at all until the advance phase.  Rather than charge across the open ground he moved his infantry by increments in the first couple of turns while he tried to use his tanks to soften me up.

This actually worked rather well.  With few useful infantry targets I concentrated my machine gun fire on the tanks but thin skinned or not they proved resilient.  The mines, demo charges and molotovs required Ivan to actually bring his tanks up next to my units which it became obvious he had no intention of doing.  He built a kill stack in a ruined building to my right to add to the pressure and inched his troops, assault moving all the way, forward.  Eventually, with six tanks banging away at them my troops in the pillbox broke and when another squad went down as well Ivan decided the time had come for decisive action.

The first bit of decisiveness went rather well for me.  Ivan decided it was time his flamethrower tank got involved and roared it up and flicked the lighter.  Sadly for him the whole thing broke down and his tank fled for the rear in embarrassment.  Now he only had five.  The next bit of decisiveness somewhat better for Ivan.  With at least part of my frontal defences down he launched not one but two human wave attacks with masses of conscripts hurling themselves at my left flank.  You know, the heavily wooded one that I didn't think would need much defending.  His tanks, too pushed forward circling around behind my remaining troops in the centre.  Ivan brought one tank next to a squad and I rolled for a molotov.  I didn't get it but Ivan took the hint and never brought his tanks that close again.

The human waves were brutal.  Freshly invigorated conscripts poured forward over the open ground towards my positions.  A smaller spoiling attack on the right stopped my troops over there from interfering.  I got off plenty off shots for not much result and soon about half my force was engaged in bloody melees.  The casualty results were appalling for both sides.  While Ivan had crossed the open ground without too many casualties close combat was definitely not his friend.  Dead and broken units piled up for him but some of them were mine as well and Ivan achieved an almost clear breakthrough on the left.

Broken but not quite through

Almost being the operative word.  A squad and lmg had survived everything thrown at them and in the woods a broken half squad fell back to self rally and maintain a semblance of a defence.  Ivan pushed his tanks through the wire as though it didn't exist and headed for the exit.  I meanwhile started trying to push my troops on the right leftward to form a last defensive point.  A reinforcing squad and hero helped.

The human waves spent Ivan's conscripts went back to being slow and not very brave as they edged forward through the trees.  He sent two of his tanks off the board for an immediate ten points but retained the others to help his infantry.  Finally one of my machine guns did its thing and managed to shock a tank.  That shock turned into a kill and Ivan had four tanks left (one with a broken gun).  With a trail of broken units marking his path he really needed to get all four off without further risk and gunned them for the exits.  The infantry would be on their own.

Now it became a race trying to get to the exit before my remaining guys could come across and cut them off.  Ivan managed to exit two squads leaving him one tantalising victory point short of success but by that time I had moved units into the woods covering the open ground.  He had three units within range of the exit (one an officer) and I had three units capable of firing on them.  The final turn came and Ivan had to take his chances.  He raced one squad for the exit and defensive fire shot it down.  Two to go.  He moved his officer forward, defensive fire generated a morale check, which sent the officer berserk.  Alert despite his fury the berserk officer charged directly towards the only unit of mine that hadn't fired.  If I didn't shoot at it the berserker would enter my hex and prevent me firing out.  If I did shoot at it I wouldn't be able to shoot at his one remaining squad waiting for its opportunity to exit.  Either way Ivan had a squad and I had nothing to stop it.  In the very last turn with the very last squad capable of exiting Ivan scored the win.

The berserker which ruined my hopes

So congratulations to Ivan and thanks both for putting up with all my swearing and for a truly exciting game.  There were turns of fortune, just after the human waves I thought I was doomed.  In the next couple of turns I started to think I had a genuine chance to win and finally at the last of course, it came crashing down.

And for my mother who gently asked if I ever actually win these games, I guess here is your answer.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Birthday Greetings # 50

Happy birthday to Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Roman emperor.  More commonly known (by us at least) as Claudius.  Claudius (or Clavdivs as his name appeared in print) was a member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.  That's the one that started with Julius Caesar and ended with Nero our boys successor.  Claudius was actually the grandson of Marc Antony and Augustus Caesar's sister.  This made him a reasonably close member of the imperial family and as such Augustus would have been expecting him to take on a job at the family firm.

Unfortunately Claudius wasn't in great shape.  We're not entirely sure what was wrong with him but he was somewhat deaf, walked with a limp and tended to lose control of his limbs and speech when under stress.  He might have been epileptic or suffering from mild cerebral palsy or possibly he was just a nervous guy with a limp.  Being a member of the imperial family was enough to make anyone nervous.  What his disability meant though was that he couldn't (or at least wasn't trusted to) take his place in public affairs as befitted the new rulers of Rome.  His family more or less despised him and while Augustus himself wasn't deliberately cruel he did have grave doubts about the wisdom of launching Claudius on a public career, so he didn't.

Claudius stayed at home, studying history while his varying relatives took centre stage in the affairs of the empire.  This might help to explain why he lived so long.  Claudius was a young man when Augustus died, under the reign of the gloomy, paranoic Tiberius he kept largely out of the way.  He was dragged into the limelight by his nephew Caligula when that worthy took over the throne and shared a consulship with him.  Caligula's main purpose seems to have been to have a general court jester and whipping boy to hand and Claudius performed this role as though his life depended on it.  It did, the principal thing keeping him alive was the fact that his imperial relatives didn't think he was worth killing.
How long Claudius would have gone on like this is anyone's guess but he wasn't put to the test.  One of the dangers of being a member of the imperial family is that if you're not careful someone will proclaim you emperor while you're not looking or, in the case of Claudius, hiding behind a curtain.  After a couple of wild and crazy years Caligula managed to annoy the most important people in Rome.  Such people can be defined as those who have access to both the emperor and sharp bits of metal.  A conspiracy butchered Caligula and then for good measure went on and butchered some other people too.  A number of them were close friends of Claudius and our boy limped for the exit as fast as he could go.  Not fast enough, some of the Praetorians grabbed him and proclaimed him emperor.

Somewhat nervously Claudius settled down to rule the empire.  According to the ancient historians he was a bit of a disaster.  They claimed he was ruled by his freedmen and his women.  There is probably some truth in that.  Nobody who manages to marry both Messalina and Agrippina can claim to good judgement where women are concerned.  As for "being ruled by his freedmen" those freedmen were the imperial bureaucracy who actually ran the empire while their lords and masters raved, seduced gods and made their horses consuls.  Listening to them and taking their advice doesn't seem like a bad idea for a nervous inexperienced ruler in not the best of health.

Despite the bad press the empire was in much better shape when Claudius died than when he inherited.  He conquered Britain (not him personally although he did turn up to cheer the troops on) annexed a bunch of other territories and instituted a public works programme.  He also paid great attention to the law courts and frequently sat in judgement himself.  He was mad keen on gladiatorial games and admitted that he had a hasty temper.  Still by comparison with Caligula (nutjob), Tiberius (depressive paranoic) and Nero (self indulgent thug) Claudius is possibly the first emperor since Augustus himself that you might have around to dinner.

Or at least you would if you weren't a senator.  The senate didn't really like Claudius.  His reputation as an idiot preceded him and the senate rather resented the Praetorian Guard announcing him as emperor without reference to them.  There were plots and conspiracies and the executions which followed their discovery didn't make Claudius any more popular.  At least with the senate.  As I have noted in the past being hated by the senate was almost a prerequisite for being liked by anyone else.  Claudius was liked by the equestrian order (somewhat important), the mob (a little bit important) and the army (absolutely critical).  With this lot on side he could deal with the senate if only at the price of his posthumous reputation.

Claudius died from eating mushrooms.  There is a hint that they were poisoned.  Actually every single historian states explicitly that they were poisoned.  The perp?  Agrippina, his latest wife.  The motive?  She had a son from a previous marriage for whom she had ambitions of an imperial nature.  Claudius had his own son (courtesy of Messalina on one of the occasions when she wasn't sleeping with somebody else) but this boy was younger than Agrippina's brat.  If Claudius lived long enough for the lad to come of age he would surely be most likely to succeed.  So Agrippina killed her husband while his son was still a boy and got her son placed on the imperial throne instead.  So goes the story.  At this remove its a little difficult to be sure but if anyone was capable and likely to do it that person was Agrippina.

Claudius died, was deified and promptly forgotten by his stepson (Nero), his own son was quietly murdered a few months after Nero took power.  Possibly the ancient historians were onto something at least about Claudius and his choice of women.  Claudius's reputation went into eclipse until the 1930s when Robert Graves wrote a pair of books about him. Now of course he's all anyone can talk about.