The Evacuation Of Dunkirk Part Three: Wargaming At 20mm (Battlegroup)

August 9, 2017 by oriskany

Welcome back, Beasts of War, to our continuing explorations of Dunkirk. With the recent Christopher Nolan movie coming out on the subject, the 1940 Dunkirk evacuations are getting a lot of focus. So it’s only natural to take this opportunity to talk about the wargaming potential offered by this crucial episode of World War II history.

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So far we’ve reviewed the overall situation at Dunkirk (vital since it explains WHY hundreds of thousands of men had to be so desperately evacuated) and looked at gaming the surrounding battles in 15mm. Now let’s zoom in a little bit for a look at the 20mm battlefield.

Dunkirk In 20mm (Battlegroup)

Here on Beasts of War, 20mm World War II usually means “Battlegroup” by IronFist Publishing. As fans of this system well know, Battlegroup offers a separate campaign book for each of the general theatres covered by the game. For a Dunkirk-themed Battlegroup game or campaign, this is undoubtedly “Battlegroup: Blitzkrieg.”

Now people who know me or have followed my writing over the years know that Battlegroup is probably my favourite single World War II miniatures game. It combines the scale of larger-scale Flames of War battles with the detail and immediacy of smaller-scale games like Bolt Action.

Battlegroup is also a “historian’s wargame,” but this certainly doesn’t mean you have to a “historian” to play it. It “counts the rivets” for you, all the historical homework has already been done. The system is elegant enough to pack plenty of detail in gameplay that still runs very smooth, especially its “Battle Rating Counter” mechanic.

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So what makes Battlegroup at 20mm different, and a good fit for the battles and skirmishes that raged around the Dunkirk perimeter during those eight fateful days in May and June, 1940?

Most Battlegroup games are a little smaller than the engagements seen in Flames of War. So we’re talking roughly company-sized (ten tanks, 100 men, or some combination thereof). With a smaller scale, the level of detail is a little higher, demanding that players employ realistic combined-arms tactics to keep their units together under fire.

Battlegroup really puts YOU in the actual commander’s spot, usually allowing you to take in your list only those assets available to lieutenants, captains, or (at the most) a major. Assets like artillery and airpower you usually have to REQUEST, or it just shows up if you’re more than a little lucky … just like in real combat at this scale.

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Since we focused on the French in our last article (15mm Flames of War), let’s look at the British for Battlegroup in 20mm. Turns out one of the divisions heavily engaged in holding the Dunkirk Perimeter (giving the rest of the BEF time to escape) was commanded by an obscure, as of yet unheard of major-general: Bernard Law Montgomery.

This was the British 3rd Infantry Division, which is a great division for early war British Battlegroup games. Training and discipline in this division were better than most others at the time, and the division includes a wide array of interesting support units that allows plenty of choices for players building historically-accurate army lists.

These units include a battalion of the famous Coldstream Guards. There’s also an attached battalion of light tanks. Admittedly these are only Mark VI “tankettes,” but beggars can’t be choosers. In the division’s 9th Infantry Brigade there’s also 2nd Battalion / Royal Ulster Rifles, so the BoW team even has a local connection to the Dunkirk battles.

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Specifically for Dunkirk actions, the 3rd Infantry Division was heavily involved in the Battle of Wytschaete. This was near the beginning of Operation Dynamo when German forces of 6th Army (Army Group B) were approaching the Ypres Canal from the east. The 6th Army included XVI Corps, built around two panzer divisions (3rd and 4th).

It was here that the British II Corps, including 3rd Division, fought bitter delaying actions along that canal, allowing the rest of BEF more time to get on those ships. There was also a battle at nearby Nieuport, where some of 3rd Division’s guardsmen come up on a British position that had just been routed.

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Now accounts differ here. Some sources claim that these guardsmen had to actually shoot a handful of the routing men to restore order, others say they were threatened at bayonet point. I don’t claim to know for sure, but it shows how desperate and frantic some of these delaying actions really were.

The “Delaying Action”

We’ve been throwing around this phrase a lot, so maybe we should talk about what a “Delaying Action” actually is, and how do we use it in a game like Battlegroup. Well, here’s what it’s NOT: a defence. If the defending force on your table has enough strength to possibly hold its own … you’re probably not doing the “delaying action” right.

Delaying actions are fought when the attacker has an overwhelming superiority in firepower, mobility, support assets, usually all three. This is what makes delaying actions fit in a Dunkirk campaign so well. Remember, Dunkirk isn’t a battle, it’s an evacuation. If the BEF had any chance at all they wouldn’t be leaving France in fishing boats.

In a delaying action, the defender’s job isn’t just only to hold, but also escape. They cannot take too many losses, they’re trying to evacuate, after all. Conversely, the attacker’s job is not only to win but win FAST, to get forces across the table in the minimum amount of time and hopefully cut off the defender’s escape.

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To reflect this on a wargame scenario, objectives can be set deep on defender’s side of the table, ideally where roads EXIT the board (reflecting the “breakthrough” aspect of the attacker’s mission). The defender can’t be expected to hold their position, his mission is to cost attacker time and losses, and escape in good order.

Perhaps the defender gets victory points for each turn the game lasts. The longer he prevents a clean breakthrough, the better he does. Specifically, in Battlegroup, we’ve experimented with forcing the attacker to draw battle rating counters (how you lose the game) after each turn. The longer the game, the more chance the attacker loses.

How would you handle the “delaying action” on your gaming table? How would you reflect the defender’s challenge of buying time for others to get on those ships, but also escape and get on those ships themselves? Drop your ideas, questions and comments below, and keep the conversation going around this incredible moment in World War II history.

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