Of all the British operations designed to attack in the Caen area in 1944 possibly the least talked about is Operation Charnwood which somehow seems to get lost among the Epsoms, Goodwood, Bluecoats and the likes. This is particularly odd as Charnwood was successful in at last seizing the northern part of the city right up to the banks of the Orne and Odon rivers. What is more, Charnwood was the battle that finally broke both the morale and the fightin power of the 12 SS Hitlerjugend Division. Reading of both Kurt Meyer’s own (highly propagandised) and Hubert Meyer’s (excellent) accounts make clear that the battle was one too many for a Division that had already been battered by previous Commonwealth operations.
As a wargamer the battles fought by the British and Canadians in Normandy offer some great gaming opportunities to refight historical actions. In the past we have games several mini-campaigns of linked battles set in Epsom, Bluecoat and Goodwood and all have proved to be memorable in the extreme. From a scenario design perspective they are a dream. Firstly they are well documented, secondly they are easily accessible from the UK which has allowed me to walk a good many of them in order to understand the lie of the land. A by-product of this is that I have the superb Institut Geographique National 1:25,000 “blue series” maps covering the whole of Normandy on my shelves as well as numerous period tactical maps produced by the Allies and the Germans. As a starting point for any scenario this is of great value, as we will see.
Thirdly the battles are well documented. British unit diaries give a terse yet informative on-the-spot flow of data that makes following the battle very easy. Information in German is harder to come by normally, but we have one rather odd advantage here. The Waffen SS. There does seem to be a serious number of whacky weirdos who just love the whole SS thing. Those of us at Salute a few years ago saw what was probably the ultimate embodiment of that, indeed I had several words with one rune-wearing pillock that left him in little doubt as to my own opinion regarding their behaviour. That said, the reaction of normal gamers to this uber-SS mentality can often involve throwing the baby out with the bath water. I know quite a few games who will NEVER game with SS troops on the table, and for 95% of the war I think they could probably muddle through following that policy. However, if you want to fight the major British and Canadian actions in Normandy I don’t think that is really a viable proposition.
So, as a result I DO own and occassionally game with SS forces, and in doing so I can benefit from the general obsession with all-things-Nazi as it gives me access to Hubert Meyer’s histroy of the 12th SS; an excellent work which provides an incredible amount of detail, Meyer being the senior Staff Officer in the Division and present throughout its entire existance. Kurt Meyer’s own work Grenadiers is also available readily in English and if you look through the unfortunate veneer of self-promotion and thinly disguised veneration of a defunkt credo you do get a very raw feel for the intensity of the fighting and the building exhaustion and attrition levels that ultimately mounts to the point where the Division simply falls apart as a coherent fighting unit.
So, armed with reports from the British and German side I was looking for a nice discrete action that typified the first day of Charnwood. The one I settled on was the battle for the small hamlet of Galmanche where one British Company from the 2/6th South Staffordshire Regiment assisted by two troops of tanks of the East Riding Yeomanry attacked a position held by elements of II/25 Panzergrenadier Regiment. The British attacked with an initial bombardment followed up by a combined infantry and tank attack. The fighting continued all day and ended with the British only half in control of the hamlet, the Germans still defending the local “chateau”. In many respects this typifies the battles for Normandy, and can be seen in all of the other major offensives, with the British and Germans fighting over the outpost line where the Germans are defening village strongpoints accordng to their doctrine of “hedgehogs” and the British attack actually being made up of a plethora of small individual company sized engagements.
As an aside, this is one of the reasons that I favour a company size action as this actually typifies the experience of 99% of those involved in war. Only the high command could actually see the “big battle” picture, and their ability to influence the battle once the operation began was in truth still almost as limited as had been the case in the Great War. At Army level the truth is you plan, and then you sit and hope while others do the fighting. Yes, you attempt to process information as rapidly as possible to allow reserves or reinforcements to be committed in a timely manner, but the truth is that you are reliant on others to make your plan work. At company level the commander has an intimate involvement in the action and can influence every aspect of the battle. However, enough of that. Back to planning the scenario.
So, my first step was to scan the maps, 1944 vintage and 2000 vintage. Here’s what I got:
Above is the British GSGS map of the area with Galmanche at centre and below is the modern map of the same area.
The first thing I noticed wasthat the contour lines on the 1944 edition are very different from those on the modern map. Interestingly Galmanche is private property today so the hamlet itself has barely changed in the location of its buildings, but a significant amount of orchards have been removed as have some of the smaller strip fields. This is pretty typical of what has happened across Normandy in the last 65 years, the main field boundaries still exist but smaller fields have in many cases been merged together to make larger ones.
The next step was to create a map of the tabletop according to the ground scale in the rules. I chose an area 500m by 600m, transferring the image of the 1944 map into Powerpoint and then sketching the map on top of that. The result was as follows:
This gave me a very simple view of the table with all of the pertinent terrain features shown on there. My assumption is that the ground hasn’t changed that much, if at all, in the intervening time. Had the road layout changed significantly or the area been heavily built upon it coold be possible that major landscaping works had ben undertaken, but it seems clear that no such thing has happened here. So adding the 2000 contours which gives me a complete picture of the ground as it really would have been in 1944. The blue line at the bottom was my original scaling tool that gave me 500m on the original map. What I also knew from accounts of the battle was that the buildings had been damaged by bombardment, both aerial and artillery, but that they had very strong cellars so provide excellent defensive positions.
So, now I have the map I needed to get the forces right. No matter how detailed Regimental histories or battalion diaries are you are always going to be left with some guess work, or at least educated guess work, at this stage. Much of what you need to know can be gleaned from reading accounts of the action (“tactical snippetting” once again for regular readers of Lard Island News).
I knew specifically that one company and two troops of tanks had been deployed to attack Galmanche and I could find out pretty easily that the East Riding Yeomanry had been equipped with Shermans at that time. From accounts I could ascertain that the British had suffered badly under mortar fire during their attack. In neighbouring sectors of the battlefield the attackers had been bombarded by Nebelwerfers and pinned down my concentrated machine gun fire, but neither of those were mentioned here. Apparently nearly all of the German anti-tank guns had been knocked out in the initial British barrage, but a single anti-tank gun held up the advance and then the armour had met stiff resistance from Panzerfaust armed troops, one Hauptsturmfuhrer knocked out three Shermans single handedly but was killed while taking on a fourth. During the morning a German platoon of five Panzer IVs counter-attacked from the west and later in the day the British deployed AVRE Churchills and Crocodiles in an attempt to clean out the village.
So, what did this add up to? For the British I allowed a heavy pre-game Stonk to precede an attack by a whole infantry company plus two tank Troops. The British had little in the way of bonus cards but they did get an armoured bonus move and they also got an artillery card and a Forward Observer card in the deck. No artillery was actually available but the occassional appearance of those cards was designed to keep the German player wary of the potential force that could be brought to bear against them. They also got a Hesitant Troops card to reflect the “sticky” nature of troops during that campaign. This was pretty much Britian’s last draught of men to feed into the military machine, the nation exhausted by five years of war, so it is unsurprising that officers and men could be inclined towards self-preservation.
The Germans got a full company of infantry which represented the remnants of two companies that had been reduced in numbers. They got a Tank Killer bonus card to reflect their willingness to close with enemy armour. A platoon of 8cm mortars off-table controlled by a Forward Observer gave them a bit of historical muscle, and I also treated them as stubborn troops. I am never inclined to treat troops as uber-men, so an elite status is a rarity in my games. I did not feel inclined to give it to a force that had bene beaten around the head for the past month and, as history tells us, would disolve only two days later. However stubborn they indeed were, so a stubborn rating they got along with a Rally card which makes them a bit more resilient.
Tomorrow we will look at the game itself and report back on how close to reality (or not?) our game ran.
Christmas comes but once a year and this year the Lardies Christmas Oddcast comes from a very special location as the Lardy team meet in front of a live audience to discuss a bulging sack of letters we have had from listeners. Raise a glass of festive cheer and sit back for an hour and