Saturday 17 August 2013

Tales from the Cold War

As result of the History of Wargaming Project, I sometimes hear some oral history. I thought I would share this one. If people like it, I have another couple to share. 

Teignmouth is a small tourist seaside resort in south Devon with an active commercial harbour. It has a long association with piracy, for example that led to the French burning down part of the town in 1690. The smuggling tradition was equally strong and continued, apparently, in Cold War. 

In 1974, the Russian submarine surfaced just off Teignmouth beach of and armed short parties started to disembark into small boats. Despite being early in the season, a few hardy tourists saw this' invasion' and called the local police (in those days dialling 999 reached the local police station). The police gave the cryptic response, 'The're not Russians, the're Poles' , as if that changed the fact boats with armed foreign sailors were heading towards the shore. 

One of the boats went to the docks and unloaded a large number of crates... of Polish vodka. In exchange they received foreign currency and various bottles of spirits. (In those days, ships captains often gave gifts to the Dockers. These were not bribes, but a way of saying thank you for getting their ship unloaded or rapidly loaded. They went into the Dockers Christmas party stock...) Other boat crews ran around the town buying up fresh supplies, 2nd hand camera equipment, pasties and fresh cream cakes (it was someone's birthday). It must have been a surprising sight for tourists to see Polish naval ratings pushing to the front of shopping queues in their haste. The locals were used to it.

While this was going on, one army officer, with more inspiration than common sense, decided to take a boat load of army cadets from St Brendan's College CCF out to the Warsaw Pact (enemy) submarine off shore. One imagines a boat load of British soldiers heading towards the partially manned submarine in British waters could have caused a major Cold War incident. However, the crew were Poles, not Russians, and they recognised the soldiers were just children and did they obvious; they invited them on board. The cadets has a short look around the submarine control room. Then the cadets returned to shore as the submarine crew came back from their smuggling operation. The submarine then submerged and sailed back into international waters.

If the Polish navy wanted to shop and to drink a pub dry on the occasional evening, no-one in Teignmouth minded. Many of the older people had served with Poles in WWII or knew someone who had. In the days before Twitter, YouTube and Facebook even a small town could keep secrets.
Some of the Cold War was grim, but some of it was just funny.

Monday 5 August 2013

Letter to the Editor

As editor of the History of Wargaming Project, I am privileged to receive collections of wargaming books, rules, magazines, unpublished wargaming material and recollections from early wargamers on a regular basis. Recently, I received a particularly interesting letter centred around Lionel Tarr from an early wargamer (David T. Bradley).  It is reproduced with permission.

I apologise for getting in contact "out of the blue" but have just finished reading the latest volume in your History of Wargaming series - More Wargame Pioneers and I wanted to say how much I enjoyed it. I was particularly interested in the section covering Lionel Tarr's contribution to wargaming in general and the "modern" period in particular.

Certainly it was Lionel Tarr, of all the wargaming pioneers from the 1960s, that had the greatest influence on the development of my wargaming interests. I corresponded with him on-and-off over the years, he was always ready with help and advice and I actually had the pleasure of meeting him.

I had played "Little Wars" with H.G. Well's rules and my Britains toy soldiers, growing up in the late 1950s, but my wargaming epiphany came in early 1960, after my father, who had seen an article in one of the national newspapers about Jack Scruby, wrote a few letters and as a result I received a copy of the first Don Featherstone edited issue of Wargamers Digest. I read it to almost the point of destruction and I remember that one of the (many) articles that caught my attention was a battle report by Lionel "Into Odessa". In it he described the capture of the port by his German forces from its Soviet defenders. The reference to tank duels, street fighting, aerial bombardment quite seized my imagination. However in those days none of the (very limited number) of wargame soldier manufacturers seemed to make World War II figures. So I turned to my other military history interest (like many others) the American Civil War.

As you are probably aware, assembling a wargame army in those days was an exercise in patience and logistics, as the only suppliers were either in South Africa or Visalia, California (Jack Scruby). Therefore  delivery in those pre-air freight days was by ship (and very slow ones at that)! Later that year Wargamers Digest carried further articles by Lionel on his wargame, his forces and methods, so I was able to explore this area while waiting for my Civil War Armies to complete their voyage to South Yorkshire!

As it happened, there was in nearby Sheffield a model railway shop that specialised in Continental manufacturers - Marklin, Fleishman etc., and to complement these, they also sold scenic items, again from continental firms. One of these was Roskopf who, alongside models of various railway related vehicles, also produced a small range of 1/100 military vehicles, mainly post war, but some WWII models. I started buying these so I managed to acquire two small "modern" armies, supplemented by some Matchbox vehicles - a M3 half-track, a Saladin armoured car, a Ferret scout car and a Saracen APC. Britains did a "OO" scale Centurion, a Sexton SPG and some lorries.

Then Airfix brought out their first 1/72 figure sets. The first was pretty useless (from a wargaming point-of-view) - the Brigade of Guards band! However another early set was of (British) modern infantry combat troops with officers, radio operators and riflemen, sub-machine gunners and stretcher parties plus some "wounded" figures.  

They all appeared to be scaled down versions of a similar set of 54mm figures produced by Herald. Paint could transform them into British (khaki), German (grey) or Waffen-SS (unhistorical black). I had already written to Lionel who had kindly provided me with a set (hand-written) of his rules. For the actual games, I followed the example of the British war films of the period - Ice Cold in Alex, The Red Beret Carve Her Name with Pride etc. by just using British vehicles decorated with a black cross to indicate the enemy - if it was good enough for J. Arthur Rank, it was good enough for me!

The next significant event was Don Featherstone's first Wargame “Conference” at his house in Southampton in 1961. The event coincided with the Bay of Pigs Crisis, but we were too busy to concern ourselves with that!

 Lionel gave one of the talks, on how he operated his solo wargames and I was able to talk to him and, like everyone in the wargaming fraternity at the time, he was only too happy to give of his time and advice. I asked him about his vehicles and he offered to send me some from his collection.

The models he sent me were incredibly crude by today's standards but at the time I thought they were absolutely fantastic. Lionel sent me six in all. For the Germans, a Tiger, a Panther (some of these can be seen in the photographs for the World War II game in Don Featherstone's War Games illustrating The Tank-Infantry Action on the St James Road) and a StuG III. For the Soviets a T-34, a KV-1 and a Su-122. They were mainly made of Plaster-of-Paris for the hulls, carved wooded turrets and doweling gun barrels. The T-34 and Su-122 had doweling fuel tanks on their rear decks and the latter even had a commander in the turret. The Soviet vehicles were camouflaged in green. The German vehicles were similar except that the StuG was all wood. The German vehicles were all painted black. At last I could set some of my battles on the OSTFRONT.

I was intrigued by the point you make in your book that the early wargame pioneers had not only done military service, they had fought in a World War. Don Featherstone in tanks through Tunisia and Italy and Lionel at Arnhem and then in German captivity. Real-life experience that informed their wargaming and how they developed rule systems to portray it, in a totally different way from today's wargaming generation. You might have thought such experiences would put one off things military for life!

The other point that needs to be acknowledged is the amount of original research Lionel had to do on weapons, vehicles, tactics and organisation, let alone the details of the Eastern Front campaign. Now we can look at a host of reference material providing the answers to all those questions. When Lionel was assembling his wargame forces there was a minuscule portion of such material and what there was, not particularly accessible.

I next became involved with Lionel in the 1963, the year I went to University. In one of the first issues of Don's Wargamers Newsletter there was an article by Lionel (which you reproduce in your book) on RETASOL. That didn't last long and was succeeded by a more informal set-up called COSOL. I wrote to Lionel asking if I could join in, and was assigned a section of the southern portion of the Eastern Front. Unfortunately by the time I got the necessary War Office General Staff maps, COSOL itself had also broken up. However Lionel offered to act as my German directing opponent while I managed the Soviet forces. So in the weeks before I went up to University, Lionel acted as commander of my German forces on the approaches to the Crimea.

By that time things were better regarding on the availability of models. Airfix had started producing their range of kits and I had some of these for "Normandy" type battles inspired by Don Featherstone’s World War II section in War Games. However there was still very little Eastern Front, especially Soviet, equipment.

So, for the campaign for the Crimea, I was using 1/100 scale Rosfkopf German and Soviet armour, supplemented by Denzil Skinner metal models at the same scale, Airfix German infantry, and for the Soviets the British combat group supplemented by Matchbox half-tracks and other armoured vehicles which again can also be seen in some of the photos in War Games.

After university and post-graduate work in London, I joined the MoD as a civil servant and attended meetings run by the London Wargaming Group. For a variety of reasons wargaming was on the back burner for a while, but I did have the pleasure of meeting "Bish " Iwasko - the doyen of modern wargaming in the London Group and later John Sandars, through our joint membership of MAFVA (Model Armoured Fighting Vehicles Association) and us both working in the MoD, at the time John was a serving RN Lieut.-Cdr with a staff appointment in Whitehall.

In the early 70's I again got in contact with Lionel. By then his campaign had reached the banks of the Volga but he had no interest in making the return trip to Berlin. He mentioned that he had offered his armies for sale to Ed Saunders who had turned down the offer. I offered to buy them and he accepted. Some weeks later some very large boxes were delivered.

In all it totalled some 90 armoured vehicles, 36 artillery pieces, 100 armoured and soft skin transport vehicles, 4 assault boats and 2 Fiesler Storch aircraft. Also some 1400 German and Soviet infantry supported by 17 anti-tank guns, 20 machine gun-teams and 4 mortars (I had to go out and buy some steel shelving units to house it all)!

All of the Plaster- of-Paris models had long gone and the majority of the armour were from ROCO Minitanks who were, by then, widely available in the UK, although Lionel had sourced his from Germany and Austria some years earlier. Most of the vehicles were unpainted but en masse they were certainly an impressive sight!
Over the years I played with them, replaced some and disposed of others. I passed on the balance of the collection some time ago as the pressures of family, household moves intruded. I wish I had hung on to more, as I am now retired and have the time and space.

Along with the troops and tanks, Lionel also provided his rules and organisation charts for his forces, these I have retained.

The rules in particular make very interesting reading. They reflect Lionel’s latest thoughts and are more comprehensive than those you and Don Featherstone printed. It is interesting to see how Lionel modified various aspects over the years.
The strike and defence values for tank combat he had abandoned and replaced with a system based on details of armour protection for individual vehicles and data for the penetrative power of various weapons on armour. The element of chance was greatly removed. I think this was the influence of Carl Reavley. In 1961 or 1962 Jack Scruby published Carl's set of modern wargame rules in one of his edition of Wargamers Digest. They were very comprehensive and even included helicopters, quite a novelty at the time. No dice were used at all. Effects were based on tables and were unmodified by any element of chance. Destruction and casualties were inflicted by referring to tables of weapon effects on various targets at various ranges - no exceptions.

I was also intrigued by other features in your book. I have some a copy of Michael Korns Wargame rules. The data he collected is fascinating but as a game unplayable!

 The picture of Tony Bath on page 52 (I think that is David Chandler sitting on Tony's right) I am fairly certain was taken at the Duke of York's Chelsea barracks for a massive refight, in 25mm, of Waterloo - I think one of the earliest, if not the earliest, "mega-game"!

The photo of Tony Bath, with Charles Grant on page 41 taken in Don Featherstone's wargame room during the Southampton get-together in 1962, brought back many happy memories. I think I may even be the headless figure standing on the stairs! The dress code for wargame gatherings in the early sixties was sport-jacket and tie - a bit different from the hobby's sartorial standards today.

I apologise for going on at such length. "Wargame nostalgia" is a dangerous sentiment! Thank you again for your fascinating book and allowing Lionel Tarr's contribution to the development to wargaming, and in particular the inspiration he provided to many others, finally to be given the recognition it deserves.