Monday, October 28, 2013

Building Terrain - Tilly-sur-Seulles

Over the summer we put on a large multi-player game, bigger than what can usually be accommodated in an afternoon of play. Gaming over two days at a rented hall, we still only partially completed Mark Davies' Battlefront WWII scenario, The Pompadour's Revenge. More frustratingly, it didn't conclude decisively (in fact, just as things were getting interesting) and ever since then I and the other principal, Phong Nguyen-Ho, have been itching to give it another crack, picking up where we left off.
We will be doing just that this weekend. But as it is now pretty obvious on which part of the terrain the battle will be fought I have been able to recreate a smaller 6.5' X 5' playing area in my studio. Better, having all week to create this undulating and densely terrained board, I've been able to more closely match Mark's original map, largely due to a new grid technique that I'm employing.
Not being a fan of permanent terrain, or to be more precise, finding that it doesn't work well for me mostly because it is pretty inflexible as far as storage goes and I'm interested in recreating historic battlefields, this entire board is modular. It took quite a while to set up but I find that is part of the pleasure of gaming. So I have decided to document it, just in case others are interested in at least one way of recreating an historical battlefield from a map.

Here is the section of the map I reproduced from the game. I've flipped it as this is the orientation I used to set up and photograph the table. I have strengthened the grid and terrain lines in Photoshop so they are easily recognizable.

I start by building my table top with a series of 2'X4' pieces of masonite. I have about a dozen of these on hand. The boards are supported by two tables. I use a bit of packing tape to keep them from shifting.

My next step is roughing in the first level of terrain with pieces of styrofoam. The playing board will have four levels, so I obviously start with the lowest first. I keep about four garbage bags of styrofoam bits in the basement, some tapered on the edge but not all.  You can see the wonky wire grid I've made, 18" square as I'm sizing up the map by half again to accommodate 20mm figures. In essence the grid represents a square foot of map.

Here is the grid in use with some of the first level terrain roughed in. Below is the section of map being recreated (lower left black terrain line).

With the first layer roughed in with styrofoam, I taper the edges of the contours that aren't already tapered and link the bits using sheet leading. I scrounged pieces of this from a renovation building site and love it for terra forming. But the edges could be softened and linked with bits of fabric as well, which is what I used to do. The advantage of the sheet leading is its pliability and firmness.

I build up successive layers using the same techniques, moving the grid across the board foot by foot. Bits of stiff card are used to cover over gaps in the styrofoam pieces and more sheet leading is used to contour the edges. This picture shows levels one, two and three completed.

This picture shows a cross section of the table (and my junk underneath!) with its stacked layers.

And here are the completed levels.

Next I spread my ground cloth over the terrain, snugging the cloth to the terrain as closely as possible. In Battlefront the various levels are important to be able to identify for spotting purposes, so the edges of the levels need to be easily identified. This ground cloth (I have a few different ones for different terrain) is a dark green slightly textured fabric I picked up cheap at the discount bin in a fabric store, mottled with a bit of spray paint.

My next step is to rough in the roads, streams and river, again using the grid to get everything in its proper place. I'm not sweating the details at this point, as I can always tidy up the connections afterwards.
In the foreground you can see I have employed two different types of dirt road sections, stiff ones that I created early on in my gaming career (yes, it's a career!) with card and later ones that I have done on fabric so that they can conform to terrain. I ran out of flexible ones so had to use some of the stiff ones for flat areas.
You may also notice that my ground cloth didn't quite span the board so I used bits of "field" fabric from my grab bags to cover the rest (left side of photo). The terrain is so varied and broken up that this won't really be obvious by the end.
And finally, I have roughed in the streets and buildings of Tilly at this point as that bit of crucial terrain has to be right for the rest of the table to work.

Here is a ground eye view, showing the terrain levels and the undulating roads and streams. The paved road is strips of asphalt tile which I'm not totally satisfied with as they have a bit too much profile, even though they can be bent to conform to the terrain.  The stream is my newest creation, a heavy vinyl, spray-painted on the back side, coated with tub and tile clear silicone on the top, and textured by beating it with a plastic spoon (thank you YouTube!) This has finally completed my quest for a stream that can conform to terrain, something I can create metres of for pennies and very little expenditure of time.

Now I add the rest of the buildings, mostly using my modular ruin pieces as this was well fought-over terrain! To my mind this is the ugly part the board has to go through before one can get to the extensive finishing touches. As an artist I know that every painting goes through the same stage (or modeller, when you have done some of the underpainting - you know what I'm talkin' about!) and you just have to move through it.

The building on the left shows one of my more recent solutions for building on sloping terrin. I created about a half dozen or more wedge shaped bases that I can set my houses on, as I hate seeing buildings at a 45 degree angle on a hillside.

Using my grid again I now place all the hedgerows and orchards. Mark's map has more hedgerows then any I've encountered and I exhausted all of my hedgerow bits. I have attached Woodland Scenics clumping foliage to strips of velcro that are adhesive one side (adhesive hook and loops strips that I buy at the Dollar Store) so that my hedgerows can conform to undulating terrain without rolling downhill.
Below you can see the bit of  map this represents.

Here is the completed table. After placing all of the hedgerows and orchards, I have placed bits of field to break up the terrain (lichen sheets), bordered the stream with more lichen and softened some of the road edges with narrow velcro strips with small bits of Woodland scenic foliage to create a verge.

A few details. Here is an orchard with another building resting on the wedge-shaped base that allows me to place buildings on slopes.

The chateau just south of Tilley. I built this building specifically for this scenario, roughly basing it on the actual structure which still stands today, but at a size and proportions that can cover the correct footprint.

Marcel, the hamlet located in the dip down to the stream, with its two bridges.

The river (I'm guessing the Seulles) which runs up one side of the board. These I created on stiff pieces of card and originally simply painted them. But this summer I got inspired and coated them all with a super thick shellac (the kind used to coat tacky wooden-based souvenir plaques with stupid sayings) which makes the river satisfyingly wet!

Tilly houses. I find ruins serve wargaming well as you aren't fiddling with removing roofs. You can see some of the rubble bits I have created to break up the streetscapes as well as shell craters made with a papier maché product, Sculptamold. I use this on my buildings for texturing as well. Indispensable!

The view from the high ground, showing the undulating terrain down to the Pont-Esprit stream. In the foreground you can see some of the velcro strips with foliage that I use, thick ones for hedgerows and skinny ones for verges.

View from the area near Buceels, the British-held side of the board, with Tilly in the background and the high ground in the top center.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Bridgehead over the Rapido

The New Zealand 28th (Maori) Battalion Attack 
on the Cassino Railway Station
Cassino, Italy, February 17/18, 1944

This was a playtesting of a small scenario I wrote for the Battlefont WWII rule set, a tense little night time battle between the Maoris of 28 Battlaion, 2nd New Zealand Division and the German defenders, 361 Panzer Grenadiers of 90th PG Division. In effect there are two fights going on, one to secure the bridgehead and the other, by the Kiwi engineers, to repair a series of German demolitions along a railway bed before dawn. It was played using 20mm miniatures on a 3' X 4.5' table. Only the first part of the scenario was played as it ended in a German victory, which precluded the second part.

By mid-February, 1944 the U.S. 34th Division's attempts to force a breakthrough at Cassino had exhausted the division with only marginal gains in the hills west of the town. The front was now handed over to General Freyburg and his New Zealand Corps (8th Army, 2nd New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Infantry Division) newly arrived from the Adriatic front. Freyburg was under pressure to launch a relieving action that would divert German resources from the mounting difficulties being experienced at the Anzio bridgehead to the north.
A few days before the attack the great abbey at Monte Cassino was reduced to rubble in the still highly controversial bombing of Monastery Hill. Over the previous months of fighting the monastery and its commanding position over the entire Liri Valley had become fixed in the Allied mind as being primarily responsible for their inability to break the German's Gustav Line.
The abbey bombing on February 11 was followed by a series of attacks, culminating on the night of the 17th when the 4th Indian Division launched its attacks into the mountains east of the monastery. These attacks were coordinated by an attempt by the 28th (Maori) Battalion to force a bridgehead over the Rapido River and seize the Cassino railway station and surrounding objectives west of the town.

The scenario map shows the two company attack by the Maoris of 28 Battalion. German 5 Kp., II Battalion, 361st PG Regiment, occupied the houses north of the station and the railway station itself. 6 Kp. defended the railyard and hummock while 7 Kp., not in the fight, were dug in west of the Gari.

This scenario covers the intitial night attack on the station. The challenge was to seize four objectives in order to secure a safe bridgehead in which the engineers could do their work repairing the German demolitions along the rail bed. The railbed offered the only way across the water-logged ground for supporting armour and vehicles to bolster the bridgehead. It was imperative that the work be done before dawn, when German artillery would be able to once again zero in on the approach from their eagle-like vantage points on Monte Cassino.

1. The Battlefield

The railway runs up through the water-logged ground bordering the rapido and its tributaries. At the upper right are the outskirts of Cassino, and just below that the railway station and roundhouse. The German forces and defences west of the Gari (upper left) are placed on board but the rest are using hidden markers. Barbed wire was known but minefields, surface laid, were only discovered when the attackers were within 1”.
The Maoris began their attack along a sunken road, forward of where the engineers were bridging the “Little Rapido”, the first in a half dozen demolitions that had to be repaired by game's end.

2. View up the railway towards the station

The first of the demolitions, the ruined bridge over the “Little Rapido”, can be seen in the foreground.

3. German defences west of the Gari River

Behind minefields and barbed wire 7 Kp. of the 361st Pz. Grenadiers, II Battalion hold their portion of the Gustav Line. Unsure of where the attacks were going to fall, these troops have orders to stay put and not cross the Gari. As a result they willl only be involved peripherally in the night's fighting.

4. A Company advances behind barrage on left side of railway

A barrage consisiting of four regiments of 25 pdrs., two regiments of mediums and a battery of American heavies opens up on the attack's objectives, pulverizing them for ten minutes before moving on to counter battery and harrassing fire. A and B Companies of the 28 (Maori) Battalion leave their start line, advancing across the sodden fields towards the railway station under cover of darkness.

5. First Contact

B Company, advancing on the houses to the right of the railway, come under fire from a German machinegun firing from a bunker. With most of the company mired in minefields and barbed wire, one section charges into the hail of bullets and knocks out the gun.

6. Grazing fire on NZ right flank

An overhead shot gives a sense of the hail of bullets, tangles of barbed wire and minefields that the Maoris have to negotiate to close with the enemy. German grazing fire kept most of B Company's heads down, but one lone section managed to dash through. Gerrman artillery, targetting behind the minefields, has already caused a few casulaties even before the Maoris have made contact.Railway station is at bottom right.

7. Grazing fire on NZ left flank

A Company, attempting to outflank the machinegun fire they are taking from the hummock south of the roundhouse, encouter minefields and are pinned by more machinegun fire coming from the German positions west of the Gari River. Although the minefields are dummy fields, the machinegun fire ie enough to cause them to abandon this approach.

8. Engineers bridge Little Rapido

Meanwhile the engineers are working feverishly to repair the German demolitions along the railbed. This work is imperative as the railway is the only approach possible for A Squadron of the 19th Armoured Regiment to advance its Shermans. The Little Rapido is quickly bridged and the engineers move forward to begin manual work on the subsequent demolitions. The bulldozer of the Mechanical Equipment Platoon crosses the newly constructed bridge while a truck full of bridging supplies for the main work over the Rapido waits to move forward.

9. Another machinegun opens up from the railyard

As some of the lead engineers, working ahead, approach the fifth and sixth demolitions, yet another German machinegun opens up from a bunker in the railyard, sending a torrent of bullets straight down the railway and driving the engineers from their work.

10. B Co. begins to clear the houses north of the railway

Having reached the outer most houses, some of B Company begin to work their way north, engaging in close combat the second of the two machineguns that are holding up the attack on this flank. 

11. Overview

At the bottom right B Company can be seen starting to make some headway against the Germans in this sector. South of the railway (top right) German efenders still hold out stubbornly in the roundhouse, but no longer hold the hummock. However, A Company is stalled out in the water-logged area to the left of the station and unable to make headway.
Meanwhile the engineers begin work on the Rapido crossing but are hampered by the lack of bridging equipment, still held up further down the line as the bulldozer fills in the second demolition, a blown gap in the railbed.

12. German defence begins to break on the right flank

The second German heavy machinegun is taken out of action and the Maoris of B Company begin to close in on the final German positions on this flank.

13. Engineers wait for bridging supplies at the Rapido

The bridging supplies necessary to complete the first span of work over the Rapido are held up until the bulldozer can fill a gap in the railbed.

14. A Company stalled out and stonked on left flank

On the NZ left flank A Company comes under heavy mortar and machinegun fire as they go to ground in front of the roundhouse and hummock.

15. B Company moves in on intersction objective from the north

Having finally forcd their way into the cassino outskirts, B Company begins to attack back towards their first objective, the intersection northwest of the railyard.

16. Work begins on bridging the Rapido

With bridging supplies and the bulldozer having finally arrived work begins in earnest on bridging the Rapido. This is the largest of the demolitions that will have to be repaired, requiring the work of an entire platoon of engineers and two truckloads of supplies. Although others are wrorking ahead of the Rapido as much as possible on demolitions 4 to 6, the engineers are beginning to run seriously behind schedule as time starts to run out.

17. A Company storms the roundhouse

With off board artillery once more becoming available, the mediums stonk the railyard with a thickened concentration that wreaks havoc among the German defenders. Under cover of smoke A Company tries to revive its stalled attack as the battalion mortars drop shell after shell on the stubborn machinegun post that has been holding them at bay south of the roundhouse.

18. A Company driven off

The first attempt to take the roundhouse fails as Grman defenders drive off elements of A Company that have attacked from the left flank.

19. B Company in full retreat

Meanwhile, on the right flank, B Company, having suffered losses of 50% suddenly break off their attack on the intersection and retreat towards their start line. It is an unfortunate turn of events for the Maoris as the German defence had all but collapsed in this sector as they retreated to the railyard, but the uncertainties and loss of command and control as a result of darkness (and bad die rolls) lead to this most untimely of withdrawals!

20. Engineers under fire

With the railway station and roundhouse still in German control, the engineers are forced to work on the final demolitions while under mortar and machinegun fire. Casualties among 8 Field Company begin to mount.

21. A Company takes roundhouse

A second attempt at the roundhouse finally clears it in a series of close assaults.

22. Working on the final demolitions

Although the work on the Rapido moves ahead slowly, all other demolitions are repaired other than those at the entrance to the railyard. The engineers work under cover of smoke, but the moon has now come out and the Germans know thy are there, and mortar fire continuously disrupts the work.

23. Rapido finally bridged – but too late!

The Rapido is finally bridges and the bulldozer and engineers engaged in this task begin to move forward, but it is too late. Dawn is almost here and the last demolition is yet to have been repaired.

24. 6 Kp. In full retreat

With the Maoris of A Company closing in on the railyard, German 6 Kp. breaks and runs, fleeing past an antitank gun waiting west of the yard as assurance against the arrival of enemy armour.

25. B Company finally regroups at their start line

B Company's flight from Cassino finally comes to an end as they reach their start line. They manage to regroup but it is too late for them to re-enter the battle.

26. End of battle

As A Company finally drives the last of the defenders out of the roundhouse the sun breaks on the horizon. Elements of 5 Kp. still hold out tenaciously in the railway station, denying the New Zealanders of any hopse of holding their bridgehead. The engineers, working on the final demolition, are forced to withdraw before completing the work and the tanks of A Squadron wait well east of the Rapido with no way forward.
With only two of the four objectives taken by the Maoris, and the railway station still in enemy hands, there will be no opportunity to win this battle and the night goes to the Germans as a marginal victory.