August 8, 2017 by oriskany
Good afternoon, Beasts of War. This week we’re talking about “Operation Dynamo,” the 1940 evacuation from Dunkirk. Recently highlighted in the new Christopher Nolan film, this was where the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from France after the Germans invaded that country in the early days of World War II.
Although technically an evacuation, there was also plenty of combat around Dunkirk. The Germans contested Operation Dynamo fiercely, as they didn’t want these hundreds of thousands of trapped Allied troops getting away. This gives rise to all kinds of wargaming potential, which we’ll be exploring in this article and throughout this week.
Dunkirk In 15mm
Okay, so how do you “play Dunkirk” in 15mm? What kind of historical engagements took place around Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo that would fit with the features that a 15mm World War Two miniatures game usually brings to the table?
Well, when we say 15mm, we’re probably talking about Flames of War. Therefore, we’re probably talking about a large company or battalion-sized battles and set-piece engagements, with plenty of tanks, big infantry formations, artillery, and possibly even air strikes, all the things that make a big Flames of War battle fun.
The good news for FoW fans is that there were certain battles around Dunkirk that fit this description. Therefore they can provide a great background for a Dunkirk-themed campaign, or inspiration for you and your friends if you’ve just seen this movie and are fired up to bring Dunkirk to your table top.
The Tactical Situation
We’ve discussed the German invasion of western Europe, how they sliced off the northern half of the Allied armies, and then pinned them against the English Channel. The only way to save these Allied troops was now to evacuate them by sea from the port city of Dunkirk. So let’s zoom in and see how a Dunkirk-themed FoW table would look.
First off, this not “D-Day in reverse.” There was no ground combat on the beach, or even very much in the port. However, bear in mind the size of this operation. Dynamo will last for eight days. There are 400,000 men in this pocket initially 40 miles deep.
Only gradually will this pocket be reduced by German pressure, the implosion resisted by furious British and French defence. It’s in all these surrounding towns where your FoW tables will be set.
Let’s Talk Tanks
People who like Flames of War tend to like tanks … lots of tanks. So let’s talk about what kind of armour we might’ve seen in the fighting along Dunkirk perimeter, either trying to buy time for the desperate troops being evacuated … or striving to break through to the embarkation beaches and wipe them out.
Specifically for the British, tanks involved include A9, A10, and A13 Cruisers. These are the ancestors of the A15 Crusader IIs and IIIs seen in FoW: El Alamein. Ponderous but incredibly resilient are the A11 Matilda I and especially the A12 Matilda II “Infantry Tanks.” Meant to support infantry attacks, they barely move faster than a walking man.
Most common, however, will be the tiny Vickers Mark VIb “tankettes.” Although thin-skinned and lightly armed (usually only machine guns), they are very fast, and with so few dedicated anti-tank weapons around the early-war battlefield, can be surprisingly effective. Besides, your opponent may think they’re “cute” and underestimate them.
The French have the Renault-35, the tank that made up 80% of their armoured force in 1940. The shattered remnants of Prioux’s “Cavalry Corps” hint at Hotchkiss-35 and 39 “cavalry” light tanks. Famous models like the SOMUA-35 and Char B1/B2 are certainly “valid” for the period, I just don’t know if any were around Dunkirk.
Finally, we come to the Germans. Sadly for them, a huge portion of their “Panzerwaffe” is still made up of the PzKpfw-I. Never intended for combat, it’s really only a training tank with two 7.92mm machine guns. The PzKpfw II is a good recon tank, with only a 20mm autocannon. Just don’t put it up against actual enemy tanks.
Then we have the PzKpfw III, usually the “D” variant, with a 37mm gun. There’s also the PzKpfw IVD. While its 75mm gun sounds fearsome, it’s a short-barrelled, low-velocity howitzer meant mostly for hitting bunkers, troops, and soft vehicles. It’ll be very useful in clearing French and British infantry out of old stone buildings, however.
The Germans also had the great PzKpfw-38(t). This was actually a Czech design, “stolen” when the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Only a few divisions had these, though, and only one of these was engaged near Dunkirk to my knowledge (7th Panzer Division fought near Lille, described in detail below).
Battle Of Lille
One of the largest engagements that really decided how much time Operation Dynamo would have to evacuate those troops was the Battle of Lille, fought between French First Army and elements of at least seven German divisions trying to overrun the approaches to Dunkirk.
French First Army (made up of III, IV, and V Corps) held the city of Lille, a large town dominating the southeast approaches to Dunkirk. As Operation Dynamo kicked off, these men stayed behind (giving up their own chance for evacuation) to blunt the German advance and give more time to the Allied troops being evacuated.
The III Corps was cut off and held out “Bastogne style” in the town of Lille itself, while IV and V Corps battled along the roads leading north toward Dunkirk. Their bloody defiance dragged out for days, inflicting terrible damage on German spearheads (already exhausted after their long push across Belgium and France.
In the end, the Battle for Lille is credited with giving Dynamo another 2-3 days for evacuation, thus saving an additional 100,000 men. One British officer compared the French defence to the Greeks at Thermopylae, and Winston Churchill heaped praise upon the battle when writing his Second World War history.
So if you want a large-scale Flames of War mash-up that really helps determine the success of Operation Dynamo, consider giving the French and Germans at Lille a try. And come back tomorrow when we zoom into 20mm wargaming and tell us what you think in the comments! Have you seen “Dunkirk?” How would you wargame it?
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