The Desert War: Bolt Action Boot Camp Preparation // Part One – Overview & Origins

August 20, 2018 by oriskany

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.

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In preparation for the upcoming Bolt Action “Western Desert” Boot Camp, 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. 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?

Why Play In The  Desert?

“I hate sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating. And it gets everywhere …”

Even as we all cringe through one the worst-delivered lines in the history of modern cinema, Anakin Skywalker actually brings up a good point. Doing anything in the desert presents a whole stack of challenges, and wargaming is no exception. So why bother?

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For starters, there’s actually a core of truth to the romance connected to this theatre. There were no SS units deployed here, and very few civilians to get caught in the crossfire. Diaries and records show there was a certain degree of “fair play” between the armies, perhaps because both sides faced the 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 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.

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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, Czechs, New Zealanders, and Australians. There were even detachments of Zionist Palestinians and an antiaircraft 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.

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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 a bigger comparative impact on the overall picture.

Many are the historical moments when you could accurately field the entire armoured strength of Rommel’s Afrika Korps on one gaming table, at least in larger systems.

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, especially in its early phases. Equipment includes the Italian M11/39 tank, armed with a 37mm gun (in the hull, no less), and the Italian CV-35/L3 tankette, an “armoured vehicle” whose deadliest feature may be how god-awful cute it is.

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Not that the British can laugh, their most common tank in the early Desert War is the Vickers Mark VIb, armed with just a .50 calibre machine gun. Whole battalions are armed with the World War I-era Rolls Royce armoured car (at least they got rid of the bicycle spokes in the wheels). In short, when it comes to armour the early Desert War can be summed up in three words … “pew-pew-pew!”

Even later, this was hardly a “Clash of the Titans.” 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.

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Yet when it comes to Bolt Action, I feel this makes the Desert War actually very good fit. Poor armour (at least when compared to other theatres of the war in simultaneous timeframes) gives infantry has a better chance to take a greater role on your 28mm battlefields.

I feel 28mm wargames (Bolt Action definitely included) are at their best for historical and military realism in the context of an infantry firefight.

Origins Of The Desert War

Why Fight Over Piles Of Sand?

The Desert War started almost by accident in the summer of 1940, primarily by the Italians. Yet the Italians initially had no intention of getting mixed up in World War II. But when Germany was overrunning Western Europe, Mussolini abruptly felt like he was missing a moment of destiny. With France crumbling and Great Britain about to fall out of the war, perhaps Italy could snatch overseas territory from the far-flung French and British empires.

Again, Mussolini’s military commanders warned him that Italy’s armed forces were years…perhaps a full decade…from being even remotely ready. Mussolini assured them there would be no real fighting, with the armies of Britain and France collapsing, these colonies would be basically undefended. “All I need is [to suffer] a few thousand dead” he cynically remarked, “and I can sit at the peace table as a man who has fought.”

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Sadly for hundreds of thousands of Italians, Mussolini would accomplish the first part of his goal in remarkable scale. First, his June 1940 “grand invasion” of southern France was bloodily repulsed by just six French divisions, even as the rest of the French Army was collapsing against German “Case Yellow” and “Case Red” invasions up north.

Even with these setbacks in France, Mussolini launched near-simultaneous invasions of British colonies in Africa. Here is where the Desert War officially gets started, but not in the “classic theatre” of Egypt and Libya, but in British-held Sudan, Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia), and British and Italian Somalia.

Believe it or not, Italians actually enjoyed some initial success. 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). The sheer weight of numbers delivered an Italian victory, and the British were forced to evacuate “Dunkirk style” to Aden. This was the only Italian offensive operation to deliver success without significant German help.

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Hopelessly outnumbered, the British fell back to the Assai Hills, where the high ground gave British would hopefully give British an advantage. Several particularly nasty engagements took place at a place called Tug Argan, a fortified British position blocking the road to Berbera, the main port from which the British were planning their retreat.

These battles have served as the backdrop for our some of our past desert wargames, some photos of which are featured in this article. In our games, 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, meanwhile, lead off with 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.

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In any game portraying this very first battle of the Desert War, the Italians should have a significant edge in both numbers and direct artillery. Clearly the British 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, have to push up the British-held high ground and establish footholds in towns, settlements, and fortifications like Tug Argan.

Libya & Egypt

Next, we come to Libya and Egypt, the “main theatre” people remember from the Desert War.

Mussolini’s next invasion was launched by the Italian Tenth Army, striking out of the Italian colony of Libya, against the British “Western Desert Force” stationed in Egypt. If the Italians could follow up their success in Somalia with wins in Egypt and later Sudan, then all of northern and eastern Africa, from the border of Tunisia all the way to Tanzania, would be one sprawling Italian colony.

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Again, the invasion seemed like it would be a walkover. The Italian Tenth Army outnumbered the WDF by almost 10-1. Besides, the British were “about to lose” the Battle of Britain and face the “Sea Lion” invasion at home, surely they would cut a deal as soon as 200,000 Italian troops marched into Egypt.

Wrong. Although they were admittedly too small to actually halt the Italian Tenth Army, the tiny WDF put up a skilful fighting retreat. One interesting little battle came at Alam an Dab, where a force of British infantry was about to be cut off and the 11th Hussars got the order to mount a motorized rescue.

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.

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Alam el Dab 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 an 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.

When the Tenth Army reached Sidi Barrani, barely sixty miles inside Egypt, they simply…stopped. With only a handful of vehicles, 200,000 men couldn’t walk all the way to Cairo. So they dug in and basically waited for the war to end. But of course, the war didn’t end in September 1940. Britain didn’t fall, and the British WDF was already preparing one of the most epic counterattacks in World War II.

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Of course, our Desert War series has barely started. 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.”

Leave your comments, questions, and feedback below. Thinking of jumping in the Desert War? Will you be attending the upcoming Boot Camp? Watching the live blog?

What parts of the Desert War interest you the most?

"I feel 28mm wargames (Bolt Action definitely included) are at their best for historical and military realism in the context of an infantry firefight..."

"Leave your comments, questions, and feedback below..."

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