The Desert War: Gaming WW2 in North Africa Part One – Overview and Origins

August 17, 2015 by crew

In the study of military history, certain battlefields can acquire a mythic, almost romantic allure. Even amidst the horrors of World War II, there’s one campaign that somehow seems “clean,” isolated, and almost chivalrous. This, of course, is the Desert War, fought in Africa and the Middle East from June 1940 to May 1943.

The Battle Of Knightsbridge

Getting Started In The Desert

In this article series, we’ll be taking a “wargaming look” at the Desert War and what sets it apart from the usual World War II games many of us enjoy. What made the Desert War different? How can games be adapted to play in this theatre? What kind of terrain do we find, what tactics were used, and what did the armies look like?

To help facilitate the discussion, we’re running a series of 15mm miniature games using an adaptation of PSC’s “Battlegroup (still the best WW2 miniatures game I’ve played). Using a mix of information presented in the game’s “Blitzkrieg,” “Barbarossa,” “Kursk,” and even “Fall of the Reich” sourcebooks (along with a plenty of “Oriskany-style” historical research), we were able to cobble together a Desert War miniatures dataset that ran very well.

Key Players

So why play a wargame set in this campaign? For starters, there’s actually a core of truth to the romance connected to this theatre. There were no SS units deployed here, and there were very few civilians to get caught in the crossfire. Diaries and records show that there was a certain degree of “fair play” shown between the armies, perhaps because both sides faced a third enemy…the desert itself.

The Desert War also provides new challenges for players perhaps growing weary of French bocage or Russian steppe. The terrain here is obviously very different and offers a whole new outlook and backdrop for tactical wargaming. The old tricks won’t work here, while new tactics become available. These include “hull down shielding” for tanks and some of the first “special forces” operations. The SAS was born in these deserts, after all.

Gaming Choices

The Desert War was also incredibly diverse. About 75% of the Axis troops are Italians, not Germans. The “British” forces are often nothing of the sort, usually Indians (including troops from modern-day Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal), South Africans, Free Poles, Greeks, New Zealanders, and Australians. There were even detachments of Zionist Palestinians and an anti-aircraft unit from Hong Kong.

Of course the Americans joined the conflict in November, 1942 with the Operation “Torch” landings in Morocco and Algeria. Free French and Vichy French figured prominently, sometimes even fighting each other (e.g., Syria in 1942). African colonial units were drawn from armies as far-flung as Madagascar. For anyone who’s interested in expanding the diversity of their armies, this is a good place to start.

Map

Furthermore, at least from 1940 to the beginning of 1942, most of the battles in the Desert War were actually quite small, at least when compared to other fronts. This smaller context can give your games bigger comparative impact to the overall picture. Many are the historical moments when you could accurately field the ENTIRE armoured strength of Rommel’s Afrika Korps on a single table of Battlegroup or Flames of War.

Vehicles Of The Desert

And lastly, players who brave the desert are challenged to win with a lot less than on other fronts. These were armies often held together with baling wire and duct tape. Forget Panthers or Fireflies. A Matilda II with a 2-pounder or a Panzer III with a 50mm gun is mighty, and when the basic Sherman first appeared in late August of 1942, it was practically (and briefly) god-like.

Italian Forces

The War Begins

The Desert War started almost by accident. Basically, when Germany was overrunning Western Europe in May 1940, Mussolini thought the time was right to strike the weakened Allies for some quick, easy territorial gains. While the Italian invasion of southern France met with disaster (six French divisions smashed an Italian Army five times its size), the Italians were also striking at British possessions overseas.

Start Of The Desert War

The Italians actually enjoyed some success here. First, their army in Ethiopia invaded the British colony in Somalia in August 1940 (when the Battle of Britain was just reaching its greatest pitch). Sheer weight of numbers delivered an Italian victory here, and the British were forced to evacuate “Dunkirk style” to Aden.

First Strike

This invasion of British Somalia was the backdrop for our first Battlegroup game. Hopelessly outnumbered, the British fell back to the Assai Hills, where the high ground would hopefully give British an advantage. Also, this position blocked the road to Berbera, the main port from which the British were planning their retreat.

British Garrison

The “British” force was made up primarily of the King’s African Rifles (“Nyasaland” Battalions from modern day Malawi), backed up by a Pakistani battalion of the 15th Punjab Rifles, supported by East African Light Artillery (18/25 pounders). The attacking Italians had the 7th Colonial Brigade (very solid East African “askari” troops), a handful of wretched M11/39 tanks and L3/CV35 “tankettes”, and a battery of “75/18 modello 34” light howitzers.

Poor Orders

In this game, the Italians had a significant edge in both numbers and antitank capability. Clearly the British would have to make the most of their high ground, off-board artillery, and long-range rifle fire in order to pull off a win. The Italians, meanwhile, had to push up the British-held high ground and establish a foothold in Tug Argan.

Italian Assault

To make the dangerous approach, the Italians threw their main armour/cavalry push behind some dunes that would provide at least some cover. British rifle fire was incredibly accurate, though, the Punjab and Nyasaland sharpshooters taking a grim toll. This was especially true when the Italians’ East African cavalry made the final rush at the Nyasaland riflemen holding the Tug Argan wall, the scene felt ripped right out of a desert adventure movie.

Air Strike

An Axis Push

Next we come to Egypt and Libya, the “main theatre” people remember from the Desert War. Again, the battles start off very small, with “armoured vehicles” that are almost laughable. These were engagements determined by infantry, towed artillery, and above all, supply. In many photos, the terrain looks flat and featureless, but don’t be fooled. Even the most subtle dune can provide complete concealment or at least a hull-down advantage.

Italian Advance

Alam el Dab (discussed in the caption above) was one of the few “mobile” battles of the Italian invasion, since most of their Tenth Army was “leg” infantry. Yet even most of their “tanks” were armed only with machine guns. For actual cannon, the Italians had only a handful of M11/39 tanks, armed with a 37mm gun (in the hull, no less).

British antitank capability at Alam el Dab was even shakier, with just “Boys Antitank Rifles” mounted in some universal carriers and 1920s-era Rolls Royce armoured cars. This was a .55 calibre infantry rifle (think of the large sniper rifles carried today) that could shoot through very thin armour plate. Fortunately for the 11th Hussars, “very thin” was all the Italians had.

Assault on Alem el Dab

Once again, the Italians put up a very good showing in our game. The mobile “Maletti Group” (backed up by Libyan colonial infantry) cut off most of the Coldstream Guards and subjected them to withering MG fire. The vengeful 11th Hussars, however, mauled the Italians (especially their Libyan infantry) so badly that they managed to pull out a British win, by ONE POINT.

Pinned Down

Of course our “Desert War” campaign has barely started, all we’ve done here is set up the chessboard and moved the first Italian pawns. Upcoming articles will cover the “British Blitzkrieg” that was Operation Compass, crushing the Italians so badly that the Germans finally had to send help. That help would come in the form of Erwin Rommel, commanding a handful of threadbare, incomplete panzer units that history would soon immortalize simply as the “Afrika Korps.”

James Johnson

If you would like to write an article for Beasts of War then please contact me at ben@beastsofwar.com for more information!

"To help facilitate the discussion, we’re running a series of 15mm miniature games using an adaptation of PSC’s “Battlegroup” (still the best WW2 miniatures game I’ve played)..."

"In many photos, the terrain looks flat and featureless, but don’t be fooled. Even the most subtle dune can provide complete concealment or at least a hull-down advantage..."