The Axis Invasion of Malta
This was the Paddy Griffith memorial Megagame or Free Kriegspiel, depending on where you heard about it.
Godfather of the modern Sprawling Wargame, Paddy was lost to us earlier in the year, and amongst the ‘work in progress’ was a multi-player operational game at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. As a mark of respect to the legacy of Dr Griffith, a team of designers and organisers took on the task of pushing the project to completion, organising and running the game on the 16th.
(nothing to do with OP C3, I just couldn’t resist including the photo)
I can’t begin to give an overall picture of the event .. I was tasked as RAF Liaison Umpire for the Malta team, and that kept me busy all day. I saw a lot more than the players do … but inevitably I had little exposure to the whole Axis approach, and it is hard to see the game from a player’s point of view (to unknow, as it were what you know as an umpire).
The game had about 3 dozen players, roughly 2/3 players, 1/3 umpires under the direction of Game Control, Jerry Elsmore. Jim Wallman managed the map, the main engine of the game.
A fair amount of material was circulated before the event so players could familiarise themselves with the scope of the game, with its mechanics, and its expectations of the players … then, on the day, after an introductory session, there was a long time slot allocated to planning within the teams.
During this period, the game proper evolved into life as preparatory missions were launched and timescales shortened from weeks to days, orders sharpened from loose intentions resolved through Game Control to daily, and then half-daily, unit instructions formally issued and translated onto the map. This is a bit of a stumbling process, as players must adapt themselves to the game and (maybe to a lesser extent) the game has to adapt itself to the players. It was also important that the Allied players were not aware which day was the designated D day.
Eventually, of course, all hell broke loose: the air space over Malta was full of JU52s, Gliders, escorts, flak and dogfights everywhere. Everyone was scrambled and the losses were shocking. Nevertheless, they kept on coming. This was dawn and as day broke the Sea landings began their shuttling. Much was coming onto the southern shores, ferrying onto rock ledges, picking routes up through gullies and channels on the coastal cliff faces. In the North West, enjoying more favourable approaches, a simultaneous – and at that stage more convincing – assault was underway.
Despite the carnage, determined parachute units dropping directly on the main airfields were attempting to seize the vital landing strips: for exploitation and resupply, the invasion force was going to need pretty quickly to secure facilities. Meanwhile RAF Malta Command had some worrying moments as it was far from certain we would get all the planes back down – let alone refueled, rearmed, and back up again. Some judicious prioritising and determined responses by the ground troops saw the Italians driven off, however, and what might pass for normal service was restored.
Lack of adequate lift capacity – by air or sea – meant that the Axis plan always intended several waves, and round the clock missions. This reality, coupled with the high attrition rates meant that by D+1 and D+2, backlogs and queues were developing where landings were possible, and marshalling areas were overcrowding. Coastal artillery batteries were able to give devastating support to the stretched defenders, the Italians had lost some big ships in supporting the amphibious operations, and reconnaissance indicated that the Gibraltar task force had put to sea.
The balance was swinging away from the invaders.
Having merged from prep into the full game, we played several days of am/pm turns before the British Fleet sailed into range, at which point the game went into final phases and debrief. Essentially, the game ‘what if’ was what would such an invasion achieve before major RN naval assets could intervene. The capture of Malta was one possibility, but it was not managed on the day.
In the debrief, the Allied (Imperial?) players learned more of what they had been up against, and just how tough a challenge the Axis players had had (plenty of men and materiel … just nowhere to land it all and no way to lift it all …).. Inadequate though it was at the start of the game, the loss of Luftwaffe transports in particular was severe (and would have compromise the operations the Axis historically did undertake, from air supply on the Eastern Front to sustaining Rommel’s forces further across the Mediterranean …)..
There was a final, sociable, debrief in the pub afterwards. That, plus the feedback forms (my last umpiring duty), showed most players to have had a good and worthwhile day (most question categories getting high in the 3 to 5 zone of a ‘1 is bad, 5 is good’ rating system). Inevitably, there were some problems; it almost goes without saying that in these games players will be ‘dropped in it’, and need to find their feet. I think the Axis players in particular seem to have had less time than they wanted for their detailed planning. That said, another of the game’s assumptions seemed to be that the actual attack would come in unannounced, despite how hard surprise would have been to achieve (so their job, actually, was made a little easier) …
Nevertheless, it remains hard for newcomers to get up to speed in these games. It can be unclear exactly what will be required of the players (and LUs) on turn 1 (and we are mostly wargamers, so live in terror of an umpire penalizing us for bungling a good idea with a technicality); it is not always clear which levels of detail are to be managed in the game, and which are in the scenario for colour and completeness (are we on the big picture or micromanaging?) …
But, of course, mostly this is a learning and exploration exercise. And I was glad I did it. In particular, I have long been one of those armchair strategists happy to castigate the Axis for leaving Malta operational when taking it out was so obviously necessary. I was staggered at just how many guns, Coastal Batteries and, dauntingly Heavy AA was there (over most of the island you would be within range of 60 – 80 heavy AA guns!) … that and by the fact that, by and large, there are no beaches to land on.
The challenge is: where you can get ashore, the positions are not really dominant, and where the dominant positions are, you can’t get ashore … so parachute and air landings will be the key – but you don’t have sufficient transport to pull that off without shuttling in and out over all that ack-ack (and without the shuttle service you can’t achieve the overwhelming force you need to seize the airstrips that will solve some of the airlift problems). It was fantastic to be part of a massive experiment that explored all that.
Well, my next WWII game will probably be back to PBI, a company game, and a 1-1 scale … But it is an education to participate from time to time in higher level simulations.
Thanks and kudos to the organisers … an excellent event and an ‘experience’. A worthwhile exploration of what we learned from the good Dr Griffith, too. Thumbs up to Duxford – great facilities, plenty of space, plenty of parking etc. And well done, also, to all the players – whether you were an old hand or one of those newcomers nearly overwhelmed by the initial demands, you all did very well. You made it work …
And for me, at least, work it did.
Bob Cordery has posted a player point of view on his Wargaming Miscellany http://wargamingmiscellany.blogspot.com/2010/10/operazione-c3hercules.html
(My thanks to Tim Price for allowing use of the additional photographs)