Glen Frank’s B-17: Queen of the Skies has been mesmerising board wargamers for more than thirty years. A recreation of the USAF’s early Flying Fortress forays over Europe intended for solitaire play, it breaks one of the golden rules of strategy game design by depriving its players of almost all agency. You don’t think your way through a multi-mission B17QotS tour, you dice your way through. The approach shouldn’t work yet does. It succeeds because the tumbling bones invariably weave exciting stories, and the sense of powerlessness is actually chillingly appropriate. Although crew skill and teamwork improved the chances of a B-17 getting back to Blighty in late 1942, they guaranteed absolutely nothing.
Thanks to VASSAL and the now widely distributed original rulebook, any wargamer with the patience to navigate its labyrinth of colour-coded tables, can orchestrate their own B17QotS campaign relatively easily. In my latest bid for a War Bond tour (survive 25 missions and, like Memphis Belle and her crew, you get to go back to the States) I’ve been biting my nails while ‘Infinite Horace’ and his pilots and gunners braved flak and fighters over occupied Europe. The nailbiting ended yesterday in a manner that I think warrants a Flare Path.
This is the story of Infinite Horace’s eleventh and final combat mission.
With the exception of radio operator J. Rossignol – a replacement for R. Cobbett killed by an Me 109 during Mission 8, a raid on Rouen – the ten-strong crew that clambers aboard the heavily patched Infinite Horace on the morning of Nov 27th, 1942 is identical to the crew that clambered aboard the brand new Infinite Horace on October 7th, 1942.
In the weeks that have passed since that literal baptism of fire over Abbeville, Capt. Walker’s band of sheepskin-sheathed air warriors have faced death on numerous occasions. A. O’Connor (starboard waist gunner) G. Smith (navigator/cheek gunner) and A. Meer (co-pilot) have all been wounded in the line of duty, and beside the nine bomb icons painted on his nose (Mission 4 was aborted due to a heating failure) Horace now proudly wears six fighter silhouettes.
Today Horace must travel further than he’s ever travelled before. The railyard at Rennes is in ‘Zone 5’ just beyond the limits of friendly fighter support.
Any nervousness is quickly dispelled by impressive gunnery over the Channel. A lone screen-penetrating Focke-Wulf (two other Fw 190s were driven off by escorts) is plucked from the blue by ball turret gunner B. Caldwell. Brendy is now Horace’s top scorer with three kills.
Towering thunderheads hide the Cotentin Peninsula making for a bumpy, bandit-free transit of Zone 3. In Zone 4 escort fighters keep two Fw 190s at bay. A third bandit abandons his attacks in the teeth of accurate defensive fire from port waist gunner P. ‘Pip’ Warr.
Things only start going wrong – badly wrong – in Zone 5.
Moments after Horace wing-waggles goodbye to his little friends, he’s set upon by three waves of Luftwaffe thugs. The first, comprising two Fw 190s, an Me 109 and an Me 110, attack from 12 o’clock, 1.30 and 6 simultaneously. While I’m busy wounding the Zerstörer with my twin tail guns (unnerved it peels away) bombardier Adam is frantically peppering a descending Fw 190 with his nose Browning.
His aim is good but the diving bandit’s is better. Infinite Horace shivers as shells shatter his transparent nose and ravage his rear fuselage. Graham, manning one of the cheek guns, is killed instantly. Adam is seriously wounded. At the back of the plane a punctured Pip subsides onto a mound of warm brass, as a lightly wounded Alice hurls lead and curses at the departing angel of death.
And there’s still two more waves to come.
Wave 2 is even more formidable than the first. Five swastika-emblazoned cloud cleavers beeline for the blood-spattered Horace while the surviving turret gunners attempt, unsuccessfully, to deter them. The nose is mercilessly raked for a second time, shells destroying the Norden bombsight and bomb release panel. Bullet holes march across the port wing and – oh no – enter the flight deck.
I stare in disbelief at the six that means Captain Walker is no more. The six that means the lightly wounded co-pilot Captain Meer must take over.
The next dice flurry brings yet more bad news. An Fw 190 high on the starboard beam scores hits as does one approaching from the port side and one snapping at our tail. Jim in his radio nook is grievously wounded (no more signals from Tölva?). The rudder is damaged. I’m bleeding. Control cables in the tail are u/s. The oxygen system is kaput. There’s a fire amidships… Infinite Horace is awash with claret and calamity.
The third wave should finish us off. Luck and some determined gunnery from Alex Wiltshire in the top turret, ensures it does not but can’t save us from the steadily thickening flak bursts. As we drop out of formation and turn for home, shards of razor-sharp shrapnel finish-off Adam and render the tail turret and its inhabitant (me) useless.
Scenting blood, four Me 109s pounce on the straggling, savaged Horace as he attempts to flee Zone 5. The only defensive armaments able to engage the sky wolves as they close are Alice’s waist MG and Alex’s top turret. Alex nails one, but it’s a fast-forgotten victory. The lunging Messerschmitts fatally perforate the prostrate Pip, kibosh Brendy’s ball turret, mangle the port aileron and elevator, and cause superficial damage just about everywhere else.
Somehow through all this the wounded Alec manages to keep Infinite Horace in the air. We survive some half-hearted harassment in Zone 4, Alex adding a third Me 109 to his career tally. We weather storm clouds in Zone 3 and, with help from friendly fighters, an interception over the Channel. A few turns after the living hell that was Rennes and Zone 5, poor, mauled Horace rustles the ancient oaks that sentinel RAF Archbury’s southern edge and, with a squeal of rubber and a puff of smoke, alights for the very last time.
There’s a shell hole where the first two letters of Infinite Horace’s name used to be. ‘Irreparably damaged’ he won’t fly again. What happens to the five fliers that survived his final mission (Sadly, Jim died of his wounds shortly after we got back) is up to me. As I’ve already severely compromised Rock, Paper, Shotgun’s ability to deliver top-notch games writing, I’m really not sure I should risk completely devastating the site by using Alec, Alice, Brendan, and Alex on future B17QotS jaunts. Any volunteers for my next tour? Infinite Horace II currently needs a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, engineer, radio operator, ball turret gunner and two waist gunners.
* * *