The replacement of today’s Flare Path with this tale of turn-based D-Day derring-do means one of two things. Either Interpol has finally worked out the identity of Red Shrike (highly unlikely) or Yours Grudgingly has been persuaded to brave rain, family, and unfamiliar chip-shops, and Go On Holiday. Assuming I’m currently sunning myself on some storm-lashed British beach, normal FP service will resume next week. In the meantime why not sit back and feign interest while I regale you with another wargame-generated battle ballad.
The generator on this occasion is 101: The Airborne Invasion of Normandy, a fourteen-year-old top-down squad tactics title with a touch of Jagged Alliance around the smoke-reddened eyes, a hint of UFO: Enemy Unknown about the stubble-softened jaw-line, and something of Men of War in the hunched been-to-hell-and-back shoulders. It’s a few years since I last indulged, but memories of tense, tricky missions, unusually characterful combatants, and absurdly cruel pre-mission preludes, still burn brightly.
My ‘Neutralize Enemy HQ’ mission begins with a briefing. We will be leaving Greenham Common at 23.30 on D-Day -1 to drop coup de main-style onto an occupied Norman hamlet called St. Come du Mont. Dossier perusal is followed by paratrooper selection (every Screamin’ Eagle in the barracks is a mass of stats and biographical detail), equipment issuing (everything from K-Rations to weapon cleaning kit will influence the coming action) and an opportunity (foolishly declined by this over-eager CO) to devise a personalised Dakota seating plan.
Next comes the cruel-yet-compelling lottery of the drop. As, one-by-one, my stick of 18 hand-picked heroes hurl themselves from the flak-buffeted C-47, the game discretely rolls a dice and plays an appropriate cutscene. Master Sgt. Peterson, and Privates Koenig, Miner, and Murphy drift away into the darkness, landing too far away from the battle area to play any part in the coming drama. Barnes and Smith find the DZ, but are under fire the second they hit the ground. Neeley is winged on his way down. Swenson ends up dangling from a tree like a giant foul-mouthed D’Anjou pear.
It’s only when a fateful flak burst turns the still-disgorging transport into a spark-trailing comet that I notice that my Captain, two Corporals, and 2nd Lt were all seated in the fire-wreathed front of the plane. Their D-Day is over. If I’m going to take this HQ now, I’ll have to do it with a leaderless gaggle of nine privates.
Make that eight privates. PFC Lewandoski’s chute is still settling on the dewy turf when the Mid-Westerner is cut down by an unseen enemy. In most 101 scenarios you drop some distance from your objective and spend hours nervously crossing fields and consulting maps. In this one you always seem to fall straight into the hornets’ nest.
And my those hornets are tetchy tonight. The elaborate initiative system (combatants take turns spending Action Points, with quicker, less-encumbered individuals acting first) means I’m forced to look-on helplessly as Private Frank ‘Cowboy’ Barnes is targeted by one of the few visible Germans in the hamlet. Usually, I’d order a just-landed para to free himself from his harness or take a look around before doing anything else. In Barnes’ case something a little more dramatic is called for. Coolly drawing his Colt automatic (presumably his main weapon was in one of the equipment bags lost during the drop) the Texan directs a volley of pistol shots at his sandbag-ringed tormentor. The badman obviously hasn’t read the script because he stubbornly refuses to be struck by any of the slugs. Angus Garvey, who has landed 50m to the North, tries his luck with an M1A1 carbine with similarly dispiriting results.
On the north-eastern side of the small structure-sprinkled map, things are going little better for the liberators. Seconds after struggling out of his parachute, PFC Tony Frazaglio is on his belly taking aim at a prone foe near another sandbagged position. Three shots, three misses. The target replies with an STG44 assault rifle burst that leaves Fraz bleeding and cussing.
Perhaps Neeley, grazed by a bullet while floating down, can get the show back on the road. His first action on ditching his chute, is an aimed M1 Garand shot at the goon with the STG44. Bullseye! The little grey sprite writhes, rolls onto its back, and is still. With the coast clear I send Underwood galloping forward to dress Fraz’s wound.
Meanwhile, the High Noon stuff in the NW finally suppresses the spotted German over there. Barnes has enough time to strip off his chute and dart for the cover of a nearby building. Everyone – even the tree-tangled Swenson – is now mobile and making towards cover or possible enemy positions.
Blimey, I’d forgotten how harsh 101 can be. Despite liberal use of the Look command the advancing Neeley has just been shot stone-dead by an unspotted Jerry lurking in the north-eastern emplacement. Worse, the suppressed foe in the north-western sandbag redoubt has just summoned up the courage to pop his head above the parapet and RATATAT Garvey into oblivion. In the space of a minute my attack force has shrunk by a quarter. I’ve now got to de-louse this Heer HQ with only six men:
PFC ‘Brinker’ Smith, advancing but still some distance from nearest friendly.
PFC ‘Tony’ Frazaglio, wounded, undergoing first aid.
PFC ‘Tick’ Underwood, presently patching up Fraz.
PFC ‘Slim’ Swenson, slightly hurt after altercation with a tree.
PFC ‘Nails’ White, my BAR brandisher.
PFC ‘Cowboy ‘ Barnes currently armed with nothing but a pistol.
Approaching from the SW, White draws fire from Garvey’s killer. The para responds in kind, but seems rattled. A panicky “Get up here and watch my back!” encourages me to rush Swenson to the BAR-man’s side.
Before ordering Underwood and the freshly bandaged Frazaglio to push on, I spend a few action points scrutinising their apparently deserted surroundings. The vigilance pays off. In the grass directly in the path of the prostrate soldiers a previously hidden anti-personnel mine appears.
Having wriggled through a hedge, Smith sights a potential target loitering in a sandbagged position outside of a large chapel in the SE of the map. The American’s carbine barks briefly then – this really isn’t my day – jams. He’s in the midst of clearing the blockage, when the flurry of FG42 bullets arrive.
It’s at this point that I pause for a coffee and a ponder. Four men down in as many game-minutes, it’s clear I must either radically alter my tactics or dramatically up my game in order to prevent this jaunt turning into Heavily Engaged’s first crushing defeat. The M1A1s that 90% of my men carry all seem to have bent barrels. Perhaps it’s time I ordered some pineapple pitching.
Barnes is the first to have a shy. From the window of the building he’s been nervously scouting he tosses a grenade into the midst of the sandbagged position occupied by Garvey’s slayer. The results are unobservable but the hornet disappears below the lip.
Underwood and Fraz are the next to try their luck with HE. They hurl bombs into the NE redoubt from which Neeley was gunned down. This time the muffled blast bears tangible fruit. A corpse is projected onto the sandbag barricade.
Barnes’ grenade-work allows the pinned-down duo of White & Swenson to rise and charge through the door of the nearest building. Slim is the first across the threshold. He’s greeted by an ineffective burst of STG44 opportunity fire. The sly foe crouching in a far corner weathers the retaliatory snap-shot with equal success. Swenson is almost certainly doomed unless White, still a few squares away, out-initiatives the enemy and uses his BAR to good effect. I prod the appropriate icon on the brass order panel and cross my fingers. The BAR barks. White’s AP reservoir empties. Enemy blood slicks floorboards.
Teamwork! Pineapples! The rediscovery of dimly remembered techniques seems to put spring in the step and sharpness in the senses of my 5 remaining paratroopers. Underwood and Fraz vault into the bombed redoubt on their side of the map, spotting and eliminating a guard beside the radio mast as they go (Perhaps the M1A1s aren’t totally useless).
In the W, Swenson delivers a still-warm STG44 and three magazines to Barnes, the Texan with the questionable pistol skills. In the NE Underwood, finding himself under fire and out of carbine ammo, also decides to commandeer cutting-edge Deutsch technology.
A series of fierce but ultimately successful 2v1 firefights follow (the Germans don’t seem to have grasped the importance of co-ordination yet). I move my men around using a combination of sprints and dives. STGs and M1A1s stammer lead. Feldgrau figures crumple to the turf or gabble emotional exclamations in the darkness. I feel I’m making progress but realise one careless move could spell disaster.
The careless move, when it comes, almost costs the lives of both Underwood and Fraz. The pair are clearing a second sandbagged position with grenades, and foolishly assume a spreadeagled blast-victim is dead. Proof of their error comes when the corpse stirs and a stick grenade arcs back in their direction.
Shaken yet uninjured by the detonation, Underwood finishes the job with his STG44, then – with three AP remaining – ducks through the doorway of an unscouted dwelling. It’s another poor decision on my part. The rash American finds himself staring down the barrel of a surprised officer’s Kar98k. I reach for the snap-shot key with resignation rather than hope and snort the snort of a jammy git when the Nazi bigwig slumps to the floorboards.
Underwood’s improbable escape seems to have used up a good portion of the unit’s remaining allotment of luck. A turn or two later Fraz cops a fatal slug while crossing an apparently deserted track, and White panics after blundering into a foe in a claustrophobic interior. I rush Swenson towards him in the hope of steadying his nerve, but it’s hopeless. My BAR operator heads for the hills leaving three comrades to clear the remaining unexplored nooks and crannies of St. Come du Mont.
Over the course of the next dozen or so turns those nooks and crannies are patiently probed. Windows are peered through, bodies are searched, opponents pincered, or winkled out with pilfered grenades. It’s only when the weary trio gather in the centre of the map for the final act of the night (destroying the radio mast) that I notice Swenson is nursing a nasty head wound.
While Barnes attempts to treat his comrade, Underwood goes back to pick up a Panzerfaust (the AT weapon could prove useful during the coming cross-country trek). On his return he finds Barnes crouching head-in-hands next to the body of his patient. Swenson has bled to death.
Congratulations? This particular victory feels awfully like a defeat.