As the night sky pales over a dusty plateau near Damascus, two Wolf Land Rovers and two Jackal patrol vehicles parked in the lee of a ruined wall, start their engines and move off in search of the enemy. My first Combat Mission Shock Force: British Forces battle is underway. Wish me luck.
The scenario, plucked at random from the 28 available in the preview version of this second CMSF expansion pack, is called Out of the Wilderness and seems straightforward enough on paper. C Company Group - a scratch expeditionary force combining mechanized infantry and light recon elements - has been tasked with taking positions on the south-eastern fringe of the Syrian capital (CMSF models a hypothetical near-future invasion of Syria). Information on opposition strength is sketchy, but the briefing mentions "a handful of second echelon reserves" so I'm anticipating wall-to-wall tanks and hordes of elite Republican Guard cyborgs. First rule of Combat Mission: Never trust the briefing writers.
Turn 1. The bulk of my forces won't arrive for a few turns, so I'm going to kick things off by using the Jackals and Land Rovers to scout the plateau. As both vehicle types might as well be made from twiglets and moth wings for all the protection they afford their crews, caution will be the watchword for this stage of the operation.
Turn 3. The southern area of the plateau appears to be foe-free. Close to the edge, the Land Rovers disgorge a sniper and Javelin missile team who creep forward taking up useful overwatch positions. Perhaps when the sun comes up there'll be targets visible in the streets and fields below. On the eastern section of the plateau things are a little livelier. The lone Jackal sent this way spots and briefly engages a Sagger ATGM team before popping smoke and reversing to safety. I'll need to neutralise cunningly sited tank killers like these before entering the suburb.
Turn 4. Didn't expect that. My Jav team decided to have a pop at their freshly spotted Syrian counterparts. The resulting kaboom looked lethal, but being CM I've no idea whether the targets are dead or just temporarily cowering.
Turn 6. The first half of my strike force arrives. Painted pink by the rays of the rising sun, are a group of three fully loaded Spartan APCs, more Wolf Land Rovers (with another Javelin team and a mortar fire controller aboard) plus a trio of handsome Scimitar light tanks . I'm not going to throw the Scimitars into the fray until I have a better idea what I'm up against, but the Spartans I send scurrying eastward to tackle those pesky Sagger louts (who may already be dead).
Turn 8. As the Spartan passengers dismount and start advancing, the mortar fire controllers, now ensconced on the plateau edge, call in an artillery barrage on the nearest objective, a fortress-like police compound. Many CMSF scenarios have 'preserve' rules in the victory conditions meaning you can't stonk the sherbet out of urban areas. This scenario has no such constraints so I plan to make full use of the three artillery batteries (1 x 88mm, 2 x 155mm) at my disposal. I hope those Ba'athists down there like the taste of brick dust.
Turn 10. As the shells start dropping, the rest of my troops show up. A platoon of assault pioneers in Land Rovers, more squaddy-stuffed APCs (FV432s) and a pair of strange-looking trundlers that turn out to be Sultans. I was hoping the designer might have slipped in the odd Challenger 2 tank or Warrior IFV, but no, it looks like I'm going to have to make do with a fleet of glorified mini-buses.
Turn 14. The infantry moving up the east side of the plateau have just had a very close shave with a Sagger missile. There looks to be a clutch of AT positions up there, not just one. Time to give the mortars a bell, I think.
Turn 16. The police compound is now wreathed in dust, and ringed by rubble rather than walls. A couple of the smaller buildings have been totally levelled. One more salvo and I think it will be safe to move in. Meanwhile up at Sagger Corner, mortar bombs are airbursting over the Syrian trenches yet somehow a few of the defenders are still perky enough to exchange rifle fire with my grunts. Depressingly, at least three of the AK rounds have found flesh. One yellow dot, two red. My first casualties of the battle.
Turn 17. Pricked into boldness by last turn's losses, I send a Scimitar scampering towards the action. The boys up there need support. I just hope all those Saggers are kaput and none of the Syrians thought to bring RPG-7s.
Turn 19. The police compound may be a cratered ruin, but I'm still worried about crossing the open ground in front it. Possible solution? Lay a corridor of smoke from plateau to compound and race my FV432s in under its swirling veil.
Turn 21. That Scimitar together with further shrapnel showers seems to have turned the tide at Sagger Corner. Time to shift attention to the police base.
Turn 22. With the curtain of smoke in place, a quartet of squat FV432s storm down the plateau slope and make for the shelter of the compound. As they slam on the anchors and start spilling their soldier cargoes, one catches an RPG in the side and is instantly immobilised. Despite the fierce bombardment, it seems there are still fighters alive inside the complex.
Turn 24. One of the two Jav teams I've now got positioned on the plateau rim, spots a T-72 lurking in the fields at the back of the map and takes a shot. Watching one of these missiles soar skyward then plunge onto its prey like a stooping raptor, is one of CMSF's most satisfying sights.
Turn 25. Seconds later I'm remembering why CMSF still gets my goat at times. The assault on the police compound went rather well - just a handful of light casualties plus that immobilised APC. However, as the troops advance, clearing the remaining buildings, one section decides to route outside the compound instead of inside it. Within seconds an entire eight man section is laying dead or wounded, cut down by the same gleeful MG. Yes, I probably could have avoided the carnage by using another waypoint or movement type, but blimey, shouldn't the TacAI have helped out there?
Turn 29. As the light improves, my troops spot and engage more and more targets. The Syrians also seem to be seeing further. Without warning both of my Jav teams are shaken by sizeable explosions. Some men don't get up. Was it artillery? Tank fire? It's hard to tell. Up at Sagger Corner, the last of the ATGM team survivors is wiped out and, moving up to occupy their corpse-littered positions, my men find themselves looking down on a second T-72. This one loiters menacingly in a field behind the mosque.
Turn 33. Time to pull back the battered Jav teams, load them in a Land Rover (thanks to the losses they'll now fit in a single vehicle) and send them along the plateau to Sagger Corner to take on the newly sighted steel beast.
Turn 35. It's all over in a second. The T-72 perishes in a flash of fire and smoke. Rather implausibly three crewman clamber from its carcass and dive into a nearby ditch.
Turn 40. Time is marching on. Must start tightening the vice - pushing eastward from the police compound and west from Sagger Corner.
Turn 42. Dust trails pluming behind them, the assault pioneers sweep down from the plateau in their Wolves. The safe ground behind the police compound is becoming quite the taxi rank.
Turn 50. Despite brutal artillery bombardment the enemy clings stubbornly to positions in the suburb. Around the police compound progress is painfully slow and not without cost. Frustrated I move a Scimitar up a narrow track on the western edge of the map. It's greeted with a rocket-propelled 'hello' that, thankfully, misses by a whisker.
Turn 52. The same tank has just been shaken by a near miss from a wayward round fired by one of my own 155mm guns. Calling in artillery in such claustrophobic fighting is a risky business.
Turn 54. Third time unlucky. In my haste to grab the two remaining victory locations (road intersections on the northern edge of the map) I put the western Scimitar under the crosshairs of a previously undetected enemy grenadier. Result - one dead AFV and three crewman pinned by MG fire in the middle of a road. Damn. By the time one of my HQs has used its squad mortar (yep, they're back) to lay down a protective smokescreen, two of the tankers are no more.
Turn 55. That lost Scimitar is the final straw. From now on I'm not taking any more chances with the lives of my men. Let the 155mm Sky Gods carve a path to victory.
Turn 57. CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMP
Turn 60. CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMP
Turn 62. Syrians fleeing from the hard rain are cut down as they run.
Turn 64. CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMPITY-CRUMP
Turn 67. God. This is murder.
Turn 68. CRUMP-CRUMP-CRUMP
Turn 70. With the clock ticking down and desultory fire still coming from scattered Syrian positions amongst the craters, I realise I'm going to have to end the battle with an ignominious VL grab. Two Scimitars race along the back road, slewing to a stop on the all-important intersections then surrounding themselves in smoke. It's a shameful, gamey way to end a battle, but hey, if that's what it takes to keep my casualty figures down, then so be it.
The debrief says I achieved a 'Major Victory'. Looking at those accusing '17 Men Killed' and '23 Men Wounded' statistics I honestly don't feel very victorious.