The sun was dipping low in the sky above Normandy and the shadows were getting long as the German defenders watched for signs of movement in the orchards. It was the second day of the latest British offensive, Operation Martlet. A rapid British push had expelled the Germans from the village up the road, Fontenay-le-Pesnel yesterday morning, but the line had held around the farm at St Nicholas and the Germans had been able to mount several counter-attacks with troops and tanks. All of these were stopped cold though, and the determined British just kept coming.
Can the Royal Scots Fusiliers finally push through the cursed farm of St Nicholas or will Operation Martlet fail and expose the flank of nearby Operation Epsom to the SS troops?
The British platoon was 33 men and in good shape. For support they brought along:
- Churchill AVRE
- Extra rifle section
- Demolition team
Totalling 23 points. For this game we proxied in a Cromwell CS to play the AVRE.
The Germans were fielding only 16 men, but also have a Panzer IV and a bunker. With their 10 points they opted for:
- Pak 40 AT gun
- Extra rifle team with JL
- Senior leader
This was familiar ground indeed now, having fought over it in campaign turn 4 and turn 7 already. Open fields dominate the southern half of the table, with orchards on the north side leading up to the battered farm compound that has been the base of German operations in the area. Traditionally the British forces have been able to infiltrate easily up to the farm compound, but unable to actually assault and take it.
I rolled well for free patrol marker moves and got the maximum six. Pushing up quickly on the British left I secure a spot outside the farm walls and swung a little out to the right to try to push the German markers around from being able to deploy into the open fields (a German AT gun in the open here would have a commanding field of fire). Phil seemed happy to stay bottled up in the farm compound and put all three of his JOPs in or near the white farmhouse. This was definitely a case of putting your eggs in one basket, but when that basket is a bunker full of well-armed SS troops with tanks and AT guns surrounding it, that’s potentially not such a bad idea.
British JOPs went one up the front in the orchard, with another way back on the baseline near the road entrance due to having bad angles. The third actually went in the open way over on the British right flank. This was there mostly because there was a chance to run across the fields and outflank the farmhouse, but also because I didn’t really have anywhere else to put it!
Both sides rolled badly for force morale, the British started on eight and the Germans on nine.
Having tried to crack the farm at St Nicholas twice before (and failing) I decided this time just to blow it up. I gave the AVRE written orders before the game that basically said to demolish in this order:
- The stone barn
- The white farm-house
Then for it to crash through the farm wall and allow the infantry to storm the compound. I wrote this down because I didn’t know where Phil would deploy his troops and didn’t want it to seem like I was targeting men I couldn’t really know were there.
As a back-up plan I brought along an engineer demolition team, with charges to make another hole in the wall. If the AVRE could force the Germans out of the houses into the open they’d hopefully be sitting ducks, or at least quacking a bit more than they would be in hard cover.
On the German side the plan was familiar: the farmhouse was upgraded to bunker status and would form the centre of the defence. A Panzer IV and Pak 40 were on standby to fend of Allied armour, as well as an extra senior leader and adjutant. Phil expected to be managing lots of shock in a firefight at the farm.
Frankly, this was a strange game from start to finish.
I opened my account by sending a section up through the orchards near the farm, soon reinforcing them with a platoon commander and the demolition team, while a big pile of Germans deployed into the farmhouse. I had to wait a bit to roll a 3, but as soon as I did I brought the AVRE on in the orchard and it started moving through the trees towards its firing position supporting the infantry.
This was when all the trouble started.
Seeing a British vehicle on the table, the Germans brought up their Panzer IV, and it trundled out into the fields looking for targets. First shot went to a British Sherman though, which deployed behind a hedge and opened fire on the German machine. The MkIV was moving flat-out, but had no cover so the Sherman needed only a six to hit…and missed! The Panzer spotted its attacker and the long 75mm swung around, but before it could get a shot off I played an interrupt, as I’d been rolling loads of fives so far and had one in the bank. The shot from the Sherman hit the glacis and panicked the driver, but the German tank returned fire, hitting the Sherman but not penetrating.
Tank shoot outs in Chain of Command are typically pretty short sharp affairs. This was not. Over the next dozen or so phases the two tanks repeatedly activate and traded shots at each other. The Sherman hit the Panzer causing shock several times, but the German tank commander kept rallying it off. Twice Phil rolled double sixes that would give him two consecutive shots at the Sherman, and twice more I played interrupts to get a shot off before he did. Neither tank seemed able to deliver the killing blow, but both scored some damage on the other; the Sherman was immobilised and the Panzer IV suffered a couple of crew panic results and a badly damaged engine.
The Sherman was in better cover so harder to hit, but the Panzer had a slightly better gun so it hit harder when it did. I needed to swing the odds my way, so sent the infantry’s PIAT into action with some bodyguards to protect it. Taking up position in the hedge to the Panzer’s front we decided it was still in the German tank’s frontal arc. While the tank duel continued it fired off all three rounds the team carried, hitting twice and failing to score any critical damage. Out of ammo the team scurried back towards a nearby JOP to look for more ammo.
Eventually however, with the Sherman already on one shock, a German double phase came up where the Panzer scored two more minor hits causing three shock between them and the Sherman crew bottled it and dismounted, taking two points of force morale with them. This was a bit of a problem, as I now had precisely zero effective AT firepower. My only hope of knocking the Panzer out was if the PIAT team could find some reloads and score a flukey hit. Reaching the only nearby JOP they rolled to see if there was any ammo available…and there was none! This would mean a long run back to a distant JOP to search there. The platoon commander went with them, as I didn’t want to have to rely on rolling ones to activate them over several phases.
So while the tanks were showing off in the fields things had proceeded quietly at the farm. The AVRE was taking its time to get through the orchards, so in the meantime the Royal Engineers team snuck up to the farm compound wall and readied their own breaching charge (we treated it the same as demolishing a roadblock). This duly went bang and made a large hold in the wall behind the wooden barn that would allow the troops to start infiltrating.
Faced with no more incoming fire, the Panzer IV went looking for targets and immediately drew a bead on the British riflemen lining the hedge nearby. It let off a short burst with an MG, and British replied by dropping some smoke from the 2″ mortar right in front of it. Phil rolled a double phase though, so the tank simply trundled forwards through the smoke, halted, and let off a devastating volley with both MGs, hitting two riflemen. With no way to hurt the tank the British platoon sergeant pulled his boys back further into the orchard and sent them to ground.
Eager to press its advantage the tank driver gingerly rumbled forward. The damage table had said the engine was knackered (discard lowest dice when moving), but the incoming fire was coming from the front so I guess it must have actually been the transmission. Accompanied by horrible grinding noises and acrid smoke the battered MkIV swung away from the infantry in the orchard and advanced across the fields directly towards the unguarded British JOP on the table edge. It was pretty clear what the plan there was.
British force morale was only on six, with potentially two JOPs about to vanish, so I needed to get a wriggle on and storm the farm compound. The AVRE was finally in position and hit the stone barn with its horrible petard mortar. The building was empty, but it was immediately rendered unstable by the shot, so according to the AVRE’s orders it could switch targets to the farmhouse, which was stuffed full of Germans.
The petard mortar is pretty slow to reload though and by now the banged-up German tank had reached the first British JOP and Phil spent a CoC dice to end the turn, taking two more points of British morale with it. The Brits were now only on four, so that meant one less command dice. I had four pips on my CoC dice, and to save the game a couple of things had to happen:
- I had to get a full CoC dice before the Panzer got to my other JOP, because I really, really couldn’t afford to take another roll on the Shit Happens table.
- My PIAT team (currently dashing through the orchards) had to get to that JOP, find some more PIAT rounds, reload and blow up the Panzer, hopefully from point-blank range in a heroic action worthy of Hollywood.
Ok, that last part was a bit fanciful, but as my sole remaining AT weapon I had high hopes for them. Unfortunately they weren’t covering themselves with glory in their attempt to reach the JOP, consistently rolling results like 2″ and 4″ for movement when activated.
Meanwhile, with the first rifle section making its way through the breach left by the engineers, the AVRE had reloaded and lobbed another Flying Dustbin of Death at the Germans, hitting the white farmhouse this time. This would have resulted in a casualty, but the reinforced building counted as a bunker which negated this, they took some shock but more importantly the building became unstable. The Germans inside were in no hurry to leave though (they had until the turn end before it would start collapsing and potentially men would be hit by falling bricks.
Back at the other end of the table the Panzer IV was now bearing down on the next British JOP, and the PIAT team looked like they’d lost the race and weren’t going to get there. The German tank parked on top of the JOP and Phil ended the turn, but luckily I’d just managed to scrape a CoC dice together and so dodged the force morale role. British morale still hovered on four.
Frantically reloading the petard mortar the AVRE crew lined up another shot while troops carefully worked their way into the farm compound and the 2″ mortar lobbed some smoke randomly around the area. The big petard fired again, and scored another tooth-rattling strike on the house, inflicting four casualties this time! The first was discounted due to the bunker status, and rolling for the other two I managed to roll ones for both the teams hit, which meant both a junior and senior leader were hit. Finally some luck! The junior leader downstairs with the rifle team took a bonk to the head and would be having a lie down for the rest of the turn, but Phil rolled well on the Shit Happens table and lost no morale, but the hit on senior leader was an outright kill, dropping them from nine to seven.
Alas, this slight improvement in fortunes was too little too late for the British. Having ground the JOP beneath its tracks the tank advanced on the helpless PIAT team with their officer, brassing them up with machine guns. First one man from the PIAT team was hit, and the shock pinned the remaining two soldiers, then another phase of fire killed the other PIAT man and wounded the officer. It wasn’t a severe wound, but it cost two points of morale and that dropped the British force to two on the morale chart. The British officer (who was probably drunk) had a major attack of wobbly bottom lip and sounded the withdrawal, denying the men assaulting the farm their chance to turn things around. To be fair, his platoon was now cut off by tanks and had no anti-tank weapons so getting out while they could probably made sense.
So the farm at St Nicholas remained in German hands, although the AVRE had knackered both the stone buildings so if we do fight here again in this campaign it’ll be over a bunch of ruins.
One strange thing about the battle that I didn’t realise until afterwards was that none of the Germans defending the farm actually fired a shot, 100% of the actual fighting was done by the Panzer IV. As I said right at the start; a very strange game.
The Butcher’s Bill
Again, the understrength German platoon had managed to defend St Nicholas without suffering any lasting casualties. German losses were one man from the support team and the platoon CO dead. Rolling the dice for that resulted in a freshly minted rupert being supplied. Junior officers are pretty expendable it seems.
Losses on the British side had been four men, which is 2 dead, 1 wounded in campaign money. Most the platoon was within 12″ of the only remaining JOP when the game ended, except for the hard-drinking CO, who was staring down the Panzer IV. Rolling for him I needed to avoid a 1 for him to withdraw safely…and promptly rolled a 1. So he was presumably wandering down a country lane somewhere with a bottle in hand and the platoon sergeant would be running the show for the next game.
Man of the match had to go to the Panzer IV crew, who beat the British force single-handed. They stood their ground during the insane gunnery duel with the British, drove off their enemy and then in true blitzkrieg fashion they executed a sharp drive into the enemy’s rear, cutting off the British attack and forcing them to withdraw. This was all the more impressive given the number of hits they’d taken. Their tank must have looked like a colander and was badly damaged, but they took the fight to the enemy regardless and won the day.
We decided this was well worth a roll on the medal table, and after a couple of lucky sixes we found out that the tank commander was being recommended for the Iron Cross First Class! We’ll roll again at the end of each campaign turn to see if the man gets his gong.
The German CO was happy with performance, and bumped his opinion back up to zero, while the men were chuffed with their light casualties and bumped their opinion up by a point to -1. The incoming platoon commander rolled up an attitude of “thoughtful”, clearly a serious young chap. In general the German platoon is operating as a fairly efficient unit and coping with the rigours of battle well.
On the British side, the CO docked a point of opinion, but that still leaves him on +3 which is enough for an extra support point. The men weren’t happy that they took more casualties than Jerry, but that was balanced by the fact that losses were pretty light over all. So no change there. The British platoon commander seems to be benefiting from the little break he’s taking from command and his outlook has shifted from “Wild” to “Brave”, but the platoon won’t get the benefit of that until he comes back.
Platoons for Next Game
The Germans get back one man from the hospital and two stragglers from the last attack on Fontenay, and with their new officer in place that brings them back up to 19 men, which is respectable as they’ve still got their Panzer IV too.
The British can field 33 men, so enough to fill out all the sections well enough, but only having one senior leader again will be a hassle.
- When I focused on my original plan, I started to make headway, but ran out of time due to a tank romping around the table eating all my JOPs. Should I have ignored the German tank and just attacked the farm earlier? Maybe, but I figured the odds were in my favour in the tank battle and I stood a good chance of chomping a couple of points of morale off.
- Once I’d lost the tank battle I had no real counter, and ran out of time to attack the farm. There was no plan B and I didn’t manage to improvise one, which is why I lost.