Flames of War: Fielding the Guards Armoured Division Part II

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Since starting with 15mm World War II Flames of War gaming a number of years ago now, my Allied modelling has focused exclusively on United States forces. Beginning with basic US infantry rifle, artillery and armored companies, I eventually added in some US Airborne forces plus some air support. Recently I’ve felt maxed-out on the US, so I’ve taken to looking to build out my Allies with another country’s army.

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After a bit of research and reading, I’ve settled on the British Guards Armored Division. I began this new journey with the plastic Guards Armored Sherman and Firefly models included in the excellent Open Fire! starter game box set. While these can be played as Allied support to my existing US Airborne, I really wanted to give the British their own space on the board.

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Along with my existing plastic Shermans and Fireflies I already have painted-up, I bought another set from a fellow member at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. This gives me a full four-platoon armoured squadron with four Shermans in the command section.

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 To fill out my Guards Armored Division, I’ve also added the special Lieutenent Colonel Joe Vandeleur warrior character. As a leader of the Irish Guards during such famed actions as Operation Market Garden, Vandeleur proved to be a solid field commander known for his by-the-book leadership.

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 Michael Caine as Lt. Col. Joe Vandeleur in ‘Bridge Too Far’

I’m a big fan of 1977’s A Bridge Too Far in which Michael Caine co-stars as Vandeleur during Market Garden, so I couldn’t help but add this model to my new force with the colonel riding upright in his armoured car.

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In the coming month or so I’ll be filling out my British force. I have one completed Royal Artillery section and another on the workbench, enabling me to field a full eight-battery platoon. I’ve also got Battlefront’s British Rifle Company box allowing me to march three full platoons on the table of what was known affectionately during WWII as the PBI – Poor Bloody Infantry.

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I’m really looking forward to playing with my new British units this coming year, along with all their special national rules. The Brits are really going to open possibilities with new scenarios and new fronts. As Caine says as Vandeleur in A Bridge Too Far, “I’ve got nothing else planned.” At least for now.

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Tis The Season For Toy Soldiers

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Thanksgiving is upon us which means the annual run to holiday gift shopping is nigh. By some estimates, upwards to 40% of toy sales occur around the holidays which fits squarely with my memories of the plastic bounty of Christmas past. The arrival of store Christmas displays and holiday catalogs sent my childhood mind reeling. Before the arrival of electronic games in the late 1970s and early 80s, my dreams of toys stacked under the Christmas tree were filled with action figures, playsets, games and toy soldiers.

So, with visions of Christmas toys past dancing through my head, I find myself paging through the glorious selection from the recently-relaunched website from I The Toy Soldier Company. For almost 30 years this New Jersey-based company has been keeping plastic and metal toy soldier fandom alive with an enormous catalog of toys in all scales and hand-crafted playsets which harken back to the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

With so much play now relegated to screens and virtual fun, there is still nothing like seeing a kid moving dozens (or hundreds) of little plastic figures around the floor. These toys not only make for hours of fun across generations, but they can also open young minds to burgeoning interests in history and maybe some eventual wargaming. Going a step further and combining some toy soldiers with books, movies, documentaries and family outings that highlight the period is another great way to make up a fun and educational gift package for the holidays.

Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome

Kids are fascinated by the ancient eras of Egypt, Greece and Rome, and a lot of elementary school curriculums focus on these periods, their culture, arts and the gods they worshipped. Books and films full of pyramids, temples, gladiators and chariots dazzle young minds.  Mid-century film classics Ben Hur, Spartacus and even The Ten Commandments are thrilling, family-appropriate entertainment to this day. From one-on-one arena battles between tiny gladiators to epic plastic battles on the sands and plains of the Mediterranean region will enliven the imagination for these ancient cultures.

Ancient Era playsets and toy soldiers

 American Revolution

Living here in the Northeast United States, I’m surrounded by history of the American War of Independence, inlcuding the Battle of Brooklyn fought right over ground I cover on the way to work every day. With forts, museums, battlefields and museums dedicated to the period dotting the countryside, the formative conflict of the nation is all around us. The classic 1943 children’s novel Johnny Tremain and Disney’s 1957 movie adaptation have been the hook for kids for years. There’s so much color and mythic personality to this period in early American history, and some plastic soldiers armed with muskets and cannons will easily spark interest in any wee patriot.

American Revolution playsets and toy soldiers

American Civil War

We’re right in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, so the time is ripe to get burgeoning historians interested in the period. With the release of Lincoln last year and many past offerings available like 1989’s Glory and Ken Burns’ epic 1990 The Civil War, the War Between The States maintains its cinematic hold on the American narrative. The seminal book on the war in many ways remains Red Badge of Courage which is still a rite of passage for many a young reader . Spending the holidays learning about the Civil War might kick off some family visits to battlefields and historic sites when winter breaks to spring, but getting some blue and gray toy soldiers out on the floor now can make for a very timely history lesson through play.

American Civil War playsets and toy soldiers

World War I

Europe is in the midst of the 100th anniversary of World War I, and next year America’s involvement in “the war to end all wars” will be quietly memorialized. The US came to the war late and it’s effects on our country were nowhere near those on the European continent, so learning about this conflict is a great way to broaden young minds to 20th-centtury history beyond our usual American-focused history education. My oldest son read All Quiet On The Western Front this past year, and the adaptation of that classic novel as well as films like Paths of Glory and Gallipoli are engaging ways to get a view inside the troubling politics and tactics of the war. Lining up multinational plastic armies bridging the gap of 19th to 20th-century warfare makes for a great intro to the period.

World War I playsets and toy soldiers

World War II

Perhaps more than just about any other war, World War II remains an enormous part of historical and popular culture through countless books, movies, TV shows and documentaries, both factual and fiction. From The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far to modern classics like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers and Flags of Our Fathers, Hollywood continues to crank out epic stories from the war. Aside from books and movies, their are some amazing WWII games from the likes of Axis & Allies to Flames of War. To me, WWII is the period to watch, game and play in, no matter your age.

World War II playsets and toy soldiers

The above are just a few of my favorite periods in which I think kids could easily establish a lifelong interest. Through a combination of books, films, field trips, games and plastic soldiers from the likes of the Toy Soldier Company, you can make this holiday season a bit fun, a bit unique and maybe your kids or grandchildren will even learn a little something in one of the most time-tested ways: play.

Flames of War: Sint-Oedenrode 1944 Scenario

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Like many cities in the Low Countries, the Dutch city of Sint-Oedenrode was occupied by German forces after their invasion of France, Belgium and the Netherlands in the spring of 1940. The southern Netherlands and Belgium were the area of focus for the Allied Operation Market Garden in September 1944 which hoped to take several river crossings before the push on to Germany. At Sint-Oedenrode, the famed US 101st Airborne Division seized the bridge over the Dommel River but were met with a counterattack by German Fallschrimjäger regiments and other supporting forces. The battle that would take place at the crossing of the Dommel was typical of the action of the Allied push along what became known as Hell’s Highway. While Market Garden would ultimately prove to be a fiasco for the Allies overall, the grateful people of Sint-Oedenrode were liberated by US troops after a week of brutal fighting against the German occupiers.

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The Flames of War website has a scenario for the engagement at St. Oedenrode available in their list of historical scenarios on their website. The forces in the scenario were originally covered in the now out-of-print Hell’s Highway and A Bridge Too Far FOW books now available as Market Garden for the US, UK and Canadian forces and Bridge By Bridge for the Germans.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY we ran a modified Sint-Oedenrode scenario with the US 101st Airborne facing off against the German Fallschirmjägers. My paratroopers deployed in the fields and woods across the river with two rifle platoons and a light machine gun platoon. In reserve were US mortar and parachute howitzer platoons along with a delayed reserve Sherman and Firefly tank platoon from the Guards Armoured Division. The Germans started defending the two objectives at the bridges with a mortars, heavy machine guns and a rifle-machine gun platoon dug in around the town buildings.

IMG_2324In the first two turns, the Airborne units made way for the river and first bridge while avoiding shots coming from the defending Germans. The US light machine guns poured fire into the houses across the river, but shots missed on all accounts but did manage to pin the units. With little US progress toward the objectives, my German opponent remained solidly in control of the bridge points in the early third of the game.

IMG_2322By the third turn, the Germans successfully rolled on their a reserve rifle-machine gun platoon as well as their PaK 40 anti-tank guns. While the US lacked tanks of the board, the US platoon crossing the bridge took heavy combined arms fire from the German artillery outside of the town and the infantry platoons hidden among the town’s houses. Another US platoon made their way across the Dommel, through a small wood and attempted a quick assault on the Germans defending from the nearby buildings. Under heavy fire, the US charge was repulsed with some losses pushing them back into the treeline.

IMG_2326With the Airborne rifle companies pinned on the bridge and in the  trees over the river, I finally threw a successful roll for reserves on the fourth turn and brought in my mortars and howitzers. Firing at a distance from the fields, all my artillery missed their hard-to-hit German targets hidden in the buildings across the river. The platoon on the bridge took an additional round of combined German fire and fled the field. The US light machine guns to one side of the bridge likewise encountered heavy fire, finding themselves pinned and still unable to effectively knock the Germans from their defending positions in the town.

IMG_2328By turn four, things went from bad to worse for the Allies. With the Guards Armoured forces finally rolling in, they did quickly take out one of the German anti-tank guns. This was unfortunately quickly answered with two Allied tanks being destroyed with return fire from the crack shots from the German PaK 40s. With the beginning of the fifth turn, the US attempted a final series of artillery barrages and tank fire to chase the Germans from the town. Still at nearly full strength, the Germans had clearly overwhelmed the US and I conceded the game.

Even without their Panzer IVs on the table, the German position within the town proved hard to route. In retrospect, a concentrated Airborne end-run over the river and through the town might’ve proved more effective in chasing the Germans out of their defending positions near the bridge entry points. A lack of armoured and artillery reserves until late in the game also left the 101st outgunned and running on their own as German reserve strength mounted. Luckily for the Dutch people of Sint-Oedenrde things went much better for the Allies in 1944, but my replay of the attack just didn’t go my way this day.

New Game Weekend: A Bridge Too Far: Operation Market Garden

Maybe it was the dampness and spring chill, but Saturday night at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn was pretty empty with just me and one other club member around. We decided on a two-player boardgame, and being big WWII enthusiasts we picked 2010’s A Bridge Too Far: Operation Market Garden from Battlefront Miniatures.

I’ve been a long-time fan of the 1977 film A Bridge Too Far featuring a classic international cast recounting the events of Operation Market Garden and the botched Allied attempt to chase the Germans out of a number of key defenses in the Netherlands in September 1944. The film does an entertaining job of depicting the colorful real-life personalities against a backdrop of a daring daylight airborne invasion, over-confidence in the weakness of the German forces and disagreement among commanding Allied staff on the plan itself. The game offers two scenario set-ups giving the option of refighting the battle as rather historically depicted in the film or through a plan of your own devising. The game we played was the historical one, and I commanded Field Marshall Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s British and US forces.

The game involves five play turns with a random number of battles making up each turn. Initiative is rolled before each battle, and targeted objective spaces on the board are chosen to attack. Each player chooses to commit some, all or none of their forces to each battle. Different forces – tanks, guns and airborne infantry – each provide bonuses modifiers in different terrain types. Defenders of areas containing bridges get an extra bonus. Resolving combat is a simple roll of the dice with modifiers added. Defeated forces roll to be destroyed or retreat to adjoining areas, and then the next initiative is rolled for. Once a round of battles is completed, strategic moves can be made and the Allied player has the option to air-drop additional forces and supplies into designated areas of the board. The Axis player can then choose to attempt to fend off the Allied air support with their own air power. Keeping supply lines intact is key to the Allied strategy, as forces which are cut-off from their line of supply suffer a greater weakness in subsequent battles.

Typical of games by Battlefront Miniatures, makers of the popular WWII 15mm miniatures game Flames of War, this game packs some great design and ease of play into a neat box. While each battle and turn of play involves a number of steps, the game moves along quickly in about 90 minutes. The game comes with over 40 well-sculpted plastic playing pieces, but the version at the club had been modified with painted metal micro-scale armor and troops. Gamers who long-ago graduated from Risk to games like Axis & Allies will find a lot to love in the focused presentation of this game.

Even with the relative simplicity of the game, there’s a lot of strategic play potential. My first time through, my Allied strategy of pushing hard from the rear and left flanks of the board stalled rapidly as my tanks were quickly destroyed by some disastrous die throws against German anti-tank guns. My paratroppers dropped effectively into the middle of the board, yet they too became surrounded and snarled by the superior German armor defending the game’s main objectives. By four turns in, I faced certain defeat with no additional hope for much-needed tank support for my floundering airborne troops.

For a notoriously one-sided battle, I can easily see a lot of replay value in this game . I hope to give this one another shot soon, trying out some less historical and more aggressive strategies in running the Germans off the field. Having a chance to remake history is one of the joys and challenges of wargaming, and the board game A Bridge Too Far: Operation Market Garden provides a lot of opportunities to do so.