06 July 2022
Words by photos by John Drewienkiewicz and Adam Poole
Wargame rules are becoming simpler and more fun. Clearly they need to be simpler because so many of us are getting older, but this simplicity is also about making head-room for more mechanisms dealing with command, uncertainty and friction. This is what we think David Brown has achieved with his recent ‘O’ Group rules, published by the TooFatLardies (TFL). This is a run through of a game that included both rules author David Brown and Richard Clarke (TFL) as players which we thought would be of interest to those wishing to try the system.
Like David Brown’s other two recent re-workings of long-established sets of rules, ‘O’ Group does for WWII what Pickett’s Charge did for ACW and General D’Armée did for Napoleonics. Combat mechanisms are reined in and command mechanisms expanded, giving you a system that stops you being able to do everything you want, forces you to focus your effort, gives you difficult choices and lots of Fog of War. But it does more. It demands that you get properly into the mechanics of running a battalion-sized attack. A battalion attack is often two companies up and one in reserve. A plan has phases, and the reserves are committed when phased objectives have been achieved. All this needed to be in the rules with mechanisms that encouraged you to work with the grain rather than against it. These rules manage this very well.
To put these rules through their paces we dug out Macksey’s superb novel Battle (1974). He uses his first-hand Normandy experience and explains how all the various components that go into a battalion attack fit together, with the ‘O’ Group meeting at the heart of the book. The action is set around an attack on a defended ridge by the 1st East Hants (EH), supported by A Squadron of the Pentland Yeomanry equipped with Shermans/Fireflies and some specialised armour. On the flank of the British attack are the 301st US Infantry, who are lukewarm at the prospect of another battle, especially as the planning is in the hands of the British. Defending the ridge is a depleted German battalion who make a patchwork defence with mines, ambush, registered fire points, HMGs, deception, AT guns, SP guns and mortars. The scale of the scenario is one that translates well into the size of action ‘O’ Group is designed for. The key components are the platoon and the tank troop. A platoon is three sections of three figures, a tank troop is two models.
Commanding the British and playing the role of Lt Col Simcox was Richard Clarke. Not completely assisting him was the American Colonel, Callander, played by Richard Ciaglinski. The role of the German commander, Major Irkens, was taken by David Brown, assisted by Otto Poole.
We had a couple of trial games in which we introduced some rule tweaks, to increase the difficulty of spotting ambushes, upgrade the effectiveness of mine fields and to make bocage particularly unforgiving. The author was very supportive of the sorts of change we were suggesting, because he sympathised with what we were trying to do and generally welcomes increased ‘embuggerance’, or friction. In brief, our tweaks for bocage demanded that anyone reaching a hedge or wall had to halt and take a move to try to breach it. On the plus side the bocage offered good cover.
Macksey’s Battle is rich in the detail needed for the back story, situation report and the evolving scouting situation. We created wargaming briefings, inaccurate maps and sketches of what patrols could see of the respective front lines and asked the commanders to make a plan. They were not allowed to write vague, scruffy and brief orders which could be interpreted to their advantage. Writing a full plan – which in Richard Clarke’s case, went to five pages – is a lot of what the game is about: really thinking about what you know, what you do not know, what you want to happen and what could go wrong and then being held to it gives an extra dollop of excitement, frustration and realism.
To help you try this out you may wish to download some briefing PDFs for the players and the maps that go with this article. Ed.
TROOPS IN PLAY
The forces consisted of:
The Germans only had a vague idea of where the Allies were and for the Allies the situation looked similarly sketchy.
Until the British scouting patrol produced a sketch map of all they could locate…
Before the game began the EH marked the intercompany boundaries, the objectives and the phase lines on their map. The Germans marked all their positions as well as ambushes, real and dummy minefields, mine cluster and preregistered artillery and mortar targets. The Germans deployed two companies forward, one in reserve. Each forward company has one platoon dug in, in an ambush position at the foot of the ridge. The Jagdpanther and the PAKs were in well concealed ambush positions on the ridge, while the Jagdpanzer was in reserve.
The British have a similar two-up deployment, C Coy on the left and A Coy on the right, with B Coy in reserve until Vertefeuville Farm has been captured. The Americans, only at company strength but well-supported in artillery, are to deploy on the British right and push up through the orchard.
Allied opening bombardment is effective. It destroys one German reserve platoon, a section from the left forward company and unsettles the Battalion HQ (Germans lose one HQ Order). The Allies send out three combat patrols and bring four units over the start line, including the forward observation officer, the battalion mortars and the Firefly Troop. However, they too are rattled by the discovery that they face three not two lines of bocage.
Just before the attack begins the CO EH receives message that the Armoured Squadron HQ and one Sherman Troop are stuck behind an ammo convey. One ammo lorry has hit a mine in the verge and is on fire, with shells exploding. It isn’t possible to find any way round. CO EH relays this to the Brigade Commander who orders him to attack regardless, since he still has five troops of armour.
HOW THE GAME PROGRESSED
To give you a flavour of the system, this is a record of the game’s moves.
OPENING (MOVES 1-5)
The Allies win the initiative for the first four turns. They launch a pre-planned smoke barrage which blinds the Germans in Vertefeuville Farm. The
lead companies advance. The Firefly Troop moves up to the wall/hedge that marks the Start Line and finds fire positions. The Germans respond with mortar fire that hits the British FOO and 2 Platoon on the start line. It takes a move to get the British going again and as they move forward two tank troops move forward on the left up the farm road. In the orchard on the Allied right, the US Coy moves forward very cautiously.
The German Jagdpanther was not smoked off and opens fire and brews up the lead Sherman on the Farm Road.
The EH push on with the lead platoons moving into the first field and B/301 advances, two platoons up, to the forward edge of the orchard, where they eliminate a German patrol. They are then in turn ambushed by a dug-in German platoon, which suppresses the left-hand US platoon. The Americans call in artillery support and succeed in driving the Germans from their ambush position but then advance cautiously. Meanwhile the Jagdpanther, supported by the concealed PAK 40, targets the Sherman troop on the Allied left flank that has been advancing up Farm Lane and knocks the lead tank out and blocks the road, but in doing so, is spotted by the Fireflies on overwatch and dispatched in short order.
MIDDLE (MOVES 6-13)
On the Allied right A Coy’s advance has stalled. In an effort to get it going again and to deal with the minefield that stretches across a gap in the bocage, the flail troop moves up passed the brewed up Shermans. On the Allied left, the Crocodile crosses the Start Line and moves down Farm Lane
On the right the flails come into action. On the right is 4/431, which is hesitant (as a result of rolling bad dice for the orders roll): their call for artillery fails and the PAK misses the Flail Troop. By now the Allies have lost three sections/ tanks and the Germans only one. (When four sections/tanks have been lost it is a classified as a FUBAR and when a side has accumulated four of these FUBARS the game over). An American call for artillery results in the rounds falling short and onto the American position which eliminates a section and gives the Allies their first FUBAR.
The flails press forward and clear a path through the western minefield with support from A Coy. EH right coy fires at the German platoon to its front but with little effect; they in turn are hit by German mortars and lose a section. The German anti-tank guns open up, the PAK 40 on the flails and brews one up, and the Pak 38 on the Crocodile but it survives.
Allied woes pile up. The British roll poor dice and C Coy’s advance up Farm Lane stalls. The PAK 38 gets in a lucky shot against the Crocodile and knocks it out and the Americans get hit hard by German artillery. This gives the Allies their second FUBAR.
Things slow down at this point in the game; both sides need to spend most of their command resources rallying off shock and trying to get the troops back into action. Stung by their blue-on-blue, the American artillery take more care and are rewarded by a particularly effective barrage on the Germans to their front – 4/431 – forcing them to pull back. This surely is the time for the Americans to move forward and assault, but they choose not to. The British, still hampered by the knocked-out Sherman blocking Farm Lane, bring up a Sherman dozer to clear the road.
The firefight between the Fireflies, the PAKs and the artillery continues. Shock is taken but no knockout. On the Allied right, A Coy EH begins to fall back. It is matched by a lucky strike from the American artillery that hits German 4/431 and routs it. The British artillery then succeed in knocking out the PAK 40. The enemy to the American’s front has melted away but still the Americans do not advance. At last, the Germans get their first FUBAR.
There is an exchange of fire across the board, delivering shock, requiring command resources to rally off the shock to be able to return fire. This stalemate is broken when the Germans bring up the Jagdpanzer IV/70 to occupy the same ridge position as the still smouldering Jagdpanther. It knocks out the lead Sherman dozer and a bitter fight for the possession of Vertefeuville Farm begins.
On the Allied right, A Coy EH goes hesitant and takes heavy fire. This gives the Allies their third FUBAR. German losses remain relatively light. But the Allies still have the Fireflies on overwatch, and they are a threat. German attempts to smoke them fail. They easily knock out the newly arrived Jagdpanzer and the remaining Sherman dozer eliminates the Germans at the Farm. This gives the Allies their Phase One Objective which means not only can the EH reserve, B Coy, be deployed but it can be deployed directly on Vertefeuville Farm. The loss of the Jagdpanzer triggers the second German FUBAR.
The area around the farm is laced with MG fire. German fire from the ridge and returned British fire from the MG section that deploys with B Coy (in the picture to right of the farm). Supporting Allied arty again falls short, missing the Germans on the ridge and dropping instead on the British in the farm. It is time for the Germans to bring on their reserve company. But before they can arrive German mortar fire on the British MGs at the farm produces a kill and takes the Allies to four FUBARs. EH B Coy reports that it is under intense fire and taking losses and can see no prospect of advancing any further and the Allies call off the attack. It is a German victory. The final score is 16 Allied losses to 10 German. Five of the 10 German losses were the result of the US artillery.
These are some of the player comments from after the game:
German: David Brown
Tension, and tension heaped upon that tension! As suspected the weight of allied artillery made manoeuvre very difficult for our platoons holding the Vertefeuville Ridge and the preponderance of allied armour forced the German command to commit its tanks just to counter the allied armour leaving nothing for a counterattack. Despite continual enemy pressure our tactic of holding our FLOT to cause maximum disruption to the attack worked, but only just.
Towards the end we were barely hanging on, at one point just two MG42 units were all that held our line. All hope of a counterattack had vanished, and we expected to be overrun by fresh armour at any moment. It was initially with some disbelief, quickly followed by great relief to see, at the height of the battle the Allied forces stalled and pulled back.
British: Richard Clarke
Operating, as we were, with an allied contingent, we attempted to keep their involvement simple, aware that they were unlikely to be fully on-message. This was fortunate as they lived up to our expectations, seeking to minimise casualties and relying more on their artillery to hold the enemy away from the orchard. Their involvement did, however, allow our battalion to focus on the key objective of first seizing East-West Lane, our Phase One objective, prior to releasing B Company from reserve.
There is no doubt that the absence of some of the Yeomanry tanks hindered our ability to deal with the enemy who were well-placed on the ridge with numerous anti-tank weapons. Indeed, the blazing hulks of Shermans confirmed our concerns had been valid from the outset. The base of fire provided by the Fireflies allowed us to challenge the enemy from a distance, but all attempts to achieve a co-ordinated push with infantry and armour were frustrated by enemy fire. Vertefeuville Farm fell well behind schedule and East-West Lane was still contested when it was decided that they attack would be cancelled and B Company not released to attempt Phase Two.
The game was particularly interesting as it was clear to the players that the German line, the remnants of a hard crust, was now stretched to the point where a concerted push would likely have reaped dividends. However, this was clearly not apparent to Brigade who, in view of losses, pulled the plug on the operation. Not an unfair decision in view of the information they would have possessed.
German: Otto Poole
Maximum tension on the German side came on the turn when we had Brit armour pushing on both flanks, with German Jagdpanther out of action, and both guns pinned. This coincided with an infantry push on both the farmhouse, and the left flank MG held ridge. Our inability to seize the initiative was driven by a need to burn through HQ orders to maintain morale and to return fire. That felt like our thin red line moment.
American: Richard Ciaglinskiz
This was by far the most enjoyable and intense game I have been involved in. The tempo and level of attrition acted as an adrenaline rush and sent pulses racing. Time just flew by. Neither side having all their assets on the table caused a degree of confusion and uncertainty.
It was the first time that I had played a game at the scale used and for me it really enhanced the game and realism. As the USA company commander on the right flank of the British, and unknown to them, I had to keep my losses to a minimum and not advance beyond the orchard. Having reached the southern extremity of the orchard I came under attack and was fortunate that my artillery destroyed the enemy dug in positions and forced them and other units to retreat. I was constantly expecting further attacks, but these did not materialise, and my artillery kept them at bay. I was also expecting to be ordered by the Brits to advance further, but the order never came, phew!
The Umpires: Adam Poole and John DZ
In following the thread of Macksey’s fine narrative we had to replicate the German tactical edge and fieldcraft. Having two umpires and marking all the German positions with inconspicuous markers allowed this to happen. As well as the two real minefields the Germans had put down two dummy minefields (minefield signs but no mines). Once the East Hants hit the first minefield, they treated the dummy minefields with respect. With plenty of umpiring the Germans were held to their positions and the Allies had to fight for all their information.
Miniature Wargames Editors note: That certainly sounded like a fun, intense game and I wanted to give readers who perhaps hadn’t tried the system some inspiration to take a ‘look see’.
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