HAVOC & HEROICS: REFIGHTING SWORD BEACH AT ROB’S WAR ROOM, 3-5 June 2022

INTRODUCTION

Heston and Ealing Wargames Club witnessed its most anticipated game of recent times last weekend - played at club secretary Rob Wingrave’s bespoke garden War Room (Friday 3 – Sunday 5 June 2022).

After several prior scaled-down play tests of the rules (Spearhead tweaked for 20mm figures), our refight of the British assault at Sword Beach on D-Day involved 10 British and 3 German players, with a busy Rob umpiring.

A man who doesn’t do things by halves, Rob had put five years of research, painting and preparation into the game. Rob’s Sword Beach (and it was unmistakably Rob’s achievement) included 1,000 Allied and 200 German figures, 200 vehicles, 48 buildings, 13 sections of strongpoints, 320 beach obstacles, 10 feet of sea wall, and 60 actual feet of barbed wire lovingly painted or constructed, not to mention terrain features, 36 landing craft, ships, aircraft, and 1,000 individually made sandbags. He had also visited Sword Beach in person, and appeared to have to committed its features to memory!

TERRAIN AND PARAMETERS

The 23ft x 6ft table looked magnificent, with the attention to detail worthy of the most meticulous railway enthusiast – but considerably cooler. The Germans were hugely outnumbered but occupied numerous strong defensive positions, from west to east: Trout, the Chateau, Cod, Morris, WN18, Hillman, Sole, Daimler, and the Riva Bella outside Ouistreham town. These typically had at least one line of barbed wire and minefields in their vicinity, and sported infantry, MG positions, artillery, AT guns, and/or tobruks (turrets), bunkers, and trenches.

Rob had made almost everything, including the beach and sea-shore sections, with figures and terrain finished to the highest standard, after in-depth research into the local geography, the plans and course of the historical assaults, orders of battle, and uniforms.

His intention was to simulate the difficulties faced by the British, with each turn representing 5 minutes of historical time, and wargamers having to make decisions as their units arrived and faced unexpected problems or succumbed to German fire.

The Germans were not expected to defeat the assault, but rather delay and inflict as many casualties as possible, choosing their targets and timing their attacks as effectively as possible.

BEST-LAID PLANS

The British players nominated Juan as C-in-C. Besides a landing force, Juan controlled the naval support fire, with 9 destroyers and 4 light cruisers (as well as battleships and monitors) to be allocated targets every turn or every other turn respectively.

Each sector of the beaches being assaulted was to accommodate 15 successive waves of attackers and support troops: in Phase 1: waves 1-3; Phase 2: waves 4-6; Phase 3: waves 7-9; and Phase 4: waves 10-15.

We had to land a combination of infantry, tanks, and support teams (including bulldozers, flail tanks, bridge-layers, fascine-carriers, bobbin-tanks, and mine-clearers on foot, as well as engineers and demolition teams). The beaches had to be cleared (while new waves landed!), and the sea wall next to the main strongpoint (Cod) either breached or surmounted with fascines and bridges for the infantry, tanks and other vehicles to reach the German defences.

In total, the British on Sword Beach had two infantry brigades (3 btns each), two tank btns, an assault regiment of Funnies, a beach group of three battalions, four companies of attached engineers, and three Field Artillery Regiments (each of 3 btns), to exclude the Commandos. The Germans had just two weak battalions (only one company at Cod), plus support weapons and the strongpoints themselves.

DAY ONE: FRIDAY 3 JUNE 2022

A decision was made to focus naval gunfire on off-board German assets. Before the game began, the Paras (off-table) captured Merville battery. The naval bombardment was generally trained on the German off-table heavy artillery throughout the game, as well as telephone lines, and successfully managed to prevent the former targeting the attackers. After the landings, naval guns could change targets.

In terms of the main assault, facing land – to the south – the British players were arranged from west to east along two beaches. On day one, furthest west, I was responsible for Queen White Beach (West), Jonathan – to my left – was in charge of Queen White Beach (East). Next along was Juan on the adjacent Queen Red Beach (West), while beside Juan, Simon and Mark took charge of Queen Red Beach (East), with Mark controlling Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade (Commandos). The two German players were: Trevor (HQ, East and Eastern Central – Casino, Riva Bella, Flak Tower, WN18, Daimler, Morris, Hillman); and Brian (West and Centre – Cod, Trout, and Chateau).

After several turns of naval bombardment, the DD tanks landed in the first wave: a few were delayed and one was sunk. Their arrival prompted several wry jokes about the need for them to ‘drop skirts’. The DDs moved for 5 turns at 4” per turn. One of Jonathan’s tanks was destroyed by a German PAK40 AT-gun.

It all started to go awry in the second wave, however, as the landing craft arrived. Bad dice rolls led to a few being suppressed with units onboard unable to disembark. The Royal Marines on Queen Red Beach had difficulties with landing armour as a result; a destroyed bulldozer blocked a landing craft ramp. Meanwhile German infantry fired from ambush.

One of my big landing craft sank before landing (writing off several specialist tanks) and another landed with all units aboard suppressed, and therefore delayed. Other craft landed as expected, spewing out flail tanks, assault engineers, and a bulldozer. Unfortunately, Juan also lost a large landing craft sunk. Both Juan and Mark also landed craft, but were suppressed.

On the following turn, my fascine and Bobbin tanks, and two flail tanks, began to move inland. In a comic touch, Rob now deployed the ‘French mayor (of Ouistreham)’ and the ‘Fat German’ models, inspired by characters from The Longest Day, who gave morale bonuses to their respective sides. But German fire now began to take its toll of the arriving British infantry and tanks, whereas Allied fire seemed to bounce off: with the Tobruk emplacements needing a 11-12 roll on 2d6 to suppress (two suppressions to a kill).

The third wave began on turn 15, with a lot of infantry landing on the beaches. No landing craft were sunk but a few were delayed, and more progress was being made. We had to re-use landing craft models after each wave. More tanks, and Churchill AVREs arrived on my beach, along with additional landing craft full of demolition and mine clearance teams.

The Beach Group of men on foot began mine clearing in earnest (laying down area templates of acetate paper each turn). My orders stipulated than the entire beach had to be swept (easier said than done as the shore became increasingly crowded). Jonathan’s infantry, without a point of egress from the beach, were being targetted by German MG positions – particularly by one mounted on the sea wall.

More positively, some progress was made in preparing the assault on Cod. This huge complex including an 88 bunker, multiple trenches, multiple MG turrets, dug in artillery, and was ringed with two lines of barbed wire, mine fields, and hedges all round. I placed a fascine next to the sea wall before Cod, and placed a bridge across the same wall using a Churchill bridging tank, close by. A couple of Centaur tanks arrived from a large landing craft ahead of the Commando attack I was meant to launch on the Trout position later in the game. I had a success in blowing up a German MG bunker using my AVRE Bobbin tank, which had finished laying its carpet: the first German casualty of the game.

I now realised, not for the last time, that I had been doing something wrongly: using small not large acetate templates to mark the progress of my flail tanks clearing mines. I quickly swapped the templates around using the benefit of hindsight! (I also continued to ignore the demolition teams through most of the game, assuming they were all mine-clearers… this oversight did not help with the Cod assault!)

Most of our bulldozers had been destroyed by German fire: what were they for, again? Under pressure of successive waves, we had little time to plan and coordinate. The Germans suddenly realised they had more 81mm mortars than they’d been firing: Adolf was blamed. Several attempts to delay the next wave had all failed, which meant the forces were piling up relentlessly.

At the end of play on Friday (just before 11pm) it was 7.55am in historical terms. The British had established footholds on both main beaches. On Queen Red, wire had been cleared, but not for the first time in the game, players wished to push on in a direction forbidden by the scenario orders. Unfortunately, we had lost two large landing craft sunk, which meant a loss of 8 AVREs and four Sherman flail tanks, and after poor dice-rolling had many craft suppressed (meaning each onboard unit had to roll to unsuppress to move – impossible if the leading unit was immobile due to suppression), with less progress than expected. We had completed three of 15 waves, and I had established points of entry into Cod on Queen White Beach (West).

It seemed this D-Day lark wasn’t as easy as the movies made out!

DAY TWO: SATURDAY 4 JUNE 2022

Day two of the game saw some changes in personnel. While I remained on Queen White (West), Francis took over from Jonathan next to me on Queen White (East). Juan was still in charge of Queen Red (West), but Doug (East Yorkshire Infantry) took over from Simon - who now commanded Mark's Commandos on Queen Red (East), assisted by Theo. The German players remained the same, but Neil took over command of the East sector (Casino, Riva Bella, Flak Tower) from Trevor (who remained in control of WN18, Daimler, Morris, Hillman, and HQ).

Saturday began with WAVE 4, as tanks and infantry began to move across the western end of the sea wall in front of Cod. My mine clearers fanned out on foot and were making good progress, but I lost a Churchill tank to 88 fire from the Cod position. This inconveniently blocked one route of attack, with armour accumulating in this sector. To add insult to injury, both my Churchill flail tanks were blown up on the beach. More positively, Francis’s infantry occupied a ruined building beyond the sea wall close to Cod, from where they could mass for an assault.

On Queen Red, a German pillbox was destroyed, and while Juan attacked the eastern end of the Cod position, Doug mounted the sea road and moved inland with his infantry. Theo’s French Commandos, supported by tanks, moved cautiously towards the Riva Bella stronghold, but were taking casualties from the defenders.

The French Mayor of Ouistreham was still punch-drunk and cycling near the allied lines. While I rhetorically encouraged my side to cheat, the German commander, Trevor, declared that the Fuehrer had decreed the Allied attack was only a feint, with the main attack to be on the Pas de Calais. I divulged ironically that the main attack was actually being launched at Bordeaux.

With WAVE 5 came four large landing craft carrying Shermans earmarked for the attack on Cod. Several other craft were delayed, and one sunk. One of my Centaurs was blown up by German artillery. Francis began to lay down mortar fire on Cod, but it had no effect. His infantry was being blasted and eliminated by an MG42 turret at Cod. My remaining Centaur tank managed to fire and suppress the Trout bunker momentarily, but was also destroyed shortly afterwards.

The whole of the active portion of White Beach (West) had been cleared of mines. Meanwhile, on Queen Red, Doug’s swarming infantry were heading for position WN18; Theo advanced along the Queen Red (East) with his French commandos towards the Casino at Riva Bella; and Juan destroyed a Tobruk at Cod using three AVREs.

By WAVE 6, the Allies were finally inching forwards. The shore had been cleared of obstacles, facilitating landing craft approaches. WN18 was subjected to a fierce assault by a lot of Doug’s infantry. My Sherman column was crossing the sea wall, while Francis launched several close assaults on Cod with his South Lancashire infantry battalion, suffering heavy casualties, but destroying one MG Tobruk.

One of my AVRE Churchills brewed a Somua turret on the sea front. The tanks were by now supporting the assault on Cod, but there was little space for them to manoeuvre, making them sitting ducks or cosy spectators at a drive-thru movie. Dead tanks were soon littering the vicinity of Cod like fallen chips. During the game, we lost 8 destroyed and multiple temporarily suppressed/delayed by fire, barbed wire, or mines. The two German MG tobruks were dealing death like manic pushers on a troubled council estate: decimating Francis’s close assaulting infantry.

Meanwhile, back at WN18, Doug’s close assault succeeded, but the bunker did not surrender until a little later: this was the first Allied objective fully secured in the game.

At this point, the Allied players had a light-bulb moment: they realised that AVREs could destroy the sea wall (!). There was also some confusion about Forward Observation Officers or FOOs (how many, where were they, and how effective were they?). A tank blocking the entrance to Cod on the sea-wall was being moved by a recovery vehicle. We had previously ignored these seemingly irrelevant machines.

With WAVE 7, three large landing craft arrived at Queen White (West), bearing six Priest self-propelled guns. Another was delayed. My Commandos, destined for an all-out attack on the Trout position, had also finally arrived. I directed multiple mine-clearing squads to the far western end of the table towards Trout: even though the fort hadn’t been taken, these were the orders for the Beach Group.

Naval artillery called in by a FOO only managed to suppress Cod’s main defences; meanwhile Shermans firing on Cod, massed to its west, failed to roll the 11/12 needed to suppress. German MG positions on Cod were still raining brimstone onto the attacking British infantry, despite most allied fire being directed against them. Further Allied naval bombardments against Cod made no impact. Poor dice rolling was frustrating the Allies, with German player Brian so successful that he was seemingly rolling dodgy dice with some glee. Meanwhile, the Allies were puzzled about the number and location of their 9 naval FOOs (four were apparently on table at this point in the game)… what was going on??

Yet, despite mounting casualties, things had begun to turn. From Queen Red beach, making impressive progress, Doug’s infantry pushed on to Sole bunker. Juan destroyed a building at Cod with his AVRE tanks. And Francis, having marshalled infantry in a blind-spot behind the main bunker, now captured the main fort at Cod in a very close assault with his Suffolk Infantry (knocking out the swivelling 88 inside)! However, his South Lancashires failed a morale test and were forced to retire to the beach, taking their supporting troops with them. Still, masses of infantry were making their way to Cod and WN18, even though Theo’s advancing French commandos were taking heavy casualties from the Germans at Riva Bella and the Casino.

The Germans, unfazed, were still picking off Allied units however, with Trevor launching a successful fighter strafing run (the model being Josef 'Pips' Priller’s Focke Wulf FW190 from Longest Day) against three infantry platoons near Sole – killing one. The Trout AT gun also claimed one of my Shermans. An allied naval bombardment then opened up on Hillman.

By now I was rushing my Commandos to Trout along the sea-road, and set up four Priests behind them for fire support (only to be told later than they had to attack Cod instead). This deflating news virtually doomed the Commandos to a quick and sticky end, but the Allies had to stick strictly to their orders, even if they seemed illogical on the ground. I decided against assaulting Trout through its adjacent sea-wall (which would involve faffing around with explosives). It seemed at the time this was unlikely to succeed and probably a waste of time, but I was quite probably wrong about this – with hindsight.

By the time Francis left, he had taken and occupied Cod’s main gun position. This was a great achievement given that this was his first WWII game. Brian evacuated a defensive position in Cod, moving his infantry further east along the trench. But at Cod there were still two active MG turrets, the trenches manned with infantry, an anti-tank gun, two barbed wire lines, as well as the minefield to deal with, with hedges and marshes beyond! All this made a rapid exploitation or consolidation virtually impossible. Lots of infantry had been lost to assaulting the bunker and trenches, and the Germans were still resisting fiercely and effectively.

DAY THREE: SUNDAY 5 JUNE 2022

A change of players on the final day resulted in Jonathan replacing Francis at Queen White (East), while Kamall and Chris took over control of the navy and Lord Lovat’s Special Service Brigade.

We began with WAVE 8, with three landing craft suppressed on Queen Red. My Commandos approached Trout – without support from self-propelled artillery (which now targeted Cod). Ominously, my dice rolling for fire from a destroyer and cruiser on Trout had no effect; and the Commandos’ mortar also failed. Naval fire did hit my mine-clearers, but they were not affected, continuing to drink tea, munch biscuits and smoke.

Doug’s East Yorkshire Infantry were now outpacing everyone on the table, moving into Ouistreham, past Sole – which was soon assaulted. A naval bombardment targeted Hillman again. Smoke was put down on Queen Red to mask the Allied advance.

The Casino and Riva Bella compound near Ouistreham, protected with mines, AT guns, MGs and trenches, had not been taken. Most of the French Commandos had died before getting anywhere near it.

Meanwhile, two MG tobruks at Cod were both finally destroyed in quick succession by Jonathan! (This enabled him to place a naval FOO in the 88 bunker.) Progress at Cod was still very slow, with many tanks stuck on wire or suppressed by mines. Jonathan’s Suffolks, of which one unit remained, were suddenly forced to retire from Cod, taking their supporting tanks with them (funny how a retreat order quickly unsuppresses awkward vehicles!). To add angst to frustration: their next supporting wave in landing craft had to turn back as well, allegedly owing to reports of heavy casualties on the Suffolks. Allied players were aghast. I tried to assassinate the ‘Fat German’ on a bike with a tank round… and failed.

The inevitable destruction of my Commandos assaulting Trout now unfolded, despite charging into contact within a few turns. First the leading units were suppressed by barbed wire, with one being destroyed by German artillery. They kept rushing on, three platoons wide, but faced impossible odds. Brian began a flanking move, which forced me to divert three platoons. Within a couple of turns, all these brave men (fired at from one trench, two bunkers, one MG turret, one deployed MG on a flank, two infantry platoons, and two artillery pieces) had lost 7 platoons – including 5 in one turn!

The Allies were struggling with poor dice-rolling, but Brian was now using dodgy dice for sure (or maybe my poor tactics just made him look good)! My Sherman which destroyed suppressed infantry at Cod was a minor consolation.

Before the next wave arrived, with Jonathan and Juan making progress in the rear area of Cod, Brian surrendered his infantry garrison at Cod (other troops remained). The British assault had been considerably more bloody than the historical assault, with two battalions snuffed out. Sole was close to falling, also.

WAVE 9 saw three small landing craft land on Queen White (West) bearing Signals, ambulance, and one artillery piece. Otto the bicycling German was vapourised in a naval bombardment - brought in by Jonathan's naval FOO - to loud cheers; his death took away a morale bonus for the Cod garrison. After the Germans surrendered at Cod, our tanks began to push on.

Kamall took charge of the 45th Royal Marine Commandos landing on Queen Red, while the East Yorkshires commanded by Doug pushed into Ouistreham – forcing its garrison to retire. The Germans still held the church – but Doug’s men soon assaulted and took it, and were prepping an assault on Daimler by game's end.

My own Commandos lost two more platoons in senseless frontal attacks on Trout. Having by now lost 11 platoons, I pulled the remainder back. By the end of Wave 9 we had played 41 turns, and I had lost 15 Commando stands, including two snipers. What a massacre!

In WAVE 10, I deployed the 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Jonathan deployed the 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, and Kamall the 1st Royal Norfolk Regiment. These were supposed to take Hermanville – beyond Cod. Mines were being cleared at Cod to make passage easier.

I gathered remnants from the Cod attack to push on. Three of my tanks were approaching Morris on road, having finally broken through the defensive lines to the rear of Cod. Yet Brian’s cheeky so-called “opportunity fire” destroyed one as it passed a lane on its right flank.

My remaining Commandos, who had managed to inflict a few casualties on Brian’s infantry outflanking them, now routed with near on 100% casualties taken. Trout had held out. Yet, Daimler was subjected to naval bombardment, and lost a gun it its bunker.

The game sputtered to a conclusion in late afternoon. Waves 11-15 would undoubtedly have swept the remaining Germans off the table, but we had run out of time, so they never landed. There were very few tanks left on the table, the majority having been knocked out or evacuated from Cod.

CONCLUSION

It had been a fantastic spectacle and a multi-faceted, immersive, experience: and pretty exhausting, to boot!

Rob spent 20 hours over the three days acting as ‘goalie’ umpire, and had spent 30 hours setting up the table and models and preparing the unit-labels. He adjusted Spearhead to quicken play, and had imposed orders on units to force progress and keep things in line with the actual day.

According to Rob, the outcome at Trout was a 'very historical' result; we had taken Cod earlier but at much greater cost, causing later delays; and Daimler would have eventually fallen, but link up with the paras was delayed. Overall, Rob felt that the Germans did slightly better than historically. Brian's dodgy dice helped, no doubt.

Doug’s progress had been the most impressive, having taken WN18 and Sole, and much of Ouistreham; albeit Cod and Trout were more difficult positions to crack. He remarked that the demolition teams had not blown holes in the sea wall on Friday, which made the taking of Cod slower. I must admit I was unaware of demolition teams existing until day 3.

Mark commented: ‘I really enjoyed Friday evening - table was just awesome and the attention to detail great. I think Rob answered it slightly at the end of the evening - we had made great progress with a set of rules that although not completely new to everyone was bespoke for the game. To get as far as we did reflect the organisation of the board and the supporting documents that Rob provided - we all knew what was required at any given time. Just looking at the pictures that are doing the rounds today as part of the anniversary of D-Day you can see the clutter the damage and the lack of space on the beaches in real life that was reflected on Friday. I had frustrations due to crap dice (down to me not the game) but still hugely enjoyed it.’

Francis added ‘Just the fact that the South Lancashire regiment took very heavy losses. It was left to the Suffolks to eventually take the 88mm gun emplacement at Cod by storming it. The orders of having to keep moving prevented sufficient rounds of artillery or tanks firing statically to suppress the machine gun posts wreaking havoc on those poor South Lancs. The multitude of men and vehicles became very confused. Lots learned in a short space of time. Just have to look harder for dead ground and approach routes. More infantry should have moved ahead of the tanks. Great game. Superb effort putting it on. Some much detail and excellent painting quality. Even the unit tabs looked professional.’

Phil, whose notes of the game were a great help to me in this blog post, said: ‘despite detailed planning as in the real battle, fog of war and confusion was present throughout the three days. Statistics of the game not as impressive as the real thing but still amazing in wargaming terms’.

My perspective is that the Allies should have conferred before the game to ensure all players were aware of the key units and how best to use them. With the mass of reinforcements coming in, picking the needles from the haystack may have been decisive. Terrain also proved a huge challenge I had not anticipated. On the other hand, the game was stimulating precisely because it simulated the intricate planning and training undergone in real life, as well as the cruelty of fixed orders and the chaos of war. Unfortunately, while we received the historically organised troops in their correct waves, some of us (myself included) lacked the knowledge of the rules, orders, and history, to translate this into the necessary results: yet somehow relying on ‘gut feeling’ rather than rules worked out OK in what was still an enjoyable game.

Massive thanks to Rob were expressed by all. This had been wargaming at its most impressive, delivered by a generous host totally passionate about his project, with the skill and dedication to achieve it independently – yet for the enjoyment of all.

The game succeeded by combining playability and historical exactness, offering multiple challenges to players, and different levels of engagement. The hospitality provided by Rob (sandwich lunch on Saturday and pizzas on Sunday) was also much appreciated, as always. We played Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan on DVD for atmosphere: not that it was lacking - with an inclusive spirit and friendly banter predominating.

Rob will now be having a well earned rest, but plans for follow-up games include – 21st Panzer for Goodwood and later Arnhem. Should Rob wish, the game could be put on at a convention, and certainly has replay value, including in scaled-down versions on a club night.

Figures

Rob’s huge 20mm WWII collection consist of models from various manufacturers (see below). Rob added: ‘From my perspective I would like to reference a big thank you to Andy Grubb at Britannia Models / Grubby Tanks. A significant amount of the terrain, troops and vehicles are from his ranges (as an example 34 landing craft out of the 36 used were his) but more importantly he was a real gent in sorting out bespoke solutions for me. As an example, to create my Naval FOOs I only wanted the radio operator from his beach master set and he was happy to supply them individually rather than me buying 9 sets and have 18 figures I did not want. He also game me free figures every time I made an order and they were always with this project in mind - the broken sea wall sections were one of his gifts!’

Manufactures

German Vehicles / Guns / Figures

Britannia
SHQ
FAA
Foundry
AB
Eary War Miniatures
Raventhorpe
Airfix
Blitz
Esci

British Vehicles / Guns / Figures

Britannia
SHQ
Plastic Soldier Company
S & S Models
MSS
Valiant
Matchbox
Esci
FAA
AB
Eary War Miniatures
Raventhorpe
Airfix

Buildings /Strongpoints

Hovels
Britannia
Defence in Depth
Lancer Miniatures
Raventhorpe Buildings (Mike Sewell)
Airfix
Empires at War (MDF)