Although 24th April 2018 was the centenary of the first tank versus tank combat, I didn’t get the chance to wargame it on the day, although I had managed to get all of the models I needed. But I’ve now had the chance to have that game and it turned out to be full of surprises!
I didn’t stick exactly to the forces involved in the historical encounter, but broadly based the game around what went on around Villers-Bretonneux on 24th April 1918. The British had moved up two Mark IV tanks (Bert and Bessie, Male and Female variants respectively) to provide support to their infantry dug in protecting the town from a German attack, while two further Mark IVs, Billy and Ben, were expected to join them. At the last minute, the British Commander was also informed that two Medium A Whippet tanks, Gofasta and Golikell (actual Whippet tanks names from WW1) would also be moving up, although they had been tasked with breaking through the German lines to attempt to disrupt rear area supply and communications facilities.
The Germans had allocated a few A7V tanks to their attack on Villers-Bretonneux, and Totenkopf (my name for my generic A7V model, because it carried a skull emblem on the bow) was already closing on the town, having travelled cross country to get there. Also expected to join the attack was Cyklop, another A7V, and support was to be provided by a truck-mounted 77mm anti-aircraft gun (which the Germans pressed into an anti-tank role).
I played this game against my long-standing wargames opponent John. After I’d explained what was where and who was arriving when (!) we diced for sides and I ended up playing the Germans. We just used my normal home-grown WW2 rules, which I’d expanded to cater for WW1 and 19th Century games as well. The only last minute modification I made was to make it harder for moving tanks to hit anything with their guns, since most did not have any suspension. Although infantry were present in the real action, and sporadic artillery fire was encountered, we just used the tanks (and the AA gun truck) in this game to speed it up. Because of the way they were designed and driven, the Mark IVs were not allowed to move and turn during their activations, whereas the Whippets and A7Vs could do both – this turned out (no pun intended) to be quite a serious handicap! The rules cater for tanks getting bogged down, but we didn’t bother with that to save time – with hindsight, it might have been worth it, because the tendency of the A7Vs to get stuck would probably have cancelled out the disadvantages of the Mark IVs not being able to move and turn.
As Bessie and Bert moved up through the town, (with Bessie leading, ladies first, don’t you know) they encountered Totenkopf closing fast. Bessie’s commander realised machine guns weren’t going to do anything to the German tank, so he halted the tank and went in to reverse. However, Totenkopf’s gunner got off a 57mm shot that went straight through Bessie’s armour, destroying the engine, setting the tank on fire, killing four of the crew and forcing the rest to bail out! To add insult to injury, the blazing wreck was sitting across the road junction in the middle of the town and blocking the route for any other vehicles! With his route blocked, Bert pulled off the road in an attempt to outflank the Germans, but they were thinking along similar lines.
As Cyklop joined the combat on the road leading into the town, Totenkopf swung round to try and find out where the other British tanks were, since Billy had by now appeared on one of the other roads. Billy managed to get off a six pounder shot at Cyklop but missed because the very restricted visibility in the town made firing difficult – well, it did for the British only it seemed, since Cyklop returned fire and Billy disintegrated in a huge fireball! Totenkopf rounded the corner of a wall just before Bert and managed to put a round into the British tank at very short range – after the blast of a huge explosion had cleared there was only burning debris scattered about and no recognisable remains of that British tank either!
In the meantime, the two Whippets had been following Billy and suddenly found themselves swinging off the road to avoid the smoking wreckage and try and find a route through the town. Totenkopf suddenly spotted the Whippets through the smoke and put a round into Gofasta at very short range, knocking the tank out and killing all the crew. By this time, Golikell had been joined by the last Mark IV (Ben), so the Whippet concentrated on trying to break through the town while Ben tackled Totenkopf. Suspecting that the British would try and cut through the town, Cyklop had started a detour round the other side in an attempt to cut that route off, but the German truck-mounted 77mm had arrived and already had the flank covered.
As Ben pulled off the road, his gunner squeezed off a hasty shot at Totenkopf but, in his excitement, missed the German tank. Totenkopf’s gunner, surprisingly, missed as well, earning him a torrent of abuse from his colleagues in the tank. Ben’s driver swung the tank round to give his starboard gunner a better field of fire and the British crew were rewarded by watching three successive six pounder rounds hit the German tank but fail dismally to do any damage! Totenkopf had backed up and started firing back rapidly and casualties inside Ben started mounting until the last two British crewman decided to bail out of the badly damaged vehicle.
This left Golikell as the last British tank, desperately trying to break out of the town. Skilful driving prevented the 77mm gun from getting off any shots at the Whippet until the range closed, after which both sides opened fire furiously. The 77mm gun got two shots on target, but the high explosive rounds failed to penetrate (they hadn’t been issued with any armour-piercing ammunition) while Golikell’s machine gunners managed to kill one of the German gun crew. By this time, Cyklop had managed to close the range sufficiently to get off a couple of shots into the fast-disappearing Whippet, knocking out one of the machine guns and killing the commander, after which Golikell managed to get into cover and head off to create mayhem somewhere hopefully quieter!
So, probably a minor tactical victory for the Germans at least! They’d occupied the town and shot up the British tanks with no equipment losses at all. The British had the small consolation of at least getting one of the Whippets through the lines. It was a good, fast-paced game and full of surprises, most of which were a result of either very good dice throws or very bad ones (depending on which side you were on)! The normal rules worked well, although the slow speeds of WW1 tanks meant we got a lot of moves in to cover the ground, but the game was still played in about 90 minutes. Will definitely try a “tanks only” game for WW2 as a quick game sometime, although I doubt my luck will hold!