Monday, 14 July 2014

Ham Green Hysteria

After what seems like an age I actually got a game in last weekend!

Having read about several VBCW games being played with the Bolt Action ruleset recently, I decided to download a copy onto my Kindle and give them a whirl.

My pal Giles duly agreed to come over to JP Mansions with his Malvern Hills Conservators, which he was keen to bring onto the field again after a period of inactivity (and finish off his shotgun toting militia). He very kindly came up with a scenario:-

The fighting in the eastern parts of Herefordshire has concerned the Malvern Hills Conservators, whose land holdings extend into the county, and so far have not been proactively defended from the BUF, Anglicans and other assorted ne’er do wells. Therefore, Sir Jonathan Porridge has decided to send in his Wardens to clear the areas of their land and neighbouring areas of Mathon & Cradley Partishes. Ed (Ted) Ward-Glear has been chosen to lead this mission and firmly establish MHC (and Royal) control on these parishes and forestall any interlopers. Luckily, Ted has just taken ownership of a new Lanchester Armoured Car refitted by the Morgan Motor Company and views this as the ideal opportunity to use its capabilities to see off any of the unwelcome factions. He has also arranged for a local force of landowners, gamekeepers and other hillsmen to support his Wardens. They come with a large amount of shotguns, ammunition, and enthusiasm…if not skill…

Little did the Conservators know that they would be facing their supposed Royalist allies but in actual fact mortal enemies the local Blackshirts!

The Malvern Hills Conservators

Having being advised by the good chaps on the Bolt Action Facebook page that, with my small table, a 300 point force each would be a good starting point, we both duly knocked up a force. Giles' Conservators took to battle with the aforementioned gamekeepers and Lanchester, plus officer and standard bearer, while I brought on a unit of Blackshirts, their light tank, officer and standard.

The protagonists approach Ham Green
The goal was to seize and defend a strategic Y-shaped road junction on the Harcourt Road towards Ham Green.

Gamekeepers take cover

The gamekeepers, seeing my tank, took cover in the scrubland, while my Blackshorts moved up to the junction. The MHC's Lanchester opened fire on my tank with it's HMG, hoping that the tank's very thin armour (courtesy of the VBCW rule modifications written by 'Pappa Midnight') would be pierced. However the tank remained in one piece and replied with it's sole weapon, a light anti-tank gun.

The Blackshirts advance.

Direct hit! Some decent dice rolling to hit and damage caused the Lanchester to brew up, leaving the MHC's gamekeepers at the mercy of the better armed Blackshirts. (Fearing a rather one-sided game I sent my tank on a long outflanking manoeuvre to the other side of the table - or at least I tried to as it broke down - another VBCW mod - and sat where it was!)

Fancy a brew?

To their credit the gamekeepers pressed on, hoping that the scrub would keep them hidden enough to get into shotgun range of the Blackshirts, but it was not to be. Whittled down by superior firepower and with their support destroyed, the Conservators left the road junction to the victorious Blackshirts.

BUF firepower wins the day

The next game was a more interesting affair, with each side adding an extra 150 points, but removing all vehicles. The task was to capture the nearby Ham Green ridge (represented by a line of books under my green towel gaming mat, with a gap in the middle).

Ham Green Ridge (Blackshirts bottom edge, MHC top edge)

Giles split his gamekeepers into two groups of 5, ditched the Lanchester and added a better armed militia unit, Vickers machine gun, mortar, spotter and a medic. Bereft of my tank I added another unit of Blackshirts and a unit of green civilian militia, plus Vickers MG and medic.

Blackshirts head for the central gap

Both sides advanced to the ridge, my Blackshirts mindful of exposing themselves to mortar fire. My MG team ascended the ridge first on my right, but before they could set up their sights to spray the area with bullets, up popped some of the gamekeepers. Eager for revenge, they charged the hapless gunners.

The machinegunners' last moments...

Now I had read somewhere that close combat in Bolt Action is brutal - this I can confirm!

Unable to respond because they had already taken a move and were too close to the gamekeepers, all the gunners could do was brace themselves as the Conservators gave it to them with both barrels - no morale checks required. A half-unit of untrained farmers with shotguns might not sound much militarily, but in Bolt Action they are deadly up close. The MG team was wiped out.

More gamekeepers ascend the ridge

Also to my right, my own unit of untrained militia crept up the ridge, exchanging fire with more gamekeepers. After taking hits (and thus a 'pinned' marker), they failed an order test in the next turn and went to ground, as did their opposite numbers on the other side of the ridge.

Green militias half-heartedly duke it out

In the centre, a unit of Blackshirts moved into the gap in the ridge, only to attract mortar fire, directed by a nearby spotter. They quickly shot up the spotter, but, with the mortar in line of sight and an Conservator MG unit moving up, were in an exposed position.

Blackshirts in the centre exposed

To my left the other Blackshirt unit, also concious of the enemy's mortar and MG, remained on the reverse side of the slope, lying in wait while the Conservators' militia climbed up to fire on them. Shots were exchanged, pinned markers given and casualties taken on both sides.

Fighting on my left flank

The Blackshirts in the centre, exposed, bereft of MG support and with hostile shotguns being trained on them from above on their flank, decided that some action was required. Giving like for like, they charged the MG nest ahead of them as it was being set up in some bushes, and wiped it out before overwhelming the Conservators' HQ and moving on to the mortar team - now hastily packing up to leave.

The Blackshirts charge (again!)

However this move left the centre wide open, allowing the gamekeepers to swoop down from the ridge onto my own HQ! After crushing them underfoot they reloaded their shotties and charged the flank of the Blackshirts sheltering on the slope. This and the attention from the Conservator militia finished them off.

As do the gamekeepers (again!)

By now my green militia had recovered their wits and had shot up the other gamekeepers, leaving half of the ridge in my hands, the other half in Giles'. Time to call it a day with honours even for this game and the grudge between the MHC and the BUF becoming increasingly sour.

My left flank in big trouble

We found Bolt Action a very interesting set of rules, but yet again I wonder if they are suitable for my small table. Both sides were upon each other before either could really make use of it's firepower, and a series of desperate, short-range, surprise charges were the order of the day.

MHC mortar hurriedly packs up

I liked the initiative system, and the pinning system, which means that units perform increasingly badly as they take damage, and would be happy to try the rules out again on a bigger table.

Flame Fougasses (or is that Fougassi?)

I've been planning to build some Flame Fougasses (or is that Fougassi?) for some time, and finally got around to doing so recently.

They were very easy to do - plastic tubes to represent barrels of various sizes cut at an angle and glued to a base before being covered with putty. A quick paintjob around the orifices and a liberal coating of basing greenery and they're ready to roll (well, be plonked into the ground, rather than roll).

I've left the barrel ends open, so that flame/smoke markers and the like can be added if required.

For the uninitiated, the Flame Fougasse was used extensively by the Home Guard during the invasion scare of WW2. They were basically barrels of incendiary liquid (including tar, lime and petrol) which were buried near roadsides, waiting to be ignited at a point some distance from the business end of the barrel.

In theory any invading Nazi would be treated to a dose of the flaming concoction should they be unwise enough to advance down said road.

Remains of such weapons can still be found today, and are catalogued by the excellent Pillbox Study Group.

Photo from the Pillbox Study Group

Would these weapons be considered gentlemanly enough to be used in the VBCW? If so, I wonder how to represent them in the rules..?

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Read All About It – Part 2: Training Centres

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have an interest in the Training/Instructional Centres during the interwar period – places where the long-term unemployed were supposedly ‘hardened up’ by undertaking physical labour in order to make them more suited to working life.

I became interested when I discovered that there was one such Instructional Centre in Shobdon, Herefordshire, with a satellite camp just across the Welsh border at Presteigne. I recently wrote a short entry on Shobdon camp, which can be found here. While trawling through the newspaper archive on, my thoughts turned to the subject of such establishments, and here’s what I found…

A newspaper report on 26th April 1930 told how, on the previous Wednesday evening, a fire was reported at the ‘Government training camp near Presteign’ (sic). Captain G.F. Rawlings of the Presteigne Fire Brigade arrived on the wooden-hutted camp to find the staff quarters ‘burning fiercely’.

Capt. Rawlings discerned that the staff quarters were beyond help, but by drawing water from a nearby stream his men were able to save the numerous wooden buildings nearby (although hampered by an out-of-date appliance), including the large stores, which only suffered some scorching at one end. Sgt. Bailey and the local police were also on hand to render assistance.

The staff quarters, some 20 x 20 ft. square, was completely destroyed. The staff, trainees and voluntary workers at the camp worked hard to save the contents, rescuing a piano, billiard table and some articles of furniture, but were unable to save the rest, including the staff’s personal property. The cost of the damage was estimated at over £1,600 and the cause thought to be an overheating oil stove.

November 8th 1930 saw another report related to this training centre, when Presteigne Urban District Council met to discuss a proposed scheme to extend the local sewage system. There had obviously been an intention to include the training centre in this scheme, but, it was revealed, the Home Office of Works had been unable to state what assistance they could provide as the exact status of the camp was currently under review.

Another idea was to obtain extra funding from the Unemployment Grants Committee, seeing as work would be generated by the adoption of the scheme. Council member the Rev. H.L. Kewley stated that they would have to start the scheme soon, and that they had ‘better get on with it.’ This isn’t the most interesting of stories, but it does show how the camps were linked to the local community and how the local authorities tried to use the camps to obtain more funding!

Moving forward to March 2nd 1935, to the Instructional Centre at Shobdon, we learn of Messrs Price and Davage, two camp inmates from Abergavenny and Blaenavon respectively, who pleaded guilty at Kington Police Court of stealing a couple of cycle lamps from an address in Pembridge.

Magistrates heard how the pair, half way through their 12 week course, had been drinking cider and ‘were not used to it’ on the day in question. The manager of the camp, Mr. J. MacGregor, stated that their conduct during the first 6 weeks of their course had been exemplary, and he was at a loss as to explain their behaviour. As punishment he had confined the two men to camp for a fortnight, and pressed for leniency, citing the fact that they had been unemployed for a considerable period of time and had volunteered to join the camp in an effort to improve their lot. After due deliberation the two men were fined 10s and ordered to pay additional special costs. MacGregor then stated that they would return to their homes.

Also included in this article is an interesting debate on the general behaviour of the camp inmates, with the magistrates complaining to MacGregor that this was not an isolated incident and that men from the centre seemed to be ‘all over the country at night.’ ‘They seem to be here, there and everywhere,’ said the chairman. Why, he wondered, could they not be controlled as well as in a military centre?

MacGregor expressed surprise at this, stating that only men of good conduct received a pass to stay out until midnight. He said that he had received no complaints about his charges behaviour in recent months and believed their conduct to have improved. This was backed up by evidence from Police Sergeant Owens, who stated that the conduct of the camp attendees at Wigmore and Shobdon had improved in the last two years, and it was a small minority who gave the majority a bad name.

Shobdon camp also got a mention later that month when Hereford United player and former inmate, J.I. Evans from Merthyr, was signed by Arsenal. This transfer signified a much-needed windfall for Hereford United which, much like today, was in financial difficulties.

While at Shobdon, Evans played for Presteigne in the North Herefordshire football league, before joining Hereford’s reserve team. By now he had left the centre and, still being unemployed, accepted an invitation by the club to turn professional. Click here to read more about Jimmy Evans.

This shows how the camps integrated into the surrounding area, at least on a sporting basis. Many fixture listings in the archives include a ‘Shobdon Camp’ team. In fact on May 4th 1935 a team from Hereford United visited the centre for a friendly match, followed by a supper. MacGregor and his staff were duly thanked for their hospitality.

When not playing football, inmates were given ample opportunity to read, as evidenced by a short article later in the year, where the annual report of the Herefordshire County Librarian highlighted the ‘considerable growth’ of the library system. Listed in the number of newly-created distribution centres is one at Shobdon Instructional Centre.

Further ties to the local community were forged when Shobdon camp’s welfare officer Mr S.D. Kennett acted as MC for a whist drive at Hanbury Memorial Hall, Shobdon. The winners came from Shobdon, Townsend and Pembridge, and included a Mr. J. Grindley – a member of staff at the camp.

The June 15th edition of the Hereford Times reported a more dramatic occurrence after a motor-coach carrying 24 passengers en-route from Merthyr to Shobdon Instructional Centre caught fire near Kington cemetery.

The passengers were able to exit the coach without injury but by the time the local fire brigade arrived the fire, believed to have been caused by a fused lighting circuit, had gutted the vehicle.  The unfortunate passengers were later ferried to the camp via a local coach.

By early 1937 Shobdon Instructional Centre’s days were numbered, and advertisements began to appear announcing that the camp and it’s contents would be sold by auction on May 20th. The Commissioners of Works and Public Buildings had directed Leominster auctioneers Edwards, Russell & Baldwin to conduct the auction on the camp premises, offering everything from camp equipment and tradesmen’s tools to the 10,000 gallon water tower and huts, ranging from 30x20ft to 90x30ft in size.

In the May 15th 1937 edition of the Hereford Times – the same day that an advert for the auction appeared – was a sad postscript to the centre’s history, for it was reported that Mr. James Evans, former deputy manager of the camp, died following a motoring accident in High Wycombe the previous week.