Saturday, February 3, 2018

Clarendoc - Northern France, 1940

"We've found Jerry". The strain of two weeks of marching was clear on the faces of the officers seated in front of the Brigadier. Runnels of sweat carved furrows through the two weeks of road dust, making faces look like braided river beds. "It looks like we finally have a chance to do what we came here to do, gentlemen." There was a nervousness amongst the brigade's officers as the Brigadier flashed his beaming smile across the group. The breeze flapped the canvas sides of the tent giving some relief from the already oppressive heat of the morning.

"We have been tasked with advancing into the Isle de la Cite" area between the Rive St Jean and Rive St Louis here" and the Brigadier's baton swept across an area of the dog eared map clipped to its map board. The board red and blue waxen chinagraph pencil lines, arrows and rectangles stood out from the faintly coloured map contours and features like scars on a cheek.

"Scotty, you will take 1 Battalion and secure the river crossing on the left flank of our advance, here." Colonel Hamish Scott nodded understanding and his eyes dropped to his field notebook as he scribbled orders and grid references.

"Mac, your 3rd Battalion has the easy job today. Move down the right of the corridor and take this bridge here" and the baton poked repeatedly at a small feature barely distinguishable on the map. Colonel James MacHendry wiped beads of sweat from his brow, his shaking hands struggling to hold his pencil as he tried to scribble his own version of orders and grid references.

"Jimmy, your boys have got the hard job at the sharp end today, sorry" and he smiled at his friend.  A wave of nervous laughter rippled across the assembled group."You will advance on the high ground here and take and hold it against Jerry. Get your boys into this wood to the east, it will be vital to the  position." Jimmy Clarry nodded understanding.

"Tracks", and Major Ian Munro looked eagerly to the Brigadier. "You will wait in reserve behind 2 Battalion, and advance when I give the order, pushing forward past Clarendoc in support of 2 Battalion ."

"We'll need half a day to marry up with 2 Battalion Sir."
"No time for that Tracks, you'll just have to go."
"But coordination will be nigh on impossible without a 'marry up' Sir."
"Yes but there's no time. Intel tells us that we can expect to hit Jerry within the next two hours."
"Reported strength Sir?" asked Scott.
"We believe that Jerry is pushing forward towards Clarendoc in regimental strength."
"Armour sir?"
"No sign that recon has shown."
"Sir I really must object..."
"Damn it all, Tracks, there's no time. You'll just have to make the best of it. None of us expected to hit Jerry so soon ..... " and the Brigadier's scowl finished the sentence.
"Righto then. Let's up and at 'em. I want the Brigade on the move within the hour. Henderson, carry on with the mission briefing." and the Brigadier stepped aside.

The three battalions of the Brigade had lost men on the march, and many of the Matilda tanks of 4th Battalion 7th RTR had been delayed or had fallen out on the long march from the debarkation ports. Even the Royal Artillery formations were struggling and the growing demand for their fire missions from across the division meant that they struggled to get enough tubes on target for any missions at all.

The Scene of the action, with the BEF Brigade advancing from the left (southwest). The bold central arrow was the command arrow for the 4th RTR when it was finally committed from reserve
Scotty's 1 Battalion objective, the bridge on the left of Isle de la Cite

The central hill that was 2 Battalion's objective, with the vital woods above as viewed on the recon photo. The town of Clarendoc can be seen at the very top of the photo

3 Battalion's mission was to take and hold this bridge guarding the Brigade's right flank

What had in the Brigadier's mind been an advance to take his objectives turned quickly into an escalating encounter battle as German infantry advanced towards the same objectives

The German right flank objective turned out to be more limited than the Brigadier expected, and the force opposing his own left was a small German infantry battalion who didn't put any pressure on 1 Battalion at all.

MacHendry's 3rd Battalion advanced in a rush, and became disorganised in its haste, as if MacHendry had failed to exert control over the battalion at all.

Meanwhile 1 Battalion advanced and successfully secured the left flank bridge

At this stage the 4th RTR tanks were committed, in an attempt to push up through the centre against the recently spotted German infantry. They were committed in turn 3 - they were too slow to commit too late. The Brigadier had to take  a chance otherwise they would take no part in the battle at all.

4th RTR Matilda Is and IIs
1 Battalion secured the bridge and covered the left flank objective by taking the woods and high ground in front of the bridge

German infantry opposing the British left seemed content to take limited objectives

The action heated up in the centre, with the 2 Battalion Carrier platoon having reached forward to grab the woods that were so important to the defence of the high ground.

The forces facing 3 Battalion on the British right appeared to be cautious and well organised

The action seen from the south east, Clarendoc in the top left of the recon photo

Each commander slowly fed more platoons into the action in the centre around the contested wood. 2 Battalion's carrier platoon held firm against stiff opposition

The same view from ground level

Heated firefights occur in the woods

4th RTR try to muscle forward, constricted by the terrain. The decision not to 'marry up' with the infantry began to tell. In game terms, I mistakenly took the armour as a separate battalion instead of allocating the tanks in support of the infantry. This seriously undermined their ability to support the infantry.

Two British platoons are eliminated by combined arms action, artillery fire, support howitzers and rifle platoon fire. The action for the woods seemed to be going the German commander's way

MacHenry's stressed response to his orders, and the prospect of battle, lead to him overcommitting 3 Battalion. In game terms the command arrow was too long and resulted in a forced advance as there were no spotted enemy, and the battalion was caught in the open by the waiting German infantry. The battalion took heavy losses and the remaining elements attempted to withdraw.

The struggle continued in the centre, with 4th RTR working its way slowly forward in support of 2 Battalion

In frustration Major 'Tracks' Munro ordered a platoon of Matilda Is to close assault a German infantry platoon that had worked its way behind the carrier platoon. The Matildas carried the day, eliminating the infantry and securing the position for the 2 Battalion carrier platoon.

But the remnants of 3 battalion were being pursued by the aggressive advance of the German infantry, the flank was lost.

The loss of the right flank meant that the British victory in the centre may well have been for nothing.

At this stage we 'called the game.'  This was a fictional game between Keith and me, developed using Keith's scenario generation system. We used our 6mm armies built using Heroics Ros vehicles and figures.

My own rather 'rusty' handling of the British, combined with Keith's well thought out advance with his well supported infantry, meant that the British position was not sustainable. I'd made some fantastic errors, from incorrect allocation of support stands in rules terms, to a command arrow drawn far too ambitiously for the terrain (i.e. I failed to 'appreciate' the terrain correctly). These are all things I love about Spearhead. My errors reflect real decisions that battalion and brigade commanders have to make.

There are many interesting layers to this battle. The low firepower of the armour of both sides means that it is difficult to 'shoot' opposing infantry out of their positions. This calls for support stands - guns, mortars and artillery. It also seems to encourage armour to get much more closely involved in the battle. Close assault of enemy infantry by the armour takes on a new significance. To do this successfully does however require a combined arms approach. Armour can't do this job on its own.

At another level, in this case an infantry regiment beat a force with armour supporting infantry. How can that happen? Because I failed to operate with combined arms. I recall many years ago with earlier rules sets that this would never have happened. If the opponent had armour and you didn't, you were sunk.

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