The Desert War: Bolt Action Boot Camp Preparation // Part Five: Endgame

September 17, 2018 by oriskany

As we enter the final countdown for the upcoming Bolt Action “Western Desert” boot camp, we come at last to the end of our preparatory Desert War article series. For those just joining us, check out our progress so far in Parts One, Two, Three, and Four, where we reviewed how the Desert War opened and developed, introduced new commanders and armies, and swayed back and forth before finally reaching a critical turning point.


Read The Original Article Series Here

But for now let’s see how this epic campaign finally drew to a close, and how some of these final engagements can be brought to the tabletop.

Desert War Article Part 5 A

After the Allied victory at El Alamein (Oct-Nov 1942), the shattered remnants of Rommel’s “Panzerarmee Afrika” rapidly fell back out of Egypt, through Libya, and all the way to the Vichy French colony of Tunisia. Part of the reason for such a long retreat was “Operation Torch,” where a whole new Anglo-American army had simultaneously landed a thousand miles behind the Germans and Italians on November 8th, 1942.

Operation Torch

The idea was not only to squeeze the Axis off of the continent of Africa for good but to partly assuage Stalin’s protests for a “Second Front” and to finally get American ground forces in action as soon as possible. But there would also other political ramifications, especially with the French forces that still administered these colonies under the pro-Axis Vichy government.

Desert War Article Part 5 B

It was these initial American landings in Morocco which provided the setting for the 15mm wargames photographed first in this article, featuring combat not between Americans and Germans, but Americans and French. For those interested in looking at the more famous American battles in North Africa (Sidi Bou Zid, Kasserine Pass, El Guettar), we have another article series taking a look solely at them.

For now, however, we’re looking at Port Lyautey, where the northern wing of General Patton’s “Western Task Force” had come ashore. Regrettably, despite earnest efforts by Allied agents and diplomats before the invasion, Vichy French forces actually fought hard against the invading Americans. The idea of two Allied nations in pitched (and bloody) battle for several days may sound strange. But sadly, it happened.

Desert War Article Part 5 C

From a wargaming perspective, this also shows that despite what we might get in a starter kit, by no means is North Africa / Desert War table top gaming limited to the classic “British vs. German” model. For those less familiar with the history of the desert campaign, the possibilities are much, much broader than one many may realize.

The politics here are complex. When France had to surrender to Germany in June 1940, a puppet government in the French city of Vichy was allowed to remain “autonomous,” which technically made this “Vichy government” (and its French colonies) an Axis power. By and large, French soldiers in these colonies never voluntarily took part in Germany’s battles, despite the status of their “official” government from which any army takes it orders.

Desert War Article Part 5 D

However, whenever Great Britain invaded a Vichy colony like Lebanon or Madagascar, fighting was always fierce. Vichy French troops even fought against Free French troops in Syria. Such fighting didn’t come about through any sense of “Axis loyalty.” This was simply a case of troops obeying official orders, combined with a simple case of “get your tanks off my lawn.”

When the Americans came ashore in Morocco, they too would learn this…the hard way.

Raw, inexperienced, and perhaps a little overanxious to “show the Europeans how to fight,” the Americans struggled with the complexities and dangers of an amphibious invasion. Then they struggled with the Vichy garrison, which did not give up or immediately re-join the Allied cause, despite earnest diplomatic efforts beforehand.

Desert War Article Part 5 E

Casualties were heavy, especially in the northernmost American landings at Port Lyautey, where we decided to stage the Desert War game pictured in this article. Here, a force of French armour drove north to counterattack the flank of the Port Lyautey landing zone, and American tanks had to hold them back.

Desperately outnumbered, the American tanks fought furiously. But they probably survived thanks only to the 6-inch guns of light cruiser USS Savannah, and US Navy torpedo bombers dropping antisubmarine depth charges (of all things) on French tanks and artillery positions.

Desert War Article Part 5 F

After three or four days, frantic diplomatic efforts finally paid off and the French were convinced to re-join the Allied cause. Fighting sputtered out and together the British and Americans (along with plenty of Free and formerly-Vichy French) pushed hard to the east, out of Morocco and Algeria, and to the final Axis hold out in Africa...Tunisia.

But this last enclave wouldn’t fall for six months, after some of the worst fighting in the North African war.


The battlefields of Tunisia presented a very different type of desert from the classic “sand seas” of Libya and Egypt. Here there was thicker vegetation, more towns, and considerable rain in the winter. In fact, this December quagmire of mud is one reason the Allies couldn’t swoop in and claim Tunisia right after Torch and El Alamein.

Desert War Article Part 5 G

This desert was also much rockier and more mountainous, resulting in deadly battles over narrow defiles and passes. Such was the case at Sidi Bou Zid and Kasserine Pass, where raw American troops ran head-long into battle-hardened German panzers for the first time. Both these February 1943 encounters were unmitigated disasters for the Americans, and for a while, it seemed as if the Germans might stage yet another comeback.

Montgomery’s Eight Army, meanwhile, was pushing against Rommel’s defences in southeast Tunisia, roughly near the Tunisian-Libyan border. This was the so-called “Mareth Line,” a system of old French fortifications built in the 1930s. But our friends the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) found a way through the mountains (the Tebaga Gap) that allowed Monty to partially outflank this line, which quickly crumbled.

Desert War Article Part 5 H

Meanwhile, the famous General George S. Patton had taken over the US II Corps, which had just been handed such ignominious defeat at Faid Pass, Sidi Bou Zid, Sbleita, and Kasserine Pass. With a mix of reorganization, motivation, and hard discipline, he was able to put these divisions back together, which eventually met and wrecked a German attack at El Guettar in March.

Yet the battle didn’t go perfectly, and despite what we see in the movies, Patton wasn’t present until after the issue had been decided. Even so, it can’t be denied that the vast improvement in American performance and confidence is a testament to Patton’s leadership, training, and inspiration of II Corps.

Desert War Article Part 5 I

The British, meanwhile, had also broken through in the south. Pushing up through Tunisian towns like Enfidaville and Gabes, they soon linked arms with the British, French, and Americans closing from the west. The remnants of Heersgruppe Afrika collapsed around the so-called “Bizerte Bridgehead,” repeatedly denied permission to make any kind of withdrawal from what was clearly a hopeless position.

One of the last engagements along this shrinking perimeter, however, has held special meaning to historians, armour enthusiasts, and wargamers. On April 21, 1943, the Germans scraped together some armour from the “Hermann Göring” and 10th Panzer Divisions to make a last-ditch spoiling attack near Madjez el Bab.

This is the battle we tried to recreate in our last Desert War game.

Desert War Article Part 5 J

Of course, the counterattack was beaten back. Among the losses was the soon-to-be famous Tiger 131, the first intact Tiger captured by the British. The Tiger was inspected by Churchill and King George VI, before being stripped apart for study by British technicians.

It would be almost 70 years before the tank was put back together again by the Bovington Tank Museum. As of this writing, Tiger 131 remains the world’s one and only operational PzKpfw-VI “Tiger 1” tank.

By the end of April 1943, the rest of Axis forces bottled up in Tunisia were faring little better than Tiger 131. By the middle of May, it was all over. Only about 600 Germans or Italians ever escaped Tunisia. Some 250,000 others (two complete armies) had either been killed or taken prisoner in the final collapse, a defeat equal to Stalingrad just three months before.

The war in Africa was, at last, over.

Desert War Article Part 5 K

The Allies, meanwhile, had forged an alliance ready to undertake the invasion of Fortress Europe. The British had won a great victory and at last had a hero. The Americans had been blooded and learned the practicalities of mobile warfare with startling speed. And the French had been brought back into the fold, no longer side-lined by the enforced neutrality of the Vichy Regime.

And so at last, our “Desert War: Gaming WW2 in North Africa” article series comes to a close. Once again I’d really like to thank Beasts of War team for the opportunity to publish on their site, especially @brennon and @lancorz who help with getting these articles ready to publish.

Desert War Article Part 5 L

Most of all, I’d like to thank the readers who’ve slogged through my walls of text and kept the conversations going with such positive, constructive, and insightful comments.

For now, however, its time to get ready for the boot camp! Like the final orders be issued, let the last preparations be made! For those of you attending, I look forward to seeing you there! For those participating in the live blog, please enjoy, participate in the comments, and know you are with us in spirit!

Keep a full canteen and watch out for those sandstorms!

"Part of the reason for such a long retreat was “Operation Torch,” where a whole new Anglo-American army had simultaneously landed a thousand miles behind the Germans and Italians on November 8th, 1942..."

"The British had won a great victory and at last had a hero..."

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