Saturday, August 5, 2017

Somewhere north of Arras, May 1940

We'd already been on the move for too many days without rest. The toll had been significant. The men were tired, marching with shoulders hunched and eyes down, and the path behind us was littered with broken down vehicles unable sustain such distances without more sophisticated mechanical servicing arrangements. Division reports had warned me that aerial reconnaissance indicated significant German armoured forces approaching and we'd had first contact with their advanced reconnaissance forces the evening before. A number of firefights during the evening had given away much of our dispositions, and so I determined that I'd shift my dispositions during the night. Tales of French forces being outmaneuvered as they adopted static defensive positions left me with a determination to take it to Jerry before he could take it to us.

Somewhere north of Arras
I deployed with both motorised infantry battalions up (Durhams on my left and Gloucesters on my right), keeping 5th RTR in reserve. My intention was to push ahead with my left flanking battalion (the Durhams), aiming to seize high ground ahead of us, ground we'd been unable to reach the evening before. Recognising that my left would be vulnerable I positioned 5th RTR so that it could advance in support of the Durhams.

The Durhams on my left 
The terrain on my right was much closer, featuring several high features and significant forested areas. I deployed my other motorised battalion, the Gloucesters, in this area, well equipped with two batteries of AT guns, two platoons of MMGs and our AA battery. These men would need to hold at all costs. There was no other support available to them.

The Gloucesters on the right flank

Infantry of the Gloucesters deployed on the right

At 1.37pm we spotted the initial Jerry advances with what appeared to be an infantry battalion advancing against our centre right, and armour advancing against our left. I was determined to keep my nerve. I knew I could count on the men.

The initial German armoured thrust against the Durhams, whom I'd set to advance to take the high ground. They managed to reach the feature and take up position before Jerry arrived.

Seeing the Durhams facing what I took to be a major armoured thrust, I committed the 5th RTR almost immediately in their support. Engines roared into life and platoons of A13s and MkVIs moved out.

A13s and MkVIs advance on the extreme left of our position

It look very little time before we heard the drone of aircraft engines, and what we came to recognise as the howling scream of Stuka sirens over the heads of the Gloucesters. The bang bang of the Bofors deployed to provide AA cover was easily drowned out by the screaming sirens. The sound chilled the nerves.

The Bofors battery in the foreground.
 The sound of explosions rent the air.

The air attack took out a significant left flank position with a platoon of infantry and an AT battery destroyed in quick succession.
The Jerry commander had simultaneously deployed his own armoured reserve on his right. The armoured forces were destined for a head on clash.

The German reserve seen at the top left, the 5th RTR at the bottom left of the photo
I resolved that I would not sit idly waiting for the battle to develop. I had to take the initiative from Jerry, so I ordered the Gloucesters on the right to advance and sweep around onto the flank of the German infantry.

The Gloucesters on the right advance towards the river in preparation for their attack on the German flank.

Carrier platoons were proving their value this day

Initial contact between the Durhams and the German armour

Contact with the Durhams - two German tank platoons close assault a platoon of the Durhams

The close assault goes in

The German reserve advances on their extreme right
 The Gloucesters continued to push ahead, moving through a small village as they headed for the small copse on the German flank.

Meanwhile things had hotted up for the Durhams. Boyes AT rifles seemed to be proving their worth as German tank casualties mounted.

Crossing the river on the right

Gaps in the German formations, with both Byes, and 2pdr AT batteries protecting the Durhams. Their infantry was struggling to support the armour
German artillery fire was intensifying. Our own 25pdr batteries were struggling to meet all of the calls for fire support, so intense was the action. Repeated failed efforts to contact the heavy gun battalion we'd been allocated for counter battery work meant the German gunners had free range.

Both forces were feeling the impact of the intense struggle
I was advancing in company with the 5th RTR. We came under heavy fire from the German armour, losing vehicles almost immediately.

Early casualties on the 5th RTR
The Gloucesters had managed to swing around and take the woods on the German left flank. They were now able to bring fire down on the German infantry with relative immunity.

The Gloucesters in the woods

The struggle reaches a crescendo on the right.
Casualties on 5th RTR meant that I had my work cut out holding the unit and maintaining contact with the German armour. The lads came through, and we continued to exchange shots. The Gloucesters began to force the German infantry back, but this meant they fell back on the heavy weapons support. This would be a tough nut to crack.

News came through from Division: Jerry had broken through elsewhere. We'd need to break off the action and fall back south of Arras.

This was a game that Keith and I played using our favourite Spearhead rules. The game was set in France in May 1940. We set the game using Keith's Scenario Generation System. At the end of play, points slightly favoured the BEF, but another turn of play would have swung the balance - the Durhams, and the armoured battalion attacking them, were on the verge of a morale check.

A great game which has lead to a fascinating discussion on orders options for the defender.

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