The Evacuation Of Dunkirk Part Four: Wargaming At 28mm (Bolt Action)

August 10, 2017 by oriskany

Here we are again, Beasts of War, continuing our explorations of wargaming during the Dunkirk evacuation of World War Two (May and June, 1940). With the new Christopher Nolan movie out on the subject, Dunkirk has been getting a lot of discussion so it seems the perfect time to discuss how these battles can be brought to the table top.

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Follow Dunkirk Week Here

So far we’ve talked about how Dunkirk’s place in the larger context of early World War Two. We then discussed wargaming in 15mm and 20mm. Now it’s time to really zoom in for the “gunsight view” of the Dunkirk battles, and look at running these engagements at 28mm. That can only mean one thing … Bolt Action!

Dunkirk In Bolt Action

Playing Dunkirk-themed skirmishes in Bolt Action seems simple enough, especially in light of all the research and discussion we’ve already presented for Dunkirk battles in 15mm and 20mm. After all, we should just be able to play “smaller” versions of these 15mm and 20mm battles in the 28mm Bolt Action rules set, right?

While technically correct, I feel this does Bolt Action something of a disservice. With miniatures at this larger scale, Bolt Action not only recreates “smaller” engagements, but different KINDS of engagements and from a different angle than larger “battle-themed” games.

Put most simply, where Bolt Action excels most is as an infantry game. Engagement ranges typically found at 28mm are terribly short, most tables represent an area only about 200 feet across. Yet this is perfect for infantry combat, since most WW2 firefights took place at murderously short ranges, much shorter than many people think.

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I’ll be honest here. Because of these questions of range and scale, I usually find combat between tanks and artillery in Bolt Action … a little strange. However, this is much less of a problem in 1940 because tank weapons, even main guns, were terribly short-ranged in 1940 compared to later years of the war.

There’s a general misconception, I feel, that tank guns became “more powerful” as the war progressed. The truth is that tank guns AND tank armour developed more or less in tandem, so the effect of the average tank gun compared against the average tank armour remained relatively unchanged to a surprising extent.

What changed out of all recognition was the RANGE of these weapons. Tank engagement ranges in 1940 are MUCH shorter than we see in later years (sometimes as low as 25%), and I feel this is a bonus to Bolt Action as it makes tank combat on the smaller Bolt Action battlefields much more believable and appropriate.

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Bolt Action is also a great choice for Dunkirk-themed skirmishes because of the types of terrain typically found along the Dunkirk perimeter. Ancient French villages, orchards, port towns, canals, river crossings … the terrain is pretty dense. This means shorter engagement ranges, again playing to Bolt Action’s strengths on a smaller battlefield scale.

The 1940 Infantry Platoon

So far in this series, we’ve examined tanks pretty closely. But since Bolt Action is more of an infantry game perhaps we should discuss the kinds of infantry and infantry weapons a unit should have for a game of this period.

First up, as the very name of the game suggests, we’re talking about bolt action rifles. The Germans carry the Karabiner 98k, the British the Lee Enfield. The French were carrying a mix of Berthier-family rifles, the newer MAS-36, and even “Lebel” model rifles left over from well before World War I.

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In short, the submachine guns and even assault rifles that would dominate infantry warfare later in the war were largely absent in 1940. This may change the way Bolt Action behaves on the table. Select German units carried the MP-38 submachine guns (later the MP-40), but even these were somewhat rare this early in the war.

Heavier infantry weapons were also missing, such as bazookas, panzerfausts, panzerschreks, and PIATs. In their place, some infantry platoons were still carrying very heavy “antitank rifles” (usually .50 calibre and heavier) that were supposed to shoot through light armour … or at the least … armoured cars and light trucks.

Also, keep an eye out for light infantry mortars. Almost all armies equipped infantry platoons with a very light calibre mortar (basically, the role filled by grenade launchers in today’s armies). British infantry platoons usually carried at least one 2” mortar, the Germans a 5.0 cm “Granatwerfer 36” (grenade thrower)

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Without rockets or SMGs, this makes the infantry squad’s “base of fire” even more important by comparison: the machine gun. Now “Hitler’s Buzzsaw” (MG-42) isn’t out yet, but most German infantry units carry at least one MG-34, which is practically the same weapon (different manufacturing techniques to make it easier to produce).

The British, meanwhile, have the familiar “Bren” (20-round magazine) and Vickers-Berthier (96-round drum) light machine guns. Meanwhile, the French have the Fusil Mitrailleur 1924/29 and 1931 … more like a Bren gun with a top-fed 25-round magazine.

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Both the French and British also employed heavier machine guns. Vickers produced a series of water-cooled medium and heavy machine guns firing from belts, the Vickers Mk 4 and 5 taking ammo up to .50 calibre in size. French installations and vehicles sometimes mounted larger (8mm) Hotchkiss M1914 heavy machine guns as well.

Scenario Ideas

One Bolt Action game I’d like to see someone take a crack at is a British delaying action as the Germans try to force a crossing of the Ypres Canal. The bridge would probably dominate the table, with British AA and light artillery fortified on one side.

Wrecked cars or carts could provide cover across the bridge for the German assault, perhaps supported by off-board artillery. The longer the British hold that bridge, the longer they Germans are denied that road. That’s going to plug up German advances toward Dunkirk, and the troops trying to embark on those ships.

Or how about an “adventure game” based on a British patrol that’s been left behind? The Brits have to get back through German lines (perhaps crossing an entire German-controlled table) to rejoin friendly forces. But those forces are being withdrawn back to the embarkation beaches on a certain turn, so the patrol has to hurry!

Just a few ideas, of course. Please feel free to add your own in the comments below! If you’re a fan of Bolt Action, what kind of delaying action or escape scenarios might you build to recreate a corner of the action around Dunkirk?

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